Review: The Best Man Holiday

Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut and Monica Calhoun in The Best Man Holiday
Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut and Monica Calhoun in The Best Man Holiday

Can someone hand me a Kleenex?
Rating: ***

What’s amazing about The Best Man Holiday is that it never feels like 14 years. In 1999, The Best Man became a deliverance for the African-American film genre which had been stereotyped as a crime / gangster genre.  The film gave a unique identity and helped launched several other films and genres.

The Best Man Holiday is a family centered tear jerker as it slowly unravels a web of failures, sad faces and ultimately demise that surrounds the group of friends. The prequel’s breakout character, Quentin (Terrence Howard) exhibits all signs of badassery. It’s as if they based his character on How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson. Howard continues to give a good performance but at times you feel the character can be given more responsibilities. In The Best Man Holiday, Howard is still an untapped resource.

Much like the prequel, the sequel never takes Morris Chestnut seriously and reduces him to humour till the time drama is necessary. Chestnut’s Lance Sullivan is a vital character in both films and I’m surprised how he hasn’t been given enough platform to shine.

The friends reunite at the Sullivan’s villa for Christmas. Everyone is living a different life. Their conversations are fresh. There are mentions of Barack Obama and even Robin Thicke (seriously?). But, what hasn’t changed is the hostility between the two best friends – Sullivan and Harper Stewart (Taye DIggs); the spark between Julian (Harold Perrineau) and Shelby (Mellisa De Sousa) and the suspicions of Harper’s wife, Robin (Sanaa Lathan) when she sees him with his old flame, Jordan (Nia Long).

The Best Man Holiday plays it safe and uses tragic elements to get involvement from the audiences. Some may budge, but today’s audiences are not made that way. They are into high concept films where drama is limited to just one scene, with the rest being eye candy entertainment. The Best Man Holiday has its fair share of entertainment. If you don’t find it amusing, it’s because you haven’t invested in these characters. Who wouldn’t?

Review: American Hustle

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.

John Connor’s Big Con
Rating: ***

A running joke in my movie group was that Christian Bale, who plays a con man in American Hustle is in fact a Connor – John Connor of Terminator: Salvation. In David O. Russell’s new film set in the late 70s, Bale plays Irving Rosenfield, an old school con artist who has found success, but is still thirsty for more.

This brings us to Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who joins Rosenfield’s con gang as Lady Edith Greensley, a fake British aristocrat. Adams has had her fair share of memorable performances but American Hustle (much like David O. Russell’s earlier film, The Fighter) travels to a land far away from her girl-next-door image. Here in American Hustle, she is the pot of gold – the reward everyone wants.

Justifiably, she buries herself underneath low-cut gowns and really (and I mean really) high heels. With all that glitz and makeup, one may wonder whether Adams was going to a Farrah Fawcett party and took the wrong bus.

Rosenfield’s guilt trip begins with Mayor Carmine Polito, a legit man, living a decent life, who is sweet talked into taking a bribe. Jeremy Renner is a fine candidate for the role of Mayor Polito. With two Oscar nominated roles in his kitty, this is cake walk for Renner.

The problem with American Hustle begins with Richie DiMasso, a young FBI agent (played by Bradley Cooper) who wants to be famous for pulling off the biggest intelligence operation ever. There are a couple of scenes that provide us little information on the life and times of DiMasso, which of course could have been avoided.

Much like Argo, American Hustle tries to become a personal battle than a political thriller. The success of ABSCAM isn’t the real deal, Rosenfield’s survival is.

He’s a con artist, and he helps FBI pull off a scam. But, what makes Rosenfield a common man is his estranged, neurotic wife (played by Jennifer Lawrence). She explains in one scene “you can’t divorce me because you fear I’ll talk about your illegal activities.”

That’s right, Rosenfield. You’re whipped for life!

American Hustle is a star-studded seventies crime comedy that bears plenty of resemblance to the Martin Scorsese mafia classic Goodfellas. There are the voiceovers (one each for Bale, Adams and Cooper), the constant usage of classic rock and jazz music, and of course Robert De Niro as a mafioso.

American Hustle is an old-fashioned, unapologetic, commercial cocktail prepared in Russell’s trademark style. It’s clever, funny and sometimes over the top. But, that’s the joie de vivre in watching a David O. Russell film.

Review: Prisoners

Hugh Jackman, Prisoners 2013
Hugh Jackman in Prisoners.

Hollywood Dad Goes On A Rampage
Rating: ***

Definition of Hollywood Dad: The paternal character who sets out to find justice on his own through vigilantism and hence falls prey to the law.

Having not seen other critic favourites such as 12 Years A Slave, Nebraska, All Is Lost and American Hustle, I come to think if Prisoners could be 2013’s best motion picture. If the 150-minute run-time was trimmed by at least 10-15 minutes, it would have received an extra star or maybe two – the highest honour this blog can offer.

The last mystery film that kept me emotionally charged the way Prisoners did was probably Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer. Both dramas are excellently penned. While the latter was adapted from a novel, Prisoners is an original screenplay.

I can relate to Keller Dover, the character played by Hugh Jackman in this mystery drama. He’s a family man who enjoys deer hunting with his son, whom he grooms to be like himself, just the way his father groomed him to be. “Plan for the best, prepare for the worst” this line of dialogue plays an integral role in the film. Dover finds out that his daughter has been kidnapped, and much like most Hollywood dads, he goes in search for her by following the lead suspect – a young man named Alex Jones, who supposedly has the IQ of a 10-year old.
The lengths he goes to pump the truth out can be compared to the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. But, that sums up director Denis Villeneuve’s motive. He wants to depict – the lengths any man would go to find his daughter. Classic Hollywood dad!

Halfway through the film, you find yourself rooting for Dover, hoping he is able to extract the truth. That’s when screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski introduces a twist in the tale, which breaks upon you like a guilt trip. Perhaps Mr. Guzikowski was waiting to trap you in all that guilt.

The plot twists confuse you infinitely. This film is worth the conversations you are bound to have afterwards. That’s when you put the pieces together and find out what Prisoners is really about. In fact, the story is never completed. The ending scene is a prime example to this – Detective Loki (what’s with the Asgardian name?) stands in the cold, wondering whether that whistling sound was real or not. Does he find out where the sound came from? Do the characters realize their mistakes? The film ends abruptly leading us to make our own endings.

While Jackman has shown us that he is an entertainer, Prisoners has him displaying something we’ve never seen before. He doesn’t emote the way Wolverine does. He emotes the way a real man would. The melancholy that sweeps him, the abstinence we feel when he’s broken, everything makes him a fine choice for an Oscar nomination.

Jake Gyllenhaal sure seems to have come a long way from Donnie Darko or even Brothers, the forgotten drama that also starred Tobey Maguire. But seriously dude, what’s with that delusional blinking? It’s like you’re on coke all the time.

The picture I painted at the start of this review may be deceptive by now. Do I love or hate this movie? The three-star rating doesn’t mean I’ll watch this movie a thousand times. Prisoners will be a rare watch for me again. Not because it’s average, but because the next time I see it, I’ll view it in a different way, much like the way we all felt about Skyfall or even Inception. The film joins the ranks of other thrillers such as Gone Baby Gone, and even Frozen River, another fine film that starred Melissa Leo, who plays the cocky, yet amusing character in Prisoners.

Prisoners draws a fine line between good and evil. And till the third act, we much like the characters in the film believe that we’re doing the right thing. But, what happens in the end, is an unwashed sin.

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.

USA didn’t kill Bin Laden. She did.
Rating: ***

The genre of the film remains a puzzle. Wikipedia calls the film a “historical drama” while IMDb classifies it under the genres “drama, history and thriller”. The real genre of the film remains in the dark because everyone in America wants the film to be Hollywood’s version. The fact that the film introduces us to Maya, a character we haven’t seen or heard before is a possibility that Zero Dark Thirty indeed doesn’t fall under the genre “docudrama”. Apart from Maya, there are several characters, each of which give us a firm feeling that the story behind the greatest manhunt may have been tweaked to entertain us.

The fictional depiction in Zero Dark Thirty reminded me of Argo, another fine American film set in the Islamic part of Asia. The thrills in Argo thrive purely on fiction such as the climactic scenes happening in the airport. But, it is those scenes that make Ben Affleck’s film, a proud Hollywood version. Zero Dark Thirty is neither here nor there. Fictional characters become victims of real life events such as the Camp Chapman Attack. This of course gives film composer Alexander Desplat an opportunity to play melancholy notes on his piano.

Upon watching The Hurt Locker, I commented that Kathryn Bigelow has the “balls” to do a man’s job. In fact, no woman would want to direct a film like The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty. It is said that women prefer to watch romantic comedies and chick flicks, and when it comes to directing, they prefer to do the same. It’s indeed surprising to know that Kathryn Bigelow’s career has been built on making gritty dramas about cops, criminals, war and soldiers.

The most recognizable flaw could be the thrill leading up to a bombing. Several lines of unseemly dialogue are followed by explosions, and if you’ve read the headlines, you’ll know where a bomb will explode. There was a similar problem with The Hurt Locker too.

Review: Skyfall

Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Sean Connery’s Aston Martin in Skyfall.

Bond without the Bond Girl, Cool Gadgets and Some Other Essentials

Rating: ***

Skyfall is an action film infused with dark elements that we’ve tirelessly seen in Christopher Nolan’s creations. Skyfall is also an homage to Sean Connery’s Bond films. I wrote in my review of Casino Royale that Daniel Craig physically resembles Connery. Both are lean fighting machines. However, Craig is more hardcore and in Skyfall, he has a sculpted torso, which none of the earlier Bonds possessed.

Knowing Sam Mendes, I expected Skyfall to be a dialogue-oriented film, and it plays along with dialogues coming from every end. The sad part is that Skyfall goes nowhere close to a Bond film. Countless Bond elements go missing and if you plan on seeing them later, you’ll be in for a wee bit of disappointment. This includes:

– The infamous Bond Girl

– Bond’s double entendre

– The cool gadgets from Q branch

– Q’s sense of humor – Ben Whishaw is nowhere close to the legendary Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese

– The cool new car – Of course you get to see a cool old car

– The gun barrel sequence which is absent at the beginning of every Daniel Craig film

– The soon-to-die seductress who in this film fails to seduce (bad job Berenice Marlohe)

– “Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred” – What’s an homage without this line!

I was among the hundreds to cheer when the classic Sean Connery Aston Martin made its presence. That scene defined Bond’s love for his cars. There’s however a certain weakness in the screenplay, especially in the film’s third act. The film moves from one place to another, showing characters reveal their new identities with a lack of vigor. Sadly, there’s no better way to show the transition that Skyfall sets to its successors.

Javier Bardem’s antagonist is a mixture of Bane and Joker. The actor does his job, but you’ll be reminded of Batman’s two torturous antagonists now and then. And why are we portraying a hint of bisexuality in a James Bond film? Bond is a legendary chick magnet. Don’t ruin him for today’s youngsters. A similar thing happened in the comic book world and now, Green Lantern is gay (bad news Ryan Reynolds).

Naomie Harris portrays a field agent who we initially think will be the Bond Girl, but, the epilogue shows us who she really is. Ralph Fiennes plays Gareth Mallory, a man high up in the Intelligence and Security Committee, who along with Harris will fill in for another infamous  character in the Bond universe.

If you thought Bond was young and suave, you’ll be shocked to see him greying. Skyfall pretends to be the last Bond film much like every other film, where he has to overcome the antagonist’s large army. But, Bond has become an invincible Charles Bronson character and he never fails to deliver. For Craig, Casino Royale was his defining film. Quantum of Solace was a power-packed action film, but failed to meet the expectations of a Bond film. Skyfall lies somewhere between these two films.

Skyfall creates a new platform for Bond 24, which I hope should release in 2014-15. I can’t wait 4 more years for the next Bond film.

Review: 21 Jump Street

“Prom is fun when you’re going with a gun.” Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street.

Crass, Lewd and Underrated. Welcome back Jonah!

Rating: ***

21 Jump Street was a police procedural TV drama in the eighties that was serious in content. The TV show also brought Johnny Depp to the spotlight. So, when you spot Depp in the film adaptation, don’t freak out. The supporting cast of 21 Jump Street also includes familiar faces like Ice Cube, Peter DeLuise, Ellie Kemper, Jake Johnson and Rob Riggle.

Rob Riggle was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Marine Corps before showing off his funny side to Hollywood. He has since appeared in The Hangover, The Other Guys and Larry Crowne. Riggle’s success lies in his ability to say dialogues in a rude way and make it seem funny. In 21 Jump Street, he does that and more disgusting stuff. So, when you see him trying to pick up a severed body organ with his mouth, don’t go “Ewwww!”

The weakness of 21 Jump Street lies in their protagonists – Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. The bromance is weak and they just don’t make a pair. If they square off, you’ll know that Hill is a better performer as he was trained by Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. Hill has a repertoire of his own. His filmography includes Superbad, Get Him To The Greek and the recent Moneyball for which he received an Academy Award nomination. So, don’t wonder why Hill is top-billed. He owns it!

The screen adaptation is written by Hill and Michael Bacall who is known for writing similar movies such as Project X and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Bacall is an actor himself and has appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds.

21 Jump Street is over-the-top all the way. The actors know it, the writers know it and even Johnny Depp knows it. Whether it involves dry humping a criminal in a park or blasting a limo with a bomb made in a matter of seconds, 21 Jump Street promises and delivers! 

Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr., Noomi Rapace and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Mind games of two level-headed geniuses

Rating: ***

Guy Ritchie’s sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t disappoint. It adds more depth to Holmes. Based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, the film follows Holmes as he battles a Victorian megalomaniac who poses a bigger threat than Lord Blackwood did in the first film. Yet, Jared Harris’ Professor Moriarty is less convincing when compared to Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood. Swedish star, Noomi Rapace plays Simza, a Parisian fortune-telling gypsy who despite her entertaining sword fights doesn’t match up to Irene Adler from the first film.

While I initially chose not to compare the sequel and the prequel, I felt both films weren’t in the same level. While the first film was in the true Guy Ritchie essence, the second one becomes something that today’s influenced directors would do. Ritchie does dabble in eye candy CGI which he uses extensively in the penultimate forest battle that features Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law sprinting in slow motion as bullets and bombs graze past them, and splinters of wood erupt from the trees.

Ah! Bromance!

Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as a fashion designer and a horticulturist. When did this bohemian detective ever become socially enthusiastic? And the scenes having him dress as a woman are mere gags. They don’t appeal much and when they do, they’re in lesser portions. One of the highlights of the first film, the bromance (brotherly romance) is least exploited.

Ritchie ensures upfront that this film is rather more serious when compared to the prequel. From tough fisticuffs to tougher gunfire, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is in its own way a good film. Running for two hours, the film doesn’t fail to entertain you. It’s just that you don’t get what the first film gave you – sheer delight.

I’m telling you again – this is a good film, and a darker sequel. 

Review: The Artist & Hugo

Silent Era Strikes Back

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist.

The Artist

Rating: ****

Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield in Hugo.

Hugo

Rating: ***

There are movies that come as packaged entertainers and there are movies that give the viewers the liberty to unwrap and feel what’s inside. And then, there are the select few that seem out of the blue with a hint of nostalgia and courteously unwrap themselves for us to just sit back and enjoy.

The Artist and Hugo belong to the third class. The Artist was screened at Cannes where Jean Dujardin won the Best Actor Award and then it vanished as Hollywood distributors kept waiting for it to appear on the radar again. And once it did, the hubbub resumed and what was supposedly a comedy drama about a movie star from the silent era became a trip down the memory lane where movies were just pure entertainment and nothing else.

Both films are set in a time where there were no dark elements that Christopher Nolan brought forth. There was no trail blazing action the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers brought forth. There were no teen fantasies that the Twilight and Harry Potter films brought forth. There was just pure art and entertainment.

The Artist is set in 1927 and the years leading to the introduction of talkies. George Valentin is introduced as a phenomenon. Played by Dujardin, Valentin is a cross between yesteryear’s Clark Gable and today’s George Clooney. To quote his award-winning speech at the Golden Globes: “The agent said my face is too big and expressive.” Dujardin’s emphatic smile has the strength to lure masses and his mass stature in the French film industry is an example.

Hugo takes place in 1931 well after The Artist has finished its duties. But, Hugo isn’t about the success of talkies, it’s about a certain filmmaker who made over hundreds of silent films and soon became forgotten. It is rare that Martin Scorsese has directed a film suited for family audiences. Every now and then, I was looking out for Irish gangsters to turn up in Paris, shoot down drug dealers and quip four-letter profanities. But that never seemed to happen. The characters speak fluently in the now-defunct Victorian English.

14-year old Chloe Grace Moretz has that radiant glow in her as she fills the life of lonely Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield) with an adventure that takes the viewers to the silent films of the early 1900s. This film is shot in beautiful, glorious color and Scorsese has made sure the existence of animation and 3D is brought out as the camera moves from long shots of Parisian skylines to bustling scenes inside a railway station.

The Artist has it all from panoramic characters to heroic dogs to that sound of orchestras which fuel the soul. This is perhaps one of the best contenders at the awards season and whatever it wins, it rightfully deserves them.

Hugo has an extensive cast but it’s the story that becomes the central character – the story of an artist losing faith and regaining it due to the continuous struggles of a little boy. But, Scorsese remains in that world and chooses not to tread further and his persistence makes Hugo a film that Walt Disney is more likely to make.

Whether it was a budget of $150 million (Hugo) or $15 million (The Artist), Hollywood proves that it can redeem itself. These alongside films such as Midnight in Paris and My Week With Marilyn will stand out as part of a film renaissance.

Review in 140 words or less: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Rat hunt! 

Rating: ***

Tomas Alfredson’s paranoia thriller spreads fear among the characters that devastating consequences can happen if the mole (rat) isn’t found. The cast consists of recognizable British actors who prance around dark rooms muttering dialogues below their breath.

Unlike Ian Fleming, who wrote unrealistic MI6 novels centering on a larger-than-life spy, John le Carre’s novels portray George Smiley as a bruised war hero who walks around the streets of London preparing for death to emerge out of every corner. Gary Oldman’s cold approach to Smiley gives the character more depth and brings in a certain mystery to the character.

Foot Note: While the film takes its own time to unfold, the end result is a rewarding thriller.

Review: The Big Year

Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black in The Big Year.

Living by the birds

Rating: ***

The Big Year is about a group of people with messy lives who travel America in search of birds. These people are referred to as birders and not birdwatchers. Birding is a sport that includes taking a picture of every bird you find, so that the judges know how many you’ve seen. Big year is a contest where birders have one year to do all their birding and in the end, the one with the highest number gets a trophy and exclusive interviews with notable American magazines such as Rolling Stones and Vanity Fair.

The film stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson – three contemporary comedians armed with wacky one-liners that keep you entertained. All these characters live shallow lives.

Martin is a millionaire who runs a successful company full of nuts that cannot make decisions on their own. Hence, his employees follow him everywhere for advice.  Jack Black is employed in a 9-to-5 job that he hates to the core. His father chides his interest in birding while his mother (Dianne Wiest) discovers his aim to be the best at it. Owen Wilson’s character Kenny Bostick is a three-time winner and current record holder. This sets the bar for Black and Martin as they team up to beat him.

Bostick’s marriage is shattered due to his birding obsession. His annoyed wife (played by the ever-lovely Rosamund Pike), continuously rants that he prefers birds over sex. He later corrects her, saying “It’s not about the birds. It’s about being number one.”

Over the course of the film, several life-changing events take place. For instance, Black’s character Brad Harris meets a fellow bird enthusiast, Ellie (Rashida Jones), with whom he falls in love with.

David Frankel is no stranger to comedies. He has worked with Wilson in Marley & Me, and has direct Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. He shows off his expertise by letting his actors improvise scenes. It’s no mystery that Black and Martin are used to improvising their lines. The film also stars Anjelica Huston and Jim Parsons in roles that really didn’t need popular faces. They could have done that scene with B-list stars.

Comedies generally portray characters that rediscover themselves in the turn of events. The Big Year is no different from them.