Films in Brief: 2/16/14

Now at the pivot point where Valentine’s Day is far enough in our rear view mirror that we can look back and laugh without judgment and where many of us have an extra day to enjoy over the course of a long holiday weekend, let’s double back and take a look at the other major releases this past Friday that we didn’t get around to talking about, mostly because they were all press screened on the exact same night and time making it impossible to see any of them before our deadline (unless we’re still counting the Wednesday opening of the RoboCop reboot). Also because I was out with food poisoning all day Thursday and most of Friday.

Michael Ealy;Kevin Hart

First, I guess we can start with the positive. Comedian Kevin Hart rebounds quite nicely from getting misused in a supporting role in Grudge Match and leaned on too heavily in the watered down and by-the number buddy cop action comedy smash Ride Along with a great performance in the remake of About Last Night. While already a remake of a 1986 Rob Lowe film that was loosely based on a David Mamet play, it’s the rare example of a film that can stay true in terms of intention, but not necessarily always in tone.

The film is essentially about a pair of couples caught up in a one night stand blossoming into something more. Kevin Hart plays Bernie, an LA player with Hart’s already trademarked gift of gab, whose best buddy and wingman Danny (Michael Ealy) ends up getting into a relationship with the equally commitment averse Debbie (Joy Bryant). While those two begin a year long dance back and forth over commitment, Hart gets paired up alongside Joan (Regina Hall), Debbie’s best friend and the person Bernie hooks up with so much that they might as well just call themselves a couple.

Thanks to the work of writer Leslye Headland (who penned the indie comedy Bachelorette that broached similar ground) and director Steve Pink (who hasn’t directed too much of note aside from Hot Tub Time Machine and Accepted, but who did co-write Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity with John Cusack), this version isn’t only the less douchy, more grown up version of That Awkward Moment, but also the less douchy and far more realistic and emotionally resonant version of the original film. It’s still not Mamet, but there’s a real genuineness and ease with which these characters navigate their hook-ups and deal with their complicated feelings. Both the humour and the snags in the relationship stay away from big screen rom-com contrivance (with a few exceptions late in the game, a side effect from trying to adapt Mamet into something mainstream audiences can get behind), and the chemistry between the couples is spot on.

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It’s nice to see Ealy get what’s essentially the leading role, and the role definitely shows off a lot his charisma that often goes wasted in the supporting parts he usually gets offered. I hope this opens up some big things for him and he gets offered more high profile roles like this. Bryant (who it’s wonderful to see get a break on the big screen after her stellar work on Parenthood) and Hall benefit greatly from this version being written by a woman and the misogyny of the film’s sources gets toned down quite a bit. As for Hart, this is exact the kind of film he should be making. His stand-up and his best on-screen performances often straddle the line between the pains of everyday life and outright silliness. He’s really nailing the balance here. It’s the only one of the three “love day” releases this year that isn’t a complete waste of time.

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Which brings me next to Winter’s Tale, and every awful and terrible thing you have heard about this one is sadly true. An incoherent, condescending, and unintentionally hilarious adaptation of Mark Helprin’s sprawling, best selling , and long (rightfully) thought unfilmable 1981 magical realist fantasy, it lives up to all its talk of cosmic, karmic, and religious destiny by being destined to forever show up on lists of the greatest cinematic trainwrecks ever conceived.

Colin Farrell plays Peter, a twentysomething year old thief in the early 1900s that’s on the run from his sadistic mentor, an emissary of Satan himself named Pearly (Russell Crowe). With the help of a magical horse (that’s actually an angelic dog in horse form despite us never seeing it as an angel or a dog), Peter is brought into a life of Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), a young rich girl dying of what appears to be a mix of a fever, tuberculosis, some kind of unspecified heart condition, and some sort of non-contagious plague. Whatever the maladay, it’s fatal and she stops Peter’s escape because she loves him and wants to be loved in return. It doesn’t go well, she dies, and Pearly repeatedly headbutts Peter over the Brooklyn Bridge to his supposed death. He simply has amnesia, and he walks the streets of New York for some unconscionably long and thoroughly unexplained amount of time until in 2014 with the help of a reporter (Jennifer Connolly) he tries to find out about his past life, his lost love, and what the true destiny that’s keeping him alive really is.

Ten billion words couldn’t even begin to broach what first time director and long time screenwriter Akiva Goldsman botches here. It’s in every single shot, every performance, every hairstyle, every visual effect, every line of dialogue, every bit of direction, every casting choice, every silent beat, every edit, everything. It is a perfectly atrocious film that I was ready to give up on and walk out after twenty minutes because I knew my time was being wasted, but it’s so especially awful in the craziest of ways that I just had to see where it was headed. It was a letdown, but it really will become one of those films that cinephiles will talk about in hushed and hyperbolic tones for decades to come. “Oh yeah, you think you saw the worst movie of the decade today? Have you even SEEN Winter’s Tale?!?”

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Goldsman not only plays his fantasy so straight that its earnestness sucks all the fun out of a romance that I can see being thrilling in a novel, but he also forgets to explain every damned bit of it. Once the film thrusts the viewer into a version of New York City where any sort of magical thing can just pop up and solve the plot a little explanation is needed other than Goldsman simply sneering at his audience and assuming everyone going in is already a cynic. His also thoroughly annoying direction – one where he forces his cast to take seconds long pauses between each and every single line of dialogue –is baffling. It doesn’t matter how good of a cast he assembled, much like his source material it only looks good on paper.

Farrell doesn’t look like he cares to be here at all, often looking like he could fall asleep at any moment. Findlay seems almost annoyed to be playing a dying woman in such a chipper manner. Crowe breaks out of full stockyards’ worth of ham in a performance that simultaneously apes one of his earliest roles as Sid 6.7 from Virtuosity and the Lucky Charms leprechaun with one of the worst Irish accents in screen history. When he asks for some “patatos” and later busts out an ACTUAL BOWL OF MYSTICAL CHARMS, just try to take him as a serious threat. And the less said about Will Smith’s already talked about extended cameo as Lucifer, the better.

This movie is just shamefully bad, but it does come pretty close to being “so bad it’s actually awesome” territory, so I guess you can take that for what it’s worth. It’s been a long time since one of those films have come along, especially one on this huge of a scale. I suppose that’s an accomplishment, but I still don’t recommend it in the slightest.

Film Title: Endless Love

As for this week’s final major wide release, the remake of the 1981 teen romance Endless Love, it was the one film that we actually DID see prior to our press time, but because of the city’s writers getting stretched out too thin already across three movies on the same night, both Phil Brown and myself were asked to cover the film for two of Canada’s major print outlets instead. You can read Phil’s take in The Globe and Mail and mine in NOW Magazine. They will both tell you the same thing: it really sucks. Fellow Dork Shelf critic Kirk Haviland was also there covering for another outlet, and while his review has not appeared online as of yet, his reaction while sitting next to him in the press screening seems to suggest that the movie might have killed him. I haven’t spoken to him since and the rage on his face was something I had never seen from him before. So, let’s just assume you should skip this one.

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You would also think this would be a great time for me to tell you guys that I went back earlier this week to see Vampire Academy, yet another adaptation aiming for what has to be one of the most glutted teen movie marketplaces in years. This one came out last week, but was flat out refused press screenings of any kind, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an unmemorable and overly convoluted mess that despite seeing it less than a week ago, I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened in it.

If Akiva Goldsman’s problem with Winter’s Tale was in not explaining anything, the problem for screenwriter Daniel Waters (Heathers, Hudson Hawk, Demolition Man, Batman Returns) is that he has way too much to explain in this adaptation of Richelle Mead’s YA story of a human/vampire hybrid (Zoey Deutch) and her pure blood best friend (Lucy Fry) caught up in a battle between good and evil vamps at the titular high school. There’s a clear attempt being made to deliver a fun and funny final product, but the material stymies any sense of amusement that could be had. By about twenty minutes in I gave up taking notes because the movie was actually moving faster than I could process just what the hell was going on and why I should care about any of it and because none of the characters were even interesting or amusing enough to even put in the investment anymore. When I left the theatre and looked at the notes that I did take, I couldn’t even remember what most of them even referred to anymore. That’s how little of an impact Vampire Academy makes.

It’s also a shame because not only did it come from a well noted writer who can usually keep a grip on these kinds of things, but it was also directed by Mean Girls helmer Mark Waters, who also can’t reign in any of the film’s massive plot. There are a few chuckles along the way, though, and it’s not the worst thing currently in theatres, but certainly one of the most disappointing.

Gloria

Oh, and before we forget to mention it, Sebastien Lilio’s winning Spanish coming-of-older-age dramedy Gloria also opened up this weekend, a film we were too sadly swamped to revisit with a full review. But Eric Marchen covered it for us during TIFF and here were his thoughts from back in September.

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Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer - Hot Docs 2013

But what about this week’s column for The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, you might ask? Where did that go? Well, this week they only had one new film (with The Unbelievers sticking around for another week), and it’s one that’s well intentioned, released at what seems like the perfect time, but already feels kind of outdated and not exactly in the moment anymore.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Rock Prayer played at Hot Docs and Sundance last year, but sees a theatrical release (one that will run through next week, as well) timed to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Chronicling the imprisonment of female members of the fabled neon balaclava wearing art punk collective in Russia for perceived “terrorist” acts against the state, it’s already a flawed documentary. It really comes together nicely when the band members are shown to be at their most confessional and unapologetic or when showing the comparison between the band trying to get their message out into the world by using the same means the ruling Russian Orthodoxy has been using for centuries, but there’s something incredibly overblown about it all. Directors Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner are elevating the group to deity status, which I’m sure isn’t their intention. But by turning everything into a bit of a circus and adding Simon Russell’s Hans Zimmer-styled score to make it seem like a Jason Bourne film, it becomes a bit too much and seems to be doing a disservice to the issues instead of talking about them in a more down to Earth manner.

Also, given recent developments within the band and members being released, it’s hard not to think that this film is coming out almost a full year too late even with the Olympics and continued human rights abuses still going on in Russia. The impact has just been far too dulled by this point, and it’s a shame because it’s the perfect example of a barely passable doc made almost strangely irrelevant the year after it was made.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus

There are, of course, other shenanigans and goings on at The Bloor this weekend. Tonight, you can still catch a special sneak preview of Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus at 6:30, a stunning documentary about the risks being taken by the subversive Belarus Free Theatre, operating under the Europe’s last remaining dictatorship. It’s a far better look at subversive art than the Pussy Riot doc is, and also a lot rawer (made up in many parts from footage smuggled out of the country), a lot more emotional, and it has a lot more to say about art as a necessary outlet for social and political ideas and change.

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But The Bloor also has something for you guys if you need to entertain the youngsters for Family Day tomorrow. At 1:00pm, pop music minded kids and teens can get their groove on with a big screen presentation of Morgan Spurlock’s boy band doc One Direction: This is Us, featuring trivia and prizes. Those a bit more classical minded will be sure to flock to the still incredibly beloved in Toronto classic, Labyrinth at 3:45, a film that reminds us of that babe with the power and one where David Bowie’s pants say a thousand words.

 The Short Game

Although TIFF wraps up its teen oriented Next Wave festival tonight, the Lightbox still has a plethora of Family Day offerings for the younger crowd tomorrow, with screenings of the youth oriented golfing documentary The Short Game (at 11:00am and 1:30pm) and the 3D animated animal adventure Khumba (at 12:30pm). There are also two programs of shorts that day: Loot Bag, for the 7 and up crowd at 10:30am and 2:30pm, and Reel Rascals, for those 4 and up at 10:00am and 1:15pm. If you feel like doing something a little more hands on with the kids, there are also animation workshops, a theatre where you can create your own puppet show, and even some button making. No shortage of options there. Check out the TIFF website for a full list of their Family Day programs.

 Bigger Than Life

And before we go, let’s take a look ahead to Thursday of this week when the Lightbox will bridge the gap between the first part of its lengthy two-part retrospective on the works of master filmmaker and renowned cinema critic Jean-Luc Godard (the first installment of which ended this past Thursday) with a look at 14 films that the French New Wave auteur found to be American studio system masterpieces in Bigger Than Life: Jean-Luc Goddard’s Hollywood Classics. Beginning with Orson Welles’ baroque mystery The Lady from Shanghai and continuing with works from Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), John Ford (Two Rode Together), Howard Hawks (Scarface), Nicolas Ray (Bigger Than Life, Bitter Victory), Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor), Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much), and many others, the series looks to serve as a sort of cinematic history lesson of Goddard’s early years through the many of the films he found to be of greatest value. The series runs through Saturday, March 22nd, and if nothing else it’s a great chance to catch up with some classics you might have missed and see them the way they were meant to be seen on the big screen.

And that’s it for this week. I should note that this week’s Unsung Anniversaries piece will technically be a day late because of the holiday and the film being profiled this week actually celebrates its 25th anniversary tomorrow. I don’t know what it’s bugging me and I felt the need to say that, but since it’s a movie that’s already about unhealthy obsession, it seems fitting. Catch you all on Tuesday and have a great rest of the weekend!

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