Magic Mike XXL (2015)

Magic Mike XXL

Starring: Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Amber Heard, Gabriel Inglesias
Directed by: Gregory Jacobs
Release Date: July 1st, 2015
Rated R for nudity, strong language throughout, drug use, sexual content

2012’s Magic Mike was a surprise success. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Channing Tatum, it was praised by critics for being well written, brilliantly cast, and smartly directed. Films about strippers tend to be panned for the most part (see: I Know Who Killed Me, Showgirls, etc). Three years later, Mike makes a comeback. But does it match up to the previous film’s glory?
This time around, we find Mike Lane (Tatum) struggling with his furniture business after leaving his stripper career behind. While he has a number of clients, he only has one employee and no storefront. While on the job one day, he gets a call from one of his old stripper buddies telling him that Dallas, the owner of the club he used to strip at, is “gone.” He assumes that means “dead” and quickly goes to pay his respects. Turns out, Dallas isn’t dead, he’s just taken off, leaving his employees hanging. They recruit Mike to go on a road trip to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, where they can go out in a blaze of glory before they call it quits for good this time.
The plot is paper-thin at best, and I didn’t find it very compelling. Why would Mike just take off and leave his one employee (whose health insurance he cannot afford to pay)for guys he hasn’t seen in three years? What’s in it for him? Furthermore, besides Tatum and maybe Ken (Bomer) these men are barely attractive. Kevin Nash’s Tarzan looks like he’s stuck in the 80s with his long mullet. If they were women, people would comment on how old they are. Tatum himself is 35, Joe Manganiello (Big Dick Richie) is 38, Adam Rodriguez (Tito) is 40, and Kevin Nash is 55. No spring cockerels are they.
Another thing that irritates me about the Magic Mike films is their propensity to pair Mike with women who have terrible personalities. In the first film, his love interest was Brooke, played by Cody Horn. She was so standoffish and her delivery was so monotone that is was a wonder Mike fell in love with her. In XXL she is replaced by Amber Heard, who is supposed to be deep and artsy but just comes off as bitchy and unstable. He has no chemistry with either of these women, so why am I supposed to hope they are a couple by the end of this movie?
The film’s final sequence, with each of the guys getting a solo, was well-choreographed and fun to watch, even if it was a bit overlong. The ending is also ambiguous and unsatisfying. Will we see a Magic Mike 3? Are Mike and Zoe going to live happily ever after? I doubt either.

VERDICT: If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one. If not, just skip it.

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Hot Pursuit (2015)

Hot Persuit
Photo: MGM Studios

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, John Carroll Lynch, Rob Lowzinsky
Release Date: May 8th, 2015
Directed by: Anne Fletcher
Rated PG-13 for violence, language, drugs, and some sexual content

Allow me to preface this review by saying Hollywood still can’t write female characters very well. Almost every comedy film involving women as main characters has to contain some joke about periods, lesbian action played up for laughs, or losing any semblance of brains once a man comes into the picture. Women in film are often shrill, nagging housewives, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, sexy but insubstantial, and so on. Perhaps the reason for this is because the vast majority of screenwriters in Hollywood are men. Hot Pursuit is no different; it was written by sitcom writers David Feeney and John Quaintance.

Reese Witherspoon stars as Rose Cooper, a cop who has been stuck in the evidence room for three years after an incident involving setting the mayor’s kid on fire with a taser. After her boss (Lynch) offers her an assignment to escort Daniella Riva, the wife of a drug kingpin’s right-hand man (Vergara) to Dallas so she can testify against him. Naturally, she jumps at the chance to be back in the field. Unsurprisingly, things get hairy when gunmen show up and kill Riva’s husband and a federal agent on the day of the pickup. Cooper and Riva are named as suspects in the shootings; they must evade the kingpin’s henchmen and a pair of crooked cops to get to Dallas safely.

I honestly cannot remember the last time I laughed so rarely watching a comedy. Though Witherspoon and Vergara are extremely talented actresses, they have zero screen chemistry here. Perhaps if these two ladies had been given more to work with, this film would have been somewhat watchable.  Most of the jokes fall flat (the requisite fake lesbian makeout scene made me cringe) and the romantic subplot involving a parolee whose truck they steal (Lowzinsky) seems tacked-on and forced. I’ll admit the plot twist at the end did throw me for a loop (mini-spoiler: there’s a lot more to Daniella Riva than you expect), but by then I didn’t care anymore.

I also found it interesting that Vergara and Witherspoon served as producers on this dreck.  It was also directed by Anne Fletcher, whose previous work has included chick flicks 27 Dresses and The Proposal. Its 87 minutes seemed much, much longer than they should have. Don’t wait for this to come out on Redbox, save yourself the agony (and the dollar) and watch The Heat or Midnight Run instead.

VERDICT: Skip. 

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Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

Pitch Perfect Two
Photo: Universal Pictures

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld,Adam Devine, Elizabeth Banks, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Hana Mae Lee, Skylar Astin, Ben Platt
Release Date: May 15th, 2015
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Rated PG-13 for crude language and some innuendo

“Pitch Perfect 2” opens with the 3-Time Collegiate Acapella champions, the Barden Bellas, embroiled in a scandal. After a disastrous performance at Lincoln Center (which included Fat Amy [Wilson] unintentionally flashing her crotch), the Bellas are banned from competing, as well as holding auditions for new singers. Since most of the Bellas are graduating seniors, this is a crushing blow, especially for Chloe (Snow), who has been a Bella for seven years.  All is not yet lost, however; they immediately decide to compete in an international acapella competition, in the hopes of being reinstated and restoring themselves to glory.  No American team has ever won (“The whole world hates us!”crows acapella boss/podcaster Gail [director and producer Elizabeth Banks]). The Barden Bellas must pull out all the stops in order to defeat their competition, German group Das Sound Machine.

Meanwhile, group leader Beca (Kendrick) has landed an internship with a prestigious recording studio Residual Heat. She keeps the internship a secret from the group since she doesn’t want to seem less than 100% committed. Keegan-Michael Key (half of comedic duo Key and Peele) plays her eccentric boss, both mean-spirited but hilarious. Also new this time around is Emily (Steinfeld), who has been eager to be a Bella her whole life since her mother (the multi-talented Katey Sagal) was one when she was at Barden. Emily is clueless about acapella, but she is a budding songwriter with her own original ideas; this becomes an important plot device later on.

If you enjoyed the first installment of “Pitch Perfect” you will definitely enjoy this one, too. The direction is frenetic, the music catchy (trust me, you’ll be singing and tapping your feet), and the jokes are usually on point. Ice queen Kommissar (Birgitte Hort Sørensen) and her equally evil sidekick Pieter Kramer (DJ/Youtuber Flula Borg) of Das Sound Machine take jabs at the Bellas any chance they get, their German accents played up for laughs. Sadly, the non-white Bellas (Dean, Lee and Fit) are given very little to do, except be the butt of stereotypical racial jokes. The romantic subplots involving Bumper/Fat Amy and Emily/Benji feel very contrived and unnecessary. Celebrity cameos abound, and there is another Riff-Off. Steinfeld, 18, also looks like a child compared to her costars, most of whom are close to 30 and playing college seniors. This I found mildly disconcerting. In spite of the flaws, the overall message of sisterhood and finding your own voice remains, and it works, even if it’s been done many times before.

There are rumors of a third “Pitch Perfect”. Personally, I do not think it would be a good film. Ostensibly Steinfield will be the Bella’s next leader, and while she definitely has the acting chops and singing ability, she does not seem ready to lead just yet. Also, the next film would have to be even more in your face and over-the-top, and doing so without resorting to the ridiculous will be tricky, if not impossible. I hope that “2” is the Bellas’ swan song; if so, it’s darn good one.

VERDICT: SEE.

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Furious 7 (2015)

Furious 7 Photo: Universal Pictures
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Djimon Hounsou, Nathalie Emmanuel, Sung Kang (archive footage)
Release Date: April 3, 2015
Directed by: James Wan
Rated PG-13 for violence and strong action throughout, some language and suggestive content

The Fast and Furious crew is back and this time around, they’ve got two baddies on their tails. The first is Deckard Shaw, out for revenge since Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and Co. put his brother Owen in a coma. The second is Somalian terrorist Jakande, who goes after them after they rescue hacker extraordinaire Ramsey (Emmanuel) from his clutches in Azerbaijan. You see, Ramsey is responsible for creating a computer program known as God’s Eye which can hack into any device on any network. As such, it can locate anyone, anywhere, anytime. Called back from their quiet lives by “Mr.Nobody” (Russell), who promises to help them stop Shaw if they keep Jakande from getting his hands on God’s eye, the Furious crew sets out once again for another ride.
Don’t worry too much about the plot. Ten minutes into the film it doesn’t really matter anymore. New director James Wan ( Saw, The Conjuring) goes for broke with the action, giving fans of the franchise exactly what they came for: death-defying (and improbable, if not impossible) stunts, expensive and powerful soupe-up cars,and gratuitous scantily clad women. The action begins quickly and doesn’t let up until the very end, making the film’s long runtime (two hours, seventeen minutes) fly by. The film does not cover any new ground either. Batman Begins featured a similar program to “God’s Eye” and “Live Free or Die Hard” featured similar action sequences. Non-fans and/or Furious virgins will most likely be left cold by this film, but Paul Walker fanboys/girls will definitely appreciate the film’s touching tribute to the late actor at the end.
Since Walker’s untimely death began during filming, his brothers Cody and Caleb were brought in to be body doubles and do voice work for him. I was impressed by how seamlessly this worked. Overall, this film does what it meant to do, no more, no less. Three additional follow-up films are in the works, which leaves me feeling uncertain. The stunts in this film teetered on the line between extremely impressive and ridiculous; I think that in order to keep the franchise going, they will have to keep trying to top themselves and they will cross over into “ridiculous” territory quickly. We will have to wait until 2017 for the final word on this.

VERDICT: See, if you’re already a fan. You will not be disappointed.

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Kids For Cash (2013)


Photo: SenArt Films

starring: n/a
Release Date: November 17th, 2013
Directed by: Robert May
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and strong language

Kids for Cash is a documentary about the eponymous scandal in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania that involved judges Mark Ciavanella and Michael Conahan. The two were accused of taking kickbacks (to the tune of $2.16 million) to send teenagers to a privately run juvenile detention facility that they had a business interest in. All told, about 3,000 kids were adjudicated as delinquents, found guilty, and sentenced to years-long sentences for sometimes trivial offenses. One of the teenagers in the movie was sent to juvenile detention for creating a MySpace page that made fun of a vice principal. Another was caught at a party where underage drinking was happening, and an officer planted drug paraphernalia in his vehicle so he could be arrested. In each case, the teen’s parents waived their right to legal counsel and were sentenced in a matter of minutes.

The documentary uses the “talking head” approach and it does so to great effect; you get to meet several families who were affected by the scandal, as well as others involved in the case (notably, the co-founders of the Juvenile Justice Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Mark Ciavarella, former President judge and juvenile judge, had once been lauded for his “Zero Tolerance” policy post-Columbine. However, studies have shown that children are not “little adults” and should not be treated as such when it comes to punishment. “Zero Tolerance” has by and large been a failure in the United States, as well, since juvenile incarceration rates continue to increase (they have been up 165% since 1990).

Both the accused, Chiavarella and Monahan, are allowed to tell their sides of the story, instead of just being demonised in vignettes and soundbites, as some filmmakers are wont to do *cough Michael Moore COUGH* Whether they deserved what happens in the end, I will leave for the viewer to decide. I will say that watching this film was an extremely emotional, wrenching experience. Many people are not aware of how the juvenile justice system works in the United States, and just how difficult it is to get out of it once one is in. This film is a must watch for every parent.

VERDICT: See. Educate yourself.

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Get Hard (2015)

Get Hard
Photo: Warner Brothers Pictures

Starring: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart,Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson, Tip “T.I.” Harris
Release Date: March 27th, 2015
Directed by: Etan Cohen
Rated R for sexual content and crude language throughout, male nudity, drug-related material

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are the creative geniuses behind comedy website Funny or Die. McKay also served as a producer on this film. Those expecting something along the lines of their usual brand of humour (the requisite crude toilet jokes that resonate well with teenage boys) will be surprised by “Get Hard.” Whether that is a pleasant surprise or not… well, I’ll leave that to the viewer.

This time around, Will Ferrell is James King, a millionaire hedge fund manager convicted of securities fraud. He is sentenced to 10 years hard time at San Quentin and given 30 days to get his affairs in order. Used to a life of luxury and creature comforts, King panics: how will he survive being on the inside? He decides that he needs someone with experience, someone who can teach him the ins and outs of prison life, someone who knows how to “get hard”: the guy who washes his car every week, Darnell Lewis (Hart). There’s only one problem: Darnell has never actually been to jail. Due to his insulated, privileged upbringing, King assumes that he has. Darnell, however, is more than happy to let him believe this, as the money made from being King’s jail mentor will mean a nicer house and a better life for his family. Hijinks and hilarity ensue as James King gets daily lessons in “getting hard”.

This film is much like any other Will Ferrell vehicle: Ferrell overacts with gusto, sobbing hysterically (and hilariously) after finding out his sentence and demonstrating his penchant for physical humour and crass jokes. He is definitely in his element in “Get Hard.” Hart, a comedy natural, portrays Darnell’s bravado with ease. Unlike most Ferrell films, this one seems to be somewhat of a commentary on the way the richest people in America tend to get away with heinous crimes, while poorer people (often minorities) are statistically more likely to be incarcerated at least once in their lives. However, it doesn’t quite count as a satire. Rapper and sometimes-actor T.I. does a solid turn as Darnell’s gangster cousin Russell. The ending is rather predictable and somewhat rushed, but overall I found “Get Hard” quite enjoyable. Easily offended people will cringe at the male nudity and racist jokes interspersed throughout the film.

VERDICT: See, if you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, and/or FunnyorDie.com. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.

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Home (2015)

HOME
Photo: DreamWorks Animation

Starring: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones
Release Date: March 27th, 2015
Directed by: Tim Johnson
Rated PG for mild cartoon action and some crude humor

DreamWorks Animation’s latest effort is the story of Oh, an alien misfit on the run for making one too many mistakes. Oh (Parsons) is a member of the alien race known as the Boov, who excel at running away from their enemy, the fearsome Gorg. When the Boov invade Earth and relocate all humans to their new home in Australia, teenage Gratuity ‘Tip’ Tucci (Rihanna) is left behind. Brought together by circumstance, Tip and Oh must learn to overcome their differences and discover what the real meaning of “HOME” is.

First, the accolades. The visuals are, for lack of a better word, fun. The candy-coloured Boov (who change colours to match their emotions) are a visual treat and will delight the children in the audience. The story, while familiar and simplistic, is surprisingly full of heart. Steve Martin is delightfully malicious as the pompous Captain Smek, leader of the Boov and wielder of the Shusher, a wooden staff with an egg-shaped stone on top used to “shush” anyone who disagrees with him. Parsons’ Oh is endearing and at times comical. The standout performance, for me, was Matt Jones’ Kyle. Adult moviegoers may remember him from his “Breaking Bad” days (he played the character of Badger). His raspy delivery and eventual transformation were just plain winning.

Now, the bad. While kids under 10 will be enchanted, adults will probably be bored. The soundtrack, which was composed entirely by Rihanna, is very gimmicky and at times does not match the film at all. As a matter of fact, Tip’s character often feels like a teenage version of Rihanna, complete with Barbadian heritage. Parsons also has a very (ahem!) distinctive voice. Coupled with the jumbled English and chirpy delivery, it can get annoying rather quickly for those not already fans of Parsons. Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez (who plays Tip’s mother) deliver passable, but not spectacular performances.

VERDICT: RENT. It will make a fine addition to your DVD library alongside “Frozen.”

Posted in 2015 New Releases, Family Friendly Films | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments