Mini Reviews (April 2014)
No Clue, Cas & Dylan, Small Time, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, About last night, That Burning Feeling, Transcendence, Brick Mansions, 300: Rise of an Empire
No Clue (April 11/14)
No Clue follows novelty salesman Leo Falloon (Brent Butt) as he's mistaken for a private eye (by Amy Smart's Kyra) and subsequently sent on an investigation into the disappearance of an up-and-coming video-game designer - with the movie detailing Leo's bumbling efforts at solving the case and his encounters with figures of a decidedly shady nature. It's a generic yet workable premise that's employed to consistently (and shockingly) unwatchable effect by filmmaker Carl Bessai, although it's immediately clear that Butt himself deserves the lion's share of blame for the movie's utter failure - as the Canadian comedian adopts an annoying and thoroughly grating persona that persists for the duration of the film's often interminable running time. Butt is, it becomes increasingly clear, simply not funny in the slightest, and given that he wrote its screenplay, No Clue has been suffused with jokes, gags, and one-liners of a hopelessly eye-rolling variety - with the total absence of laughs only exacerbating the film's amateurish, far-from-competent atmosphere. It doesn't help, either, that Butt offers up a lackluster storyline that's almost entirely devoid of propulsive energy, as the stale narrative lurches from one dull, uninteresting sequence to the next with little thought to cohesiveness or momentum (ie there's just nothing compelling about Leo's continuing exploits). One's efforts at rooting for the central character's success are, as a result, thwarted on an ongoing basis, which ensures that it grows more and more difficult to work up an ounce of enthusiasm for the mystery's outcome - thus confirming No Clue's place as a distressingly worthless endeavor that hopefully marks the end of Butt's big-screen career.
Cas & Dylan (April 13/14)
Directed by Jason Priestley, Cas & Dylan follows two disparate characters, Richard Dreyfuss' suicidal Cas Pepper and Tatiana Maslany's quirky Dylan Morgan, as they embark on a road trip through Western Canada - with the low-key narrative devoted primarily to the pair's squabbles and inevitable friendship. Filmmaker Priestley has infused Cas & Dylan with an incredibly subdued feel that generally prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to the material, with the hands-off feel perpetuated by Jessie Gabe's almost excessively familiar and routine screenplay (ie the protagonists feel more like paint-by-numbers archetypes than fully-rounded people). It's ultimately the charm of the actors, as well as their palpable chemistry together, that ensures the film remains relatively watchable from start to finish, as both Dreyfuss and Maslany generally manage to breathe some life into their one-dimensional characters - which, in turn, eventually paves the way for an emotional final stretch that's certainly more affecting than one might've anticipated. It's nothing short of a slog getting to that point, however, as the viewer is otherwise subjected to one hackneyed, could-only-exist-in-a-movie type sequence after the next - with the pervasively artificial atmosphere ensuring that the film often feels much longer than its 90 minutes. The end result is an earnest yet underwhelming endeavor that's hardly a cut above most garden-variety made-for-television enterprises, with the name-value of Cas & Dylan's director and stars ultimately standing as the only aspect of the production that possesses bona fide interest.
Small Time (April 16/14)
Small Time details the exploits of amiable used-car salesmen Ash Martini (Dean Norris) and Al Klein (Christopher Meloni), with the narrative following the latter as he reluctantly allows his teenage son (Devon Bostick's Freddy) to work at the lot. It's ultimately clear that Small Time fares best in its first half, as first-time filmmaker Joel Surnow has infused the proceedings with a pleasantly low-key feel that's perpetuated by the affable work of its stars. Both Norris and Meloni step into the shoes of their slick yet charming characters with an ease that proves impossible to resist, and it's worth noting, too, that Surnow has heightened the easygoing vibe by peppering the supporting cast with a number of familiar faces (including Bridget Moynahan, Xander Berkeley, and Gregory Itzin) - with the pervasively watchable atmosphere that ensues persisting right up until around the one-hour mark. It's beyond that point that Surnow begins to emphasize Freddy's unconvincing and hopelessly conventional transformation from kind-hearted teen to callous used-car salesman, with the ineffectiveness of these sequences negatively coloring everything else in the proceedings - which ultimately does ensure that the film peters out to a fairly noticeable degree. The end result is a decent yet unspectacular debut that could (and should) have been so much better, and yet it's clear that Small Time remains worth a look if only for the magnetic efforts of its two leading men.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (April 21/14)
Based on characters from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Mr. Peabody & Sherman follows super-smart dog Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) as he and his adopted son (Max Charles' Sherman) embark on a series of adventures through time. Mr. Peabody & Sherman has, as befits its place as a DreamWorks Animation production, been infused with a lightning-quick pace that immediately captures the viewer's interest, with the watchable atmosphere heightened by stellar visuals and a series of affable voice performances. (In terms of the latter, Burrell is absolutely perfect as the know-it-all Mr. Peabody.) It does become increasingly clear, however, that the movie suffers from an increasingly problematic lack of substance, as scripter Craig Wright offers up a narrative that often seems more concerned with spectacle and eye candy rather than character development and context - with the episodic structure ensuring that the film breezes from one adventure to the next with hardly any downtime. And while this should keep younger viewers enthralled from beginning to end, Mr. Peabody & Sherman's relentless sensibilities inevitably grow exhausting and pave the way for a number of lulls in the narrative (eg the title pair's sojourn in ancient Italy is somewhat uninvolving). The end result is a pleasant yet forgettable animated endeavor that's sorely lacking in a soul, as the filmmakers have, in gearing the proceedings primarily towards little kids, emerged with a vehicle that's as empty as it is entertaining.
About last night (April 21/14)
About last night follows twentysomething player Danny (Michael Ealy) as he meets and falls for Joy Bryant's Debbie, with the movie detailing the complications that ensue for the couple and their dating best friends (Kevin Hart's Bernie and Regina Hall's Joan). It's clear that About last night, based on David Mamet's 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, fares best in its briskly-paced first half, as filmmaker Steve Pink, working from a script by Leslye Headland, offers up a fairly conventional relationship drama that's heightened by the affable efforts of its two leads - with the natural chemistry between Ealy and Bryant certainly going a long way towards perpetuating the film's watchable vibe. (Hart and Hall, on the other hand, deliver grating performances pitched to the rafters.) There's little doubt, however, that the movie begins to demonstrably run out of steam as it progresses into its repetitive midsection, with the bulk of this stretch devoted primarily to the central couple's arguments and subsequent reconciliations (ie a pattern quickly emerges as Danny and Debbie fight, separate, and inevitably make up). The main problem here is the less-than-convincing nature of Danny and Debbie's squabbles, as their arguments, for the most part, seem dictated by the needs of the plot rather than the characters - which does make it awfully difficult to work up any real sympathy for the protagonists' ongoing struggles. By the time the almost interminable final stretch rolls around, About last night has established itself as just about half of a decent movie - with what remains unable to make anything resembling a positive impact.
That Burning Feeling (April 22/14)
That Burning Feeling follows Paulo Costanzo's Adam Murphy as he's forced to reevaluate his philandering ways after contracting a sexually-transmitted disease, with the movie detailing the character's subsequent lifestyle changes and eventual relationship with Ingrid Haas' sweet Liv Ericksson. Director Jason James has infused That Burning Feeling with a painfully broad sensibility that sets the viewer on edge right from the get-go, as the filmmaker, working from Nick Citton's screenplay, suffuses the proceedings with uncomfortably broad instances of humor that prevent one from embracing either the storyline or the protagonist. The pervasively unfunny atmosphere is especially problematic in terms of the supporting characters, with, for example, Citton offering up an almost infuriatingly off-the-wall neighbor (Tyler Labine's Frank) that's emblematic of the film's misguided modus operandi. And although the romantic subplot between Adam and Liv is decent, That Burning Feeling's central plot, which revolves around the main character's efforts at apologizing to his former conquests and helping them with their lives, is so uninvolving and so unconvincing that it becomes impossible to care about Adam's continuing exploits. The final straw arrives in the form of an egregiously padded-out (and thoroughly tedious) third act detailing Adam's alienation of everyone around him (and his inevitable efforts at making amends), with the decidedly underwhelming nature of this stretch dulling the impact of the upbeat conclusion and confirming That Burning Feeling's place as a pointless and often interminable misfire.
Transcendence (April 23/14)
The directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence follows scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) as he manages to transfer his consciousness into a powerful mainframe - with the character's efforts at exploiting his newfound powers consistently stymied by the efforts of a group of anti-technology activists. There eventually reaches a point at which Transcendence becomes a tedious slog, to be sure, and yet the movie is, for much of its first half, an engaging drama that boasts a number of compelling sequences and performances - with the movie's deliberate pace proving an ideal complement to Jack Paglen's talk-heavy and idea-laden screenplay. Paglen's refusal to take a stand on the movie's concepts, in either direction, ultimately triggers Transcendence's downfall, however, and the film subsequently suffers from a lack of thrills or tension that wreaks havoc on its momentum - with the narrative's third-act big developments unable to make the impact that Paglen and Pfister have surely intended (ie the whole thing just becomes lifeless past a certain point). It doesn't help, either, that Paglen packs the proceedings with a number of half-baked and thoroughly underwhelming subplots, with, for example, the continuing emphasis on computer-Caster's relationship with his wife (Rebecca Hall's Evelyn) striking all the wrong notes and perpetuating the movie's anti-climactic atmosphere. The meandering, ineffective vibe dulls the impact of both the action-packed third act and the big twist that closes the film, which ultimately cements Transcendence's place as a misguided failure that hardly bodes well for Pfister's directorial career.
Brick Mansions (April 23/14)
A remake of 2004's District B13, Brick Mansions follows Paul Walker's Damien, a Detriot-based undercover cop, as he makes his way into a dangerous, walled-off city and teams up with an ex-con (David Belle's Lino) to bring down RZA's notorious crime lord. Filmmaker Camille Delamarre has, for the most part, infused Brick Mansions with exactly the sort of underwhelming, formless style that one now associates with the action genre, with Delamarre's rapid-fire editing and jittery camerawork transforming the movie's myriad of chase and fight sequences into an incoherent jumble of random images. The subpar visuals dull the impact of scenes that should, by any stretch of the imagination, be exciting and thrilling - eg the opening Parkour-fueled pursuit - and yet Delamarre's hyper-kinetic sensibilities prevent the viewer from working up any enthusiasm for or interest in the film's high-octane moments. (There admittedly is, having said that, a car chase that isn't completely horrible.) It's not surprising to note, then, that Brick Mansions possesses a palpably generic vibe that's reflected in its various attributes, with the almost total absence of momentum ensuring that the movie fares especially poorly in its uneventful, underwhelming midsection. Walker's by-the-numbers performance only perpetuates the film's monotonous atmosphere, while the utterly uninvolving finale ensures that Brick Mansions ends on as anticlimactic note as one could possibly envision - with the filmmakers' subsequent efforts at injecting the proceedings with a note of social commentary falling completely and hopelessly flat. The end result is a typically misguided modern actioner that's a far cry from its French-language predecessor, which is a shame, really, given the potential of the premise and the cast.
300: Rise of an Empire (April 24/14)
Though it's ultimately not successful, 300: Rise of an Empire generally fares just a little bit better than its Zack Snyder-directed predecessor - as the movie boasts a handful of decent action sequences and less of an emphasis on dull political intrigue. The storyline, which is set before, during, and after the events of the original film, generally offers up more of the same and is often excessively complicated for no apparent reason, while the pervasively artificial atmosphere ensures that attempts at character development, for the most part, fall entirely flat. This is especially true of Sullivan Stapleton's one-dimensional turn as the film's protagonist, Themistocles; though he's actually not bad in the role, Stapleton is simply unable to transform his character into anything more than a pale imitation of Gerard Butler's King Leonidas from 300. (Eva Green, on the other hand, gleefully chews the scenery as the film's antagonist.) It's ultimately clear that 300: Rise of an Empire is a handful of entertaining fight and battle sequences in search of a compelling narrative, with even the most effective of these moments - eg an epic set piece in which boats are attacked and boarded - diminished by the omnipresent sheen of computer-generated effects that's been hard-wired to every single aspect of the proceedings. And while one can easily envision fans of 2006's 300 getting quite a kick out of all this, 300: Rise of an Empire seems unlikely to convert those viewers who remain baffled by this sort of empty, spectacle-based filmmaking.