Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= It's Simply the Best
4 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Totally Sucks
Just Reviewed Get Hard-March 27th
Just Reviewed Insurgent-March 20th
Just Reviewed Cinderella and Run All Night-March 13th
Just Reviewed Chappie and Unfinished Business-March 5th
Just Reviewed Focus-February 27th
It's a hard knock life ***
“Get Hard” is about as hit and miss as comedies get. Some jokes hit it out of the park where others crash and burn. This isn’t a movie people are going to be revisiting and quoting years from now. Actually, it’ll likely be completely forgotten over time. For a few sidesplitting scenes and two well-matched leads, though, it doesn’t deserve to be entirely overlooked. Assuming you’re in the mood for a comedy like this and have 100 minutes to spare, “Get Hard” is an enjoyably stupid waste of time. How’s that for a recommendation?
Will Ferrell is James King, who, like every character Ferrell plays, has everything going for him. He’s a millionaire, just became a partner at work, and is engaged to a smokin’ hot, yet despicable, woman played by Alison Brie. James’ world is turned upside-down when he’s framed for tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison. Desperate to survive in the big house, he turns to Darnell Lewis, an African American car-washer played by Kevin Hart. While James believes otherwise, Darnell has never been to the slammer. Since the businessman is offering 30 grand for tutoring, though, Darnell decides to play along.
Beyond that, there isn’t any plot whatsoever. The setup is just an excuse for Ferrell and Hart to engage in a series of outrageous scenarios and exchanges that don’t exactly play into a grander story. It’s all filler, but a fair deal of “Get Hard” will have you laughing out loud. The best bits include Ferrell mastering the art of hiding a shiv, a fake riot with all too real repercussions, and a lesson in oral sex. Some scenes aren’t as funny as they could be, like Ferrell trying to blend in with a ghetto gang. Other scenes aren’t funny at all, such as when the guys have a run-in with white supremacists. Although it’s often given the opportunity to be more, “Get Hard” doesn’t say anything new about race relations or incarceration.
Nevertheless, Ferrell and Hart are terrific together through the good times and the bad. Ferrell has such a natural gift for comedy that he can make horrible material mediocre and mediocre material passable. He has undeniable chemistry with Hart, who’s yet to star in a great buddy comedy. Regardless, “Get Hard” is a notable step up from “Ride Along” or “The Wedding Ringer.” Ferrell and Hart give it their all here and, in a testament to their talents, those efforts pay off. The two are kind of like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” if that movie had a lot more needless rape gags.
If you require your comedies to have a little more substance and wit, stay home and rent an old classic from Woody Allen or a new classic from Wes Anderson. Oh, and of course “Trading Places” is always a safe bet. For the modest smiles “Get Hard” will provide, however, it’s just barely worth your ten dollars. See it, have a few laughs, and immediately move on to something else…assuming they don’t try to make a sequel. We really don’t need any more time added to this sentence.
Be an original...or at least be like The Maze Runner **1/2
It’s ironic that “Divergent” encouraged its viewers to stand out from the crowd when the film was so clearly trying to be like “The Hunger Games.” For what it was, “Divergent” at least had some striking visuals and a likable central character. “Insurgent” is another good-looking, well-acted entry to the series. The problem is that this sequel doesn’t just feel like more or less of what we already got in “Hunger Games.” It feels like a retread of the previous “Divergent” picture too.
Shailene Woodley is back as Tris Prior, a Divergent who’s been singled out in a society separated into five factions that only diehard fans of Veronica Roth’s novels can remember by name. She’s still on the run with her much older boyfriend Four, played by Theo James. They find an ally in Four’s estranged mother (Naomi Watts), who wants to start a rebellion against the corrupt Erudite faction. Oh yeah, because we don’t have nearly enough young adult adaptations about teenagers fighting the big, bad government. What the rebels don’t know is that Jeanine, the Erudite leader once again portrayed by Kate Winslet, has come into possession of a mysterious box that can only be opened by a pure Divergent. Gee, wonder who that could be?
Woodley is one of our most promising up-and-coming actresses and one of the few people on the planet who can pull off a pixie cut. Although she’s not given an extraordinary character to work with on paper, Woodley does bring a great deal sympathy, depth, and strength to the role. Her chemistry with James still isn’t anything breathtaking, but we fortunately don’t have to sit through any love triangles or will they/won’t they tension. The supporting cast additionally does fine work with Miles Teller as Tris’ rival Peter, who keeps switching sides, and Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother Caleb, who also keeps switching sides. Sadly, they’re all stuck in a meandering story.
Most of “Insurgent” simply comes off as filler until next time. The same could be said about “Mockingjay – Part 1,” but the filler in that film did make leeway for some strong character development and political commentary. Here, you’re constantly waiting for the plot to take off when matters just keep going back and forth. There are so many pointless scenes, most of which come in the form of dream sequences that give the climax of “Breaking Dawn – Part Two” a run for its money. Even the virtual reality action set pieces, while exquisitely rendered, can get old rather quickly. At nearly two hours long, “Insurgent” easily could have been cut down to forty-five minutes.
It’d almost be worth sitting through the more redundant parts if the ending were full of shocking revelations. Without giving too much away, though, the big reveal is no different from the endgame twist we got in “Maze Runner.” Exactly how many other books can this franchise rip-off? Nevertheless, the film’s conclusion does leave things open for some potentially intriguing further adventures. Seeing how the narrative is already starting to feel dragged out, however, it’s hard to get especially excited about the next two chapters. If this series really wants to stand out from the crowd, maybe it should just produce one more sequel and bring back traditional movie trilogies.
Lady Rose and Robb Stark, together at last ****
Chances are you either love or hate last year’s “Maleficent” and Tim Burton’s 2010 remake of “Alice in Wonderland.” Personally, I’m split on them. Both films have some dazzling visuals, standout performances, and inspired ideas. Compared to their animated predecessors and even as standalone films, though, neither fully materializes on a storytelling level. Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” is the first live-action Disney remake to get things right, staying true to the original classic while offering something new too.
For the most part, this is the same Cinderella story that’s been passed down for generations. Girl loses parents, girl gains evil stepmother, girl meets prince, girl gets glass slippers, girl loses prince, girl loses glass slipper, girl and prince find each other again, and they live happily ever after. Since this is such a familiar narrative, there really wasn’t any need for Disney to make another version. Watching Branagh’s “Cinderella,” however, you occasionally feel like you’re hearing this fairytale for the first time.
Just as Branagh made the best looking interpretation of “Hamlet” ever put on film, he’s done the same for “Cinderella.” Everything from the colorful costumes to the stunning sets pop out at the audience, immersing us in a truly magical storybook world. What’s more, Branagh does a wonderful job at staging every scene, whether it’s an extravagant ball with hundreds of extras or a more intimate conversation between two people in a small room. This is such a visually grand piece that you must see it on the big screen.
As great as the presentation is, the beauty of Branagh’s picture is far from skin-deep. Cate Blanchett gives a pitch perfect performance as Lady Tremaine aka Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Often hiding her malevolence behind a cunning grin, Blanchett manages to be so cruel and calculating with the tiniest of actions. She’s a villain we love to hate, but Chris Weitz’s screenplay gives her a little more depth than you might expect. While Tremaine never becomes an entirely sympathetic character, Blanchett does have a dynamite scene in the final act that offers a glimpse of why this woman is such a miserable witch.
We additionally get some fine work from Derek Jacobi as the King, Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger as the ugly stepsisters, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. Yet, the movie appropriately belongs to Lily James’ Cinderella. James shines as the iconic princess who’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, firmly believing that courage and kindness are the essential components of life.
Many have debated in recent years whether Cinderella encourages a negative moral seeing how she basically just sits around and waits for her prince to come. Nevertheless, the best portrayals of Cinderella understand that there’s more to this character than a sheltered little girl. While not as modern as a princess like Elsa, Cinderella is hardworking, compassionate towards others, and remains strong even during the darkest of times. As Cinderella, Lily James encompasses the very best of humanity and everything that’s right with the world. How could anybody like that not be a good role model?
Of course we also get a touch of romance between Cinderella and Prince Charming, played by Richard Madden from “Game of Thrones.” Once again, they meet and almost immediately fall in love. Given the incredibly chemistry between these actors, good pacing, and some nicely written dialog, though, you really believe their instantaneous connection. That’s more than can be said about the lovers in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
If you’re going to introduce your child to the story of Cinderella, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated masterpiece is still the best. The fact that this “Cinderella” earns a worthy comparison is still an achievement, however. In Branagh’s hands, this remains a delightful, exciting, and timeless story that will never get old. Walking out of the theater, you’ll not only feel more hopeful, but inspired to spread goodwill everywhere you go next.
Run, Liam, Run! ***
Virtually everyone had the same exact thought when the trailer for “Run All Night” hit: “Isn’t this the same exact movie Liam Neeson’s been making for the past seven years?” The short answer is basically yes. Jaume Collet-Serra previously directed the serious actor turned action hero in “Unknown,” which came close to being decent, and “Non-Stop,” which was decent enough to check out. “Run All Night” falls somewhere in the middle of those two flicks, putting it just on the fence. Whether or not you enjoy the film will come down to how much you enjoy seeing Neeson shoot up bad guys, grumble his lines, and run for his life.
Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a veteran hitman who’s spent a majority of his life at the bottom of a bottle. He works for Ed Harris’ Shawn Maguire, a mobster that wants to go legit. This becomes progressively difficult when Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) gets on the bad side of a powerful drug lord. Danny kills the rival gangster, but Jimmy’s estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), catches him in the act. To protect Mike, Jimmy is forced to kill Danny. Now Shawn is hell-bent on spilling Jimmy and Mike’s blood, even if it takes all night.
While Neeson can essentially do this role in his sleep, “Run All Night” mainly works because he was a proper supporting cast to work off of. The father/son animosity between Jimmy and Mike has been done in numerous other films like “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Mike wants nothing to do with his deadbeat dad, constantly calling him by his first name. By the film’s conclusion, though, how much do you want to bet Mike will come to recognize Jimmy as a father again? Yet, the actors still do a solid job at conveying a complex and convincing relationship with strong chemistry.
Harris is equally effective as a brokenhearted father who’s blinded by vengeance, but empathizes with Jimmy’s need to protect his boy. We also get some good work from Vincent D'Onofrio as the only honest cop in New York and Common steals the show as a hitman that always gets the job done. A few characters are almost randomly thrown in the mix, however, most notably a very haggard Nick Nolte as Jimmy’s brother. Other characters are just there to move the plot along, like Aubrey Joseph as a street kid who pops up when it’s most convenient.
The action sequences are fun for the most part, although sometimes evoke déjà vu. How many other action set pieces have taken place in burning buildings and rail yards? As for the story going on between all those chases and shootouts, you know what’s going to happen. Even if you’ve never seen a movie like this before, the obvious foreshadowing sets everything up like bowling pins. To buy into the plot, you really need to overlook some unbelievable coincidences that are farfetched even by thriller standards.
For all of its faults, though, there is a passable movie here about the bond between fathers, sons, and family. If you’re officially Neesoned out and want to see him go back to making more ambitious pictures, you can skip this one. If you’re on board for a little more Neeson action, “Run All Night” will satisfy with competent performances, direction, and action. Plus, at the very least, it is better than either of the “Taken” sequels.
Nick talks with Sam Jaeger of “American Sniper” about his new short film, “Plain Clothes,” a gripping account of a police officer diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
Nick Spake: What initially got you interested in making “Plain Clothes?”
Sam Jaeger: It derived from conversations I had with police officers. When we’d talk about PTSD, we’d also talk about the military. A lot of police officers struggle here with those same issues. In many ways it’s an even more complex issue police have. An officer goes to work, comes home, and pretends what he saw all day doesn’t affect him at all.
NS: There are some similarities between your character, Cole, and Bradley Cooper's character in "American Sniper." Did working on that film inspire this film at all?
SJ: Actually, not at all. I shot my film a year before I even auditioned for “American Sniper.” It was kind of kismet we were on the same wavelength. There are certainly a lot of parallels.
NS: You based much of the dialog on conversations with actual police officers. How many different people did you talk to?
SJ: There are three or four different officers that I’ve had extensive conversations with. Two have responded since we made the movie. We’ve had some police departments call and ask if they can use our video for training. Although it’s no indicative of all officers and what they’re going through, it’s certainly something officers need to be mindful of.
NS: Were there any conversations or stories you considered working into the movie, but didn't?
SJ: Oh yeah. I actually kept some of the more harrowing stuff out of the conversation. I didn’t feel like going to those lengths in order to be graphic, but I did want to kind of hint at those really visceral moments.
NS: Do you personally know a lot of people on the police force?
SJ: Of course. There’s a history of service in my family. There are people who are pulled into that line of work and feel the need to protect humanity, similar to Chris Kyle. So that was something that I’m close too.
NS: Is it difficult directing yourself in a movie?
SJ: No, because it’s one less person to yell at.
NS: Do you prefer acting, writing, or directing most?
SJ: I know it sounds trite, but I really don’t have a preference. They all challenge me in different ways. For me, writing is the purest because it’s something I can do on my own and feel accomplished. I can’t do that with acting or directing. They’re all part of filmmaking and that’s something I’m very fortunate to be apart of.
NS: Is there anything you'd like to say to people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder?
SJ: The more we talk about it, the less alienating it is. My film is meant to be a conversation piece. Communication is a powerful lifeline for officers. Hopefully this film can be an extension of that.
NS: What do you think is the benefit of making a short film as apposed to a feature film?
SJ: Sometimes it feels good to just get out there and be part of our film community. Gather everybody up for something as ridiculous as trying to make a movie. Short films allow that.
NS: Would you ever be interested in expanding upon this premise with a feature film?
SJ: We’ve talked about it and people have come to us about it. I think there’s definitely a larger story here. If it’s not a feature perhaps it’s a show.
NS: Can you explain the meaning behind the films title?
SJ: Good question. I think there’s something about the term, “Plain Clothes,” that seems strange in itself to me. I think there’s something to the nature of an officer who is in plain clothes. It doesn’t matter if an officer has their uniform on or not. He’s always on. That’s what our film is grappling with. How do you turn off that switch? How do you let down your guard? Should you let down your guard? How are officers able to be vulnerable when they’re around their family?
NS: What's next for you?
SJ: I’m doing a show for universal with Danny Pudi from “Community.” I wrote a bizarre show about two imbeciles working in a missile silo. We’re actually trying to decide on a home right now.
And Now My Review
Sam Jaeger previously played a Navy Seal that fought alongside Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle in “American Sniper,” a film that tackled the brutal repercussions war has on the faith, sanity, and family life of soldiers. “Plain Clothes,” a new short Jaeger directed, co-wrote, and starred in, is another deep exploration of an American trying to balance serving his country and maintaining a happy household. Instead of fighting in the Iraq War, though, Jaeger’s character fights the war on crime.
The character actor plays Cole, a police officer haunted by the day-to-day atrocities he sees on the job. In the film’s opening, Cole explains to his physiatrist that he’s essentially torn between two worlds. He’s unable to face his wife after each work shift without driving around the neighborhood block for half an hour. Going back to “American Sniper,” Cole suffers from many of the same anxieties as Bradley Cooper’s character, who also “needed a minute” before returning home.
This is a man that’s just on the brink of losing it, constantly asking himself deep philosophical questions concerning good verses evil, freewill, and God’s existence. Cole’s worlds collide when he encounters a potential suspect exiting a grocery store. Without giving too much away, Cole is eventually left with an imperative choice that will either push him over the line or bring him back to the light. He makes his life altering decision through one of the most powerful film edits of recent memory, leaving the audience gasping for air.
Jaeger fires on all cylinders here, carrying his film with a strong central performance, a sharp eye for direction, and thought-provoking dialog, much of which was inspired by actual conversations with overwrought law enforcers. “Plain Clothes” is a passionate piece about the toll posttraumatic stress disorder has on those trying to make the world a safer place for the rest of us to live in. It’s furthermore something of a perfect companion to “American Sniper,” both of which remind us that we owe these men and women more than just our gratitude.
Chappie Five is alive **
While “District 9” was indeed a good film, it’s possible that we might have overhyped it back in 2009. The story of a man who suddenly finds himself siding with “savages” in an oppressive society had been done countless times before. It’d even be done again a couple months later when “Avatar” came out. Nevertheless, Director/Co-Writer Neill Blomkamp did distinguish the familiar story with empathetic characters and a strong atmosphere. “Chappie” doesn’t necessarily have a revolutionary narrative either, but unlike “District 9,” the characters here are all cheap cutouts and atmospherically it feels like backwash from Blomkamp’s previous efforts.
It’s a high-tech future where robots have replaced humans as law enforcement, but video game consoles still haven’t evolved beyond the Play Station 4. Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, the creator of these police droids who believes he can make a robot capable of freewill. Deon’s boss, played by Sigourney Weaver in a wasted performance, isn’t exactly sold on his proposal. Nevertheless, he goes through with the experiment anyway and breathes life into a robot named Chappie, voiced by Sharlto Copley. Innocent Chappie is exposed to a harsh life of crime, however, when he imprints on three criminals looking to pull off a heist.
Every person in this movie can pretty much be summed up based on their initial appearances. Contrasting Patel’s wide-eyed, peaceful scientist, Hugh Jackman plays a gung-ho, ultraconservative inventor who wants to line the streets with his giant battle mechs that look like the ED-209 from “RoboCop.” If that villain isn’t clichéd enough for you, we also get South African rapper Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja, as a cartoonish gang leader who wants to use Chappie as a weapon. Then there’s Brandon Auret as a crime lord with such poor English-speaking skills that his lines need to be accompanied by subtitles. So why didn’t the filmmakers just have him speak in his native tongue?
There are only two performers that manage to overcome their poorly written parts. One of them is Yo-Landi Visser as a gang member who develops a motherly attachment to Chappie. Granted, her parental instinct does come out of nowhere and is kind of hard to buy. Her scenes with the robot are quite sweet, regardless. The other standout is Copley, who supplies Chappie himself with a delightful childlike charm. Still, the character honestly isn’t any different from Johnny Five, the Iron Giant, or Data from “Star Trek,” not to mention E.T. We get it. Robots are people too…sort of.
Blomkamp’s greatest error with “Chappie” is that the tone is all over the place. We immediately go from one scene involving Chappie comically talking like a street thug to a brutal scene in which the poor robot is senselessly tortured. The film doesn’t arrive to an original idea until the final five minutes, which does bring matters together in a clever fashion. By then, though, it’s too little too late. Blomkamp definitely has the potential to make another solid picture like “District 9.” Between this and the just okay “Elysium,” however, he needs to go back to the drawing board.
Is Vince Vaughn's comedy career finished? **
Ten years ago, Vince Vaughn peaked as a comedic actor with “Wedding Crashers,” subsequent to several other memorable roles in “Swingers,” “Old School,” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” Then he made “Fred Claus,” “Four Christmases,” “Couples Retreat,” “The Watch,” “The Dilemma,” “The Internship,” and “Delivery Man.” Did I miss any other stinkers? Oh well, you get the point. What happened to Vaughn? Is he incapable of saying no to a script or is he just not as funny as we built him up as?
Vaughn can still salvage his comedy career with a well-written role in a smart movie. Ken Scott’s “Unfinished Business” isn’t that movie. Just get a load of the character Vaughn’s saddled with playing. He’s Dan Trunkman, a workaholic who doesn’t get to spend as much time as he’d like with his family. Oh yeah, because we haven’t seen that archetype in a million other comedies! After quitting his job, Dan sets out to start his own business. The only employees he manages to attract are an elderly worker named Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson) and a smiling idiot named Mike Pancake (Dave Franco). Hopefully you find Mike’s last name hilarious because it provides the basis of several jokes.
Walking out of this movie, you likely won’t remember exactly what line of business these businessmen are supposed to be in. Maybe they’re just like President Business from “The LEGO Movie.” Their occupation is really just an excuse to send them on a business trip to Europe. Oh yeah, because we haven’t seen a million other comedies set in Europe!! It’d be one thing if this premise amounted to a lot of hilarious exploits, but most of the gags just meander with nowhere to go. The setups are there, such as when Dan is put on display at a museum. The filmmakers never deliver with a punch line, though. There are more plugs for Pepsi and Dunkin' Donuts here than there are laughs.
Vaughn is merely going through the motions, probably saving his A-game for the second season of “True Detective.” Wilkinson looks like he’d rather be doing the sequel to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” than this dreck. The only one who brings something fun to the table is Franco, who’s done solid supporting work in recent years and can pull off a dead-on Robert De Niro impression. He scores a few good chuckles as a stuttering fool with a heart of gold. Even he starts to get old after awhile, however, which is the case with most one-dimensionally dimwitted characters.
I’d be one thing if “Unfinished Business” simply wasn’t funny, but the audience is also forced to sit through some shamelessly sentimental scenes involving Dan’s family. Although it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, Steve Conrad’s script incorporates a subplot concerning cyber bullying and the effects it has on kids. While its heart is in the right place, this material feels tacked on, manipulative, and uneven with some of the film’s raunchier moments. A comedy can be heartfelt and raunchy. “Unfinished Business” isn’t either in any of the right ways, though.
Will Smith regains his focus ***1/2
“Focus” is a slick con flick that’s occasionally reminiscent of David Mamet’s tragically overlooked “House of Games.” It’s not as smart as that 1987 buried treasure. It is, however, about as much fun as the best films in the “Ocean’s” trilogy. That’s not at all a bad class to be among. Above all else, “Focus” understands exactly what a good con movie should be: Thrilling, witty, and constantly keeping the audience on their toes.
Let’s just forget Will Smith was ever in “After Earth” and “Winter’s Tale.” In “Focus,” he’s back on track as Nicky Spurgeon, a conman who’s been in the game since he was a street rat. As an experienced scam artist, Nicky can see right through Margot Robbie’s Jess Barrett, a smalltime crook that tries to pull one over on him. Nicky believes that Jess has the makings of a first-rate hustler, nevertheless. As he shows her the tricks of the trade, the two get a little too close for Nicky’s taste. After going their separate ways, the loner Nicky plans to swindle a billionaire named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). The sting gets complicated, however, when Jess reenters the picture.
From Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde” to Christian Bale and Amy Adams in “American Hustle,” movies like this all depend on the chemistry between the leads. Luckily for “Focus,” it’s two stars light up the screen every second they’re together. Cool, charming, and charismatic, Smith couldn’t be more perfectly cast as Nicky. Robbie, who previously shined as Jordan Belfort’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” brings a lot of humor, elegance, and lovability to her femme fatale. “Focus” also manages to work in a few standout supporting performances, most notably Gerald McRaney as a senior henchman who just might be the smartest man in the room.
All of the actors, as well as the screenplay, do a wonderful job at keeping the audience guessing what’s a con and who’s scheming who. The film is full of exciting moments that build rising tension, ultimately delivering with an unexpected payoff. Granted, some of the twists are a little too convenient to fully buy into. This is one of those movies where it’s best not to call out the filmmakers’ bluff and just go along for the ride, though. On that basis, “Focus” is thoroughly entertaining throughout. It also at least makes more sense than “Now You See Me.”
The writing/directing duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa share a résumé that ranges from children’s animated programs like “The Angry Beavers,” to dark comedies like “Bad Santa,” to romcoms like “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Like a good conman, they can play a variety of different rhythms and adjust well to their surroundings. While this is somewhat new territory for them, they transition to the genre quite nicely with great finesse and of course great focus. They’ve made a film that knows what it wants to be and their vision goes off without a hitch.