Month: January 2017

Tower Heist (2011)

tower-heist

Tower Heist is a satisfying film that performs according to all expectations, never once daring to be more than it is. The heist comedy is typical Brett Ratner – slick, funny, and with only one agenda, to keep you entertained for a full 100 minutes. Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy lead a capable ensemble cast that includes Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, and Michael Peña as members of the misfit crew out to relieve a Bernie Madoff-like swindler, played Alan Alda, of his millions. All are pursued by Téa Leoni’s FBI agent, a woman who wishes these men would just behave themselves.

The story centers around The Tower, an exclusive Manhattan apartment complex managed by Josh Kovaks (Stiller). He’s attuned to his working class roots but maintains a close, respectful relationship with the wealthy residents under his watch. When he sees Arthur Shaw (Alda), an investment advisor, being kidnapped, he gives chase, only to be told by the FBI that Shaw was actually trying to leave the country to evade financial fraud charges. Since Josh suggested that Shaw manage his coworkers’ pension funds, he finds himself in a bit of a situation. His only recourse, naturally, is to break into Shaw’s flat and steal some – lots – of money.

The caper is no small feat and even involves weaving in and out of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but it’s small scale if we’re comparing it to something like Ocean’s Eleven, which made great use of its sprawling and glamorous locale. That the heist is contained mostly within the sterile if upscale walls of the Tower doesn’t mean the movie’s short on action though. Besides the usual overly elaborate safe-cracking attempt, the crew make an audacious go at nicking Shaw’s prized Ferrari, the one he keeps idle in middle of his penthouse. Ratner makes the most of his expensive prop, and these sequences provide short but intense bursts of adrenaline.

The film tries to compensate for its lack of breadth and intricacy of plot with comedy. Peña stands out in almost every film he’s in and again delivers some cheeky humor as a new employee who happily goes along for the ride, because why the hell not. Broderick has some wonderfully deadpan moments as well, playing a bankrupt investor who uses the heist to come to grips with the reality of his situation. Though Stiller manages some good jabs, he also ends up directing traffic and holding the line for Murphy’s manic energy to come through. The latter plays Josh’s old classmate and a seasoned crook, of course, charged with schooling the amateurs on how to commit grand larceny. It’s a bit of a return to old form for the comic but the dynamic between his character and the rest of the gang also seem to be a vestige from the Eighties.

One thing Tower Heist willfully avoids, for better or worse, is an indictment of the criminal banking class. There’s a measure of righteous anger; Josh conceives of his plan after a coworker tries to commit suicide when he finds out his pension has disappeared. But financial fraud, class divisions, and greed merely form the backdrop. These underline the story to be sure but don’t carry that much weight once things are set in motion. Affleck’s character, an expectant father, waffles at one point and has to decide if he wants to keep his job or his friends. The more satisfying motivation, however, is simply to exact revenge on a smug asshole.

Released: 2011
Prod: Brian Grazer, Eddie Murphy, Kim Roth
Dir: Brett Ratner
Writer: Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson
Cast: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

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Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)

alvin-and-the-chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks may not be award-winning entertainment, but it’s a harmless and serviceable family film that kids will enjoy. The chipmunks are cute too. Based off the popular characters who have had at various points starred in their own TV show, hit record, and comic book, these little CGI forest critters find themselves in the middle of live-action Los Angeles after their tree is cut down. They wind up in the home of Dave Seville (Jason Lee), a struggling songwriter with a dead-end day job and a flame for his neighbor and ex, Claire (Cameron Richardson).

Dave’s new living arrangements aren’t ideal to say the least, but he discovers his tiny houseguests can sing and talk and agrees to let them stay. Plus, they’re just kids and he’s not going to throw them out into the street. When Ian (David Cross), a record producer, gets wind of them, he immediately signs them on with plans of turning them into international singing sensations.

Stardom is hard work though, and the trio can’t just eat ice cream and play with chipmunk launchers all day. You could say there’s a warning about childhood fame. Ian manipulates them into thinking Dave doesn’t care and takes advantage of their singing ambitions. Before long, they’re sleeping through recording sessions and losing their voices. Meanwhile, Dave is trying to rescue his chipmunks. After making clear that they share no more than a human/small-talking-pet relationship, he realizes that maybe the little guys are his family after all. Ever the one for cuddly furball interactions, my favorite scene is when tiny, tubby Theodore curls up in Dave’s bed after a nightmare. Makes me long to be an old chipmunk lady instead of an old cat lady.

For better or worse, those saccharine moments don’t pop up too often, and though there’s a warm undertone to the story, the film has a sterile quality overall. The franchise seems like it was remade simply because everything is these days, and the movie makes no effort to try to anything new. It’s satisfied with the novelty of anthropomorphic chipmunks and a loosely compelling plot. It’s enough that Simon, Alvin, and Theodore sing a few current hits and revisit some old ones, get into unexpected trouble only for Dave to bail them out, and generally act adorable with their squeaky voices (Matthew Gray Gubler, Justin Long, and Jesse McCartney). You might as well pop in your old VHS tapes, or more likely find a DVD or visit a streaming site.

Some of the ennui comes from the human characters and actors, who don’t entirely buy into the whole concept. Lee lacks the childlike enthusiasm for the material that someone like Jason Segel had for The Muppets remake. The latter’s wholehearted engagement with his felt puppet costars contributed to the freshness and energy of that movie. This film could use more spirit from Lee and Cross, a lazy phone-in villain, instead of relying on the relentless perkiness of its diminutive stars.

“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by Alvin and the Chipmunks:

Released: 2007
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Tim Hill
Writer: Jon Vitti, Will McRobb, Chris Viscardi
Cast: Jason Lee, David Cross, Cameron Richardson, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney
Time: 92 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

New Year’s Eve (2011)

new-years-eve

I hate to start out the new year on such a cynical note, but New Year’s Eve leaves me no choice. A follow up to director Garry Marshall’s 2010 schlock Valentine’s Day, this inflated ensemble piece wants you to believe that the last day of the year is one of high drama, a time when we confront our hopes and fears so that we can come to some great truth and do right by it. My experience tells me something else, that come December 31, most of us just want to have a good time and get drunk or lounge around and order a pizza.

It’s manufactured sentimentality around a day that has the dumb luck of being the last one on the calendar. Borrowing on the Love Actually formula, the movie hurls a dozen different stories at its audience, hoping that one will stick. That they all connect in the loosest way possible is supposed to make the whole charade seem meaningful. It’s not. Instead, we get a jumbled mess of half-tales, broken bits of story that don’t form any cohesive picture even though all the action circles back to the Times Square ball drop. The emotional highpoint comes during a televised press conference, which tells you a lot about where things are heading.

Hilary Swank plays the woman whose job it is to make Times Square’s famed New Year’s celebrations goes off without a hitch. She’s enlisted monoymous superstar Jensen (sometimes monoymous Bon Jovi) to draw in crowds, but he’s more interested in wooing his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Heigl) than in belting out hits. She confides in her friends (Sofia Vergara and Russell Peters), and it’s funny because they have accents. Meanwhile, Jensen’s backup singer (Lea Michele) is stuck in an elevator with some guy who hates the holidays (Ashton Kutcher), and his bike messenger roommate (Zac Efron) spends the day helping a mousy assistant (Michelle Pfeiffer) complete her resolutions. Roommate’s sister (Sarah Jessica Parker) wants to stay home with her rebellious teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) but may nip out for her standing date with a mystery stranger (Josh Duhamel) from last New Year’s. A few blocks away, a cranky old man (Robert De Niro) refuses to die until he sees the ball drop from the hospital roof. In the maternity ward, two couples (Seth Meyers, Jessica Biel, Til Schweiger, and Sarah Paulson) compete to push out the first baby and win lots of money.

If this seems like nothing more than a hurried summary, you’re not far off the mark; this is about as deep as any of these storylines get. I liked the dynamic between Efron and Pfeiffer’s character, though the story could be tightened – what kind of resolution is “to be amazed” – and obviously lengthened, and I also thought that Halle Berry gave a strong, understated performance as nurse to De Niro’s character. But as I sat through all this traffic, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was atoning for the past year’s sins. The most agonizing part was watching the two soon-to-be parents undermining each other, and their own health, just to claim a big check. It was like they had wandered off the set of an entirely different movie, which is what I recommend everyone watch instead.

Released: 2011
Prod: Samuel J. Brown, Michael Disco, Toby Emmerich
Dir: Garry Marshall
Writer: Katherine Fugate
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer,  Zac Efron, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Alyssa Milano, Common, Jessica Biel, Seth Meyers, Sarah Paulson, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Russell Peters, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Jake T. Austin, Josh Duhamel, Cherry Jones, Hilary Swank, Ludacris, Ryan Seacrest
Time: 117 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017