A full gauntlet of films is available for your extended Fourth of July celebrations. They’re diverse, with comedy, action, and thought-provoking power intertwined, thanks to turns by old favorites (Will Ferrell, Denzel Washington, Ben Stiller) and new ones (Jack O’Connell, Jeremy Irvine, Abigail Breslin). There’s a little something for everyone here.
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart couldn’t be more different, or more funny, so pairing them together seemed to be the twenty-first century version of Laurel & Hardy, or Penn & Teller. But this mismatched comical duo isn’t so much funny… as insightful. The truth is that while you’d come expecting the laughs, what you get is a reasonably spot-on exploration about how race continues to be misunderstood and divisive in our country today.
When rich hedge funds manager James King (Ferrell) is accused of blatant fund mismanagement, thanks to his father-in-law/boss (Craig Nelson), he has thirty days to get his life in order. But King figures that there’s no use proving his innocence: he might as well spend the time learning how to adapt to prison life. So, he goes to the only black man he knows, the owner of the car wash, Darnell Lewis (Hart), and asks him how to get ready for prison life, assuming that Lewis is well-schooled in life behind bars.
All of this seems like it could be funny, but it ends up squarely on the nose. King’s outward and innate racism speaks to the problems we can see today in the violence throughout our country, and the disregard for human life. Sure, you can laugh at King and Lewis clowning around (outtakes, anyone?) but ultimately, Get Hard points us toward real problems that our country is facing today. rainy day it
While We’re Young
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are an average, middle-aged couple with a free-living lifestyle, in part thanks to their inability to have a child. When their longtime friends have a baby, it forces them to consider what their purpose is and how happy they are because “everyone” is having children except for them. Then they meet a twenty-somethings couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who treat them like they’re still cool, and suddenly, they’re trying to adapt to a world that they thought had passed them by.
Again, like Get Hard, this one didn’t make me laugh out loud… but it did make me think about the way that we value (or don’t value) people. We assume that people should fit into a box (college age, marriage worthy, parenthood, retirement, etc.) and folks outside of that fit don’t make much sense to us. Ultimately, the couples converge in a series of events that demand they explore their own trust level with their spouse; typical rom-com ideas take control for a bit, but it’s no less intriguing given what they have built up here so far. For couples, and those experiencing a midlife crisis, this one almost felt like therapy! borrow it/buy it
We have a fascination with the tale of 47 ronin – the knights of a master who vow to avenge his death, Japanese samurai-style. We’ve seen it in different variations (Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai, Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin), and Hollywood keeps pumping out more iterations on the theme. This one seemed to be a no-brainer: it stars Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen, but sadly, this is no King Arthur.
Stylistically, the filming, costumes, and backdrop provide the necessary nuances, and those two stars can act their way out of a paper bag. But the overall pacing and delivery of the plot are way too slow to keep us properly engaged, or entertained. Once you’ve seen the tale of the ronin, you need some way to re-up it and make it more emotionally powerful or provide a different angle. Sadly, Last Knights never breaks any new ground. burn it
The least-heralded of the next two weeks’ offerings, ’71 might be your favorite film of this batch. While you might need a history lesson in what was going on in the drab streets of Belfast, it’s abundantly clear that Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell knows how to play a soldier. He’s a newly-minted British soldier in the British Army who leaves his younger brother behind, and ventures out into the life of a peacekeeper/maker. Like Noble, it paints a grim picture of the way that people are separated by religion, politics, and social underpinnings, while also sharing the view of one soldier’s experience behind enemy lines.
If Lone Survivor and Noble had a cinematic baby, it might be ’71. Powerful and compelling, the film thrills as an action flick, while also showing us what it takes to survive in the middle of a war: it takes community. Rather than painting the Catholics or the Protestants as evil in broad strokes, Yann Demage’s directorial debut strives to keep the facts straight while also forcing us to sit, cringing, on the edge of our seats. Like other ‘non-traditional’ war movies (Unbroken, To End All Wars, Zero Dark Thirty), it doesn’t show us a celebratory side of war, but rather, one that might cost us our humanity. It’s a tour de force kind of film, and one I could see watching again. buy it
Potentially an even bigger surprise than ’71, Maggie proves that Arnold Schwarzenegger can act. In a film that shows a more sensitive side of our favorite Terminator, Arnold’s father figure, Wade Vogel, pursues his recently-infected daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), and brings her back to his home. One would consider that to be par for the course, a father loving his daughter enough to take care of her, but the fact that Maggie is infected with a zombie virus takes the film to a whole new level.
We have been over-zombified of late, have we not? The power of The Walking Dead in all its glory has done for the horror genre what nothing short of Twilight did for vampire flicks. Somehow, even though you might say that the wave has peaked and broken for those zombie films, Maggie shows up with something fresh and powerful to make us consider a father’s love.
I would be remiss to say that this film could be a “Parable of the Prodigal Son” remix, the zombie version. How far would a father, God or human, go to save his child? What would he be willing to overlook, to accept, to wrap his arms around? It’s a powerful story, and one that bears our consideration – do we extend grace the way we should? buy it
What a blast from the past! Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as young men, thanks to virtual reality. No, wait, they’re young because this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Virtuosity, a film that hit twenty-five million dollars on a thirty million dollar budget. Is it the best film either of these men have done? No. (It can’t top Cinderella Man or Remember the Titans). But it can certainly provide you with a few hours of entertainment.
Parker Barnes (Washington) is serving time for killing the murderer of his wife and child, but he’s deemed to be the only one who can catch a virtual reality killer who finds his way into the real world, SID (Crowe). Matched up with a profiler, Dr. Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch), the former police lieutenant sets out to track and trap SID. William Forsythe, William Fitchner, Kaley Cuoco, Traci Lords, and Michael Buffer add some spice to the casting process, and show off a film that combines special effects with some of the best of this generation’s actors.
Revenge is on Barnes’ mind, but the audience will be most tickled by the way the reality and virtual reality battle each other. What is real, and what isn’t? In a world that’s even more cyber than it was twenty years ago, this film has plenty to say about what truly makes us moral, or even human. borrow it
Beyond the Reach
Michael Douglas doesn’t make the needle of popular opinion jump the way he once did. But he still has some acting chops given the right script (The Game is still my favorite). Beyond the Reach is just right enough to make the process work correctly, and Jeremy Irvine is game to be the counterpoint to Douglas’ sleaziness.
John Madec (Douglas), a cutthroat businessman, ‘rents’ hunting guide Ben (Irvine), even though it’s out of season and he shouldn’t be hunting in the Mojave Desert. But when Madec causes mortal harm, he snaps, transitioning Ben from guide into hunted. It’s like The Most Dangerous Game played out in stark one-on-one, cat-and-mouse ways, with the lines between the two crossing back and forth throughout the film.
I was surprisingly entertained (I saw the trailer and figured I’d give it a shot), and figure you will be, too. Is it abundantly deep? No. But it’s a few hours worth of the dangerous Douglas charm. rent it