In the movie world, the month of March is coming in like a Star...and going out the same way! Films set for release this month feature some of Hollywood's biggest names, rare for this early in the year. Headliners include several Oscar winners: Cate Blanchett as the evil stepmother in Disney's live-action "Cinderella" (3/13); Sean Penn and Javier Bardem in the action/thriller "The Gunman" (out 3/20); Mira Sorvino in the Christian-based drama "Do You Believe?"; Al Pacino and Christopher Plummer in the music dramedy "Danny Collins" (Limited - 3/20; and Jennifer Lawrence with "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle" co-star Bradley Cooper in "Serena" (Limited - 3/27).
There will also be plenty of Academy Award nominees on display: Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver in "District 9" director Neil Blomkamp's "Chappie" (3/6); Tom Wilkinson joining Vince Vaughn for some "Unfinished Business" (3/6); Liam Neeson and Ed Harris square-off and are joined by new Oscar winner Common in the thriller "Run All Night" (3/13); and Naomi Watts is in both "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" with Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley and Octavia Spencer (3/20) and Ben Stiller's latest, "While We're Young" (Limited - 3/27).
Plus - "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (3/6) features an all-star cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Richard Gere, David Strathairn, and "Slumdog Millionaire"'s Dev Patel (who's also in "Chappie").
And on March 27th, DreamWorks Animation's only 2015 release (for now) opens. "Home" stars the voices of Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory"), singers Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez, AND Steve Martin. That comedy's competition: Hollywood heavyweights Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart in the highly-anticipated "Get Hard".
In comparison, March 2014's releases (aside from "Divergent") hardly featured any big stars and the result was a disappointing box office. Expect this year's crop to make up for that.
Will Smith hasn't starred in a movie since 2013's sci-fi disaster "After Earth", a Smith family affair that also involved son Jaden as co-star and wife Jada as co-producer. Oh, and M. Night Shyamalan was the director. And...it laid an egg.
If Smith believed, after reading the script for "Focus", that this could be his big comeback film, then he needs to get his eyes checked. While it's not on the level of "bomb" (or "After Earth") as I was fearing, "Focus" is completely underwhelming, with an average plot that is rarely unpredictable, a big problem for a film about con artists.
Smith plays con king Nicky. One night in NYC he unexpectedly meets Jess, a low-level con (played by "The Wolf of Wall Street"'s Margot Robbie). Jess tells Nicky that she wants to become as big and successful in the con business as he is, and that she'll do anything to become his apprentice. This includes becoming his partner in crime (and in bed) in New Orleans, during the week of a fictitious professional football league championship game (clearly the NFL wanted nothing to do with this production).
In one of the few standout scenes, Nicky, who's also a compulsive gambler (or is that just part of the act?) takes things a little too far with a high-roller in his luxury box in the stadium, all the while slowly reeling Jess, and us, in. More suspense comes from this nearly 10-minute sequence than in all of Mark Wahlberg's remake of "The Gambler". Unfortunately, there are interesting twists and turns that are necessary in con/caper films to keep you guessing and playing along.
After Nicky and Jess' relationship takes an interesting turn, they reunite in Buenos Aires for more misadventures that take up the entire second half of "Focus", which is much slower than the first. This section is less about the cons and crimes, and more about the romantic ups and down of the Smith and Robbie characters. For only a few brief moments did I believe these two could be a real couple. There's hardly any chemistry between the actors.
But at least they're now comfortably acquainted with each other, as they're teaming-up again for next year's "Suicide Squad". It's an appropriate title, since that's where it appears Smith's career is headed. However, that film and this December's NFL drama "Concussion", could get the former #1 Box Office draw back onto Hollywood's A-List. In the meantime, "Focus" only serves to make the prospects of a successful comeback even more unclear.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Focus" gets a C.
"McFarland, USA" is the latest "Based on a True Story" sports drama from the studio king of the genre, Disney. This time, the Mouse House employees had to go all the way back to 1987 to find their latest inspirational, underdog story. And, after using baseball, football, basketball, hockey, horse racing, golf, bobsledding, and even cricket with last year's "Million Dollar Arm", I do give Disney credit for daring to greenlight a script about one of the least popular sports: High School cross country running.
Does "McFarland, USA" follow the traditional, predictable Disney sports movie formula? Absolutely. Fish-out-of-water high school football coach Jim White (played by sports movie king Kevin Costner) moves with his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters to the small, Mexican-American migrant worker town of McFarland, CA and decides to start a cross country team at the school after noticing four kids in his gym class who excel at running.
A total of seven boys join the team. Some must pick in the fields before school and after practice. Together they, along with Coach Blanco, must work together, and overcome many hurdles, in order to become a successful team and maybe, just maybe...CHAMPIONS!
"McFarland, USA" is packed with all the sports story swerves you'd expect - no respect from opponents, troubles at home, the fight against incredible odds. However, unlike the dull and corny "Arm", thanks to authentic performances (particularly from a very good Costner) and a grounded, not-too-overly sentimental approach, "McFarland, USA" is largely able to rise above a formulaic script. The film actually kept my interest for nearly the entire time. It doesn't demand a 100% emotional investment, nor does it provide the excitement of other sports dramas, such as "Secretariat", but it's solid, serious and satisfying family drama that paces itself nicely and gets to the finish line with its head held high.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "McFarland, USA" gets a B-. But you've got wonder what's left for Disney in the "based on a true story sports drama" front? With cross country off the list, can bowling, synchronized swimming or field hockey be next in line? I bet the studio's crack staff of researchers are already hard at work.
I did not see the original "Hot Tub Time Machine", which was released in 2010, but a lot people did and many consider it a modern cult classic comedy. Now, a whopping five years later, we get the just plainly ridiculous "Hot Tub Time Machine 2", which joins the list of "Taken 3" and (while it could turn out to be a good film) "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" as 2015 sequels that had no business being made.
The star of the original, John Cusack, is out (though there are a few images of him) and "Parks and Recreation"'s Adam Scott is in as Cusack's character's son, Adam. The trio who took that fateful dip with Cusack in the first film, Lou, Nick and Jacob (played by Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke) get back into the tub, to try to go back in time to prevent Lou from being murdered, but instead are sent to the future.
With a wild premise like this there are really no rules, so the possibilities for gags and crazy storylines are limitless. Unfortunately, "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" is simply a hot mess. The only genuine laughs come from occasional exchanges between the characters insulting each other, along with some basic, but still funny, movie and TV show references. The "Nick Webber Strut", performed by Robinson, is the film's only solid running joke.
The time travel aspects of the story are overly complicated - maybe on purpose - but it doesn't work. And a heavy reliance on over-the-top sexual humor drags the viewing experience into the gutter. With only a Dixie cup's worth of comedy in this entire hot tub, director Steve Pink chooses to go the all-too predictable route, filling the remainder of the movie with scenes of sex, drugs and alcohol, which continuously take the storyline down the drain. No doubt many people, upon leaving the theater, will be wishing they could step into a time machine of their own to go back a few hours and rethink their decision to see "HTTM2". It's an SNL skit on steroids: funny/wacky premise, a few clever moments, but goes way too far and for way too long.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" gets a C-.
In 2011 Colin Firth won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in "The King's Speech", which included many memorable scenes. Now, four years later, Firth stars in "Kingsman: The Secret Service", director Matthew Vaughn's follow-up to "X-Men: First Class". "Kingsman" does provide Firth with the opportunity to appear in, quite possibly, the most memorable scene of his long, successful career. It's also his worst.
Vaughn attempts to have fun by breaking plenty of rules of the action genre, mostly with a ridiculously high level of violence, purely for shock value. I can almost guarantee the body count in this film will be higher than in any other action film this year, maybe any film period. In fact, if Vaughn ever writes a book about the making of "Kingsman", it would certainly be titled "How to Get Away with a Ton of Movie Murders".
The script is loosely based on a series of comics published from 2012-2013. And it shows. Unfortunately, the over-the-top visual style is more appropriate for the page. Watching someone, literally, get sliced in half, from head to toe, and then split apart, probably looked real cool in the comics. On screen it just seems silly. And even though the source material is recent, a lot of "Kingsman" is surprisingly dated, including the plan by quirky evil villain Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson, with a baseball cap, a lisp, and a love for Big Macs) to save the planet from global warming. Not a lot of imagination there.
The Kingsman secret agents, of course, must stop Valentine. But long before we get there, a young street punk named Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) gets recruited by Firth's veteran, well-tailored, Kingsman agent, Harry, to join the program. Eggsy must first go through a series of tests with other fellow candidates. Much like we've seen over and over in films including "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent", this process takes way too long before reaching its obvious conclusion. And as for that career-low scene involving Firth - let's just say you'll know it when you see it.
The main problem with "Kingsman" is that it doesn't know what it wants to be: A modern take on the classic British Spy movie (a.k.a. the Bond films)? An anti-British spy movie, tweaking the old formula? Or, the way Vaughn should have gone: a satire of the classic British spy movie, which it does a nice job with in certain spots. I do give Vaughn credit for being able to keep our interest for most of the 2+ hours. However, by the time we get to the slow-motion, exploding heads, accompanied by full orchestra, it's clear Vaughn is out of ideas and is simply throwing everything he can at the screen, just hoping something will stick.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" gets a C.