Monday, December 22, 2014


Children that haven't seen the Robin Williams fantasy "Jumanji" (1995) may enjoy the supernatural shenanigans in the new Ben Stiller comedy fantasy "Night at the Museum" more than their elders. Like the "Jumanji" inspired space epic "Zathura" (2005), "Night At the Museum" plunges average everyday mortals—usually a single father and his children (numbers vary)--into paranormal peril, but the principals don't play games in this variation on a theme. As entertaining and imaginative as both "Jumanji" and "Zathura," "Night at the Museum" (***1/2 OUT OF ****) resembles one of its best computer-generated special effects—the rambunctious skeleton dinosaur that prefers to play fetch with one of its own bones like a dog. Meaning, "Night at the Museum" qualifies as bare-bones buffoonery that shuns literal logic for outlandish laughs. This 108 minute nonsense relies on lowest common denominator comedy with a PG rating. Ben Stiller makes himself appear suitably ridiculous as a divorced dad who wants to impress his impressionable young son. Stiller's on-again, off-again co-star Owen Wilson, best known for "Wedding Crashers," has a small role—literally speaking--but gets in a few jibes at Stiller's expense. Wilson plays a pint-sized cowpoke in a railroad diorama who clashes with an empire-building Roman centurion (Steve Coogan of "Around the World in 80 Days") from another diorama. The two constantly clash with each until our sincere, underdog hero convinces them to stop fighting each other and help him with the animals. Classic TV comedian Dick Van Dyke and classic screen comedian Mickey Rooney steal a couple of scenes from Stiller as villains forged in the "Home Alone" mold.  Although it relies lavishly on its special effects to compensate for its skeletal storyline and its superficial characters, "Night at the Museum" boasts more than enough breakneck adventure. Stiller gravitates between two gals, his ex-wife Erica (Kim Raver of TV's "24") and an attractive museum docent Rebecca (Carla Gugino of "Snake Eyes"), but the movie gives these relationships short shrift. The father and son relationship at the heart of the drama doesn't fare any better, serving largely as a plot device to advance the action. Unlike both "Jumanji" and "Zathura," "Night at the Museum" also contains armies of  Lilliputian soldiers along the lines of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." Clearly, "Pink Panther" director Shawn Levy and co-scenarists Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon of TV's "Reno: 911" had their work cut out for them. They fleshed out Croatian artist Milan Trenc's 32-page illustrated novel, published back in 1993 by Barrons, and targeted primarily at pre-schoolers. Undoubtedly, Levy and company added the farcical scene where a small monkey urinates contemptuously on our hapless hero.

Brooklyn born Larry Daley (Ben Stiller of "Meet the Parents") is a deadbeat dad in search of a job. Larry is one of those crack-pot inventors who conjure up their ideas a little too late to capitalize on them. He explains to an unsympathetic job counselor, Debbie (his real-life mother Anne Meara), that his finger-snapping lights failed because most people found it far easier to clap rather than snap. While the "clapper" lights proved to be a success, Larry's "snapper" lights sank out of sight. Fearful that his ten-year old son Nick Daley (newcomer Jake Cherry) will be ashamed of him, Larry agrees to take a lowly job as a night watchman at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Of course, it doesn't help matters in Larry's eyes that his ex-wife's new boyfriend (Paul Rudd of "The 40-Year Old Virgin") has convinced Nick to follow in his footsteps as a Wall Street bond trader. The current day watchman, Cecil (Dick Van Dyke of TV's "Diagnosis Murder"), tells Larry that the museum plans to down-size security, and Larry will end up doing the work of three guards. Mickey Rooney of the venerable "Andy Hardy" movies and Bill Cobbs of "New Jack City" play the other two veteran guards. Cecil, Gus, and Reginald will retire from the museum since attendance is severely down. What they neglect to tell Larry is that the animals-on-display, the full-sized replicas of historical figures, and the finger-sized soldiers in the dioramas come alive at night. The next day Cecil enlightens Larry. According to Cecil, an ancient Egyptian artifact on the premises radiates an inexplicable power that brings these displays to life. If any of the museum pieces try to escape, they suffer the unhappy fate of being turned into powder at the first light of day. Otherwise, everything in the museum returns to normal. Craftily, Cecil, Gus, and Reginald have plans for that relic and Larry will be their unwitting fall guy. Virtually everything that can go awry in Larry's life occurs on the second night on his job, but the movie makers play it all for Keystone Kops style slapstick.

Despite the monkey that anoints our hero with a golden shower, "Night at the Museum" is about as family-friendly as a PG-rated movie can get. Although the violence is unmistakably synthetic, some youngsters may cringe at the rampaging T-Rex. The special effects wizards have again broken new ground in computer-generated animation, but the animals
themselves lack personality. Again, the T-Rex skeleton earns some laughs for behaving like a colossal canine. Robin Williams wears a period Rough Riders' army outfit throughout as former president Teddy Roosevelt, but he is as spontaneous as ever. Smitten by a pretty Indian maiden in a Lewis and Clark display, Teddy is too shy to talk to her until Larry coaxes him out of his shell. Chiefly, Levy and his scribes poke fun at Stiller as he struggles to outfox the obnoxious animals or befriend the historical figures. Nevertheless, everything is handled
with such imagination that it is no wonder this lightweight lark coined over $574 million worldwide. Don't leave the theater before the end credits conclude because you'll miss an important facet of the finale. If you enjoy "Night at the Museum," you should also check out "Jumanji" and "Zathura." "Zathura" to see how much better these movies are by comparison.


Beyond its worldwide haul of $560 million, the “Night at the Museum” movies may not be remembered as the most thought-provoking family-friendly film franchise, but they were neither monotonous nor obnoxious.  The final installment “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tablet” (*** OUT OF ****) folds up the franchise neatly with fond farewells to both the late Robin Williams and the even later Mickey Rooney, while it doesn’t wear out its welcome with maudlin sentimentality.  Shawn Levy, who directed both “Night at the Museum” (2006) and “Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian” (2009), is back at the helm, but scenarists Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon didn’t pen this entry.  Nevertheless, this featherweight, PG-rated, 97 minute, CGI-laden saga with slapstick galore maintains sufficient momentum.  Comparatively, “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” isn’t as exciting as “Night at the Museum.”  Ben Stiller is still resourceful as museum security guard Larry Daly.  Moreover, Stiller does double duty and also plays a wacky Neanderthal caveman who believes Larry is his pater familias.  This constitutes one of several running gags throughout “Secret of the Tomb.”  While they appear briefly at the outset, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs are given far less to do than they did as the kleptomaniacal security guards in the above-average original.  In his last film performance, Oscar-winner Robin Williams co-stars again as Rough Riding President Theodore Roosevelt.  Enhancing continuity even more, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan are back respectively as pint-sized cowpoke Jedediah and Roman centurion General Octavius.  These two tykes score some of the largest laughs, particularly when they utilize an enormous contraption to post Internet messages.  Ricky Gervais returns as persnickety museum director Dr. McPhee; Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun; Rami Malek as Ahkmenrah; and Mizuo Peck as Sacajawea. The only change is actor Skyler Gisondo has replaced Jake Cherry as our hero’s teenage son Nick; Cherry played Nick in the two earlier epics.  Indeed, Larry and Jake’s deliberations about the latter’s collegiate future could have been left on the cutting room floor.  Otherwise, little has changed despite the passage of years.  British actress Rebel Wilson, making her debut as Larry’s counterpart, a nocturnal British Museum security guard, adds ample spontaneity.  “Downtown Abbey” star Dan Stevens fleshes out the cast as Sir Lancelot, one of the British Museum exhibits who comes to life, too.  

“Dinner for Schmucks” scribes David Guion & Michael Handelman and Levy freshen up the franchise the third time out with background history surrounding the mysterious Tablet of Akmenrah.  Remember, this gilded Egyptian antique is what enabled the inanimate museum exhibits--whether they consisted of wax, bone, or stone--to cavort about after dark as if they possessed life.  “Secret of the Tomb” unfolds in sun-scorched Egypt back in the year 1938 with an “Indiana Jones” prologue.  A joint Anglo-American archeological expedition is searching for a rare artifact, when Chief Archaeologist Robert Fredericks (Brennan Elliott) shoos his meddling son, Cecil (Percy Hynes-White), off the site.  Quite by accident, the unsuspecting Cecil stumbles onto the mother lode when the ground collapses under him and he plunges into the pharaoh’s burial chamber.  Nothing really hair-raising occurs, but this atmospheric incident sets the stage for all subsequent hilarity.  Naturally, the locals are more anxious about the tablet’s discovery than the myopic archaeologists.  Indeed, they warn these outsiders that nothing good can come of this discovery.  Eighty years or thereabouts later, the sacred tablet that resembles a colossal keypad displays signs of sea-green corrosion.  This oxidization takes a toll on the fixtures so they behave in a menacing manner.  During an after-dinner gala fundraiser for museum donors in New York City, pandemonium erupts when the exhibits run rampant and frighten everybody.  This debacle deprives Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais of “Cemetery Junction”) of his job as curator.  Young Egyptian King Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek of “Need for Speed”) suggests Larry (Ben Stiller) fly the afflicted stone tablet back to the British Museum where his astute father, Pharaoh Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley of “Exodus”), who is one of the exhibits, can clarify what ails the artifact.  Of course, the incredulous Dr. McPhee believes none of the claptrap Larry feeds him.  Nevertheless, he conspires to help our sincere hero gain access to the facility without arousing suspicion.  Evidently, sneaking into a London museum after hours doesn’t constitute anything death-defying where British homeland security is concerned.  The last thing Larry does before he flies off to handle these hi-jinks is quiz elderly Cecil (Dick Van Dyke of “Mary Poppins”) about what transpired in Egypt.  Eventually, Larry and his eccentric posse, including Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Native American princess Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan),Larry’s son Nick (Skyler Gisondo), a Neanderthal nitwit named Laa (Ben Stiller), and the adorable capuchin monkey Dexter (Crystal the Monkey) bluff their way past a loquacious security guard, Tilly (Rebel Wilson of “Fever Pitch”), who has no clue about their intentions.  Once they enter the London Museum, our heroes find themselves up to their necks in anarchy orchestrated principally by the conceited, sword-wielding, legendary, Round-Table Knight, Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), who appropriates the enchanted tablet for himself without realizing the ultimate jeopardy that he threatens one and all into before dawn.

The computer-generated shenanigans of the strange London exhibits, a rambunctious triceratops fossil, are every bit as comical and imaginative as the Big Apple exhibits.  The highlight of the London mayhem occurs when Larry and Teddy pursue the elusive Lancelot inside an M.C. Escher staircase painting.  Predictably, Dexter makes the biggest splash when he gives Jedediah and Octavius a golden shower to save them from the devastation in the Pompeii exhibition.  One of the most surprising surprises occurs during Lancelot’s interruption of the stage play “Camelot,” when he contends with actor Hugh Jackman.  As entertaining as the third outing is, “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” surpasses neither “Night at the Museum” nor “Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian.”

Monday, December 15, 2014


As much as “The Hunger Games” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” captivated me, I’m less than elated that Lionsgate has split the final novel of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy into two movies.  Watching “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) is like watching half of a good movie. Worse, Lionsgate plans to make audiences wait for another year before they fold this franchise.  Of course, the “Harry Potter” and the “Twilight” franchises made a mint with this shrewd strategy, so it’s no surprise Lionsgate, the same studio that released the “Twilight” epics, would not pass up such an obvious opportunity.  As fastidious and well-made as “Mockingjay Part 1” remains, all “Catching Fire” director Francis Lawrence and scenarists Peter Craig of “The Town” and Danny Strong of “The Butler” have done is produce a potboiler that simmers more often than sizzles for two hours and three minutes.  Indeed, this qualifies as the shortest entry in “Hunger Games” franchise.  Comparatively, “The Hunger Games” clocked in at 142 minutes, while “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” edged it out at 146 minutes.  The way they’ve made “Mockingjay Part 1,” we see more of Katniss Everdeen and Plutarch Heavensbee than President Snow, Haymitch Abernathy, Gale Hawthorne, Effie Trinket, Finnick Odair, Caesar Flickerman, and Johanna Mason.  Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence spends more time shedding tears than shooting arrows.  Indeed, she shoots only one arrow in this installment.  Making the most of his handful of scenes, a gleefully wicked Donald Sutherland delivers the best line: “Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.”
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” picks up the plot after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright of “Casino Royale”), and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin of “The Quiet Ones”) have been rescued.  Unfortunately, the treacherous Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman of “Doubt”) and the resistance have failed to liberate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson of “Red Dawn”), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone of “Sucker Punch”) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson of “Manhaters”) in the aftermath. Meantime, Katniss and her traumatized companions are recuperating from their tribulations in District 13, but our heroine doesn’t know if Peeta managed to survive Panem's third Quarter Quell. If you haven’t seen “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” you may be at a disadvantage. Eventually, she learns that Peeta is alive, but he is being held in the Capitol by President Snow. Plutarch and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore of “The Big Lebowski”) convince Katniss to serve as their standard-bearer for the rebellion. They need her “anger-driven defiance” desperately to shore up the sagging support among the other districts in the wake of District 12’s annihilation. Remember, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale Hawthorne all (Liam Hemsworth of “The Expendables 2”) grew up in District 12.
The action alternates between above ground and below ground. The above ground scenes where either Katniss or the rebels battle the enemy provide the most excitement. The scenes below ground in District 13’s deeply entrenched bunkers, where Katniss agonizes over poor Peeta’s ordeal, constitute classic, four-handkerchief, hand-wringing, chick flick fodder. Worse, the scenes involving the secret mission to snatch Peeta from under Snow’s nose yield only a modicum of suspense.  Nevertheless, as static as this sophomore sequel is, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” easily surpasses the half of the novel that it depicts without sacrificing much source material fidelity. 
Essentially, “Mockingjay Part 1” combines elements of a war movie with a love story.  The war story sequences generate fewer thrills than the tournament sequences in the two previous outings, while the scenes between a love-sick Katniss and a tortured Peeta are histrionic in every negative sense of the word.  Katniss wanders around and whines, while a visibly wretched Peeta looks woebegone and far away. These scenes are as dreary as the air-raid sequence is tedious.  The scenes of the lumberjacks scrambling up trees to avoid being massacred by President Snow’s trigger-happy soldiers and later the assault on the dam are sensational, but these scenes cannot compensate from the loquacious inactivity during the subterranean sequences.  The new characters that flesh out the action are fresh, but they lack charisma, while the regulars have been confined largely to the sidelines in cameos.  Of course, each will play a larger part in the second half. 
Mind you, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” looks terrific.  The producers have blown a bundle on every scene.  The destruction of the District 5 dam is nothing short of spectacular, with a chorus of suicidal heroes storming a gauntlet of soldiers to detonate crates of explosives. The concrete mountains of rubble, twisted metal, and skeletons galore in District 12 appear thoroughly convincing, too.  Philip Messina’s production designs, Larry Dias’ set decoration, and the art direction by Andrew Max Cahn, Lauren E. Polizzi, David Scheunemann, Steve Summersgill, and Dan Webster enhance the atmosphere and credibility of the film.  The sumptuous looking sets and slick production values, however, don’t offset the film’s sluggish pace. 
Basically, nothing groundbreaking happens in “Mockingjay Part 1.”  The best scenes occur in the final moments, while most everything else serves as expository filler.  Indeed, you know neither Katniss nor Peeta are in jeopardy.  In other words, neither are going to die, and what happens to Peeta is the equivalent of having a regular series character slip into a coma while the filmmakers pause the plot to conjure up suspense.  Altogether, neither Lawrence nor his scenarists have done anything in “Mockingjay Part I” other than delay the inevitable.  The hospital bombing sequence, the air raid scene, Katniss’ propaganda speeches to arouse the other districts as well as singing a song are dreary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a few good lines.  Unfortunately, when she isn’t decked out in her combat fatigues with a bow and arrow in her fists, she doesn’t cut the mustard.  Lawrence looks ridiculous in her baggy uniform, and Julianne Moore actually upstages her.  Hopefully, Lionsgate is saving the best for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.”


Nobody has made a landmark Biblical movie since Mel Gibson helmed “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.  Mind you, contenders have cropped up, primarily “Noah” (2014) with Russell Crowe, but it amounted to little more than a pretender with its apocryphal allusions to the Books of Enoch with its stone angels.  “Son of God” doesn’t really qualify since its producers re-edited it from The History Channel miniseries “The Bible.”  Sadly, nothing about director Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (** OUT OF ****) appears divinely inspired.  Scott, best known for lavish spectacles such as “Alien,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “Prometheus,” has spent $140 million on this sprawling recreation of ancient Egypt.  Admittedly, Scott doesn’t qualify as a saint.  In a recent New York Times interview, Scott said about “Exodus,” “I’ve got it fairly well plotted out. I’m an atheist, which is actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works.” Not surprisingly, the secular screenplay credited to four scribes, among them “Tower Heist” duo Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, “The Constant Gardner’s” Jeffrey Caine, and “Schindler's List’s” Steven Zaillian, adopts a realistic rather than a scriptural slant to its subject matter.  Moses behaves more like Rambo rather than Charlton Heston, and our hero discovers with considerable chagrin that he isn’t an Egyptian. Comparatively, “Exodus” neither takes its cues from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 or 1956 versions of “The Ten Commandments” nor Mel Gibson’s subtitled “Passion of the Christ.” Certainly, nobody would expect anything less from a luminary like Sir Ridley Scott, whose last two films—“The Counselor” and “Prometheus”--excited as much as mystified audiences. Traditional believers may judge “Exodus” a questionable expense. For example, when Moses initially encounters God on the side of a mountain after a mudslide, the former finds himself dealing with an eleven-year old boy who reads him the riot act.  Later, during a subsequent confrontation with this obnoxious urchin, Scott presents the interview from two perspectives. Again, Moses is conversing to a child.  Meanwhile, Joshua eavesdrops on Moses, but all Joshua sees is Moses addressing a rock with nobody present in either human or divine form. Sure, this resembles the movie “Fight Club” (1999) where narrator Edward Norton argues with Brad Pitt, who turns out all-along to have been nothing but Norton’s hallucination of himself. If this kind of nonsense doesn’t bother you, you may enjoy “Exodus,” but I think that depicting God as a petulant punk undermines the gravity of the film. 

Basically, “Exodus” duplicates virtually everything that DeMille showed in his two “Ten Commandments” outings.  The venerable saga concerns oppression and intolerance.  The Egyptians are proud and powerful, while the Jews are poor and powerless. Moses appears and pleads for the release of his people. Predictably, the Egyptians with their architectural enthusiasm for worshipping themselves with massive monuments balk at turning the Jews loose.  Ramses and Moses remain at odds until God intervenes with ten deadly plagues that make Ramses into a believer. The Egyptian ruler releases the Jews, and they head off for Canaan.  A vindictive Ramses has second thoughts and decides to pursue Moses and his minions. The big showdown occurs at the Red Sea where Moses waves his staff and the waters recede just long enough for his people to cross.  Along rampages Ramses with murder on his mind and his army, but he doesn’t arrive in time to take his toll.  Instead, the toll takes him.  This is the stuff of which Sunday school lessons are taught and most movies about the event have depicted. Scott takes exception to several things.  He doesn’t include the adolescent years when Moses and the future ruler Ramses were playmates.  When “Exodus” unfolds, Moses and Ramses are adults and rivals to the throne.  Of course, Ramses’ noble father Seti (John Turturro of “The Big Lebowski”) thinks that Moses has a better head on his shoulders than his petulant son and confides as much in Moses.  Unfortunately, Seti points out that he cannot appoint Moses over his son.  This relationship resembles a similar relationship in Ridley Scott’s earlier epic “Gladiator” (2000) when the dying Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) preferred Maximus (Russell Crowe) to his repellent son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) for the throne.  During a savage war with the Hittites in 1300, Moses displays his martial ardor and saves the once and future pharaoh from certain death in battle. Moses serves chiefly as Seti and Ramses’ advisor.  In other words, he does all the dirty work with which neither wishes to soil their hands and clashes with a corrupt Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn of “Killing Them Softly”) who reveals Moses’ genuine origins as a Jew. Moses goes into exile and bids farewell to Ramses. Ramses’ mother Tuya (Sigourney Weaver of “Alien”) isn’t as content as her son to let Moses off as easily and sends a pair of fiendish assassins to finish him off.

“Batman Begins” star Christian Bale and “Star Wars” actor Joel Edgerton generate neither chemistry nor camaraderie respectively as a militant Moses and a ramrod-straight Ramses.  Scott and his scenarists want us to believe that these two grew up together in the same house, but they share little in the way of brotherly affection.  Bale’s Moses relies more on the sword than the staff, and this differentiates this cinematic interpretation from Charlton Heston’s Moses.  Scott surrounds these two with a robust supporting cast, including Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro. Sadly, they make only a minor impression.  Mendelsohn registers best as the slimy villain who gets his just comeuppance in the final reel.  The spectacular computer-generated imagery and the craggy scenery—lensed in Spain and the Canary Islands--qualify as top-drawer assets.  The film generates some unforgettable moments during the ten deadly plagues montage, particularly when the crocodiles crunch on fishermen. Clocking in at a leaden 150 minutes, the lackluster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” fares far better as a special effects extravaganza than a faith-based bonanza. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014


"CSI" regular George Eads plays a snake-bitten Las Vegas gambler with a knack for getting himself knee-deep in trouble in "Gutshot Straight" (* OUT OF ****) named Jack. Eads makes a convincing but hopeless nobody, and he looks nothing like the sympathetic crime scene investigator that he portrays on the CBS-TV television series. Instead, he portrays the kind of character who you'd neither want to meet nor hang out with because he is a loser. Happily, "Death and Cremation" director Justin Steele surrounds him with a veteran cast of familiar tough-guys, including Stephen Lang, Vinnie Jones, Steven Seagal, and Ted Levine, that give the action a modicum of substance. Steele imbues this brooding 85-minute melodrama about a charismatic loser with a creepy, mysterious film noir flavor.

Down and out, owing just about everybody in Sin City, Jack (George Eads) runs into an older guy, Duffy (Stephen Lang of “Avatar”), at a strip club who makes him an appetitizing proposition: "How'd you like to make some dollars, enough dollars to keep you at the adult table for a long, long time." Naturally, our misbegotten protagonist could use plenty of dough. Taking Jack home to his palatial residence, Duffy tries to persuade him to make love with his wife, May (AnnaLynne McCord of "The Transporter 2"), but the scrupulous Jack displays considerable reluctance. Apparently, Jack doesn't like being told what to do. A brief physical struggle ensues between Jack and Duffy while May watches from the pool. During the fracas, Jack shoves Duffy, and Duffy's head strikes an object and the impact kills him. Jack didn't plan to murder Duffy, and he is pretty upset at the accidental turn of events. May and he stuff Duffy's corpse into the trunk of a Maserati, and Jack wanders off the next day in the brutal heat of Vegas to sleep it off in his Volvo that he cannot get to crank up. Jack is such a woebegone guy with so many problems that it is easy to see why an actor would love to fill in the gaps and play him. Ultimately, he isn't the kind of character that an audience wants to commune with for the length of any movie.

Later, Jack encounters Duffy's scummy brother Lewis (Ted Levine of "Silence of the Lambs") who is a notorious loan shark. Lewis proudly shows Jack his prized possession—the car that May used secretly to dispose of Duffy's body—and we learn that Lewis is an obnoxious jerk, too. Interestingly, Lewis thinks that Duffy has gone away on a trip. A suspicious Jack leaves Lewis after Lewis mentions his name; Jack never told Lewis his name so he doesn't trust him. On his way out, Jack runs into May. She confides in Jack that she buried Duffy's body in the desert. Eventually, Lewis shows Jack a tablet that contains a video of Jack at Lewis' house. This is how Lewis knew Jack's name. Anyhow, Lewis knows everything about Jack, his mountain of gambling debt, and his estranged wife and daughter. Surprisingly, Lewis isn't put out that Jack had something to do with his brother's death. He wants him now to kill May, and he is prepared to use blackmail to get him to do it. May shows up at Jack's sleazy motel, and Jack assures her that he will take care of Lewis. We learn that Duffy was a terrible husband who basically kept May in a metaphorical cage and watched her constantly when he wasn't out drinking and whoring. Jack arranges a visit with Paulie (Steven Seagal of "Exit Wounds") through another disreputable man that he owes money, Carl (Vinnie Jones of "Snatch"), and Paulie agrees to help him. He hands Jack a revolver that fires backwards and tells him to give it to Lewis. Jack and Lewis tangle in a gritty fistfight while treacherous May observes the brawl. May gets the drop on Jack, and she tries to kill him. Naturally, the revovler backfires and blows her away. Afterward, Paulie kills Lewis, and they warn Jack to clear out of town.

Gutshot Straight" occurs primarily in Las Vegas casinos and at an exotic house with a swimming pool and flaming torches. As mesmerizing as the action is, nothing really happens in this pedestrian 85-minute melodrama stocked with despicable characters. Jack finds himself in trouble for a murder that he didn't mean to commit, and he flees to his friends that he owes money and gets them to polish off the villain. The action comes full circle. Although it contains polished production values, "Gutshot Straight" essentially qualifies as a potboiler. Stephen Lang and Ted Levine spend more time on screen than either Steven Seagal or Vinnie Jones. Seagal fans won't like it that the paunchy Seagal has what amounts to a cameo. The DVD commentary is interesting and contains insights into the production. This is a one-time watch it only movie.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


“Horrible Bosses” (*** OUT OF ****) is hilarious hokum from fade-in to fade-out.  Of course, this imaginative but complicated, R-rated comedy of errors about premeditated murder is not for everybody.  If you can tolerate neither profanity nor homicide, then this laugh-fest may not be appropriate fare.  Conversely, if you have or have had a boss who deserved a slow but tortuous death, “Horrible Bosses” could make your laugh rather than wallow in homicidal fantasies.  The biggest joke of “Horrible Bosses,” which lives up to its title, is that the heroes are hopelessly clueless.  Imagine a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” except the wannabe killers lack the nerve to go for the jugular.  At the same time, most Hollywood thrillers feature one chief villain, but “Horrible Bosses” boasts three.  Two are male, but one is female, while our protagonists are all men.  Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman of “Juno”), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day of “Pacific Rim”), and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis of “Hall Pass”) suffer the agonies of the damned as they tangle hopelessly with their respective bosses, Dave Harkin (Kevin Spacey of “Superman Returns”), Dr. Julia Harris, D.D.S. (Jennifer Aniston of “Rock Star”), and Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell of “Miami Vice”).  Clearly the worst of the three, Harkin qualifies as a venomous sadist with a streak of misanthropy.  He takes special pleasure in ridiculing everybody without mercy.  At one point, he tells Nick, “Life is a marathon, and you cannot win a marathon without putting a few band-aids on your nipples, right?” Nick confides in his friends that working for Harken is like working for the Antichrist.  When he isn’t terrorizing poor Nick, Harken believes that his wife Rhonda (Julie Bowen of “Amy's Orgasm”) is having sex with everybody but him.  Incidentally, Rhonda is probably cuckolding Harken because she has bathroom sex with Kurt during Harken’s surprise birthday party.   

While Harken represents one kind of ignoble boss, Julia Harris embodies another version.  Aniston plays a sexy but unscrupulous dentist who takes advantage of her male dental assistant, Dale, because he is a sex offender.  Talk about weird stuff.  Dale was arrested while he was urinating on a playground in the middle of the night so he has to register himself as a sex offender.  Finding a job proved difficult for him until he entered Julia’s naughty world where she could dominate him.  She takes advantage of him repeatedly.  Initially, when he was a patient, she took incriminating photos of him in sexual positions with her while he was still under the effects of medication.  She uses these photos to blackmail him into becoming her sexual slave and he has to put up with her unwanted advances.  Meanwhile, Sudeikis deals with a total swine of a boss who is a cokehead.  Colin Farrell stretches the most as an actor here because he looks nothing like evil Bobby Pellitt.  Bobby hasn’t liked Kurt from the start because Kurt and Bobby’s father, Jack (Donald Sutherland of “M.A.S.H.”), were such close friends.  Jack had planned to pass the family business onto Kurt, but Jack died unexpectedly from a heart attack so Bobby inherited the business and drives Kurt up the wall. Bobby is such a cheapskate that he kept his father desk plate but put his name over his father's name!
After our woebegone protagonists have put up with far too much abuse from their horrid superiors, they find an African-American, Dean 'MF' Jones (Jamie Fox of “Miami Vice”), who is on parole.  One of the running jokes is the use of Dean’s profane nickname that our heroes use without a qualm. .Anyway, ‘MF’ refuses to commit the killings for them, but he agrees to serve as their murder consultant for $5000.  At the time, our foolish protagonists believed that ‘MF’ spent 10 years in the big house for murder.  One of the surprises of “Horrible Bosses” is that Dean wasn’t a murderer.  He went to a jail because the authorities caught him in a movie theater with a video camera recording a film!  Nevertheless, ‘MR’ tells our hapless trio: “Most killers are first-timers.  You wanna pull off a brilliant murder; you gotta act like it’s an accident.  Failed brakes, gas leaks, suicide.  You do it right, you ain’t even gotta be there when it goes down.”  Sounds like ‘MR’ saw the Charles Bronson hitman movie “The Mechanic” because the Bronson character staged each hit as if it were an accident.  Hendricks remains skeptical about MR’s advice: “Sounds like Scooby-Doo.  How are we supposed to fake three accidents?”  Our heroes are naturally disappointed by ‘MF’s lack of participation.  According to ‘MF,’ they must “stalk their prey.”  Second, he continues: “Gotta be smart.  Find out where they live, find out their habits.  What’s their hobbies?”  Nevertheless, ‘MR’ warns them if they have motives that the ‘popo’ will find them.  Nick points out, “We all have clear motives for killing our bosses, . . .so this is not gonna work.  This is garbage.”  ‘MF’ suggests they “kill each other’s bosses.”  This is when Kurt alludes to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.”  Dale hasn’t seen “Strangers on a Train,” but he has seen the Danny DeVito movie “Throw Momma from a Train.”  “We kill each other’s bosses, there’s no link to us,”  Kurt observes.  During this part of the process, comedy galore ensues, particularly while Hendricks and Buckman are in Dave Harken’s house, and dimwitted Dale sits parked outside the house, acting at their look-out.  Harken surprises the unsuspecting Dale after the latter has littered on his street and reprimands him for littering until he catches a whiff of the peanuts.  Harken collapses like a sack of potatoes, unconscious on the pavement.  Dale saves Dave’s life without realizing who Dave is.  Dave’s wife Rhonda happens to come along and rejoices at Dale’s timely intervention.  Naturally, the suspicious Harken suspects that Dale and Rhonda had arranged to meet each other for an exchange of sexual favors.  One of the funniest surprises involves the connection between Harken and Pellitt.  While Nick is maintaining surveillance at Pellitt’s residence, Harken shows up and shoots Pellitt several times and leaves without spotting Nick.  

Altogether, “Horrible Bosses” never stops spouting jokes. Indeed, things are a little extreme, but that is to be expected for a comedy.  Jason Bateman gets to play another schmuck and he is a past master at playing schmuck.  He wears a straight face and never lets on that he is in on the joke.  Meantime, each of the villains receives their just comeuppance.  Director Seth Gordon and his scenarists do an exemplary job of foreshadowing what occurs later.  Donald Sutherland’s cameo as Kurt's boss is too brief but it fits in with the timeline.  One other character, who appears to be around simply as a sick one-note joke, Kenny Sommerfeld (P.J. Bryne of “29 Palms”), actually figures prominently in Julia’s comeuppance.  The ending with Nick—as president of the company--meeting his new boss, Mr. Sherman (Bob Newhart), in the parking lot, is hysterically funny. “Horrible Bosses” is a funny movie.