(On Cable TV, March 2015) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-profile romantic comedy (a remake of a 1986 film based on a 1974 David Mamet play), but I should have suspected otherwise given that it stars the enormously likable Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant. Set in downtown Los Angeles, About Last Time details a year in the life of four young people, during which they meet, fall in love, break up, reconcile and change careers. Almost immediately charming, it’s a film built on dialogues and performances, and all four main actors truly knock it out of the park, with particular mentions for Hart and Hall, both of whom play the uninhibited comic relief couple to the more conventional Ealy and Bryant. (Elsewhere in the film, Paula Patton has another great but too-short turn as a romantic antagonist.) While About Last Night isn’t particularly original, it’s slickly-made, modern, almost constantly funny and features intensely likable actors. It’s hard to ask for much more from a romantic comedy
(On TV, January 2015) The problem beyond movies that crank up their drama beyond a reasonable threshold is that they either become funny or annoying. Seven Pounds, to its credit, begins with a fascinating mystery: Who is this sad man, what has happened to him and what is he doing? As the protagonist’s actions are revealed, though, the overwrought drama kicks in. Are we being shamed in our loose morality by a fictional character so selfless? By the time the ending rolls by, even the most sympathetic viewers will spot at least two or three major holes in the plot, and it takes a lot of forgiveness to be moved by the film’s extreme sentimentality. Will Smith is actually pretty good in the lead role, stretching acting muscles seldom used during his career. Opposite him, Rosario Dawson is unexpectedly captivating, while Michael Ealy makes an impression in a small role. (One can’t say the same about Woody Harrelson, largely wasted in a generic role). Some of the details of the film are interesting, and Gabriele Muccino’s direction is handled with skill. Still, the impression left by the last few minutes of the film is one of increasing bewilderment, if not outright disbelief: By cranking up the dramatic stakes so ludicrously high, Seven Pounds undoes quite a bit of its careful quiet setup. I’m just not sure it deserves the ending it reaches for.
(In theatres, September 2010) Keeping expectations low is one way to best appreciate Takers given how this surprising California-noir crime thriller recycles a bunch of familiar elements into a watchable whole. The story, about a crew of Los Angeles professional bank robbers pulling off one last heist even as the FBI is closing on them and dissention strikes within their ranks, is so generic as to approach cliché: You can pick bits and pieces of Heat, Cradle 2 The Grave and even The Italian Job out of the finished result and it’s not as if the dialogue is anything special. Worse yet is the direction, which feels forced to use an incoherent shaky-cam style every time something interesting is happening, undercutting our ability to make sense of what’s going on. But despite the problems, it works: Takers features a fine multiracial cast (with special mention of Idris Elba, Michael Ealy and Paul Walker), a snappy rhythm, a few surprising stunts and a compelling sense of place for Los Angeles. What may sour the impression left by the film is a curiously off-balanced moral center, with fairly unpleasant cops taking on glamorous criminals with crime-financed luxurious lifestyles: The ending provides plenty of bloodshed and little reassurance as to who, if anyone, actually fulfilled their objectives. Still, if Takers may not be original… it’s entertaining enough.