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‘The Upside’

Kevin Hart’s transition from brattily charming comic persona to serious dramatic cinematic presence isn’t going quite as planned. His extracurricular controversies notwithstanding, the comedian’s first turn in a more serious role in “The Upside” — a remake of the award-winning French hit “The Intouchables,” across from Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman — should have been a slam dunk. And yet, “The Upside” is missing some crucial elements, and it’s a struggle to find the bright side to this rather hackneyed film.

What’s missing is Hart’s manic energy, which he can’t quite translate into an effective or poignant toned-down performance. Part of what makes his comedic performances work is his characters’ cheerful arrogance is constantly rebutted by those around him within a heightened reality, offering a silly push and pull. With this muted performance in a naturalistic world as the down-on-his-luck Dell, that arrogance just makes him seem like a jerk.

On the hunt for signatures to prove to his parole officer he’s looking for a job, Dell stumbles into a job interview in the palatial penthouse of Phillip LaCasse (Cranston), an uber-wealthy investor who is quadriplegic and requires the assistance of a “life auxiliary.” It’s begrudging respect at first wisecrack for the two curmudgeons, and in a strange turn of events, Phillip offers Dell the job. Somehow, it works, because while neither man wants to be in the situation, they both need to be. Dell is essentially homeless, behind on child support, and desperately does not want to return to dealing drugs.

You will probably guess what happens next: The two men learn to love each other and embrace life through their unlikely intimate relationship. And that’s much of the problem with “The Upside” — so little of it is surprising or fresh. Instead it’s predictable, plodding and laden with well-trodden tropes. Here’s an uplifting montage, and an array of embarrassing female supporting character stereotypes (frigid exec, dead wife, nameless sex worker). At the center, a spirited person of color teaches uptight white people to loosen up already.

The jokes are stale, trafficking in tired, gender-based material that hovers around the edges of misogyny and gay panic. We can’t judge “The Upside” based on the recent controversies surrounding Hart and his old offensive jokes, but we can judge it on the script, adapted by Jon Hartmere, which is clunky and dated. Neil Burger’s serviceable direction doesn’t quite liven things up.

The best scenes of the film simply show the relationship between Dell and Phillip, who share a cynical sensibility, despite their differences. Phillip appreciates that Dell doesn’t pity him, that Dell demands everyone treat him as a real person, flaws, desires and all. You see flickers of what the heart of the film is in one of its most warm and authentic scenes, where Dell takes his charge out to get stoned and order munchies. Their chemistry is easy, unlike the forced bits and riffs that bedevil the rest of the film.

“The Upside” has a heart. It’s just that the film leaves it lukewarm, focusing more on extracting laughs than jerking tears. It suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, while weak writing and shaky character transitions don’t help matters. While this could have been an interesting turn in Hart’s career, it may be back to the drawing board to discover his new iteration.

(PG-13, 2 of 4 stars, 2 hr. 5 min.)

-- Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service 

'If Beale Street Could Talk' 

If “Green Book” is the feel-good movie of the year about racism, then “If Beale Street Could Talk” qualifies as its feel-bad counterpart.

Dark in content, theme and presentation, this drama about a young black couple torn apart when the man is framed for a crime he didn’t commit will leave viewers outraged or despondent — or, likely, both.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ first film since his Oscar-winning “Moonlight” (alas, still better known among mainstream moviegoers for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s colossal announcement flub), it’s adapted from a novel of the same name by the late James Baldwin.

The movie opens with an explanation that while Beale Street is an actual location, its use in this case is symbolic. It represents a place where people of color can gather and freely express themselves without fear of reprisal from a repressive society. “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” we’re told. “Beale Street is our legacy.”

The story is set in Harlem, a place where people are told they are worthless “and everything they see around them reminds of them of that.”

Set in the 1970s, the narrative is not chronological. The film opens with 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) and his 19-year-old pregnant fiancée, Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne), exchanging one last embrace outside the prison where he has been sent on a bogus rape charge. Tish, still under the illusion that his innocence will win out over the color of his skin, assures Fonny that she’s working on his appeal and he will be home soon.

The story jumps around from there. Tish calls a meeting of the two families to announce that she’s pregnant; her family rallies around her, while his curses the news and the fetus. We see how Tish and Fonny fell in love, and the incident between him and a white beat cop (a thankless role played with vile fervor by British actor Ed Skrein) that led to the rape charge.

An undercurrent of hate bubbles throughout. Tish’s family has embraced an us-against-the-world mentality — the world, in this case, being a society controlled by and for the benefit of privileged whites. If the family members occasionally lie, cheat or steal, it’s only because they have seized the opportunity to do it to the oppressors before the oppressors do it to them.

Backed by a haunting soundtrack consisting largely of soft, woeful jazz, most of the scenes take place in dimly lit apartments and on dark streets. One of the few sets with any sort of bright lighting is the prison visiting room, where Tish makes regular trips to encourage Fonny not to lose hope even as hers is being ground away.

She’s not the only one feeling that way. Even the idealistic young lawyer (Finn Wittrock from “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”) she hires — a white man, much to her family’s dismay, whom she thought would have a better chance of working within a bigoted establishment — grows increasingly dispirited.

Help arrives from a surprising source: Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King). Determined that a racist cop not be allowed to ruin her daughter’s life, she takes it upon herself to challenge the system.

The acting is universally strong. That’s to be expected with King, a multiple Emmy winner for “American Crime,” and James, who was in “Selma” and stars opposite Julia Roberts in the Amazon Prime series “Homecoming.” But Layne, a Chicago stage performer, is a wonderful discovery. Tish initially comes off as meek, but as the character unfolds, we realize that her unassuming facade conceals a steely resolve.

The scenes juxtaposing King and Layne are particularly fascinating. Sharon wields her determination like a sledgehammer, while Tish remains subtly understated. At first they appear to be opposites, but we come to realize they’re cut from the same indomitable cloth.

Adding to the intensity is Jenkins’ super-tight framing. As the tension of a scene increases, the camera gradually moves in for extreme close-ups. When Jenkins jumps to a happier scene — Tish and Fonny deciding on an apartment, for instance — the light tone and airy atmosphere are almost shocking.

Watching “If Beale Street Could Talk” could never be described as “fun.” Even “entertaining” is a stretch. But if a powerful kick to your gut’s sense of social justice is what you’re looking for, you can’t do any better.

(R, 4 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 59 min.) 

– Jeff Strickler, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 

'On The Basis of Sex'

Written by 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, “On the Basis of Sex” is an intimate portrait of the marriage between Ginsburg and her husband, Martin, and the role their family dynamic played in pursuit of her career. Felicity Jones plays the diminutive, brilliant Brooklynite Ruth, while Armie Hammer takes on the role of loving husband Marty.

It’s refreshing to see a biopic where the wife is the main agent of toil, change and struggle, where the husband is supportive, loving, confident — and cooks dinner, too. It’s reflective of the Ginsburgs’ real-life egalitarian marriage, almost never seen in Hollywood films. But the role is so much more than just the typical gender-swapped “spouse on phone” roles most often seen, and Hammer is a delight as the sunny Marty.

The story positions the constant gender discrimination Ruth faces while a student at Harvard Law and in her job search as her primary desire for wanting to change the laws. But it’s her fiery teen daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who motivates Ruth to take it on. Through her daughter’s activism, she realizes the world is ready for women’s rights as civil rights.

“On the Basis of Sex” is a biopic painted in broad strokes, like a fable of sorts. The spouse is endlessly patient, the changes in heart are telegraphed obviously, and the villains — a troika of cartoonishly evil white male lawyers — nearly twirl their mustaches in glee at the thought of keeping things in “the natural order.” As a character study, it’s simple, clear and lacking much nuance, but as a legal dissection, it’s fascinating. The unique case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which the Ginsburgs argued together, serves as Trojan horse in which to smuggle in a legal precedent for gender equality.

Leder directs the film confidently, swiftly and with a sense of straightforward thematic clarity. There are shots you can almost predict will happen — Ruth turning on her heel and marching confidently away, the camera tracking out to take in her composed, yet triumphant expression, a montage of typewriter keys hitting the brief, decisively printing “on the basis of sex.”

Yet, for all its predictability as a biopic and legal drama, it’s difficult not to be rapt with attention during Ruth’s dramatic oral argument before the court. The stakes are high. They need this precedent, for this case and every other case of gender discrimination she needs to knock down. “On the Basis of Sex” might be a rather broad biopic, but it beautifully argues the importance of Ginsburg’s work — prior to the Supreme Court — and is a lovely tribute to the woman who would become the Notorious RBG.

(PG-13, 2½ of 4 stars, 2 hr.)

-- Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

'Ben Is Back'

Don’t mistake the lobby poster for “Ben Is Back” — an image of a wayward teenager hugging his mother — to mean this will be an upbeat holiday tale. And don’t assume the status of the actors in that photo — superstar Julia Roberts and next big thing Lucas Hedges — indicates a big-budget epic.

On the contrary, this is an intimate, incredibly tense drama about a troubled family battling raw emotional pains, a bare-bones and bare-knuckled look at the destructive powers of addiction.

The title character (Hedges, who’s everywhere these days, including “Boy Erased” and “Mid90s”) is a drug addict who has taken a leave from his treatment program to come home for Christmas. His arrival is a surprise — and not a universally well-received one.

His mother, Holly (Roberts), struggles to put a happy spin on the visit. She forces a smile and embraces Ben in a long hug — then, the instant he’s distracted by the rest of the family, rushes around the house scooping the drugs out of the medicine cabinet and hiding her jewelry. Once everything is secure, she reassumes her pained smile and tries to assure everyone — including herself — that, with Ben back, the family is going to have a warm holiday celebration, just like they used to.

The two youngest members of the family are grade-schoolers too small to understand why Ben has been gone but thrilled that he’s back. But Ben’s teenage sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), makes no secret of her anger over the misery he inflicted upon the family (the details of which are gradually revealed). And his stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), while wanting to support Holly’s vision of a Hallmark-card holiday, clearly doesn’t trust Ben or his motives for the unannounced visit.

Ben understands the mixed reaction. In fact, he’s wrestling with the same issues, at one point admitting that coming home for Christmas might have been a wonderful idea or the biggest mistake he’s ever made. And he’s made some really big mistakes.

The movie was written and directed by Peter Hedges (Lucas’ father), an Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay for 2002’s “About a Boy.” He’s returning to his indie roots with a project that will remind viewers of his directing debut, 2003’s “Pieces of April,” a story about a young woman who tries to reconnect with her estranged family over Thanksgiving dinner after learning that her mother is dying of cancer.

The story takes place in a small town. Everywhere Ben looks, he sees something that triggers a bad memory. When Holly drives him to the mall to shop, she notices him staring at one of the houses they pass and asks him why. “I robbed it,” he says softly.

The discomfort in that scene is nothing compared with the anxiety when Ben enters church for Christmas Eve services and encounters the mother of a friend who died from an overdose while they were getting high. Ben OD’d that night, too, but survived.

Roberts and Hedges dominate the screen time. Hyperventilating her way through a series of crises — Roberts is really good at making the veins in her forehead stick out — the actress could have dialed down the scenery-chewing a notch. She might have taken a lesson from Hedges, an Oscar nominee for “Manchester by the Sea,” who shines in an understated performance as Ben wars with his inner demons.

The elder Hodges deserves kudos for casting an interracial couple — and then never making that any sort of a factor. The closest we come to Ben showing any ill will toward his stepfather is when he calls Neal a nerd. Holly doesn’t deny it, reminding him, “It’s because he’s a nerd that we can afford to send you to treatment.”

Peter Hedges also demonstrates a non-egotistical touch. Many directors who do something clever can’t resist drawing attention to it. He slips meaningful little asides into out-of-the-way places. Shortly after Neal and Holly argue over Ben’s arrival, there’s a scene focusing on Ben’s interaction with his young siblings where, without fanfare in one corner of the background, the couple exchange a quick makeup hug.

If only all their problems were that easy to solve. When it’s all said and done, this is not a family we’d want to spend time with — except in a movie theater.

 (R, 3½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 43 min.)

– Jeff Strickler, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

'Escape Room'

In retrospect, it’s actually kind of surprising that there hasn’t been an escape room-themed horror movie until now. The popular interactive mystery games are kind of mini films. There’s a built-in set, stakes, opportunities for conflict and teamwork and a logical start and finish. It’s certainly a more obvious fit for a movie than a board game or theme park ride.

So, from the imaginations of “Fast & Furious” producer Neal H. Moritz and “Insidious: The Last Key” director Adam Robitel comes ”Escape Room ,” where the characters are as random as an audience-chosen improv group (Investment banker! Soldier! Miner! Smart teen! Grocer!), the rooms look like discarded Nine Inch Nails music video sets (not exactly a criticism), the stakes are $10,000 or death, which seem far too low and too high, and everyone agrees that Petula Clark’s “Downtown” is a bad song (which is both incorrect and a strange, rude hill to die on).

As if the film is concerned that the audience will lose interest immediately, “Escape Room” starts at the end, as a lone man, Ben (Logan Miller), desperately tries to figure out the clues in a room that is quickly closing in on itself, “Star Wars” trash-compactor-style. It’s certainly a jolt of energy up front, but right as things are looking really bleak for Ben, it cuts to “three days earlier.” It’s cheap and a little insulting to have to reassure the audience that there is some exciting and harrowing stuff to come as long as they get through all the boring introductory stuff. At least it doesn’t resort to the old record-scratch, freeze-frame, “you’re probably wondering how I got here” standby.

The thing is, “Escape Room” isn’t actually all that bad, just kind of silly, but it takes a moment to readjust your expectations after that condescending beginning, and a very phoned-in introduction to the unlucky six Chicago strangers who all receive a mysterious box and decide, what the heck, let’s check out this escape room. There’s the skittish but brilliant college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), the ruthless finance guy Jason (Jay Ellis), the veteran who hates heat Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the regular joe Mike (Tyler Labine) and the escape room obsessive who honestly never does all that much to help, Danny (Nik Dodani).

Curiously no one seems all that concerned about the odd premise that this team activity could have a single winner at all, or perhaps they think they’ll all win $10,000. I guess it becomes clearer when people start dying in the rooms.

And, boy, are they put through the wringer. The have to brave extreme heat, extreme cold, poison, drugs, rising tensions and body counts while trying to figure out how to get out of each puzzle room, a few of which are pretty interesting. It’s like a “Final Destination” spinoff where each character’s past trauma haunts them. Mercifully, all the carnage is kept to tolerable PG-13 levels.

The filmmakers haven’t gone so far as to put you in the game, too. A lot of it is watching all the characters find keys and have their own revelations, so by the time you get to the fifth room, it’s understandable if interest is starting to wane a bit even with the addition of a link between the six people.

The third act really kind of blows it though and the movie essentially ends with a shrug and the possibility for a sequel. You could do worse in January. And anyone already interested in the idea of an escape room that tries to kill you probably isn’t expecting all that much out of this anyway.

(PG-13, 2 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 40 min.)

– Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press 

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