14 June 2010

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Far be it from me to say that our two films for today are predictable. The first, Death at a Funeral, centres around a man trying to maintain order at his father's funeral while his entire family pack into one house for this solemn occasion. The second, Brooklyn's Finest, centres upon a cop with just one week until retirement.

Read my reviews after the jump!


Death at a Funeral is an American remake of the 2007 British dramedy of the same name. It still follows the same basic plot, but the names have been changed to protect this one from suckiness. The main character is now Aaron, a would-be novelist who has to deal with the hectic goings on in the lives of his extended family as they pile into his father's home.

His brother is a successful writer who's too selfish to pay for his half of the funeral, his wife's hoping to conceive their first child on the same day and most worryingly, a diminutive gay man threatens to sully the proceedings by revealing the deceased's extra-marital activities.

Don't worry, there's good form for hilarious remakes here- Neil LaBute directed the infamous remake of The Wicker Man. Sadly, Death at a Funeral just isn't as funny as that film. In exchange for Nicolas Cage though, he has mustered a plethora of comedic talent, including Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, James Marsden, Danny Glover, Keith David and Luke Wilson. Oh, and he got Martin Lawrence in too.

Let me introduce you to another little bit of shorthand I have going when I see his films, I call it the Martin Lawrence Singularity. The theory goes like this- Martin Lawrence isn't funny. QED. As a consequence, he is a comedic vacuum from which no laughs can escape, meaning every time he's on-screen, be it with Rock or Marsden or Morgan, everything is a lot less funny just for his being there. He taxes comedy, and so Death at a Funeral could never grade any higher than a 3/5.

Fortunately, my little prejudices there fit the film quite well anyway. It's funny, but never riotously so. In some respects, that should be a success, as the 2007 original was a darkly comic and restrained affair. Instead, LaBute has chosen to replay that script in broader strokes, and the material just isn't equal to the tonal shift.

When it is funny, it's pretty specifically down to James Marsden, who makes the best of a madcap hallucinogenic sub-plot, and Danny Glover. This is the first Glover film I've seen since the prolific "Dial Hard" Orange cinema advert was in circulation, and I'm glad that he made me forget how annoyed I was by that with his turn as the crotchety Uncle Russell. He's given a fair bit to work with alongside Tracy Morgan, who's much more likable here than in Cop Out.

It just follows the original pretty much step by step, the only clear difference story-wise being in a tacked on "d'awww" dénouement to the story of two certain characters. Peter Dinklage reprises his role as the gay lover of the deceased, and is fine, but much the same as before and it was a twist that wasn't telegraphed the first time they did this film. The only other additions are a few jokes about ethnicity, something that's apparently very important in a film with this cast for some reason that no one really knows or finds funny.

Death at a Funeral is obviously a popular remake of the less-watched original, but that's not necessarily to say that it's a better film. Fair play to anyone who enjoys it- there are laughs to be had, but not nearly enough to match the shift in pitch and performance LaBute wanted to install. There are some fine comedy performances on show if nothing else, and I say with confidence that I'd have liked it more if it weren't prolonging the stereotype that Martin Lawrence is funny.

Death at a Funeral is currently showing in cinemas nationwide.

Brooklyn's Finest is the latest from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, who returns to the police procedural sub-genre after a period of dipping his toes with mixed genre fare like King Arthur, Tears of the Sun and Shooter. Three seemingly unconnected cops are on a collision course on their respective beats in crime-riddled Brooklyn.

Undercover cop Tango is dying to get out of the character he's been playing for years as he tangles with his conflicted loyalties. Narcotics cop Sal is so poorly paid that he'll do anything to secure a new home for his pregnant wife and multitudes of children. And of course, wizened beat cop Eddie has just one week to retirement.

Let me get something straight from the outset- there is very little in Brooklyn's Finest that you haven't seen done elsewhere. Is it as good as The Departed? Or Fuqua's own Training Day? Of course not, but where Fuqua has succeeded is in doing all those things you've seen before better than most police procedurals, buoyed by some fine performances and a thorough and frenetic pace.

The pace is particularly worth mentioning because this film is 132 minutes long. I very much doubt there'll be another film that rattles along as nicely as this. The acting is also top notch, and Richard Gere is better than he has been in years as Eddie. It's not a matter of liking chick flicks or not- I genuinely can't remember a time Gere really did something different like this. It's not all that challenging- you've seen Bruce Willis do something fairly similar in Sin City and you're largely waiting to see if the Ret Irony trope is borne out, but he's the most watchable of the principal characters.

Ethan Hawke isn't much to write home about here- he's too volatile to take entirely seriously. His sporadic freak-outs don't make the script seem spontaneous as much as melodramatic and over the top. Don Cheadle just feels very much in the background throughout, and what's more interesting than both his and Hawke's performances are their actual characters.

The central conceit of Brooklyn's Finest is that it's shit being a cop in Brooklyn. A sound thesis unless you like being a cop in Brooklyn, but as far as the script plunges Sal and Tango into their respective desperation, there's a moral compass that makes them both very strong characters. At key moments, they have the opportunity to end all their troubles by doing something against their scruples, but they withdraw because each believe they're better than this.

At the same time, it's not a film about right and wrong. As Vincent D'Onofrio puts it in his brief appearance, it's about being "righter" and "wronger" than the antagonists. This isn't good vs. evil because that's not how real people operate. The corrupt are punished, and so are the self-righteous. At the blood-soaked conclusion, it ulitmately winds up as a film that is without faith, framing Brooklyn as a godless place, and one where it's bloody awful to be a cop.

It's not a great film, but you can safely go and see Brooklyn's Finest and expect your money's worth in return. It's a film that's deceptively deep, and it has more than enough to hold your attention. It trots through the cop movie clichés, but that's not all it does. Not as emotionally engaging as its director or screenwriter think it is, but certainly worth a watch.

Brooklyn's Finest is currently showing in cinemas nationwide.

If you've seen Death at a Funeral or Brooklyn's Finest, why not share your comments either on the films or on my reviews? If you're worried about how the Martin Lawrence Singularity may affect you, just make sure you're never in the same room as him when you tell that one really funny joke you know.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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