Film reviews round-up: Collateral Beauty, Why Him?, Operation Chromite

One of the worst films of the year, one of James Franco’s most loveable performances, and a South Korean action flick with Liam Neeson

Geoffrey Macnab
Tuesday 20 December 2016 17:38
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Howard (Will Smith) comes face to face with Death, in the unlikely guise of Helen Mirren
Howard (Will Smith) comes face to face with Death, in the unlikely guise of Helen Mirren

Collateral Beauty (12A)

★☆☆☆☆

Dir. David Frankel, 97 mins, starring: Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Naomie Harris, Helen Mirren

Collateral Beauty is one of the last films to be released this year and also one of the very worst. This is a horribly stodgy and misconceived attempt to make a modern-day New York-set equivalent to It’s A Wonderful Life. There aren’t any angels called Clarence on display. Instead, director David Frankel provides us with three struggling off-Broadway actors called on to portray Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley) and Time (Jacob Latimore). The deeply contrived screenplay from Allan Loeb suggests that they may not be performing.

The reason these three spirits/thesps have been summoned is that hotshot advertising exec Howard Inlet (Will Smith) is in a prolonged slump following the death of his six-year-old daughter. “We are certainly not just here to sell sh*t. We are here to connect,” Howard tells the rest of the team in a pep talk before his bereavement but, afterwards, he retreats from the world and spends his days in the office building elaborate constructions with thousands of dominoes.

As soon as he has finished one domino sculpture, he’ll destroy it with a single flick. In his spare time, he writes (and posts) letters to “love”, “death” and “time”. His neglect of his clients has put the future of the agency in jeopardy. That’s why his old colleagues hire a private detective to tail him and to try to prove that he is not mentally fit to run the company.

This is a movie full of lonely and unhappy people. Every character at the agency is in emotional turmoil. Howard’s business partner Whit (Edward Norton) has just been through a messy divorce and his pampered young daughter wants nothing to do with him. Claire (Kate Winslet) has been so devoted to her work for so long that it may now be too late for her to have kids of her own.

Simon (Michael Peña) is very ill and desperate to provide for his young family. The three come up with a bizarre scheme to hire actors to play Love, Death and Time,” to film Howard speaking to them and then to digitally tweak the footage so that it looks as if he’s talking to himself and really is a loony.

There are references here to parallel universes and the secrets of the cosmos. The real mystery, though, is why such fine actors all agreed to appear in such a half-baked movie. Late on, Helen Mirren gets arguably the very worst line in the film – the one in which she tells us that in spite of all the suffering and injustice in the world, we’ll find the “collateral beauty” if only we look hard enough for it.

As Death, Mirren is more Miss Marple than scythe-wielding grim reaper. Knightley’s Love is shy, impulsive, wears a red hat and is good at advertising slogans. Latimore’s Time is a brash street kid on a skateboard.

Collateral Beauty - Trailer 2

Meanwhile, as the grieving dad, Will Smith is at very low wattage. His is so busy looking distracted and forlorn that he gets very little chance to show off his trademark charm. It’s strange, too, to see an actor as intense as Norton in such a syrupy role. You always half expect that he is going to step out of character and expose the film as an ironic spoof. Unfortunately, he never does.

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The pick of the performances comes from Naomie Harris as Madeleine, the counsellor who has lost a daughter herself and holds meetings for parents who’ve suffered similar bereavements. She’s the only one of the main protagonists who doesn’t give into extreme self-pity.

Collateral Beauty has glossy and impressive production values. There is beautiful high angle footage of the New York skyline at night. The street level scenes (Norton chasing after Knightley through a crowded Manhattan or Smith riding across town on his bike) are shot with plenty of verve. It’s the script itself which acts as the deadweight here in what turns out to be one of the soggiest, most manipulative melodramas imaginable.

Why Him? (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir. John Hamburg, 111 mins, starring: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Keegan-Michael Key, Griffin Gluck

Why Him? is a very crude and intermittently very entertaining seasonal comedy that plays like an adult version of Meet The Parents. Its trump card is the performance from James Franco, every bit as sleazy here as he was in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers but who also brings an unlikely and appealing little boy lost-like naiveté to his role as the foul-mouthed tech billionaire Laird Mayhew.

Laird has “no filters”. He’ll say whatever comes into his mind, generally prefaced by as many expletives as possible. He is going out with young Stanford student Stephanie (Zoey Deutsch). She invites parents Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) and Barb (Megan Mullally) to come to Palo Alto to spend the holidays with her and Laird. Ned runs his own printing company and is a strait-laced type, not at all used to dealing with tattoo-covered gaming moguls like Laird.

Actor Jonah Hill co-wrote a screenplay in which the humour is often prurient in the extreme. There are jokes here about vaginal douches, bukkake, and moose urine. The filmmakers also play up the differences between “old media,” as represented by Ned with his struggling print business back east, and the brave new world of Silicon Valley where even loo paper is considered an extreme anachronism. This leads to maximum, trousers-round the-ankles embarrassment for Ned in one of the film’s most excruciating scenes.

Why Him? - Red Band Trailer 2

Like Robert DeNiro’s character in Meet The Parents, Cranston’s Ned is uptight and extremely distrustful of spontaneous expressions of emotion. Cranston is effectively the straight man to Franco’s clown but he plays his role with just the right measure of pomposity and wounded dignity. Inevitably, the anarchic glee of the early scenes gives way to a much more conventional style of storytelling.

Ned and Laird may seem like polar opposites in temperament, class and behaviour but as Stephanie makes clear, she regards them as being very similar. Both are extremely stubborn and both think that they know what is best for her.

Why Him? flags eventually. Some of its later gags are very laboured. The scenes of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from rock band Kiss singing acoustic versions of Christmas carols are pretty feeble and the celebrity cameos from chefs (Richard Blais) and inventors (Elon Musk of electric car fame) verge on the redundant.

Nonetheless, Franco gives one of his most likeable performances and there is strong comic support too from Keegan-Michael Key as Laird’s bodyguard/valet/fixer/business advisor/martial arts instructor Gustav, who speaks in a wonderfully camp Germanic accent. In its own goofy, lowbrow way, the film is plenty of fun.

Operation Chromite (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir. John H Lee, 108 mins, starring: Liam Neeson, Jung-jae Lee, Beom-su Lee, Sean Dulake, Justin Rupple

Liam Neeson gives an eccentric performance as General MacArthur (“I am Douglas MacArthur, I win wars”) in this South Korean war movie set in the run-up to The Battle Of Inchon in 1950. Neeson’s MacArthur is seen smoking his Popeye-like pipe and arguing with his fellow military commanders back at headquarters while the film’s hero, the James Bond-like Captain Jang Hak-soo (Lee Jung-jae), leads an undercover mission behind enemy North Korean lines.

Every so often, characters will stop to discuss ideology or MacArthur’s bid for the presidency but this is primarily an action-driven romp. The tension early on comes from Jang’s efforts to pass himself and his men off as loyal communists. The ruthless, trigger-happy villain Lim Gye-jin (played in quietly sadistic fashion by Lee Beom-soo) is suspicious of them from the outset.

Surreptitious raids on enemy offices in search of maps of mines, shoot-outs in barracks and hospitals and chases are all thrown into the mix. This is a film squarely aimed at South Korean audiences – and it can’t help but seem mildly baffling to viewers from elsewhere. Its tone is unashamedly jingoistic and the screenplay is very simple-minded. As a film about the political intricacies of the Korean war, it’s an utter failure but as a boys’ own adventure romp, full of gunfire and explosions, it just about passes muster.

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