Tag Archives: Will Smith

A Pair of Aces

King Richard

by George Wolf

You know how many parents are convinced their kid is destined for athletic greatness? Quite a few, and that’s just in your neighborhood.

So how – and why – did Richard Williams’s predictions for daughters Venus and Serena come so incredulously true?

That’s a compelling story, one that King Richard tells with enough restraint and humanity to sidestep most sports movie cliches and find layers of true inspiration.

The Williams family – Richard (Will Smith), wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton), and three additional daughters from Brandi’s previous relationship – weren’t exactly welcomed into the L.A. tennis community when Richard put his master plan in motion.

Tennis was a sport for the rich and the pale. They were a Black family from Compton, often dodging gang activity for a chance to practice on run down community courts. Richard was dogged in his search for a coach, first landing Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) before Venus earned the entire family an invite to Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal, playing delightfully against type) exclusive training center in Florida.

In his debut screenplay, writer Zach Baylin follows a fairly standard biopic formula, but manages to weave in necessary layers of nuance. While we see that the doubt Richard encounters about his daughters’ future greatness is understandable, the added barrier of racism is understood without an overplaying the hand. In fact, Baylin’s script (or the editing bay) occasionally downplays obstacles that the Williams’s surely encountered all too often, seemingly mindful of the film’s 138 minute running time.

But director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) has a good feel for pacing, with well-placed bits of tension, humor and impressively-staged tennis sequences that never let the film feel sluggish.

And while you can hardly be blamed for detecting the whiff of “Will Smith Oscar bait” in the air, don’t be surprised if he lands his third nomination. The film is an inspirational crowd pleaser that steers refreshingly clear of pandering, and Smith responds with a performance that leans into the colorful personality of Richard Williams while checking his penchant for heavy-handed mugging.

It helps that Smith is constantly elevated by Sidney and Singleton, the two wonderful young actresses playing Venus and Serena, and the always amazing Ellis (Lovecraft Country, Ray, The Help). Though Brandi’s character is often strong and silent, there are fine moments that prove just how vital she is to the Williams plan. And by the time Brandi is dressing down Richard as just another man that won’t admit he’s scared, it’s clear how vital Ellis is to the film’s resonance.

Though Venus and Serena get Executive Producer credits, the film doesn’t ignore some problematic areas in Richard’s personality, and Smith makes the mix of crazy-like-a-fox determination, gentle humor and hidden scars one that -like Smith himself – is hard to dislike.

As the older sister and the first to find success on the tour, it is Venus that gets much of the film’s focus. But Richard’s prediction for Serena (“the best ever”) serves as a natural pivot to send us home with a reminder about how lucky we’ve been to witness their greatness.

And as the best sports movies always do, King Richard scores often enough to land its message past the fault lines. The Williams plan may have been heavy on tennis, but it’s anchored by life lessons that not only benefitted all of Richard and Brandi’s children, but would undoubtedly be an asset in any arena.

So what made Richard’s vision so much clearer than every other parent in the stands?

Just some unending determination and confident stubbornness. Plus two daughters with once-in-a-generation gifts, the passionate drive to excel, and the desire to make the road a little smoother for the next young phenom that isn’t white or wealthy. That helps, too.

Who’s Bad?

Bad Boys for Life

by Hope Madden

It’s been 17 years since we last checked in on Detective Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and his goofy partner Marcus (Martin Lawrence). One of them has intimacy issues. One of them always wants to retire. They drive recklessly around Miami and wreak general havoc.

In those 17 years, Generation X has gotten old.

Marcus has a grandbaby now and wants to retire again. Then Mike is almost killed, so now Marcus really wants to retire. That means frustrated Mike, desperate to reestablish his manhood by finding the guy who tried to kill him, must team up with Miami PD’s new superteam, AMMO.

That’s right, AMMO, which stands for literally the most attractive group of police officers in the history of crime. They’re tech-tactical. They have a drone and shit, and no one would ever notice a drone flying into the abandoned warehouse while they do an arms deal.

But Mike don’t play that. He’s old school. And old. You know he’s old because he’s always wearing long sleeved shirts and jackets in Miami.

Is Bad Boys for Life ludicrous? Oh, hell yes. Luckily its casual sexism and jingoism are offset by its refreshing pro-violence stance.

Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilail Fallah—whose Shakespearean take on Brussels gang violence, Black, is well worth finding—offer no such lyrical balance of carnage and emotion here. It’s actually hard to imagine a film franchise so single-mindedly opposite of their insightful gangster drama.

It’s clear the marching orders were: get the bad boys back together, blow stuff up and trade quips! Fine, but who ordered all the forced ridiculousness and tonal whiplash?

Saddled with a breathtakingly by-the-numbers script by committee (Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan), the directing duo punctuates dramatic moments with comic relief while they distract from a weak story with nonsensical car chases and explosions, and when all else fails, fall back on daddy issues.

Don’t look at the credits and you’d swear Michael Bay directed this movie. (Bonus: Bay has a cameo.)

The film broaches interesting themes as one partner turns to God while another turns to bloodthirsty vengeance in the face of death. But Lawrence, ever the sloppy sidekick, makes clear that spirituality and peace are only fodder for jokes and neither partner will regain his manhood until there’s a massive weapon between his legs and he’s shooting Mexicans out of the sky.

Will Mike learn to love? Will he whip his tech-savvy and law abiding new team into shape (that is, help them to embrace lethal and mainly illegal justice)?

And finally, can we expect more of this?

Maybe. Whatcha gonna do?

Pigeon: Impossible

Spies in Disguise

by Hope Madden

The Christmastime animated feature Spies in Disguise (based on a short called Pigeon: Impossible, which is an altogether superior title) is a mash note to science, weirdos and peace. I can get behind that.

Will Smith is the voice of Lance Sterling, America’s top spy. Lance is cool. He’s daring. He’s unstoppable. And he flies solo.  

But when an evil nemesis (the always welcome Ben Mendelsohn) outwits him, he turns reluctantly to nerdy gadget officer Walter (Tom Holland) for help.

Walter turns him into a pigeon. Naturally.

The ensuing fish out of water (pigeon out of air?) comedy is clever enough to keep your attention. It’s equal parts fun, good natured and funny without becoming overly sentimental.

Besides Smith, Holland and Mendelsohn, Spies boasts impressive and interesting vocal talent choices: Reba McEntire as the head of the agency, Rashida Jones as the lead investigator and Karen Gillan as another techy in the agency named Eyes.

The movie looks good. In fact, in certain scenes—particularly those in Venice—the film looks great. It also carries with it a healthy message, one that writers Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor articulate without preaching.

The film is more charming than outright funny, relying on its leads’ natural charisma and fun chemistry, but it does offer more than a handful of chuckles. The wee ones at our screening laughed a good deal, while the slightly older tots laughed on occasion but seemed entertained throughout.

It’s also a film that won’t make parents want to wait in the lobby.

Hello, It’s Me

Gemini Man

by George Wolf

In 2013, a little-seen flick called The Congress glimpsed a future world where Robin Wright (as Robin Wright) didn’t have to act anymore, she just sold the rights to her likeness.

Barely six years later, Gemini Man shows us that day is coming more sooner than later. Trouble is, it shows us little else.

Will Smith is Henry Brogan, a master government assassin who wants to retire. He apparently hasn’t seen movies like the one he’s in, or he’d know that won’t sit well with villainous villain Clay Verris (Clive Owen).

Henry has barely taken that first fishing trip before he and Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the younger agent assigned to watch him, are globe-trotting for their lives.

Who wants them dead? And why?

Both those questions, though, have to get in line behind the big one: why does that hot new assassin look just like a young Henry?

So it’s Will vs. Will, as Oscar-winning director Ang Lee employs the latest de-aging CGI (somewhat impressive-but the mouth is still the final frontier) for a completely pedestrian black ops yarn overrun with standard issue spy game dialog, heavy-handed daddy issues and soggy sentiments on mortality.

There’s obvious talent involved here, and the film is certainly a showcase for the latest in tech wizardry. Much beyond that, though, and this Gemini Man’s biggest mystery is the very meaning of existence.

Carpet Ride Seeks Magic


by George Wolf

Stepping in for Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin was always going to be a thankless task, but while everyone was busy debating the casting of Will Smith, the director’s chair went largely unnoticed.

Could Guy Ritchie, who’s evolved from rough and tumble British crime capers (Snatch) to both big budget hits (Sherlock Holmes) and disasters (King Arthur), capture the magic of Disney’s best live action remakes?

Well, how many wishes does he have left?

The tale of “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) using the Genie (Smith) to get him next to Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) ends up feeling too stiff and self-conscious to ever let some real wonder out of the bottle.

The story arc has been altered slightly, leading to an earlier meeting between Aladdin and the Princess, and a relationship where the stakes don’t feel as high or the changes of heart as well-earned.

Reaction shots and choppy dialog (from Ritchie and co-writer John August) carrying an overly staged, exaggerated odor, while the Genie is plagued less by casting than by the less-than-cutting edge CGI.

Re-imagining the Genie character would have been a risky (but ambitious) move, and though Smith won’t make anyone forget Williams, he is hardly the big problem here. His charm is abundant and a valuable asset for the film, especially when the Genie takes human form.

His singing voice, though, is not strong. And strangely, neither is
Massoud’s, compounding the weaknesses in Ritchie’s bland vision for the musical numbers.

The Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes are still stellar, but the repeated addition of a new girl power anthem for Jasmine (“Speechless) ranks as forgettable bait for an Original Song Oscar nod.

And while I’m ranting, maybe we could have an extra thirty second buffer to decompress before the ubiquitous cry of “DJ Khaled!” signals an oncoming pop mix for the closing credits?

Even the best directors have struggled with musicals (Attenborough’s misguided A Chorus Line and Eastwood’s limp Jersey Boys jump to mind), and though Aladdin didn’t originate on the stage, the music sequences demand a pizzazz that Ritchie is helpless to present.

He seems much more comfortable with film’s darker edges, and an intensely slimy turn from Marwan Kenzari as Jafar helps the villain’s quest for absolute power find some needed gravitas.

Look, the film still offers some perfectly fine moments of overly manufactured family entertainment that will make many parents nostalgic for the original. But after the live-action heights hit by The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, this Aladdin is a carpet ride missing much of its magic.

Grief, Lies and Videotape

Collateral Beauty

by Hope Madden

It’s December. That means many things to many people – to Will Smith, it means Oscar bait season.

The Legend of Bagger Vance. Ali. The Pursuit of Happyness. Seven Pounds. Concussion. Collateral Beauty.

One of those movies is pretty good. It isn’t this one.

In Collateral Beauty, Smith plays Howard, a charismatic ad exec whose daughter died three years ago. Since then, he’s been a zombie, rarely eating, riding his bicycle dangerously and spending his work days building elaborate domino structures just to watch them collapse.

Oh, the symbolism!

In a fit of grief one night, he writes three letters: one to death, one to time, and one to love.

In an audacious contrivance, wheels turn in the minds of his friends and colleagues – played by Kate Winslet, Ed Norton and Michael Pena – and the next thing you know, those letters are returned to sender, by hand, by the recipient.

Death – played with panache by Helen Mirren, has lessons to share, as do Love (Keira Knightly) and Time (Jacob Latimore).

Grief is a tough topic. It’s easy to be emotionally manipulative. It’s easy to be patronizing. Director David Frankel and writer Allan Loeb like easy.

Loeb tackled the same theme with his first feature, Things We Lost in the Fire – a well-cast effort that seeks to provide resolution to the grieving. From there, he’s mostly written bad comedies, often starring Kevin James.

Smith stares, tears up and rarely speaks in this cloying, predictable piece of pseudo-enlightened garbage – a film that offers telegraphed twists and jaw-dropping self-satisfaction.

One person’s grief is really nobody else’s damn business. It’s not a learning opportunity for those around, and there are no easy resolutions. Collateral Beauty does not empathize with the grieving. It empathizes with those uncomfortable with grief.

This is selfish. And yet, selfishness is applauded in this film, reframed as confused acts of love.


Losing the Will to Live

Suicide Squad

by Hope Madden

Through it all – casting changes, recuts, reshoots, August opening date – I remained cautiously optimistic. Suicide Squad could be good.

Why? Because the villains are the most interesting part of the DC universe and the idea of a film unburdened by some superhero or another’s conflicted conscience or internal crisis, free to revel in the wing-nut chaos of nothing but villains felt fresh and risky.

And there’s not one but nine villains … yeah, nine is a lot. It could be tough to piece together a story that feels less like a cattle call than a coherent film.

But Suicide Squad offers a marginally promising cast. Will Smith is tired, but Jared Leto (hot off his Oscar) as the Joker can’t help but pique interest, and Margot Robbie’s done nothing but impress (until Tarzan, anyway). Plus – get this – the genuinely excellent Viola Davis takes on ringleader duties in a film that corrals all the nastiest bad guys for a black ops mission against a meta-human menace.

When Viola Davis can’t deliver, your movie is doomed.

Suicide Squad is doomed.

Writer/director David Ayer has quietly built a solid career with incrementally more thoughtful, more brooding, more violent action films. For those who thought the DC catastrophe Batman V Superman was dark, Ayer was the promise of something truly gritty.

And what more does he need? All the “worst of the worst” gathered together, leading a mission to save the world or die trying – and maybe die when they’re finished, because we certainly can’t let them out, right? They’re the worst of the worst!

Except for the one who really just wants to know his daughter’s OK. Or the one who’s reformed, his conscience keeping him from fighting this fight. Or the one who’s not bad, she’s just in love. Or the others who are absolutely useless to any mission and are here just to clutter up an over-packed, under-impressive landscape of bloodless action and uninspired set pieces.

Ayer has shown promise across his previous five films, but self-serious drama tends to be his undoing. Imagine how he struggles with tone in this would-be flippant exercise in comic book self-indulgence. Robbie and Smith try to instill some badass levity, but any success is due to their talent and timing because there’s not a single funny line in the film.

Leto’s little more than a glorified cameo in a landscape so overstuffed with needless characters that you’re almost distracted from the stunning plot holes and absence of narrative logic.

Suicide Squad is not going to save this disappointing summer – you should save yourself the aggravation.


Pros at Cons


by George Wolf

There’s something inherently cool about heist movies, isn’t there? Exotic locales, beautiful people, and outlandish schemes to steal lots of cash often play well together. Focus has all the ingredients to be a solid entry to the genre – as long as you don’t mind a certain irony in the film’s title.

Will Smith is Nicky, a veteran con man operating a well-oiled group of sophisticated thieves. He isn’t looking for any new recruits, until young Jess (Margot Robbie) impresses him with her grifting skills and her eagerness to move into the big leagues. So, she joins the team, but after a big score and some quality alone time, Nicky leaves Jess disappointed and hurt.

Fast forward three years, and Nicky is hired to help a Formula One racing hotshot pull a con, only to discover that hotshot’s longtime girlfriend is his own former flame Jess. With old wounds reopened, Nicky is thrown off his game as we try to keep up with just who is conning whom.

The irony is, a film that points out how people are conned with misdirection can’t keep you from noticing the ridiculous age difference in the romantic leads. Older man/much younger woman casting may be a Hollywood tradition, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one.

That’s not a knock on the actors. Smith is ultra smooth and remains in great shape, and Robbie’s sexy, spunky mix nearly steals the show, but he’s farther past 40 than she is past 19, and the romantic chemistry between them never feels quite true.

The writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, already with fine credits including I Love You, Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid Love and Bad Santa, exhibit a nice feel for the basics that make a heist film tick. It’s often confident, clever and stylish, especially during an early segment which finds Nicky’s crew wandering through a crowd of Bourbon Street revelers and systemically pilfering at will.

Though the final con is a bit underwhelming and the few nods to character development are rushed enough to be unnecessary, Focus delivers some high-gloss fun. It’s fast-paced and sure to keep you guessing, which is good. You don’t want to look too hard for substance.




Earth..the Boring Frontier


by George Wolf


At the recent screening of After Earth, I overheard one lady say to another, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Will Smith movie I didn’t like.”

No doubt, the man has been a pretty reliable crowd pleaser for many years. His latest, though, is little more than a weak attempt to make his son the next big movie star in the house.

Jaden Smith gets top billing here, and well he should. Will is merely the co-star in a completely pedestrian sci-fi yarn about facing your fears, reaching your destiny, becoming a man, and zzzzzzzzzzz…..

It’s one thousand years in the future, and mankind has fled to a new home planet, after ravaging Earth until it was no longer hospitable. The bravery of military commander Cypher Raige (Will) has earned him hero status, leaving his son Katai (Jaden)  as a young cadet with big shoes to fill.

A crash-landing on the now-quarantined Earth leaves the father with two broken legs, and the son as the only hope for survival. Katai must journey through the dangers Earthlings left behind, as he searches for a distress signal miles away from their crash site.

Director/co writer M. Night Shyamalan, working from Will Smith’s story idea, continues his streak of films that make you wonder what the heck happened to the young auteur who gave us The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. There’s no reason to care about anything in the film; it comes at you without a hint of subtlety, as if you’re just expected to buy in simply because they’re selling.

It’s all so trite and obvious, from the environmental scolding to the boy yelling in the wilderness for his father to believe in him.

Will, apparently due to his character’s legendary calm and fearless nature, gives a one note performance anchored in scowling and lowering his voice. Jaden, after a nice breakthrough performance in the fine remake of The Karate Kid, can’t quite make Katai’s quest for manhood a convincing journey.

Heck, it doesn’t even have the look of a summer blockbuster, especially after the sublime scorched-Earth visuals just seen in Oblivion.

No offense to ladies at the screening, but even Will Smith isn’t likable enough to save After Earth.