KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (2016)

October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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SLOW LEARNERS (2015)

August 19, 2015

slow learners Greetings again from the darkness. One of the staples of Romantic Comedies is that the two key players are the only ones who don’t realize they are “right” for each other. This is often accomplished through one of two methods: either two characters who “despise” each other, or as characters who are “just good friends”. This little film manages to blend those two approaches … and make us laugh in the process.

The first 15 or 20 minutes of the film are packed with very sharp comedy writing and acting. Adam Pally (“Happy Endings”) plays Jeff, and Sarah Burns (“Enlightened”) plays Anne. These two misfit adults get along very well together both as co-workers and friends who quote literature at (not to) each other. Anne’s opening visit to the doctor (played by Peter Grosz of Sonic ad fame) is outright hilarious, while Adam’s book club features some real zingers from Bobby Moynihan, Gil Ozeri, and Reid Scott (“Veep”).

It’s not until Jeff and Anne make a pact to change their public personas in an effort to be “cool” and more attractive to the opposite sex that the film takes kind of a nasty – well at least unlikable – turn. Becoming alcoholic d-bags does help them experience a summer of wild escapades, but predictably, neither is especially happy. Anne picks up pointers from some trashy reality TV show called “Prisoners of Love” … a knock-off of “The Bachelor” that deals with convicts and the women who would love them.

Adding to the comedic elements are quick scenes with Cecily Strong, Catherine Reitman (daughter of Ivan) and Kate Flannery, along with a couple of sequences with Jeff’s parents (Kevin Dunn, Marceline Hugot). More interactions with the parents would have been a welcome respite from the extended d-baggery of Jeff and Anne.

Mr. Pally is a master of the deadpan delivery, while Ms. Burns can best be described as a Kristen Wiig starter kit (that’s a compliment). Co-directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce, and co-writers Matt Serword and Peter Swords lost sight of what delivered such a strong beginning for the film, and instead focused on reminding us to “embrace the darkness” and to “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”. Good lessons indeed, but maybe not the comedy gold mine that was expected.

watch the trailer:

 


JOBS (2013)

August 21, 2013

jobs1 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the key characteristics of Steve Jobs was that he was constantly striving for perfection. Not just good. Not just acceptable. He wanted the perfect product in the perfect package sold in the perfect store. Whether or not you are a fan of Jobs and Apple, it’s painful to watch a middling movie about the man and the company … a movie that seems to strive for very little, and certainly not perfection.

Ashton Kutcher delivers an impersonation of Jobs complete with beady eyes, slumped shoulders and awkward gait. This is not one of those biopics where the performer disappears into the famous character. We never forget that we are watching Kutcher’s attempt to act and sound like Jobs. But Kutcher is far from the worst part of the movie … in fact, he is fine, given what he has to work with.

jobs2 The real issue with the movie is that it just offers no real insight into the man or the company. Instead we see only the headlines: Jobs drops out, Jobs goes barefooted, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs takes advantage of Woz, Jobs does drugs, Jobs eats fruit, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs is booted out, Jobs comes back, Jobs is a jerk.  The challenge to telling the story of Steve Jobs and Apple stems from finding the genius within the jerk.  Walter Isaacson’s book “Steve Jobs” does exceptional work on that front, and I believe there is a movie project in the works based on his source material.

The supporting cast is impressive: Dermot Mulroney (Mike Makkula), Lukas Haas (Daniel Kottke, Matthew Modine ( John Sculley), JK Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, John Getz, Ron Eldard (Rod Holt), Kevin Dunn and James Woods. Especially effective, and maybe the only reason to see the movie, is Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak.  Woz is known to be the technical jobs3genius behind the founding of Apple and Gad perfectly captures the spirit of Wozniak as we in the public have come to know him over the years.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote), the film is written by first time screenwriter Matt Whiteley. This seems inexplicable to me. A writer with no credits is charged with coming up with a script on one of the most enigmatic and complex and successful people of our times. In fact, the result is what one would expect … a made-for-TV type glossy presentation that doesn’t dig too deep or offer any insight. In short, the kind of movie that Steve Jobs would have despised.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want the “Cliff’s Notes” version of Steve Jobs and Apple OR you want to see Josh Gad’s best performance to date

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you want insight and substance behind the story of Jobs and Apple … instead, read Walter Isaacson’s book

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR6yMl2FZSQ

 


WARRIOR

September 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit thrilling when a movie catches us off-guard and is much more than expected. Walking in, I was all set for a testosterone fueled fight fest featuring BS bravado and mounds of machismo. While that element is abundantly present, writer/director Gavin O’Connor wraps the fighting around a pretty interesting story about family, bravery, desperation, pride and forgiveness.

The story begins with the convergence of a broken family – two brothers and their father. The split occurred many years ago, and without the details, we are able to piece together that dad (Nick Nolte) was a violent drunken ex-Marine and the mother planned to take the two boys and run. One of the brothers (Joel Edgerton) had fallen in love and decided to stay with dad. The younger brother (Tom Hardy) went with mom and even nursed her through her final days of cancer prior to his joining the Marines. The three men have been incommunicado for years, until one day Tommy (Hardy) shows up on Nolte’s doorstep.

 What sets this one apart is the details of each of the brother’s stories, very little of which I will discuss here. There is a terrific scene on the Atlantic City beach where their demons confront each other and we see that so much pain and bitterness exists despite their having been teenagers at the time of the split. They each felt abandoned by the other. Now one is an angry ex-Marine and the other is a desperate physics teacher with a family. This story couldn’t possibly end any place other than smack in the middle of an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) cage fight!

 Their Dad (Nolte) had trained the boys as youth wrestlers and now a giant $5 million tournament is being held. Both brothers are carrying secrets and need money to solve their problems. Their secrets drive them to risk life and limb in the cage of this most brutal activity. To best describe these characters, Tom Hardy has the presence and physique of the guy you would never consider confronting in a bar fight. Joel Edgerton is the kind that your buddies would egg you on thinking you could probably take him. Instead you would end up in the back of an ambulance.

 As expected, and shown in the trailer, the MMA tournament ends with the two brothers facing off and guilt-riddled dad watching from the crowd. Despite the rowdiness and violence of the fighting, very little blood is shown. That’s not what this movie is about. Instead we get many adrenaline-rushes from the spectacle of the fights, plus a split-screen montage of the training leading up to the big moment. This is a crowd-pleaser in the vein of The Fighter, but not quite as mainstream given the MMA element.

 The two leads were each on my list of favorite movies last year. Joel Edgerton was in the excellent and under-the-radar Animal Kingdom, while Tom Brady was in the mega-hit Inception and will play Bane in the upcoming Batman film. In this film, Edgerton has more freedom with his character, but Brady does a wonderful job of capturing the quiet intensity followed by roid rage in the ring. Most surprising is the fine job turned in by Nick Nolte. He really showed up for this one. Other support work comes from Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn and Frank Grillo. We also see former Olympic wrester Kurt Angle as the terrifying Russian MMA machine Yoba, and writer/director Gavin O’Connor as JJ Riley, the millionaire sponsoring the tournament.

There will be comparisons made to both Rocky and The Fighter, and both make sense. It is not quite at that level, but don’t mistake this as some dumb fight movie made for teenage boys. There is a story and it provides further proof that men, no matter how hard they try, manage to screw up the whole family thing more often than not … but in the end, they do try their best to make things better!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for a high intensity male-centric family drama with an abundance of testosterone OR you want to see the best Nick Nolte performance in years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer slow, weepy family dramas rather than the simmering explosions of male communication OR simply watching MMA is more violence than you care to take on

watch the trailer:


TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

July 2, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pride myself on being a fan of many different types of films – everything from World Cinema to Super Heroes.  However, it would be unfair to analyze, critique or compare a Transformers movie to any “normal” movie. Being somewhat limited in scope by the source material, director Michael Bay, delivers what the fan of the series want … full scale noise and all-out action.

While Mr. Bay admitted that part two of this trilogy was lacking much (an understatement), it appears his efforts to improve part three come not from a script doctor, but rather by tossing in some familiar Hollywood faces: John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey and Ken Jeong. Oh, and we also get Bill O’Reilly, an odd sequence with legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon), and the best surprise – Leonard Nimoy voicing Sentinel Prime.

 Most of the same key players are back: Shia LaBeouf as Sam (friend to Optimus Prime), John Turturro (having cashed in on his 10 min of fame), Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as soldiers, and Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s parents in a couple of throw away scenes that cost much less than the CGI that dominates the movie.

While I remain an avid opponent to 3-D, this film offers a few of the best uses since Avatar. Unfortunately the dimmed coloring offset the benefits and continue to annoy me. Just remove your glasses periodically and you can easily see how much brighter the colors are without the 3-D muting. Such a shame.

 Michael Bay knows explosions. And there is no shortage on display here. We get plenty of rock ’em sock ’em action and the military is on full display, especially with some pretty cool skydiving tactics. Heck, we even get Frances McDormand as a power-hungry bureaucrat. For those who know Chicago, the familiar sights abound. The Wrigley Building plays a vital role, though it still bothers me a bit to see a skyscraper destroyed. I will say the tilted office is not even close to the cool factor of the rotating hallway of Inception, though the effort is appreciated.

 The battle of the robots is what (lots of) people pay to see and the 40 plus minute final battle is something to behold, even if it drags on entirely too long. And I can’t fail to mention that the lack of presence of Megan Fox‘ character is explained a couple of times as having “dumped” Sam. Sam has rebounded nicely with Carly, played by supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who looks just fine in a $200,000 Mercedes, a slim white dress or conversing with an injured villainous robot. Yes, one must maintain a sense of humor during this movie.

The use of slo-motion, the ties to the space program, and the connection to Chernobyl are all a bit heavy-handed, but this is a Transformers movie, not a documentary. And the actual transformation of these guys is still one of the coolest on screen moments you can find … even if the story and dialogue will have you desperate for brain resuscitation when the movie finally ends.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Bay-splosions!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t believe the same guy (Peter Cullen) who voices Optimus Prime, also voice Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame


UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

November 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Three things about the film are undeniable. One: A runaway train is fascinating and dangerous. Two: Director Tony Scott really likes working with Denzel Washington (this is their 5th movie together). Three: Inspired by a real life 2001 runaway train in Toledo, the story plays right into Mr. Scott’s wheelhouse with action and heroic testosterone.

Admittedly, I tend to expect a great deal from filmmakers – well at least maximum effort.  Sometimes, this impacts my ability to just sit back and take a film for what it is.  Such is the case with Unstoppable.  While it would seem that a runaway train endangering many innocent people would be enough, I found myself annoyed that there wasn’t more.  On the plus side, tension is rampant and the film does an adequate job of capturing the emotions from three different perspectives – inside a train (Denzel and Chris Pine), at command center (Rosario Dawson and staff) and at the corporate office (smarmy Kevin Dunn). We also see exactly how a simple poor decision by one major goofball (Ethan Suplee) can imperil thousands of people.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good stuff ends. The script is abysmal and the acting only slightly better. Denzel sleepwalks through another textbook “Denzel” character. Rosario Dawson is given little to work with as the supervisor, and the usually dependable Kevin Dunn is way over the top as the corporate bad guy who is only worried about the hit to the stock price. There is even a ridiculous shot of the Chairman on a golf course, in case we viewers are too dumb to understand the perspective of the company. Chris Pine (Star Trek, Bottle Shock) is the only one who shows much, yet he still is given horrible dialogue to spout.

For proof that an unstoppable train movie can be exhilarating AND well written, check out Andrey Konchalovskiy‘s 1985 Runaway Train. Both Jon Voight and Eric Roberts received Oscar nominations. The psychological warfare in that one matched the breakneck pace of the train itself. Instead, this current film is written by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) in such a one dimensional frame that it takes the dramatized news reports to remind us that real people are in danger.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you are sucker for movies based on a true story OR you can watch tension-laced action without asking for more

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you require character development OR you agree that at $20 mil per film, Denzel is overrated and overpaid.