Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie Review: “Keeping Up with the Joneses”

Keeping Up with the Joneses

*** out of 5
105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language
20th Century Fox

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Not every comedy needs to be the next classic. There are plenty of fantastic comedies that most people have probably never heard of. That’s not to say Keeping Up with the Joneses is a new classic — it’s far from it. But it’s also never horrible either. Some comedies can maintain enough momentum to justify their existence, even if it’s barely enough to keep it out of straight-to-video bargain bins. Director Greg Mottola’s last three films — Superbad, Adventureland, and Paul — may have set expectations higher than they should be, but it never completely flops either. It’s just that Mottola — along with his cast of Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, and Jon Hamm — could have given us so much more.

Jeff (Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Fisher) live such exhausted, routine lives that when they send their kids away to camp, the only thing they wanna do is queue up the DVR and pop some popcorn. They lack the spark they used to have, but it seems to reawaken after the Joneses — Tim (Hamm) and Natalie (Gadot) — move in across the street. They just seem too perfect and it starts eating away at Karen so much that she starts following Natalie around town. After Jeff and Karen find a surveillance monitor in a gift from the Joneses, all their suspicions are confirmed and they become embroiled in trying to keep their squeaky clean suburban demeanor. All while, you guessed it, keeping up with the Joneses in a high stakes game of espionage.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay has some fun lines scattered throughout — the funniest being Jeff and Karen bickering about that time Karen thought he was possessed — and tries toying with spy conventions, but this is absolutely the least funny film of Mottola’s career. Of course, when you look back at who was responsible for his string of hits — Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Paul), Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), and himself for Adventureland — there was obviously a little spit shine still needed before the screenplay made its way in front of the camera. Considering the only recognizable film on LeSieur’s resume is You, Me and Dupree, it’s not a total shock at the absence of hilarity.

At least the cast seems to be having fun. Galifianakis is more likeable than he almost ever has been as a lead and makes his pairing alongside Fisher surprisingly believable. Gadot and Hamm, however, steal the whole movie. The two have considerable chemistry and it would actually be hilarious if a sequel/spin-off featured them trying to keep up with the Gaffneys while living a truly domesticated life and trying to let old habits die hard. I’m sure any married with children couple will find plenty to laugh at, while spy fans will have fun watching Wonder Woman and Don Draper save the day in style. Keeping Up with the Joneses may not be the funniest film of the year, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion to recommend as a fun date movie.

Movie Review: “Ouija: Origin of Evil”

Ouija: Origin of Evil

**** 1/2
99 mins
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements
Universal Pictures

Article first published as published at

Despite how easy it is for a horror sequel to get the greenlight, it’s still surprising that Ouija got one. Based on the Hasbro board game, the original film was banished to deserved critical purgatory, but that didn’t stop it from earning $103 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. Before you can say sequel, here comes Mike Flanagan’s spectacular prequel frightfest, Ouija: Origin of Evil, to save the franchise no one wanted. Having just watched Flanagan’s terrific woman-in-peril-empowerment Netflix flick Hush over the weekend, I was hoping to be able to forgive him for his terrible cop out of an ending in Oculus. Low and behold, this Ouija is everything the first film wasn’t and in the best of ways, blowing it right out of the water.

Going back to 1967, widow Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is trying to hold her family together by holding fake seances to provide closure for those dealing with grief. Trying to pay the bills and keep her daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) in line, life is looking bleak. After Paulina sneaks out to a party where she plays with an Ouija board, Alice decides to up her game and brings one home. Soon enough, young Doris is communicating with her deceased father and something much more dangerous. Lucky for them, the girls’ school principal Father Tom (Henry Thomas) decides to take an interest in Doris who missed almost a whole week of school, but not before the house starts to have its way with her, unleashing a powerful entity threatening to kill all of them.

As much as I loved The Conjuring 2, it was far too schizophrenic in its tone compared to the first one. This is the year’s scariest film. No offense to James Wan, but Flanagan takes full advantage of his ’60s setting and runs with it right from the opening Universal logo. Cigarette burns litter the corners of frames; music warbles like we’re watching an old VHS tape; and an Exorcist homage sets up the grand finale we’ve been waiting for.

Flanagan — and co-writer/partner-in-crime Jeff Howard (Oculus, Before I Wake, and their upcoming Stephen King adaptation of Gerald’s Game and an I Know What You Did Last Summer reboot) — takes an old school approach, keeping the suspense running high with little scares sprinkled throughout leading up to the big ones. He’s also made this a far more emotional horror movie than audiences may be used to. You’re either going to love it (à la Poltergeist) or be bored while you wait for the goods. Things do get a little reliant on loud noise scares toward the end, but at least the plot makes sense — and the twist doesn’t feel like a cop out like Oculus did.

Ouija: Origin of Evil is the year’s scariest horror film, and keeps things lean and mean and just in time for Halloween!

Movie Review: “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

** 1/2 out of 5
118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements
Paramount Pictures

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With an ever changing clique of directors, Tom Cruise has gotten a lot of mileage out of his Mission: Impossible franchise. With each new entry, they’ve all managed to make an even better film than the last — with the exception of Christopher McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation because let’s face it, they’re gonna have to really knock it out of the park to best Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol.

Sadly, that isn’t the case with Cruise’s second installment of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, Never Go Back. As unusual casting choice Cruise was to begin with, the same thing could be said of director Edward Zwick. While having directed Cruise before — The Last Samurai — he’s never managed to make a top notch film. It doesn’t help that his resume is all over the map. And even his best films, Glory and Legends of the Fall, are now 27 and 22 years old. His lackadaisical approach encroaches every frame of Never Go Back, always keeping any kind of excitement from finally kicking into high gear. Not something fans of the first film will find endearing.

I can’t help but think that Zwick is trying to stay truer to character, but this Jack Reacher is a complete bore from start to finish. Sure, Zwick gives Cruise plenty of chances to take off on one of his prerequisite jaunts, but costar Cobie Smulders is never able to keep up. Smulders still has yet to find a role that she can conquer and continues to be just another version of everyone’s favorite TV Canadian, Robin Scherbatsky.

Everyone is hindered by Zwick’s lackluster direction, which he is solely responsible for considering he co-wrote the screenplay — along with Marshall Herskovitz (who also contributed to Zwick’s Samurai and Love & Other Drugs) — leaving no room for blame. Richard Wenk (The Magnificent Seven, The Equalizer, Expendables 2) was probably brought in by Cruise to punch up the screenplay, but all we get is Cruise literally doing way more punching than usual. The plot is a complete throwaway with Smulders’s Major Turner simply along for the ride while Reacher tries to keep her — and an is-she-or-isn’t-she 15-year-old daughter (Danika Yarosh) — out of harm’s way.

Zwick has made one of the most boring and lifeless action sequels possibly ever. While other franchises ramp up the fun, action, and ridiculousness with each chapter, Never Go Back stutters and faults right out of the gate. It’s all coincidence and chance here, leaving Reacher’s Batman-esque detective skills deduced down to simply putting two and two together at the last second. This Jack Reacher may leave it open for more sequels — surprisingly considering this film was made simply on the amount of money raked in overseas to the tune of $138 million while barely making $80 stateside — but Cruise would do well to ditch Zwick now and Never Go Back.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Movie Review: “The Accountant”

The Accountant

**** 1/2
128 minutes
Rated R for strong violence and language throughout
Warner Bros. Pictures

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I love a good black comedy. There have been many good and bad over the years, but when done right, they rank right up there as some of my all-time faves. Very Bad Things, Grosse Point Blank, and Death Becomes Her are probably my top three, in no particular order. And now, director Gavin O’Connor’s (Miracle, Warrior) can add his latest Ben Affleck action thriller, The Accountant to the list. A mixture of razor-sharp comedy, and punchy action beats, audiences have no idea what’s in store here. Utilizing a fantastic ensemble, The Accountant is one of my favorite films of the year.

Our titular accountant, Christian Wolff (Affleck), is a quiet, introverted, small town CPA who just so happens to have autism. As a child, Christian’s parents (Robert C. Treveiler and Mary Kraft) have tried everything to help him lead a normal life. After Christian’s mother leaves, his father takes him on an escalating path of self defense with some brutal Jakarta lessons along the way. In the present, Treasury agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) has tasked Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) with finding out who the accountant is behind some of the most notorious gangster across the globe.

Meanwhile, bruiser Brax (Jon Bernthal) is hot on Christian’s tail after he takes on a new client in robotics mogul Lamar Black (John Lithgow). But as Christian gets closer to the truth, the body count starts to rise, along with his morals as he makes an emotional decision to help keep Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) — one of Black’s employees who discovered the trail of missing money — safe.

The less said about the plot the better, it’s surprising how little was actually just divulged. Thankfully, O’Connor keeps Bill Dubuque’s (The Judge) screenplay zipping along at a breakneck pace. The film rarely lags, aside from getting minorly sidetracked with a subplot involving King and the backstory as to why he’s so interested in Christian. The biggest surprise is how funny the film is. Affleck nails his one-liners, keeping them perfectly natural and always hilarious. Some of the biggest laughs come late in the film, but a sense of humor always goes a long way when it comes to action.

Sure, there are a few plot holes, and it could have been squeezed down to a tighter runtime. But, The Accountant gives most action films a run for their money. The action scenes may be more of the small burst variety, but when they hit, they hit hard. And a few are bound to leave audiences’ jaws dropped. It’s also pretty brutal and unflinching. The cast all work fantastic together — even if Medina is a stock throwaway character — but every film needs a pawn, right? The bottom line is, The Accountant is one of the best action films of the year, and the most fun you can have in theaters right now.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Movie Review: “The Girl on the Train”

The Girl on the Train

** 1/2
112 minutes
Rated R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

It may seem like there’s one movie every year claiming to be the new “feel bad picture of the year,” but really it’s only been David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. For better and worse, the 2016 edition is The Girl on the Train. It may seem like an odd honor to seek, but, let’s face it, sometimes we wanna watch bad people doing terrible things. It’s a break from the monotony of reality and a fantastic change of pace from most of the sunshiney Hollywood offerings. Unfortunately, Girl on the Train suffers from feeling like a retread or part of a trilogy where third time is not the charm. Director Tate Taylor — best known for The Help and Get on Up — feels wholly uncomfortable working with such dour material and not even the always reliable Emily Blunt can help save the film from feeling simply like more of the same.

Rachel (Blunt) is our titular train rider. A divorcée who watches the same houses every day on her train ride into the city. In one of the houses lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a woman she slowly becomes obsessed with. We are also introduced to not just Megan and her husband Scott (Luke Evans), but Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who live two houses down. We then learn that Rachel is an alcoholic who suffers from violent blackouts and just in time for Megan to go missing. All fingers point to Scott, but Rachel confesses to him that she saw Megan kissing another man — her shrink, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez) — on their back patio. Now, Rachel is caught in a web between her old life and her current self destruction, with Detective Riley (Allison Janney) hot on everyone’s cases.

There’s really nothing inherently wrong with The Girl on the Train, so much as there’s just nothing great either. It just chugs along toward its inevitable conclusion leaving some of us trying to figure it all out, while those who have read the book become bored knowing what’s coming. Director Taylor does what he can with Erin Cressida Wilson’s sluggish adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s novel, but he doesn’t show any affinity for the bleak. Copying Fincher’s style doesn’t pay off. The term sleeper hit had been thrown around prior to the film’s premiere, but the only word I’d use is “sleeper.” The pace is never relentless enough to make you feel like you’re watching a thriller, making this feel like a star-studded big screen Lifetime flick. Ok, it’s never that bad; it’s never really good either.

There also have been some story alterations and character additions — which is always bound to happen — but the original plotting and denouement makes way more sense than what happens here. The ending isn’t as shocking as it should be, and by the time the credits role you’ll just shrug it off and begin anticipating the next film of its kind. Poor Blunt gets stuck in one of her more thankless roles, and tries her best to make Rachel as sympathetically repellant as she can. By the time the big twist rolls around, you won’t care and you’ll just want it to be over. The only good news is that it runs under two hours, so at least they didn’t try to run us through the wringer Gone Girl-style. But where that film was full of excellent performances, style, and intrigue, The Girl on the Train simply makes you wish for the train to stop so you can get off.

Movie Review: “Deepwater Horizon”

Deepwater Horizon

**** out of 5
107 minutes
Rated PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images

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If there’s one thing the start of the fall movie season can ensure, it’s a firesale on Oscar bait. While everything about Deepwater Horizon may not exactly be first class — there are some questionable effects — but director Peter Berg definitely puts everything he’s got into it. Even though Battleship is unforgivable, the man knows how to deliver an ensemble pic — see Very Bad Things or Friday Night Lights — which could be from his being on E.R. But if there’s one thing to be sure of, while no one has been able to forget the BP oil spill, it’s about time those involved were given their due.

If there’s one thing about Deepwater Horizon working against it, it’s the set up. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z and Berg’s The Kingdom) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) devote way too much time building up the story. While I thought the surprisingly short 107 minute runtime would fly right by, it starts with a sluggish pace. Berg wants the film to feel like a powder keg just waiting to ignite, but the fuse is way too long. By the time we finally get to know everyone on board, it’s obvious what’s coming. Thankfully, the wait is worth it, with Berg letting loose the fireworks, pitting us all in the midst of the raging inferno. Terrifying is the only word to describe it.

The cast are all at the top of their game — Wahlberg finally is once he kicks into hero mode giving Mike Williams the humanity he deserves. Kurt Russell gives the growly Jimmy Harrell way more depth than you’d expect as the man knowing their sitting on a heap of dynamite waiting to blow. John Malkovich gets the rare chance to play the truly vile human being Donald Vidrine. Dylan O’Brien gives a better performance here than he ever has as Caleb Holloway and Gina Rodriguez squeezes in a fantastic portrayal of Andrea Fleytas. The film never takes its focus away from the horrors aboard the Horizon and doesn’t exceed into the litigations that followed. Deepwater Horizon is a film about human endurance in the face of tragedy and Berg delivers one of the most unflinching looks at a disaster of the first order.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Movie Review: “The Magnificent Seven”

The Magnificent Seven

*** out of 5
132 minutes
Rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material
Sony Pictures

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If there’s one genre that’s still sputtering to take off again, it’s the western. While there have been a few that were better than others — The Proposition, True Grit, Bone Tomahawk, and Quentin Tarantino’s double whammy of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight — it feels like Hollywood is going back to the drawing board by introducing a new generation to The Magnificent Seven. Unfortunately, not even the usually reliable Antoine Fuqua, or stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, can save the film from being modestly mediocre.

While you may feel like you’re having a good time watching, it’s instantly forgettable and pales in comparison to the original. The fact that the original theme song isn’t even used until the end credits should show you how much effort was put into this rehash. The saddest part is it’s just a reminder of how faithful Pixar’s A Bug’s Life was to Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai.

The story remains the same: in a small town — this time Rose Creek — the evil mining tycoon Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has gunned down Emma Cullen’s (Haley Bennett) husband Matthew (Matt Bomer), a few other townsfolk, and set the local church on fire. He threatens the town that he’ll return in the fall when the last… leaf… falls… err, I mean in three weeks. The grieving Emma is left with no choice but to call upon bounty hunter Chisolm (Washington) for some good old revenge.

Chisolm has no plans to go at it alone, and soon enough, his misfit gang is in place to save the town. Along for the ride is the wiley Josh Faraday (Pratt), the drunken Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his Asian sidekick Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), the bearish Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), hispanic Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and American Indian Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). Together, they’ll all join forces to take Bogue down and return the town to its people.

If there’s one thing we’ve come to expect from Fuqua, it’s a little bit of technical razzle dazzle and a good amount of fun. After the pairing of him and Washington in The Equalizer and Training Day — which also starred Hawke — and the addition of Pratt, you’d think that we’d have one of the funnest westerns around. All we’re left with is a slapdash screenplay courtesy of Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective). They both clearly love the story, but kill the one thing that holds everything together: the town’s plight. Never once do we care about whether Rose Creek is saved from the Bogue varmint. Not once.

It’s a shame the only one who really seems to be having any fun is Lee. Try as Pratt might, even he doesn’t stand up to being the comic relief Fuqua clearly expected. Not that it’s his fault. The screenplay relies far too heavily on outdated racial slurs for comic effect and puts no effort into dialogue or situations. Even the action feels sloppy under John Refoua’s editing knife. Scenes either meander too long or feel extra rushed. Even some of our poor protagonists’ demises feel shortchanged as if they were merely extras.

My only hope is that Sony Pictures learns a thing or two from this Magnificent Seven blunder and give director Nikolaj Arcel the freedom to keep the western aspects of his adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower as western as it should. While Magnificent Seven may not be of the same sorts of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s at least not Jane Got a Gun bad. I would refuse to say it could be called Mediocre Seven, but doggone it, I just gone and done it.