Keeping Up with the Joneses

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Release: Friday, October 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Michael LeSieur

Directed by: Greg Mottola

For those who have been keeping track, Keeping Up with the Joneses is the second Zach Galifianakis film to be released in as many months, and it too is terrible. It too is a silly film, a very, very silly film. What’s worse is that the film’s chief sillyhead plays it painfully straight. That’s not silly; that’s just frustrating.

The level of entertainment found in this dumbed-down action-comedy is as disposable as a . . . oh, I don’t know, something that’s really disposable; the laughs number in the negatives; hot women kiss to the delight of male viewers and the annoyance of their female partners. I went to see this as part of an (in hindsight) ill-advised solo mission and I found that moment not so much provocative — I think that’s what director Greg Mottola (Superbad; Adventureland) was going for — as it was indicative of precisely the low-brow kind of fantasy it turns out to be.

The plot’s an old rusting bucket of cliches but it could have been fun: when two boring suburbanites, Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) suspect their new neighbors of not being who they say they are, they turn into paranoid peeping toms bent on figuring out what combination of ridiculous factors have not only afforded them a life of luxury and bliss but that has caused them to drift into the unsuspecting cul-de-sac in which the Gaffney’s proudly have plopped themselves down. Their neighbors, of course, are the Joneses. Say that with a smile on your face — we’re the Jonesesssss!

Tim Jones (played by Jon Hamm, whose name is far superior to that of his character) is a super-duper spy of some sort — could be CIA, could be NSA, could be Melissa McCarthy in another ridiculous, albeit more convincing get-up — and he lives a life of mystery with his wife Natalie (Gal Gadot), also a spy. The Joneses are everything the Gaffneys are not. The former seem exotic; the latter have been domesticated and have settled for the routine and the mundane. The Joneses know how to fire weapons in high-stress situations. The Gaffneys . . . do not. We imagine the Joneses having just, like, the best sex ever. When pressed, Karen admits to “getting it done fast before the kids come into the bedroom.”

The script is the main culprit behind the lack of engagement in Keeping Up with the Joneses. The fish-out-of-water adventure lacks not only intelligence but creativity. None of what Galifianakis does is really humorous; his take on the suburban dad isn’t offensive but it’s far from interesting while there’s nary a hint of Fisher’s brilliantly unhinged Stage 5 Clinger in Wedding Crashers. She looks great in a skin-tight dress though, and that’s clearly the bar she had to clear for the director. On the other side of the fence, Hamm and Gadot make for a reasonably compelling pair but they’re similarly constrained by the grade-school screenwriting. And though he’s often funny in other stuff, Patton Oswalt just looks bored as the Big Bad, some dude named ‘Scorpion.’

The entire time I was watching this I couldn’t shake the feeling that these talented actors were just playing nice. They were being charitable. Their performances often register a sense of fatigue and if not fatigue then indifference. And if people who get paid to pretend are pretending not to look unprofessional, I see no reason why I have to pretend like I’m actually having fun here. Although, it’s hard to resist smirking whenever you see Matt Walsh. So there’s that.

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Recommendation: Massively disposable action comedy consistently wastes the talents of this cast and the time of everyone in attendance. Or, I guess not, since everyone in the theater I was in was laughing like hyenas. Clearly I was just the grinch, and I can’t get anything out of lightweight comedies these days. But come on, really? This was made by the same guy who made Superbad and Adventureland? Hmm . . . .

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “I was making a head start!” / “On your wife?!” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.latimes.com 

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

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Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Landon; Carrie Evans; Emi Mochizuki

Directed by: Christopher Landon

Where will you be when the apocalypse happens? With any luck, within reach of your trusty Swiss Army Knife!

Yes, I saw this film and yes I chose to watch it in a theater. Now that you’re doubting my credibility, I’ll try and stage a comeback here by arguing that watching zombies getting their heads lopped off by a trio of high school-aged scouts on a big screen carries with it a certain level of satisfaction. Satisfaction of the oh-man-I’m-pretty-buzzed-right-now-and-this-movie-is-already-better-because-of-it variety. Wait, I guess you can still do that at home. But the big screen. Okay, yeah, that’s my saving grace. It’s just on a bigger screen.

The film’s title leaves little to the imagination, which isn’t much of a surprise. What’s even more clear is how time-sensitive a film it is. Clearly pumped out just in time to make a beeline for the wallets of any teen who’s grown out of the trick-or-treating phase, Scouts Guide still manages to fall short of its potential. And this was a potentially very fun movie.

Christopher Landon (who’s behind Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) settles for a nonchalant, dare I say inept, style of directing that neither allows his talented cast nor interesting premise (I’m getting ahead of myself — potential premise) to flourish. Instead of gritting its teeth and plowing headlong into the realm of the ridiculous, his film instead retreats into yet another all-too-comfortable suburban tale of a group of innocent high schoolers who end up becoming the least-likely saviors of a very small town. I take less of an issue with the scope of the outbreak as I do with how pedestrian this affair becomes.

I’m complicit in this too, though: I bought a ticket. I gambled too much on the unique title.

Long time friends Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) are out on a camping trip as the last of a dying breed at their high school. They’re seemingly the only ones interested in Boy Scouts, but it’s Augie who is all gung-ho about the experience. The other two have resigned themselves to simply giving Augie moral support as neither of them believe in their extracurricular activities anymore, particularly when being led by Supreme Dork Scout Leader Rogers (David Koechner). During their camp-out the three have a semi-falling out when Augie catches the others sneaking off in the middle of the night to attend a party. Because, high school.

Soon weird things start happening, weird things that have been alluded to from the film’s ridiculous opening, a scene featuring Blake Anderson in an amusing but all too brief cameo. Inexplicably the gang are caught off-guard by a hoard of zombies who were, presumably, regular, tax-paying citizens. They form an alliance with a cocktail waitress — not a stripper (played with refreshing honesty by Sarah Dumont) — and begin fending off waves of lame zombies. They retreat away from the very convenience store they were earlier trying to dupe into selling them alcohol using a random drunk to do the dirty work, seeking shelter in a neighborhood that may or may not be relevant. Who cares.

Simultaneously the film retreats into formulaic self-defense strategy quicker than you can say ‘Cloris Leachman.’ (She’s a highlight of the film, receiving a juicy zombie part where she gets to bite poor Augie in the ass.) I am fully prepared to admit this moment is worth the watch. It’s priceless. For everything else this gimmicky titled production promises, there’s MasterCard.

That doesn’t even make sense. Neither does the Britney Spears rendition in the middle of the movie, nor the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it homage to The Thing. Nor the movie as a whole. Sometimes that’s enough to be entertaining, but when the overall direction is so lackluster, a lack of logic is more apocalyptic than anything.

Recommendation: Falling well short of its limited potential, Scouts Guide is a mixture of lame acting, special effects, some boobs, and limited roles for both David Koechner and Blake Anderson. Film does feature a strong female lead in Sarah Dumont, and that is certainly worth mentioning. Everything else though is uninspired, quickly thrown together for those hungover on the day after Halloween. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “Why the f**k do you think everyone’s eating each other?”

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Photo credits: http://www.collider.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: He Got Game (1998)

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Yesterday marked the end of the regular 2013-’14 NBA season. I do realize that to a great many people this day passes with the significance of a fart, but to some, April 16 marks the official arrival of a much-anticipated point in the year, the moment when professional basketball becomes VERY interesting to watch (and some non-fans will even admit to this being the moment where basketball is watchable at all), the moment that beckons all players to step up their game, because now it’s not just about the paycheck. This is about something more lasting, it’s about establishing legacy. Its about how history will end up favoring teams and players, coaches and organizations. Yes indeed, the 2014 NBA Playoffs begin this coming weekend, and to help celebrate, 

Today’s food for thought: He Got Game

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Release: May 1, 1998

[Netflix]

Given that Spike Lee directed this film, it’s a wonder there is no mention of the New York Knicks anywhere in this basketball-centric drama from just before the turn of the millennium. A true blue-and-orange supporter, you can always find Spike Lee somewhere up-in-arms on the sidelines at Madison Square Garden. The man has his viewpoints and opinions, and though that may not be something that characterizes every director, it certainly applies to him.

He Got Game is the result of a stunt Spike Lee pulled by hiring then-NBA rookie Ray Allen quite literally in the middle of a game between Allen’s team at the time, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Knicks. When Lee asked if Allen would be interested in the part of Jesus Shuttlesworth (a name that’s in the discussion for one of film’s all-time greatest), Allen walked off the floor and quit the game. The Bucks lost 90-44. Not really, but everything up to and including the conversation actually did happen.

While Ray Allen’s best performances will certainly remain on the hardwood, the 23-year-old proved to be an engaging enough presence in one of the film’s major roles. He played the son of convicted murderer Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington in his third go-around with Lee), who, upon the governor’s wishes, would receive a shorter prison sentence should he be able to convince Jesus to attend and play for the governor’s alma mater. The governor arranged with prison staff to release Jake for one week so he could track his son down and ask him to sign a letter of intent, which would officially commit him to Big State, the governor’s school. Naturally, in a week this would prove to be a nearly impossible task given how far Jesus has distanced himself from his father.

Lee framed the story with a timeline that provides the ensuing drama with just a little bit more tension. Jake had exactly one week to not only locate his son, but then somehow speak to him and then give him significant career advice. If he failed to persuade the town’s most talented star to go to Big State, back to the grind it would be for Jake.

Jesus Shuttlesworth was a phenom, although his father liked to think his incredible talent was manifested in the gene pool. In Jesus’ childhood Jake liked to push him hard and often past the brink to strengthen his son mentally and physically. Unfortunately, and the shock is mostly due to Denzel’s incredibly balanced performance, Jake has something of a dark streak in him and his competitive spirit. . .and drunkenness. . .often seized control of his calm and gentle demeanor. At the same time fierce competition drove the father-son relationship, it often brought it to a screeching halt and Spike Lee handled these ups-and-downs better than anything in his lengthy final cut.

As a writer, Lee proved to be somewhat the astute observer of conversational dialogue and human interaction. He Got Game feels organic in its development, which might explain why Ray Allen fits better into this film than many athletes who are shoehorned into a 90-minute product-placement ad. Scenes tend to linger for longer than they should at times, while others are strung together in rapid succession; journeying through Spike Lee’s late-90s sports drama is a little like flipping through the pages of a photo album — you tend to gloss over several photos and pages and stay on others, and that’s precisely how the film is paced.

Though some became a little repetitive, Lee threw in a few vignettes involving Jesus’ increasing conflict with making a decision about where to go to school; his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) — a number of the scenes with her took place at the extremely photogenic Coney Island amusement park on Long Island — and also his relationship with his weirdo aunt and uncle who became his legal guardians following the death of his mother and the incarceration of his father. Together, these little stories merged satisfactorily to give the impression of a walking-in-his-shoes perspective. Jesus Shuttlesworth was on the verge of superstardom, yet had a responsibility to his young sister at the same time. He insisted she go to school and become educated, and by way of avoiding setting a double-standard, he came to understand he must play for a college himself.

The question remained, though: which one to select?

Spike Lee intertwined (arguably too) many subplots to create his realistic depiction of a chaotic time in a young basketball player’s life. It blended curious social commentary with sports politics to induce the headache athletes undoubtedly feel while going through the college selection process. But for Jesus, that was only part of the picture; his father being back around bothered him deeply yet at the same time forgiveness wasn’t what was being asked of him. Jake finally came clean and told his son what the conditions were for him being on the outside. And it was just one of many moments that played out with a painful realism.

Adding to the film’s dedication to keeping it real (damn, there’s a ’90s expression for ya), Lee managed to get a hold of several noteworthy names, including NBA Coaches Rick Patino and George Karl, and the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton and even MJ himself literally get a word in during a brief montage. Can’t forget “yeah baby!” Dick Vitale, either.

He Got Game is Spike Lee’s ode to the late 90’s; from the romanticized settings at the amusement park to the dimly lit courts in the city where the one-on-one showdowns happened, its a visual treat as much as it was in tune with reality. It paid off to hire a top-talent athlete as well, as Ray Allen offered the film a vulnerable soul to care for, even if his acting chops likely won’t earn him anything more than bit parts. I’m sure that sits perfectly fine with Allen, as his role on the real courts is anything but a ‘bit’ part. I can’t wait to see how he performs in the Playoffs this year.

Go Jesus Shuttlesworth!!!

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3-5Recommendation: As a non-fan of Spike Lee (typically), He Got Game appealed to the basketball lover in me, and there’s no doubt this is the audience it serves best. But anyone who has followed Spike Lee should see this as well. A Celtic fan? Then you must consider catching a piece of your boy’s acting career if you haven’t already (and if you don’t hate him for going to Miami).

Rated: R

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “People veer off the path, so what? God forgives them. When will you. . .?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

This Is 40

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Release: Friday, December 21, 2012

[Theater]

I do like Judd Apatow but I’m going to veer off-course here, just like his directing does in this film, by saying this is in no way one of his best features. It’s certainly one of his longest.

Clocking in at over two-hours, This Is 40 is a chance to exploit life’s growing pains and the pitfalls of married life for profit. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that since this is Hollywood we’re talking about, where nothing’s off-limits; I just wished this film was funnier and a tad shorter.

We once again are introduced to Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), that all-too-unhappy pair from Apatow’s decidedly funnier Knocked Upbut this time we have to stay for dinner. And for a long time afterwards, too. We would enjoy the company more if there were company to actually enjoy. Instead what we’re provided in this (have I mentioned long?) cross-examination of these individuals’ day-to-day are mostly asinine details about the less-enjoyable times throughout the later stages of life — life revolving around a rather unlikeable family.

To name a few, the kids coming of age (pre-high school) — and if this film is any indication, this phase can be attributed to most people’s gray hairs; things on the work front not going so smoothly — Pete is a record label owner failing to produce sufficient revenue and new artists, Debbie as a shop owner whose business is not faring much better; and then there’s always the case of an extended family being a rather dysfunctional group of characters, including Albert Brooks as Pete’s perpetually mooching father, and a rare sighting of John Lithgow as Debbie’s estranged dad.

As does Lithgow, these moments of hyper-stress and “what are we going to do with ourselves” only occur but for a few moments at a time, and sporadically. They never really become substantial or even really convincing. Well, the children are as annoying as ever come the halfway mark.

Moving outside of the immediate family, Apatow decides he needs some scenery for the film, so he casts Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi as Debbie’s store employees — Fox as Desi, a promiscuous flaunt who is about as bad in this movie as she’s ever been. Understanding how obvious it might seem that she’s hired based primarily on her looks, I have to say this time it’s so incredibly apparent that to not point it out would be to overlook one of the most tacked-on facets of This Is 40.

Ultimately, This Is 40 winds up as a weird mix of the serious tone dominant in Funny People and the bubbly-happy pseudo-reality commonly found in an Apatow production. The result is not nearly as satisfying as one would think.

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2-5Recommendation: As far as an Apatow production is concerned, I would save the money and wait for the next. A man this successful and talented is sure to pop out another here in a year or so. This was just a disappointment honestly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.dailymail.co.uk