Talking Movies

October 21, 2016

Keeping up with the Joneses

Director Greg Mottola returns to cinemas for the first time since Paul, but working with inferior material to his recent Rogen, Pegg, and Sorkin scripts.

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Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) is an ineffectual HR drone who is genially disregarded by all the people with security clearance at major weapons manufacturer McDowell-Burton International. His wife Karen (Isla Fisher) is dissatisfied designing an absurd bathroom for obnoxious neighbours the Craverstons (being a largely wasted VEEP star Matt Walsh as Dan and Maribeth Monroe as Meg). As the Gaffneys agonise over how to utilise their sons’ time at summer camp to revitalise their marriage new neighbours arrive; the uber-stylish uber-sophisticated Joneses, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot). Jeff is surprised at Tim, the travel writer who blows glass sculptures as a hobby, befriending him. But Karen grows suspicious that Tim and Natalie are actually spies, and when Jeff takes his concerns to MBI security officer Carl Pronger (Kevin Dunn), the Gaffneys enter the sinister world of ‘The Scorpion’.

What exactly is Greg Mottola, director of Arrested Development, The Newsroom, Superbad, Paul and Adventureland, doing helming this action-comedy? This is the comediocre terrain of hack auteurs like Shawn Levy or (shudder) Paul Feig. Mottola has some fun playing on the remarkable coincidence that Gadot & Hamm are both 7 inches taller than their counterparts Fisher & Galifianakis. There’s a lot of looming… It’s a treat to hear Gadot berating Hamm in rapid-fire Hebrew insults, but there’s not a whole lot else going on. Mottola shoots action with pleasing commitment to practical stunt-work, and throws in gleefully parodic action-hero slo-mo and hero shots of Gadot and Hamm, but the lack of any real driving comedic intent is almost metatextually reflected in Andrew Dunn’s cinematography being remarkably soft-focus; as if he was massaging out the cast’s wrinkles in Murder, She Wrote.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is a strange beast, and it’s hard to see what in it attracted Mottola. This film is obviously in debt to Mr & Mrs Smith, and even that had longueurs, but Keeping up with the Joneses lacks that movie’s over-arching sense of fun; which kept the wheels spinning when there were no actual jokes. Here LeSieur has very few actual jokes at all, and, in sending Jeff on trips to exotic snake restaurants with Tim, slips into what feels like a tip of the hat to David Duchovny’s intermittently interesting satire The Joneses; where perfect new neighbours are actually a guerrilla sales team. Depressingly early on you realise this is another major studio comedy that has tidy plotting and neat character arcs, and basically no jokes. When exactly did that approach to writing ‘comedy’ become conventional wisdom?

Keeping up with the Joneses just about holds the attention, but given the calibre of talent involved you just wonder how nobody noticed that it wasn’t actually … funny.

1.5/5

July 18, 2013

The Frozen Ground

Nicolas Cage’s Alaskan state trooper hunts down John Cusack’s sadistic serial killer in a dramatisation of the real-life Robert Hansen case in early 1980s Alaska.

IMG_2828.CR2Teenage prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is found by police officers in an Alaskan motel room; handcuffed, badly beaten, and distraught. She claims she was raped by pillar of the community Robert Hansen (John Cusack), so the brass instantly dismiss her accusations. However, after the discovery of a dead girl in the Alaskan wilds, state trooper Sgt. Jack Halcome (Nicolas Cage) reopens Cindy’s case as he suspects that there is a serial killer targeting young prostitutes like her, and that she is the one that got away… But keeping Cindy safe while he builds a case against Hansen without enraging the local PD is complicated for Halcome both by Cindy’s distrust and her pimp (50 Cent) forcing her to work the streets; because Hansen is prowling those sidewalks eager to find the loose end that could unravel his secret life.

This is the second film in as many months about a family man who secretly mass murdered his way thru the 1970s and 1980s, but this is not The Iceman. Hansen dominates his religious wife Fran (Katherine LaNasa) but keeps his true darkness hidden, and we never get any real sense of his inner life. By focusing on the procedural element of Halcome’s investigation Antipodean writer/director Scott Walker produces a cold detachment which feels oddly like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV show. Patrick Murguia’s murky handheld camerawork is of course radically different, but at times you can feel you’re watching a basic cable version of Criminal Minds; a feeling reinforced when overly cautious DA (Kurt Fuller) rubbishes the report by one of the FBI’s new ‘profilers’. And that’s before noticing the supporting TV faces: Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Michael McGrady (Hawaii Five-O), Brad William Henke (LOST).

At some point Hudgens will stop trying to shock us to shed her Disney image, and we’ll finally be able to judge if she can actually act. But that point is still in the future. Her (flagged as ‘all-the-way’) drugged-up striptease here is mightily uncomfortable, as is the amount of offhand female nudity given that the film ends with a montage of the victims to whom the film is dedicated; mostly sex-workers, which renders such gratuitousness earlier tacky at best. Indeed it’s quite shocking how McGrady’s vice detective tolerates public prostitution, even down to negotiating with the Mob over questioning their hookers who work off-street, so long as things are kept reasonably under control. Differently shocking is Radha Mitchell’s thankless role as Mrs Halcome, who explicitly prioritises keeping one distressed hooker out of her house over catching a prolific murderer. Such considerations only come to mind because the sadism of Hansen is presented to us in vignettes played merely for tension rather than character analysis.

Walker stages a tense chase finale, and a nice tactical gambit from Halcome’s boss (Kevin Dunn), but his film while satisfying lacks true insight.

3/5

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