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

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January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:58 pm
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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

July 2, 2013

The Internship

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are forty-something salesmen made redundant by new technology who join what they can’t beat by becoming unlikely interns at Google.BRAY_20120725_2448.CR2

We meet Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) as their attempt to sell high-end watches to an old client is scuppered by their boss (cameoing John Goodman) unexpectedly closing their firm because manufacturers now regard salesmen as obsolete middlemen. Redundant Billy is immediately dumped by his girlfriend and soon after convinces Nick to join him in blagging their way into an internship. Arriving at Google Nick is instantly besotted with executive Dana (Rose Byrne), but she’s as unimpressed romantically with him as her boss, Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), is professionally by these two interlopers. Facing cutthroat competition led by the obnoxious cockney Graham (Max Minghella), can Billy and Nick whip their hapless mentor Lyle (Josh Brener), sullen hipster Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), self-loathing genius Tobit (Yo-Yo Santos) and flirty geek Neha (Tiya Sircar) into a team capable of winning the ‘mental Hunger Games’?

What do you think?… Co-writer Vaughn doesn’t spare the clichés, but he does run up hard against the strictures of the PG-13 rating. One of Wilson’s first lines ‘What the shit is this?’ signposts a problem which becomes ridiculous during a lengthy strip-club sequence. Would an R rating improve that sequence though? Probably not, as, regrettably following 21 and Over’s lead, this is another film that ridicules the Confucian privileging of education, instead venerating drunken debauchery, the avoidance of hard work at all costs, and endless unconvincing bluffing to compensate for such avoidance. The Internship is uncomfortably unfunny because so many scenes feature actors desperately mugging to try and wring even a single laugh from set-ups; like Lyle’s hip-hop stylings and the signature ‘on the line/online’ routine; that are just excruciatingly misguided – they’re not funny in conception or in execution.

It’s nice to see Rose Byrne using her own Australian accent for once, and there is an amusing scene where Nick tries to provide Dana with a decade’s worth of bad dating experiences by being comically rude, but The Internship has so few effective gags that the mind wanders. Doesn’t Google HQ resemble something out of Logan’s Run? How weird is it that a movie about forty-something guys made obsolete by twenty-something innovators should get its ass kicked commercially by Seth Rogen’s rival comedy This is The End? Indeed Vaughn’s co-writer Jared Stern and director Shawn Levy both worked on developing The Internship and The Watch, so this is like a fascinating controlled experiment: The Watch was being produced by Shawn Levy in this vein of comediocrity before Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg took that project and made it funny.

And then there’s the corporate angle… Doesn’t the plight of Billy and Nick tie in to Thomas Friedman’s 2007 book The World is Flat? Google is obsequiously portrayed as Friedman at his most enthusiastic would champion it – as a progressive flattening force that allows workers in India to compete against workers in Indiana by giving them the digital tools to do so. For Friedman such horizontal competition between new rivals is an opportunity for developed countries to move up the value chain by their smarts, but he never grapples with the truth that many Pittsburgh steelworkers cannot become coders in Silicon Valley: Nick masters writing HTML, but Billy cannot upskill. Ultimately Vaughn’s upbeat comedic finale is ironically only enabling an attitude Friedman criticises – that ‘imagination’ and ‘optimism’ will compensate for not learning the basics; because they weren’t a fun experience.

The Internship is a comedy badly lacking jokes, which will likely be remembered solely for its set-up’s slight mirroring of its own box-office defeat to This is The End.

1/5

August 24, 2012

The Watch

Screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg rescue a Ben Stiller sci-fi comedy from the intended clutches of lamestream auteur Shawn Levy and the results are a hoot and a holler.

Ben Stiller is slightly boring Costco manager Evan, who sets up various clubs to build community spirit in Ohio, and is horrified to find his store’s night-watchman murdered and skinned. He promptly sets up a neighbourhood watch to track down the killer. Much to his displeasure, the only people who show up are loudmouth dad Bob (Vince Vaughn), wannabe vigilante Franklin (Jonah Hill) and British divorcee Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). (Well, he’s actually pretty pleased with Jamarcus, as Evan’s been looking for a black friend in the name of diversity.) The watch get no respect from slightly crazed police officer (Will Forte), or their neighbours, but when they find destructive alien technology, and then aliens infiltrating the community, there’s only one thing to do. Save the world… And misbehave royally, of course. Who wouldn’t take pictures with a Hawaiian-shirted dead alien?

This movie is Rogen & Goldberg par excellence, so if you don’t like their shtick you’re better off skipping it. I’m one of the very few who appreciated what they were trying to do with The Green Hornet, and this movie confirms the suspicion I first voiced when reviewing Superbad; that hiding behind their scatology is sweetness. I thought then that the scatology might be there purely to get financing but I now realise that it’s an integral if occasionally uncomfortable part of the package, as if Seth Rogen was a big friendly slob of a dog that you just can’t housetrain but you still love him to bits anyway. “She married you, not your dead ****” is the key line of hidden heart as a ruminant Vaughn tries to comfort a depressed Stiller on whether marriage can survive infertility.

The Watch feels exactly like what it is, a structurally sound script rewritten to insert rambling absurdity and profane hilarity. Some elements are familiar: Will Forte’s cop is a close cousin of SNL co-star Bill Hader’s Superbad maniac, while Hill’s lunatic is a riff on Rogen’s character in Observe and Report, and a key final act detail is pure Superbad. Some elements are totally fresh: Richard Ayoade’s equally deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic, Billy Crudup’s glorious cameo as Stiller’s creepily tactile new neighbour, and some serious ballistic overkill with a hard-to-kill alien. The comic invention on display flags in the middle as screenplay structural conventions take over but roars back for a very funny finale; not least because just when you’ve been lamenting Rosemarie DeWitt being underused as Stiller’s wife she gets her own hilarious motif.

The Watch isn’t quite as hilarious as Superbad but it is far better than any proposed PG-13 version could have been and better than any actual Hangover instalment is.

4/5

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