★★★★ / ★★★★
Imagine while reading this review that the government is aware of what website you’re on; the exact phrase you typed on Google just a few hours ago; which Facebook pages you visited in the past few minutes; the contents of your work and personal e-mails; when, with whom, and how long you used your cell phone at the precise date and time a month ago. Well, you don’t have to imagine because the government is fully capable of all of the above, as whistleblower Edward Snowden had revealed in 2013.
“Citizenfour,” directed by Laura Poitras, is a must-see documentary because it offers an intense look on the subject of privacy—what it means as an idea versus what it actually is in a post-911 world—through Snowden’s brave and commedable decision to reveal to common people like you and me that our governments—not just the U.S. government—are collecting information from all of us, all the time. The media and the government might claim such a transgression is excusable, necessary even, for the sake of national security, but the picture astutely touches upon what surveillance is truly about.
Despite the film’s occasional technical jargon, which I appreciated in small increments, it remains as riveting as a first-class suspense-thriller. For instance, when journalist Glenn Greenwald, reporter Ewen MacAskill, and filmmakers meet with Snowden in a hotel in Hong Kong, just when they are about to open and go over top secret documents, the fire alarm goes off. It could not have been scripted any better; so Hitchcockian in timing and execution… only all of it is real. I caught my heart beating a little faster, my eyes taken over by intense suspicion, my thoughts screaming at them to stop what they were doing, reschedule, and relocate immediately for the sake of safety.
There is one masterful sequence and it will stay with me for some time. The camera has a habit of staying with Snowden, especially focusing on his facial expressions, even when he’s not doing or saying anything, just observing his entire being. Once information about the U.S. National Security Agency’s illegal wiretapping has made the airwaves, Snowden decides to read his personal e-mail. The camera keeps still, unblinking, the silence growing thicker by the second. One can tell, through Snowden’s body language, that the content of the e-mail is not good news. Snowden then takes a deep breath, walks over to the window, and peers outside. The camera follows: it is a bright, sunny day and people are going on about their business as usual, unaware that what is going on inside the hotel is history being made.
But we also spend some time outside of the hotel room. We sit inside a courtroom as the lawyers present their sides and the judges listen. We are put inside a conference room and we listen to a presenter discussing “meta-data” and “linkability”—tools that the government uses to collect personal data and then create a profile for individuals they are tracking… even though they do not have a reason to surveil a person. “Citizenfour,” serving not only as a portrait on an American hero but also required viewing for everyone who uses a credit card.
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Christopher Smith takes elements of classic noir pictures and modernizes it in his clever, sometimes exciting, thriller “Detour,” about a law student named Harper (Tye Sheridan) who finds himself embroiled in a murder after becoming convinced that his stepfather (Stephen Moyer) has planned his mother’s car accident which resulted to her ending up in a coma. Although the film might have improved by undergoing more polishing, it remains consistently entertaining as it gives way for us to reevaluate its characters just when we are convinced we completely understand the archetypes they embody.
One of its more intelligent choices involves the story being split into two. While out drowning his sorrows in booze, Harper meets Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), a thug who does certain… favors—for a fee. Our protagonist shares his thoughts of wanting to teach his stepfather a lesson. Notice how the camera inches closer to the characters’ faces as the decision on whether or not to kill the husband under suspicion grows ever closer between the two young men. The next morning, Johnny Ray shows up on Harper’s front door. We then follow two strands: 1) Harper joining Johnny Ray as they head to Vegas to carry out their plans and 2) Harper turning down Johnny Ray’s offer and deciding to stay home.
The dialogue almost always commands a sharpness to it. It can be described as Tarantino-lite in that attitude slowly bubbles to a boil from underneath the surface. Even when a character shifts on his seat while saying nothing actually says something. An observation I have about movies aimed toward modern audiences is that its characters tend to lack ways of communicating other than through words. Here, silence and body language are utilized to get the audience to consider that perhaps a character, or characters, is planning a course of action outside of what has been decided already.
Although its look is nothing special, there are instances where bright colors are employed to make certain objects stand out. For instance, Harper’s yellow-cream jacket, the flowery red designs on Cherry’s shorts (Bel Powley), the sudden patch of yellow hair after Paul (Jared Abrahamson), Harper’s best friend, spends the weekend dropping acid. It would have added a layer of detail if each character sported a certain color, a way for us to cull information about these characters or what role they may end up playing in the story. Providing deep substance is not the screenplay’s strong suit.
Neo-noir “Detour” is stylish, energetic, and it moves like lightning. Although the writing could have done a better job in smoothing out details once certain story aspects are unveiled, nearly every performance is highly watchable and the control from behind the camera creates a level of engaging tension despite the picture’s sunny desert look.
Don’t Hang Up (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Damien Macé and Alexis Wajsbrot’s “Don’t Hang Up” makes a solid double feature with Kasra Farahani’s “The Good Neighbor” because both movies have the potential to comment on today’s prank culture—specifically how pranks, from relatively harmless to potentially life-threatening, are posted on the internet for the sake of likes, views, and comments without regard to the people being pranked—but they miss the reason why the best horror-thrillers tend to stick with the audience: social commentary, preferably a hot topic at the time of the picture’s release, veiled as entertainment. This film is rife with horror movie tropes yet it is without the intelligence, creativity, and verve necessary to satisfy both the most and least experienced with the genre.
From the moment the mysterious voice is heard from the other line, I knew exactly the identity of the killer. This leaves little room for mystery, tension, or even a smidgen of intrigue amongst the characters. The manner in which the material explains the identity of the killer in the third act is not only most uninspired but also boring—like a chore that had to be performed because everything must be spelled out for the viewers. This is a film that does not respect its audience because it assumes that everybody watching is an idiot.
Screenwriter Joe Johnson fails to create interesting characters. Sam (Gregg Sulkin) and Brady (Garrett) are best friends and part of a team that makes prank calls. The recordings are then uploaded on the internet because it’s funny when people are humiliated, are scared to death, and believe that their loved ones are in mortal danger. Johnson neglects to give us a reason to care about Sam and Brady other than the fact that, even though they are mean pranksters, they do not deserve to die. A more intelligent writing would have challenged us to actually like the duo despite what they do on their spare time. Instead, they utter the phrase “Brothers for life” several times throughout the film’s interminable duration—as if that’s supposed to mean something.
The majority of the picture takes place in a house and yet notice how we never grow familiar with its layout. This is because we are never convinced in the first place that we are in an actual home. Instead, it looks like a set. No dust is found on any surface. Nearly everything has its place. It appears as though utensils and the like have never been used. There are pictures displayed in the living room but take a closer look and recognize that all of the pictures are recent. Real houses, real homes tend to have pictures of when parents were younger, when their children were still toddlers or infants. Its failure to establish a sense of realism or reality is one of the reasons why we never feel scared.
Unimaginative down to its atom, “Don’t Hang Up” has nothing to say about anything. It aims to entertain, I suppose, but the rules of the genre must be recognized first and then small twists regarding such rules must be present. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’d like the filmmakers to answer this question because they owe the viewers an explanation for delivering bottom-of-the-barrel leftovers.
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a portrait of two despicable women, former college friends who recognize one another at a cocktail party in New York City, named Veronica (Sandra Oh) and Ashley (Anne Heche), the former an alcoholic trophy wife and the latter an artist struggling to pay the bills. At first glance, one appears to be a more disgusting human being than the other, but as the material delves deeper into its satire and pitch black comedy, it makes the case that Ashley and Veronica are equally repugnant—just in different ways.
Written and directed by Onur Tukel, “Catfight” is a project with uncompromising vision, so daring in its willingness to play with extreme tones so joyously that just about every scene is firecracker. It is certain to divide audiences. Those who are accustomed to mainstream stories of New York women learning over time that they are strong together are almost certain to find the picture an oddity, a sick joke. But those with a stranger palate are likely to recognize that the material has something important to say about a cornucopia of topics: toxic relationships, how people don’t really change even though their life circumstances certainly do, envy, the grass being greener on the other side… until you get there and realize it’s a plastic lawn.
I admired Oh and Heche’s performances because they are able to adapt to the extreme fluctuations of tone with seeming ease. The viewers get the impression that not only are they able to laugh at themselves as performers but they are willing to experiment, play with, and shape scenes that sound or look awkward on paper into a reality we can actually buy into as audiences on a wild ride. Thus, the dramatic and comedic scenes, as jet-black as they are, work well apart and as complements of each other. And while there are drawn-out, exaggerated fight scenes that can give “Kill Bill” women a run for their money, these are mere tools to push the plot forward in more interesting directions.
Its jokes are clever and relevant in terms of the media we choose to consume as a society. For instance, there is a recurrent joke about the war in the Middle East. Although it is talked about on television, the “news” segment is almost always followed by a man in diapers walking in front of the camera and passing gas. There is always a character watching who laughs at the fart joke—even though statistics of American soldiers’ deaths had just been announced mere five seconds prior. We assume these characters who laugh are dumb or simpletons. I admired that the writer-director has the insight to make these characters not appear as they are; he challenges our assumptions of people—how they look, how they sound, what they choose to laugh at, and what appears to motivate them.
Boiled down its most elementary elements, “Catfight,” I think, is the writer-director’s critique of us as a narcissistic American society at the moment. The humor is full of wit, caustic, and occasionally savage; its vibrant wickedness at times left my mouth agape with astonishment. I wish more comedies were as smart and bold as this.
End of Love, The (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Shot in a cinéma vérité style, “The End of Love,” based on the screenplay and directed by Mark Webber, falls just short of greatness. By utilizing familiar actors who play a version of themselves, some of its grit—what makes the story so fascinating in the first place—is diminished. Instead of us focusing on what is being told, how, and why, many of us will wonder if an actor is playing himself or just another character that happens to be a popular performer on the big screen.
Upon his wife’s recent passing, Mark (Mark Webber) has been taking care of their two-year-old son named Isaac (Isaac Love, Webber’s real-life son). Since the single dad is a struggling actor with no job on the side, making ends meet is an every day challenge. There is pressure on rent payments, keeping himself and his son healthy, and also Mark still being in the process of grieving but not having anyone to talk to. When he meets Lydia (Shannyn Sossamon), a single mother, there is a glimmer of hope that Mark can get it together.
The romance between Mark and Lydia is not predictable. When they meet, the problems do not magically go away. We feel Mark making an effort to pick himself up just a bit, not to impress the woman in front of him but as to not appear so pathetic. We root for him because he is aware that he is not at his best but is trying to make the most of what he has to deal with. Mark and Lydia are tired parents. Though the camera does not spend much time on Lydia, we get a sense that some of her struggles might share parallels with Mark’s. In that way, we want them to get together so they can help better each other.
Love is perhaps the most talented two-year-old I have had the pleasure to watch on screen. During a handful of scenes, especially when the father and son are going through their every day morning routine, I was mostly at a loss for words. How does the child manage to articulate the lines so effortlessly and naturally? In addition to an almost perfect line delivery, he has the subtle expressions to match the words he is saying. Even teen and adult actors have trouble matching the two. I would love to have had a behind-the-scenes peek on how the filmmakers managed to get a shockingly good performance from the toddler.
The cameos by Amanda Seyfried, Jason Ritter, Michael Cera, Michael Angarano, and others hold the picture back in varying degrees. While understandable that the protagonist is friends with such familiar figures because they share the same profession, one or two would have been sufficient. Two-thirds of the way through, especially during Cera’s little get-together, it starts to feel like a parade. We wonder who will appear next instead of remaining invested in the poverty of father and son. Mark is running out of options.
Due to the cameos constantly disrupting the tone of the picture, I had a lot of trouble buying into some of the events in the final act. Mark explaining to his son what death means might have sounded good on paper but since several scenes leading up to it are distracting and atonal, we are not neck-deep into the drama. As a result, Mark teaching Isaac about what it means for a living thing to die is somewhat sad but not particularly touching.
Rezort, The (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
The “Jurassic Park” meets “The Walking Dead” premise might sound ridiculous at first glance, but “The Rezort,” written by Paul Gerstenberger and directed by Steve Barker, proves able to rise above its premise, offering a tension-filled, consistently entertaining, gory good time. At least during the first half, it makes an appealing case to visit an island northwest of Africa so one can have the opportunity to kill as many undead as one wishes, as if it were some sort of a sporting event. The final act dares to make a political statement relevant to many countries across our increasingly modern world.
The setting is quite inspired. The story takes place several years after a zombie apocalypse. But instead of a bleak future, here, the living has won the battle against the zombies. However, there are people out there, like our heroine, Melanie (Jessica De Gouw), who survived the war but unable to move on since she is haunted by what had happened when she was a child. She hopes that by going to the zombie resort and summoning the courage to shoot a zombie in the head, it will help resolve the trauma that plagues her. Unbeknownst to her and her fellow guests, however, the computer system designed to keep the flesh-eaters restrained is about to go horribly awry.
Perhaps not on purpose, the inconsistency between slow-moving and fast-moving undead works to the picture’s advantage. Since the material moves fast—coupled with a real eye for framing—especially with its kills—and tight editing is utilized during chases, such an inconsistency manages to create a wonderful surprise. With each encounter in every new location, we wonder whether the characters are about to come across the slower moving, less threatening kind or the rabid ones that bring “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” to mind.
It is expected that the group of survivors contain colorful characters, but it is uncommon that just about each one actually has an interesting story to tell. For instance, take note that Lewis (Martin McCann), Melanie’s boyfriend, who is so kind and caring before the outbreak slowly turning into the person that he was during the zombie war. Even the annoying teenagers, Jack (Jassa Ahluwalia) and Alfie (Lawrence Walker), are given a curious backstory: they won an online shooter/video game competition and having done so has granted them to shoot real guns and shoot at real (former) people. When one of them dies eventually, I was surprised how much I ended up caring for the fate of the other.
The special and visual effects are well-done and well-executed. As usual, my favorite moments involve the camera being up close to fresh bites, deep gashes, and mortal wounds. Even the viscosity of the blood is just right; I have a problem with horror films where the blood is so thick, they look more like corn syrup mixed with red dye. Here, the color and thickness of the blood usually looks something like I would get from, say, a nosebleed. In some scenes, I could almost smell that sort of metallic taste or smell that blood emanates.
“The Rezort,” also known as “Generation Z,” offers a handful of fresh ideas that make us want to take it a bit more seriously than its less ambitious contemporaries. Zombie movies are about survival, and this story offers more than one group’s attempt to survive.
Monuments Men, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.
The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.
In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.
The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.
The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.
What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.
Eyes of My Mother, The (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Here is a horror film that abstains from showing violence but it is horrifying all the same. Instead, it relies on images before and after a particular action is taken—for instance, an individual with a weapon approaching a cowering target, a pool of blood being wiped off the floor, a cow’s head sitting on the kitchen table. By excising the act of violence completely, the picture leaves plenty to the imagination. In fact, it gives the viewer the opportunity to imagine something worse than what had actually occurred. Thus, in a way, an argument can be made that this picture uses horror films we’ve seen before to its advantage.
Equipped with intelligent writing and assured direction by Nicolas Pesce, “The Eyes of My Mother,” beautifully photographed in black-and-white, tells the story of a young girl named Francisca (Olivia Bond) who witnessed the murder of her mother in their farmhouse. (Diana Agostini who plays the mother gives a magnetic performance despite her limited time on screen.) Unspooling over several decades, we observe how Francisca’s crippling loneliness, combined with the fact that neither of her parents has taught her that moving on is an essential part of life, shaped a void of a person, completely detached from what is right and what is wrong. And because she has a severely limited moral compass, if she had any at all, it makes the character more fascinating—and terrifying. To Francisca, another human being is equivalent to the cattle she must care for a time… then having to kill it.
Notice how silence is utilized as an overwhelming presence in the farmhouse. There is no score serving as a signal to what we should expect or how we should feel. There is no soundtrack that booms suddenly before or after a violent clash. Instead, sounds like the rustling of the leaves, drawers beings opened, a wheelbarrow being dragged through the woods are amplified. Meanwhile, when characters speak, it sounds as though their voices are just a bit muffled—contrast to the sharp, defined sounds of objects making contact on surfaces. Is this how it is like to live inside Francisca’s body? Is this how she processes the world around her? Or is it that the writer-director wishes to keep us off-balance, a way to keep us on our toes for the next plot development?
Kika Magalhães plays adult Francisca with such an alarming intensity, I could not keep my eyes off her. I admired how she interprets the character. For example, notice how Magalhães makes the decision to make Francisca move slowly when by herself. When the character is sitting in the kitchen with a plate of food in front of her, there is a lack of pleasure in Francisca’s interaction with her meal; there is no energy in the way she maneuvers the utensils; there is, however, a blankness, a far away look, in her eyes. Her skeletal frame moves about the house but her spirit, it seems, had been buried, rotten away alongside her mother’s mutilated corpse.
Austere and disturbing, “The Eyes of My Mother” commands an unrelenting vision and precise execution. So many modern horror films aspire to be messy, loud, gratuitous—especially when violence is employed. This picture takes on the opposite approach: it is clinical, disquieting, every object in each room has its rightful place, there is a detachment amongst all human interactions. It is so grounded in reality that there comes a point where we remind ourselves that somewhere out there, especially in the isolated areas of the country, is a Francisca, waiting.
★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film with great potential to explore the depths of loneliness when a young couple (Maika Monroe, Matt O’Leary) vacationing in Iceland wakes up one day and learns that everybody is gone. The hotel, the streets, the shops, the tourist spots in the country—all empty, dead silent. Even phone calls to their loved ones back home go unanswered, texts receive no reply. But the picture is a disappointment because the plot fails to take off in an interesting or surprising direction. Instead, we spend most of the time watching this couple either flirting, which eventually lead to an embrace or a kiss, or looking sad and claiming they miss home.
Perhaps the screenplay by Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan, also co-directors of the film, is meant to function as a metaphor for romantic relationships and the hardships that come with years of having to live together. Upon Jenai and Riley’s discovery, we learn about their personalities, where their interests lie, their perspectives about life and death, what it means to them, personally, to really live rather than simply enduring each day. In some ways, they are opposites and these lead to scenes that are mildly interesting; the material is at its best when there is friction between the characters, when they are angry and wish to scream at one another. Most unfortunate then is the two being forced to make up so quickly after a fight that tension dissipates just when we suspect it is finally going to take a turn.
There are a few highlights in terms of imagery. For instance, when the duo stand in the middle of streets which should be teeming with people, vehicles, noise, and all sorts of activities, the absence of hustle and bustle is so eerie. When Jenai and Riley are out in nature, the camera takes the time to allow the audience to absorb the beautiful environment. It captures images of the soil, the glaciers, the plant life—we get an impression of how chilly it must be when the performers shiver a little between their lines. It is in these naturalistic moments that the picture shines.
Less impressive is its so-called poetic lyricism clearly inspired by Terrence Malick pictures. No one can do Malick but Malick and this one tries so very hard only to come across as a cheap, pale imitation. When the ambitious yet delicate score swoons, it is more distracting than enlightening or involving. There are numerous occasions when the music is so overpowering that the dialogue is completely drowned. I wanted to know exactly what these people are saying to one another in the midst of a potential global crisis and yet the score remains present. I got the impression it is a picture that is afraid to be silent—strange because the plot begs for silence, meditation, contemplation.
“Bokeh” takes on the subject of survival. Eventually, food in stores will run out. Electricity is not unlimited. Clean water will become an issue. This would have been an avenue worth exploring deeply, but the writer-directors consistently swipe it on the side and reintroduces it only when convenient. Clearly, the screenwriters needed to have excised the fat off the material and sorted out which plot points are truly worth exploring.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Considering that Ridley Scott helmed “Alien,” one of the most memorable and craftily made sci-fi horror pictures in the last fifty years, one has a certain level of expectation coming into “Alien: Covenant,” a disappointing prequel to the masterful 1979 classic and a sequel to “Prometheus,” a widely misunderstood but intriguing attempt to extend the series’ mythology.
In an effort to deliver scares designed to impress the modern masses, Scott’s signature techniques, like employing long takes even—or especially when—it’s unnecessary and playing with extended silence to build a sense of mystery and/or dread, are missing here. As a result, one gets the impression that the work could have been made by any other filmmaker who understands what makes horror movies marginally effective but not yet have a specific voice of his own.
For instance, when several crew members of the colony ship Covenant, led by Oram (Billy Crudup), decide to explore a planet after receiving a radio transmission, the picture does not bother to genuinely establish a sense of place. There is a line uttered by one of the characters, pointing out that they haven’t encountered or heard any animal after already having walked several kilometers, but aside from this creepy detail, everything else about the setting looks generic, CGI forests for miles, could have been any forest on Earth. On top of this, the images look dark, bleak, desperate to come across as atmospheric. I felt no interest in exploring this place. I craved for the aliens to appear finally and pick off the characters in the most gruesome ways imaginable.
There are more than ten crew members and only one of them is borderline worth rooting for. Surprisingly, and not in a good way, it is not Daniels (Katherine Waterston), clearly the heroine of the film, one who must undergo an evolution from a background personality to one who is supposed to lead her team in the foreground as the possibility of them becoming alien hosts escalates. Instead, it is Tennessee, the chief pilot of the Covenant—a person who stays on the ship for the majority of film. He is played by Danny McBride, a performance so natural and convincing that I caught myself feeling glad that I found a new side to his talent.
Daniels’ arc is forced and unconvincing. Later in the picture, as she goes head-to-head against an alien, I found the script to be bland and predictable in its attempt to make the heroine tough and resourceful. The supposed one-liners fall flat; they do not work because the character’s evolution is simply not there. While Waterston is capable of summoning the necessary emotions when required, the screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper fails to establish a protagonist who is able to think on her feet or one who commands a fascinating way of thinking, of being. It merely relies on the established template of the final tough girl.
“Alien: Covenant” showcases different forms of the alien and some of the kills are truly horrifying. Disappointingly, however, the material fails to create a balance between imagination and brutality, violence and contemplation—clearly one of its goals because the subject of meeting or surpassing one’s creator becomes a recurring theme. Here’s to hoping that Scott, if he were to craft another installment in the series, would aspire to make a film that would impress him as an artist first… and then the audience. He needs to follow his instincts rather than what he believes the viewers want from his work.
Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
The silly action-comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola, has a strategy all too apparent when it comes to comedies these days: It relies solely on the charisma of its four leads to carry the audience from beginning to end. It is a lazy approach, almost offensive, and I wished that more effort were put into the script because the leads try the best they can to work with subpar material. The picture offers a few chuckles—not because the material is funny but because the performers commit so much that at times they manage to elevate deadly dull lines toward something marginally amusing—but this is not enough to warrant a recommendation.
Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play Jeff and Karen, a married couple living in the suburbs whose love life has lost its spark. Even when their kids are away in summer camp, they’d rather watch television than go out and experience something new for a change. When a worldly, highly attractive, polished couple, Tim and Natalie (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), move next door, expectedly, Jeff and Karen gravitate toward them since the new neighbors appear to be exciting people. The Joneses, as it turns out, are government operatives and their move to the sleepy suburbs is merely a cover to track and prevent an illicit exchange.
For an action-comedy, it is quite odd that there is only one extended action sequence. Predictably, it involves a car and flying bullets but I found some joy in a highly familiar template. The material works best when Fisher, Gadot, Hamm, and Galifianakis are in the same room—the more cramped, the better. There is an innately amusing element in putting four big personalities in a limited space. However, looking closely into this sequence, notice it is mostly composed of reaction shots done in a studio. Thus, we never fully believe that any of the characters are in danger despite the rain of bullets and the vehicle moving a hundred miles per hour—backwards.
There is one fresh idea that I thought the writers should have taken farther than they did. Within the first fifteen minutes, Karen suspects that there is something off about their new neighbors. For a while, the script gives the impression that the characters—or at least one character—will be smarter than those we’ve encountered in similar movies. Fisher stands out among the four because I believed that she can be both intelligent and silly—a challenging line to straddle that only a few performers can pull off convincingly. So, it is quite disappointing that once the Joneses’ true motivations are revealed, the most promising character proves to be ordinary. Notice she is much quieter post-reveal, almost fading into the background.
“Keeping Up with the Joneses” plays it too safe when it actually needs to take risks because successful action-comedies are all about taking chances, whether it be in terms of story, character development, the wild situations the protagonists end up finding themselves in. Clearly made for mass public consumption, perhaps a movie like this might have done well in the late 1990s, but these days it is substandard. It is too dilute to be palatable.