Keeping Up with the Joneses Review: Bad Neighbours


Director: Greg Mottola

Writer: Michael LeSieur

Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot

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Release date: October 20th, 2016

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 105 minutes


2/5

Best part: The starry cast.

Worst part: The bland comedy.

Comedy is one of modern entertainment’s most subjective genres. One man’s trash is another’s treasure; what some may perceive as humor may deter or anger others. 2016 has seen big-budget messes like Bad Neighbours 2, the Ghostbusters reboot, Zoolander 2 and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates come and go without impact. Keeping Up with the Joneses, sadly, continues this laughless downward spiral.

Before I attack Keeping Up with the Joneses mercilessly, I will say the premise is wholly compelling. The movie follows suburban married couple/loving parents Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla FIsher). Sending the kids to summer camp, the pair are stuck in a rut. Jeff lives for his meaningless HR department position at a local, government-affiliated company. However, Karen becomes restless and bored at home. Her freelance interior decorator role fails to satisfy her itch for excitement. Soon after, attractive couple Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) move in next door. Of course, they aren’t who they seem.

Keeping Up with the Joneses, like so many Hollywood comedies, collects elements from several, much-better movies. Similar action-comedies (Mr and Mrs Smith) aptly balance the humour and set-pieces. Overall, there is an army of better movies out there. Writer Michael LeSieur does not even attempt to reinvent the wheel. The story, such as it is, is as bland and banal as expected. Indeed, everyone involved seems not to care about it. It is a shock to the system when the plot kicks into gear. Thanks to laughable exposition and plotting, the director and actors seem to switch off at seemingly important moments. Despite the premise, the spy-work is never shown on-screen. Tim and Natalie’s mission is lost in favour of cheap set-pieces and bad dialogue/gags.

Keeping Up with the Joneses, in true Adam Sandler fashion, is condescending and sweet to its audience. The first half mocks suburban lifestyle, painting the men like cretins and women like nagging shrews. Unable to commit, the movie’s half-assed turn makes everyone and everything cheesier. The comedy is shockingly hit and miss. Director Greg Mottola forgets what made his earlier flicks (Superbad, Adventureland) so engaging. Here, his comic timing drags down the performers. The jokes feature excessive awkward pauses rather than punch-lines. The cast do their best with woeful, unimaginative material. Galifianakis, a hit-and-miss talent himself, is fine in his small-town-hero role. Meanwhile, Hamm is a force of charisma and likeability. Fisher’s screechiness ruins yet another role. Sadly, Gadot is yet to master anything beyond kicks and punches.

Keeping Up with the Joneses doesn’t deserve a one-word review, let alone all the words written by the world’s bloggers/reviewers. Like most 2016 movies, this lazy action-comedy evaporates from memory before leaving the theatre.

Verdict: Hit-and-miss spy-comedy.

War Dogs Review: Bros in arms


Director: Todd Phillips

Writer: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic

Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper

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Release date: August 18th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Hill and Teller’s chemistry.

Worst part: The derivative structure.

Director Todd Phillips exists in the same realm as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. He began his career with adult-comedies Old School and Road Trip before delivering smash hit The Hangover. However, with the Hangover sequels and Due Date, his career fell over. Now, he’s back with something completely different and exactly the same.

War Dogs provides more meat to chew on than his earlier works. This docudrama, black comedy, war, crime flick chronicles one of the 21st Century’s most baffling true stories. Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article and book – Arms and the Dudes – its follows twenty-something layabout David Packouz (Miles Teller) being put through the ringer. David is a disappointment – spending maximum time smoking pot and tending to rich clients as a massage therapist. After quitting his job, his one-man bed sheet business fails spectacularly. At an old friend’s funeral, he reunites with former partner in crime Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Diveroli is also a pot-smoking loud mouth. However, he is also a gunrunner/arms contractor for start-up AEY with ties to the US Government and troops overseas.

War Dogs resembles a blender with all-too-familiar ingredients thrown together. This sloppy and inconsistent mess is slow-moving-car-crash fascinating. Phillips, evidently, idolises Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. Similarly to Bay’s 2013 sleeper hit Pain and Gain, it’s an assortment of excessive visual flourishes and questionable decisions. With any docudrama, ethics and moral quandaries come into play. Phillips – along with two other screenwriters – beef everything up for cinema purposes. The frat-boy humour and serious material never congeal. It follows the rise and fall narrative structure at every turn. Of course, the first half depicts the dynamic duo’s transformation from slackers to successes. Phillips becomes indulgent, even borrowing whole sequences from The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas and Boiler Room.

Compared to the genre’s aforementioned big-hitters, War Dogs struggles to keep up. Phillips floats between admiring and despising the lead characters. Seriously, what does his movie say about these events? Does it salute young entrepreneurs slipping through the cracks? Or condemn Cheney’s America and the military-industrial complex? Nevertheless, he makes no apologies for their behaviour. Packouz, despite being the audience avatar, starts off as an unlikable schmuck and gets worse. He either blindly follows his crazy business partner or lies to his pregnant girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas). Despite the first half’s many fun moments, the second trudges towards the predictable dénouement. If anything, it proves Teller and Hill are charismatic enough to escape with their reputations in tact.

War Dogs is the gym junkie of rise-and-fall movies – tough and mean with little depth. Phillips’ latest places him on thin ice. This, essentially his version of a ‘serious’ effort, is The Social Network and The Big Short evil, immature brother.

Verdict: A middling docudrama.

Sausage Party Review: Limp on arrival


Directors: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon

Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir

Stars: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader

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Release date: August 11th, 2016

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 88 minutes


2/5

Best part: The stellar cast.

Worst part: The racial stereotypes.

Writer/director/producers…actor…Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have made some of Hollywood’s most controversial gross-out comedies. Superbad explored teenage sexual angst, This is the End skewered Rogen and his friends’ fame, and The Interview almost kicked off World War III by pissing off North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. So, What next?

How about an animated sex-comedy about food? Sure, why not. Now, Sony will let them get away with anything. Sadly, Sausage Party proves studio notes and executive decisions are sometimes worthwhile. The movie’s plot is bizarre and simplistic. Hot dog Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen) and his girlfriend – hot dog bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) – live next to one another in grocery store Shopwell’s. Frank, alongside fellow sausages Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera), believes they will be chosen by the gods, taken to ‘The Great Beyond’ and set free. However, the plan goes awry after an argument with feminine hygiene product Douche (Nick Kroll) leads to a spill, and mass casualties, in the isles. Frank finds out their situation isn’t as it seems.

Sausage Party and Suicide Squad are part of one of 2016’s most irritating trends. Both, featuring wholly predictable plots and characters, are covered in a nasty, immature allure catering to cheap desires. They also feature unique and interesting premises butchered by abysmal execution. Make no mistake, Sausage Party would have made for a kinetic, cutting short movie. Rogen and Goldberg are talented and interesting enough to know better. The final result leaves much to be desired. It lingers between parody and cheap dig at Pixar. Despite the allure, the basic plot follows Toy Story’s friends-finding-one-another story-line step by step. The twists and turns are wholly predictable and lack depth.

Sausage Party relies on the MA15+ rating and the filmmakers’ sense of humour. The comedy is pitifully hit and miss, relying on expletives and sexual references throughout. Every frame features lazy sex, fart, and weed jokes and food puns. If the first three-quarters weren’t haphazard enough, the finale takes some distressing and demeaning left turns. The movie, nowhere near as smart or interesting as it thinks, delivers a broad commentary on organised religion. The food products, convinced of the gods’ kindness, deliver a loud, brash musical number each morning about their fate. However, after that small splash of genius, we’re given borderline-offensive stereotypes from Woody Allen-esque bagel (Edward Norton) to angry Arabic lavash (David Krumholtz). Oy vey!

Sure, Sausage Party has a stellar voice cast and neat ideas. It’s clear Rogen and Goldberg had a clear vision from day one. However, their self-indulgence has gone too far. This may be 2016’s biggest disappointment.

Verdict: A sorely missed opportunity.

Bad Moms Review: Domestic Badasses


Directors: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

Writers: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

Stars: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate

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Release date: August 11th, 2016

Distributor: STX Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 100 minutes


3/5

Best part: The leads’ chemistry.

Worst part: The love-interest sub-plot.

Gender equality in Hollywood: four words guaranteed to cause discussion. Pioneering actresses, directors, and writers have spoken about the pay gap, better roles and more opportunities. From Meryl Streep to Jennifer Lawrence, women are taking over tinseltown. If Bad Moms says anything, A-list actresses are already taking over mainstream comedy.

Bad Moms follows in the tradition of movies with ‘bad’ in the title. It begins with young mother Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) struggling to balance kids, work, marriage and everything in between. Her manchild husband and two children, Jane (Oona Laurence) and Dylan (Emjay Anthony), make matters hellish. One day, after a shocking revelation and an even worse day after, Amy quits the modern-working-mother lifestyle. Befriending frantic stay-at-home mum Kiki (Kristen Bell) and slutty layabout Carla (Kathryn Hahn), Amy discovers that it feels good to be bad. However, Parent Teacher Association head-honcho Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), and her sidekicks Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Vicky (Annie Mumolo) plan on ruining the fun.

Bad Moms criticises everything cruel and demeaning about Hollywood. On the heels of Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters, it’s another example of big-screen female prowess. Writer/Directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, part of the Hangover trilogy, expertly balance relatable character beats and R-rated hijinks. The opening showcases the working-mother’s everyday obstacles. Amy is continually run off her feet; late for everything and underappreciated by everyone. Like most Hollywood comedies, the first half is chock-a-block with stupid and unlikable supporting characters. Of course, the movie’s intended goal is to switch  on-screen gender stereotypes. However, the male and child roles are borderline offensive. Amy’s dalliance with widowed dad Jessie (Jay Hernandez) survives on the actors’ chemistry.

It provides a touching message about motherhoods’ highs and lows. Despite their drastic turns, our lead characters are never unlikable or unhinged. Its endless montages and girl-power moments are wholly  infectious. The supermarket sequence is hysterical. Shot in slow motion, our dynamic trio performs a series of heinous atrocities to food, drinks and staff members. In addition, the house party scene provides gross-out humour and unexpected surprises. The movie relies on Kunis, Bell and Hahn’s more-than-capable shoulders. Kunis balances frazzled and snarky with aplomb. Her sharp comedic timing and charming smile fit the character. Bell, known for tough-chicks in series’ Veronica Mars and House of Lies, is delightfully twee. Hahn propels herself into A-list status; delivering laugh-out-loud bites as an irresponsible badass.

Bad Moms is a sweet, carefree chick flick and intelligent, gross-out farce. Kunis, Bell, Hahn and everyone else elevate such harmless material. The writer-directors’ grand comedic timing makes for a pleasant time. Above all else, the closing credits sequence adds a nice touch.

Verdict: A fun, breezy distraction.

Ghostbusters Review: Girl Power


Director: Paul Feig

Writers: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig

Stars: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones

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Release date: July 14th, 2016

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 116 minutes


3/5

Best part: The four leads.

Worst part: The cameos.

No movie in cinema history has faced as much anger as 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot. Prior to release, it was showered in searing hatred. Delusional fanboys attacked it for coming near the 1984 original’s lasting legacy. Misogynistic creeps resented the all-female leading cast members. With all that said, it’s best to judge Ghostbusters for what it is and not what certain factions might want.

It has to be said – Ghostbusters is much better than most of 2016’s other blockbusters. The franchise kickstarter follows a familiar structure. Dr Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a geeky professor at Columbia University just short of gaining tenure. However, a book about paranormal beings in our realm – co-written by herself and Dr Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) – gets in her way. After reuniting, Gilbert and Yates reluctantly team up with wacky engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) to tackle a reported ghost sighting. After getting fired, the trio turn into a full-time ghost-catching group looking out for New York City. Joined by streetwise MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and ditzy receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the group face an army of ghouls and naysayers.

The original delivered big laughs, unique visuals and intelligent heroes for geeks everywhere to look up to. The 2016 version follows a wholly specific formula from script to screen. This one also features an array of Saturday Night Live alumni coming together, proving everyone wrong and saving the world. Writer/director Paul Feig overcomes the barrage of hate and uncertainty with ease. This – like earlier works Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy – is a pleasant, crystal-clear experience free from anything ‘dark and gritty’. The plot itself boils down to everything you’d expect from a modern supernatural-comedy. The first and second acts revolve around the origin-story dynamic – building up and then shaking the team’s foundations. Of course, the third act is reserved for the underdeveloped villain’s master plan. Ghostbusters doesn’t change the game, but certainly gives it a little push.

Feig and co-screenwriter Katie Dippold make their characters human and understandable in spite of the ensuing chaos. For the most part, the humour is a mix of clever references and light-hearted one-liners. The four leads, having worked together before on many projects, make the jokes, sci-fi gobbledygook and touching moments work effectively. However, Feig’s direction occasionally lets them down. Awkward editing choices and sluggish pacing keep this reboot from reaching its true potential. Sadly, the third-act action extravaganza delivers bland, CGI-laden visuals rather than unique flourishes. Worse still, cameos from Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and the rest of the original troupe stop the movie dead in its tracks. The score also fails to impress, partly due to Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott’s rubbish remix of the original theme.

Ghostbusters valiantly highlights the best women in contemporary Hollywood comedy. The cast and crew deliver many laugh-out-loud moments, engaging performances and effective reminders of the franchise’s appeal. However, it can’t decide whether to stand on it own or cling to the original.

Verdict: A quaint reboot.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates Review: The Dating Game


Director: Jake Szymanski

Writers: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien

Stars: Zac Efron, Adam DeVine, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza

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Release date: July 7th, 2016

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 98 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Efron and DeVine’s chemistry.

Worst part: The characters’ sheer stupidity.

Hollywood has made multi-million dollar creations out of other movies, TV shows, video games, board games etc. and now true stories based around Craigslist ads. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates comes from a strange and concerning place in popular culture from the past few years. With that said, the movie could have actually been a lot worse. Objectively speaking, however, it definitely should have been better.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is actor/female Viagra Zac Efron’s third comedy of 2016 after Dirty Grandpa and Bad Neighbours 2. In fact, this one fuses the other two’s best and worst elements. It kicks off with Mike (Adam DeVine) and Dave Stangle (Efron) ‘winning at life’ as slimy liquor salesmen. The pair – living and working together – survive on hormones, drugs, expletives and danger. Parents Burt (Stephen Root) and Rosie (Stephanie Faracy) call for an intervention, blaming them for causing disasters at all family gatherings. Their little sister Jeanie (Stephanie Beard) asks them to bring dates to her wedding to Eric (Sam Richardson) in Hawaii. Their Craigslist ad, and appearance on morning TV, attracts attention from women everywhere, including Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick).

Anyone who’s seen the poster can beat-by-beat predict the plot. Unsurprisingly, Tatiana and Alice are more adventurous, disgusting and psychotic than Mike and Dave. Handling this many purposefully unlikable characters, the director and screenwriters are forced to create a series of increasingly unfortunate events. This scenario grinds this gross-out comedy to a screeching halt. It copies almost every plot point from Wedding Crashers without achieving the same hilarious results. It also boils down to repulsive, strung-together sequences and slapstick gags. The trailer even spoils the movie’s biggest set-pieces, landing with a thud in the final cut.

The humour is bafflingly hit and miss. Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s screenplay delivers many funny lines and cute moments. However, thanks to first-time director Jake Szymanski, the actors are given too much improv leeway. Mike and Dave’s dynamic is still effective. Efron and DeVine’s winning chemistry elevates the majority of their scenes. Dave, sporting potential compared to his shrewd older brother, is a sympathetic presence in amongst the screwball antics. He and Alice develop a somewhat sweet relationship – proving Efron and Kendrick deserve better material. However, the movie is hamstrung by DeVine and Plaza’s grating schtick. DeVine pulls out Kevin Hart’s arsenal of fast-taking monologues and screams. Plaza is weighed down by her over-the-top, personality-free character.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is the prime example of potential undercut by execution. Like Efron’s other 2016 comedies, the actors put 110% effort into a mediocre product. If anything, these young and charming cast members might be motivated to move on to bigger and better things.

Verdict: A mildly amusing frat-comedy.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople Review: Kiwi Komedy


Director: Taika Waititi

Writers: Taika Waititi (screenplay), Barry Crump (Novel)

Stars: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby

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Release date: May 27th, 2016

Distributors: Madman Entertainment, The Orchard

Country: New Zealand

Running time: 101 minutes


4/5

Best part: Dennison and Neill’s chemistry.

Worst part: Some forgettable minor sub-plots.

Australia and New Zealand’s film industries have danced around one another since their inception. Playing around with the medium, 1980s and 90s Aussie comedies including Muriel’s Wedding and Kiwi dramas like The Piano broke the mold simultaneously. Nowadays, with heavy Australian dramas in full effect, NZ filmmaker Taika Waititi is delivering some of modern cinema’s most captivating comedies.

Coming off critically acclaimed Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi’s latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, has already set NZ box-office records for highest-grossing opening weekend and highest-grossing first week for a NZ film. Based on Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, the movie centres around troublemaking city kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) being sent by child welfare services to live on a farm with new foster carers Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Hector, forced to track down Ricky after an escape attempt, fractures his ankle in the green, lush wilderness. As a country-wide manhunt begins, the duo spark-up an odd-couple dynamic.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, similarly to road-trip comedies like Thelma & Louise, effectively sticks by its familiar premise. Throughout their journey, the rebellious youngster and cranky uncle’s budding friendship provides heavy doses of drama and comedy. Waititi’s abstract sense of humour and unique style separates his vision from that of even Hollywood’s most talented comedic elite (Adam McKay, Judd Apatow etc.). Waititi expertly develops every detail, giving our heroes and those chasing them significant depth and personality. Even the movie’s wacky side characters – including tough-but-misguided social worker Paula (Rachel House), bumbling officer Andy (Oscar Knightley), and Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) – add to its thematic and emotional heft.

This coming-of-age dramedy is not perfect, with minor sub-plots hinted at but not fully developed. However, amongst the witty lines and slapstick gags, it includes several heart-breaking moments and plot-twists you won’t see coming. Unlike most big-budget comedies, it combines laugh-out-loud humour with messages about paedophilia and mental instability. The movie explores Ricky and Hec’s motivations – running away from the past, present, and future for different reasons into an abyss. Dennison holds his own against Neill, helping us side with an otherwise petulant and unlikable character. Similarly, Neill’s comic timing boosts the character-actor’s most fleshed-out, charismatic role in decades.

Despite the wacky premise and neat cast, Waititi is Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s shining light. The writer/director’s next project is a small, independent jaunt called Thor: Ragnarok. Let’s hope Kevin Feige and the Marvel Cinematic Universe lets him off the leash.

Verdict: A charming, light-hearted dramedy.