Keeping Up with the Joneses


One must keep one's focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

One must keep one’s focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

(2016) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, Yi Dong Hian, Art Shaffir, Marc Grapey, Karina Bonnefil, Darin Cooper, Angela Ray, Amy Block. Directed by Greg Mottola

 

Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone; we all were in each others’ business. Now, we barely acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. Does anyone really know who their neighbors truly are anymore?

The Gaffneys have a good life. Jeff (Galifianakis) is an HR guy at a big defense contractor. He’s basically a good guy but he hasn’t met a problem yet that he didn’t think could be solved with an aphorism and a stress ball. His wife Karen (Fisher) is an interior designer who has put her career on hold to raise her kids. The cul-de-sac in which they live in suburban Atlanta is well-to-do and close-knit. Jeff is as happy as a clam, Karen a little less so especially now that the kids are gone for the summer. Still, it feels like something is missing in their lives, something that doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon – a sense of excitement.

That is, until the Jones family moves in across the street. Natalie (Gadot) is super sexy and capable, absolutely excelling at everything she does; Tim (Hamm) is a travel writer, accomplished, handsome and pretty much an authority on everything. Tim and Jeff hit it off straight away, developing quite the bro-mance. Karen is a little bit more hesitant to connect with the ice-cold Natalie, although she is a little attracted to her sexuality (who isn’t?) to be honest. In fact, perfect Natalie has her a little bit suspicious.

And, it turns out, with good reason; the Joneses are spies and they have their eye on some chicanery going on at Jeff’s place of employment. It involves a mole within the company, a vicious arms dealer known only as the Scorpion and an agency that employs the Joneses who aren’t worried about collateral damage and with the Gaffneys now involved, there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

The ordinary people drawn into extraordinary espionage situations have been popular in the movies with things like True Lies and Spy among others. They act as avatars for the audience, drawn into a world of excitement, glamour and danger. Who wouldn’t want to be a superspy, suave and debonair or beautiful and deadly?

The four leads all interact well among each other, although surprisingly the best chemistry is between Hamm and Galifianakis although considering the two have been friends for awhile offscreen, it may be less surprising than at first glance. The two develop a relationship that is realistic and the kind of friendship most men want to have with other men. The ladies are sexy and made to give each other an obligatory kiss (why is it as a society we find women kissing each other far sexier than men doing it?) but given that Karen are so suspicious of Natalie to begin with whereas the more open Jeff is accepting of Tim right away that the two ladies don’t really develop a friendship as deep as the one the men forge. Perhaps that’s meant to be a commentary on the nature of interactions between women in general. Perhaps not.

The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and mostly played for last. There is a car chase that’s reasonably cool (given that there are four people in the car that’s being chased rather than the usual two) but again, nothing new is added to the genre here. Of course, it’s not really a requirement that every action sequence has to be innovative.

This is the kind of movie that you really have to turn your brains off for and there’s no shame in that; sometimes what we’re looking for is just pure escapism. Still, you can have escapism without sacrificing story and character development and while the actors do game work here, they are ultimately betrayed by a script that doesn’t give them a whole lot of character to hang their hats on. Maybe the Agency ought to look into that.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between the leads is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: A predictable tired plot sabotages all the best intentions of the filmmakers.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of espionage action, some rude humor, scenes of sexuality and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  One of three major studio releases in 2016 with the name “Jones’ in the title, the other two being Bridget Jones’ Baby and Free State of Jones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Cents

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Draft Day


Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

(2014) Sports Drama (Summit) Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary, Chadwick Boseman, Sean Combs, Ellen Burstyn, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Chi McBride, Griffin Newman, Josh Pence, Tom Welling, Sam Elliott, Wallace Langham, Kevin Dunn, Rosanna Arquette, Jim Brown, Patrick St. Esprit, Margot Danis, Jennifer McMahan. Directed by Ivan Reitman

Football isn’t just a sport in the United States; it’s virtually a religion. Fans hang on every little bit of minutiae, from coaching strategies to fantasy leagues to postgame analysis. The NFL Draft has become something of a spectacle in its own right.

Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns who are coming off a disappointing season with a suspect quarterback (Welling) and a new Coach (Leary) hired away from the Dallas Cowboys, has a lot on his mind on the new Draft day. His boss, Browns owner Anthony Molina (Langella), is disturbed by the diminishing returns of his football club and needs Weaver to make a splash at this year’s draft – or else. His girlfriend Ali (Garner) who also happens to be his salary cap specialist, announces that she’s pregnant. His dad, a former Browns coach who Sonny himself had to fire, passed away a week earlier.

He’s been vacillating between two choices in the number seven position; linebacker Vontae Mack (Boseman) from Ohio State who really wants to be a Brown and has the advantage of being a star on the local college team, and running back Ray Jennings (Foster) who is the son of Earl Jennings (Crews), a Cleveland Browns legend. Jennings the younger has the disadvantage of having a recent arrest on his resume.

Then the Seattle Seahawks come calling and they’re interested in dealing. They have the number one pick in the draft overall and there is a can’t-miss quarterback, Bo Callahan (Pence) from the University of Wisconsin up for grabs. If the Browns are willing to give them their next three first round picks, they can get themselves a quarterback being touted as a legitimate franchise player. Knowing that this is the kind of move that can save his job, Weaver pulls the trigger. This pleases his boss but not his coach who has an innate suspicion of rookie quarterbacks, nor his current quarterback who has worked hard since his injury to get into the best shape of his life.

Something about the deal doesn’t feel quite right to Sonny. Why would Seattle want to pass on a sure thing? Unless there’s something that gave them cold feet…and nobody has found anything about Callahan that doesn’t look like he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer. Sonny needs to find out what’s what and maybe do some wheeling and dealing and in the meantime the clock is ticking as the Draft approaches.

The movie was made with the blessing and full co-operation of the NFL with commissioner Roger Goodell making a cameo as himself and the real team names and logos used, not to mention cameos by ESPN analysts and sportscasters. That’s meant to give the film a sheen of legitimacy and it’s quite effective.

Costner’s career resurrection continues as he utilizes his laidback personality and bemused smile to good effect. He’s perfect for this kind of role; canny, a little bit flustered, good-hearted and trying to do the right thing. In years past Costner would have played the athlete so this is a very natural move for him.

Leary, a stand-up comic who has done a lot of dramatic roles on the small screen, does really well here as the arrogant ex-Cowboys coach, constantly flashing his championship ring to remind people that he’s a winner. His back and forth with Costner is among the movie’s high points.

The problem here is that there is too much going on. I could have done with less soap opera and more expose of how things really work in an NFL club’s front office. I suspect a lot of football fans will agree with me on that point. While the plot ends up fairly predictable, I did appreciate the idea of the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the screens. Also a note to Reitman – overuse of graphics and fancy camera dissolves can get pretty distracting. Otherwise this is solid and entertaining spring fare guaranteed to make football fans long for the fall.

REASONS TO GO: Costner is solid as ever and has some terrific scenes with Leary.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Graphics get to be somewhat intrusive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunny Weaver Jr. was originally meant to be the GM of the Buffalo Bills but the team was changed when the producers found that it would be much cheaper to film in Ohio.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Major League

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Joe

jOBS


Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

Ashton Kutcher counts the number of good reviews.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine, Lesley Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O’Reilly, Victor Rasuk, John Getz, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Masi Oka, Robert Pine, Nelson Franklin, William Mapother, Eddie Hassell, Elden Henson, Abby Brammell. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern

Some people are really hard to figure out. They may have greatness in them – a vision so profound it changes the world and everything in it. They may also have demons in them, demons that sometimes reduce them to assholes and tempers their greatness.

Steve Jobs was a lot like that. The co-founder of Apple revolutionized technology and its place in our lives, but he was famously difficult to deal with. He set standards that were ridiculously high and didn’t react well to those who questioned his vision. He was volatile and not above screwing his friends over. It’s hard to reconcile his greatness with his pettiness.

The film opens with Jobs (Kutcher) addressing the troops at Apple, announcing the iPod in 2001, then immediately heads back to his undergraduate days at Reed College where he is a hippie-esque dropout auditing courses, taking drugs and making love with the woman he says he loves, artist Chris-Ann Brennan (O’Reilly) – but whom he’s not above cheating on.

After a trip to India, he returns home to the San Francisco Bay Area and gets a job at Atari but his prickly personality causes friction. He is given a project to work on  his own on – which would turn out to be the game Breakout – and eventually turns to his old friend Steve Wozniak (Gad) to help him. He misrepresents the payment to his genial friend, keeping the lion’s share of the payment for himself. However, a project Woz is working on as kind of a sidelight grabs Jobs’ attention and imagination. It’s a graphical interface that allows display on an ordinary TV screen. This would become the Apple computer. After limited success selling to local hobbyists, former Intel executive Mike Markkula (Mulroney) is drawn to Jobs and the product of the nascent company. He agrees to invest and Apple computers is born.

From there, Jobs, Wozniak, Markkula and the design team including Rod Holt (Eldard), Bill Fernandez (Rasuk), Daniel Kottke (Haas) and Chris Espinosa (Hassell) design the Apple IIe, one of the most crucial devices in the history of home computing. Apple takes off, becoming an economic engine. Jobs becomes obsessed with developing new products, starting with the Lisa – named after the illegitimate daughter whose paternity he vehemently denied even after tests showed him to be the father.

But Apple has grown into a corporation with money men and shareholders. One of the board members, Arthur Rock (Simmons), is deeply concerned with Jobs’ perfectionism and obsession with design at the expense of profitability. Something has to give and when Jobs brings on former Pepsi executive John Sculley (Modine) as the marketing genius to help take Apple to the next level, it does.

The mark of a good biopic is that we leave with at least some sense of who the man was. I think the success here in that regard is mixed; we certainly are treated to some of Jobs’ infamous tirades but we also don’t get a real sense of what causes that rage; we’re told early on that he was adopted but we never get a sense of whether or not that is a motivating factor.

That’s not Ashton Kutcher’s fault. He nails some of Jobs’ mannerisms (capturing his distinctive walk somewhat eerily) and certainly captures his passion. It’s the underlying stuff that we never get to see and that’s the script talking in that regard. I get the sense that the writers didn’t really bother to do a ton of research on Jobs – in many ways what we get is a very surface portrayal of event and milestone, but never what Jobs is thinking or where his ideas are coming from. They’re just…there.

Otherwise, Kutcher is much better than the critics have given him credit for. He gets some pretty solid support from Mulroney whose Markkula’s shifting loyalties and self-preservation tendencies are a model of the modern businessman but not necessarily admirable (and karma is a bitch, isn’t it) as well as Gad as Wozniak who is much more than the computer geek he appears to be.

This isn’t really a complete biopic. It takes on only a section of Jobs’ life, ending just prior to the release of the iPod (which is depicted at the beginning of the movie but the development of which really isn’t gone into). It doesn’t  show the iPhone which in many ways revolutionized society just as much as the Mac did, nor does it spend any time on his time at Pixar which is somewhat understandable.

Still, it’s fairly serviceable. The real Steve Wozniak takes the film to task for not being entertaining and he hits it on the head. The last third of the movie is mostly centered around boardroom drama and business politics and there’s nothing exciting about it. The best parts of the movie are in the center when Jobs and Wozniak are trying to change the world, one circuit board at a time. That they succeeded has helped create the world we live in now, for better or for worse. Which one it is will be judged by those who come after – as for us, I suppose it depends on your point of view.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Briefly, there’s some intense language and there are also a couple of drug-related sequences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Jobs’ family home and garage were almost all filmed in the Los Altos home where the real Steve Jobs grew up. The Apple scenes, however, were all sets and recreations as Apple declined to be involved with the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pirates of Silicon Valley

FINAL RATING; 6/10

NEXT: Breaking News

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Think twice before hanging out with Shia LaBeouf; there are a lot of angry film critics out there.

(2011) Science Fiction (Paramount) Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Alan Tudyk, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Tyrese Gibson, Buzz Aldrin, Elya Baskin, Peter Cullen (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Robert Foxworth (voice), James Remar (voice). Directed by Michael Bay

Nothing exceeds like excess, and by that criterion Transformers: Dark of the Moon exceeds all expectations.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has saved the world – twice – and all he’s got to show for it is a lousy Ivy League education. He longs to make a difference once again but he can’t get any sort of job and has to settle for living on the largesse of his new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), a former British consulate employee now working as an assistant to billionaire Dylan (Dempsey).

To make matters worse, the unemployed Sam is being visited by his judgmental parents Ron (Dunn) and Judy (White). However, Sam manages to get a job in the mail room of a defense contractor run by the somewhat eccentric Bruce Brazos (Malkovich).

Sam would much rather be working with the Autobots in NEST, but the government wants him far away from Optimus Prime (Cullen) as he can be. Lennox (Duhamel) is nominally in charge of the Autobots who are helping the American government putting out small fires around the world; taking out an illegal Iranian nuclear plant and investigating a strange occurrence at Chernobyl, where Lennox discovers Autobot technology may have been responsible for the disaster there.

Optimus demands an explanation and finally supercilious CIA chief Mearing (McDormand) gives him one. Apparently, near the end of the civil war that drove the Autobots from Cybertron, an Autobot ship escaped from the planet carrying a secret weapon as well as its designer, Sentinel Prime (Nimoy), the leader of the Autobots before Optimus. That ship crash landed on our moon, prompting the space race of the 1960s.

The Autobots rocket up to the moon and retrieve both Sentinel and the remains of the weapon. As they return, Megatron (Weaving), brooding in the desert after two defeats at the hands of Optimus and Sam Witwicky, puts into motion an evil plan that involves murder, betrayal and plenty of nasty robots coming after Sam and his new girlfriend. The stakes are high as the entire human race could end up as slave labor in the New World Order as envisioned by Megatron – and the Earth itself a desiccated, dried-out husk as her resources are used in the insane rebuilding of Cybertron. Once again, Sam and Optimus must lead the allied human-Autobot forces if both races are to survive.

My son has said that the reason you go to a Transformers movie is to watch robots beating each other up, and he has a point. If that’s why you’re plunking down ten bucks plus to see the movie, you won’t be disappointed. Once the battle starts in earnest, which is about halfway through the nearly two and a half hour movie, it doesn’t let up. The robots just about level Chicago and it is done realistically and spectacularly.

In fact, it’s done so well there seems to be no reason for human participation at all. The first half of the movie is somewhat slow and talky, and the humans are no match in the slightest to the giant robots of Cybertron. It is very much like watching a movie about, say, the Battle of the Bulge from the point of view of an ant colony. All the humans really have to do is dodge falling debris and be blown up by robot plasma shots; when one of the lead characters looks like they’re about to buy it, an Autobot comes out of nowhere to save the day (usually Optimus).

In fact, once the battle starts, LaBeouf has very little to do other than look concerned for his girlfriend, and occasionally shout “OPTI-MUUUUUUUUUUS!!!!” and he does both pretty well. His twitchy persona fits right in with the Witwicky character and although he’s the focus for the first half of the movie, it does break down during the first hour or so as we watch Sam mostly feeling inadequate and sorry for himself. It gets old.

Other than that, Bay did upgrade the supporting cast some, adding McDormand and Malkovich, Oscar nominees both, to the cast and both of the veteran actors deliver, as does Turturro in the returning role of Simmons, the paranoid agent (who is now a bestselling author) as comedy relief. Alan Tudyk, who impressed so much on the “Firefly” series, gets a meaty role as a fey German assistant to Simmons with his own set of skills. He makes the best use of his limited screen time.

As far as adolescent chubby-inducement, Megan Fox is out and former Victoria’s Secret model Huntington-Whiteley is in, making her feature acting debut. Fox was never known for her acting skills but she at least has some; Huntington-Whiteley is there mainly to wear tight dresses, have the camera almost see up her skirt and be put in jeopardy so Sam can rescue her. At least Megan Fox’s character wasn’t nearly as useless.

Transformer fans can rejoice; this is easily the most spectacular movie of the series and for non-fans, this is the best of the lot. Check your brain at the door, get the extra-large tub of popcorn and soda, and bliss out in a dark theater for awhile. This is pure popcorn spectacle on a massive scale and the plot is merely window dressing to the special effects. That’s not always a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of robots battling for those who like that kind of thing. Easily the most spectacular film of the series.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning of the movie lags a bit. The human characters are stiffer than the robots. Humans no match for aliens whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of mayhem and a few bad words, but it’s the scenes of destruction and robot death that might be a bit much for tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonard Nimoy, voicing Sentinel Prime, utters the line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in homage to a line spoken by Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

HOME OR THEATER: The spectacle demands the big movie theater screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

New Releases for the Week of July 1, 2011


TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

(DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Rose Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Ken Jeong, Patrick Dempsey, Leonard Nimoy, Alan Tudyk. Directed by Michael Bay

Transformers liaison and now college student Sam Witwicky discovers a terrifying secret, one involving the Space Race and how much the government really knows about the Transformers and the Decepticons. All this leads to a final invasion of Earth by the Decepticons, one which even the Transformers can’t save us from.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, promos and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action, violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo)

Beginners

(Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic. A young man who has never had much ability to commit to a relationship must cope with the grief of his father’s recent passing. When he meets a girl who might be the key to his future, he flashes back to the last months of his father’s life to find the means to connect with another in his own life.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Delhi Belly

(UTV) Imran Khan, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Vir Das, Shenaz Treasurywala. A trio of flatmates in New Delhi all have their problems, from overbearing bosses to fiancées who may or may not be the one they want. They all have one problem in common however; a crime lord who has put them on his hit list, and we’re not talking Casey Kasem here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy

Rating: NR

Larry Crowne

(Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Taraji P. Henson. Larry Crowne’s world has just come tumbling about his ears. Fired from his job at a big box retail outlet for not having a college education, he enrolls at a community college. Not only does he find his mind expanding, his life begins to expand as he comes out of his shell and falls for a beautiful teacher.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sexual content)

Monte Carlo

(20th Century Fox) Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester, Katie Cassidy, Andie McDowell. A case of mistaken identity lands three high school graduates the vacation of a lifetime. Of course, they’re not about to tell anyone they’re not who everyone thinks they are…which leads to some uncomfortable situations and, hopefully, hilarity. Although I wouldn’t expect too much.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Tween Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG (for brief mild language)

Unstoppable


Unstoppable

Frank Barnes got lost on the way to the dining car.

(2010) Action Thriller (20th Century Fox) Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Chapman, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan, Jessy Schram, Lew Temple, T.J. Miller, David Warshofsky, Elizabeth Mathis, Meagan Tandy, Andy Umberger. Directed by Tony Scott

Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington have made five films together thus far, of which this is the most recent to date. They have run the gamut from action classics to just-cash-the-paycheck-and-run. Where does this one fall in?

Frank Barnes (Washington) is a veteran locomotive engineer who after 28 years on the job is being forced to retire in a few weeks. He is breaking in Will Colson (Pine), a wet-behind-the-ears conductor who has family that are high muckety mucks in the union. They are headed out on a freight run that will take them out of Will’s hometown of Stanton, Pennsylvania where his estranged wife Darcy (Schram) and young daughter are sleeping.

Meanwhile, over in a different part of Pennsylvania, Dewey (Suplee), a foul-up of an engineer, does the unthinkable; he leaves his cab while his train is under power to flip a switch. While he’s out, the trains’ throttle slips and begins to pick up speed while the gaping-mouthed Dewey watches. He makes a run to try to get into the cab but falls flat on his tush, much to the amusement of other workers in the yard. That will be the last anyone will be amused by the situation.

The train begins to pick up speed on a deadly course for Stanton. It is also carrying six tanker cars full of molten phenol, an extremely toxic chemical. As yard master Connie Hooper (Dawson) puts it, “it’s not just a train; it’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.” She neglects to add “and it’s heading straight for town!” With an antiquated curve that someone inconveniently put fuel depot tanks next to, a derailment in Stanton would be the biggest catastrophe that Pennsylvania has ever had – since the Eagles choked in the Super Bowl anyway. Cue the music of impending doom.

With corporate stooge Oscar Galvin (Dunn) putting the company’s profits ahead of the human toll that would surely result of a derailment in Stanton next to those fuel tanks, things look grim for the citizens of Stanton. Attempts to get an engineer on board via helicopter fail miserably, as do attempts to derail the train. However, after Barnes narrowly avoids being ploughed into by the runaway, he decides that the only way to avert disaster is to chase after the train backwards, hook it up to his own engine and try to wrest control of the train from the unmanned engine but can he make it in time?

Scott is a very competent director when he is in his element and this one fits perfectly in his comfort zone. He knows how to jack up the tension effectively, and while some of his methods are a bit cliché (A trainload of school children are approaching in the opposite direction on the same track? Horrors!) he at least doesn’t try to call attention to his own directing skills.

Washington has aged gracefully (which not all movie stars do) and has played this kind of working class hero many a time. He brings the right mix of gravitas and humor to the role, and reminds us once again just why he is one of the top stars in Hollywood. That Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot) not only holds his own with Washington but actually makes his own mark leads me to believe that Pine is no one-trick-pony and could have a career in Hollywood comparable to Washington’s.

Dawson is one of those actresses who always seems to put on a good performance no matter what genre she’s doing or what kind of character. Here she’s a frustrated manager who knows that the people above her are corrupt and/or ignorant; eventually she just throws her hands up and allows Frank and Will to access their inner hero.

The movie contains very little CGI, which is rather refreshing. The trains look like trains and not like those created by CGI. Often, modern directors over-rely on computer graphics, confusing realism with real. Obviously, not a problem here. The action sequences of the train demolishing cars and derailers are pretty impressive, and again are mostly done with real trains.

This is the kind of movie that makes for a pleasant 90 plus minutes of entertainment. You don’t have to think too much and you don’t have to do much more than munch your popcorn and slurp your soda. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Perhaps that was a bad choice of words…

REASONS TO GO: Scott and Washington are old hands at this kind of action thriller. Pine holds his own with Washington which is no easy feat.

REASONS TO STAY: There are a few action clichés here which will remind audiences uncomfortably of The Taking of Pelham 123.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little coarse language and some action violence. This is perfectly fine for most older kids and teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Stanton Curve” depicted in the film actually exists as a rail line in Belaire, Ohio where the line runs on a historic elevated viaduct just after crossing the Ohio River. However, the fuel storage tanks shown in the film had to be added optically; nobody in real life is irresponsible enough to put fuel tanks in a location where a derailing train could impact into them and cause a devastating explosion – at least, I hope so.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a big bad action movie; to get its full effect you should see this in a darkened multiplex, preferably stuffing your face with popcorn, candy and soda. Hey, they’re all bad for you – why start feeling guilty now?

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

The Darwin Awards


The Darwin Awards

It's not so much flying as falling with style...

(MGM/Bauer Martinez) Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, Wilmer Valderrama, David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Nora Dunn, Lukas Haas, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Penn, Julianna Margulies, Alessandro Nivola, D.B. Sweeney, Kevin Dunn, Ty Burrell. Directed by Finn Taylor

The human race numbers nearly seven billion people. That’s a lot of variety in the gene pool. That also means there are a lot of people whose genes the human race would be better off without; sometimes they demonstrate this in the method in which they remove themselves from said gene pool.

Michael Burrows (Fiennes) is a police detective in San Francisco with a brilliant mind. In true Sherlock Holmes-like fashion he is able to observe the smallest details in order to create a profile of the criminals he is investigating. Unfortunately, he does have a slight hang-up; he has a phobia about the sight of blood. It causes him to faint. In that particular line of work, this can be a liability.

This comes to pass when he, through brilliant deductive work, manages to corner the North Beach serial killer (Nelson). However, when blood is shed, Burrows passes out and the killer gets away. He loses his job because of it.

Burrows is a methodical and logical sort, so he doesn’t panic. He knows that his gifts would be of great use in other industries. He has also developed a fascination for the recipients of the Darwin Awards – people who die in foolish and bizarre manners, so-named because those who cash out in these manners have failed the basic law of evolution: survival of the fittest. He realizes that the insurance companies pay millions out to survivors of these people and that his expertise might be useful in not only determining the difference between legitimate accidents and Darwin Award candidates, but also in pinpointing people who exhibit the kind of behavior that would make them susceptible to that kind of demise. 

He interviews at a large insurance company to pitch them his skills. At first, the executive (Kevin Dunn) who is interviewing him is skeptical but when Burrows makes some observations of the executive that are painfully close to home based on almost no information, the executive changes his tune. He pairs Burrows with Siri Taylor (Ryder), an investigator who specializes in bizarre cases.

She is none too thrilled to have a new partner, but has to admit grudgingly that Burrows is good at what he does when he figures out that what appears to be an industrial accident when a vending machine falls on a hapless office worker (Burrell) is actually a result of that worker over-balancing the machine in violation of the warning plainly visible on it.

As they travel from city to city, Taylor is at first a bit put off by the fastidious Burrows’ quirks and mannerisms, and his almost total lack of social skills. However, as she begins to see the man behind the mannerisms, she grows softer towards him, especially as he saves the insurance company millions. However, Burrows has some unfinished business to take care of; a serial killer in San Francisco with whom Burrows must face down one last time.

I have to admit liking the concept for The Darwin Awards a great deal. The execution is another matter. Director Taylor stages the death sequences well enough and there is some morbid humor in them, but they aren’t enough to carry the movie. Fiennes isn’t a bad actor – he has shown some chops in Shakespeare in Love but he is very low-key, which works to a certain extent here but at times he is too deadpan. He could benefit from an infusion of a little Nicolas Cage.

Ryder is a fine actress as well, but the chemistry between her and Fiennes isn’t really there. Their romance isn’t really convincing and in all honesty, I think the plot could have done without it. It’s a cliché that brings things down a little bit.

One of the conceits used in the movie is that Burrows is being followed around by a documentary filmmaker (Valderrama) who is using the footage (starting when Burrows was a police officer and carrying over to his new job) for a graduate thesis. There are moments when the movie benefits from it, but the filmmakers try too hard to integrate the documentarian into the action, especially joking how he is unwilling to help when someone is in trouble, even refusing to dial 911 when the serial killer is cornered. That whole component could have been done better, and have still been funny.

Black comedies are notoriously difficult to pull off. The filmmakers have to walk a very thin line between funny and grim, and sometimes it pays off – and other times it doesn’t. There are moments that make The Darwin Awards worth a look, but too often I found myself wishing the filmmakers had come up with a better film.

WHY RENT THIS: The premise is mightily intriguing. Some of the death scenes are cleverly staged.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fiennes’ character gets a little bit too over-the-top with the quirkiness. Deadpan humor gets to be so deadpan as to be un-funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some squirm-inducing death scenes, a little bit of drug usage and sexuality as well as a fair amount of blue language, all enough to make this unsuitable for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Mythbusters” hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage appear as surplus store salesmen to the rocket car driver; in the first episode of the show, they dealt with this very urban myth.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Amateurs