Somewhere in Suburbia, USA, human resources drone Jeff Gaffney and his interior designer wife Karen (Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) are living generic middle-class cul-de-sac lives when their curiosity and fascination is piqued by the arrival of new immaculate, world-traveled neighbors Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot).

Don Draper and Wonder Woman moving in next door would be enough of a counterpoint to the nebbishness of Galifianakis and Fisher, but there is, of course, more to the story as Tim and Natalie turn out to be government spies looking to bilk information about the high-security firm that their mild-mannered neighbor works for.

What follows is textbook formula for the “My friend is a spy!” genre, with Hamm and Galifianakis bonding over home-brew and a near snake poisoning  and Fisher playing the amateur sleuth whose suspicions leads first to a protracted and unfunny lingerie scene for Gadot and finally the big reveal that kicks that back half of the film into motion.

Of course Galifianakis and Fisher will be forced into a covert operation on behalf of God and Country. It’s a foregone conclusion, as are most of the major plot beats in the film equivalent of a paint-by-numbers sketch.

And yet, throughout the predictable proceedings, the charisma of the cast is able to keep things relatively afloat. Hamm and Gadot ooze charm without really bothering to show up and act, while Galifianakis and Fisher bounce off the walls. The results is a reasonably entertaining, albeit unmemorable, way to spend two hours with a soft PG-13 rating that allows for *just enough* adult humor in an otherwise harmless comedy.

Grade: B-

Keeping Up With the Joneses opens nationwide on Friday, October 21.


Ben Affleck’s new movie, “The Accountant,” is all over the map. Ostensibly, it’s about a math savant with high-functioning autism who earns his keep as a black market book keeper for mega-corporations, drug cartels and terrorists.

But it’s also a family drama about a gifted child raised under the stern gaze of a militaristic father, which molds the boy into a killing machine.

But it’s also a romance, with a social misfit rushing to save the nerdy damsel in distress, played by perfect human Anna Kendrick.

It’s also a pseudo-superhero movie, with a hyper-intelligent one-man-wrecking-machine doling out vigilante justice with the help of J.K. Simmons, in a striking parallel to his upcoming role as Commissioner Gordon in the Justice League movie.

It’s also a revenge flick.

In truth, the disparate elements don’t combine into a coherent hole. The tone is wildly inconsistent, trading blase mayhem with awe-shucks humor and quiet introspection. With Affleck at its center, it feels like Good Will Hunting, Daredevil and Argo crammed into a single stew.

But that stew is not abjectly terrible. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) and writer Bill Dubuque (The Judge) clearly set out to make a thinking man’s action film, and to a large extent they succeed. Accountant, with its seemingly emotionless protagonist and no-frills choreography, makes for a unique storytelling format that leans into and twist the tropes of the genre.

Were it not for a few too many unreasonably contrived plot coincidences, the movie would be a valid, albeit not superfluous, success. That the film’s major reveal is so glaringly apparent can’t lessen the dull thud that it lands with, and the film’s action sequences escalate nicely before culminating in a final standoff that is shot in near-darkness, making it nearly incomprehensible. And a B-plot focusing on an up-and-coming Treasury investigator feels completely tacked on as an afterthought, and that’s before an exposition dump at the start of Act II renders the whole sequence largely moot.

There’s enough happening onscreen to keep an audience engaged — though the film runs a little long at 128 minutes —  and the John Wick-esque shoot ’em up style is one that I’m happy to see more film’s embracing. But for all the film’s assets, it can’t quite keep them organized to offset depreciation.

Grade: B-

*The Accountant opens nationwide on Friday, October 14

Galavant (2015-2016)

Galavant ran for just two short seasons on ABC, racking up 18, 22-minute episodes that are perfect for a quick binge. The show is a medieval musical comedy centered around the adventures of Galavant (Joshua Sasse) and his squire (played by Community’s Magnitude — “Pop POP!”) and filled with self-referential meta humor.

In short, it’s weird, and definitely designed for the music theater crowd. But after a somewhat shaky start the show leans into its surrealism, delivering bigger laughs and winningly absurdist song-and-dance sequences. I would have loved more episodes (not gonna happen) but at the same time the 18 installments are well-planned, making for a coherent and complete story, which is all-to0-rare among cancelled-too-soon television shows. And with only 9 hours of programming, it won’t weigh down you queue for long.


Dope (2015)

Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a good kid growing up in a tough neighborhood. A string of circumstances land him and his friends with a bag full of dope (hence the title) and no choice but to turn to some extra-curricular drug dealing in order to get back to their normal geeky ways.

The good-guy-forced-to-do-bad-things is familiar territory, but Dope takes a fresh approach, keeping things on the lighter side and splitting its time between coming of age story and loving tribute to hip-hop and urban culture.


Better Off Ted (2009-2010)

Another two-season ABC tragedy. Better Off Ted ran for 26 episodes of bizarre workplace shenanigans, based out of a soulless R&D company that produces everything from itchy office chairs that increase employee productivity to perfectly aerodynamic bagels.

The protagonist is Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) but the strength is really in the ensemble, which includes Arrested Development’s Portia De Rossi and the paired perfection of Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Berrett as a sort of live-action Beaker and Bunsen. Gone too soon, but never forgotten.

The Hunting Ground (2015)

On a more serious note, every man woman and child (of an appropriate age for mature themes) should watch The Hunting Ground, a searing documentary about the plague of campus sexual assault. If there’s a better study of the subject in film form, I have yet to see it. Chilling, evocative and necessary.

Trolljegeren (Troll Hunter – 2010)

From Norway, with English subtitles, Troll Hunter is about…well…hunting trolls. And it’s delightful.

Shot in a documentary style, the movie skips around Norway while a ragtag bunch of troll hunters encounter and take care of an escalating string of monsters.

It’s kind of hard to describe. Watch it.


Writer-director-star Nate Parker blew the doors off Sundance with this historical epic, which netted a record $17.5 million pickup. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and is filled to the brim with commentary on America’s past, present and future.

While limited by a independent budget, Parker’s camera captures plenty of stomach-churning horrors. Prior to his rebellion, Turner visits neighboring plantations as a preacher-for-hire, providing a window into the disparate treatment eked out by slaveowners reacting and adapting to economic downturn.

The film seems perfectly poised to drop into the current national conversation on race in America. Its rough edges could slow it down in the mainstream market, but it’s a meaningful, boldly-made film with plenty to say.

^That^ is what I wrote about “Birth of a Nation” when I saw it January, back when Nate Parker was the belle of the Sundance ball and before his past as an accused rapist had been shouted from the rafters by dogged and necessary criticism. In the months since, Parker has failed to mitigate those criticisms, instead holding adamant to his acquittal, refusing to apologize for whatever part he played in the victimization of a now-deceased woman  (she committed suicide in 2012) and clinging to his perceived status as a wrongly-accused, innocent man.

The problem, Mr. Parker, is that as one character explained in “Hannibal,” innocent isn’t a verdict, not guilty is.

In light of the off-screen drama that now surrounds “The Birth of a Nation,” the film’s flaws are all-the-more glaring. Under Parker’s relatively inexperienced direction, the movie lacks any subtlety, with its depictions of barbarism delivered as bluntly – and literally – as a hammer to the teeth. There is a dearth of chemistry between the film’s romantic leads, and a stiffness to the dialogue that undercuts the character beats and dramatic tension.

From the lens of a low-budgeted drama by a novice multi-hyphenate director and star, those flaws are forgivable in service of a lesser-known piece of American history worthy of dramatization. But the increasing weight of Parker’s personal issues drags the movie down into the dirt.

For those able to separate art from artist, “The Birth of a Nation” remains and interesting and ambitious project. But for many, and unfortunately for the myriad professionals involved in the making of this film, the quality is not high enough to distract from the mistakes of its director and star.

Grade: B

*The Birth of a Nation opens nationwide on Friday, October 7.


*Note: portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

The quirky family dramedy is a perennial staple, and the genre’s demands are thoroughly satisfied by “The Hollars,” directed by The Office’s John Krasinski. This is a film where an aloof son (Krasinski) is summoned home due to the ill health of a parent (in this case, character actress Margo Martindale) and the ensuing reconnection to his past thrusts him out of a rut a changed, matured and awakened man, ready to face his future.

It’s a familiar formula, but one that is successfully executed by the incredible ensemble cast, which includes perfect human Anna Kendrick as Krasinski’s pregnant, no-nonsense wife, Richard Jenkins as his endearingly buffoonish father, Sharlto Copley as a mildly-unhinged brother and small but memorable parts for Josh Groban, Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

But it’s not all sunshine. The potential loss of a parent hangs over the proceedings, and the b-plot hinges on Copley’s character struggling to cope with the recent separation from his wife and children. But the drama side of things floats above despair, avoiding the sharper edges of hipster negativity that populate similar work by Zach Braff or the Duplass Brothers — not a knock on either style, simply a comment a tone.

The tidy, group-hug ending may be a little too breezy for some, but ‘The Hollars’ is funny, it’s heartfelt, and it goes down smooth.

Grade: B+

*The Hollars opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, September 23.


It’s established early on in “Sully” that all 155 people aboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549 survived the plane’s emergency landing on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.

But that knowledge doesn’t rob emotion from the scene, roughly two-thirds through the 96-minute running time, in which Tom Hanks’ Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger learns that every passenger and crew member is safe on dry land.

That’s a credit to the fine and mature performance of Hanks, who taps into the well of understated sincerity he’s crafted over the course of a decades-long career as Hollywood’s go-to everyman.

It’s the quality of Hanks’ performance, with the help of a competent supporting cast including Aaron Eckhart  (The Dark Knight), that elevates director Clint Eastwood’s latest drama from what could have been a dull reenactment to, instead, a moving portrayal of human success.

It’s hard to criticize a film this optimistic. This is a story about decent people rising to the daunting challenge of unthinkable circumstances. It culminates with a montage of New Yorkers rallying to the rescue. And the closest it comes to conflict are the exaggeratedly uncooperative federal agents investigating the crash, whose inevitable endorsement of the pilot’s actions arrive right on cue to wrap the film up in a bow.

But the film’s flaws are there. Eastwood relies on overly blunt sequences of self-doubt by Sully to prolong the film’s first act, the aforementioned investigators are cartoonish in their villainy and the movie suffers from an egregiously omnipresent show of corporate sponsorship by the Marriott hotel chain.

The film is also staged in a non-linear structure, allowing Eastwood to dole out and revisit the centerpiece plane crash in increments and from different viewpoints. It’s hard to say whether that choice is effective or not, as the non-crash sequences tend to drag with little to say. When the conclusion arrives, it feels postponed, rather than earned.

Far from a misfire, “Sully” is an above-average film that gives due diligence to a cinema-worthy piece of American history. But it’s also a lesser entry in the filmographies of both its director and star, albeit one that gives Hanks a near-perfect platform to showcase his strengths.

Grade: B

*Sully opens nationwide on Friday, September 9.

*Note: Portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.


During the course of an extremely long first date, future president Barack Obama won over a disinterested Michelle Robinson, despite several biting arguments, by demonstrating his oratorical prowess and sneaking a kiss over some dessert. At least, that’s the version shown in “Southside With You,” the Before Sunrise-esque film about the First Couple’s early relationship.

Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Tanne’s script lacks the depth and subtlety of Richard Linklater’s classic. “Southside With You” is bogged down by the weight of its characters’ futures and so concerned with what is to be that it forgets that its actually telling a story set in the present tense. What should be a love story between two young and promising adults in Chicago is instead a pseudo-mythic “Obama: Origins” story, as if at any moment a radioactive spider will jump out and transform them into their full potential.

For his part, Parker Sawyers is an effortlessly convincing young-B.O., slipping skillfully into 44’s mannerisms without resorting to gross caricature. The same can’t be said for Tika Sumpter (also one of the film’s producers) who is stilted as Michelle Obama and who relies on sullenness as a substitute for the future first lady’s principled strength.

“Southside With You” bets every chip it has on the allure of young POTUS and FLOTUS. But imagine for a moment not knowing who Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson grow up to be, and what’s left is an overly presumptive film about an otherwise generic meet cute, in which the budding romance between its protagonists is too short on chemistry to be convincing.

Grade: B-

*Southside With You opens in Salt Lake City and select theaters nationwide on Friday, August 26.