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18 October 2016
All in the Family - Movie Reviews for Kids

So many films this year have involved the dysfunctional relationships of family members, from siblings to spouses, aunts, uncles, cousins and children. Keeping all these movies straight and describing them to others can be tricky and complicated. So, as a public service, I have condensed the plots of 30 these 2016 movies down to one-sentence each:

"Martha, Martha, Martha" - "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice"

The Smother Mother - "The Meddler"

My Parent is a Panther - "The Jungle Book"

Reunited and...let's shoot some people in the head - "The Accountant"

Woody Harrelson is #Twinning - "Now You See Me 2"

Kitten Cousins - "Keanu"

Gotta Call the Wife - on my Flip Phone - "Sully"

Auntie ready to take down the clowns - "Boo! A Madea Halloween"

Beetle + Monkey = ???? - "Kubo and the Two Strings"

Uncle Marries Ex-Girlfriend, new girlfriend has the same name - "Cafe Society"

E.T. Call Your Mom - "Midnight Special"

"Scary" Poppins - "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"

Ice Cube waits until the end of the movie to give his son a much-needed trim - "Barbershop: The Next Cut"

Mila Kunis is Gonna Party like it's 1983 (which is also when she was born) - "Bad Moms"

Gimme the Baby! - "The Girl on the Train"

Getting relationship help from Wendy Williams - "Mike and the Dave Need Wedding Dates"

Evil Queen Seeks Sister's Revenge, Pt. 1 - "The Huntsman: Winter's War"

Evil Queen Seeks Sister's Revenge, Pt. 2 - "Alice Through the Looking Glass"

Finale for The Father of the Rom-Com - "Mother's Day"

Sharing personal details about your wacky family in front of 53,000 people - "Kevin Hart: What Now?"

Daughter's science project is forced foreshadowing - "Deepwater Horizon"

Boy's quest for a baby brother is for the birds - "Storks"

Iron Man hits on Spidey's mom - "Captain America: Civil War"

Couple's bad luck can strike twice - "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising"

Raised by Apes - "The Legend of Tarzan"

Modern Tarzan raised by Fire-breather - "Pete's Dragon"

Brotherly love - for robbing banks - "Hell or High Water"

Pizza's Here, bros! - "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows"

She's looking for her parents, title says they're looking for her - "Finding Dory"

Po, I am Your Father - "Kung Fu Panda 3"

In Theaters

The Accountant (R) A-

The Accountant (R) A- - Movie Reviews for Kids

"The Accountant" is one of the most unique films I've seen this year. In describing the "genre-bending thriller", director Gavin O'Connor ("Warrior") told Entertainment Weekly, "It's such an odd movie, man." One of the integral lines of dialogue featured in the trailer and the film is when a supporting character says "Different scares people." But being different can also define who you are, and this movie's off-beat approach to the art of storytelling is extremely satisfying. "The Accountant" mixes heavy action, crime, deep themes of family/relationship dynamics, insights into serious developmental issues, light humor and even a touch of romance into one cohesive experience. Writer Bill Dubuque, who attempted to achieve the same results with "The Judge" (Robert Duvall's performance was the only strong element) is much more successful here in crafting a truly original screenplay that blends high intensity with genuine sincerity.

Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, an accountant who runs a small, Illinois firm called "ZZZ Accounting". As a minor character points out midway through, it's a bummer for your business to have that name when listed in the Yellow Pages. But it's clear that Wolff is not concerned about that. We learn through flashbacks to his childhood, as well as scenes as an adult, that Wolff suffers from Autism (though that word is not used until about an hour into the movie). He has trouble socializing and is still haunted by his very difficult upbringing. But he is a mathematical genius, and therefore his professional services are greatly in demand - specifically by those around the world who deal with large amounts of money obtained illegally. Wolff is hired by a cutting-edge tech firm, Living Robotics, after it's suspected that someone on the inside is stealing money from the company.

However, as mild-mannered as Wolff may seem in public, he has a big secret - he's a trained killing machine. And FBI Treasury Agent, Ray King (J.K. Simmons), makes it his mission to hunt down Wolff (who, not suprisingly, may be operating under one or two other aliases) before his upcoming retirement. An early scenes with King interacting with his new prodigy/assistant in the case, an analyst named Medina (played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson), is enthralling - an instant plot-hooker.

"The Accountant" is staged in sections, with chunks of the film devoted to two or three different characters for extended periods. The method works, allowing the entire ensemble to shine. Affleck is quite believable in a refreshing, multi-layered role, and Simmons was a perfect casting choice (isn't he always). John Lithgow and Jean Smart play executives of Living Robotics. Emmy winner Jeffrey Tambor is featured in a few scenes as a prison confidant of Wolff's. Jon Bernthal does star-solidifying work as hitman, Brax. And Anna Kendrick, as LR accountant, Dana Cummings, who befriends Wolff, gives her best performance since "Up in the Air". [To help prepare for the role, Kendrick actually sent the script to her mother, who is an actual accountant.]

These characters draw emotions out of us in the most unexpected places. "The Accountant" is a crowd-pleaser, though not in the traditional sense. O'Connor is bold in not shying away from the realities of wide spectrum of developmental disabilities. There are several raw scenes which, in lesser hands, would have seemed exploitive and clearly out of place in a crime thriller. Instead, they make us root even more for Wolff (even though he's not necessary a "good guy" - or is he?) Affleck has called this role the first "Autistic Superhero" ever portrayed on screen.

The story goes in a few minor directions I wish it hadn't (and a climactic fight scene includes way too many versions of the same shot of a character watching the action on a monitor), but I have to admit there are a couple of twists that simply blew me away. And at the heart of "The Accountant" is an idea which Kendrick's Cummings says to Wolff in her best scene, "We all just wanna belong." This film belongs on the list of most surprisingly effective movies of the year. 

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Accountant" gets an A-.

Kevin Hart: What Now? (R) C

Kevin Hart: What Now? (R) C - Movie Reviews for Kids

On Sunday night, August 30, 2015, Kevin Hart performed in front of 53,000 people at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, becoming the first comedian to ever play and sell out an NFL stadium. And that night, Universal Pictures filmed the show for Hart’s third big screen concert movie.

I was there, on the field, in about the 20th row. Watching Hart perform in such a large venue, and being part of the movie-making experience was once-in-a-lifetime stuff, but the show itself was a bit of a letdown. And “Kevin Hart: What Now?” - the movie - is no different.

The film begins with a nearly 15-minute James Bond spoof sequence, with Hart as Agent 0054 and former Bond Girl, Halle Berry, at his side. Unfortunately the best scenes from this open are given away in the trailers and TV ads. Overall, this intro simply isn’t clever enough.

Because I was in the crowd at the Philly show, I knew exactly what was coming in the rest of “What Now?: Hart pops-up from under the stage, wearing a black leather jacket, black T-shirt and plenty of bling. Utilizing a gold microphone, Hart begins to tell stories - about his fear of wildlife and the dark, his wacky family and the struggles of being a father, son and (at the time) fiancé. It all quickly brought back memories of that night at The Linc. I didn’t find much of his observational humor all that funny the first time, though his material did get better as the show progressed, until a very uncomfortably vulgar final 20 minutes. That chunk was left out of the film, and everything does move along at a faster, tighter pace, which helps produce more laughs.

Before Hart took the stage the night of the show, “What Now?” director Leslie Small had the audience do several pretend laughing and applauding takes for the cameras, which would be edited into the film. They were definitely used in this movie, some clumsily, but overall the cutaways portray a crowd really enjoying themselves. But, just as with the live show, the stand-up portion of the film ends abruptly, and the wrap-up “Bond” segment has no payoff.

If you’re a big Kevin Hart fan, you should see and likely will love “What Now?” - at least his 75 minutes of stand-up. But if you don’t know much about Hart, or are luke-warm when it comes to his comedy, this movie probably WON’T turn you into a fan.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Kevin Hart: What Now?” gets a C.

CLICK HERE for my review of the "What Now?" show from Aug. 30, 2015

Christine (R) A

Christine (R) A - Movie Reviews for Kids

Rarely does a movie make me cry. On the few occasions it's happened, it was at the end of the film. "Christine" not only brought me to tears during the climax, but on two other occasions earlier in the movie, as I watched Rebecca Hall give a painfully resonant and hauntingly brilliant performance as 1970s TV news reporter, Christine Chubbuck.

You may recognize the name and know a little about the story of Chubbuck, a one-time Sarasota, Florida on-air TV personality. If so, chances are it's how she died that you're familiar with. "Christine" brilliantly portrays Chubbuck's final months, the events that led to her infamous act of pulling-out a handgun and committing suicide live on the air during a newscast. 

Every scene and line of dialogue is designed to get us to this staggering event. You know it's coming, and yet, the moment is still incredibly jarring. The shooting (which forever changed television, and inspired the iconic film, "Network"), may leave the biggest impression, but it's just one of more than a dozen gripping, heartbreaking and poignant moments throughout "Christine".

Hall embodies Chubbuck, who was 29 years old in 1974 and into her second year at ABC affiliate WXLT (in "Christine" the call letters are changed to WZRB). Her socially awkward attributes were difficult to ignore. She was brilliant, overly-sensitive and very good at her job, but also extremely insecure, especially in dealing with criticism from News Director/Station Manager Michael (played by Tracy Letts). Their interactions are especially insightful. Chubbuck was also dealing with depression. Several times there are references to Christine's past problems "in Boston", though they are not spelled-out specifically, adding to the mystery of this very complicated and troubled woman.

The early 70s was the time when local TV news was becoming sensationalized, and Michael starts pushing for juicier crime stories ("If it Bleeds, it Leads"), urging Christine to get away from the interviews with chicken farmers and stories on the local strawberry festival. But this is the kind of reporting Christine loved.

Her spirits are tested further when the station owner comes to town. He's looking to see which on-air and production talent he can pluck from this small station for his new station in Baltimore, which was a Top 30 market (and still is today). Christine becomes obsessed with getting that new job. Hall's mesmirizing performance, as complications arise that prevent Christine from achieving her goals - how she reacts as, piece by piece, her professional and personal life begins to crumble around her, is heartbreaking. Her weird and strained relationship with her roommate (who also happens to be her mother) only makes her more of a ticking time bomb.

I could write pages dissecting every scene in "Christine": a very uncomfortable interaction Chubbuck has with a young couple at a restaurant celebrating their three-year anniversary. The "date" Christine has with news anchor George Ryan (played masterfully by Michael C. Hall) that goes in completely unexpected and devastating directions. A "Yes, But..." group therapy session scene that will tie your stomach in knots. And each of the three puppet shows Christine performs at a hospital for special-needs children. The way she incorporates the troubles of her life into these sessions intended for kids will leave you breathless.

"Christine" is 33-year old director Antonio Campos's third feature film (he was a producer on "Martha Marcy May Marlene"). He and writer Craig Shilowich completely capture the atmosphere and look of local TV news in the 70s, from the set design, to the clothes, to the spot-on dialogue. You feel the pressure that Christine and, to a lesser extent, her colleagues were dealing with: the pressure to get higher ratings; the pressure to get a promotion; the pressure on the women in the newsroom to succeed in a male-dominated field and, for everyone, especially Christine: the pressure to be loved. The ensemble cast is outstanding and the creepy, "click-clack" score, at times reminiscent of ticking clocks on classic game shows, adds to the drama.

Tonight's Top Story: "'Christine' is One of The Best Movies of 2016". It's also one of the most important, largely thanks to Hall, who represents everyone, especially those in the media business, whose goal it is to matter. If there are five better Lead Actress performances this year I will be stunned. Hall is impossible to ignore.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Christine" gets an A.

Mascots (NR) C-

Mascots (NR) C- - Movie Reviews for Kids

Christopher Guest defined the mockumentary genre with cult hits "Waiting for Guffman", "A Mighty Wind", "For Your Consideration", and most notably, "Best in Show". That film, released in 2000, is a hysterical satire on the beloved canine spectacle: the dog show.

"Mascots" is Guest's latest mockumentary. It features most of his core team of talented comic actors (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara are noticeably absent), and some new members. The cast is not the problem. My biggest issue  with "Mascots" is that Guest tries to mesh two concepts together and they just don't gel. One one hand he's spoofing the world of mascots, specifically the people who devote their lives to wearing costumes and becoming characters to entertain people at sports and corporate events. Obviously there's a lot of potential here for laughs. But he also frames the film around a fictional mascot competition, attempting to make this the "Best in Show" for a new generation, but he falls way short.

The format of the two films is almost identical: Guest begins "Mascots" with on camera profiles of several of the performers as they prepare to travel to Anaheim, CA for The 8th Annual World Mascot Competition (aka "The Furries"). Most of the first hour of "Mascots" is simply these "interviews" - and, sadly, most of it is not very funny, as these dysfunctional characters, played by the likes of Parker Posey, Tom Bennett, Chris O'Dowd, Zach Woods and Sarah Baker, are annoying, dull or both. Many of the scenes feel like they may have been improved - which, if so, was a mistake. 

The non-mascot cast tries its best: Fred Willard, who defined "Best in Show" with his hilarious performance as the dog show commentator, here plays a mascot trainer, and while he has some of the most offensive lines in the movie, at least he generates some laughs and his comedic timing is as sharp as ever. (I wish Guest had chosen to have Willard's "Show" character, Buck Laughlin, return to host this mascot competition. Guest, himself, does reprise his Corky St. Clair role from "Waiting for Guffman").

So, instead of a host for the big event, there's simply an announcer (voiced by "The Simpsons" legend Harry Shearer). "The Furries" dominates the final half hour of "Mascots" and, like with "Best in Show", it's the best part of the film. Jane Lynch and Ed Begley, Jr. have fun as bickering judges, and a few of the routines are highly entertaining. But you have to wade through so much unfunny, and occasionally painful, material to get there.

There isn't much of an emotional arc to the story - we don't care enough about any of these people, ever after learning so much about them, to care who wins. The script (written by Guest and actor Jim Piddock, who also has a role as a retired mascot) fails to deliver the comedic commentary on the art of mascotry that this ridiculous activity provides. This subject should have been an easy target for the level of talent involved in this project. 

For all its problems, the Andy Samberg mockumentary, "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" at least had plenty of energy. Guest's slow, tamer approach is losing its charm and, in the case of "Mascots", his material isn't blue-ribbon worthy.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mascots" gets a C-.

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"The Girl on the Train" review

What's Next?
  • "Boo! A Madea Halloween" - Tomorrow
  • "Inferno" - Oct. 28
  • "Doctor Strange" - Nov. 4
  • "Trolls" - Nov. 4
  • "Arrival" - Nov. 11
  • "Billy Lynn's/Halftime Walk" - Nov. 11
Best @ the Box Office
  1. "The Accountant"  $24.7M
  2. "Kevin Hart: What Now?"  $12.0
  3. "The Girl on the Train"  $12.0
  4. "Miss Peregrine's Home..."  $8.9
  5. "Deepwater Horizon"  $6.4
  6. "Storks"  $5.6
  7. "The Magnificent Seven"  $5.2
  8. "Middle School"  $4.3
  9. "Sully"  $3.0
  10. "The Birth of a Nation"  $2.7
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LCJ and Jeffrey Tambor

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