Tag Archives: D


Producer: Todd Garner and Sen Robins
Director: Andy Fickman
Writer: Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman
Stars: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hildebrand, Judy Greer, Dennis Haysbert, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater and Tyler Mane
Studio: Paramount Pictures


Even the outtakes that accompany the final credits are unfunny in “Playing With Fire,” a family movie of the sort that gives family movies a bad name. The abysmal comedy about a by-the-book smoke jumper—an “extreme” forest firefighter—mellowed by an encounter with three orphan siblings seems particularly tasteless given the current outbreak of destructive wildfires in California.

The brawny hero, Jake “Supe” Carson, is played by John Cena, a professional wrestler who’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Dwayne Johnson as a big-screen action star. Jake, whose father was a legendary smoke jumper, presides over a small outpost where—after some recent defections—he presides over a crew of three loyal underlings, nervous Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), garrulous Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and silent giant Axe (Tyler Mane). He’s a spit-and-polish guy entirely devoted to his job, hoping to be chosen by imperious Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert) as his successor.

In his latest heroic exploit, Jake rescues three youngsters—teen Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) and her younger siblings Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater)—from a burning cabin. Informed by his superiors that he’ll have to keep the youngsters at his station until their parents can retrieve them, Jake tries to maintain discipline, but of course the kids prove too much to handle and various little disasters occur even as he’s trying to keep things running smoothly in preparation for an inspection visit from Richards.

There’s a predictable subplot in the presence of Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), the local ecologist who shows up to demand Jake’s signature on an agreement not to use water from a nearby lake in his firefighting. In the by-the-numbers screenplay by Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman, she’s the obvious romantic interest for Jake, although it takes a long while for him to loosen up enough to make an advance.

That mellowing process, of course, is the result of his interaction with the kids, who despite all the trouble they cause are supposed to be so lovable that they bring out his paternal side. (We’re also meant to laugh at their playing not so much with fire, but all sorts of potentially dangerous things, like nail guns.) The process is accelerated when he finds out that they’re orphans who ran away when they were about to be separated by CPS. What follows—after a supposedly exciting sequence in which the kids, threatened with CPS intervention, attempt an escape, giving Jake another opportunity to show his mettle—is predictable, in terms of the impression he makes on both Hicks and Richards.

“Playing With Fire” was made in connection with Nickelodeon, the kids’ cable network with which Cena has developed a relationship, and it plays like three of Nick’s more uninspired live-action series string together. The script is awful, with the jokes and visual gags falling flat, especially as directed with a heavy hand by Andy Fickman and edited with a jerky stop-and-start rhythm by Eisabet Ronaldsdóttir, and the production is glossily second-rate, with cinematography by Dean Semler that’s pedestrian at best.

And what of the cast? Cena manages the action stuff and a plethora of slapstick pratfalls well enough—the legacy of his time in the ring, no doubt—but he’s mostly stiff and halting in his delivery of dialogue (most of it bad anyway). By contrast Key and Leguizamo play frantic in an effort to wring some laughs from the dreadful material they’re given (a running joke about Rodrigo’s habit of coming up with bad quotations is especially lame); the result is embarrassing for them both. Greer and Haysbert are wasted in stock parts, while the children—who are supposed to be endearing—mostly register as irritating.

Rather than plunking down your money to see it in a theatre, you’d be better off waiting to see “Playing With Fire” when it arrives on Nickelodeon—which it will probably do in relatively short order. Well, perhaps not better off—you’ll still have to sit through the dismally unfunny movie. But the commercials will provide some respite, and your wallet will be fuller.


Producer: Matthew Medlin, Gregory Plotkin, Robert Simonds and Tyler Zacharia
Director: Justin Dec
Writer: Justin Dec
Stars: Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway, Talitha Bateman, Peter Facinelli, Dillon Lane, Tichina Arnold, P.J. Byrne, Tom Segura, Matt Letscher and Anne Winters
Studio: STX Entertainment


There’s a demon lurking in your smartphone—in addition to Mark Zuckerberg, that is. It’s the Satanic force behind the titular app in Justin Dec’s feeble little horror movie, which doesn’t even merit being watched on a phone’s postage-stamp-sized screen, let alone in a theatre.

The heroine of the piece is Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), a nurse-in-training at a hospital in some nameless town, where she works with Dr. Sullivan (Peter Facinelli), who’s an obvious sexual predator, though neither she nor any of her co-workers are smart enough to recognize that. She’s kind to everyone, including Evan (Dillon Lane), a patient nervously awaiting surgery for injuries he suffered in a car crash.

His squeamishness arises from the fact that his phone is running an undeletable app, Countdown, which supposedly tells you the very moment you will die and, as the name says, counts down to it, second by second; and it tells him he will die during the operation. He doesn’t, actually, but that’s because he violates the user’s agreement that people robotically accept even without being required to prove they’re not robots—just as his girlfriend Courtney (Anne Winters) did when she refused to let him drive her home when he was drunk. Trying to avoid your fate, you see, automatically results in some scary apparition showing up to do you in anyway: that’s the deal.

Lots of the hospital staff, including Quinn, have foolishly loaded the app onto their phones as a lark (so will her younger sister Jordan, played by Talitha Bateman), but after Evan’s death she grows concerned about the fact that it’s predicting her death is right around the corner. She’ll find a comrade-in-arms in Matt Monroe (Jordan Callaway), who’s in a similar fix. Together they track down the inevitable Catholic priest (P.J. Byrne) who’s knowledgeable in demonology, though in this case the guy is a gee-whiz supernatural freak rather than an aged exorcist, and his reading of the coding (in Latin, no less) suggests the whole thing was composed by a soul-seeking demon and the only way to break the curse is for somebody to die too early or too late and thereby short-circuit the system.

How this all resolves itself won’t be revealed here; suffice it to say the main plot trajectory, though intended to be both scary and funny, is neither, while the subplots—especially that involving sleazy Sullivan—amount to irritations. To add insult to injury, not only does the resolution include one of those phony death-followed-by-resurrection scenes, but it’s followed by not one but two codas, a supposedly humorous bit featuring an inconsequential secondary character (Tom Segura) and a cemetery scene that might not copy the famous “Carrie” denouement but does something even more frightening: it paves the way for a sequel.

The craft contributions here are about par for this sort of horror potboiler, and so is the acting, with Calloway giving the most natural, unforced performance; Lail makes a pretty colorless heroine, and Byrne is ridiculously over-the-top as the priest. Charlie McDermott, late of “The Middle,” one of the best recent TV sitcoms, shows up in a couple of scenes as a hospital orderly; hey, Axl!

For those who loathe cellphones—especially when used in movie theatres—“Countdown” will at least afford an opportunity to observe those addicted to them get their just deserts. But that’s not a sufficient reason to recommend this remarkably dumb, fright-free Halloween trick.