REVIEW: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

18 05 2016

There’s a time in a person’s life when they feel like they lag behind everyone else their own age. More people seem to progress to that next echelon of adulthood with each passing day. Stagnation meets anxiety, which then causes resistance. And a kind of paralysis sets in.

Well, maybe “time” should be plural. The above scenario describes the world in”Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” that greets both Zac Efron’s Teddy Sanders after college and Seth Rogen’s Mac Radner after his wife (Rose Byrne’s Kelly) announces her pregnancy with their second child. Each has made small steps towards some kind of maturity while still feeling like their phoning it in prohibits them from leveling up in life.

If the first “Neighbors” was about finding humor and truth in the irreconcilable differences between fraternity guys and family men, then the sequel pivots to finding heartfelt connections that can be forged between ludicrous antics over shared feelings of inadequacy and ineptitude. More than the pure humor value of the original’s Abercrombie-set epilogue, Teddy and Mac forge a more durable bond here over a shared interest in shutting down the insurgent Kappa Nu sorority that set up next door.

Granted, their motivations are quite different. For the same reasons as the film’s predecessor, Mac needs to ensure the house stays appealing to prospective buyers. Teddy, on the other hand, helps the cause because he needs to feel needed. Originally, he got that appreciation from the sorority sisters, who relied on his expertise to help establish their organization. (Teddy ironically knows more about real estate than the Radnor family, proof that Greek organizations actually do teach at least some valuable life lessons.)

While not quite a student and not quite an adult, Teddy naturally gets caught back in the gravitational pull of the college life; it can be quite alluring to stay in a place where your expertise and skills count for something. Once they turn on him, he feels no shame switching sides. Efron masterfully portrays that confusing moment in time where identifying with adults seems easier than identifying with kids. As it turns out, he shares quite a bit more in common with the Radnors than previously imagined. Their express aim is to ruin the fun of the youth, though latently, envy for their freedom drives such animosity.

The specifics of post-grad assimilation into the so-called “real world” might look quite different than planting one’s flag firmly in the “adult” and “parent” category. But when teetering on the fence between life stages, the importance of age fades away some. It sounds like the kind of deceptively deep philosophical lesson one might impart from a Richard Linklater film. Instead, it’s sandwiched between jokes about Bill Cosby, men’s rights activists and the Holocaust. (Yes, it even goes there.)

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REVIEW: The Meddler

14 05 2016

The MeddlerKnow that person who has a heart of gold but lacks a silver tongue? Or has valuable wisdom but tends to share too much information? Who would be the greatest conversationalist in the world if they could just cut themselves off one sentence earlier?

That would be Susan Sarandon’s Marnie Minervini in “The Meddler,” though the beauty of her performance is that the character rings broadly true for so many people. For plenty, it will probably recall their mother or other family member. The meat of the film does focus on Marnie’s relationship with her adult daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), still a bit of a hot mess professionally and romantically. Marnie tries to intervene, as most mothers do, but Lori gives an unsubtle hint for her newly widowed parent to find a different hobby.

Rather than mope, whine or cause unnecessary tension between the two of them, Marnie essentially takes her charge. For decades, she played few roles besides “mother” and “wife.” This free time grants her the opportunity to be a friend, a surrogate parent, a mentor … and maybe even a lover. There’s certainly not a dull moment with Marnie, though sometimes the organization of her interactions leaves a little to be desired. Some secondary characters play pivotal roles only to drop off for big chunks of the movie.

Marnie’s adventures in role playing provide irresistible fun and joy, though they are always tainted with a slight sadness. These all serve as convenient distractions from the one person who really needs tending to: herself. Scafaria, in one of few script-level missteps, delivers this revelation through on-the-nose observations by Marnie’s therapists. But as it plays out in the events of “The Meddler,” her journey of self-discovery through (some perhaps unwarranted) service is altogether charming. B+3stars





REVIEW: Spy

6 06 2015

Prior to “Spy,” Melissa McCarthy was one lumbering burlesque of a physical performance away from entering Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell territory.  This land, beyond typecasting, is a dump of sneering self-parody churned out at breakneck speed.  After breakout success in “Bridesmaids,” roles in “Identity Thief” and “Tammy” reduced her to little more than a one-dimensional punchline (not to mention a bit of a punching bag as well).

Thankfully, maestro Paul Feig arrives with Susan Cooper, a part that provides a well-timed reminder of McCarthy’s remarkable comic agility and versatility.  As an unlikely secret agent tracking down a rogue nuclear weapon on the black market, Susan often has to shift gears into new – and often unflattering – identities on the fly.  While playing a character who goes from shy and sheepish to brash and outspoken within a matter of minutes, McCarthy never appears anything less than completely confident.

Unfortunately, Feig’s script for “Spy” reserves all the surprises and range for its star.  In his past collaborations with Melissa McCarthy, Feig worked with screenplays from other comediennes: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (“Bridesmaids”) as well as Katie Dippold (“The Heat“).  When tasked with creating the humor he has to orchestrate, Feig falls into rather predictable patterns that often feel one-note.

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REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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REVIEW: Neighbors

12 08 2014

If you’re Zac Efron, how do you get people to take you seriously as an actor?  See you as something more than a Disney Channel star without feeling yourself with a foam finger half-naked on television?  Treat you as something more than a Google Images search?

Taking a page from the Channing Tatum/”21 Jump Street” playbook, Efron took on a role in “Neighbors,” a comedy where his entire archetype of the ultra-macho pretty-boy is a consistent butt of jokes.  The arrangement works out well for everyone.  Those who choose to watch the movie will enjoy the self-parody of Efron’s relentless shirtlessness and his over-the-top portrayal of a self-deluded frat lord.  And those fans who just want another look at Efron’s chiseled figure are indulged in the process.

Initially, Efron didn’t seem to be meshing with his character, Delta Psi Beta president Teddy Sanders.  Perhaps I was expecting him to fit a certain model of the fraternity meathead that I knew, but it’s clear that “Neighbors” knows what it’s doing with him.  There’s pretty consistent and purposeful fetishization of Efron throughout the film, by Seth Rogen’s older and squarer Mac as well as within his own fraternity.  The desire for a firm bond with him is laced with some homoerotic undertones and really provides some interesting commentary on the kind of brotherhood fostered within fraternities.

Teddy’s relationship with Dave Franco’s Pete Regazolli, another high-ranking Delta Psi officer out to preserve his legacy, provides ample hilarious opportunities to analyze the implications of the bromance.  One particular exchange of rhyming affirmations of their friendship, which sounds like something potty-mouthed teenaged girls would exchange in gym, sounds so preposterous that it’s clear “Neighbors” does not intend for its portrayal of fraternity life to be taken at face value like “Animal House.”

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REVIEW: The Internship

26 07 2013

Strangely enough, the best moment of “The Internship” was not a big laugh; it was a dramatic exchange of dialogue.  While such moments in comedic films are often clichéd and forced, this one really hit the money.

As Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s imbecillic man-children talk a bunch of bull, their much younger intern teammates set them straight by explaining to them how much is riding on this summer gig.  In a particularly haunting line, one of them declares that the American Dream is virtually dead to their generation.

As someone who has suffered through / paid my dues at / enjoyed a number of internships myself, this scene hit very close to home.  But if I wanted to be slightly depressed about my future, I would have just watched “Frances Ha” or the second season of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” again.  I came to “The Internship” to be entertained, and I left rather disappointed by its (hopefully unintentional) humorlessness.

Though I’m not a huge  fan of Wilson and Vaughn’s last collaboration, 2005’s “Wedding Crashers,” I certainly did not expect their comedic prowess to depreciate to the point where I only let out a few mild giggles over the course of two hours.  Just about every gag falls short, although none ever hit cringe-worthy levels.

“The Internship” is, more or less, a retooling of the “Legally Blonde” story for modern men.  Unhappy in their current position, Billy and Nick drastically change career paths and head to an internship at Google.  While initially their foreignness to the field makes them obvious neophytes, they take some hard knocks that force them to grow.  Yet in the end, it’s those undervalued skills they entered with that allow them to achieve success.

I enjoy a movie like “Legally Blonde” because Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is an inspiring figure, learning that she is capable of things she never imagined simply by trusting her own intuitions and wiles.  I find “The Internship” more than a little sad when it declares with no detectable sense of irony that we too can get an entry level position like Billy and Nick in our forties, so long as we work hard and can fall back on basic skills.  Though perhaps for that very reason, Shawn Levy has made an emblematic film of our wretched economy in post-recessional America.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Place Beyond the Pines

25 07 2013

If ever you wanted to see the film as novel, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is there to satisfy your cinematic-cum-literary hunger.  Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the searing “Blue Valentine” moves from close-up to long shot, taking in multiple generations over the course of its two hour and 20 minute runtime.  It could even be argued that the film has not one, not two, but a whopping three protagonists.

Cianfrance’s story is peerless in terms of sheer ambition, and I give him great credit on those grounds.  I did feel, however, that he often sacrificed depth for breadth.  Rather than go fully into each of the three leading men of “The Place Beyond the Pines,” he cuts out a level too early in their development to squeeze each story into a film of bearable length.  While each have full and completely developed arcs, I could never totally get on board with the film because I didn’t feel that I knew the characters.

Even in spite of the sometimes slippery connection, something tells me I will forever be haunted by the eerie calm of the paralleled hovering shots of Ryan Gosling’s Luke Lanton, and then his son, Dane DeHaan’s Jason, riding their motorcycle down a twisting rural road.  Even from such a height, there’s a great deal of proximity and intimacy that Cianfrance manages to communicate in those brief interludes.

His film has the technical craftsmanship to match the epic scope of the story, particularly the eerie and somber photography of Sean Bobbitt (responsible for Steve McQueen’s immaculately shot “Hunger” and “Shame”).  Editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane take the chilling imagery and splice it poetically until it feels like cinematic Homeric verse.

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