REVIEW: Baywatch

24 05 2017

In the opening credits sequence of “Baywatch” – unoriginally set to the tune of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” – Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch converses with a surfer bro on the beach where he lifeguards. The chat has to be subtitled because, of course, Florida English is practically unintelligible to the untrained ear. It’s one of the few subversive or creative tricks the film has up its sleeve in a waterlogged two hour runtime.

What passes for clever throughout “Baywatch” is Mitch and the rest of his bathing suit-clad team engaging in middle-school level taunting by pulling out some new name to taunt Zac Efron’s Matt Brody, a Ryan Lochte-esque “him-bo” has-been swimmer. (The film appears to have wrapped before that Olympian’s robbery scandal in Rio, so the parallels do feel a little eerie.) “21 Jump Street” this most definitely is not. Seth Gordon’s film, which passed through the hands of six writers, takes far more pleasure in fitness porn and over-the-top humor than any kind of satirization or interrogation of its source television show.

There are hints here and there of a movie “Baywatch” could have been. Various instances of fraternizing between men display the faintest whiff of parodic homoeroticism – only to fade into a low-grade gay panic joke. The film plays like a studio-massaged bauble, selling products (shout-out to the Tag-Heuer product placement) and its stars’ chiseled physique above all else. It’s like a two-hour aquatic Equinox ad with some narrative propulsion added in for good measure – even complete with an unearned feminist zinger in its climax! The hit-or-miss humor is a generous life preserver to keep us from drowning in their consumerist ocean. C+





REVIEW: We Are Your Friends

10 07 2016

Zac Efron, at least until recently, was far more known for his impressive abs than his impressive acting. His actual body received more attention than his body of work. Beginning with 2014’s “Neighbors,” Efron turned his weapon of seduction into a weapon of self-deprecation, making his tabloid good looks the butt of the joke rather than an unironic selling point.

But what happens when Efron tries to be just … Zac Efron? Not a performance of himself, but just any other actor who wants to live and die by their work alone. As of publication, 2015’s “We Are Your Friends” is really the only film to date that allows Efron to be just any other performer. It never calls back to our cultural associations as a teen idol or sex symbol; in fact, the only time he appears shirtless appears incidentally and not as a deliberate courting of lust and/or jealousy.

As Cole, an aspiring EDM DJ awaiting his big break, Efron probably had to act more than ever to get into the mindset of the character. Talented though he may be, Cole dwells in mediocrity. He languishes in the San Fernando Valley, tucked away from the bright lights of Los Angeles, with three fiercely loyal but stagnant chums. (The illegitimate cousin of acting, pornography, thrived in this area during the ’70s.) Luckily for Cole, his medium of artistic expression rewards its participants on the basis of a single hit track.

Director Max Joseph sets up Cole as a sonic scientist behind the mix table before even establishing him as a creator or a person. His technique stems from an ability to physiologically affect his audience using principles of rhythm and frequency. It stands in marked contrast to the thespian in his friend group, who refers to himself as “a movie star” in a sea of actors. On a meta level, “We Are Your Friends” begs the question … is this calculated, methodical artist a reflection of the Efron that is? Or perhaps the one that could have been without the meteoric success of “High School Musical” that until recently hung like an albatross around his neck?

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REVIEW: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

6 07 2016

Did we need a new “Wedding Crashers?” Serious question because I wouldn’t know if we do; my family stops it every time it plays on TBS and laughs all the way through to the finale. Over a decade later, it still has them cackling. (I have always been a little less sold, even from the beginning.)

Regardless of whether we need a new version of the film, we just got a Millennial-fied one in “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.” Jake Szymanski’s raucous nuptial comedy replaces the successful thirty-something professionals with fresher, younger comedic blood in Zac Efron and Adam DeVine’s lovable yopro slacker brothers. Tied together by biology but living together supposedly still by choice, these hapless fools get a wake-up call from their family when told to curb their antics for the upcoming wedding of their sister.

Mike and Dave were the party crashers of family gatherings past but now must clean up their act with a classy broad on their arm to keep them in check. Rather than just showing up magically in the right place like John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey, they seek their magical connection in the classiest of fashions – the Internet. Mike and Dave’s destination date plea ends up in the lap of Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza). Semi-talented actresses, they respectively pass themselves off as a hedge fund manager by talking about Fannie Mae and Bernie Mac as well as a teacher from what feels like a schoolboys’ fantasy.

The film then takes off to Hawaii, where a dual “Step Brothers”-style dynamic takes place between each gendered camp. They all have hilarious internal bickering before attempting to put on a game face for all the guests. Then a further division of tracks appears in Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s script, one that oddly mirrors “Wedding Crashers” once again. Dave and Alice play into a sincere, honest romantic plotline, while Mike and Tatiana end up playing ribald, raunchy broad comedy surrounding her decision to withhold sexual contact.

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” unfolds quite pleasantly and hilariously because it breaks off its four talented leads in such a way and allows each to play to their strengths. Efron and Kendrick are the actors of the bunch, just as Devine and Plaza are the comedians. But the film might have benefitted from just going for broke and keeping the all-out humor throughout. “Neighbors 2” demonstrated Efron has the comedic chops to rival a giant like Seth Rogen, and practically every Anna Kendrick film role or press interview shows off her immense wit and charm. Their balls to the wall material, assuming it exists, could easily have functioned in the finished film – not just as deleted scenes on a Blu-Ray extra. B / 2halfstars





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: 21 Years: Richard Linklater

5 04 2016

21 Years Richard LinklaterWhen the folks assembling the Criterion Collection edition of “Boyhood” go scouting for bonus features (and apparently this is happening), I hope they include Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s documentary “21 Years: Richard Linklater.” Such is really the best location for an anecdotal and borderline hagiographic tribute to the perennially underappreciated director.

The directors do not necessarily cast his work in a new light or uncover latent themes running through his filmography. “21 Years” is simply a magnificent feting of Linklater as told by the people who love him the most, both collaborators and contemporaries. Linklater is noticeably absent from the proceedings, talked about but never speaking for himself.

But even without a particularly revelatory angle, Dunaway and Wood still find ways to delight, amuse and enlighten with “21 Years.” Want to know how Linklater gets such natural sounding dialogue while also maintaining a high degree of precision? Let his actors tell you an amusing story about how they got cooly chided for veering off script. Curious about Linklater’s casting instincts? Listen to Anthony Rapp or Zac Efron recount how the director believed in them when they did not necessarily believe in themselves.

The portrait sketched is one of a gentle, unassuming yet visionary artist. So maybe with a little more vision, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” would be the celebratory toast he deserves. But even absent that, it’s a worthy explainer and salute that would be all too perfect directly before or after one of the director’s masterpieces. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Dirty Grandpa

2 02 2016

Dirty GrandpaDirty Grandpa” plays out like a loosely-strung series of sketches for two characters. Picture a “Best of” special for someone like The Culps on “Saturday Night Live,” just not really all that great and tied together by something that loosely resembles a plot.

The film follows the escapades of the titular ribald senior, Robert DeNiro’s newly widowed Dick Kelly, as he ventures down to his retirement home in Florida. To do this, he enlists a slightly estranged grandson, Zac Efron’s neatly coiffed corporate lawyer Jason. Their dynamic stays essentially the same throughout. Dick curses and offends; Jason reacts somewhere on a register of annoyance to shock.

Our preexisting notions of each actor are key to the response their characters generate, too. Efron, now well-minted as a Hollywood matinee idol, swaggers about as if he walked out of a Vineyard Vines catalogue. Many a joke is made at the expense of his rigid adherence to country club attire, often times calling his masculinity into question. But unlike “Neighbors,” which used Efron’s looks as a springboard into questions of male homoeroticism, “Dirty Grandpa” mostly just piles on the homophobia.

As for how Robert DeNiro’s past iconography factors into the film … well, every ridiculous laugh he gets comes with a simultaneous pang of sadness knowing that this is the man who gave us generation-defining performances in films like “Raging Bull.” At least he commits to the role in all its ridiculousness, never phoning it in or hinting that he is somehow above the material. (Even though he is.) “Dirty Grandpa” would make for truly miserable viewing if DeNiro did not seem to enjoy it on some strange level.

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REVIEW: Parkland

22 11 2014

The JFK assassination drama “Parkland” comes courtesy of Tom Hanks, who was dubbed America’s “history maker” by Time.  Sounds like a legitimate enough credential to qualify the film, since, after all, Hanks is one of the people behind widely acclaimed HBO series like “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”

But “Parkland” falls short of the prestige of such premium cable programming, instead feeling more in the vein of another History Channel special attempting to cash in on mourn the passing of our slain leader.  Everything about Peter Landesman’s film seems of low production value, a quality that shows when accompanied by such acclaimed actors as Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, and Paul Giamatti.

The movie follows a wide variety of supporting characters who found their lives changed by the shocking events in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  “Parkland” includes everything from Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti) filming his notorious home movie at the scene, to the medics trying to save Kennedy’s life (Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden), and even Lee Harvey Oswald’s wacky mother (Weaver) in this broad catchall of perspectives left out of most history books.  Most get ignored for a reason: they are secondary narratives

Perhaps if each story received feature-length treatment, they would provide some sense of satisfaction.  But “Parkland” can only dip a toe into a single narrative with its prevailing approach breadth over depth, and it gives a distinct impression of shallowness.  Landesman’s film can really only excite and enlighten in the rare expertly realized moment: the second when the hospital crew realizes the gravity of their task, the efforts to fit Kennedy’s casket on board Air Force One, the first glimpse of the Zapruder film.  C2stars