Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Neighbors" Nicely Uses Comedic Battle to Comment on Transition Into Parenting

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne have a nice chemistry as the new parents.
Parenthood has been a phenomenal experience, but it's hard to deny that it has necessitated a slew of lifestyle changes for me and my wife. We don’t go out with our friends as much. We don’t sleep through the night. We don’t do a whole slew of things we used to do.

That includes going to the movie theater, which is one reason my writing on here has been so sparse the last few months. It’s crazy for a movie buff like me to type this, but we’re nearly half-way through the year, and I’ve seen a grand total of two 2014 releases, only one of which was in the theater (the other was The Monuments Men, which I reviewed here).

With that in mind, it’s kind of fitting that that one trip to the theater was to see Neighbors, a movie that focuses on a young married couple adjusting to becoming parents. Once or twice during the movie, my wife leaned over to me and said “That’s us,” and she wasn’t far off. Her analogy cast her as the luminous Rose Byrne and me as the shlubby Seth Rogen. That doesn’t exactly seem fair, but it’s hard to deny Neighbors is a movie that speaks to our current situation.

The dynamic between the central couple of the film is easy to relate to, and Rogen and Byrne have an easy chemistry that really elevates the material. This is a movie featuring a couple at war with a hard-partying fraternity, and while it contains the types of gags that setup would suggest, the most amusing scenes involve the interplay between the couple and the knowing observations about getting older.

And that’s appropriate, because while the movie is ostensibly about the conflict between the upstart parents and the douchey frat guys, that part is really just a clever externalization of what the film's actually about -- the internal clash between burgeoning responsibility and the reckless impulsiveness of youth. At one point in the film, the couple cripples the fraternity to the point that they can no longer host all-night parties. They’ve won, and yet the couple overplays their hand, mostly because the madness has livened up a life that has become overly ordinary.

In a refreshingly atypical move, the film makes the wife complicit in the shenanigans instead of relegating her to the sidelines as a disapproving nag. In addition to opening up more comedic possibilities, this decision helps enhance the thematic through line of the story. My favorite moment in the film involves a marital argument over who gets to be the Kevin James and who gets saddled with responsibility. It's a silly way in to a fine point about the roles society places on men and women that go way beyond the basic provider/nurturer paradigm.
You'd think the trailers would've ruined the DeNiro Party joke, but the
best part is the way Rogen reacts to some of the ill-conceived costumes.
Gender politics excluded, these themes also infiltrate the fraternity ranks. Although most of the brothers are one-note jokes, the main duo of Zac Efron and Dave Franco gets a significantly developed and wonderfully weird bromance that is colored by their vastly different views about the transition into adulthood. Both are fun-loving party guys, but for the Efron character, the fraternity is everything, while the Franco character sees it as fun bullshit he does in between classes and job fairs.

The four principles all do nice work. Rogen amiably anchors the film, and Franco brings an off-kilter energy to a role that's pretty close to the one he essayed in 21 Jump Street (reviewed here)  the savvy hip bro who happens to be cast as a villain.

Meanwhile, Efron brings a wounded humanity to a role that's pitched a lot darker than every other character in the piece. One scene in particular is so note-perfect creepy that I'm just as impressed with his willingness to go there as I am with the skill he displays in during it.

But it's Byrne who emerges as the film's MVP. Up until recently, sadness seemed her chief acting emotion (Wicker Park, Troy, Damages), but with Bridesmaids, Get Him to the Greek (reviewed here), and now this, she's proven to have a full range of comic talent as well. The script makes allowances to let her use her natural Australian accent, which enables her to really embrace the loose, improvisation style that an actor like Rogen thrives in.

Still, the film isn't perfect. The resolution is a little tidy, and since the movie plays things mostly straight, it’s a little jarring when the far-fetched plot points pop up. It's awfully hard to believe the cops or the schools' officials wouldn't hammer down on this fraternity more severely, especially given the bodily injury and intentional harassment with a child in the mix. And the idea that college girls would boldly purchase dildos made from the molds of frat boy penises is hard to accept, even though I appreciated the subplot as a gonzo critique on the tired trope of making a calendar to raise money.

Neighbors marks another success for Nicholas Stoller, a director who consistently puts an emphasis on grounding comedy with complex characters and relatable emotions. It doesn’t reach the heights of his Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but does exceed Get Him to the Greek and The Five Year Engagement. If the former’s a home run and the latter two are doubles, you can score Neighbors a triple. Regardless of how you classify the hits, the dude’s batting .1000. A-

Monday, June 16, 2014

Clooney Disappoints With Disjointed and Treacly "The Monuments Men"

The Monuments Men has a hell of a cast.
I expected to love The Monuments Men.

It features a plethora of actors I adore in George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and John Goodman. It's based on a fascinating, true-life story about a platoon of art historians and curators tasked with reclaiming and returning art Hitler pillaged during WWII after it was discovered he planned to destroy it all if he lost the war. And it's written, directed and produced by Clooney, a Hollywood icon with eclectic tastes and a consistent desire to work on quality films.
And yet, having finally seen it, I have to say I'm disappointed. It's good in spurts and looks fantastic, but it's a tonal, episodic mess that's far too preachy and treacly for its own good. 
In case the trailer didn't give it away, The Monuments Men is a message movie. It has a theme -- art and culture are important to defining who we are and are worth risking your neck for -- and it hits that theme hard. 

Conceptually, that's a good thing, but unfortunately the film goes overboard on the sentimentality, straining for poignancy at every turn. The film's heart is in the right place, but it has too much on-the-nose monologuing and a laughable denouement that's a direct descendant of the one from the otherwise splendid Saving Private Ryan. The end result is a product that feels awfully artificial.
Meanwhile, the tone of the film is all over the place. Clooney seems to be going for the jauntiness of Ocean's 11 mixed with the schmaltz of a Capra film, which doesn't play to his strengths as a writer/director. Clooney has proven adept at serious civic lessons (Good Night, and Good Luck), but inept at light comedy (Leatherheads). Unfortunately, mixing the two together doesn't really work.
Bill Murray and Bob Balaban do a lot with a little, which I guess is
kind of their thing in general, so why not here.
All that being said, The Monuments Men's biggest problem is it's lack of narrative drive. The script breaks its characters into teams, sending them off on various objectives that don't really build toward anything in the way tasks would in a heist film along the lines of the Ocean films. This results in a movie that feels like a loosely connected series of vignettes, some of which are interesting, most of which feel like wheel spinning and all of which don't coalesce into a dynamic whole. The film has more in common with the likes of Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve than was probably intended.
The tandem of Murray and Bob Balaban get all the best material. There's a nice scene in which the two stumble into a Mexican standoff of sorts with an SS soldier, another where Murray gets emotional over a recorded message sent from his family at Christmas, and a third where the two come across a former Nazi we know to be a baddie but they do not. Each scene with these guys is interesting -- sadly that cannot be said about the rest of the Monuments Men.
Actually, that's not entirely fair -- Hugh Bonneville gets some nice grace notes to play in his brief role as a washed out alcoholic who gets a second chance to make something of himself as part of this operation. But the rest is pretty piss poor. Goodman and Jean Dujardin, last seen together on screen in The Artist, get the shortest shrift with a collection of scenes that add up to very little and aren't even involving or cute in and of themselves (a factor that saves many of the vignettes featuring the likes of Clooney, Damon and Blanchett). 
Thinking on the film, I'm left to wonder if this story might have made for a better documentary. In such a context, the disjointed nature wouldn't seem so bad, and more time could've been spent with historians and the men themselves (or, at the very least, their descendants).
As it is, this is a flawed film that mostly wastes the assembled talent because the script doesn't really work on the macro level, despite some micro successes. I'd still rather have my movie stars working on whiffs like this than lower ceiling cookie cutter crap, but The Monuments Men just didn't work for me. C+

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"This Is The End" and "The World's End" Provide Distinct Pleasures, Despite Similar Topics and Uninspiring Finales

This Is the End features comedy actors playing themselves with
the narcissism dialed up to 11.
It’s funny how often two extremely similar movies hit theaters in the same relative time period. Deep Impact and Armageddon. Antz and A Bug’s Life. Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. The list goes on, but I’ll stop here.

Joining that list last year was a pair of comedies about a group of guys dealing with the end of the world – This is the End and The World’s End.

Interestingly, these films not only share the same basic plot; they produce similar results as well. Both manage to mine comedy for pathos related to the changing dynamics of friendship, and both are pretty fantastic until they run out of steam in the final reel.

The former comes from the minds of Judd Apatow disciples Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg , and stars a number of Apatow’s regular players (Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Roberts, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel) as outlandish versions of themselves. They, along with a number of other celebrities, deal with a very biblical apocalypse while hiding out in Franco’s Hollywood home.

The latter is the third and final film in the Cornetto trilogy, a series of film collaborations between filmmaker Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that put the duo in various genre sendups. Previously, they riffed on zombie flicks (Sean of the Dead) and buddy cop action comedies (Hot Fuzz). Here the focus is on Gary King, a bottomed-out addict who reunites his former school chums (Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan) to complete a bar crawl in their home town, which just so happens to have been invaded by body-snatching aliens.
The World's End offers heavy drama wrapped in a genre-riffing shell.
Although they each use the end of the world to wax poetic on male relationships, they both really explore different dynamics beyond that. This is the End examines hypocrisy, celebrity and religion, while The World’s End deals with addiction, regret and the perils of technology.

This Is the End is easily the funnier of the two – it’s probably the funniest film of the last few years really. That’s not a knock on The World’s End, which is actually more of a dark drama in action-comedy clothing. Gary is certainly the most developed character in the two films, and Pegg really sells the guy’s pain.

Tech aspects are certainly better in The World’s End, but that’s to be expected. Unlike their previous writing collaborations (Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet), Rogen and Goldberg avoided having an accomplished director take the reins, opting instead to direct This Is The End themselves. They do a competent job, but it’s clear they aren’t visual stylists. Wright on the other hand – that’s sort of his forte, so it’s hardly surprising that The World’s End has some knockout visuals. A dynamite fight scene in a bar bathroom is particularly impressive.

Ultimately, I prefer This Is The End – it’s a hell of a lot funnier, and it just feels a lot fresher than The World’s End, which is basically a retread of many of the themes of Sean of the Dead, just with Pegg and Frost switching archetypes.

Much like Hot Fuzz, The World’s End drags at parts and could’ve benefited from another round in the editing room. That’s sort of a weird thing to type because it’s such a tightly plotted piece, especially compared to This Is The End, which, still feels more finely trimmed even though it’s practically the same length and has a meandering, improvisational vibe to it.

In the end, both films are worth recommending, and I definitely think they’re distinct enough that viewers won’t feel like they’re watching the same movie twice.

This Is the End A-, The World’s End B