Archive for October, 2016

centralintelligenceposterCentral Intelligence (2016)

Starring- Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul

Director- Rawson Marshall Thurber

PG-13- crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language


Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) was the undisputed king of the Class of 1996. Twenty years later, not so much — he’s a low-level accountant struggling to do anything with his life. Then, the week of the class reunion, he bumps into Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson) — formerly Robbie Weirdicht, the obese class punching bag only Calvin ever stood up for. He’s changed since then — the result of working out six hours every day, he says. It seems like an innocent meeting, but when CIA agents come knocking on Calvin’s door, it becomes clear something else is afoot. Bob, they say, murdered his partner and plans to sell military secrets to an anonymous buyer. Bob says he’s been framed, and it’s possible someone higher up the chain is the actual culprit. The truth doesn’t particularly matter — Calvin is already in the crossfire.

I watched this movie last night. How is it possible I’ve already so completely forgotten the substance of my reaction to it? I remember the movie. I mostly remember what happened, broadly speaking. But I don’t remember what I was thinking about — how I was assessing its strengths and weaknesses. I don’t remember how I felt as I was watching it.

In other words, welcome back to 2016 in Cinema, where absolutely everything is maddeningly okay and the most-hyped Oscar season releases feel increasingly far away (especially for me, since most of them will never play around here). I haven’t gone to the movies in a solid two-and-a-half months; I think I’m starting to suffer from withdrawal.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Central Intelligence, which is…fine, I suppose. Entirely adequate, exactly competent in most respects, and flavorless, the cinematic equivalent of plain white bread. Normally, I manage to lean positive on movies when they’re generally all right, but Central Intelligence is average in such a paint-by-numbers way that I almost started to hate it. I wanted it to take a risk, to try out an unusual tone, to take the plot or characters somewhere I didn’t expect, to make efforts to become its own thing instead of a prototypical exercise in its genre.

Everything about it feels calculated for mass acceptability. It neither appeals to nor offends anyone. The action, the comedy, the plot, all of it has a clear line it can’t cross because to do so might alienate someone. It almost seems like it’s embracing its future status as an FX regular that makes for perfectly decent background noise.

That I don’t remember what it made me think or feel is probably a function of it having not made me think or feel much at all. It would need to be better or worse to provoke a memorable reaction, and it’s never good or bad in an interesting way that would leave me with something to chew on. It isn’t good, and it isn’t bad — it simply is. It clings to a formula it knows will work in a really basic sense and doesn’t venture far beyond it. It fears being terrible more than it desires to be great. As such, it ends up being one of those comedies where none of the humor is cringe-worthy, and only one or two bits are actually funny.

For the most part, it feels as though Kevin Hart decided he wanted to make two Ride Along movies this year and just swapped Ice Cube for The Rock. And I’m not sure how I feel about Dwayne Johnson’s performance here — a cursory scan of the reviews suggests that I’m supposed to find it very charming and the film’s primary saving grace, but I just didn’t. I think he’s a very charismatic performer, but he’s playing more of a character here than he usually does, and it didn’t completely work for me. Bob Stone is potentially an interesting character — his specialized skill set and giant muscles are the only sense in which he’s changed since he was a bullied fat kid. He’s still incredibly weird, deeply insecure, somewhat self-loathing, and still worships the ground Calvin walks on for having been the one popular kid who treated him like a human being. He’s bubbly, upbeat, and aggressively uncool despite his best efforts. There’s something interesting there, but I think Johnson struggles to find the balance between the hard-edged secret agent and the giant, huggable loser; the performance vacillates between too much and not enough. Hart, meanwhile, is playing exactly the same character he did in Ride Along, with a lot of the same jokes and almost exactly the same performance. I’m rooting for Hart because I think he’s very funny, but he’s yet another movie comic I find much more entertaining in his unscripted appearances. For me, the movie’s biggest laughs happened during the gag reel, when Hart and Johnson are screwing everything up and riffing off each other. The script just isn’t up to the task; it doesn’t give Hart anything interesting to do or play to Johnson’s strengths.

Central Intelligence isn’t bad. That’s both the best and worst I can say about it. Weirdly, I think I would’ve had a better time if it had been terrible — anything for a strong reaction one way or another. For the most part, it’s safe, generic, and altogether okay, and I just want more than that.

dheepan_posterDheepan (2016)

Starring- Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaidi, Marc Zinga, Bass Dhem

Director- Jacques Audiard

R- violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity


In Sri Lanka, two strangers, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) and Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), find a war-orphaned girl (Claudine Vinasithamby) and sell themselves as a family in order to find passage to France as refugees.

Dheepan is a good movie held back mainly by its adherence to its well-worn story. It’s not so much what it does as what it doesn’t do. From frame one, it promises to be something new, interesting, and even educational — the story of the modern refugee has been told, but not particularly often, so there’s plenty of room to further explore its dynamics; moreover, I think it’s fair to say the average person in the west knows little to nothing about the Sri Lankan civil war, leaving the movie with a certain mandate to make that situation real for its viewers, to capture its nuance and the specific ways it impacted those who experienced it. Few films have been better positioned to offer a fresh perspective on recent historical events — lead actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan was a Tamil Tiger as a teenager and currently has refugee status.

So it’s strange that Dheepan instead chooses to be a fairly ordinary family drama/slow burn thriller — a compelling and well-made one, to be sure, but ordinary just the same. It engages, but it isn’t terribly interesting. It forces you to ask plenty of questions — what is it like to be a refugee? What politics/morality underlie this situation? How do you see the desperation of the situation you’re currently in when your mind remains on all of the people in your home country who would give anything to have what you have? What is the effect of three strangers playacting a family in order to preserve their lives without functioning like one behind the scenes? And it just never engages them.

There’s a lot to explore here, but the movie settles for something more straightforward. It’s partly an awards season sort of family drama about three characters who don’t know each other being thrown together and slowly becoming their own sort of family, and it’s partly an indie thriller about refugees dealing with being resettled in a rough neighborhood on the precipice of a drug war. Both story arcs proceed simply and end up more or less where you’d expect them to. They’re both well-done, with solid characters, strong atmosphere, and a leading trio of universally outstanding performances — but they’re well-done in ways I’ve seen before.

To me, this story never felt specific enough — it plays out as though this is a generic bad situation with no layers other than the obvious ways in which it affects its characters’ respective emotional states. With minimal changes, the movie could have been about anyone — that they’re refugees only provides a reason for the three leads to be drawn together, and somewhat heightens their sense of isolation in their new home, due to the language and cultural barriers (the former of which seems somewhat easily resolved). But the movie isn’t building on any of that nuance, simply incorporating it in the foreground of a much more familiar narrative. I’m not convinced it completely earns the ending at which it arrives.

I think part of the problem may be that it’s stuck in a difficult place on the “show, don’t tell” scale, where it wants to drop you in the middle of a situation without a lot of fanfare and also tell much of its story by implication and the effect is that a lot of it is too vague. Even as a family drama/thriller, its emotional ends require that the audience have a detailed sense of its characters’ inner lives, but I never felt like I was in their heads. I like that the movie includes little bits of texture here and there, solely to give its characters lives outside of the frame — that Dheepan is a tinkerer who uses common household items to craft makeshift tools for himself and to create little pieces of art, for example. But that’s all it is — texture, something that’s nice to have but isn’t a substitute for psychology. The movie forces you to reinvent its protagonists as you go; their personalities occasionally make jarring leaps that aren’t forecast in any way. The character development is happening beneath the surface, and if you aren’t tuned into the movie’s exact wavelength, certain things aren’t going to make sense.

Ultimately, what Dheepan needs is a more interesting perspective. Jesuthasan certainly has a story to tell, but my impression is that his consultation on the film consisted mainly of correcting inaccuracies in the French writers’ script. I’m now reading that director Jacques Audiard intended to make a variation of the movie Straw Dogs set in a community most people don’t know about and just happened to settle on Sri Lankan refugees. Those puzzle pieces are clues as to how Dheepan might have arrived at its broad storyline despite the real-world specificity of the events it depicts.

This is coming across more critical than I intend. It’s easier to fixate on this than the acting or direction being strong; I don’t know what to say on those subjects other than that they’re strong. Dheepan is a fine film and worth seeing; it’s just a shadow of the more interesting film that sometimes starts to take shape around it.

teenage_mutant_ninja_turtles_out_of_the_shadows_posterTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)

Starring- Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Laura Linney, Stephen Amell, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Tyler Perry, Brian Tee, Stephen Farrelly, Gary Anthony Williams, Peter D. Badalamenti, Tony Shalhoub, Brad Garrett, Brittany Ishibashi

Director- Dave Green

PG-13- sci-fi action violence


When the villainous Shredder (Brian Tee) escapes from prison and forms an alliance with intergalactic invader Krang (voice of Brad Garrett), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) — are called into action once again.

Hollywood! Please! Dear lord! Live action is not peak cinema! Not every story dreams of someday being rendered (and I do mean rendered) in live action. People don’t make animated movies just because they don’t have the resources to make live action ones; they make them because it’s a perfectly legitimate and not at all inferior form of expression that sometimes better suits the story. It is, therefore, perfectly acceptable to do exactly the same thing when the situation calls for it. It’s okay! Kids like cartoons! They see those, too!

Good lord. I’m not entirely sure why I watched this movie. Somehow, it escaped my mind exactly how horrible its predecessor looked. I managed to go into it hoping my reaction would, if nothing else, be interesting, only to be immediately reminded that, oh, yeah — it doesn’t matter what else it does right or wrong when every frame looks like the absolute worst dreams I’ve ever had while sick with the flu.

CGI Abominations: The Motion Picture has learned almost no lessons from the equivalent subconscious horrors of its predecessor. The CGI is only half the problem; the rest of it is these movies’ complete inability to translate their characters into a real-world setting. The turtles’ design remains the worst it’s been in any interpretation of these characters — the broad-lipped mouths with human teeth, the squat heads, the flaring nostrils, the impossible-to-understand comic book physicality — and the movie subjects it to a vomit-green filter and a world that’s just generally disgusting. Everything in this movie looks sweaty and grime-encrusted, coated in slime. The turtles are at least a little better-integrated this time — there are scenes where they somewhat convincingly inhabit the same space as their human costars. And credit where credit was due — if nothing else, the filmmakers were aware that the first movie’s take on Splinter (voice of Tony Shalhoub) was a nightmare and a half and redesigned him so that he no longer looks like a stray dog with mange, so that’s nice.

That one step forward crashes into the movie’s seven million steps backward, which are named Bebop and Rocksteady (Gary Anthony Williams and Stephen Farrelly). When they tried to bring the turtles to life with live-action, they went for the “gritty realism” approach and gave us pebbly, muscle-bound monsters with snake heads and human mouths. When they tried to do the same with two of the turtles’ more outlandish villains (and, while we’re on the subject, Krang), they just ripped the designs from the cartoon, rendered 3D models of them, coated them in a shimmering layer of filth, and added horrid textures and jiggling CGI body fat. I may go the rest of my life without seeing a CGI character as immediately gut-wrenching as these two. This is the first time I’ve seen CGI clash against other CGI — not only are the turtles much better rendered, their “realistic” designs don’t belong in the same movie as these plodding cartoons. Most of the movie involves cartoons beating up other cartoons in the middle of cartoon worlds while cartoon lasers and cartoon explosions fly every which way, but on the occasions that the humans wander into the picture, everything screeches to a halt. The humans are largely sequestered away in their own subplot, the scenes of which start to feel like calculated sanity breaks every now and then — “It’s okay, audience, here’s some real stuff; you can breathe now.”

Obligatory clarification: I’m not saying it’s inherently bad to have a lot of CGI in your movie. Just please attend to the design and use of color and light and try to shoot it in a mostly pleasant way. Please.

The worst of it is that the rest of the movie actually isn’t that terrible, to the point that it starts to feel like a wasted opportunity. Part of me wonders if it’s possible I’d actually like it if its visuals didn’t make me queasy.

To be sure — the movie would still be bad. But I think that, if it looked decent, it would stand a chance of reaching Warcraft/Suicide Squad status — too weird and daring to completely dislike. It’s definitely brought the tone to a better place than its predecessor. The 2014 installment happened on the back end of the transition from Hollywood’s “dark and gritty” phase into its “any tone is acceptable as long as we can make a shared universe/eternal franchise out of it,” so it tried to play things both ways — it was dumb and jokey but also felt it necessary to reinvent the Foot Clan as some kind of terrorist organization. Out of the Shadows goes exclusively for lighthearted fun, and that obviously much better suits the movie where turtle people beat up ninjas and giant pig monsters. It doesn’t have any qualms about being for kids (the PG-13 rating happened only because the MPAA has become America’s mom; there’s next to no human carnage in this movie) and fixates on tons of cool nonsense that could only make sense in the heads of children (their armored car has retractable robot arms that swing giant nunchucks). In that sense, there’s something nostalgic about it — it’s the first movie of several that have tried to successfully replicate the feeling of the 90s family blockbuster.

The rest of it is still kind of shaky, but not offensively so. Some of it’s bad in a way that’s kind of charming — the fact that every character in this movie is trying desperately to be cool and failing miserably, the leaden, melodramatic dialogue that’s mostly characters bluntly explaining what’s plainly visible on screen, that sort of thing. The story alternately works and doesn’t; when the movie really hones in on the relationship between the four and their feelings about being so isolated from the world they’re fighting to protect, it almost achieves actual emotion. But everything else is frantically paced and stuffed to the gills with unnecessary characters mainly here because they’re fan-favorites (the nonchalant way Krang is introduced is jarring; he’s just suddenly there, with no build-up whatsoever, acting like he’s been involved in the plot this whole time, and no one spends a second wondering why there’s a slimy brain monster in a robot costume standing in front of them). The plot rockets from one thing to the next and sometimes struggles to keep its plot information straight, and the movie’s tendency to introduce highly specific scientific nonsense as a solution to every conceivable problem gets old. But none of it quite reaches the level of deal-breaker.

Except for the eye-searing visuals. Those are a big deal-breaker. And since the rest of the movie is mostly mediocre, it’s probably best you don’t bother. I certainly shouldn’t have.

cafe_societyCafe Society (2016)

Starring- Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Anna Camp, Paul Schneider, Sheryl Lee, Tony Sirico, Stephen Kunken, Sari Lennick

Director- Woody Allen

PG-13- some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking


Setting: The Golden Age of Hollywood. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. So does boy’s uncle. Girl is in love with both of them. Witty social observation ensues.

I wonder if Woody Allen will ever make another movie I don’t have mixed feelings about. It seems impossible — if I struggle to separate the art from the artist, it’s only because he keeps making movies about the things he’s done. His movies cannot be extricated from their cultural context because they refuse to be. Very rarely, that’s to their benefit — despite its largely negative reception, I think the reason I maintain my defense of Irrational Man is that it’s pointedly self-critical in a way other Woody Allen movies have struggled to be. But the light romantic comedies he tends to make take on a certain discomfort viewed in context of what they sometimes signify — particularly when they’re about the “irrationality” of love, which they often are, and which Cafe Society certainly is.

That’s only one of the reasons I’m struggling to arrive at a coherent opinion about it. It’s obviously the sort of movie Woody Allen could make in his sleep, and sometimes, that’s exactly how it feels. The genial ease that makes it so thoroughly watchable also makes it somewhat unmemorable. And even though it maintains enough of Irrational Man’s cheerfully dark edge to stand somewhat apart, it’s never particularly daring.

All of it works, mind you — the only reason directors have comfort zones is that we let them. If no one liked it, they’d never be allowed the opportunity to stay there. Whatever he might be as a person, Allen’s observations are sharp and often insightful, his dialogue is very listenable, he often gets great work out of his actors (here with a somewhat unlikely cast as well — not that they’re untalented, but you probably wouldn’t guess this was a Woody Allen movie simply reading a list of their names), and his awkward, neurotic sense of humor remains charming. Cafe Society is playing on easy mode, but only because it can. And Allen stirs much more effective drama out of this premise than he has in other recent films; it isn’t half as sleepy as Magic in the Moonlight (which I still maintain wasn’t that bad taken on its own terms but became unwatchable after I realized what it was trying to say). It’s textbook Woody Allen, but there’s a reason the textbook exists. It can’t help but feel like a pale shadow of the great movies he used to make, but it’s still a fun watch, so far as it can be divorced from its real-life context.

I’m not sure how to what extent it can be. Like I said, it’s another “irrationality of love” movie, albeit one that doesn’t seem like an overly direct metaphor for Allen’s personal life and thus doesn’t feel as predatory. Nevertheless, there’s something about its central relationships that never did sit right with me. It’s difficult to put my finger on, because the film gets a little wobbly when it comes time to say something meaningful about any of this. It comes across as self-critical in a way, understanding its characters are flawed and pursuing things that will not bring them satisfaction in life, while simultaneously overlooking some of their more deep-rooted flaws, treating them as largely innocuous or ignoring them entirely. It’s strange the way the men in this movie are entirely in control of their environments and seem never to become so rude or pushy that it crosses anyone’s boundaries, while the women either let it happen or seem to find it sweet. Its romance feels more like infatuation; the film treats its characters’ problems more as extensions of the universe’s indifference than their tendency to treat the objects of their affection as exactly that. When one character finds out the woman he loves has been dumped by her boyfriend, he’s happy about this even when she’s crying on his couch; not only that, he isn’t even trying to hide it. That doesn’t strike me as love so much as an overpowering desire simply to have someone. Moreover, she’s aware that this is how he feels and doesn’t mind — his disregard for her pain costs him nothing in the long run. That the movie doesn’t appear to think there’s anything strange about this typifies the backward way it approaches a lot of its relationships. It never wanders so close to the edge that it’s obviously saying anything horrible — its focus tends to be directed elsewhere anyway — but it’s always hovering near enough to it to raise uncomfortable questions. Ultimately, it’s complicated, but it’s complicated in a way that sometimes feels like it’s designed to mask something rather than acknowledge the difficulty of human relationships.

Basically, it’s fine, and then somewhat less fine when examined under the lens of reality, which is more or less what I expect from a Woody Allen movie these days. Perfectly enjoyable in the moment, less so when you start thinking about it.

hunt_for_the_wilderpeopleHunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Starring- Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rema Te Wiata, Rachel House, Teoreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Rhys Darby

Director- Taika Waititi

PG-13- thematic elements including violent content, and some language


At the behest of his wife, cantankerous New Zealand bushman Hec (Sam Neill) becomes the reluctant foster father to Ricky (Julian Dennison), an inner city kid with a rap sheet a mile long. Following an unexpected tragedy and an unfortunate misunderstanding, Hec and Ricky find themselves on the run in the wilderness, battling the elements and the police and child welfare agents determined to bring them in. 

I’m here not so much to write a review as to simply pass along a recommendation. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, a good movie leaves me without any particularly interesting thoughts, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is such a movie. I found it very entertaining, but I don’t have any larger point to make about its technical quality or meaning — nothing that spoke to me in that way or that stuck out as a potential means of better exploring the craft of storytelling.

It’s true that this isn’t something that happens with movies I would consider great — those ones do cut through to my core and leave me with plenty to say about them, even if it’s only awestruck rambling. So I suppose you could read the brevity of this review as a bit of a criticism — Hunt for the Wilderpeople is good, but very little about it particularly jumps out at me. It’s an indie comedy that mostly feels like an indie comedy, with only a few unique tonal or narrative twists on the formula. It leans a little too early Wes Anderson for my taste. Largely by coincidence, I watched director Taika Waititi’s previous film, What We Do in the Shadows, on the same day and liked it even more than I did the first time — it’s definitely, in my opinion, the superior film, being more its own entity, less beholden to external influences. In short, Hunt for the Wilderpeople enjoyable, but I didn’t find it especially interesting.

But for the most part, you should read the content of my opinion as more anomaly than critique — sometimes, a movie just works, and that’s that. Hunt for the Wilderpeople works. It owes the majority of its success to its leads, Sam Neill and relative newcomer Julian Dennison, who have fantastic chemistry and do an excellent job together, both on the comedic and dramatic levels. Dennison nails that most irritating quality of young teens — a desperation to be cool and a complete inability to understand what that means — without sacrificing his need to belong as a wayward child with no family passed along from foster home to foster home. And no one does angry condescension like Sam Neill; some of the movie’s funniest moments are found simply in the way he looks at his young costar. He convincingly sketches Hec as a fundamentally decent person who simply happens to have no real interest in interacting with the rest of humanity — a reluctant hero if ever there was one, a guy whose arc finds him surrendering to his conscience more than finding it. Not only do they have a great rapport for the movie’s dry but sharp sense of humor — it’s not as openly comedic as What We Do in the Shadows, but it’s still absurd and wears that on its sleeve — they share a subtle and organic arc, slowly but noticeably growing on one another as the film progresses. There’s no real reason these two entirely opposed personalities ought to get along, but they sell it.

It’s also worth mentioning that the film looks spectacular — every camera movement is gentle, every frame delicately composed, and the colors of the New Zealand wilderness captured in lush, vibrant detail. I have absolutely no idea what to expect when Waititi gets around to the Thor sequel the Hollywood bigwigs are inexplicably allowing him to direct, but I must admit to being more than a little excited for it.

That’s it, more or less. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is funny, an entertaining adventure, and a sporadically moving family drama, when it wants to be. There really isn’t a lot more I can say about it, but should I have to? It’s a charming little indie, and you should see it.

mascots_posterMascots (2016)

Starring- Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr., Christopher Moynihan, Don Lake, Brad Williams, Zach Woods, Chris O’Dowd, Susan Yeagley, Tom Bennett, Kerry Godliman, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Hitchcock, Maria Blasucci, John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock, Kathreen Khavari, Oscar Nunez, Sarah Baker

Director- Christopher Guest


A mockumentary following a number of mascots as they fight for the coveted Gold Fluffy at an international competition.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of comedies lately, so let’s get to the heart of the matter — comedy is really, really hard to talk about. I maintain that all art is subjective — that so much of it comes down to what you connect with, what you think is most important for something to get right, what your personal experiences allow you to understand that other people may not, and how you’re wired in general. But comedy — and maybe this is just my ignorance talking — seems to exist in a realm of almost complete subjectivity. A story is a complex, multifaceted thing that relies on its audience speaking the language it’s speaking, grasping its ideas, and understanding what it’s trying to convey, but there nevertheless are fundamental principles of drama that are applicable in a majority of cases and can be identified when they’re working or going awry. Of course, you’d then have the subjective element of whether the movie is doing that by intent or if it intends to be particularly narrative in the first place, but that’s beside the point — at the very least, there’s a framework there around which you can build a conversation.

Comedy, on the other hand, so dependent on so many tiny things that people relate to so differently. Sometimes, I can explain why something is funny to me personally, or why it isn’t, but I can’t always, or even usually, make a principle of it. I can point at an actor and say, “He/she is giving a funny performance,” but what makes it funny? How do you explain or quantify that? How do you take that and turn it into something constructive — specific criticisms of a film, guidelines for what it might have done differently that would have made it work better/worse?

And comedy is complex — not necessarily any more so than other forms of filmmaking, but in a way that allows for far fewer missteps. It’s obviously best, in a more story-driven film, for character, story, performance, and direction to be working optimally, but if one falters, another can make up for it. Maybe the actor isn’t great, but the script can still place the character in a context where we understand where he/she’s coming from and empathize. Maybe the writing isn’t strong, but the direction can still create a world where the script fails. And so on. Comedy — especially dry, subtle comedy like Mascots — will absolutely come apart if someone’s off. You can generate a funny visual, but if the actor can’t sell it, it won’t work. An actor can be firing on all cylinders and still have no good jokes to work with. The script can be propulsive and engaging, but if no one involved has a functional sense of humor, it’s going to stay flat.

This is my long-winded way of saying that I don’t really have the necessary tools at my disposal to explain my feelings toward Mascots in a way that goes much deeper than a scale of one to ten of how funny I found it. It’s about a six, by the way.

It’s the quintessential “you’ll like it if you’re a fan” movie. If you enjoy Christopher Guest comedies, you’ll probably enjoy Mascots, and if you’re on the other side of the divide, it sure won’t change your mind. I can’t say that I’m a fan of Christopher Guest, but that’s mainly because the only other film of his that I’ve seen is Best in Show. And I really like Best in Show, so I suppose my sensibility is in the right place for Mascots to appeal to it.

If anything, its connection to Best in Show may be what holds it back from greatness. It feels like a bit of a retread of that film — many of the same actors, an extremely similar tone, and a simple shift of setting from a dog show to a mascot competition. It’s the same dry, awkward, socially mortifying goodness — just a little less fresh this time around. And I think Best in Show suits Guest’s sense of humor a bit better — he finds comedy in a certain upper-class self-absorption that’s more readily on display in a dog show than a mascot competition. That robs Mascots of the subtext that might elevate it — it’s mild absurdism without much of a point.

Otherwise, it is what you’d expect it to be — a straight-faced mockumentary with no plot and very little character development, a comedy that’s only in it for the laughs. And there I can only say that it succeeds, but not overwhelmingly. It’s amusing, not hilarious. Christopher Guest movies have to maintain a complicated balance — just grounded enough to believable, just out-there enough to be funny — so they can’t really be blamed for the odd misstep. Personally, I thought Mascots was a little too in-on-the-joke — the characters didn’t feel like they really believed it, and most of the actors are playing things a little too loud. If you want a step-by-step analysis of why I think it ends up in that place when Best in Showdoesn’t, you won’t find it here. That’s the alchemic nature of comedy — sometimes, it either works or it doesn’t, and there isn’t a lot more to it than that.

Still, the movie is a murderer’s row of very funny people, the writing is witty, and Guest’s direction luxuriates in the stupidity of each scene. Mascots is fine; it just isn’t the great film by a name director that I think Netflix wanted and certainly needed right now.

neighbors_2_sorority_risingNeighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

Starring- Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ike Barinholtz, Kiersey Clemons, Dave Franco, Carla Gallo, Beanie Feldstein, Selena Gomez

Director- Nicholas Stoller

R- crude sexual content including brief graphic nudity, language throughout, drug use and teen partying


All Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) want to do is sell their house so they can move into the new one they just purchased. They only have to hold out for thirty days and they’re good to go. That’s when a sorority moves into the former frat house next door, led by Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), a determined freshman waging war against a university system that won’t allow sororities to host their own parties. Her regime turns out to be even worse than the last, and the university is able to do very little about the situation because of the optics of interfering with an independent sorority, so the Radners team up with their former frat house adversary, Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), to run them off before they run off the buyers.

Well, this is a first — a sequel to a comedy I’m not overly fond of that’s a significant improvement over its predecessor and actually pretty good in its own right…despite having garnered mixed reviews everywhere else. Boy am I in a weird position on this one.

Neighbors is fine, I guess. It made me laugh. It also sometimes made me pointedly not laugh. You know, those moments where the movie runs out of jokes and starts haphazardly tossing sexual terms around until something sticks.

It’s hard to say what’s different about Neighbors 2. What someone finds funny is so incredibly subjective, so to an extent, all I can say is that Neighbors 2 had me laughing near-constantly and Neighbors did not. It just finds that magical formula where it doesn’t do anything particularly different; it just lands more often. It’s more energetic, the characters bounce off one another in more interesting and unique ways, the situations affect them uniquely and draw different reactions. None of this, by the way, is to imply that Neighbors 2 is not absolutely filthy; its predecessor looks almost tame by comparison. This is one of the most disgusting gross-out comedies I’ve ever seen; there is some genuinely nasty stuff in here. It just does a better job contextualizing those things in terms of the characters and their reactions, so the comedy feels more complex than “lol vomit is inherently funny laugh.” I mean, it still isn’t really my jam, but it definitely got some guilty laughs out of me.

It’s the cast that makes it. They all had pretty solid turns in the first movie; that’s the one point on which its fans and I are agreed. They’re even better here — the returning stars have settled into their characters, and the newcomers are universally outstanding. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne have grown into the easygoing chemistry of a married couple that isn’t young but is nowhere near old either, and Byrne in particular benefits strongly from her decision to become the reigning goddess of movie comedy after the first Neighbors. She’s way more comfortable this time around, and it does wonders for a performance that was already pretty funny to begin with. Zac Efron gets a few more layers to play around with this time, and since his character is somewhat caught between both sides, he gets to play off pretty much every member of the cast, giving him plenty of new situations to mess around in. And Chloe Moretz, the only child star I can think of who built a career almost exclusively on R-rated comedic anarchy, is a great addition to the cast; her character always seems to be a few minutes removed from being high but has a passion so convincing that you forget fighting for your right to party isn’t exactly the great issue of our time.

But if I had to isolate one thing that truly elevates Neighbors 2 above its predecessor, it’s that the story is much, much stronger this time around. I’ll get this out of the way right off the bat — yes, it isn’t exactly airtight on the logical end of things; I’d be willing to meet it on its own terms as a movie universe where no one ever calls the police under any circumstances, but since the movie itself introduces that as a possibility, I can’t. And every now and then, it stretches to put characters in funny situations regardless of whether they make narrative steps (the protagonists’ climactic plan seems to have only one step but has three or four others solely to get more laughs). But Neighbors 2 is really good at something I’d argue is far more important — push-pull, cause-and-effect drama that keeps the plot moving.

The first movie spun its wheels a little too much for me. Frat boys who want to party vs. suburban couple who want piece at quiet — commence antics. Other than a bit of “edge of adulthood,” suspended adolescence subtext that appeared as it went on, the movie never really raised the stakes or changed the plot after that. It came up with a premise that would justify all the bits it wanted to do and went from there.

Neighbors 2 is much, much tighter — not only do all the characters have compelling motives rooted in something deeper than “all the partying next door is annoying me,” those motives scrape against one another and create still more conflict and, thus, more comic opportunities. Shelby’s sorority just wants to party, yes, but rooted in that is their desire to be free of the system that forces them to go to the deeply sexist frat parties and be treated like playthings for a few hours. The Radners aren’t just raining on everyone’s parade; they’ve got a house to sell and another one already purchased, and if they fail, they’re saddled with two mortgages. Teddy’s involvement stems from his feelings that adult world isn’t all it was cracked up to be and his increasing realization that he’s too old to run with the kids anymore. So he tries to play nice with the sorority for a while but then goes to the Radners when they reject him for being too much like a dad. And the Radners try to sabotage the sorority financially, which puts the girls on the verge of losing the freedom they’ve found outside the system, which gives everyone a reason to perpetuate and escalate the conflict.

And I’d argue that even in a frequently disgusting sex comedy, that kind of thing is important. It gives Neighbors 2 a freewheeling energy that was lacking in its predecessor; it’s always going somewhere, always doing something, always changing the status quo. And since the situation is always changing, the writers and actors get more scenarios to play around in and more opportunities to throw fresh comedic ideas into the mix. I’d argue it’s a huge part of what keeps the movie as consistently funny as it is.

I’m still not going to call it great. Thematically, it’s a bit muddled, though that seems like a stupid thing to complain about in a movie with a running gag about how the main characters can’t stop their toddler from playing with a dildo, and indeed, it is. It’s still pretty funny and more than exceeded my expectations on that score alone.