NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING
Some folks like their sequels to be something utterly original, with few, if any, references to what came before. Others enjoy a bit of the familiar, with references to the characters and situations that made the original film so charming or successful or haunting or scary (whatever the case may be). So color me genuinely surprised how much callback there is in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which takes a terrific premise—a look at the sexist Greek system at colleges that sororities aren’t allowed to throw parties, while male fraternities have basically created alcohol-fueled rape houses on campuses around the country.
The setup in the new film—still from original director Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (along with Stoller, star Seth Rogen, and Rogen’s regular writing partner Evan Goldberg)—involves a group of young women wanting the right to party as hard as frat boys without the constant creep factor. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Shelby, the ringleader, who believes the only way to make this happen is to start her own party-centric sorority in a house slightly off campus. It just so happens there’s an empty, one-time frat house right next door to the Radners, Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), who just so happen to be expecting their second child as they are attempting to sell their home to an eager buyer.
Helping the new sorority take shape and build a party-centric reputation is Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), who is having a bit of an identity crisis as his best friend and roommate Pete (Dave Franco) has just gotten engaged, leaving Teddy feeling lost as to his place in the world—he’s also about to be homeless. As I mentioned, the premise holds up. Mac and Kelly simply need the girls to keep a low profile until the escrow deadline passes and the new owners can’t back out, but when that plan fails, the only way to keep the buyers from pulling out of the deal is to destroy the sorority using every means at their disposal, which means pulling out a few old tricks. At this point, Teddy has come over to the Radners’ side, and together they devise scheme after scheme.
They use exploding airbags, party infiltration, reporting the girls to the dean (Lisa Kudrow, once again), calling local law enforcement (represented by returning supporting player Hannibal Buress). They eventually befriend the girls when they have to resort to throwing a sexy party to raise funds but degrade themselves in the process. Now Neighbors 2 starts to feel a bit familiar and well worn. Easily half of the returning characters don’t really feel necessary, and so many of the situations feel familiar that you long for a new face or plot device. I really like seeing Moretz and her fellow sorority founders Beth (Kiersey Clemons of Dope and “Transparent”) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein, who happens to be Jonah Hill’s sister) stress and plan and figure out how to beat the sexist system, but the film’s desperate need to remind us that this is really about these young parents next door seems counterintuitive to where the message of the film ought to be.
Efron’s little-boy-lost routine as Teddy is actually one of my favorite elements of Neighbors 2. All he wants out of life is to bro down and have people find value in him as a person. He’s aware of his power as a magnet for woman and doesn’t hesitate to remove his shirt and grind his hips in a Magic Mike-style routine to distract the sorority girls while the Radners carry out a plan. But none of that stops Teddy from demanding respect from those around him, which might be the greatest role reversal bit in the whole movie. I’ll admit, it was a bit strange and creepy to hear Moretz swear like a sailor and talk about dirty sex stuff after years of seeing her s this great (decidedly underage) actress, but she takes no prisoners here, and there’s a commitment behind her foul mouth that works.
Rogen and Byrne, two exceedingly funny people, are practically reduced to supporting players in their film, as their still infant first child gets a lot of the big laughs as she plays with mommy’s dildo with an alarming frequency and just generally does adorable baby stuff. If you were a devoted admirer of the original Neighbors, there is certainly material in the Sorority Rising that keeps you laughing. I certainly was laughing more often than I wasn’t, but just barely. The simple fact is, you could do better this weekend, even in the realm of R-rated comedies. But I’m still a Seth Rogen devotee, so this is about as close as I come to liking one of his films but still recognizing that you can easily skip it.
THE NICE GUYS
I thoroughly enjoy this strange sub-genre of private detective movies that are either set in the 1970s or feel like they are. Whether it’s the neo-noir of Too Late (which isn’t set in the ’70s, but it sure as hell wants to feel like it is), or the trippy, psychedelics of Inherent Vice, which is more of a death knell to the 1960s, but it is set in 1970, these films offer us a look at damaged men who are used and abused in equal measure by their clients and those that mean their clients harm. But writer-director Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is the garage band version of this tale—rough and ragged around the edges, it doesn’t even care if it gets all of its ’70s pop culture references exactly right, let alone its sweeping, confusing and sometimes pointless plot elements.
Set only seven years after Inherent Vice, although it might as well be several decades later, The Nice Guys has moved on from hippies and gone head first into a corrupt and sleazy world, squarely on the periphery of the booming porn industry of Los Angeles. A porn star is dead of an apparent suicide, and a relative believes she saw the girl after she supposedly expired, so she hires private dick Holland March (Ryan Gosling), who is effectively raising his loving teenage daughter, Holland (Angourie Rice), by himself. I love Gosling in full-on conniving mode—fast talking, always lying, but usually with his heart in the right place. He’s actually making decent living as a PI, but that’s because he has no qualms about overcharging or extending the time he spends on an easy case by several days.
His path to figuring out exactly what the older relative saw leads him to Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a woman who looks a bit like the dead porn star and seems dangerously tied up with the wrong kind of people. It just so happens that she’s also related to a higher-up politician (Kim Basinger), who desperately wants her daughter found. At some point, March realizes that he and a local fixer/private eye Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) are after the same girl, and while the two aren’t the most obvious partners, they manage to give a close approximation.
Again, the specifics of The Nice Guys don’t really matter much. I’m fairly certain the details of the plot hold together—and involve everything from the porn industry to air pollution to conspiracy theories about the Big Three automakers (at the time). The story is essentially an excuse to let these two clowns cut loose, do a lot of damage, verbally assault each other’s manhood, and physically assault just about everything else. If you can handle a bit of gruesomeness and child endangerment for a spell, I’m guessing you’re going to flip for this movie.
The film lacks a character that makes it easy to enter the story or identify with in any way, thus allowing us to care what actually happens to these people, but strangely that didn’t bother me as much as it often does in movies. Adding a little fire and zip to the proceedings are bad guys played by the likes of Matt Bomer (a psycho killer named John Boy, because he has a mole on his face), Keith David, and Beau Knapp as Blueface, a name given to him when the dye pack in a stolen bag of money explodes in his face. Ultimately everyone is racing to find a very special adult movie, which was the last to star the dead porn actress and the almost massacre proportions of the final shootout sequence.
As a writer and director, Shane Black (who co-wrote this film with Anthony Bagarozzi) has simply always known how to do this, since his earliest screenplays for the Lethal Weapon films to The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3. He adores the damaged-goods action hero and has created two for The Nice Guys, who seem to complete each other in a spiritual way. The resulting dialogue is raunchy, even offensive at times, but it had me howling while I was watching it. In what has become Black’s classic move, he subverts our expectations of what an action movie is, what a buddy-cop film (a genre he practically invented) has been for decades, and made the smartest and most competent character in this film a teen girl.
Crowe and Gosling are perfectly paired, and I truly hope Black finds a way to team these two up together again in the near future, preferably as these characters. This is a film that rejects the idea of being polished and tidy, and I love it all the more for it. This is some of the best work we’ve seen from the people who made this film, in front of and behind the cameras, and here’s hoping the trend continues.
THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE
Not having ever played the Angry Birds video game in any form, I walked into this film hoping that wouldn’t be an issue. As with any film whose source material is something other than an original screenplay, one of the measures of success is whether it holds any appeal or entertainment value for those completely unfamiliar with its origins. And for the most part, The Angry Birds Movie is a totally acceptable, but largely unremarkable, work featuring a few laughs and a whole lot of familiar voice actors popping in to capitalize on the raging popularity of the game.
What little I knew about Angry Birds seems to be represented in the film. There are a handful of genuinely angry birds, all of which live in a place where being unhappy is not acceptable, even punishable by forced attendance at anger management classes. Our lead bird, Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), seems aware that letting his rage take over is bad, but by the end of the film, he’s told by the more even-tempered birds that his anger is the only thing that can save them. Talk about strange message for a family-oriented film. Other birds in the anger group include the speedster Chuck (Josh Gad); Bomb (Danny McBride), who literally explodes when he gets really emotional; Matilda (Maya Rudolph); and a largely silent giant of a bird named Terence, whose grunts are provided by none other than Sean Penn, which might be the funniest gag in the film.
The birds were taught to idolize a long-absent feathered friend simply known as the Mighty Eagle, but when he is called upon to help save the bird city from a potentially terrible tragedy, the slovenly creature (voiced with the proper amount of pomp by Peter Dinklage) is effectively useless and the angry birds must take the lead and save the population themselves. Bill Hader pops into town as a seemingly friendly pig named Leonard, but before long the strange vibe he gives us makes us believe that before too long he’s going to explain that Soylent Green is birds. Other vocal talent is provided by Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess, Ike Barinholtz, SNL’s Kate McKinnon, and the great Hannibal Buress.
Naturally, The Angry Birds Movie features the game’s toppling of tall and supremely unstable buildings, which collapse rather easily when a bird is slingshot into them (in this world, birds can’t fly naturally), so those looking for familiar sign posts have little to fear. Co-directors Clay Kaytis (an animator for Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled) and Fergal Reilly (a storyboard artist on Hotel Transylvania, The Smurfs, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) do a solid job keeping things moving, making sure the jokes pummel us with enough frequency that we mostly only remember the ones that stick. The animation seems fairly straight forward—far from cheap and sloppy, but not especially groundbreaking either.
Sudeikis’s gift for honed sarcasm is the basis for much of the comedy here, and sometimes his act wears a little thin. As he did in Frozen, Gad creates an oddball character that seems to get the bulk of the awkward laughs, but it’s strange that the sequences with Chuck moving at his fastest are remarkably similar to the Quicksilver sequences in X-Men: Days of Future Past, where all seems to be at a standstill while Chuck moves things around as required. It’s still funny, even if we’re seen it before. Maybe it’s just because we haven’t seen much in the way of worthy animation (at least from America) yet this year that I’m feeling generous toward The Angry Bird Movie. It’s a decidedly average effort that I’m still mildly recommending, if only because the movie might actually make kids with anger issues feel a bit less like pariahs in their families and other social outlets.
Like many of the films from Greek director Yorgos (Alps, Dogtooth) Lanthimos, his latest work (and his first in English), The Lobster makes more sense watching it than it does explaining it, but here goes. Set in a version of the ever-popular dystopian future in which being single is a detain-able crime after a certain age, The Lobster is actually two films that look at the options made available to those without a partner. Once caught, a single person is taken to a hotel of sorts with other single people and told that they have 45 days to find a partner or else they will be transformed (via a decidedly unpleasant-sounding procedure) into the animal of their choice. If they do pair up successfully (and convincingly), they are cast back into the world. That’s the first film.
The second part of the movie examines what happens to uncoupled hotel guests who manage to escape and meet up with other singles hiding in the vast woods surrounding the hotel (where many of the recently transformed animals stroll around without a care) in a type of exile where pairing up is strictly prohibited and even punished by those in charge. No matter where you land, your romantic life is strictly managed, but no one really complains, especially not David (Colin Farrell), through whose eyes we see this story unfold and who doesn’t quite feel comfortable in either environment.
Co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, The Lobster walks us through the paces of the hotel with such a casual but regimented delivery that you could almost set a metronome to its cadence. All of the characters speak in a largely monotoned, carefully modulated, emotionless manner that some may find too affected, but by hearing these characters deliver what would normally be highly charged dialogue in such a passionless way, it forces us to hear them more clearly and spot moments when a hint of panic or longing or melancholy slips in. It’s a fascinating exercise in language and message delivery that adds to the overall atmosphere quite powerfully. For those wondering, David’s animal of choice is a lobster for reasons that primarily involve him liking the sea; in this film, sometimes things just are.
The only character actually given a name, David arrives at the hotel with a dog, who happens to be his brother, and he begins the process of seeking a mate. First, he observes some of the other guests’ successes and failures, including John C. Reilly as Lisping Man and Ben Whishaw as Limping Man. The caretaker/warden/hotel manager is the great Olivia Colman, who recites rule reminders and their requisite punishments with a dominatrix’s combination of standoffishness and lusty authority. Colman’s magnificent performance underscores the film’s clear assertion that single people make coupled people nervous for some reason, and those in pairs will only be calmed when everyone is linked.
Eventually David partners with Heartless Woman (the director’s regular Angeliki Papoulia), whom he manages to fool into thinking he’s equally heartless and therefore a perfect match. But when his ruse falls apart, all hell breaks loose, and David ends up running for the woods. Before long, he stumbles onto other escapees, led by Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux of Blue Is the Warmest Color), who explains the group’s own set of punishable guidelines, most of which involve not falling in love, as if somehow that stipulation counters what the world of the hotel is forcing people to carry out. Naturally, David finds himself drawn to Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz, who also narrates the film), and after they finally confess their feelings for each other, they come up with their own series of hand and body movements as a secret language of love.
If The Lobster sounds absurd, congratulations, you figured that out. But it’s also darkly funny in its messages about societal pressures to marry and have children (the hotel doesn’t discriminate between gay or straight couples, so it’s nice that we’ve got that figured out in the future). Staying in line with the director’s previous films, the movie can also get quite cruel. When David repeatedly rejects one female guest who has her eye on him, she decides to kill herself by jumping to her death, sparing her the animal transformation, but she doesn’t die from her injuries and instead lies in a heap in a great deal of pain. There are a few moments like that that will likely leave a cavernous pit in your stomach, and I’m fairly certain Lanthimos would be just fine with that.
It seems inevitable that our lovers will get caught; the question is, What will their punishments be, since Seydoux’s character seems to personalize her brutality to fit the crime. But as The Lobster moves cautiously and carefully toward its surprisingly moving conclusion, Lanthimos can’t help but add an element of repulsion to the final sequence. We want to lean into the screen to be part of its intimacy, but a specific tender gesture makes it almost impossible not to want to look away.
Most of the film exists on duel (almost opposing) planes, and as such, it almost demands multiple viewings. The Lobster is an exercise in patience, weirdness, anarchy and ultimately compassion. It’s a film that insists that you don’t think too hard about what is unfolding, while at the same time asking you to contemplate some very weighty subjects. There’s something both fragile and hardened about the work, and it’s a trip into the bizarre that I wish more filmmakers were willing to take. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
MEN & CHICKEN
About two years ago, almost to the day, I was lucky enough to interview the great Danish-born actor Mads Mikkelsen (currently set to co-star in the next Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, and the next Star Wars film, Rogue One) for a smaller film he was in, and we discussed his commitment to working in the Danish film industry, with Danish filmmakers, including the great writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen. Mikkelsen has collaborated with him on a couple of dark comedies, The Green Butchers and Adam’s Apples. He mentioned to me that he had just shot another movie with Jensen called Men & Chicken, and that it might be their funniest and darker work yet. Oh, lord, he wasn’t kidding.
Men & Chicken follows the exploits of a pair of slightly off brothers—the neurotic and highly intelligent Gabriel (David Dencik) and the aggressively unlikable, chronic self-pleasuring Elias (Mikkelsen). When their father dies, they discover clues that reveal they were actually adopted, and they immediately begin a quest to find their real parents in the most remote island off the coast of Denmark. The quirky townsfolk eventually steer the two men in the direction of their family estate, which is occupied by three half brothers, all of whom are slightly misshapen with personalities even a mother might be excused from loving. Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is kind and loyal to a fault; Josef (Nicolas Bro) is large but docile; and Franz (Søren Malling) is a violent man who beats people over the heads with stuffed animals. A great deal of the film is simply watching these borderline-feral men navigate around each other without tearing each other’s heads off, and eventually an uneasy peace is settled into.
Being the smartest and most curious, Gabriel wants to know the whereabouts of, as well as the research done by, his father. But when he starts noticing hybrid animals running around the property (which is actually an abandoned asylum) he assumes his father was doing genetic research. Men & Chicken is a work for those who don’t trust mainstream science or conventional storytelling, but it’s also a story about a makeshift family, bound by unappealing looks and demeanors. With just the smallest amount of prosthetic makeup and an unflattering haircut, Mikkelsen is reduced to a grunting brute, and the transformation is remarkable.
Without ruining any of the film’s genuine surprises, the movie deals with some unsavory areas of science, both natural and unnatural, as well as the science of the mind. A pitch black comedy of manners and a freak show of the highest order, Men & Chicken goes places usually reserved for science fiction, but there’s a gritty quality to the piece that adds just the correct measurements of fascination and perversion to make you laugh and cringe in the same moment. It’s safe to say, you’ve never encountered any film like this in quite some time, if ever. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.