“What’s escrow?” Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A couple of years ago, I really kinda hated the movie Neighbors with Zac Efron and Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen. I mean it got under my skin and creeped me out and gave me a stomachache because I couldn’t understand why people liked it so much. In that sense, it was probably more effective than I accepted at the time.

Yet, somehow I still found myself drawn to its sequel, the recently released Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I had a profoundly unexpected reaction to this film, a movie that I would’ve otherwise suspected to be a completely superfluous studio money grab: I adored it. It is as crude and toxic as its predecessor, yet somehow is a perfectly redemptive bookend. Neighbors 2 is a counterpoint to its predecessor’s bromantic orgy of debauchery. It is a rowdy feminist anthem for acceptance and tolerance with a firm belief that, no matter how ugly life gets, anyone and anything can be saved (not in the religious sense but in the humanistic one).

As before, Rose Byrne is the secret weapon, her flinty worry creating comic sparks in the most absurd circumstances. Rogen does fine being Rogen, but he is aided and abetted by Byrne’s ability to be grounded and believable and cartoonish all in the same instance. You believe Byrne is a caring parent, a fretful homeowner, and a person striving for relevance in a world that can’t wait to leave us all in the dust. She’s magic.

And then there is Zac Efron. Not long ago, if you’d asked me if he could mature beyond a dreamy-eyed slab of beef into a thoughtful, nuanced actor, I would have given you a definitive “no.” How wrong I was. He is so poignant in this film, with a deft, surgically precise comic touch – the rare alchemy that can only happen when a character is played at the crossroads of disaffected heartbreak and well-intentioned vacuousness.  If Montgomery Clift and Judy Holliday had had a love child, it would be Efron’s character Teddy in this movie. He beautifully captures the nauseous yearning everyone feels with the passing of the comfortable, bohemian structure of college days. Efron’s Teddy is the little boy lost fraternity brother who had put so much of his energy and time into building superficially “timeless” bonds that he now is completely bewildered by the cruel, corrosive velocity of adulthood.

Through this lens, we are introduced to a sorority that moves in next door to Rogen and Byrne, causing no end of formulaic mischief, duplicating the narrative arc of the prior film. In this go-round, though, the story is shot through with a bold sense of millennial feminism, the kind of kids who want independence and tolerance, but don’t understand how vile their ageist, tech-obsessed lifestyles can be.

Chloe Grace Moretz is the sorority ringleader, and she is the perfect foil for Efron, who initially serves as house advisor to the girls. Moretz carries the same optimistic arrogance and uncertain certainty that Efron projected in the last film, with a sense of urgency and wrongheaded-determination that propels the film as her sorority sisters proceed to torture Rogen and Byrne. You see, the young couple are selling their cute bungalow to upgrade to a cookie cutter dream home, but have no idea that, when their current home is in “escrow,” the incoming buyers have 30 days to back out of the deal (if say, a sorority moves in next door and trashes the place). The film does such a fabulous job lightly skewering the hipster “mommy and daddy” culture, one foot stuck in their own college days and the other in a highly mortgaged plastic grave.

Dave Franco appears again as Efron’s best friend and fraternity brother, and there is a gently sweet subplot of Franco’s engagement to his longtime boyfriend, with Efron seamlessly stepping into the role of best man and abandoned confidante. There is a lovely “why is this a big deal?” to their interactions that bespeaks an American evolution that should give us all hope.

The film is plenty crass, with a boatload of cringe-worthy moments, but I found it such a loving and inclusive enterprise, as if someone had taken the blueprint from Neighbors and overlaid it with a healthy dose of Bridesmaids, that I am still smiling. I suspect my opinion will run counter to that of many fans of these sorts of films because we are living in a country that continues to see women as frightening, as something “other” to be ridiculed, demeaned, and contained. This film turns that wrongheaded notion on its head, unleashing the unapologetically jubilant female id and reminding us that we are all humans, frightened of what tomorrow may bring, attempting to enjoy whatever happiness we can today. #ImWithHer

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Zac-Efron-32Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” Muppets Most Wanted

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I suppose Jim Henson’s Muppets are dusty, musty artifacts of the hippie dippy 1970s in which I grew up. However, they are artifacts for which I have much affection… and charity.

The latest effort by Disney (the current owners of the Muppet franchise) to reboot this sentimental throwback for a modern era’s more cynical tastes is Muppets Most Wanted. Does it work as a film? Not totally. But it reinforced for me as a film-goer that my predispositions seem to color my enjoyment of whatever I view.

Whether how unfairly I may have judged American Hustle or how generously I may have assessed Monuments Men, Muppets Most Wanted demonstrated for me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I walk into a film with prejudice to like (or loathe) it will impact how I judge the work.

So, be warned, I definitely had a corny, soft spot in my Gen X heart for this one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a slight improvement over its predecessor, 2011’s The Muppets, which I found cloyingly self-reverential and too cute by half. I suppose part of the blame rests with that film’s screenwriter Jason Segel who likely had too much adoration for the source material to modernize it in any discernible way.

In contrast, Muppets Most Wanted, the second installment in the Muppets film franchise(or actually eighth if you include all the Muppets’ cinematic output from the 70s on) has a darker, more lightly satirical edge, even spoofing Ingmar Bergman at one point. It shamelessly riffs on what is arguably the best Muppet film The Great Muppet Caper, with its refreshingly acerbic vibe (but alas no Diana Rigg this time around).

In essence, this edition in the Muppet saga is a road picture wherein the Muppets tour Europe;  and, unbeknownst to the scruffy band, head frog Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious jewel thief named Constantine (whose only physical difference is a black mole on his visage). Constantine’s plot to use these hapless performers as a comic distraction for his heists is abetted by a fairly wry, though disappointingly tame Ricky Gervais.

The movie is predictably episodic, but the various European locales allow for some silly sight gags and typical Muppet hijinks across Germany, England, Spain, Ireland, and Russia. Human cast member Ty Burrell fares best as an Inspector Clouseau knock-off. Tina Fey, as a gulag matron who falsely imprisons Kermit, never quite rises above the Herculean task (for her) that a faux Russian accent requires.

What saves the film ultimately is a very catchy musical score written by Flight of the Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie (who won an Academy Award for the prior Muppet flick). I found myself grinning ear to ear whenever these dirty, scruffy puppets launched into song. In fact, I suspect the enterprise would have been markedly improved if sung throughout.

Also, as in any Muppet adventure, there is great joy for adults in the audience for the insane array of cameos – from Tom Hiddleston to Miranda Richardson, Christoph Waltz to Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci to Lady Gaga, Celine Dion to Chloe Grace Moretz.

I will always have warmth in my heart for The Muppets, a gang of felt creatures who helped teach my generation the importance of acceptance and kindness and understanding and tolerance. At one point, Fozzie and Walter exclaim of their best pal Kermit, “Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” For that reason alone, I hope Disney continues to crank out fair-to-middling films, spotlighting these characters who have never lost those precious Me Decade values from their over-stuffed DNA.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

 

Raw nerves and open wounds: Carrie (2013 remake)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps it is because I feel particularly overloaded at this moment, having reached my fill of bullying, condescension, and passive aggression in this world. Maybe it is the power of an iconic horror story that owes more to Grimms’ fairy tales than it does to schlock like Friday the 13th. Regardless, I found the current cinematic update of Stephen King’s Carrie deeply affecting. I even shed a tear or two … but I am known to cry at really weird things.

We all know this story of a young, introverted, bullied telekinetic with a religious fanatic mother and a passel of snotty classmates who would just as soon throw toiletries at the girl as provide her any comfort. Oh, and there’s a well-meaning gym teacher who is more narrative device than character. And a prom in a cafegymatorium (do they still have those?) with a precariously positioned (and quite literal) bucket o’ blood. You know the rest.

Brian DePalma directed the original film which starred a preternatural Sissy Spacek as the titular anti-heroine and an operatically epic Piper Laurie as her wild-haired ma Margaret White who seemingly settled into her spooky Maine town by way of some long-lost Tennessee Williams’ purple-prose drama.

The original film had a truly dumb “sequel” in the late 90s about a girl who wasn’t named Carrie, had better hair, but also was treated shabbily and went gonzo at the film’s end, blowing up goth teens and super-chic glass houses with her frontal lobe. And there was an equally forgettable TV adaptation about ten years ago. Oh, and a disastrous (but unlike Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark … what does that title even mean?) commercial bomb of a Broadway musical, recently revived off-Broadway. (It should be noted that the show has a beautiful score by Michael – brother of “It’s My Party” Lesley – Gore.)

And now this take on the tale. It does seem to have become Gen X’s twisted version of the oft-adapted Cinderella story.

This time around, talented director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss) swaps out DePalma’s twitchy edge and campy Hitchcockian homage to emphasize the tortured familial love of a mother and daughter, collectively haunted and tortured by a world not of their making.  By bringing in a postmodern eye toward gender and class politics, Peirce takes what is basically a pretty slight story and creates a heartbreaking allegory of cruelty begetting cruelty, violence begetting violence.

Julianne Moore, unlike Piper Laurie, is an understated marvel as Margaret White. Moore always does tightly coiled rage really well.  (She looks like her very teeth hurt). She takes this character from what could have been a kitschy harridan and makes her a relatable portrait of fearful parental intention that has LOST (!) its way. She gives us a Margaret whose deep despair over an unkind world has led her to use religious fervor as both sword and shield, inadvertently abusing her own daughter in her attempts to protect Carrie.

Chloe Grace Moretz, who clearly has a long and interesting career ahead, is quite good as Carrie, though she is at her finest in those scenes where she has a stronger acting partner, like Moore or the underrated Judy Greer as gym teacher Miss Desjardin. Moretz stumbles a bit at the beginning, overdoing the feral wild-eyed/shrugged-shoulders bit. The pivotal (and just plain weird) scene in the girls’ locker room just comes off sillier than ever.

However, once the film heads down its inevitable track toward the Prom from Hell (which I secretly have always loved ’cause the concept of “prom” is so goony to me), she is wonderful. She brings a sweetness and assuredness to the characterization that I haven’t seen in any of the other adaptations, and it works really quite well. As a result, when the bad stuff (I mean, really bad stuff) happens to her, I felt my stomach in knots as tears welled up in my eyes. Say what you will, but I’ve never cried before when that damn bucket dumps its Karo Syrupy contents all over the poor lass’ noggin.

The rest of the cast is ok, but a bit like they just escaped from a shiny new teen drama on The CW. Lone standout Portia Doubleday as the vile little ringleader Chris Hargensen did give me the heebie jeebies. She is fun (?) to watch, and you are truly galvanized and relieved by the humiliating mutilation Carrie hands her at the film’s blazing conclusion. It is a clever (and sadly timely) touch to have Hargensen use social media to further her abuse of poor Carrie White.

The original film was a reflection of its scruffy, counterculture-addled times depicting a generation of lost, out-of-control  juvenile delinquents who have proceeded in turn to raise their own progeny. Sadly, this second decade of the 21st century reminds me of those years, though the media resources teens use to devour their own have changed dramatically. Why remake Carrie right now? Why the hell not?