Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cozy up to 'Neighbors 2?' Not me

Still crude and dumb after all these years -- two to be exact.

If you loved the comedy Neighbors, you probably can stop reading. I was not a fan of that vulgar heap nor am I about to enthuse over Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, the sequel to the 2014 hit.

Neighbors 2 declares its intentions almost immediately as it re-introduces us to Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), the harried suburban couple from the first movie. In the movie's opening scene, a queasy Kelly vomits in Mac's face, letting us know -- in case we didn't already -- that we're in the kind of comedy more attuned to zits than wits.

But wait ....

Neighbors 2 seems to want to steer its sensibilities toward something more politically correct. A gay couple, former frat boys, become engaged during an early picture poker party. Later, Zac Efron's Teddy -- the frat-pack leader from the first movie -- cautions against using the word "ho" when referring to women. Not cool, says the suddenly sensitive Teddy.

Silly discussions about masculine and feminine roles also crop up from time to time.

Of course, all of this "sensitivity" has been stuffed into the same grossly stained sack that was tossed into the nation's multiplexes a couple of years ago.

As you can guess from the title, the sequel pulls a switch: Instead of noxious frat boys living next door to Mac and Kelly, noxious sorority girls move in.

This spells trouble. Mac and Kelly have just sold their home. During the escrow period, the buyers (Sam Richardson and Abbi Jacobsen) are entitled to back out for any reason.

Needless to say, once they learn that the house next door will be occupied by a sorority, they're eager to withdraw.

A word or two about this sorority: It's called Kappa Nu, and its members are young women who supposedly are rebelling against college rules. Evidently, on-campus sororities aren't allowed to host parties, something that the weed-smoking Kappa Nu women can't abide. If frat boys can have parties, shouldn't women be allowed to stage revels of their own?

The solution: rent a house off-campus.
Additionally, Kappa Nu's sisterhood consists of women who say they're repelled by typical frat-boy misogyny.

As it turns out, the founders of Kappa Nu (Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) seem more dedicated to smoking pot than they are to upsetting any campus stereotypes.

Because they need help renting a house for their sorority, the women take in Efron's Teddy, who serves as an advisor. He tells the women how to throw parties that will raise the $5,000-a-month they'll need to rent a home and -- not coincidentally -- drive Mac and Kelly crazy.

The girls eventually tire of Teddy, and give him the heave-ho. He is, after all, the most dreaded of their personal nightmares, an "old person."

OK, enough about the plot, which obviously focuses on attempts by Mac and Kelly to oust the sorority girls from the house next door.

You'll have to overlook a Jewish joke (offensive, I thought) to enjoy the rest of the comedy, but Efron certainly gives his bare-chested all as a dim-witted guy who wants to feel appreciated.

In conversation with Mac, Teddy describes the girls' lack of team spirit with a claim that they don't know how to work together. "There's no 'i' in sorority," he says, thus turning the joke on his own meager mental powers.

Director Nicholas Stoller doesn't do much to keep the movie from looking like what it is, a sloppy second helping that for all its attempts to capture a 2016 zeitgeist is really just more of the same.

Beautiful setting. The people? Not so much

Ralph Fiennes excels in A Bigger Splash, a deviously slow-boil of a movie.

Tilda Swinton -- perhaps channeling the spirit of David Bowie -- plays rock star Marianne Lane in A Bigger Splash, a thriller posing as a vacation posing as a commentary on what happens when two men fix their attentions on the same woman.

That woman, of course, is Swinton's Marianne, a major star who's taking a break from the massive stadium shows that have marked her career. Marianne's voice is shot. She's recuperating, and fending off any thoughts that her career may have reached its end.

As a singer with damaged chops, Swinton goes through most of the movie either not talking or allowing whispery scratches to emerge from Marianne's debilitated vocal cords.

At first, it seems as if A Bigger Splash will be a sensuous idyll. Marianne and her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) have retreated to a volcanic island off the Sicilian coast where they can be left alone. They sun themselves, sans clothing, at their pool and dip into the sensual pleasures of sunny relaxation.

The mood shifts when an uninvited Harry (Ralph Fiennes) turns up. Harry used to be Marianne's producer and lover. He's the one who pushed her toward Paul, a documentary filmmaker by trade.

Fiennes gives the movie's most intriguingly bold performance. Harry's an ebullient fellow whose every gesture -- even the one's that seem superficially nice -- come across as acts of aggression. He doesn't just fill the refrigerator, he stocks it to the bursting brim.

Under the guise of being honest, he crosses barriers of intimacy that should be respected, not toppled.

As the annoyingly uninhibited Harry, Fiennes -- at one point -- dances to the Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue. It's a funny bit, but it's another instance of Harry's barely concealed ferocity. He's all angles, less a guest than an invasion.

Harry is accompanied by his daughter (Dakota Johnson). Johnson's Penelope seems bored and aloof -- and hovers around Paul like a ripe apple that's waiting to be bitten.

Director Luca Guadagnino, who directed Swinton in 2009's I Am Love, loosely remakes the 1969 French thriller La Piscine, but you don't need to know anything about that movie to sense the tension that simmers beneath the movie's appealing languor.

We wait -- and then wait some more -- for the eruption that's bound to come from putting all these folks into the same hot-house environment. The movie's slow-boil approach won't be to everyone's taste.

There are some brief flashbacks that show us the relationship between Harry and Marianne and between Harry and Paul, but most of the movie takes place in the Italian present.

Toward the end, Guadagnino shifts gears, and we're suddenly in another movie -- albeit one that he's suggested along. Why else the shots of snakes or the agitated thriller-like musical score that seems to contradict the sun-drenched backdrops?

A Bigger Splash tries to stir larger thematic waters than initially seem possible in a movie about a group of people who are accustomed to living in an elite world. I'm not sure that Guadagnino gets quite that far, but along the way, I think, he makes his point: Not all the baggage folks bring on vacation can be stuffed into a suitcase.

And ex-pug and his drag queen son

An Irish director and writer try their hands at Cuban melodrama.

On pedigree alone, Viva creates curiosity. Although set in a world populated by Cuban drag queens, Viva was directed and written by a couple of Irishmen, Paddy Breathnach and Mark O'Halloran. As if to heighten its already oddball genealogy, Viva became Ireland's entry in last year's foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes.

The movie didn't make the final cut, but that doesn't mean Viva (in Spanish with English subtitles) is without a winning mixture of grit and charm.

The story centers on Jesus (Hector Medina), a young gay hairdresser who lives in Havana's slums; Jesus tries to scrape by after the death of his mother.

In addition to his regular clientele, Jesus works on the wigs of Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), who performs at and runs a drag club. Mama watches over the club's performers with a cynical but kind eye.

Eventually, Jesus gets the show-biz bug. He tries singing at the club. He wants to express himself by lip-synching songs that tend to be lush and melodramatic.

As it turns out, the club is all that stands between the impoverished Jesus and a life of prostitution.

Every plot needs a wild card to change its game.

Viva's arrives when Jesus's father turns up. A brutish drunk of an ex-boxer, Angel (Jorge Perugorria) hasn't seen his son since the boy was three years old. Angel has been in prison: He has no real authority over Jesus, but insists that his son stay away from the club.

Perugorria's Angel also generates a bit of pathos. Angel knows that he's squandered his life, and, in a late picture reveal, we learn why he decided to intrude on the life of a son he's never really known.

Much of the movie involves a father/son relationship that moves toward a predictable expression of sentiment, but that's pretty much the story of the movie: Viva can be unashamedly corny with touches of kitchen-sink realism and some irresistible, though rundown, Havana backdrops added for spice.

Viva follows the kind of conventional arc that we've seen many times before, and, no doubt will see many times again.

Why? Because sometimes, as is the case here, it actually works.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Aiming at big targets -- and missing

George Clooney and Julia Roberts bring star power to Money Monster, a second rate critique of the media and the financial system.

The Money Monster is a situation in search of a movie -- and, I'm afraid, it's a search conducted in vain.

The movie's premise is known to anyone who's seen the trailer. A blustering cable TV financial maven is taken hostage while doing his show. The gunman, who takes over a studio at the fictional FNN network, straps a bomb-containing vest to TV loud mouth Lee Gates before voicing what the movie seems to view as a legitimate grievance.

The aggrieved gunman lost his life savings because he acted on a supposedly solid stock tip Gates gave his gullible audience.

When the stock tanks, the gunman decides that the system -- i.e., just about everything -- is rigged. He wants answers.

Well, here's one. A movie that's trying, among other things, to expose a lack of credibility in our brazen 24/7 media ought to be far more credible itself.

The Money Monster flirts with thriller and satirical elements without providing enough of either, and despite the presence of appealing stars George Clooney (as Gates) and Julia Roberts (as Patty Fenn, his producer), the movie shorts sells character development. There isn't much.

Gates is a self-congratulatory on-air clown whose show traffics in noisy gimmicks. Patty is all business, the savvy woman who presides over the TV circus in which Gates performs.

Clooney gives Gates the brash presence of an unashamed showman; Gates likes to don a gold top hat and open his business report with a song-and-dance number. Roberts' character speaks to Gates through an earpiece while he's being held hostage. She tries to keep him from making a fatal mistake.

The gunman (Jack O'Connell) becomes the movie's slightly demented everyman, a $14-and-hour delivery guy who has a girlfriend and a kid on the way. He sees no future for himself. He doesn't want his $60,000 investment back; he wants answers.

It's not always wise to judge a movie by its predecessors, but The Money Monster evokes memories of far better entertainments -- Network, Dog Day Afternoon and The Big Short among them.

Director Jodie Foster can't fuse the material into anything substantial. The Money Monster seldom rises far enough over-the-top to qualify as wildly inventive satire, and its thriller elements (a hostage is held, the police arrive, etc.) are routine.

The movie's less-than-suspenseful plot hinges on complicated business shenanigans involving Ibis Clear Capital, a financial company that claims that its rocketing stock -- the one Gates boldly recommended -- tanked because of a computer glitch, thereby losing a total of $800 million for its stockholders.

Credit the movie with introducing -- or at least popularizing -- a bit of jargon. Algorithms are referred to as "algos,'' and the guy who invented the algorithm that governs Ibis' dealings is called a "quant,'' as in "quantitative analyst."

I left the theater happy to know that I'll now be able to address all my problems by asking anyone who'll listen to help me "find the quant."

As bona fide movie stars, Clooney and Roberts keep The Money Monster watchable, but in this case, seeing definitely isn't believing.

You may not be able to take your eyes off Clooney and Roberts, but their magnetism mostly is wasted on a screenplay that dares to take place in real time, but seldom bothers to make what happens during that time seem believably real.

Are all geniuses created equal?

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of an Indian math whiz who encounters the British establishment.

The less familiar you are with the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the more likely you are enjoy The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of an Indian mathematical genius who was forced -- because of deeply embedded British racism -- to beat his head against the wall of Great Britain's academic establishment.

Director Matt Brown opts for prestige, hallowed-halls packaging with a cast that features Dev Patel, as Ramanujan, and Jeremy Irons, as G.H. Hardy, an established mathematician who insists that Ramanujan provide proofs of his discoveries.

The movie's most interesting thematic wrinkle centers on the difference between two approaches to mathematics -- Ramanujan's intuitive grasp of mind-bending theories -- and Hardy's more dogged, academically respectable plodding. Hardy isn't entirely dismissive of intuition, but he also believes in dotting every "i" and crossing every "t."

As played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan claims to be channeling information about the universe from God. Hardy seems to view Ramanujan's approach as a form of unacceptable romanticism.

Gradually, Hardy comes to respect Ramanujan and lobbies for his admittance to the inner circle of recognized mathematicians who have done significant work at Trinity College.

Mostly set in the early 1900s, the movie emphatically underscores the bigotry that once pervaded British academic circles. Few of Trinity's dons believe that an otherwise uneducated Indian from Madras could develop ground-breaking proofs on his own.

When we first meet Ramanujan, he's a 25-year-old shipping clerk with a wife (Devika Bhise) who he must leave behind when he travels to England. The difficulties of this long-distance relationship are exacerbated by Ramanujan's overly possessive mother. She hides the letters her son lovingly writes to his bride.

Irons makes Hardy's insistence on playing by well-established academic rules credible, but Patel has difficulty getting beyond the trademark avidity he has been bringing to the screen since he appeared in Slumdog Millionaire.

The movie derives added tension from a social and personal question: Can Ramanujan retain his confidence while he's constantly being berated by one or another of Cambridge's elite? He arrives in Britain expecting to function as an equal to the school's academicians. He views them as colleagues, but quickly is pushed into subordinate roles.

Hardy's friend and fellow mathematician Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) supports Ramanujan. Jeremy Northam fills a small role as Bertrand Russell, the famed playwright and mathematician who warns Hardy against restraining Ramanujan.

There aren't many surprises in the arc of Brown's story, whose major accomplishment involves introducing Ramanujan's name to uninformed audiences -- albeit in such decorous fashion that never quite stirs the imagination.

She marches into her daughter's life

Susan Sarandon taps her inner New Jersey in The Meddler.

Marnie Minervini is the kind of person (you probably know at least one) who leaves exceptionally long phone messages. For Marnie leaving a phone message becomes part of a ceaseless monologue in which she expresses her needs and concerns. The major recipient of these lengthy messages is Lori, Marnie's grown daughter.

As a screenwriter trying to recover from a failed romance, the last thing Lori wants is a close and confiding relationship with her widowed mother, who -- by the way -- moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey after her husband died so that she could be closer to her daughter.

You don't need to be a genius to know that The Meddler, a comedy from director Lorene Scafaria, drips with denial, specifically about the death of the most important man in both mother and daughter's lives.

Scafaria takes a mostly mellow approach to a difficult emotional issue by turning Marnie into a woman who can't resist becoming involved in other people's lives. Marnie's method of avoidance involves helping anyone and everyone -- with pretty much anything.

Adopting a near parodic New Jersey accent, Susan Sarandon plays Marnie as a human intrusion. Rose Byrne -- in a nice small performance -- portrays Lori, the daughter who says she wants to escape her mother's suffocating attentions.

Marnie means well. When she goes to an Apple store to buy an iPhone, she can't help but come to the aid of a sales person (Jerrod Carmichael) who wants to attend college, but can't get to classes because he doesn't own a car. Marnie happily becomes his chauffeur and advisor.

And when she meets a young mother (Cecily Strong) who feels deprived because she and her gay spouse never had a "real" wedding, Marnie insists on planning and paying for a big celebration.

Marnie's husband, we learn, left her lots of money, and she doesn't seem reluctant to part with some of it -- so long as it keeps her connected to others.

Marnie also volunteers at a hospital, where she engages in conversation with an elderly woman who may be suffering from dementia, and doesn't seem to understand a word Marnie says. Whoever plays this woman fares better than Michael McKean, as a man who Marnie rebuffs in one of the movie's least believable scenes.

Most of the movie takes place when Lori takes off for New York to work on a pilot for an upcoming show. Marnie must fend for herself, which mostly involves making friends with her daughter's friends. She even starts seeing her daughter's therapist (Amy Landecker)

Sarandon gives a committed and sometimes touching comic performance as a woman whose good intentions are inseparable from her desire to involve herself in the lives of others.

Slowly but inevitably, Marnie begins to stake out her own turf. She opens herself to a relationship with a man, a retired cop played by J.K. Simmons, who has grown a mustache for the role. Maybe Sam Elliott, who usually plays these kinds of attractive older men, was otherwise engaged.

Supposedly a semi-autobiographical work by Scafaria, The Meddler offers intermittent and often sunny amusements as it allows Marnie's incessant chatter to march through the movie like an invading army that's immune to all resistance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

You may not want to move into this 'High-Rise'

J. G. Ballard isn't an easy novelist to adapt. Want proof? Try High-Rise, a big-screen adaptation of Ballard's 1975 novel about the chasm between Britain's upper crust and the country's rude-and-scoffing multitudes. Set almost entirely in a caste-oriented apartment building, the novel puts the privileges and savagery of wealth on display. In the hands of director Ben Wheatley, High-Rise becomes a chaotic satire whose main points survive, but whose minute-by-minute achievements are so muddled that you're left with little to admire -- aside from a couple of performances, notably from Jeremy Irons as the building's overlord and Tom Hiddleston as a physician and the movie's main character. Working with gifted cinematographer Laurie Rose, Wheatley also cooks up some compelling images, forbiddingly modern interiors or a roof-top garden where a white horse roams. We also get lots of sex and violence among the building's tenants as they're forced to grapple with oh-so-metaphoric power outages. Playing a recent arrival to the building, a burdened Hiddleston provides the glue that holds the tumult together, even during a scene at a costume party in which everyone dresses as if auditioning for a movie about the excesses of Versailles. Watching High-Rise leaves us with little to do but long for a moment -- any moment -- that even half-resembles normalcy. Some will see the movie's massive display of chaos as a valid artistic choice: Others -- quite understandably -- may find themselves streaming toward the exits.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

'Captain America' takes sides

Opposing groups of Avengers square off in the latest movie from the Marvel Comics storehouse -- and it's all pretty entertaining.

I'm not sure what it means, but one of the best scenes in Captain America: Civil War doesn't involve Captain America. It occurs when Robert Downey Jr -- in Tony Stark mode -- visits Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider Man) in the young man's Queens, NY apartment.

Downey and Tom Holland (the new Spider Man) play a comic duet in which the older more experienced Stark -- or Iron Man -- asks for help from a skittish teen-ager who'd rather finish his homework than join a major battle.

That's not to say that Captain America: Civil War shortchanges action, including a pitched battle at the Berlin airport between opposing Avenger factions -- the civil war of the title.

But even when its fighting, the movie often makes room for one-liners that serve as wry commentary on the preposterously swollen nature of what we're watching.

Following an Avengers movie isn't always an easy task for those who remain uninitiated in the mysteries of Marvel Comics.

Every character has a given name -- as in Natasha Romanoff -- and a superhero name. Romanoff, for example, is Black Widow. And then there's the task of remembering which actor is playing which Avenger. For the record, Scarlett Johansson portrays Black Widow.

Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo seem to assume we know all these characters, so he barrels ahead with a movie that mimics some of the concerns raised in the recent -- but much less enjoyable -- Batman v Superman.
As in that movie, we find superheroes struggling with consciences that have been piqued by growing awareness of the collateral damage they've wrought. Taking out bad guys creates much debris, some of it lethal to bystanders.

At one point, an increasingly tormented Iron Man is confronted by a mother (Alfre Woodard) who lost her son during one of Iron Man's escapades. Iron Man feels really bad, and Woodard -- in small appearance -- unloads on him with startling conviction.

The suggestion that people actually die and that others are left to grieve is welcome, but unlike the insistently dismal Batman v. Superman, a touch of seriousness doesn't undermine Civil War's comic-book instincts. Captain America takes a grim turn or two, but it's still fun.

Here's the gist: Upset by all the damage that the Avengers have caused, the US Secretary of State (William Hurt) decides to rein them in. The Avengers are asked to submit to the rule of a UN panel. Exactly why anyone thinks this will work remains a mystery.

Some Avengers agree to the new rules; others rebel against what they view as crippling restraints.

Among those who refuse to accept the new reality are Captain America (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie). They want to remain independent fighters for ... well ... whatever it is they fight for.

Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) reluctantly goes along with the new order, as does Iron Man.

Meanwhile, the villainous Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) wreaks havoc, and Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stans) tries to renounce violence.

The Russos move the story with reasonable alacrity, and try to add emotional kick by straining old friendships and dredging up a haunting incident from Iron Man's past.

You've probably noticed that I haven't said much about Evans; maybe that's because there's not a whole lot to say about this straightforward guy who plies his trade with all-American efficiency. The movie is named for Captain America, but it belongs to the other Avengers, as well.

If you want to be cynical, you could say that the introduction of Spider Man and Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther are commercial ploys intended to revivify or expand Marvel's big-screen universe, but Civil War, finally, stands as its own entertainment.

Besides, fans may greet each introduction of a character from the Avengers' roster with satisfying smiles of recognition. Yes, that's War Machine (Don Cheadle). And look, it's Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye. Paul Rudd's Ant-Man? Yes, he's there, too.

It's hardly surprising that the Avengers civil war drags on too long or that it assaults us with noisy action and nerve-rattling clangor. But for all that, the big winner in this civil war may be the audience.

Captain America isn't exactly mindless, but it doesn't let a thought or two stand in the way of anyone's fun.

This 'Sky' falls and fails

French director Fabienne Berthaud's foray into the American west results in the muddled, off-kilter Sky, a road movie in which a dissatisfied wife (Diane Kruger of Inglourious Bastards) attempts to redefine herself. In the early part of the movie, Kruger's Romy is traveling in America with her French husband (Gilles Lellouche). After a drunken evening in a saloon, Lellouche's character tries to rape his wife. She responds by bashing him in the head with a lamp. Believing him dead, she takes off. Romy later learns that she hasn't actually kill her husband. Relieved, she again takes off on her own. Eventually, she meets Diego (Norman Reedus), a park ranger and stoic westerner who says he only has sex with hookers because he's not interested in emotional involvement. Despite this, Romy latches onto Diego, and decides that she loves him. All of this unfolds against a backdrop of characters and landscapes that evoke Berthaud's idea of the West, which -- in sum -- is all twang and no guitar. If this is the West, friends, it may be time to start looking for a condo in Bayonne. That's Jersey.