Bad Neighbours (2014)

Bad Neighbours

Mac Radner (Seth Rogen) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are looking to begin a new life as parents. Unfortunately, this means spending less time with best friends Jimmy Faldt (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) in order to focus on the needs of their new-born daughter Stella. To begin with, Mac and Kelly aren’t particularly concerned when infamous fraternity Delta Psi move in next door, as they see themselves as cool parents still capable of having a good time, but when the antics of Teddy (Zac Efron), Pete (Dave Franco), Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Assjuice (Craig Roberts) begin to threaten their suburban bliss they find themselves calling the police to complain. This breaks a pact they had made with Teddy, and soon it’s all-out war as the neighbours fight for their respective family homes.

There was a certain level of buzz around Bad Neighbours even before it opened to big box office and positive reviews in the US, facilitated by its strong cast and run of funny trailers. Here was a movie that borrowed from a number of different comedy sub-genres: its cast was sourced from films as diverse as Superbad, Bridesmaids and Submarine, it shared a director with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek, and — in a welcome change from the usual sex comedies and spoof movies — was the first frat-comedy to come along since Monsters University. (Nobody saw 21 & Over, so it doesn’t count.) By the usually low standards of the comedy genre it felt almost fresh and original.

Beneath the gross-out gags (Stella mistakes a condom for a balloon) and farcical violence (there’s a running joke involving stolen airbags) there is an underlying melancholy to Bad Neighbours which is incredibly endearing. It’s a film about growing up, accepting that your adolescence is over and moving on with your life. Mac and Kelly are ready to do this at the beginning of the movie, only to be temporarily tempted back to the party when a mob of students move in next door. They’re torn between wanting to seem cool and relevant, and wanting to get a good night’s sleep ahead of another day of bread-winning and breast-feeding; it’s a dilemma that most people will be able to sympathise with. Teddy, however, needs a little more convincing, though there are signs even among Delta Psi that adulthood is on the horizon.

The ensemble get some big laughs out of the material, and though the set pieces delight it’s the smaller moments that make the biggest impression. Nicholas Stoller knows how to stage a party, and you can completely understand why Mac and Kelly are tempted in, but he also knows the attraction of a quiet night in front of the TV. Where the film falters is in its balance of scripted jokes and improvised comedy; as charming as the interactions between characters are (particularly in the case of Rogen and Byrne) there comes a point when you realise that you’ve been smiling rather than laughing. A number of the set-pieces seem wasted, and you wonder whether a tighter script and more polished performances might have gotten to the heart of the scene where ad-libbing has only really scratched the surface. After all, some of the cast are better at it than others, and Efron — so funny in 17 Again and Liberal Arts — struggles most of all.

Nevertheless, Bad Neighbours is a funny, likeable and surprisingly touching piece of work. It’s hit and miss at times (Lisa Kudrow is squandered as the college dean) but ultimately pulls it all together for an almost note-perfect finale. The credits are great, too.

3-Stars

 

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That Awkward Moment (2014)

That Awkward MomentWhen his wife asks for a divorce, Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) turns to best friends Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) for support. They vow to remain single as a sign of solidarity, and to help Mikey get over Vera (Jessica Lucas) by setting him up with a few one night stands at their local haunt. No sooner have they made their pact, however, do both Jason and Daniel begin to fall in love, the former with colleague Ellie (Imogen Poots) and the latter with wing-woman Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis). This is unprecedented for both of them, as they have until this point ended each and every fling the moment it threatened to get serious, at a junction characterised by Jason as “The So”.

You’ve got to question the reputability of the so-called Black List, a survey published every year compiling the best unproduced scripts currently circulating in Hollywood. First it gave us Stoker, a vampire story by Wentworth Miller notable only for its conspicuous lack of vampires (though it did have plenty of scenes dedicated to shoes and ice cream), and now it serves up That Awkward Moment, a romantic comedy that is neither romantic or funny (or even awkward). In fact, Tom Gormican’s screenplay — and by extension the film he has directed from it — is so witless it’s not even laughable.

It’s quite the accomplishment, actually, as just about every principle cast member who isn’t Miles Teller has an innate charm that (usually) makes them a winning lead. Efron has always been good value for money, whether singing and dancing in High School Musical, pretending to be a young Matthew Perry in 17 Again or spouting cod-philosophy in Liberal Arts, but here he verges on hateful as a sleazy book cover designer who thinks the five-a-day rule applies to vaginas, not vegetables. Poots too is wasted, her once infectious smile instead looking sad and lost. That said, next to Teller — whose preferred persona seems to be that of a soulless Vince Vaughn — they’re still positively delightful.

The main problem is that nobody has any real conviction. The film opens with Efron’s character sitting on a park bench, threatening a flashback that you’ve already lost interest in. The characters aren’t just lacking in charm but credibility too; Jordan doesn’t look old enough to be cooking his own Thanksgiving turkey, let alone working as a qualified doctor, while Efron and Teller are completely unconvincing as evolved men, let alone ‘book cover designers’ — jobs that seem to have been invented solely for the purposes of this film. As for the humour, what appears to be the film’s sole gag — involving a discussion of whether or not Daniel did a shit in Justin’s toilet — isn’t funny the first time, and becomes even less so the more the filmmakers attempt to run with it.

That Awkward Moment is a disaster. Even with the bar for comedies set as low as it is, thanks largely to the careers of both Adam Sandler and Zack Galifianakis, Gormican’s film is particularly unimpressive. That Awkward Moment is predictable, puerile and pathetic, and like the silences that are said to follow The So it seems to go on for ever.

1-Star

Parkland (2013)

ParklandOn Friday 22nd November, 1963, less than an hour after arriving in Dallas, Texas from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, President John F. Kennedy (Brett Stimely) was shot dead while passing through Dealey Plaza in an open-top limousine. The presidential motorcade then rushed him to Parkland Hospital, where Dr. Charles James “Jim” Carrico (Zac Efron) fought in vein to save the president’s life. Elsewhere, Robert Edward Lee Oswald, Jr. (James Badge Dale) was informed of his brother Lee Harvey Oswald’s (Jeremy Strong) arrest and suspected involvement; amateur filmmaker Abraham Zapruder’s (Paul Giamatti) footage was seized by Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton); and Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Sean McGraw) was sworn in as the next president of the United States.

Perhaps fittingly, November is the month of remembrance. Just as BBC One’s The Day Of The Doctor marked the 50th anniversary of the birth of Doctor Who, Parkland marks fifty years since the death of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in Dallas that same weekend. Whereas Oliver Stone’s JFK explored the events of the day itself, pouring over evidence and positing one of history’s most enduring conspiracy theories, Peter Landesman’s film instead centres on the aftermath at and around Parkland Hospital, as detailed by author Vincent Bugliosi in his book “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F.  Kennedy”.

It’s certainly an interesting basis for a movie, and the three days following the incident were hardly light on material for Landesman to use. The hunt for the shooter and subsequent arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald is, at least outside of America, by far the most well known of the entwining narratives of which Parkland is comprised, but most of the film is dedicated to the substantially lesser known consequences of Oswald’s actions. Efron and Gay Harden impress as the doctor and nurse tasked with operating on both the president and his alleged killer, as does Giamatti in the role of reluctant celebrity Abraham Zapruder. The star of the film is undoubtedly James Badge Dale as Robert Edward Lee Oswald, Jr., however, who is arguably the person most affected by his brother’s actions.

There are some striking scenes in Parkland, and many of them take place in the hospital from which the film takes its name. The scenes of surgery are strikingly graphic, and Landesman doesn’t shy away from the horrific injuries suffered by Kennedy. Kat Steffens doesn’t get much to do as the First Lady, but as she sobs from the corner of the room, clutching a shard of her late husband’s skull in her blood-stained, gloved hands, it is impossible not to feel for her loss. Another memorable scene comes later, when Kennedy’s state funeral is intercut with Oswald’s own, and Robert is forced to beg the paparazzi to help him bury his brother in the only cemetery willing to accept his body. Unfortunately, however, such scenes — most scenes, in fact — are marred by near-incompetent camerawork.

Parkland is no JFK, but it is nevertheless insightful in its own small way. Despite dramatising one of the most infamous moments in American history, the film approaches the event from an angle just novel enough to keep things interesting. Incomprehensible cinematography aside, Parkland is a perfectly enjoyable film, and one which benefits from some unassuming but strong performances and a story that is for once relatively forensic and light on speculation.

3-Stars

The Paperboy (2013)

The PaperboyWhile attempting to exonerate a man on death row accused of murder, brothers Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) contact Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman who Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack) has fallen in love with through their correspondence from his prison cell. Their investigations take them to the swamp where van Wetter’s brother alleges to have information that will prove his innocence, but the key to their case is later attained by Ward’s colleague at the Miami Times, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo). As Ward struggles with his own secrets and Jack himself falls for Charlotte, Miss Bless prepares to be united with the Hillary for the first time outside of the meeting room. But is he guilty, or isn’t he? Read more of this post

Liberal Arts (2012)

When Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), a 35 year-old graduate now working in the admissions department of a New York City college, is invited out to Ohio to mark the retirement of his second favourite university lecturer, he finds himself nostalgic for the years he spent there reading English and History (just to make sure he was fully unemployable). Introduced to 19 year-old freshman Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) by mentor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse strikes up a friendship and embarks on a correspondence as he heads back to the capital city. Engaged in intellectual intercourse over everything from books to Beethoven, Libby eventually asks to see him again, prompting another cross-country drive as Jesse drops everything to return to his alma mater, where he also befriending a struggling student (John Magaro) and a Zen-like spiritualist (Zac Efron). Read more of this post

The Lorax (2012)

Whilst trying to impress Audrey (Taylor Swift), the girl that he likes, Ted Wiggins (Zac Efron) learns of Truffula Tree, long-lost multicoloured marvels of nature for which the town of Thneed-Ville has absolutely no use. Mined to extinction for the production of thneeds, the trees — and all of nature itself — have since been replaced by businessman Aloysius O’Hare (Rob Riggle) at a cost to the consumer. Told by his Grammy Norma (Betty White) that the reclusive Once-ler (Ed Helms) might be able to help him acquire a Truffula Tree to help impress Audrey, Ted leaves the city limits where he is told the legend of The Lorax (Danny DeVito). Read more of this post

The Lucky One (2012)

After his third tour at some war or other and a few explosion that kindly left his face alone, U.S. Marine Logan Thibault (Zac Efron) finds himself struggling to return to normality. Having found a picture in the rubble during his deployment, his curiosity inadvertently saving him from near certain death, Logan decides to walk from Colorado to Louisiana where he has tracked the lighthouse from the picture on Google. Once there, he takes a job at an animal shelter with Beth (Taylor Schilling), the woman from the picture, a comical number of misunderstandings preventing the truth from instantly uniting them in love. Or something. Read more of this post

Fails of the Year – 2011

Forever wishing to give cinema the benefit of the doubt – especially as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo appear to be in such capable hands – I have decided to hold off on judging the year’s best films until I have had the opportunity to catch up on a few more. I feel no such responsibility with making similar conclusions regarding the year’s most unforgivable affronts to the medium of film, however, and with my predictions only proving partially accurate, a few glaring oversights coming back to bore me as the year drew on, here are the top ten movies that left me wishing I could have found my life’s driving passion in sport or music instead.

10. Apollo 18

While it is generally accepted that low-budget found-footage movies will delay the money shot until the last possible moment – when they know for sure how much money they have left to spend on it, no doubt – Apollo 18 takes this rule of thumb to the extreme. Divulging little more about its central trio than that they like barbeques and dislike accidentally rubbing jalapenio juice into their crotches, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego ensures that by the end of our tenure aboard the titular space ship alongside our fellow astronauts we are wishing we could finish them off ourselves. There is a reason we’ve never gone back to the moon, and it appears to be because it was so damn boring the last time.

9. Take Me Home Tonight

What is it about the 80s that provokes such unwavering nostalgia? With Hollywood throwing back with films such as The Rocker and Hot Tub Time Machine, there appears to be a perfectly renewable audience for movies that channel boomboxes, Farrah hair and Back to the Future. Starring Topher Grace, a particularly desperate looking Anna Farris and – in a turn of events that will no doubt turn the world inside out – an overweight comic actor who is even more hateful than Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis combined, this movie is aimed exclusively at the type of person who longs to have been alive in the 80s, where they could “do it” on a trampoline and solve all of life’s problems by riding a giant metal ball into a swimming pool – the director, then.

8. Bad Teacher

Much has been made of the similarities between Bad Teacher and curmudgeonly classic Bad Santa. To me, however, any such comparisons end swiftly with the titular prefix. Where the latter was subversive, witty and oddly charming, Bad Teacher is a one dimensional, derivative and woefully crass exercise in Bad Filmmaking. Cameron Diaz’s Halsey is a bad teacher because she makes her pupils watch TV instead of read books, because she dresses inappropriately at the sponsored car wash and because she plans her next boob-job when she should be marking papers. Hilarious, huh?

7. Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

I get it, fat people are funny. Three movies in, though, you might imagine that Regency Enterprise had something more to say – some flesh to add to the premise’s big bones and trademark fat suit. Interpreting this criticism as a categorical need for more fat people to laugh at, the studio has duly provided us with Brandon T. Jackson as the rapper son of Malcolm Turner’s cross-dressing undercover agent. Seriously, with some of the rubbish that has been accepted into Juilliard in recent years, I’m really failing to understand how it is still so prestigious? With Turner having now been in the role for over a decade – A DECADE! – we can only hope that this spells the end of Big Momma’s Franchise.

6. New Year’s Eve

Imagine every base-level romantic comedy you’ve seen in the last 10 years. Now imagine watching them all again, at once, without any of the pleasure – however guilty – and all of the bits that make you wish you could swallow your own face. With dire performances, a self-congratulatorally indulgent narrative and jokes that are almost (but importantly not even) hysterically unfunny, New Year’s Eve is to cinema what the ball drop is apparently to New Yorkers: a hollow and desperately sad piece of pig-ignorant Americana that you can feel actively sucking the splendour out of life, one cameo at a time.

5. Transformers: Dark of the Moon

With Megan Fox ostracised for calling MICHAEL BAY a Nazi (Poland must be the only country he hasn’t blown up), and the film’s director echoing star Shia LaBeouf’s admission that the second film really was utter pants, it looked like Transformers: Dark of the Moon was on track to be at least watchable; a first for the franchise. Instead, it was business as usual at the pixel factory as the robots fight, the girl pouts and Sam Witwicky runs, runs as fast as he can lest he pause long enough to have to try on a new facial expression. With the trilogy finally – mercifully – over, perhaps now we can leave Bay to his career-long mid-life crisis and get on tempting our brains out of Autobot-induced hibernation. No, I can’t tell what’s going on in the picture either.

4. Green Lantern

Considering how much time I’ve spent banging on about the merits of silly superheroes (of which Hellboy is still by and far the best), the irony – or is it hypocrasy? – of my distaste for Green Lantern has certainly not gone unnoticed. For while it might forgo the tiresome “darker is better” mantra that has been redefining Hollywood ever since Christopher Nolan cleared his throat with Batman Begins, it is a movie completely lacking in any talent and/or workable humour to offset the story’s resounding hocum. All the talk of the emerald energy of willpower and yellow power of fear is frankly too much, and with appalling special effects to match the script my biggest fear is that Green Lantern might have played right into Nolan’s gritty hands.

3. Cowboys and Aliens

Renamed after Cowboys and Aliens and More Aliens and Convenient Phoenix Metaphors and Indians and Sam Rockwell and God and a Hummingbird performed poorly with test audiences, Cowboys and Aliens was one of the most obnoxious, humourlous and darn right ridiculous movies released his summer. Side-lining Harrison Ford (why? WHY?) in favour of Old Expressionless and Plot Point #4 (dutifully reprising her role from last year’s Tron: Legacy), John Favreau effectively made the anti-Iron Man: a comic book adaptation that took itself far too seriously. Ford is the best thing in Cowboys and Aliens by a good Kessel Run – and that’s coming from someone who really likes hummingbirds.

2. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Rather than confronting the issues harmonised by the planet’s critics, Rob Marshall’s apparent overhaul never makes it beneath the surface. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a pale imitation of a once great, and then at least competent, franchise; a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns in action. Shot largely in the dark and depriving Jack Sparrow of a sparring partner (wasting the character in the thankless role of straight man), this latest adaptation of the Disneyland attraction is anything but a roller-coaster ride, providing precisely zero swash for your buckle.

1. Sucker Punch

I forgive you for being enticed by the stylish and action-packed trailer. After all, I was right there with you. It made the film look sleek, layered and, above all, coherent. A squad of asylum inmates escape into an alternate reality, Alice in Wonderland style, and must fight an array of fantastical monsters for a series of items that will lead to their freedom in the real world – sound about right? Turns out, however, that these items were little more than a map from the next room, a lighter from a visiting suit’s pocket, a kitchen knife from their workplace, a key from around their orderly’s neck and a not-so-mysterious “sacrifice”. Not a steampunked zombie Nazi in sight.

Also worthy of mention: The Green Hornet, Red Riding Hood, 30: Minutes or Less, The Three MusketeersImmortals, AbductionColombiana, Conan the BarbarianProm, The Hangover: Part II, Horrible Bosses, Just Go With It.

New Year’s Eve (2011)

Having already lived happily ever after with every other member of the cast at some point or other, Katherine Heigl stops stuffing her face with truffles long enough to forgive Bon Jovie’s once-cold feet in time for her New Year’s kiss. Across the city, Hilary Swank spends her evening giving motivational speeches and coordinating confetti; Halle Berry airs her concerned face while loading up Skype; Zac Efron has a bit of a dance while trying to comfort Michelle Pfeifer for being old; Sarah Jessica Parker tracks down a horse-drawn cart in designer shoes after failing to be a mother; Lea Michelle escapes a lift in time to do a televised sing song; and Jessica Beil stops competing against pregnant people for money long enough to pull a pair of Valentine’s Day DVDs out of her vagina. Backstage, meanwhile, a bunch of poorly drawn foreigners mispronounce words and generally display their inherent inferiority all in the name of comic relief.

Imagine every base-level romantic comedy you’ve seen in the last 10 years. Now imagine watching them all again, at once, without any of the pleasure – however guilty – and all of the bits that make you wish you could swallow your own face. New Year’s Eve, as much of a kick in the expectations as the film’s namesake itself, is just as detestable as it sounds, with a bunch of TV actors and actresses fretting at great, great length about the dysfunctional state of the FAMOUS Times Square ball. The ball. The ball which must drop, or every single person on the planet will invariably have the worst night of their ludicrously interlinked lives. Because Robert De Niro will have died in vein. Or something.

Should you find it slightly problematic that the entirety of a film’s jeopardy might rest on a giant disco light successfully falling a hundred feet on cue, then tough luck as  there is precisely nothing else on offer in Gary Marshall’s latest pat on the back in which to invest any emotion. Again and again we are told that the happiness of “the other half” – otherwise known as Her From That Thing – is more important than that of ‘normal’ people – the kind who own campervans and actually have to work for a living – while a series of increasingly spoilt mannequins wait for midnight. The main characters in this movie are so far removed from recognisable humanity – competing with another pregnant couple for the hospital’s cash prize for its first delivery of the year or leaving her dad to die alone so that she can give a speech about ‘The Important Things In Life’ – that not even Michelle Pfeiffer or Robert De Niro can breathe any reputability into its bloated frame.

This is more a piece of marketing than it is a movie, with Marshall not even making the effort to tie it into the same reality as his similarly deplorable Valentine’s Day. These characters do not grow, develop or even travel particularly far – except of course Josh Duhamel, who spends his entire journey awaiting pizza-induced inspiration (deep!) for a speech which ultimately lasts all of thirteen seconds – instead opting uniformly to learn one of those life-lessons that the rest of us learned at the age of 6. As if their own pathetic dilemmas weren’t insipid enough (“can I ever forgive the rich megastar who left before I could even cook him a meal in our new apartment?”), they are inexplicably tied together through contrivances that make the last act of Crazy, Stupid, Love look obvious and completely believable.

With dire performances, a self-congratulatorally indulgent narrative and jokes that are almost (but importantly not even) hysterically unfunny, New Year’s Eve is to cinema what the ball drop is apparently to New Yorkers: a hollow and desperately sad piece of pig-ignorant Americana that you can feel actively sucking the splendour out of life, one cameo at a time.

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud (2010)

Having already landed a sailing scholarship to Stanford University, Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) is looking forward to finally flying the nest and putting his small-town syndrome to good use; until, that is, a series of brutal collisions leave younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) dead and Charlie himself racked with guilt. Having previously promised to practice baseball with him every day until he leaves for college, Charlie finds himself at the mercy of an inexplicable supernatural contract. Taking up a job at the local cemetery, Charlie continues to meet Sam at sunset every day to carry out his part of the agreement and to spend a little extra time with the brother he lost. When a fellow sailor (Amanda Crew) goes missing, however, Charlie is faced with the prospect that his ability may have a greater purpose.

Before leaving my job at The Cinema That Must Not Be Named I had the opportunity as a budding projectionist to make up my very first movie – taking care to ensure that each reel and electronic tag was present and accounted for, preferably even in the right order. That film, for the delectation of Edinburgh’s senior cinema-goers, was The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud.

Now, I realise that it is not particularly cool to accept Zac Efron as a bona fide actor; however, my negative stance on Christopher Nolan’s Bat-verse and the copy of Hannah Montana: The Movie that frequents my DVD player have already served to rob me of a place in any respectable in-crowd. In a role that requires more than one emotion – and which doesn’t allow him to dance his way out any and all thespian tight spots – The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud stands testament to the inescapable reality that this kid (who am I kidding, man) has talent.

In stark contrast to the nauseating artificiality of the High School Musical franchise, and off the back of the surprisingly enjoyable teen comedy 17 Again, Efron has re-teamed with director Burr Steers for an altogether more demanding drama. Centring on a well-handled tragedy, the film is a far cry from the vampiric Mills and Boons propagated by the Twilight saga. In contrast, Charlie St. Cloud is a delightfully grounded affair, albeit one with a supernatural twist and heavily contrived graveside tryst, largely thanks to Efron’s well natured and multi-layered performance. Whereas the emotional truths tapped both by the unconventional brotherhood and central romance might have resulted in stifling sentimentalism, however, a winning sense of humour and refreshing earnest streak successfully offset any feelings of nausea.

However, from the more sweeping instrumentals to the tour-de-force Magic Show – which carries us through the credits and provides a delightful accompaniment to a consistently sturdy and competent drama – it is undoubtedly the film’s arresting soundtrack which made the biggest impression on me. Nevertheless, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud is a timeless tale of love and loss which is well worth a look on DVD as you more than likely missed it in the crowd of time-travelling robots and superhero sequels which dominated multiplexes in its initial year of release.