Back to School Part II #54: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (dir by Nicholas Stoller)


(For the past three weeks, Lisa Marie has been in the process of reviewing 56 back to school films!  She’s promised the rest of the TSL staff that this project will finally wrap up by the end of today, so that she can devote her time to helping to prepare the site for its annual October horrorthon!  Will she make it or will she fail, lose her administrator privileges, and end up writing listicles for Buzzfeed?  Keep reading the site to find out!)

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How many times can the same thing keep happening to the same people?

That’s a question that you may be tempted to ask yourself while watching Neighbors 2.  Neighbors 2 is, of course, a sequel to the original Neighbors.  In the first film, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne played Mac and Kelly Radner, a married couple who are struggling to deal with the fact that, as new parents, they are now officially adults.  When a crazy and wild fraternity moves in next door to them and refuses to tone down their partying ways, Mac and Kelly are forced to take matters into their own hands.  Occasionally hilarious mayhem ensues.

In Neighbors 2, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne again play Mac and Kelly Radner, a married couple who are struggling to deal with the fact that, as parents who are awaiting the arrival of their 2nd child, they are now officially adults and may have to finally move into a more family friendly house in the suburbs.  When a crazy and wild fraternity sorority moves in next door to them and refuses to tone down their partying ways, Mac and Kelly are forced to take matters into their own hands.  Occasionally hilarious mayhem ensues.

Yeah, it’s all pretty familiar.  Not only are many of the same jokes from the first film repeated but they’re often repeated at that exact same spot in which they originally appeared.  To the film’s credit, it does occasionally acknowledge that it’s repeating itself, though it never quite reaches the self-aware heights of something like 22 Jump Street.  Even Zac Efron returns and, again, he is initially the Radner’s enemy before eventually becoming their ally.

That said, the familiarity is not necessarily a bad thing.  Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne both know how to get laughs, even when they’re telling the same joke that they told a year ago.  Zac Efron tends to try too hard whenever he has a dramatic role (like in The Paperboy, for instance) but he’s got a real talent for comedy.

Ultimately, though, the best thing that saves Neighbors 2 from just being a forgettable comedy sequel is the sorority.  As opposed to the first film’s creepy fraternity, the sorority in Neighbors 2 is partying for a cause greater than just hedonism.  Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz, finally getting to have fun in a movie) starts her independent sorority in response to being told that official sororities are not allowed to throw parties and, instead, can only attend misogynistic frat parties.  When Shelby and her sorority buy the house, it’s not just to make trouble.  It’s because they need a place where they can have a good time without feeling that they’re in constant danger from drunk and perverted frat boys.  A subtext of empowerment through partying runs through Neighbors 2 and it elevates the entire film.

Neighbors 2 is an entertaining film, even if it never leaves as much of an impression as you may hope.  (I have to admit that, whenever I try to list all the films that I’ve seen this year, Neighbors 2 is one of those that I often have to struggle to remember.)  That said, it’s not a terrible way to spend 97 minutes and it’ll make you laugh.  And, ultimately, that really is the most important thing when it comes to comedy.

As for the question of how often can the same thing happen to the same person…

Well, I guess we’ll have to wait for Neighbors 3 to get our answer!

Shattered Politics #84: Swing Vote (dir by Joshua Michael Stern)


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Have you ever heard the old saying about how one vote can make all the difference?  I’ve always had to laugh whenever I hear that because I know that, every election, my sister Melissa is going to cancel out my ballot by voting the exact opposite of how I vote.  As a result, even though I’ve participated in almost every election since 2004, my vote has hardly ever really mattered.

(Then again, neither has my sister’s….)

But anyway, the idea of one vote making all of the difference is taken to its logical extreme in the 2008 comedy Swing Vote.  In Swing Vote, a presidential election comes down to who wins the state of New Mexico.  And who wins the state of New Mexico will be determined by just one vote.  You see, the popular vote in New Mexico is tied between the two candidates but it turns out that, due to a voting machine error, one man’s vote has not been counted.  And now, that man has ten days to recast his vote.

(Why does he have ten days?  Mostly because there would not be a movie if they just said, “Please cast your vote again…now!”)

Of course, the problem is that the guy never cast a vote in the first place.  Instead, his vote was cast by his daughter (Madeline Carroll), who basically committed an act of vote fraud and violated federal law.  But it’s cute because she’s super precocious and she just wants her Dad to stop being such a fuck-up.

Oh, did I mention that?

That’s right — the fate of America is in the hands of a complete and total fuck-up.  His name is Bud and he’s played by Kevin Costner.  He’s a rather stupid guy who has never been responsible a day in his life.  He’s also a former felon, which really should have made him ineligible to vote in the first place.  And, on top of that, he’s the type of alcoholic who promises his little girl that he’ll meet her at a scheduled place and time and then proceeds to get drunk inside.

OH MY GOD, WHAT A GREAT GUY!

But, we’re supposed to like Bud because he’s played by Kevin Costner and I really don’t get that logic.  I always find it odd that, every year, we hear about how Kevin Costner is going to be in a few dozen films and how they’re all going to be hits and he’s suddenly going to be a big star again.  I’m never quite sure why people are excited about this prospect.  Whenever I see Costner on-screen (which, admittedly, doesn’t happen that often), I’m always struck by the fact that, regardless of the role, he really does come across as being an asshole.  That really does seem to be his screen presence.  That’s certainly the case in Swing Vote.

And maybe that’s the point of the film.  Be sure to vote so that the fate of America doesn’t end up in the hands of Kevin Costner.

That said, I will say that Swing Vote deserves some credit for casting Kelsey Grammer as the President and Dennis Hopper as his opponent.  Personally, I probably would have voted to reelect Kesley but I think Dennis would have done a good job as well.

(By the way, if ever do find yourself watching Swing Vote, imagine how much funnier the film would have been if it ended with Costner casting his vote and then announcing, “I voted third party!”)

 

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Transformers : Age Of Extinction”


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You can accuse Michael Bay of many things — overblown spectacle, formulaic hackery, using CGI as a massive crutch, general lack of anything resembling original vision — but false advertising ins’t among them : when you go see a Bay-directed flick, particularly a Bay-directed Transfomers flick, you know exactly  what you’re in for.

Oh, sure, his latest — Transformers : Age Of Extinction — alters the basic cosmetic trappings somewhat, most notably by banishing Shia LaBeouf to whatever hell for dead careers Megan Fox was earlier castigated to in favor of proven “action hero” star Mark Wahlberg, and yeah, Stanley Tucci is about the only major holdover (as far as human beings go) from previous entries in this series (look for more newcomers in the form of Kelsey Grammer and Nicola Peltz as Wahlberg’s daughter), but this is no reboot, by any stretch.

For one thing, the story continues directly on from the previous efforts, with the Transformers having been “driven underground,” so to speak, thanks to a government witch-hunt until no less than Optimus Prime himself is discovered and “resurrected” by Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager (there’s a focus-group-tested name if I’ve ever heard one) character, who —

Oh, fuck it. Does this even matter? Does even the most hard-core fan of this franchise — and that’s precisely what it is, a franchise — care what the plots of these films are about? If so, you have to feel a sort of pity for them, because Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who was supposed to be the “next big thing” once upon a time for a few minutes there) clearly don’t. Every single “slow” or “quiet” scene is obviously just set-up to carry us into the next big CGI set piece, so we won’t waste our time here with a terribly detailed breakdown of the story. Sound fair?

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All in all, Transformers : Age Of Extinction is all about getting the job done, slapping the finished product up on the screen, and opening up those cash register drawers. In that respect — and that one only — you’ve gotta say “mission accomplished” here. This movie is making money hand over fist and evidently the public’s appetite for more and more robo-carnage is proving to be flat-out insatiable. We apparently love this shit.

The question I have is — who’s “we”? Like the ever-ephemeral “they” of “well, they say you should — ” and “they say it’s not good for you to —” fame, the target audience for these films eludes me. I don’t like ’em. Nobody I know likes ’em. Nobody whose reviews I read online likes ’em. Nobody anywhere seems to like ’em.

And yet there it is — an 87% CinemaScore rating and another sequel already germinating somewhere in the pipeline. How, exactly, does this happen?

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The short answer is — I don’t know. There’s obviously an appreciative audience for these things out there somewhere, but I can’t figure out where it is, beyond perhaps in junior high schoolyards. That’s not enough to explain the phenomenon, though. I know it’s purely anecdotal, but when I went to see this film, the theater had maybe 30 or 40 people in it, and the crowd remained silent throughout. No clapping and cheering. No gasping in awe. No chuckles at the limp one-liners. And yet it wasn’t a rapturous, devotional silence these folks were in the midst of — it was just a kind of “blah” sense of resignation. We were here. This was happening. Everything, apparently, was as it should be. Until the end credits rolled, and we all left to do whatever it is we were  supposed to do next.

And maybe that’s the genius and/or malevolence of what Bay and company have come up with here in a nutshell : Tranfromers movies, for all their empty-hearted and empty-headed spectacle, aren’t huge pop culture events anymore. But a lot of us — myself included — keep going to them because they’re supposed to be. And we’re supposed to be there for them. It’s almost like a kind of Orwellian mass conditioning going on : we’re told this is a big deal and, lemmings that we are, we don’t want to miss out on that. Final score : Michael Bay and Paramount Pictures 1, hope for humanity 0.

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Pessimistic? Sure. But is there any reason not to be? A family of four left the theater at exactly the same time I did and their car was parked right next to mine. We followed the same route for a few blocks (I wasn’t purposely tailing them, I promise!) — until they pulled into a McDonald’s. And that pretty much says it all right there.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “X-Men : Days Of Future Past”


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At this point, I freely admit to being a little bit confused : X-Men : Days Of Future Past opens to a somewhat lower box office take than The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did, which was only slightly behind the opening-frame receipts generated for Captain America : The Winter Soldier, and yet Cap and the X-Men are both considered “successes,” while Spidey’s considered a “disappointment” — even though, last I checked, its’ total gross ticket sales were only about $50 million behind Cap’s despite the fact that it opened a full month later?    Chances are probably good  that it will even end up closing the gap here at some point, but no matter — the die appears to have  already been cast. The stench of that rat I mentioned smelling in my Spider-Man review a couple weeks back? It’s getting a lot stronger now.

Needless to say, I’ve got a theory as to what’s going on here, and it builds upon my theory already expounded upon in that just-mentioned prior review : Disney/Marvel actively wants the Spider-Man franchise back, but the X-Men? Not so much. At least not yet.

How else to explain this clearly-orchestrated PR campaign? Look, internet movie critics are an easy bunch to buy off : for a free ticket, or even the promise of some kind of other free swag in the future, you can get thousands of people to say whatever you want them to. And from there, you can get thousands of others to mimic the already-established meme of whether a given flick is “successful” or not, because gosh, who would dare contradict the well-established critics and box-office analysts who have already passed judgment on the merits of a particular work? For the price of probably less than $10,000 in either payments or promises, DisMar has the movie-going public right where they want us, echoing their nonsensical party line and unsupported-by-the-facts pronouncements.

Needless to say, I don’t feel like playing along — for the most part. But there’s one area where I do agree with the general consensus, even if the fix is in : X-Men : Days Of Future Past is a really good superhero flick. And that might just throw a wrench in Marvel’s “this one’s dying on the vine, let’s just wait it out and see what happens” game plan.

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Seriously, friends, this one has everything and the kitchen sink going on, but somehow returning director Bryan Singer (more on him in a minute) juggles every ball thrown in the air and makes it work : the “divergent timelines” conceit that forms the core of the plot never gets confusing even though it easily could; the action sequences are brisk and spectacular; the characters are uniformly believable and compelling; and the performances, from perhaps the most star-studded cast ever assembled for a comic-book film, are all first rate. When you’ve got Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Halle Berry, Michael Lerner, Booboo Stewart, Omar Sy, Kelsey Grammer, Anna Paquin, James Marsden and Famke Janssen all punching the same time clock, it goes without saying that  some are going to have more to do than others, but nobody seems intent on stealing the show for themselves, which is no mean feat considering the sheer number of sizable egos that must be involved here. Sure, the script puts most of the onus of Wolverine, the young Professor Xavier, the young Magneto, the young Beast, the young Mystique,  and the villainous Dr. Bolivar Trask, but that doesn’t mean everybody else doesn’t give their admittedly smaller parts at least a reasonable effort. Shit, I’m not sure how you even get stars of the stature of Page, Berry and Paquin to even accept what are essentially tertiary-at-best roles (does Paquin even have a line of dialogue?), but somehow they keep showing up for X-Men flicks, and in this case the place doesn’t even seem that crowded. Shit, Singer even manages to sneak in quick cameo for Wolverine co-creator Len Wein.

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In many ways what makes  Days Of Future Past so successful is that fact that it’s actually more a direct sequel to First Class (which I also thoroughly enjoyed) than it is the initial X-trilogy, and some of the continuity changes that the end results of this film apparently seal into place even seem to undo how those first three films “wound up,” but whatever — the end result here is a franchise that feels like it’s been given a new lease on life after treading water for a good half-decade or so. I mentioned just a moment ago that I really dug First Class, but you can’t get by on prequels forever. At some point a movie needed to come along that propelled the X-Men franchise forward, and this does so with plenty of style and flair.

Plus, the whole thing’s a lot of fun — sure, some of the dialogue is overly- verbose and clunky and painfully expository, but those instances are rare, and actually stand out in contrast to the general ease and flow of the rest of the film. And while the premise itself requires a heavy dose of suspension of disbelief, let’s be honest here — what super-hero movie doesn’t? At least this one rewards your willingness to go with the flow in ways that even highly-touted fare like Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (a favorite target of my ire, I admit, but only because it really does suck, no matter what anyone else thinks) could never hope to manage. Plus, audiences get a chance so see Dinklage prove that he can” bring it”  in each and every role he takes on, not just on Game Of Thrones — something those of us who have been fans of his work ever since The Station Agent have long maintained.

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In case it weren’t painfully obvious already, I thoroughly enjoyed X-Men : Days Of Future Past, and after appearing to flounder in the wake of the risible Valkyrie, my faith in Bryan Singer as a director has probably never been higher — unfortunately (here’s where that “more on him in a minute” comes in), I can’t say the same in regards to my faith in Bryan Singer as a human being. I won’t kid you — the sexual abuse allegations that have been leveled against him really bother the shit out of me. And no, it has nothing to do with Singer’s sexual orientation : I don’t care if a person is straight, gay, or somewhere in between, any and all relationships — whether serious, casual, or less than casual — between consenting adults are fine by me. Everybody likes to get laid, have at it. But age of consent laws are there for a reason, and kids and teens are, and should be, off limits to grown adults. The fact that  the “fan” community seems so eager to point out that Singer’s accuser has filed civil rather than criminal charges and that he’s apparently done so in the past is both irrelevant to the reality of what may or may not have occurred,  and represents a clear case of reprehensible victim-shaming of the highest order. Sure, everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, but assuming, or even implying, that somebody who’s been brave enough to come forward with claims this serious just has to be a liar because they’re choosing to address this issue in ways that others either don’t understand or approve of is beneath contempt. Maybe we’ll never know the whole truth of this matter, but if Singer did what’s he’s been accused of, then he’s got some serious issues and needs some serious help and sure,  I feel some amount if sympathy for whatever turmoil is boiling away inside his mind — but not half as much as I do for the teen boy (s) that he’s victimized (if he has). I don’t want to see him condemned in the court of public opinion if he’s completely innocent, but I don’t want to see his accuser condemned, either, and that’s what’s been happening. Sex between adults and those not legally deemed to be adults (in most states that’s 18, in some 16) is against the law, period, and if Singer did, in fact, engage in the sort of behavior that’s been alleged,   then I’m done with him from here on out. End of rant.

Regardless of what’s he’s done in his off-hours, though, the perhaps-tragic fact (depending on how legal proceedings play out) remains that what he’s done while on company time just can’t be denied in this case. I wish I could love X-Men : Days Of Future Past with a totally clean conscience, sure, but I can’t deny that I loved it just because it may have been directed by a guy whose personal behavior is both sleazy and illegal. It’s a complex set of circumstances to weigh in one’s mind, to be sure, but so goes life. I wish its murky waters were easier to navigate, but they never have been, and they’re never going to be.

As for the future of all things X-Men, I’ll make one easy prediction right now : when this thing hits home viewing “platforms” in a few months’ time, look for a bevy of reviews along the lines of “ya know, maybe this this isn’t quite as good as we thought at first” and “on second viewing, the flaws in this one are obvious” — not because such sentiments will be true, but because Days Of Future Past is so well-done, and opens up so many possible avenues for the franchise going forward, that Marvel’s gonna want to start one of their infamous “whisper campaigns” to try to undermine the public’s confidence in having it in “other hands” and get it back in their own  grubby, greedy paws.

Trailer: Transformers: Age of Extinction (Official)


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I know, I know, another Transformers extravaganza coming this summer. As if the last two wasn’t enough to swear me off the franchise. Well, guess what this one doesn’t have any of the actors from the first three and drops in a whole bunch of new ones to play war with the aforementioned robots who are more than meets the eye.

Instead of Shia LaBeouf in the lead role screaming like the most unheroic lead ever we get the manly man Mark Walhberg himself playing a Texas dad out to protect his daughter from the men in black while jump starting a rusted Optimus Prime on his spare time.

This fourth film looks to be a new start for the franchise that we all thought ended with a bang and a whimper with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but there were still more Transformers that never made it to the bigscreen and what better way to do that than make a fourth. So, it looks like fans finally get Grimlock and the Dinobots plus a Decepticon that looks to be Galvatron.

Again, I will be seeing this (it’s like the scifi blockbuster version of Saw) just for the fact that it doesn’t have Shia LaBeouf for people to listen to scream shrilly every two or three minutes. Plus, it has Optimus Prime wrestling and then riding Grimlock.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is ready to make our eyes explode on June 27, 2014.

Super Bowl Trailer: Transformers: Age of Extinction


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Yes, it is another Transformers film about to descend on the population this coming summer.

Could we finally get a quality one after the last two which got worse and worse with each new entry? I can’t say for sure, but this fourth entry does have one thing going for it and that is the lack of Shia LaBeouf. Instead we get Mark Walhberg in the lead human role. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee return with new robots filling in the rest.

If there’s one thing about Transformers: Age of Extinction that will get me to see it once it comes out is the fact that it has Grimlock and his merry band of Dinobots finally making their appearance. Yes, Grimlock and that’s all I need.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is set for a July 27, 2014 release date.