Spring Breakdown: The Beach Bum (dir by Harmony Korine)


February is over!  Welcome to March!

Now, the first two weeks of March is, traditionally, when most schools give their students a week off for Spring Break.  I have a lot of good Spring Break memories and, to be honest, I’ve always kind of resented the fact that Spring Break is something that only schools do.  To me, it should be like a national holiday where everything stops for a week and everyone hangs out at the beach for a few days.

Of course, this year’s Spring Break may be a bit of a disappointment, what with everyone freaking out about …. well, everything.  That’s a shame but fear not!  You may not be able to leave behind your fears long enough to go down to the beach but at least you can still watch movies about the beach, right?  So, with that in mind, over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing some films for Spring Break!

It’s time for Spring Breakdown!

Let’s get things started with the 2019 film, The Beach Bum.

The beach bum of the title is an always stoned, alcoholic poet named Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), who spends his time wandering around the Florida Keys.  Moondog has been working on a book for several years and he’s a bit of a local celebrity.  Everyone that he meets tends to like him, or at least they do until he ruins their lives.  Moondog is irresponsible, immature, and apparently some sort of genius as well.  Moondog is also extremely laid back.  Even when he finds out that his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), cheated on him with his best friend, a singer named Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), Moondog is okay with it.  He’s always loved Minnie but he’s never had a problem cheating on her so why shouldn’t she do the same to him?

After Moondog shows up late for his daughter’s wedding and goes out of his way to make a scene, he goes for a drive with Minnie.  Of course, since Moondog is drunk off his ass, he ends up crashing the car and killing his wife.  In her will, Minnie leaves half of her fortune to their daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen).  She leaves the other half to Moondog, with the stipulation that Moondog will only get the money after he finishes his book.

The rest of the film follows, in an episodic fashion, Moondog as he tries to finish his book and get his money.  Along the way, he commits crimes, dabbles with various jobs, and spends time in jail and drug rehab.  He meets a host of eccentric and destructive characters, almost all of who are the type of outsiders who seem as if they’re destined to eventually be the subject of a “Florida man” headline.  For instance, Flicker (Zac Efron) is a pyromaniac.  And Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence) hosts dolphin tours but, unfortunately, cannot tell the difference between a dolphin and a shark.

When The Beach Bum was first released in March of last year, it was eagerly anticipated because it was Harmony Korine’s first film since 2012’s Spring Breakers.  Despite the fact that Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum both take place in Florida and feature a lot of beach action, the two films might as well be taking place in separate universes.  The Beach Bum is as laid back as Spring Breakers was violent.  If Spring Breakers was a film that seemed to be fueled by ecstasy and cocaine, The Beach Bum is a celebration of getting high and enjoying life.  If Spring Breakers was all about being young, The Beach Bum is about growing old without giving up your individuality.

In many ways, The Beach Bum is the ultimate Matthew McConaughey film and how you react to the film will depend on how much tolerance you have for Matthew McConaughey at his most McConaugheyest.  Indeed, if you like Moondog, it’ll probably be because you like Matthew McConaughey.  As a character, Moondog is a jerk.  He nearly ruins his daughter’s wedding.  He drives drunk and kills his wife.  He refuses to take responsibility for being a general fuck-up and, from what little we hear of his work, he appears to be a subpar poet as well.  And yet, Matthew McConaughey brings enough of his own natural charm to the role that it’s tempting to forgive Moondog.  You can understand why some people in the film are willing to tolerate him, even though he’s basically a pain in the ass to have around.

The Beach Bum is not a film for everyone.  I appreciated Matthew McConaughey’s performance and I also appreciated the fact that Harmony Korine didn’t try to remake Spring Breakers.  At the same time, the film was a bit too loosely constructed to really hold my interest and a little bit of Moondog goes a long way.  I saw this film last year and I’ve really had no desire to rewatch it.  That said, the cinematography frequently makes Florida looks like the most beautiful place on Earth and, regardless of what you may think about his poetry, at least Moondog just keeps on L-I-V-I-N, livin’.

Add to that, Moondog’s going to enjoy Spring Break, no doubt about it.

Film Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (dir by Joe Berlinger)


Early on in the new Netflix film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, there’s a scene in which Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and her sister, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan) go to a bar.  Through some rather heavy-handed dialogue, we learn that Liz has just broken up with her boyfriend, that she has next to zero self-confidence, and that she’s a single mother.  She doesn’t think that there’s a man anywhere who would be interested in her.  Joanna responds by pointing out that there’s one man who appears to be very interested.  In fact, he hasn’t taken his eyes off of Liz since they entered the bar.

That man’s name is Ted (Zac Efron) and, at first, he seems like he’s too good to be true.  He’s charming.  He’s a law student.  He appears to love spending time with Liz’s daughter.  He looks like Zac Efron.  Perfect, right?

Of course, we know something that Liz doesn’t.  We know that Ted is Ted Bundy and that, eventually, he’s going to become one of America’s notorious serial killers, a symbol of evil so potent that, more than 30 years after he was executed by the state of Florida, he continues to get movies made about him.

Because we know who and what Ted is, we spend the first fourth of the movie cringing at everything that makes Liz happy.  For instance, Liz is shocked to discover that Ted apparently loves her daughter but we’re just like, “Oh my God, that’s Ted Bundy!  GET YOUR DAUGHTER AWAY FROM TED BUNDY!”  Liz thinks it’s romantic when Ted makes breakfast for her but we’re just staring at the big kitchen knife in his hand.  When Liz and Ted make love, only we notice the blank look on Ted’s face as he looks down at Liz and we find ourselves wondering what’s happening in his mind.

The film is told largely through Liz’s eyes and, with one exception, we never see Bundy actually committing any of his crimes.  (That’s a good thing, by the way.  We already know who Ted Bundy was and what he did.  There’s no need to sensationalize the very real pain that he caused.)  Like Liz, we find out about Bundy’s crimes through news reports and arrest records.  For instance, when Bundy is arrested for attempted kidnapping in Utah, Liz doesn’t find out about it until a story appears in the local Seattle newspaper.  When Liz demands to know why he didn’t tell her what was happening, Bundy gives her a bullshit story about how he’s being framed and how his lawyer is going to get the case thrown out.  We know that Ted’s lying but Liz believes him because …. what else is she going to do?  Is she going to believe that this perfect man who seems to love both her and her daughter is actually a sociopathic monster?

The film follows Bundy from one trial to another, as he’s charged with crimes across country.  It shows how this superficially charming law student became something of a media celebrity.  (When a reporter asks him if he’s guilty, Bundy grins and asks if the reporter is referring to a comic book that he stole when he was in the fifth grade.)  Bundy escapes.  Bundy is arrested.  Bundy escapes again.  Bundy eventually ends up being tried in Florida, where he revels in the attention.  When Liz loses faith in him, Bundy replaces her with an unstable woman named Carole Ann (Kayla Scodelario).  However, even while Carole Ann is dutifully delivering statements from Bundy to the press, Bundy is still calling Liz and begging her to believe that he’s innocent and he’ll soon be freed from prison.

Why is it so important to Bundy that Liz believe in him?  Is he just entertaining himself by manipulating her or, in his relationship with her, does he see the type of normalcy that he desires but knows he’s incapable of ever achieving?  Towards the end of the film, Liz comes close to asking Bundy if he was planning on killing her the first night that they met.  She doesn’t and it’s doubtful that Bundy would have given an honest answer but it’s still a question that hangs over every minute of this film (as does Liz’s physical resemblance to the majority of Bundy’s victims).

Though the film may be told from Liz’s point of view, she’s often comes across as just being a meek bystander, watching as the darkness of Ted Bundy envelops her world.  The film itself seems to be far more interested in Ted Bundy and his twisted celebrity.  Zac Efron plays Bundy as someone who knows how to be charming and who is good enough at imitating human emotions that he’s managed to keep the world from noticing that he’s essentially hollow on the inside.  Bundy has gotten so used to acting out a role that, even when he’s on trial for his life, he can’t resist the temptation to turn the courtroom into his own stage.  He demands to defend himself and, though he initially proves himself to be a good lawyer, his demands and his questions become progressively more flamboyant and self-destructive.  It’s as if he’s gotten so caught up in playing his role that he’s incapable of recognizing the reality of his situation.  He performs for the jury, the judge, and the television audience, treating the whole thing as if he’s just a character in a movie.  It’s only when he has no choice but to accept that he’s been caught and he’s never going to escape that Bundy finally shows some human emotion.  He cries but his tears are only for himself.  It’s a chilling performance and Zac Efron deserves every bit of praise that he’s received.

Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know.  Director Joe Berlinger is best-known as a documentarian and he talks a “just the facts” approach to the story.  We don’t really get any insight into how a monster like Ted Bundy could come to exist.  Outside of Efron’s revelatory performance, there’s not much here that couldn’t be found in any of the other films that have been made about Ted Bundy.

(Interestingly enough, as I watched the film, it occurred to me that Ted Bundy was a monster who could have only thrived in a pre-Internet age.  For all the books and movies that portray him as being some sort of cunning genius, Bundy actually wasn’t that smart.  He approached two of early his victims in a public place and introduce himself as being “Ted,” usually within earshot of a handful of witnesses.  He was so brazen that the police even ended up with a sketch that pretty much looked exactly like him.  In all probability, the only way that Ted Bundy avoided getting arrested in Seattle was that he moved to Utah, where his crimes were unknown and the sketch wasn’t readily available.  Today, of course, that sketch and Ted’s name would be on Twitter and Facebook as soon as they were released by the police.  My friend Holly would probably retweet the sketch and say, “Do your thing, twitter!”  He would have been identified and arrested in just a matter of time.  Instead, Bundy committed his crimes at a time when news traveled slower and law enforcement agencies were not in constant communication with each other.)

The good news is that Extremely Wicked is not, as some feared, a glorification of Ted Bundy.  He’s a monster throughout the entire film.  Zac Efron proves himself to be a far better actor than anyone’s ever really given him credit for being.  It’s a flawed film but, at the very least, it’s also a disturbing reminder that sometimes, darkness hides behind the greatest charm.

 

 

Here’s The Trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile!


When I heard that there was a trailer out for the Ted Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, this was not what I was initially expecting to see:

Now, if you go over to YouTube and read the comments under this trailer, you’ll see that there are a lot of people who are upset because they feel that the trailer portrays notorious serial killer Ted Bundy as being some sort of hero.  While I can understand the concern, I think those people are missing the point.

Yes, the trailer portrays Bundy as being a smooth-talking sociopath who was apparently having the time of his life while killing women, escaping from jails, and fleeing the police.  That’s largely because that’s the way that Bundy, in his interactions with others, tried to present himself.  That doesn’t mean that the film itself is meant to excuse or make light of Bundy’s crimes.  Here’s a statement from MW Film Studios, which was left underneath the film’s trailer:

Seems like a lot of people are missing the point. The reason why the trailer seems to painting him as some charismatic good guy is precisely because Ted Bundy was a very manipulative person who on the surface, one could believe was really that kind of person, but underneath that was someone cold and calculating. Like the person, the trailer is purposely misleading.

Given the fact that this film was directed by Joe Berlinger and any biopic of Ted Bundy would seem to be destined to end with him getting executed in Florida, I am more than willing to give this film the benefit of the doubt.  Zac Efron’s appealing but somewhat blank prettiness would seem to make him the ideal pick for the role of Bundy.  At the very least, I’ll wait for the initial reviews from Sundance before jumping to any conclusions about whether the film is properly anti-Bundy.

(Incidentally, Joe Berlinger not only directed this film but also Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which is currently streaming on Netflix.  Judging from the docu-series, I doubt Berlinger’s film is going to present Bundy as being anything other than evil and manipulative.)

“Going All Kanye On You”: New Year’s Eve (dir by Garry Marshall)


“New Year’s Eve is the worst, people who don’t drink or party all year suddenly going all Kanye on you.”

That line was delivered by Ashton Kutcher in the 2011 film, New Year’s Eve.  Seven years ago, when the film was first released, I thought it was an awkward line, partially because Ashton Kutcher sounded like he was drowning in self-loathing when he said it and partially because the sudden reference to Kanye West felt like something that would be considered clever by 60-something screenwriter who had just spent a few hours scanning twitter to see “what the kids are into nowadays.”

(Of course, hearing the line in 2018 was an even stranger experience.  People who don’t drink or party all year suddenly going all Kanye on you?  So, they’re putting on red MAGA caps and spending New Year’s Eve tweeting about prison reform?  True, that’s the way a lot of people celebrated in my part of the world but I’m not sure how exactly that would play out in Times Square.)

In New Year’s Eve, Kutcher plays a character named Randy.  Randy is a comic book artist, which means that he’s snarky and cynical and doesn’t really see the point of celebrating anything.  Fortunately, he gets trapped in an elevator with Elise (Lea Michele) and, with her help, he comes to learn that New Year’s Eve is not the worst.  Instead, it’s the most important holiday ever created and, if you don’t think so, you’re worse than the devil.

Fortunately, Hillary Swank is present to make sure that we all get the point.  Swank plays Claire Morgan, who is in charge of making sure that the ball drops at exactly the right moment at Times Square and who gets a monologue where she explains that the purpose of the ball is to make you think about both the past and the future.  As she explains it, the world comes together one night a year, all so everyone can watch that ball drop.  Apparently, if the ball doesn’t drop, the new year doesn’t actually start and everyone is trapped in a timeless limbo, kind of like Iron Man at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.

Of course, there’s more going on in New Year’s Eve than just Randy taking Kanye’s name in vain and Claire refusing the accept that Times Square is not the center of the universe.  There’s also an old man (Robert De Niro) who wants to time his death so he passes right at the start of the new year.  Sarah Jessica Parker plays the mother of frustrated teenager Abigail Breslin and gets to make a “girls gone wild” joke.  (A Kanye reference and a girls gone wild joke in the same film?  It’s like a pop culture tsunami!)  Michelle Pfeiffer tries to accomplish all of her new year’s resolutions with the help of Zac Efron.  Halle Berry worries about her husband (Common) , who is serving overseas.  Josh Duhamel searches for a woman who once told him that his heart was more important than his business.  Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel compete with Til Schweiger and Sarah Paulson to see who can be the family of the first child born in the new year.  Jon Bon Jovi thinks about the woman that he nearly married and Katherine Heigl wonders if she’s ever going to have a career again.  In other words, New Year’s Eve is an ensemble piece, one in which a bunch of slumming Oscar winners and overachieving TV actors step into small roles.  It leads to some odd pairings.  De Niro, for instance, shares scenes with Alyssa Milano while Sofia Vergara and Ludacris are both relegated to playing sidekicks.  Michael Bloomberg, New York’s then-mayor and general threat to civil liberties everywhere, also shows up, playing himself with the type of smarminess that already has many people dreading the prospect of his 2020 presidential campaign.  This is one of those films where everyone has a familiar face but no one makes much of an impression.

New Year’s Eve was directed by the late Garry Marshall and it’s the second film in his so-called holiday trilogy, sitting right between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.  By most accounts, Garry Marshall was a nice guy and popular in the industry, which perhaps explains why so many familiar faces were willing to sign up to appear in New Year’s Eve.  Though the film is ruthlessly mediocre, it’s actually the best of the holiday trilogy.  For all the schmaltz and forced sentiment, one gets the feeling that the film actually is sincere in its belief in the importance of that ball dropping in Times Square.

I remember that, when New Year’s Eve was first released, a lot of people joked that Marshall was going to make an ensemble romantic comedy about every single holiday, all with the hope that at least one of them would eventually become a television perennial in the style of It’s A Wonderful Life or The Ten Commandments.  Interestingly, that’s exactly what happened with New Year’s Eve.  Yesterday, E! aired New Year’s Eve three times, back-to-back!  For better or worse, this film is probably going to outlive us all, ensuring that, in the far future, viewers will spend New Year’s Eve asking themselves, “What’s a kanye?”

Trailer Round-Up: Captive State, The Beach Bum, The Boat, Her Smell


This week, we have already shared trailers for Fuck You All: The Uwe Boll Story, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Here’s the best of the rest:

Captive State is the latest science fiction epic from director Rupert Wyatt.  Wyatt previously proved himself with Rise of the Planet of the Apes so I am looking forward to seeing what he can do with the story of an Earth that has been taken over by aliens.  Captive State will be released in March of 2019.

Harmony Korine returns to the beach with The Beach Bum.  Starring Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, and Snoop Dogg, this appears to be an unexpectedly light-hearted film from the mind behind Kids, Gummo, and Spring Breakers.  The Beach Bum will be released on March 22nd.

Judging from the trailer, The Boat appears to be Christine-in-the-water.  The Boat will be released on September 22nd.

Finally, a legendary punk rocker struggles to stay sober in Her Smell.  Judging from this teaser, it does not appear to be working.

Film Review: Dirty Grandpa (dir by Don Mazer)


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Epix is doing a free preview this weekend so, earlier tonight, I watched Robert De Niro and Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa.  You may remember Dirty Grandpa as being the film that came out in January and made a ton of movie despite the fact nobody will admit to having seen it.

Myself, I hope that the cast of Dirty Grandpa was paid in cocaine because then, at the very least, I could be assured that they had a better time making the movie than anyone else has had watching it.  The plot, as it is, features De Niro as a widower who is obsessed with getting laid and Efron as his straigher-than-straight grandson who takes him down to Daytona for Spring Break.  Efron is engaged to Meredith (Julianne Hough) who we’re supposed to dislike because of …. reasons, I guess.  The film certainly hates her, even though all she’s trying to do is plan a nice wedding.  De Niro would rather Efron get together with a boring political activist (Zooey Deutch).  Meanwhile, De Niro himself is obsessed with Deutch’s friend, played by Aubrey Plaza.

Anyway, this is one of those films that’s even worse than it sounds.  The pacing is so off that even the scenes that should work fall flat and visually, the film resembles a high quality YouTube video.  The majority of the humor is racist, misogynistic, and homophobic (but, of course, we’re not supposed to notice because the “good” girl is vaguely defined as being a liberal political activist).  Zac Efron, who is really only a credible actor when he’s playing dumb (read into that whatever you want), is miscast as someone who actually has something that’s going on in his life and Aubrey Plaza, one of the most unique comedic performers working today, is almost totally wasted.  Both Zooey Deutch and Julianne Hough struggle within the confines of a script that obsessively hates women.

(By the way, would you believe that the script for this movie was included on the Black List, the annual list of the “best” unproduced scripts in Hollywood?  I would.  Being included on the Black List is perhaps the most overrated honor that Hollywood can provide, seeing as how most Black List films end up sucking.)

As for Robert De Niro, his performance actually isn’t that bad.  But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s Robert freaking De Niro playing a role that could have just as easily been performed by Johnny Knoxville in old age makeup.

Anyway, I watched Dirty Grandpa because I wanted to see if it was as bad as everyone said it was and it was.

Go to Hell, Dirty Grandpa.

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!

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: We Are Your Friends (dir by Max Joseph)


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So, this morning, I read some of the harsh reviews that mainstream critics have given the new film We Are Your Friends and I have to admit that I’m starting to get a little ticked off.

That’s not to say that We Are Your Friends is a very good movie.  I saw it last night with my BFF Evelyn and we enjoyed it but mostly, that was because we talked through almost the entire movie.  And yes, I know that it’s rude to talk through a movie but seriously, the theater was nearly deserted.  When we bought our tickets, there was a huge crowd of people gathered outside the theater but it turns out that they were all buying tickets for War Room.

Anyway, We Are Your Friends tells the story of Cole (Zac Efron), a DJ who lives with three idiot friends (who are so identical to the group from Entourage that one of them is even named Squirrel).  He spends his days working at a mortgage company and his nights DJing.  Then he meets James (Wes Bentley), a formerly great DJ who is on his way down.  James takes Cole under his wing and mentors him and teaches him how to get a room dancing.  But, Cole ends up falling in love with James’s abused girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), which leads to… well, it leads to exactly what you think it’s going to lead to.  Storywise, We Are Your Friends is not going to win any points for originality.

While we were watching the movie, Evelyn and I agreed that Zac Efron is a strange actor.  I mean, yes, he’s hot and yes, he’s talented enough that he can walk while delivering his lines but, at the same time, his dramatic performances always feel oddly empty.  You watch him and you get the feeling that he’s still trying way too hard to prove that there’s more to him than just High School Musical.  He’s like the guy who you have crush on until you actually get to know him and discover that, beyond his looks, he’s really not that interesting.  Efron always seems to be putting in a lot of effort but, whenever you watch one of his performances, you get the feeling that there’s not much going on underneath the beautiful surface.  For all intents and purposes, Zac Efron is the anti-Gosling.

And some movies have made good use of Efron’s limits.  He was perfectly cast in Me and Orson Welles, for instance.  And he’s good in comedies, where he can play against his good looks.  But in a film like We Are Your Friends, where you’re actually supposed to have some sort of emotional stake in his hopes and dreams, Efron just feels miscast.

That said, I still enjoyed We Are Your Friends and I think that a lot of the reviews have been a bit too harsh.  Why did I enjoy the movie?  It all comes down to the music and the dancing.  If you love EDM, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in We Are Your Friends.  And if you’re not into EDM — well, then fuck off.  I could sit here and write another 500 words about how clichéd the storyline is but, ultimately, that’s not what the film is about.  The film is about the music.  The film is about the ecstasy of dancing all night and then waking up with the beats still playing in your head.  At its best, that’s what this film captures.  It’s not a great film.  A month from now, I have a feeling that it’ll be a struggle to remember much about We Are Your Friends.  But I’ll probably still be listening to the soundtrack.

That’s what a lot of the harsh reviews are missing but then again, most mainstream film reviews are written by people who are too old to appreciate EDM in the first place.  EDM is music for people who are young and who are still capable of enjoying the present and dreaming about the future.  Boring old mainstream critics will never get it and that’s why the reviews of We Are Your Friends feel so condescending.  The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads: “We Are Your Friends boasts magnetic stars and glimmers of insight, but they’re lost in a clichéd coming-of-age story as programmed as the soundtrack’s beats.”  Now I know how those Christians who went to see War Room feel whenever a reviewer thinks he’s being clever when he says that one of their films “doesn’t have a prayer.”  It’s all so condescending and cutesy.

Listen, We Are Your Friends is not a particularly good film.  But it’s not as bad as you might think.  The plot is bad but the music is good and really, isn’t that the point?

Embracing the Melodrama #59: At Any Price (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


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With Embracing the Melodrama coming to a close (only two more reviews to go, including this one!), I want to take this opportunity to tell you about a good film from last year that didn’t get quite as much attention as it may have deserved.  The Iowa-set At Any Price is a look at greed, family secrets, and even murder in rural America.  It’s not a perfect film but it features a perfect lead performance from Dennis Quaid and it’s worth taking a chance on.

Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer who also works as a sales representative for the Liberty Seed Company.  Henry sells genetically modified seeds and one thing that this film gets absolutely right is just how cut-throat the seed business truly is in the heartland.  Henry is very proud to be the top seed salesman in the county, with only Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) coming close to matching him.  The film’s best scenes are the ones that follow Henry as he travels along his route, selling seeds, giving away candy bars, and always flashing his wide grin.  It’s only as the film progresses that we start to notice how desperate that grin really is.  Henry, we soon realize, is motivated mainly by greed and fear.  He’s the type of farmer who will go to a stranger’s funeral just to try to buy the deceased’s land.  Henry is also the type of guy who is willing to cut ethical corners to sell seeds as well.  As far as Henry is concerned, he’s only doing what he has to do to make sure that he has a successful business to pass on to his family.

Henry is all about his family and, while that may be his redemption, it’s also his family’s curse because Henry is something of a control freak.  Henry’s loyal wife (Kim Dickens) turns a blind eye to Henry’s mistress (Heather Graham).  Meanwhile, his oldest son has fled Iowa and moved down to South America.  Henry’s remaining son, Dean (Zac Efron), is more interested in pursuing a career in NASCAR than on the family farm.  Eventually, as the result of a shocking and almost random act of violence, Dean is forced to pick his future.

With both Neighbors and That Awkward Moment, Zac Efron has been reinventing himself as a skilled comedic actor.  Before that, however, he appeared in a series of movies that were meant to show his dramatic range, films like The Paperboy, Parkland, and this one.  These films ranged in quality from terrible to good but, in all of them, Zac Efron felt miscast.  Efron is the weak link in At Any Price.  Dean is supposed to be a character driven by both anger and a need to win (at any price — we have a title!) but when we look at Efron’s pretty blue eyes, we’re left with the impression that there’s not much going on behind them.

Far more effective is Dennis Quaid.  Quaid is so likable in the role that it takes a while to realize that Henry is essentially a monster.  And yet, you never totally lose your sympathy for him.  He has his own demons, demons that he’s passing down to his son.  The power of Quaid’s performance is that you can tell he knows he’s wrong but he just can’t stop himself.

At Any Price is a good farmland melodrama, full of beautiful landscapes and carefully observed details.  It’s not a perfect film but it is one worth watching for anyone who is wondering whatever happened to the American dream.

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