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Neighbors (2014)

Neighbors #1

by Steve Habrat

Last summer, Seth Rogen made his directorial debut with the uproariously hilarious This Is the End, a star-studded apocalyptic comedy that revealed Rogen and fellow director Evan Goldberg’s affection for horror movies. In addition to writing and directing, Rogen also starred alongside fellow funnymen like James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel, all who brought their comedy A-game to the demonic shenanigans. This Is the End turned out to be one of the funniest and smartest comedies of recent memory—a film that left you wondering if the comedians involved could ever top some of the profanity-laced nuggets that were bursting forth from their sneering lips. Less than a year later, Rogen has shifted gears from fire-and-brimstone horror-comedies to frat-boy college romps with Neighbors, a routinely raunchy effort from the one of the reigning kings of comedy. Directed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Nicholas Stoller and produced by Rogen and Goldberg, Neighbors finds Rogen and his cast mates—Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and Rose Byrne—firing crusty condoms, dildos, stale beer, marijuana smoke, and alcohol-laced breast milk at the audience with demented precision. While there are more than a few good belly laughs to be had in Neighbors, some of the shock jokes lack the punch that Rogen and the filmmakers are hoping and praying that they have, leaving the audience feeling slightly underwhelmed and disappointed as they exit the theater.

Neighbors introduces us to Mac (played by Seth Rogen) and Kelly (played by Rose Byrne) Radner, a fun-loving married couple who are slowly trying to adjust to adulthood. In between marijuana breaks and pleading invites from their friends to come out to the bar, Mac and Kelly are also trying to raise their newborn daughter, Stella, in a quiet and stable environment. One day, Mac and Kelly learn that their new neighbors are members of Delta Psi Beta, a rowdy fraternity led by president Teddy (played by Zac Effron) and vice-president Pete (played by Dave Franco). Mac and Kelly politely welcome the fraternity to the neighborhood, and they make the simple request that that the boys keep the noise to a minimum. Teddy and Pete agree to the request, asking in return that the Radners don’t break up their parties by calling the police. The relationship between the Radners and the Delta Psi brothers gets off to a fine start, but after Teddy ignores the Radner’s request to quiet down one evening, Mac is forced to call the police to break up the party. Shocked that the Radners broke their promise, Teddy and the rest of the Delta Psi brothers declare war on the quiet couple next door. Refusing to be terrorized by the frat, Mac, Kelly, and their two friends, Jimmy (played by Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (played by Carla Gallo), begin plotting various ways to get the frat disbanded.

Before the obnoxious frat boys lug their snagged couches, neon beer signs, and marijuana leaf posters into the vacant house next door, Mac and Kelly are a couple reluctant to leave their hard-partying days behind. At work, Mac is coaxed by Jimmy to take a weed breaks behind their office building, and Kelly withers and shakes at an invite from Paula to come to the bar and go crazy. When Kelly and Mac finally agree to make the trip to the bar, they gather up a sleepy Stella, a myriad of baby essentials, and frantically try to rush out the door to get their drink on. Unfortunately, fatigue sets in and they collapse before they can even make it to the car. Mac and Kelly’s urges to jump back into the party scene are tempted even more when Teddy leads his fist-pumping frat brothers into their party mecca, where they quickly get to work planning an epic blow-out that will make them Delta Psi legends. It’s here that Mac and Kelly see their opening, even if that opening does come with a request to keep the noise down. One of the funniest moments of Neighbors comes when Mac and Kelly are invited over to join the insanity. With a baby monitor clipped to their pajama pants, Mac shovels mushrooms into his mouth while Kelly drunkenly swaps stories with a handful of sorority sisters about how she met Mac at college. In typical Rogen fashion, there is a lot of heart in these drunken bonds, as Teddy and Mac debate over who is the best Batman is (Keaton vs. Bale) and Kelly giggles as her stoned husband urinates with his new friend in a fountain.

Neighbors #2

Of course you already know that the relationship between the brothers of Delta Psi and the Radners heads south rather quickly. While there was plenty of raunchy material found in the quieter opening moments, this squabble gives way to sporadically jaw-dropping behavior. The beef begins small with slight little jabs from both ends, but Mac and Kelly take things to a new level when they flood the frat’s basement, giving the boy’s the idea to make homemade sex toys in an effort to rise money to pump the dirty water from their grimy basement. From there, it’s not holds barred, culminating in a breast-pumping debacle that ranks as the film’s most outrageous moment. From here, Rogen, Stoller, and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien can’t really devise a way to top themselves. There’s the hope that Seth Rogen’s hairy back, a dildo fistfight, an attempt at hot boxing an entire house, and a gruesome leg injury followed by urination can all push the envelope, but none of it really seems to get the laughs that everyone involved was hoping for. This isn’t to say that Neighbors looses it’s heart, wit, or entertainment value, but considering what audiences have been exposed to in the past, this all seems a little insipid.

While some of the gross-out gags may fizzle right before our eyes, the performances remain incredibly spirited throughout the runtime. Rogen is his usual gruff self as the scruffy Mac, a husky stoner who desperately wants to look cool in front of the toned fraternity brothers. The Austrian Byrne lets her wild side roar as Kelly, a ferocious momma bear who is incredibly skilled in turning Teddy and his gang against each other. She’s especially hilarious when she puts on her “cool” act in front of the gawking eyes of the Delta Psi gang. The most shocking turn among the cast is Zac Efron, who plays to his pretty boy image as Teddy, a sculpted bro who never misses a chance to shed his shirt and strut around like a Greek god. James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, continues to show off his comedic talents as Pete, the frat’s smirking vice president who layers on golf shirts during a black light party. As far as the supporting roles go, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is wasted in the small role of Scoonie, Barinholtz comes on a little too strong as Jimmy, and Gallo is a hot mess as the boozy Paula. Also, keep an eye out for the scene-stealing Lisa Kudrow as Carol Gladstone, the college dean who has a fascination for newspaper headlines. Overall, Neighbors may not be quite as wild and wooly as many were hoping it would be, but it still manages to be a clever and sweet little comedy about growing up and embracing adulthood. It’s also bound to leave many hard-partying audience members plotting a Robert DeNiro party this summer.

Grade: B

Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See Me #1

by Steve Habrat

French director Louis Leterrier is the type of guy who makes movies that you watch on HBO. They’re the stuff of sweatpants and lazy Sunday afternoons when you have absolutely nothing else pressing to do. You really don’t have to put your brain to work when you watch any of his movies; you just have to be in the mood to watch some slick action scenes guided by Jason Statham or Jet Li. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy seeing his full-throttle Marvel offering The Incredible Hulk on the big screen. The last time we saw Leterrier, he was tangling with the gods in 2010s Clash of the Titans, a film that was met with almost unanimous negative criticism. Now Letterier returns with the Ocean’s Eleven-with-a-wand studio boardroom crime caper Now You See Me, a fairly entertaining but poorly drawn action-heist hybrid that seems tailor-made for Twittering teens and those audience members out there who are easily impressed with even the slightest plot twist. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, in fact Now You See Me is a fun and simple distraction, yet it feels like the type of movie that you watch on HBO on a lazy Sunday. Now You See Me has plenty of snappy action, a plot comprised of infinite plot twists, and cool performances from a mixture of veterans and newcomers, but it lacks substantial character development and the blue-in-the-face exposition bogs down the third act. Leterrier makes damn sure no one walks away scratching their head and asking their date what the hell just happened.

Now You See Me introduces us to four street magicians, Daniel Atlas (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (played by Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (played by Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (played by Dave Franco), who are brought together by a mysterious hooded figure and one year later are performing as “The Four Horsemen” in Las Vegas. The group, who has become a huge worldwide sensation, announce one evening that they are going to rob a bank with the help of one lucky audience member. The man who is chosen to help out with the trick is seemingly teleported to his bank in Paris, where he is asked to activate a vacuum that sucks the money from the vault and dumps it down on the cheering Vegas crowd. The stunt, which captures the world’s attention and turns “The Four Horsemen” into media superstars, immediately gets the attention of bullheaded FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his new partner, Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (played by Mélanie Laurent). Rhodes and Vargas immediately have the four magicians arrested, but lack of an explanation forces the FBI to release the group. After the group performs another robbery in New Orleans, this time on their sponsor, Arthur Tressler (played by Michael Caine), Rhodes and Vargas are forced to seek help from ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), who makes a living revealing the secrets behind magic tricks.

After giving us a brief introduction to each of its characters and their different illusion styles, you begin to think that Now You See Me may just decide to operate in a much more grounded sense. However, this sense of grounded realism disappears completely when the ragtag group is pulled from the streets and united in front of blueprint holograms that look like they were confiscated from Tony Stark’s workshop. Not one of the characters bats an eye or thinks to really ask who has brought them all together. From here on out, Now You See Me goes huge with its magic tricks and its fiery action, all of which completely incinerate character development. While the magic show sequences thrill with their flashing strobe lights, easy-laugh host dialogue, and pounding techno, the real razzle dazzle comes in the middle with its foot chases through thick Mardi Gras crowds, fist fights in cramped New York City apartments, and jittery car chases through stuffy NYC traffic. It is all the usual stuff you want from Leterrier and, more importantly, a summer blockbuster, but you can’t shake the feeling that it is all scaled back fluff that would appear in a late summer toss-offs rather than a frontline May effort.

Now You See Me #2

Much like Ocean’s Eleven, Leterrier puts together a who’s-who of talent to rope in audiences. The leader of the pack is Eisenberg, who proved his acting talents in David Fincher’s staggering The Social Network. He certainly brings some of the self-assured swagger that he applied to Mark Zuckerberg and for the most part it works, but the character is too poorly drawn to be much of a hero here. Eisenberg certainly tries with the character, but he isn’t given much to work with so he just shrugs his shoulders. This phoned-in feeling unfortunately doesn’t begin and end with Mr. Eisenberg. Harrelson is his usual kooky self as the swindler hypnotist Merritt. He’s another one you expect some heavy lifting from but he doesn’t break much of a sweat. The young Dave Franco (yes, it is the brother of James) seems eager to get people talking, but the script gives him so little to do, the half the time you forget he is even there. Franco gets most of the action scenes and you do get the impression that he could be a future action star, but only time will tell. Fisher is here simply to give the film so much needed sex appeal but even she seems like she is checking her watch over really putting forth much effort. Caine and Freeman both give the typical performance that you’d expect. They seem to be getting a big kick out of the whole thing, which adds some charm to the film. Laurent basically steals the show as the sweet Interpol Agent who is driven by faith. She balances out the almost-too-serious Ruffalo, who seems like he is trying to make up for everyone who is here just for a beefy paycheck.

While Now You See Me is light on its feet, fast-paced, and fairly exciting, the film really deflates when all the smoke and mirrors are pulled away. There is really nothing behind all those wonderful tricks. The characters don’t really develop and Leterrier tacks on a long-winded and rigid explanation at the end of the film when all of the action should have smoothly meshed together. Instead, it just seems all over the place and in a mad dash. It almost feels like the filmmakers don’t really trust the audience to put it all together so they just do it for you. Also, I’m still not sure that they really sold me on the myriad of twists that hit at the end but the crowd I saw it with was marveling like crazy at it. Overall, as an Ocean’s Eleven knock-off, Now You See Me entertains, but it lacks a certain martini buzz strut and tuxedo-cool confidence to really keep it aloft. It comes off plastic and artificial, with only a smidgeon of heart inside that pretty cool premise. If I were you, I’d probably wait for it to come to HBO and watch it from the comfort of your couch. It’s small screen entertainment from beginning to end, but there isn’t particularly anything wrong with that.

Grade: C+

21 Jump Street (2012)

by Steve Habrat

How good it is to have the buddy cop movie back in action, brushing off the cobwebs that have formed over the tired genre all these years. Maybe it’s the odd couple pairing of funny guy Jonah Hill and chiseled Channing Tatum that gives the buddy cop genre fresh life and sends 21 Jump Street to soaring heights that I would have never thought possible! This revamped take on the 80’s television series gorges on pop culture references and classic action flicks all while leaving its own mark with its raunchy, rambunctious personality. At this party, anything goes, ranging from perfectly placed cameos, high speed action, and more toilet humor than you can shake a shot off penis at! 21 Jump Street’s keep-the-party-going mentality does get a bit exhausting at a few points, but the fatigue is quickly shaken by the uncertainty over what the film will throw at us next.

21 Jump Street picks up in 2005 where we meet nerdy Schmidt (Played by Jonah Hill), who looks like a slouchy Eminem without the rage and the jock bully Jenko (Played by Channing Tatum) as they near the end of their high school careers. Jenko can’t keep his grades up and therefore can’t attend the school prom. Schmidt, meanwhile, is trying to work up the nerve to ask the girl of his dreams to the prom, only to be coldly shot down and laughed at. The film speeds ahead to present day, where Schmidt and Jenko are currently attending a police academy and earning their badges. The two bump into each other and strike up a friendship despite the fact that Jenko bullied Schmidt in high school. They aid each other through the police academy and finally earn their badges, but after botching a drug bust, they are sent to 21 Jump Street. It is here that they meet their new scowling boss Captain Dickson (Played by Ice Cube) and learn they are going undercover at a local high school to bust up a drug ring. The two begin trying to infiltrate the group of kids they believe to be dealing the drugs, but they soon find themselves losing sight of their mission and get caught up reliving their glory days.

There is plenty of Hill’s trademark off-the-cuff adlibs to keep the audience in stitches through much of 21 Jump Street and the surprisingly funny Tatum matches Hill every step of the way. They are absolutely hysterical together watching their opposite personalities clash was a riot. Their chemistry keeps the audience giddy through much of the film and they are always making sure that you have a smile slapped across your face. It is clearly their show and everyone else makes sure that they don’t step on their toes, especially an insanely likable Ice Cube, who finally gets to release a few bellowing F-bombs that he has been bottling up inside while he has been starring in kiddie flicks. Then there is the supporting cast that is made up of Ellie Kemper as the tongue tied science teacher Ms. Giggs, who has the hots for Jenko, Nick Offerman as straight shooting Deputy Chief Hardy, Chris Parnell as ostentatious theater teacher Mr. Gordon, and Rob Riggle as the wacky motor-mouth coach Mr. Walters. The beauty is that every guest comedian gets a moment to shine, a chance to be center stage and leave his or her own mark in 21 Jump Street.

Much of 21 Jump Street plays around with the idea of reliving your glory days, when you didn’t have a care in the world. Schmidt suffers from never having taken a risk and never having much confidence in himself. When he goes undercover at the high school, he quickly works his way in with the cool kids and begins living the popular kid dream. Jenko, on the other hand, had way too much fun on his first run and now finds himself spending his evenings with the nerdy crowd, people he would have laughed at and tormented when he was in school. It is a knee slapping role reversal and it consistently works. Seeing Tatum play nerd is comedic gold but it is Hill who really turns up the funny, slowly finding himself infatuated with instant messenger and texting. He even gets a run at popular girl Molly (Played by Brie Larson), which adds a bubbly if a bit creepy romance aspect to the film.

Director’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller both keep 21 Jump Street zipping along making the finished product feel like a crazy party rather than a movie. It is ripe with nostalgia for rollicking action films and outrageously coarse teen comedies. They keep the film moving at a brisk pace, but at times, 21 Jump Street would hit a bump in the road that stalls the momentum the film naturally builds up. There are a few spots where the comedy isn’t as sharp as it was a few minutes earlier or even worse, a joke falls flat. Part of the problem is that both the directors and our leads fire off jokes so rapidly, it is hard to keep up and they begin getting lost in each other. This isn’t constant in 21 Jump Street and what a relief that is, but part of the problem may also lie in the fact that the film is a bit too long. An extended party sequence could have used a little trimming, as could a scene where Schmidt hangs out with teenage drug dealer Eric (Played by Dave Franco) at his home. But the film balances out with scenes like the uproariously funny car chase where our heroes, both wearing outrageous getups and zooming along in a driving school car, battle to be in control of the chase. It’s absolutely awesome, right down to the string of failed explosions that leave our heroes disappointed with each dud.

21 Jump Street may have a few dry spots but the film never looses our interest. You will be consistently entertained by it and you are left eager to see where they will take Schmidt and Jenko next, as I’m sure there will be another 21 Jump Street. The film also has an awesome cameo from original 21 Jump Street cast members Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, a sequence that almost steals all the thunder from Hill and Tatum. Be warned that 21 Jump Street is a ball of energy that will leave you choking on its dust if you are unable to keep up with it. I can’t say that you will walk away a better person when the credits roll on 21 Jump Street, but like the morning after a good party, you will stumble away breathless and energized, a little drained and dazed, raring to do it all again. That, my friends, is never a bad thing.

Grade: B+