I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.
The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.
6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.
6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.
There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.
Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.
At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).
Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.
When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.
I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.
The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.
6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.
6 Underground: C-
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A
Barry Jenkins’ follow-up from his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight is an affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel exploring a larger picture of the African-American experience through the life of one family under pressure. It’s a beautifully tender movie that aches with human feeling, tragic and joyous. We follow a young couple where Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephen James) is in jail for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins jumps around in time, providing mirrored juxtapositions that enliven the emotional outpouring of the scenes on screen, adding a sense of dread at the hardships we know await and a extra compassion for the good times while they last. Regina King is so outstanding as Tish’s mother, who goes out of her way to gather evidence to free Alonzo, that I wished she had more to do than her handful of big Oscar moments. There’s a racist cop that comes into the picture and is easily sidelined again. Many moments follow this lyrical, free-floating structure, zipping from one memory to another, which nicely presents a fuller picture with less. However, it also makes the film feel like it doesn’t fully come together by its very end and whether all of the assorted moments and insights are as helpful. It presents a case study of criminal justice reform and reminder that this family is only but one example. The intimate cinematography is gorgeous and the use of color is spellbinding. The music by Nicholas Britell is also highly involving without being overbearing. If Beale Street Could Talk might not have the awe-inspiring power and artistry of Moonlight, but it’s a moving, compassionate, and beautiful movie that confirms Jenkins as one of the greats.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As an avid devotee of The Room, and a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I have been looking forward to this movie for literal years. I’ve been fascinated by Tommy Wiseau’s movie ever since I first saw it in 2009, and I’ve since watched it over 40 times. In my review for the movie, I said if I had to pick only five DVDs to take with me on a desert island, I might just select five copies of The Room. It’s that rare form of bad movie that is a thousand brushstrokes of bad, where you can discover something new with every viewing, and you desperately want to have your friends discover this miracle of filmmaking. It’s become a modern-day cult classic and theaters have been playing rowdy spoon-tossing midnight screenings of Wiseau’s film since its initial 2003 release (humble brag: I’m responsible for it playing on a monthly basis in Columbus, Ohio since 2009, the only regular public screening in all of Ohio). From its successful re-branding as a “quirky new black comedy,” fans had burning questions that needed answering, and that’s where Room actor Greg Sestero co-wrote a behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist. One fan was multi-hyphenate James Franco, who purchased the adaptation rights, attached himself as director and star, transforming into Wiseau and tapping his younger brother to play Sestero. Who would have guessed all those years ago that these beleaguered actors would soon have Hollywood celebrities portraying their astonishment? The Disaster Artist might be one of the best films of the year by chronicling one of the worst films ever made.
Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor in San Francisco when he meets the Teutonic acting force that is Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Tommy doesn’t behave like anyone else, for good or ill, and it inspires Greg to become friends with him. Tommy says he’s the same age as Greg, though is clearly double, and that he’s from New Orleans, though he definitely sounds more vaguely Eastern European. Tommy also has a lot of money and elects to move to L.A. to make it in the film industry, and he wants his best friend Greg to join him. Greg finds some beginning levels of success but Tommy is rejected at every turn, determined as too weird and off-putting by casting directors. He doesn’t want to play a villain; he sees himself as the hero. Tommy won’t wait for Hollywood and decides to make his own movie. He’ll write it, direct it, and be the star, and Greg can be his onscreen best friend. The Room, Wiseau’s magnum opus, was a stunning document of filmmaking ineptitude that had to be seen to be believed, and many of the people involved were certain it would never be seen at all.
I was worried that the film version would simply be many painstaking recreations of scenes from The Room and watching characters snicker. Thankfully, the recreations are kept to a minimum and The Disaster Artist personalizes the story in the friendship between Tommy and Greg. If anyone has read the book, you’ll know there is a wealth of juicy anecdotes about the bizarre onset antics and about the human enigma himself, Wiseau. The film could have been three hours long and just thoroughly focused on all of the crazier aspects of the behind-the-scenes and I would have been satisfied. However, the ace screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars), have elided all of those crazy details into a story about a personal relationship. The most memorable tidbits are still there, like the 60 plus takes needed for Tommy to say one line, but the sharper focus allows the film to resonate as something where you can genuinely feel invested in these people as characters rather than easily mocked send-ups. Greg feels greatly put upon by Tommy but he admires his fearlessness, and deeper down he feels indebted to Tommy for getting him onto the road to his dream. Thanks to Tommy, Greg was able to move to L.A., find a place, become an actor with representation, and book commercial spots. Tommy is also an anchor weighing him down. Greg will routinely have to place his rising career opportunities at the mercy of Tommy’s capricious sense of loyalty. It’s a movie that explores the value of friendship and the lengths people will go.
This is also an extremely funny movie. Part of the allure of The Room is how it feels like a movie made by space aliens who didn’t quite understand human interactions. The head-scratching choices and dropped subplots and redundant, nonsensical plotting are all given examination, allowing the audience to be in on the joke even if they have never seen Wiseau’s actual movie. This is a film completely accessible to people who have never seen The Room; however, if you have seen The Room, this movie is going to be 100 times more fascinating and enjoyable. The sheer bafflement of what transpired is enough to keep you chuckling from start to finish. The Disaster Artist is wonderful fun, and the actors involved are here because they love Wiseau’s movie. The celebrity cameos are another aspect that helps to add to the film’s sense of frivolity, spotting familiar faces in roles such as Casting Agent #2 (Casey Wilson), Actor Friend (Jerrod Carmichael) and Hollywood Producer (Judd Apatow). Watching everyone have a good time can be rather infectious, but The Disaster Artist succeeds beyond the good vibes of its cast.
Rather than lap up the easy, mean-spirited yuks, The Disaster Artist goes further, following a similar point of view with 1994’s terrific Ed Wood by portraying these men as deeply incompetent filmmakers but also as sincere dreamers. Wiseau is clearly overwhelmed by the demands of being, let’s be generous, a traditional filmmaker, but he is also a person who set off to achieve a dream of his own. He was denied other avenues so he took it upon himself, and a mysterious influx of money he doesn’t like to discuss, and this self-made-movie star built a vehicle to shine brightest. Sure, ego is definitely a factor, though one could argue it plays some degree in all creative expression needing an audience. Wiseau didn’t let a little thing like ignorance of storytelling, film production, or how to handle cast and crew as human beings with needs stop him from plowing ahead to prove his doubters wrong. The filmmakers definitely find a certain nobility in this artistic tenacity, as did Tim Burton with Ed Wood. It’s natural to pull for the underdog, even an underdog that is so naïve it might be worrisome. You can laugh freely at Wiseau, and you will, but you may also start to admire his gumption. As the opening barrage of celebrity interviews posits, you could not make something like The Room even if you were the greatest filmmaker on the planet. It is nothing short of an accidental masterpiece. It is a movie that has entertained millions of people and one they feel compelled to share with friends and family, compelled to bring others into this strange, beguiling cult of fandom. While Wiseau may not have made a “good movie,” he has made one for the ages.
James Franco (11.23.63) deserves an Oscar nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau. I’m serious. He is channeling some Val-Kilmer-as-Jim-Morrison lightning when it comes to simply inhabiting the spirit of another person onscreen. It’s crazy that a movie so bad could inspire another movie that might legitimately compete for legitimate awards. James Franco is entrancing with his performance as he fully channels Wiseau, an almost mythic figure that we have never seen the likes of before. The accent is pitch perfect and impossible not to imitate after leaving the theater. Wiseau can be manipulative and cruel but he can also be generous and selfless. He takes great ownership over his friendship with Greg, so he believes all of his actions are to help their unique bond, even when he’s pushing that same person away. He so desperately wants acceptance but seems incapable of achieving it on anybody’s terms but his own. Wiseau is a fascinating film figure, and the movie does a fine job of neither overly romanticizing him nor vilifying him. Even despite his missteps, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for Wiseau, and that’s a major credit to the screenwriters and James Franco’s magnetic performance.
The other actors, a.k.a. everyone in Franco’s sphere of friends, are committed, enjoyable, and plugged into why exactly audiences have grown to love The Room for years. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2) is effectively the perspective of the audience, deliberating how much of Tommy to put up with and when to walk away. Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) gets the most sustained comedic run as a script supervisor who is bewildered by Wsieau’s methods. Alison Brie (Netflix’s GLOW) is our chief source of confused expressions as Greg’s girlfriend. Ari Graynor (I’m Dying Up Here) wrings great laughs from her awkwardness with Wiseau as filmmaker and onscreen anatomically-challenged lover. Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is Greg’s disapproving mother who worries about what kind of relationship her son has with a much older man. Zac Efron (Baywatch) is hilariously excitable as the inexplicable drug dealer, Chris R. Speaking of excitable, Jason Manzoukas (The House) and Hannibal Buress (Spider-Man: Homecoming) are a great team as the film equipment rental guys who can’t believe their luck with Wiseau. Even two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) gets some nice moments as an older actress who justifies in a heartfelt message why exactly everybody on set would go out of their way to work on such an awful movie.
If you’re a fan of The Room, then you’ll absolutely adore The Disaster Artist, and if you’ve never seen The Room, you’ll still find plenty of entertainment in Franco’s film. Wiseau’s 2003 film has to be experienced to be fully believed. The film-about-his-film provides the added extension of a coterie of characters to share in our bemusement and bafflement, providing a chorus of commentary. However, the movie isn’t all jokes at Wiseau’s expense. It evolves into a love letter for the power of art to bring distaff people together with a shared dream. Like Ed Wood, Wiseau might be incompetent by traditional measures of filmmaking but he ignored the naysayers and followed his artistic vision. Under Franco’s direction, he’s a modern-day Don Quixote, or just a really weird guy who lucked into a miraculous alchemy that gave birth to a cult classic. At the end of the movie, Tommy thinks he’s a failure. Greg reminds him to listen to the audience reaction. They are hooting, hollering, applauding, and having the time of their lives. He’s responsible for that and he should be proud of his accomplishment. I unabashedly love The Room. I introduce the theatrical screenings in Columbus. I loved The Disaster Artist book. This movie is everything I was hoping for, and it just so happens to be one of the funniest, most genuinely pleasurable films of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The first Now You See Me was a pleasant surprise that took a simple concept (magician heist) and injected enough sly fun, style, and humor and made a memorable action thriller. As success demands, a sequel was commanded, but I had hopes considering the blueprint of its success could be repeated because those core elements were strong. We all love heist movies, we all love to be fooled, we all love to watch a smart people befuddle those in power, and the reveals made it even more enjoyable. I wasn’t expecting Now You See Me 2 to drop much of what made the first film appealing and shamble through its set pieces with a disinterested sense of sequel duty. The magic is gone.
The Four Horsemen magic act (Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan) has made quite a few enemies. They’re a group that attacks the fraud, exploitation, and greed of those rich and powerful who feel untouchable. This merry band of Robin Hoods is transported against their will to Macau, China by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Walter lost a lot of money from the Horsemen’s antics in the first film and demands they steal a super microchip that will allow him to erase his identity and stay private permanently. Meanwhile, the Horsemen’s handler, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is blackmailed by famous and currently incarcerated Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Bradley has a score to settle with the Horsemen and uses Rhodes to escape from prison. All forces are headed to Macau and much more will be learned of the Horsemen’s behind-the-scene organization, The Eye.
It feels like the filmmakers aren’t even trying to keep one foot in reality this time. It’s not like the first Now You See Me was a deeply grounded movie but it took pains to at least offer varying explanations for how these illusions were accomplished. Some of the answers were clever and some were preposterous, but at least they tried to show you their work, which made the Horsemen even cleverer, in my book. Understanding the preparation for the illusions and the execution of them adds to their impressive aura. The characters in the sequel don’t even attempt to explain the far majority of their tricks, and it’s simply not as fun. The opening job is a fun refresher because we see the different characters working together but also because we can see how they’re getting away with their shenanigans. As the movie continues, those magic acts get bigger and bigger and more ludicrous and harder to explain and then the movie just stops trying to explain. At this point magic might as well be real and the Horsemen are wizards. There’s suspension of belief and then there’s simply obliterating all connections to reality. When Eisenberg can control the direction of rain itself without any explanation, it cheapens the thrill. Because if there isn’t some level of limitations, requiring the tricks to be based in reality, then the on screen efforts lose their appeal because it doesn’t matter. It’s like haphazardly just writing, “The Horsemen do some magic junk and get away.” It’s just not as satisfying when it feels like the trick is ultimately on the audience.
Another complaint I have is that the scattered script seems littered with missed opportunities. One of the bigger misses that comes to mind is Harrelson’s twin brother, an obvious Matthew McConaughey impression from his True Detective costar. The character isn’t nearly as funny as Harrelson or the producers believe. He isn’t particularly memorable or necessary to the plot at all, but that’s not even his biggest offense. In a movie about magicians playing sleight-of-hand trickery, how in the world do we not have a switcheroo with the twins? That would justify his existence for the plot. I was shocked this never happened because it seemed so obvious. Why is he a twin? What does being a brother to Harrelson have to do with anything related to the plot? The script also gets overcrowded with antagonists, introducing Radcliffe and then bringing back Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. The characters don’t so much compete with one another as they operate in separate spheres until a “twist” reveals more about their connections. Their agendas are too opaque. Radcliffe wants them to steal a super microchip so he can fully be “off the grid.” A man of his means shouldn’t have a problem with this. It’s not like he’s hiding out from the law for some kind of corporate espionage. It’s a convoluted reason to bring the Horsemen to his hiding spot in Macau. It’s just one in a long line of ideas that never feel fully developed. Even the magic set pieces don’t feel as fun. Seriously, one of the climactic magic set pieces is a human game of three-card Monty.
Director John M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Jem and the Holograms) has worked with action before and certainly knows his way around choreography, but he feels too hesitant this time. The action scenes are rare and the chase sequences are muted. Outside of the tricks, there isn’t a standout action scene in the whole movie. In the first film we had a pretty fun magic fight that was wild and surprising and loaded with small payoffs. In this movie we have a motorcycle chase that plays out as expected. We have a foot chase that plays out as expected. You have professional illusionists at your disposal; action set pieces should not play out as expected. The most fun sequence is fairly straightforward but easily the best developed, and that’s the Mission: Impossible-esque heist of the microchip that is outfitted onto a playing card. It’s also clearly the most visually inventive sequence as the Horsemen play a game of keep away and the camera literally at times tumbles into their clothes. I think what makes this easily the best sequence in the movie is because it’s moderately grounded, the stakes are explained, and the audience is in on the trick, enjoying all the flimflam obfuscation. It also means when there are complications to the plan the sequence generates suspense. When you don’t know what’s going on and don’t know when things are going wrong, or how they could go wrong, it’s hard to generate genuine suspense. Being involved in the action is much more fun.
The actors all seem on autopilot, falling back to the broader descriptions for their characters. Eisenberg is a smug and cocky. Harrelson is smooth and shrewd. Franco is awkward and insecure. Isla Fisher is replaced by the capable Lizzy Caplan (TV’s Masters of Sex) as the requisite Female Horsemen. She makes a good impression but part of it is that Capaln seems to be the only member allowed to be comedic. It feels like there are three straight guys to her comedy cut-up. She’s good but without variation it also starts to lose its appeal when only one character seems to be trying. Ruffalo (Spotlight) seems too often unrelated the Horsemen story as he discovers more info about his father. He’s the only character that actually has something of a storyline, though his playing of both sides and attempts to hide his role to the FBI is just another ludicrous element. I miss Melanie Laurent too.
Now You See Me 2 (how could this not be called Now You Don’t?) is a lackluster sequel that seems to have forgotten what made the first film the enjoyable caper that it was.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The first Neighbors was a pleasant surprise, a gross-out comedy with heart, cross-generational appeal, and a surprising degree of sincere attention to round out its cast and supporting characters. For my money it was a comedy that checked all the boxes. Now two years later comes a sequel that looks to repeat just about all the plot mechanics of the first except with a sorority replacing the fraternity. It looks like it’s checking the standard more-of-the-same sequel boxes. I was again pleasantly surprised, especially how little Neighbors 2 repeated the comic setups and jokes of the original (the malignant comedy disease known as Austin Powers Sequel Syndrome) and how much I still enjoyed these characters. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are now expecting their second child and trying to sell their house. They have to pass a 30-day escrow period without their buyers rescinding their purchase. That’s when Chloe Grace Moritz transforms the next door home into an off-campus sorority. She’s appalled at the gross and derogatory nature of fraternity-hosted parties and an unfairly arbitrary rule that sororities can’t host parties. She and a couple one-note stock fiends throw a female-friendly party house (Feminist Icon parties and bawling your eyes out to The Fault in Our Stars) where they won’t cotton to uncheck male ego. I was laughing throughout the movie with some big laughs at key points. Rogen and Byrne maintain a wonderful comic dynamic and the warring generations premise can still produce plenty of entertaining set pieces. The jokes can be sly and come at you from different angles, taking you be surprise (a “bun in the oven” joke had me almost spit out my drink). There are some things that don’t quite work, mostly how listless and self-involved the female coeds come across and some of their hollow arguments in the name of feminism. I guess equality does mean that women can behave as badly as men. Neighbors 2 replaces a bit of the heart of the first film with an excess of slapstick. There’s also a weird corporate synergistic tie-in with Minions that never quite settles. Still, Neighbors 2 is a satisfying sequel that reminds you what you enjoyed about the first film while not being indebted to what made it succeed.
Nate’s Grade: B
The first side-splitter of the summer, Neighbors is a bawdy comedy that has enough big laughs that you may miss how well it draws its characters, punctuating preconceptions. The premise is boiled down to family versus frat, as a pair of new parents (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne) has a college fraternity, lead by Zac Efron, move next door. You expect the raucous humor, and there are plenty of well-conceived visual gags and payoffs. I did not expect to like the characters as much or see different shades of them. Rogen and Byrne are not yet ready to be official grown-ups, and their attempts to hang with the frat parties are hilarious as well as cringe-inducing. I especially appreciated that Byrne is given the chance to be just as careless and selfish as the men; there’s even a fight between husband and wife who is the Kevin James in their relationship. Byrne is terrific and deserves even more work that lets her cut loose and be in on the joke. Then there are the frat brothers who could easily come across as brainless hedonists, and many do, but Efron and his co-bro Dave Franco have an engaging relationship where they fear what happens next after school. The movie’s theme isn’t subtle (fear of growing up) but provides enough extra substance to make the film more than the sum of its jokes. And it’s quite funny. Rogen and Byrne have great chemistry, their angry riffs are often amusing, and the escalating tit-for-tat prank war is memorable and entertaining. Neighbors works on a cross-generational level; as a man in my 30s, I related to Rogen and Byrne’s plight but also their shifting concepts of what they consider fun that they once may have mocked in their younger years (“I love brunch”). Neighbors builds to a nice climax, the cast is uniformly funny, and with enough surprising shades with the characters, it satisfies the R-rated funny bone.
Nate’s Grade: B
Given the explosion in zombie culture and the avalanche of zombie movies, it was only a matter of time before a studio pitched the romantic possibilities. They may be dead but they still have needs. Based on Issac Marion’s young adult novel, Warm Bodies attempts to tell a love story from a zombie’s perspective. Writer/director Jonathan Levine, so skillful with tone in the comedy/drama 50/50, tackles an even trickier balancing act, making a zombie romantic. With some visual flair, an eclectic soundtrack, and a winning onscreen pair, Warm Bodies is a sweet love story that does enough right to leave you smiling.
In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who spends most of his days shuffling through an airport. Occasionally he has a series of conversations with his pal, M (Rob Corddry), which mostly amount to grunts. R can’t remember who he was before he became a zombie, or even what life was like before it all went to pot, but there is one thing that will make him feel alive again – human brains. You see, this tasty delicacy allows zombies to relive the memories of their victims. It’s a nice release from, you know, decomposing. The zombies that have completely given up all sense of self peel off all their skin, becoming the Bonies, a wraith-like band of creatures that will feed off anything, even the dead.
This is R’s life until his chance encounter with Julie (Teresa Palmer). He’s smitten instantly and feels something weird in his chest. His heart has started beating again. He doesn’t want to eat her, just protect her. Of course he did also happen to eat her now-ex-boyfriend (David Franco). R whisks her to safety to his home in an airplane cabin. They listen to records and he instructs her on ways to pose as a zombie. She’s cautious but grows fond of her zombie protector (zombie Stockholm syndrome?). But R is proof that the zombies can change and that humanity can be saved. There’s just the matter of convincing Julie’s father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), who had to shoot his own wife after she turned. He wants them all dead and will do whatever it takes to protect the last bastion of the living.
Levine has found what may be one of the only optimistic zombie films out there. Usually these movies end one of two ways: 1) everybody dies (the preferred option), or, 2) the heroes manage a final escape but are most likely doomed beyond all hope (just pushes the inevitable off screen and into our imaginations). Tethered to a genial but winning romance, Warm Bodies is a zombie movie with a genuine sense of hope, revival, and even finds way to carve out a happy ending that, while predictable, feels right tonally.
The twee romance has a lot more in common with indie stylings than it does, say, Twilight, which will likely be invoked by many a critic and ticket-buyer alike. It’s not so much the brooding, sullen, exasperating kind of “romance” Twilight has primed people to expect when monsters date young girls. Thanks to the helpful voiceover, we see R as a thoughtful (being generous here considering his peers) guy who, like most teens, is trying to battle his inner urges and sense of awkwardness. He may be a zombie but Levine and Hoult have found a way to make R relatable and a likeable dead chap to root for. It also helps that he and Palmer (I Am Number Four) have above average chemistry together. Sure it’s a little weird that she takes the whole guy-crushing-on-me-kinda-ate-my-old-boyfriend, but like any relationship, there are just obstacles you’re going to have to overcome together. And as my pal Eric would attest, any Franco had it coming (his big bro did lead to the end of mankind in 2011, so maybe he’s responsible for the zombie apocalypse).
I appreciated that even with a PG-13 rating the movie still has a bite to it. Premise-alone, there is plenty room for some intriguing mismatched comedy. I enjoyed the aspect that consuming human brains unlocks that person’s memories. I like that R saves brains for later snacks. I liked that he used this absurd plot device to help him get closer with Julie and makes him feel guilty. Warm Bodies finds a way around the whole bodies decomposing issue, which is important since we don’t want our Romeo to be too disgusting for the teen girls. It refrains from overt gore, relying on implied carnage and preferring a chaste smearing of blood on lips, like he just got carried away eating a cherry pie. Honestly, I didn’t miss the gore. While the concept of a completely putrid corpse, with its flesh rotting and falling from its face, finding romance would be darkly comical, I think Levine chose the savvier path, forming a romance that doesn’t overdose on irony, which it would if the dead-boy-meets-girl romance were more grotesque. That’s the reason the Bonies exist, to provide a more grotesque and more evil foe that can provide perspective on the nobility of the not-all-the-way-dead people.
Levine works enough comic angles that the comic possibilities feel explored, although much like the horror and romance could have been pushed even further. As is, I found R’s musings wryly enjoyable, and his undead bromance with M provides some of the funniest moments in the film. Corddry (TV’s Children’s Hospital) is terrific in the movie and even finds what little room he can to add a touch of poignancy with his character. Often the humor, like the horror elements, is pretty relaxed but effective, refraining from oversized wackiness. You seriously would think that the movie would go bigger with its comedy considering everything at play.
Hoult (X-Men: First Class, TV’s Skins) does a credible job as a zombie, let alone an American zombie; it’s not all shuffling and caveman monosyllabic grunts. The actor is adept with communicating the awkwardness of his character in physicality. It’s funny how much you end of empathizing with a character that is dead. Hoult is also a pretty hunky guy, Vulcan eyebrows and all, but his amiable demeanor and young love clumsiness will win over as many guys in the audience as ladies. Palmer, also sporting an American accent, gets the blood pumping. Julie is underwritten but rises above just being a typical damsel-in-distress. It’s nice that later in the movie, when R breaks into the human camp, the roles are reversed, and Julie gets to protect him with her wits and will. Malkovich (R.E.D.) gets the worst of it just because his character is so rote.
I suppose I could lambaste the movie’s love-conquers-all logic with a dash of critical cynicism, but I feel like its low-key yet unfailingly romantic side is another of the movie’s charms. Sure, the idea that teenage love changing the world one beating heart at a time sounds like someone took the lyrics from an 80s power ballad and had it come to life (I’m reminded of the Patton Oswalt bit about the music video of an 80s hair band against the police: “He’d deflecting the bullets with the power of his rocking!”). There’s no real explanation why the zombies are getting better, though the concept of reclaiming their humanity appears to be contagious. I guess you could make some mild commentary on the healing power of human connection, but I don’t think Levine goes too far with any sort of subtext/social allegory, though there are enough slipshod Romeo and Juliet parallels. To the audience members who rankle at the unexplainable zombie cure, I would like to draw attention to the fact they are ignoring the fantastical logical puzzle of corpses coming back to life in the first place. If nobody minds why the zombie virus/crisis starts, then I don’t see why I should be sweating over what solves it.
Warm Bodies is a return to horror for Levine. Before his Sundance breakthrough The Wackness, the man got his start directing 2006’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. He’s made what may be the only zombie movie that I can say is “cute,” and that’s perhaps the best word for Warm Bodies. It’s a cute movie, perfectly pleasant, charming in its low-key sweetness while still managing to be clever. It’s dark but not too mordant, and sweet but not sappy. The last act doesn’t feel like it has the proper balance that the rest of the movie coasts with, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the film. At its core, it’s a cute love story, a zom-rom-com that’s much better than being relegated as “Twilight with zombies.” Yes it could have been darker, more macabre with its humor, and there are plenty of gloomy opportunities afforded by the premise of an undead boyfriend, but Levine and his actors have conceived a film that manages to be many things, chief among them enjoyable. It’s a zombie movie that might make you feel squishy but under completely different circumstances.
Nate’s Grade: B
21 Jump Street ran on TV from 1987-1991 and is mainly known as serving as a launching pad for eventual mega movie star Johnny Depp… and Richard Greico too. Youthful looking police officers infiltrated high schools and tackled topical issues of the day (what snap bracelet goes best with my high-waisted jeans?). Why would anyone want to make this movie, let alone comic actor Jonah Hill? Surprising in just about every way, especially when it comes to overall quality, the 21 Jump Street movie is not just a great comedy but also a great movie. How the hell did this happen, Movie Gods?
Officer Schmidt (Hill) is smart but shrimpy (which is saying something considering how dangerous Hill’s weight has been before). Officer Jenko (Channing Tatum) is a stud but pretty dimwitted when it comes to tests. The two form a partnership and get assigned as bicycle cops, not exactly the position of command and authority they were expecting. After a few screw-ups, including failing to read a suspect his Miranda rights (“You… have the right… to be an attorney”), the duo gets bounced to an old undercover program at, you guessed it, 21 Jump Street. The pair is supposed to pose as high school students and find out who’s supplying teenagers a dangerous new club drug. Much has changed since Schmidt and Jenko were in high school together, and both of their profiles were accidentally swapped, meaning Jenko is given AP chemistry and the higher level classes, and Schmidt is given gym and acting courses, where he’s supposed to work his way into the popular circles. Molly (Brie Larson) is a gal in that popular inner circle and Schmidt struggles to accept that a pretty, smart, popular girl might actually “like like” him.
I knew I was in for something special when the movie itself lambastes the very idea of a 21 Jump Street movie, with the police chief (Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman) ridiculing the idea of unoriginal nitwits recycling something old that has name recognition and hoping the public will be too dumb to care. The movie beats the audience to the punch every time, mocking the absurdity of its own premise and plot points (many characters note how old Jenko appears). I should have expected more from screenwriter Michael Bacall (co-writer of the Scott Pilgrim movie adaptation) and especially from directors Phil Lord and Chris Hill, the same pair whose rambunctious comedic verve radiated from every frame of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and their brilliant short-lived animated MTV show, Clone High. This movie had me laughing a lot and had me laughing hard, doubling over, with-tears-in-my-eyes laughter at points. Dickson spouts, “Some kid overdoses on drugs. And because he’s white, people actually give a shit,” showing that a movie with a mind-blowing number of male genitalia jokes can provide a few shrewd jabs of social commentary. There’s a great bit where on their first day back in school, Jenko points out the various school cliques. Then he gets to a group of students in skinny jeans, thrift store clothes, and floppy hats, and he looks puzzled. “I don’t know what those kids are?” Ha, because hipsters didn’t exist back in his (my) day.
21 Jump Street is cheeky, rowdy, quick-witted and playful in the best sense of an action comedy. It’s got fish-out-of-water moments as the duo struggle to fit in with a different high school setting. The one-liners and riffs can be gut-busters, but the film does an even better job layering oddball gags (Korean Jesus), loony slapstick, fun but telling character moments (Schmidt not knowing how to end a prayer: “The end, right? ‘The end’?”), strong setups that have stronger payoffs (using the reading of Miranda rights as a genuine emotional climax), and an overall raucous, anarchic spirit.
Here’s one sequence in particular that shows off the film’s clever comedic chops. The film finds a way to satirize the tropes of action movies, particularly buddy cop movies, with such nimble precision. Schmidt and Jenko are on the run but their car chase keeps butting heads with the fabricated reality of Hollywood movie chases. For one, they keep finding themselves getting stuck in traffic on the highway. This forces them to have to keep abandoning cars and finding a new set of wheels ahead of the gridlock. Then, as the bad guys chase them down on motorcycles, the chase causes all sorts of chaotic collateral damage, including oil trucks riddled with bullet holes and dripping the flammable substance all over the road. Then one of the motorcycles skids into the flammable muck, and our heroes wince in preparation of the expected explosion, and then nothing happens. “Huh. I really thought that was going to explode,” one of them remarks casually. And this setup is repeated again, denying us the explosive equation that action movies have pummeled into our brains (car + any tap of force = humungous fireball), and there is a payoff to this comedic tweak on the cliché, and it is silly and terrifically funny. Plus, I haven’t even mentioned that both Schmidt and Jenko are dressed in silly outfits and begin their car chase in a driver’s ed car. This sequence is just one example of the anarchic, robust, and self-aware comedic attitude that the movie flaunts.
But more than being a hysterical action picture, 21 Jump Street works even better because at its core is a level of sweetness, a satisfying mixture of lewd and heart like the best Judd Apatow ventures. It’s a bromance of epic proportions even by buddy cop standards, the old school bromance vehicle of its day. The guys go back to high school and the movie’s bright switcheroo puts the characters in opposite social spheres, with Schmidt with the cool kids and Jenko struggling with the social misfits and bottom-dwellers, a.k.a. nerds. Of course the whole class assignment also shows the façade of being cool in high school. The movie could have mined this well-worn stereotypical class conflict with ease, but instead it decides to use its contrived scenario as a jumpstart for the guy’s emotional growth. The lessons may be simplistic (perils of ego, believe in yourself, teamwork, personal responsibility) but that doesn’t make them bad lessons, and the fact that the flick seriously uses covalent bonds as a metaphor, and does so in an almost poignant fashion, is worth applauding. The relationship between Schmidt and Jenko engages the audience, and we root for them even when they’re behaving like jerks. They’re misfits who are doubted and reprimanded, which make us hope for their eventual success even more. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t put them in opposing camps in high school. Schmidt was a dweeb and Jenko was a dumb jock, but that doesn’t mean they needed to be adversarial. When they regroup in the police academy, they form a genuine partnership, realizing they can assist one another. They form an actual friendship and they’re both better cops, and better characters, together.
Hill and Tatum have preposterously good chemistry together as a comic duo. Hill, a co-writer himself, reportedly had to remain steadfast to convince Tatum to join forces, and thank god he stuck it out. Hill’s (Moneyball) already a comic pro at this point, though this role tones down his comical rancor and ups the spaz awkwardness. Tatum (The Vow) is the true revelation. Man does this guy have really great comedic skills; a sharp, instinctive sense of timing, a pliable physicality, and a genial charisma that doesn’t demand solo attention. He’s good at playing dumb without going overboard. He’s not just good, he’s flat-out terrific. Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is an adorable and plucky love interest, sure of herself, down to earth, and accessibly quirky. The supporting cast shines in their small roles, notable Ice Cube (Lottery Ticket) as the typical brash and loud police captain, Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids), in her randiest roll yet, as a chemistry teacher awkwardly flirting with the hunky Jenko, Dave Franco (Fright Night) as an eco-friendly drug dealer, Rob Riggle (The Other Guys) as an aggressive gym teacher, and a special cameo that’s worth leaving unspoiled.
21 Jump Street has some weaker points, namely when the action ramps up it’s pretty mundane when it’s not being funny, but the faults are minor. This is a silly, shrewd, salacious, and outright thrill of giddy entertainment, a comic blast. Hill and Tatum have a wonderful comedic dynamic and the clever screenplay gives them plenty to do with their talents. I didn’t think it was possible to adapt the cheesy TV show into a worthwhile studio comedy, but Hill and company have exceeded every expectation. 21 Jump Street isn’t the most nuanced or subtle comedy, though I will argue spiritedly that it has plenty of smarts in all the right places, but it’s an affectionate, witty, and rambunctious night out at the movies that will be hard to beat this spring.
Nate’s Grade: A-