First Offical Image of the Palin Family Brawl of 2014


For as outrageous as the emerging tales of the Palin Family Brawl -- the Thrilla in Wasilla, the Rumbla on the Tundra, the Throw-Down at the Snow-Town Hoe-Down -- have been, the story really never seemed to acquire the legs that a story of this scale really should.  It's my belief that this is because no cell phone pictures and videos have yet emerged.  Consequently, it seemed appropriate to me to create an image to accompany the tawdry tale.  You know, there was once a time before cell phones when we had these things called "artists" to create images of moments where photographers could not be present.

And so...

Click to View Full-Size
I am very amenable to sharing this image with news sites.  Please do credit/link me, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd help me publicize my forthcoming online comic strip Rush Forth when that arrives.

Discovering Each Other


Honeymoon - 2014
Written by Phil Graziadei & Leigh Janiak
Directed by Leigh Janiak

It has been my contention in the past that the core of fear is the unknown, and thus that the scariest scary movies are those that leverage that fear.  As such, I tend to prefer ghost stories and hauntings, especially if they have an element of psychological uncertainty when it comes to horror movies, because they play with the mysteries in the darkness.  I also like the slow burn horror, the builders of fear and dread without overly explicit revelations.  Based on these premises, Honeymoon was one of the more impactful horror movies I've seen in quite a while.

Bea and Paul are newlyweds who enjoy shedding the expectations of convention.  Through their wedding video, we learn that they served Indian food at their wedding because their first date involved a disastrous experience at an Indian restaurant.  For their honeymoon, they're passing on the ordinary tropical vacation and hanging out at Bea's family lake cabin.  Sure, there's nothing non-conventional about a horror movie taking place at a lake cabin, but the newlywed twist both gives the film an angle, as well as setting up a thematic exploration of what it's like for a new couple to discover each other anew in their new context, anxieties and all.

The first act takes its sweet time, much like the couple.  They are simply a young couple in love enjoying being together with no more conflict than a "What do you mean by that?" moment.  It is, at this point, relevant to mention that the film is carried ably by its leads, Rose Leslie and Harry Treadway, one or both of whom occupy every scene.  Tension is first aroused when, on a trip into town, they encounter Will, an old summertime crush of Bea's, and his wife Annie.  Something is clearly not right between Will and Annie, and Annie vaguely and ineffectually warns them to leave.

Paul's petty jealousy is piqued when, that night, Bea suddenly disappears from their bed and he finds her sleepwalking naked in the woods.  From that point on, tension grows between them as her behavior becomes increasingly strange, and through his suspicion, so does his.  Or, possibly, his behavior becomes strange due to suspicion and hers becomes strange as a defensive reaction.  This tension is allowed to fester and gnaw at them while other unusual occurrences pop up.  Then again, maybe they only seem unusual because of the mistrust growing between them.

Fear of the unknown.  Fear of losing a loved one. Fear of losing one's own mind.  These form a creeping sense of dread that grows and dominates Bea and Paul's time together.  When things take a turn for the sincerely effed-up in Act 3, it's an emotional punch as well as a palpable experience of disgust.  It's simply and economically managed, but delivering a genuine sense of horror not soon to be forgotten.

The final reveal is never totally explicit.  There are enough clues to suggest tropes of a certain type of villainy (yes, I am desperately trying not to say what), but with enough explanation, it could potentially change the nature of the beast in question several other ways.  The film doesn't specifically say, which remains fairly faithful to the kind of story it's told up until then.  The horror remains nameless, because by the time you can name it, you're probably dead anyway.  If anything, they could have left out a few seconds of film and it would have remained even more faithful to the fear it nurtured all the way to the bitter end.

Honeymoon is going to frustrate horror fans looking for gore and jump scares, but for those who can appreciate a subtler approach to fear, it's a perfect match.

Is it getting weird in here, or is it just me?


I fell into a vat of weird movies this past week -- and I'm not even ready to talk about The Zero Theorem yet.  The best explanation I can think of for this turn of events is my willingness -- nay, insistence -- on trying movies that it's clear that the haternet has failed to understand.  Sometimes a negative review from an evident moron on IMDb is more motivational than a rave from a reviewer of less distinct pedigree.

Coherence - 2013
Written & Directed by James Ward Byrkit

Perhaps Coherence will live up to its name a little more on a second viewing.  It's not that I misunderstood the concepts involved or even failed to track the twists related to numerous parallel universes opening up, but a sudden change of character in the 3rd Act left me feeling somewhat cheated by the cheapness of resolution, or at least the kind of movie it suddenly decided to turn into.

As a comet is passing extraordinarily close to Earth, four couples gather for dinner.  When the power goes out and their cell phones cease to function, two of them head out to find the only house in the neighborhood that still has lights and to ask to use their phone.  They conclude that they must have gotten lost, because they find themselves back at their own house.  They decide to leave a note at the other house, but before they can leave, they find that someone has left the exact same note on their own door.  What house did they go to?  What house are they in?  How can they know?  And just what the hell is going on here?

Coherence is a puzzle box that may or may not be solvable.  The science of multiple dimensions and the mystery are all pretty fascinating.  Sadly, the characters are much less so.  There are strange and sudden conclusions jumped to, and the one character who seems the most even-keeled of the bunch suddenly goes haywire toward the end.  Sure, we can appreciate part of the choice made, but there's a certain line cross that baffles human behavior without better establishing that within the character.  Yes, I'm being deliberately vague.

I really wanted to like Coherence, but for a movie that put SO much thought into the logic of some elements to put so little logic into its characters simply displayed a lack of, well... [see title].

ETXR - 2014
Written by Herb Ratner & Trevor Sands
Directed by Trevor Sands

Bix the Bug (Samuel Caleb Hunt) is a DJ (but don't call him that to his face, apparently) on the electronic dance music scene.  He's getting by, but struggling to freshen up his sound in order to make that big break he needs.  Bix is a refugee from MIT doing what he loves and hanging out with his idiot manager Danny.  Out of the blue, a former classmate shows up to talk to him about a device he's built, based on Nikolai Tesla's plans for a machine capable of communicating with other worlds, and he needs Bix's help because the signals coming back are more like music than distinct language.  Bix sees the opportunity to exploit the device, a "Teslascope" as the musical breaktrhough he's been looking for.  Danger follows, as a group of radicals, a wealthy investor unaccustomed to taking "no" for an answer and a pair of menacingly friendly agents all get onto Bix's trail.

ETXR is another mystery that fails to stick the dismount, but it had me up until then.  Clocking in at a light 80 minutes, it really could have taken another 10 minutes to explain, oh, anything.  I don't consider myself to be a person who is easily flummoxed by obscure plot points, so I feel fairly confident in saying that ETXR just didn't explain itself, or if it did, it did so in so obtuse a manner that it obscured its own trail of breadcrumbs.  This is a shame, because whatever was going on with Bix and the Teslascope seemed like it should have been pretty interesting.  Something astronomical?  Something spiritual?  A new dawning for mankind?  A fat groove that all the world can dance to?  Nope, The End.  Bummer, dude.

The Scribbler - 2014
Written by Dan Schaeffer
Directed by John Suits

Suki (Katie Cassidy) suffers from multiple personality disorder, but with the help of her therapist and a controversial shock treatment known as "The Siamese Burn" treatment, she is now able to leave the hospital for a new kind of madhouse.  The Juniper Tower (renamed The Jumper Tower by its residents) is a 16 story halfway house for psychiatric patients somewhere between ranting and raving.  It's filled entirely with women (although we only ever see a half dozen of them) and one man, Suki's friend Hogan ("I checked the wrong box" but clearly enjoying the opportunities) with a variety of ill-defined mental conditions.  As we learn from beginning at the end, several residents have exited The Juniper Tower via the express elevator with that one, sudden stop at the bottom, and the investigating officer is convinced that Suki's alter-personality The Scribbler is behind them... literally, in a pushing way.

The Scribbler was, evidently, adapted from a comic book, and it goes all-in on that source of influence so don't go looking for gritty realism here.  You'll get the grit, but realism was the first to be shoved out the window.  Think... a slightly less monochromatic and misogynist Sin City, with all the exaggerated characters and broadly interpreted mental illness.  There's nothing wrong with the stylistic approach.  It befits the deep Noir homage at play.  It spends its time establishing what, exactly, the mystery is, at it's core, and by that time, there are only so many characters still alive to target for blame.  Along the way, the film has changed shape at least twice, deciding in Act 3 to become a twisted superhero tale.  Despite its flaws, I found myself drawn into the story's momentum, largely due to its quirks, but in the end it was the theme of healing and becoming whole that paid off the emotional investment.

Space Station 76 - 2014
See link for Writing credits
Directed by Jack Plotnick

Space Station 76 takes place in the kind of future imagined by the 1970s.  Just don't expect it to behave like a science fiction movie or you will surely think you've been tricked.

Jessica (Liv Tyler) is the newest arrival at Space Station 76.  She's to be the second-in-command to to Captain Glenn, who is coping poorly with the departure of her predecessor, Daniel.  In fact, the only person having a harder time with her arrival than Captain Glenn are all the women on board, who are struggling to get their heads around the idea of a female officer.  Most disturbed by this is Misty, who spends more time trying to self-actualize with the help of Dr. Bot than raising her curious and lonely daughter, Sunshine.

Virtually everyone on the station is unhappy, largely because of themselves, and this shapes the core of the film.  It really isn't a plot-driven vehicle, but a sketchy ensemble piece where characters continue to search for happiness outside themselves, generally doomed to self-sabotaging failure.  This is the theme that most strongly ties the film to its 1970s tone and influences, as demonstrated by Dr. Bot's prescription of "Valium... as much as you want."

I would have liked a little stronger plot line that developed some of the relationships better (through interaction), but all in all I enjoyed it.  Those who expect it to be a "pew-pew" sci-fi or a "hyuk-yuk" comedy will be disappointed, and I question whether anyone who didn't live through the 70s will really get the satire, but for the most part, I found the space oddity to be a source of appeal.

Separated at Graduation?


I'd like to discuss this film about high school.  It's about a withdrawn young man with brown hair and eyes.  He's wrestling with some emotional issues that make him feel detached from his peers.  He's incredibly smart and creative, and he knows all the answers, but keeps them to himself unless drawn out by a concerned teacher.  One of his most concerned teachers is an alumnus from another high school film; Clueless, but this film is much more serious.  His loneliness is alleviated one day when a winsome young woman (played by an actress named "Emma") comes into his life along with her established group of friends.  They shake up his world, giving him a taste of creative validation, but it's really the girl that has stirred his soul.  Unfortunately, he's afraid to act on his feelings for her and she gets into a relationship with a douchebaggy older guy.  Meanwhile, our soulful but troubled young man is dealing with family related issues that threaten to shatter his world.  In the end, graduation serves as a catalyst to bring his ill-ease about the world, himself and the girl to a place of fragile hopefulness, symbolic of the growth that we all must go through.

This movie is The Perks of Being a Wallflower - 2012
Written & Directed by Stephen Chbosky, from his book
This movie is The Art of Getting By - 2011
Written & Directed by Gavin Wiesen

Aw, she must depend on him.

Our soulful yet troubled young man in "Perks" is Charlie.
Starting out, we know that he is a freshman in high school who has no friends.
He's earnest and hopeful, but a recent stay "in the hospital" has him feeling self-conscious
about sharing himself with others.
Our soulful yet troubled young man in "Art" is George.
Starting out, we know that he is a senior in high school who has no friends.
He's sullen and withdrawn, primarily because his teenaged morbidity has convinced him
that life is without meaning or hope.
Charlie wants to be a writer.
He compulsively writes letters to the "friend" he one day hopes to have.
George wants to be an artist.
He compulsively fills his school books with doodles.

The Justin Bieber Hair Club for Young Men

Charlie's turning point comes when he makes a conscious, deliberate effort to befriend Patrick,
a flamboyant and rebellious senior from his freshman shop class.
Charlie admires his courage and free-spirit.
George's turning point comes when he makes a conscious, deliberate effort to take the blame
for smoking on school grounds, thus rescuing Sally from getting caught.
George admires her rebelliousness toward school policy.
Through Patrick, he meets Sam, Patrick's step-sister.
He's instantly smitten.
Though strangers, his act earns him a friend in Sally.
He finds her fascinating.

Sam has a somewhat troubled history and regrets her past promiscuity.
Sally has a somewhat troubled mother and hints at a history of promiscuity.

Sam comes with a ready-made group of friends, including Patrick, Mary Elizabeth and Alice,
all of whom are players in the local Rocky Horror Picture Show,
and one of whom will become a romantic entanglement.
It's through these friendships that he finds validation for his talents.
Drink and drugs are frequent companions.
Sally comes with a ready-made group of friends, including Will and Zoe,
and she also facilitates George making friends with Dustin, an artist and graduate of their school.
One of them will become a romantic entanglement.
It's through these friendships that he finds validation for his talents.
Drink and drugs are frequent companions.

Charlie struggles to express himself in an academic setting,
but flourishes with the encouragement of his English teacher.
George makes little effort to express himself in an academic setting,
and profoundly disappoints his encouraging English teacher.

Remember when he was older than her?

Ultimately, it's issues related to his home life that shatter his sense of stability in the world, but it's this schism that serves as a catharsis, leading him to an uneasy but hopeful view of the future.

Now, you could certainly come away from this (so far) with the impression that these were roughly the same movie, or even that one of them was a "rip-off" of the other, and that's certainly an impression I've done little to discourage (so far).  My first thought, once I'd seen The Art of Getting By was that it may indeed have been a cut-rate attempt to cash in on the momentum of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (a la Hercules/Hercules Reborn), which was considerably better hyped.  "Art" came out (in fairly limited release, from the looks of things) a full year before "Perks" (which put "Art" on Netflix by the time the other came out), so I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.  On the other hand, "Perks" was adapted from a popular Young Adult book published in 1999, so I'll leave it to you to form your own opinions about their similarity and temporal proximity.

There are, of course, many differences, and it's those differences which define them... strongly.

While both Charlie and George are intelligent and withdrawn, the have some deeply seated differences in their reasons for this behavior.

Charlie has endured some major losses.  Most recently, his best friend from middle school 
has committed suicide, sending him into a tailspin from which he is still recovering
at the start of his entry into high school.  That has also stirred up some issues realted
to the death of his beloved aunt, earlier in childhood.  Additionally, his older brother, 
a popular football star, has left home to start college.  He has some very solid reasons
for feeling vulnerable and isolated at this pivotal time in his life.
George, meanwhile, has a poorly established story for his situation.
His parents divorced years prior and only the most token of efforts is made
to connect this to his issues.  He's not fond of his stepfather, but until George
creates a confrontation with him, there are no signs that the stepfather's faults extend
any further than a lack of parental empathy and understanding.
Really, the only explanation that we're given is that he just decided one day that it was all meaningless.
Well welcome to being a teenager, kid; a really annoying, self-involved teenager.

Despite what he's dealing with, Charlie is a hopeful kid.
He writes his letters to his one-day "Friend" in anticipation of a time when
he doesn't feel so alone.  He wants friends, wants to find value in himself.
He makes a very specific and conscious effort to reach out to someone he finds interesting.
Charlie is full of heart, and wants to open that to others.
George is a self-pitying mope who really doesn't have that much to be moping about.
We're given no indication that he's ever had a friend before or that he really wants one again.
His "realization" is, apparently, a fairly recent development, although it may as well have been
the moment at which he was born into this universe, for all the personal development he's given.
He's as little interested in friends as he is in school.  Were it not for the voice over,
one might easily conclude that he was a poseur, fronting at disaffection.
He's petty and demonstrates little concern for anyone but himself.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower makes a far greater effort to demonstrate friendship,
not just between Charlie and Sam, but Charlie and Patrick, and Patrick and Sam, and Charlie and Mary Elizabeth, and Charlie and his aunt...  The story is filled with people who care,
and that may be one of its greatest powers.  We don't just see that they care,
but we see how that caring develops, and it's made believable through the
human interaction of kind and interesting people.
The Art of Getting By is really bad at developing its characters and relationships credibly.
The focus remains largely on the friendship between George and Sally, but it advances it
through cheap methods (yeah, you bet your ass there's a montage sequence) and leaves
an uncomfortable nagging about why they'd even bother to spend time together at all.
Sally, in particular, has little cause for taking such an interest in George other than the attention
and a shared disappointment in humanity.  Then again, she doesn't treat him particularly well either.

Charlie keeps his affection for Sam to himself, despite its obviosity.
The reasons for this are not merely well-explained, but form an important part
of the film's thematic backbone.  Once she comes to understand the extent of his feelings,
she processes it like a thinking, feeling person striving to grow.
George keeps his affection for Sally to himself, despite its obviosity.
The only reason demonstrated for this is his cowardice, and he fails to respond to
even the most open of invitations to, at the very least, enter into a discussion about the matter.
Once she comes to understand the extent of his feelings, she responds
with (not so) passive-aggression and self-righteous, sabotaging betrayal.

Things fall apart for Charlie when physical and emotional intimacy
unlocks latent issues related to his aunt and her death.
While this part of the movie is, unfortunately, pretty rushed, it's handled with an
appropriate gravitas and efficient pacing for a major third act development.
It ties into and explains much of what Charlie has been going through up until this point in the story.
Things fall apart for George when a paper-thin subplot about his stepfather 
is finally shoved into the foreground and treated with subplot-like indifference.
This, somehow, becomes the conduit for George's change-of-heart "learning moment"
although there's no emotional weight to it nor clearly expressed reason for it to have the effect that it does.
My best guess is that it demonstrates to him that he can no longer linger, but I'm being generous.

The resolution to the romantic thread between Charlie and Sam,
and indeed their lives in general, is non-conclusive, but emotionally satisfying.  
It makes perfect sense in the context of their characters and a credible artistic representation of life.  
It's hardly "happily ever after" but there is a satisfying "best outcome" sense about it.
The resolution to the romantic thread between George and Sally,
and indeed their lives in general, is non-conclusive, but emotionally baffling.
It doesn't make sense that either of them should go through the changes of heart that they do,
other than to fulfill the "boy wants girl" aspect of the story.  It's hardly "happily ever after,"
skewing more toward :"what the...?" or "And I'm supposed to care why, exactly?" territory.

These images actually illustrate some very core differences.

In other areas, The Perks of Being a Wallflower just feels like more, in every possible way. 
It runs about 20 minutes longer, but contains two to three times more content.
There are more characters with more heart who are more interesting and contribute
to more story with more moments that develop more themes.
I have egregiously glossed over the importance of Patrick, who adds a great deal to everything.
Logan Lerman (Charlie) is a more charismatic actor with more range and I was startled
when I realized how many things I've already seen him in.
In other areas, The Art of Getting By just feels like less.
It centers pretty strongly on just the two characters; George most of all.
Supporting character are much less independently defined, serving primarily as story objects
for George to respond to.  Any thematic development feels like an afterthought,
secondary to the "friend zone" story of a spoiled pouter.
I have, for years, wanted to find Freddie Highmore (George) more appealing as a performer,
but he simply doesn't bring much range or dynamism to his roles.

Perks has an outstanding soundtrack (your bigger budget at work),
prominently featuring alt-hits (if that can be said to be such a thing)
of the 70s, 80s & early 90s like David Bowie and The Smiths.
My one out-and-out criticism of the film, however, is the unsuspendable disbelief
that none of Charlie's gang has ever heard "Heroes" before and can't figure out who it is all year.
These kids are Rocky Horror players.  They would know their popular androgynes.
Art has a pretty non-spectacular soundtrack of more recent alt-rock
(which really isn't that "alt" anymore) that generally failed
to distinguish itself (except in the moments when it because tedious) for me.

And in a final coup-de-grace of parallels, BOTH films include the song Here by Pavement.

I've been kind of hard on The Art of Getting By, but the truth is, I didn't dislike it as I watched it.  I'm an easy mark for the heartbreak of the soulful yet troubled young man wrestling with romantic feelings in the "friend zone" and I'm at least as easy a mark for the artist desperate for validation.  Emma Roberts certainly presents as a credible focal point for a young man's interests, up until the point where I wanted to shake said young man and tell him, "Oh buddy, this is some bullshit you will never need in your life.  Let this one go."  Maybe that's just a little too much perspective to be bringing to a film whose target audience sees Say Anything as an oldie.

The problem, however, is context.  As soon as I'd finished the movie, I started to be struck by the similarities to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, so I barreled right on through and watched it again, immediately after.  That was when things really started turning sour for "Art."  The emotional experience just could not compare positively, and the process of writing this all out in direct comparison really caused my impressions to polarize.

So it should come as no surprise that, in the side by side examination of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Art of Getting By, the Evil Twin Goatee goes to...

Brick Wall you reflect,
My teenage anxiety,
But I don't know why.

...The Art of Getting by, because I like more feeling in my feelings.

La Agrodolce Vita


La Grande Bellezza - 2013
AKA The Great Beauty
Written by Paolo Sorrentino & Roberto Contarello
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

It would be easy to dismiss this blogazine as primarily interested in lowbrow genre entertainments.  I feel that it would be inaccurate and unfair, but it would be easy, even excusable.  So, if for no other reason than rehabilitating that image, I'd like to add a little bit of highbrow fancy-pants foreign cinema to the mix.  But, that's not the only reason.  The fact is, I saw La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) well over a month ago, and it has continued to resonate with me.

La Grande Bellezza is, in case you had not yet caught on, an Italian film, and it indulges with gusto in the kind of things that set European cinema apart from commercial American film, almost to the point of caricature.  That also just happens to be part of its greatness.  This film is absolutely head-over-heels in love with Rome, and part of that expression is to be the most Rome it can possibly be, and that includes cloaking itself Fellini-esque cinematic language.  This one goes to eleven.  Eleven Rome.

And that's apt, because its central character, Jep Gambardella is Eleven Rome.  He puts the romantic in roman antics.  He even savors his disdain for Rome, for it's the kind of disdain that only someone who loves it and knows it intimately can understand and appreciate.  When I say that Jep is central, I mean like the sun.  He is the gravity around which the entire film revolves.  A case could be made that Jep is the only one we can be certain truly exists, and all others are but part of the Rome he dreams.

The dream metaphor is no coincidence.  The entire film has a very dreamlike quality; not so much driven from scene to scene by the demands of plot as strolling through a series of gorgeous locations content that it doesn't need to get anywhere else but where it is in any given moment.  Each scene is worthwhile on its own merits, an experience to be drunk in, savored, and allowed to go to one's head.  This kind of languorous pacing will irritate and infuriate certain audiences, but let's not talk about them.  The wine is kicking in and I can't think of a single reason to invite them over when we're having such a nice time already...

The film opens with one vast Fellini-gasm as Jep and about a hundred living, dancing faces of Rome (there's even a little person, in an obvious nod to Fellini) bump, grind and extemporize their way through his 65th birthday.  Jep, you see, is the man.  He's the author of one smashingly successful novel who has spent that last 35 years getting by on that success, trading on reviews and talk panel appearances to fuel his life-of-the-party lifestyle.  He's a somewhat less tortured Roman Gatsby of sorts.  There is no one special in his life, and yet he loves all those in his orbit, probably because they each represent a sparkling facet of his true life partner; Rome.  It is, however, a detached kind of love, arguably narcissistic, because they merely reflect Rome's light, and he is the sun that shines upon it.  Rome might be his life partner, but it's not the passion.  Something is missing, and that may be why he hasn't written another book in 35 years.

Following the party, Jep gets to bed around sunrise, due for some serious sleep.  Because of this scene, I continued to believe that the rest of the movie would be a dream.  It never tipped its hat to this, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't.  He drifts between social engagements and placid moments of art appreciation.  People come into his life and leave; sometimes in ways that should be startling but aren't experienced as such by Jep.  It's a grand canvas smeared with emotional pigments, faded by the Roman sun.

I don't want to suggest that there is no narrative arc to La Grande Bellezza.  Jep's seemingly ephemeral wanderings of Rome each key into an ongoing personal development that doesn't really connect until deep into the third act, unlocking that which has remained bound deep inside him.  Even then, it still isn't handled in as definitive a manner as your average American film-goer has been trained to expect and thus demand.  This is a show, not tell kind of movie.  The feelings that we're given to deal with are not tidy, and are sometimes just plain confusing -- but isn't that a huge part of human emotion, after all?

Once seen, it almost goes without saying that it is visually gorgeous.  It's simply redundant, unless you're explaining it to one who hasn't seen it.  I hope the director got a kickback from the Roman tourism board, because every single frame is filled with something incredible to look at.  Jep's wandering a museum again?  Well why the hell wouldn't he?  He's surrounded with wonders and recognizes it; fills his life with it, and life becomes pretty wonderful even when sadness arises.

It was only after watching the movie that I found out it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  It's pretty easy to see why.  It would never be included in a race of Hollywood/New York/London movies, but it wholly embodies its Italian foreign-ness.  The way that it embraced the Italian lifestyle, or a certain depiction of it, anyway, really stuck with me.  It was not at all unusual for the old and young to be enjoying life and partying together.  Generational separations meant far less than Italian togetherness.  Everyone was out enjoying their lives rather than huddled around their televisions in their homes secured against their sca-a-ary fellow countrymen.  That was certainly my experience 30 years ago when I was a student in France as well, and I appreciated the reminder.

La Grande Bellezza is what it says -- it's a painting, a sculpture, a chapel, a dance, a concerto, a work of heartfelt art.  It is a Great Beauty.

Riot on the Block


Neighbors - 2014
Written by Andrew J Cohen & Brendan O'Brien
Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Neighbors enters the game with a number of strikes against it from the first pitch.  Strike One; it's a rivalry movie.  Rivalry movies, in general, fall into roughly the same class as slasher horror when it comes to thinness of plot and predictability.  Strike Two; it's a fraternity movie and a young couple confronting the demands of maturity movie.  Most fraternity movies are like Greek Row talent night sketches rehashing Animal House (and drama majors tend not to go Greek).  The last one to offer anything new to the concept was Old School, and that was eleven years ago.  The new parent film has seldom had anything thoughtful to add to the subject beyond the "Lighter Side of Erma Bombeck" style of "Gosh, we didn't think we'd be this tired!" sort of observations -- probably because writers who are new parents are too tired to think of much else, and writers who aren't new parents never hear anything else from their friends who are.  Strike Three; it's a Seth Rogen vehicle -- a vehicle upon which the polish has begun to fade.  You know the pattern; Seth character feels dumb, gets stoned, makes awkwardly inappropriate joke, stoner-laughs at his own joke, repeat.  This Is The End's ouroborous of self-referential self-reference pretty much took this pattern to its ultimate form.

With this slate of causes for skepticism, it seemed unsurprising when the movie came out and the reviews skewed toward mixed and mediocre.  So when I had the chance to see it, my approach was "Well, maybe it will be a little lighthearted silliness to pass the rest of a thoughtless evening."  It's safe to say that I was unprepared for the many laugh-out-loud moments that I found therein.  Be ye not misled, the plot offers few surprises, but it's enough of a structure upon which to hang some very funny jokes, gags and comedic situations (which is still a more solid framework than This Is The End had).  The biggest surprise, however, comes from the moments of humanity explored on both sides of the fence.

The story, in short, involves Mac & Kelly (Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne), a youngish couple who have recently invested everything they have into a new home for themselves and their freakin' adorable baby daughter.  Life is good, they're home, living what remains of the American Dream... and it kind of freaks them out a little.

Then the fraternity moves in next door.

Fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) is committed to earning a place on the house's storied wall of legendary party-hounds, aided and abetted by Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael and the rest of the brethren. 

With the intention of heading off disaster (but secretly afraid of watching their own youth die), Mac & Kelly head next door to welcome their new neighbors and ingratiate themselves to the frat boys in order to validate their future requests for peace and quiet, should the need arise.  This largely involves Mac saying "dope" way too much.  The brothers also recognize the need for good relations, since pissed-off neighbors have the potential to bring police and university trouble down on their heads.  They invite Mr. & Mrs. Radner to party with them that night, which the Radners, in the depths of their "We've still got it" passage into middle adulthood are only too glad to accept.  After a night of partying like it's still 1999, it appears that peace is to reign o'er the land.

But what fun is that?

By the next evening, the frat house is a-rockin' and the Radners are afraid to go a-knockin'.  Instead, they call the police, and a schism is born.  From that point on, it's simply a process of ratcheting up the rivalry between the two houses, with the Radners trying to get the Deltas thrown out, and the Deltas taking revenge for the Radners' betrayal.

Where most rivalry movies fall into the trap of increasing the level of cruelty, I get the feeling that the writers here placed the greatest emphasis on designing funny pranks and plots, more than merely mean-spirited ones.  And that has made all the difference.  Because the fraternity has nothing to gain, their stunts are able to be free from purpose other than ridiculousness.  The Radners and their friends have to be more conniving, and grapple with the tempting lure of youthful irresponsibility.  Some of the movie's best moments come not merely from the conflict between not just between young and not-as-young, but the generational differences between millennials and, well, everyone else.  This is best encapsulated in a super-stoned debate between Mac and Teddy about which actor defines Batman for them.

Along the way, characters from both houses grapple with the march of time.  Mac & Kelly feel the weight of responsibility and the dark side of parenting.  Teddy & Pete deal with the uncertainty of graduation and the unknown lands beyond in very different ways, which threatens their bro-lationship in a way that even their ho-lationships could not.  Now, I'm not saying it's a thought-provoking exploration of maturity like [French movie of your choice], but it more than fulfills the bare minimum of effort expended on weaving a theme into a dick-and-fart-joke movie.

Seth Rogen has really begun to grate on me, if I'm not in just the right frame of mind.  One thing I hate about myself is that I sometimes laugh like him, because I think he sounds like a drug-addled nitwit when he "Huh huh huhs" and I'm much harder on myself.  But in Neighbors... I didn't mind him.  His character wasn't quite the fuck-up we're used to him playing.  Sure, he still gets high, but he also gets a job done (and gets high).  You know, I'm not sure we ever find out what his job is.  We're just shown that he has some generic office job the requires paperwork on projects.  The important thing is, he's trying, and he's not a complete dipshit about it.

Rose Byrne is the real champ of Neighbors.  Evidently it was she herself who told director Nicholas Stoller that, rather than lazily being the shrill wife who exists to destroy the boys' fun, Kelly should be right in the middle of things, plotting and struggling to protect her child's sleep and her own passing sense of youth.  This difference benefits the film in every possible way.  She also carries the movie's crudest and most uncomfortably hilarious scenes with the commitment and energy to really sell what could have been a disturbing show-killer.  It's really time to start respecting Rose Byrne.  The variety of genres and roles that she's taken on show both versatility and bravery as a performer.  She's done comedy, horror, action and drama, often accepting thankless roles in support of others.  Well, I thank you, Rose.  You make the movies I like even better.

Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo play Mac & Kelly's divorced best friends.  Barinholtz picks up some of the dumb-guy slack that Rogen has laid down, and contributes some particularly satisfying laughs when the four of them try their hands at fake celebrity phone calls.  Gallo gets the short shrift in yet another dingbatty "slut" role.

Several opportunities are taken to show off Zac Efron's chiseled physique, so there's a little sum-sumthin' for the girls and boys who like boys.  There's actually quite a bit more beefcake than cheesecake on display, thus bucking the traditional frat movie standard.  He pulls off all the arrogance and insanity required, and manages to squeeze in some human moments with both Franco and Rogen.

Speaking of Dave Franco, he's sort of a more restrained version of his older brother James.  He doesn't necessarily reach as far, but then he's less likely to lose his grasp.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse feels a little wasted here, but the elevation of relative newcomer Jerrod Carmichael more than makes up for it.  His character, Garf gets a couple of funny scenes, where Mintz-Plasse really only gets one laugh-out-loud line, and it's a virtual throwaway.

Lisa Kudrow shows up to steal a couple scenes in the middle as the dean of students.  In just a few lines, she lays down some deeply biting satire at why things are the way they are in the world.  It's a token plot-point and it could have been handled any number of ways, but the way it's handled sneaks a little bite into the mix.  Speaking of token plot-points, the initial police handling of the noise complaint is designed to remove them from the shenanigans to follow.  The contrivance comes off as cheap, and the officer (Hannibal Burress) who shows up at the beginning and the end was confusingly oddball until we figure out that he just enjoys messing with people's heads in general.

If I had a single biggest complaint about Neighbors (and I do), it would be the role of women.  Byrne and Kudrow kill it, but Gallo, Teddy's girlfriend Brooke (Halston Sage) and pretty much all of the other women exist to be sluts and/or window dressing.  They dance and girlishly "Aww!" at anything baby-related.  Once Brooke has served her purpose as a plot device in a "bros before hos" machination, she disappears from the story, pretty much enforcing the "bros before hos" foolishness that it attempted to mock.  It's not ordinarily my policy to ding a movie for what it's not, but the way that Brooke simply disappeared once the movie was done using her just seemed a bit on the nose not to warrant a mention.

That being said, Neighbors was one of the funniest movies I've seen in quite some time.  Comedy has had a rough time lately in our self-serious cinematic environment.  So much of cinema has come to be dictated by the young male demographic, but since the coming of the internet, that demo has fed into a downward spiral of joyless self-importance and pointless bitching.  Action movies fall all over themselves to give the boys what they want.  Drama has become a virtual niche outside of award season.  Horror and comedy are so deeply subjective that every self-entitled rage-nerd brands that which they even mildly dislike with zero scores to drag the average down to their levels.  So it's hard to find a comedy with a resounding shared endorsement, because it's all averaged against the depths of the troll dungeons.

Neighbors isn't a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but it's not supposed to be.  If you're worried about your penis being good enough, Neighbors isn't going to help you feel like a man.  Neighbors does one thing, and it does it well.  Neighbors is freakin' FUNNY.