Monday, May 30, 2016

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, The Nice Guys, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Maggie's Plan, Weiner, The Ones Below, Manhattan Night, The Measure of a Man, A Monster with a Thousand Faces, Holy Hell

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

The Nice Guys

The Measure of a Man

A Monster with a Thousand Faces

The Ones Below


Holy Hell

Maggie's Plan

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Manhattan Night

May ends in mostly middling fashion, but the arthouse offers one of the three best films so far this year. Here are the reviews, each in 100 words or less:

The humor in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is as hit-and-miss as the original’s, but sharper and more socially astute. Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen each land passels of big laughs, but what elevates “2” is that they’ve finally figured out how to make Zac Efron funny, by playing off his body with a slowly awakening consciousness, as when he turns to same-sex wedding planning: “For some reason, gay guys really seem to respond to me.” If the women of Kappa Nu had better laugh lines, this could have been a great comedy.

Extreme violence can coexist with comedy, as “The Nice Guys” writer-director Shane Black showed in his scripts for “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Last Action Hero.” But it takes a natural born wiseass in the mold of Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and neither Russell Crowe nor Ryan Gosling fills the bill. Black’s recipe also errs in calling for two parts mind-numbing plot to each part comic byplay; the movie seems to take three hours to end. Young Angourie Rice, as Gosling’s daughter, is the best part.

In Stéphane Brizé’s naturalistic, brilliantly perceptive “The Measure of a Man,” Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a laid-off factory worker, takes a job in security at a large supermarket, where he helps catch shoplifters and colleagues who fail to scan items or apply customers’ coupons to their own purchases. Lindon won Best Actor at Cannes last year, a savvy and sophisticated choice. Not in recent memory has a performance been so un-showy or an actor so seemingly unaware of the presence of the camera. The film may be French, but it couldn’t be more apposite to contemporary America.

Two highly different films – Rodrigo Plá’s tendentious “A Monster with a Thousand Faces,” from Brazil, and David Farr’s ham-handed British import “The Ones Below” – suffer from the same fatal flaw: not enough normalcy before the crazy sets in. In “Monster,” Sonia (Jan Raluy), whose husband has cancer, demands that the insurance company doctors who rejected her application for medication that may prolong his life reconsider – at gunpoint. “Below” posits a married couple (Clémence Poésy, Stephen Campbell Moore) expecting their first child unnerved by the also-enceinte couple (Laura Birn, David Morrissey) who move into the flat beneath theirs. We have no opportunity to invest in Sonia before “Monster” devolves into a mess of speechifying and action-movie wreckage. The dialogue in “Below” is so stilted from the drop – and the performances so weak (the new neighbors are laughably creepy, the lead couple milquetoast and bizarrely trusting), we’re left to watch the impeccably manicured grass grow.

Solid recs for two new docs: Josh Kriegman’s and Elyse Steinberg’s “Weiner,” about the seven-term Congressman and NYC mayoral candidate who turned himself into a national punchline, asked his constituents for a second chance, got it and blew it again; and Will Allen’s candid “Holy Hell,” about his own experiences in an intentional community called the Buddhafield that over two decades devolved from a source of deep spiritual fulfillment to an abusive cult of personality. “Weiner” lays the schadenfreude on pretty thick – it’s like stopping to stare at a car crash and not moving for 90 minutes – but Anthony Weiner shows such strong political instincts at some moments (and enough fundamental decency) that his apparent appetite for self-destruction proves just that compelling. “Holy Hell” lacks much in the way of artistry: you wouldn’t hire Allen, the sect's unofficial videographer, for your wedding. However familiar, though, the stories of sweet and well-meaning people buying into a program that inevitably proves hollow (and worse) did get to me.

I was shocked how little fun I had at Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan,” which the trailers market as a trifling comic roundelay but which turns out to be a static, plot-laden and staggeringly unfunny slog. Greta Gerwig is Maggie, who works in career placement for art school students. Boy, has the fresh face from 2010’s “Greenberg” worn out her welcome; one critic gave her the moniker “Die Gerwig,” but I read it as a wish. Ethan Hawke is the “ficto-critical anthropologist” (ugh) she pries away from Bjork-like Columbia anthro professor Julianne Moore: two terrific actors left totally adrift.

There’s something queasy and yet just right about Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” He’s a man-child, part Peter Pan, part Michael Jackson – and maybe the only part Depp can convincingly play now. The movie’s fifteen or twenty minutes too long and I was bored frequently, but the makeup and production design may score Oscar noms despite its bombing at the B.O. I liked Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, and even Sacha Baron Cohen, whose primary function these days is to walk into a movie and kill it dead.

Finally, skip the direct-to-dustbin “Manhattan Night,” a cheap potboiler starring the singularly unattractive Adrien Brody as a tabloid columnist who takes up the unsolved murder of a weirdo movie director (Campbell Scott, highly unpersuasive as a poonhound). It doesn’t hurt that Scott’s sexpot wife (Yvonne Strahovski) wants to jump Brody’s bones the minute she sees him. “Manhattan Night” starts out as harmless trash but becomes more and more unsavory, culminating in a grotesque instance of violence to an animal. For the sake of completeness, there is a Jennifer Beals sighting.

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