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Entries in Zac Efron (6)

Friday
May092014

Neighbors

Comedies, perhaps more than any other genre, are subjective. While all can agree that a drama about the loss of a child is inherently sad, not everyone will agree on what is funny. Our senses of humor have been shaped by our upbringing and the various life events we’ve experienced. Some may find humor in blacker than black comedies about death while others simply want their comedies to be lighthearted and goofy. However, there’s a subgenre that of comedy that can only be described as cruel comedy. This cruel humor is what fuels the new Seth Rogen and Zac Efron film, “Neighbors.” If you’re averse to comedy that stems from unlikable characters doing bad things to each other, as I am, this film won’t do much for you. Despite some legitimate laughs, the pervading savagery on display is enough to make “Neighbors” little more than a waste of time.

The story is simple. Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) move into a nice neighborhood with their infant child. They’ve poured nearly everything they have into their new house and are hoping that this will give them the opportunity to raise their kid in a peaceful, happy environment. Their hopes are dashed, however, when a fraternity moves in next door. Despite some initial kind words, a feud eventually breaks out between the couple and the frat, led by President Teddy Sanders (Efron), after a late night party that prevents them from getting a good night’s rest. Mac and Kelly’s only goal from there on out is to get them to leave, no matter what the cost.

The movie tries to set this story up with Teddy as the antagonist, the evil, unruly hellion turning Mac and Kelly’s lives into a waking nightmare, while Mac and Kelly are the heroes we’re supposed to root for. However, Mac and Kelly are no better than Teddy. They manipulate Teddy and his crew while they facilitate many acts of sabotage. Frankly, nobody in this movie handles themselves in a way befitting an actual person and their actions only prove to make things worse. It’s lucky they’re in a movie because in a real world context, they would all be thrown in jail.

Prior to their feud, Mac and Kelly join Teddy and his frat during a party. Their hope is that it will make them seem cool to the kids and, in return, they’ll respect them when they ask them to keep it down, but the night leads to debauchery. They leave their infant child alone in their house while they dance next door abusing any harmful substance they can get their hands on. These people, regardless of their initial intentions, aren’t fit to be parents and the only appropriate following scene would be for child services to show up and take their kid away.

Teddy is even worse and actually goes out of his way to cause harm to the others. At one point, he steals the airbags out of Mac and Kelly’s car and hides them around their house. This leads to some of the dumbest slapstick humor one can imagine, where a slight burst of air sends them flying all the way across the room like an explosion just went off. After Teddy falls prey to a couple of these hidden objects, he begins to search around, poking his furniture with a wooden pole to see if it contains an airbag. He hesitates before poking his child’s bed and lets out a thankful sigh when nothing happens, which is supposed to show that Teddy, as ruthless as he can be, would never sink so low. Unfortunately, that pesky thing called logic rears its ugly head when you consider that Teddy could have very easily been holding his child when he fell culprit to the other hidden airbags, potentially killing it. Teddy, in a very real sense, puts their lives in danger. This, along with so many more violent and abrasive shenanigans, makes the cheery ending seem forced and very, very unlikely.

I imagine many will wonder why this matters in a comedy—as long as you’re laughing, who cares—but there’s more to it than that. “Neighbors” does indeed have some legitimate laughs. Rogen is just as funny as ever, despite a considerable lack of help from Rose Byrne, who just doesn’t have the comedic chops to pull off rolls like this, and Efron plays his character well. The problem is that his character, along with Rogen’s, is cruel, leading to unlikable situations and making many of those potential laughs moot.

If what I’ve written sounds to you like a curmudgeon stupidly complaining about morality in a silly movie that shouldn’t be taken seriously, then you’ll likely enjoy “Neighbors,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it rubbed me the wrong way. I’d love to see a movie with these two paired up again, one that doesn’t rely on cruelty to garner laughs, but if one must go in that direction, there’s a fine line between a mean spirit and a silly one. Sadly, “Neighbors” leans a tad too far to the former.

Neighbors receives 1.5/5

Friday
Sep212012

Liberal Arts

Writer/director Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It’s a true statement—knowledge leads to insight, insight leads to truth and truth is too often a sad and frustrating thing—but the movie never really capitalizes on this idea. The characters wax poetic about romantic literature and things of the like, but to say they’re somehow knowledgeable in any way is somewhat of a stretch. Only Radnor’s second film, Liberal Arts is just as misguided and unfocused as his first attempt, Happythankyoumoreplease, but that movie benefited from some substantial laughs and sizeable emotions whereas Liberal Arts doesn’t contain much feeling at all and its laughs are sparse. While I wouldn’t say it’s substantially worse, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Happythankyoumoreplease, and that was worth only a mild recommendation.

The story revolves around Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35 year old New Yorker who is asked to visit his old college where one of his favorite professors, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), is hosting his retirement party. While there, he meets a 19 year old sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who begins to develop feelings for him. Perhaps unluckily, Jesse begins to reciprocate the feeling, but the age difference puts him at a crossroad. Should he take a chance on Zibby or continue his lonely stroll through life?

If there’s one thing you can deduce about Josh Radnor from watching Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts, it’s that he has a big heart. He’s drawn towards heavily flawed characters, people who may not make the right decisions or say the best things, but he gives them redeeming qualities and you come to connect with them because of it. There’s a sense of optimism in his films, where even the saddest people can find happiness and any challenge can be overcome. In what seems like an increasingly cynical world, his view on life, love and friendship is refreshing. The problem is all in his approach.

Just like Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts is overburdened with inconsequential side stories that have no relevance to the main plot. Regardless of their positive intentions, their superfluous nature is readily apparent. For instance, there’s an entire subplot revolving around the Professor as he second guesses his decision to retire. Teaching was his entire life and now that it’s gone, he realizes he has nothing else. His early breakdown during his retirement speech is both forced and unnecessary and his character arc is shallow. Similarly, there’s a young student named Dean (John Magaro) who Jesse runs into on his journey who has his own emotional problems. He’s a loner and a manic depressive who is there solely to make viewers feel something, regardless of how manufactured it may be.

You then, of course, have the new indie film character archetype: a crazy, prophetic, seemingly all-knowing guru with a quirky outlook on life named Nat (Zac Efron) who shows up only when Jesse’s tangled emotions need realigning. Every one of his moments are horribly contrived, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole. Radnor overloads his film with insignificant characters like these and he tries to find meaning everywhere, but he instead loses much of what he could have had with a more focused effort.

That’s not to say Radnor doesn’t have talent. He does, and you can see it in many areas in both his films. The dialogue is sharp, clever and sometimes profound and he always gets the best out of his performers—the beautiful, charming and talented Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, raises the movie above its typical humdrum rom-com material—but he too often succumbs to cinematic ADD and loses his focus. It’s like he heard the term “bigger is better” as a child and it engrained in his head, translating over to his feature films. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, sometimes, less is more.

Liberal Arts receives 2/5

Friday
Apr202012

The Lucky One

I’ve never read a Nicholas Sparks novel, so I can’t speak for their quality. For all I know, they’re wonderfully written sweeping romances that even the most jaded lover would embrace. His prose could be beautiful, describing in perfect detail the characters in his stories, their settings and the events they go through. I honestly don’t know, but as a simple storyteller, Sparks lacks creativity. Having seen every one of his book-to-film adaptations, from 1999’s Message in a Bottle to this week’s The Lucky One, I can say without a doubt the man doesn’t know how to craft a story. All he does is take the same basic formula, repackage it with a new traumatic event or life ending illness and crap it out onto the page, or in this case, the screen, for public consumption. He had some luck with the solid (yet still overrated) romance, The Notebook, but when you’re seven movies in and only one can legitimately be called good, it’s time to stop.

The Lucky One follows Logan (Zac Efron), a US Marine who has served three tours in Iraq. While on his last tour of duty, he spots a picture of a beautiful woman named Beth (Taylor Schilling) on the ground a few feet away from where he’s standing. His intrigue gets the best of him, so he walks over to pick it up. Just as he reaches the picture, a missile detonates behind him. The picture saved his life. When he gets back to the states, he decides to seek the girl in the photo out. He finds her in North Carolina, but doesn’t know how to explain to her what happened and why he has traveled so far from his home state of Colorado to see her. So instead, he takes a job she and her grandmother Ellie (Blythe Danner) are offering training dogs. Eventually, a romance sparks, but his secret can’t be kept hidden forever and it will threaten their happiness, especially if Beth’s ex-husband, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), can do anything about it.

Nicholas Sparks is not a romance writer. He’s a schmaltz writer, a hack hiding behind the guise of a hopeless romantic. His stories rarely earn their tears through good writing and interesting characters, but rather through manipulation. Sparks has an affinity for putting his characters through the wringer so his easily seduced literary and movie going demographic will feel something other than ambivalence. It’s not enough for the characters to have terrible things happen to them within the current setting of the story; he has to give them tragic pasts as well. When Beth says at one point that both her parents died in a car crash when she was young, the thought that comes to mind isn’t of sympathy or sadness, but rather of cynicism: “Of course they did.”

If you’ve seen the other movies based on Sparks’ books, this should come as no surprise, nor should the predictably overblown ending. Anyone can take someone else’s material, change a few things around and call it an original concept, but Sparks does it to himself. He’s a lazy storyteller without an original thought in his head, but that’s only offensive in the figurative sense. His recent trend of trivializing important world events and issues to fit his romantic upchucks is far worse. Similar to how Dear John used the tragedy of 9/11, The Lucky One uses the Iraq war and the post traumatic stress disorder many of our soldiers are diagnosed with after returning home to segue into fluffy romantic nonsense. At certain points in the movie, you see Logan jump in fear as he hears a loud bang or gunfire coming from the television as some kids play some video games. Later, his nephew wakes him from his slumber and he immediately slams the kid down on the bed and begins to choke him. What happens to many of those who return from war is a serious matter and is worthy of serious dramatic consideration, but using it as a means to sucker in easily emotionalized viewers is not only clumsy storytelling, but also disrespectful to the reality of such a thing.

The rest of The Lucky One fares about as one might expect: forced dramatic scenarios brought on by heightened caricatures, numerous montages set to the backdrop of a sappy sweet melody and lots of distant staring, one person emotionally longing for the other. In just about every way possible, The Lucky One is redundant, both of Sparks’ other stories and of the romance genre in general. It brings nothing new to the table, instead relying on the same contrived narrative procedures that fans of this tripe inexplicably eat up. If you’re one of those people, The Lucky One will do its job, but all others should steer clear.

The Lucky One receives 1/5

Friday
Mar022012

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from recent movies like Cars 2 and this week’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, it’s that creating an environmentally friendly message is very hard to do without coming off as preachy. If Cars 2 shoved its message down your throat, The Lorax beats you over the head with it. While there’s certainly something to be said about industrialization and its negative effects on the environment, The Lorax fails to bring it forth with resonance.

The film follows a young kid named Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) who lives in the town of Thneed-Ville. In his town, no living trees exist and to survive, air must be bought from business mogul and mayor, Mr. O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle). Ted has a crush on a pretty girl named Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) who longs to get away from the artificiality of their town’s blow-up plants and see a real tree. Perhaps naively, Ted figures the only way he’ll get Audrey to reciprocate his feelings is to find one, so he ventures outside of his town, which has been closed off from the rest of the world. Out there, he finds nothing but environmental destruction and eventually runs into a man called the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) who recounts his introduction to the guardian of the land, the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito), and how his invention began the destruction of what used to be a lively paradise.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax has good intentions, as most kids movies do. It tries to entertain the young ones in the audience with songs and colorful visuals while also, in its own goofy way, opening their eyes to the beauty of nature and the dangers of deforestation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and while I certainly don’t feel adamant enough about it to tell you not to take your child to see it, The Lorax over-emotionalizes its message to an intense degree. In an early scene, for example, after the Once-ler cuts down his first tree, the animals of the forest place symbolic mourning rocks around the tree and hold hands while slow, somber music begins to bellow from the speakers. Though it still would have been too much later in the film, it would have fit more appropriately after the full destruction of the forest. Its placement at such an early stage and after one tree is cut down is more comical than it is sad.

When not shamefully overstating the loss of a tree or laying on thick the destruction of a whole forest, The Lorax tries to be funny, but most of its humor consists of something or someone running into or hitting something or someone else. If you counted the number of times something like this happened to a character, be they human or animal, it would easily reach double digits by the halfway point, perhaps even sooner (much sooner) than that. Here is a movie that aims to tackle a real world problem, albeit in an emotionally over-the-top way, but then dumbs down everything surrounding the problem, essentially making a mockery of it. In simpler terms, the film’s message is too heavy while its humor is too light and those two extremes simply don’t work well together.

What really hurts the film, more than its stupid humor and overwrought themes, is its surprising lack of imagination, especially considering the name attached to it. For example, in the forest that is eventually destroyed, exactly three species of animals exist: geese, bears and fish. That’s it. All the wonderful creativity from other Dr. Seuss stories is missing here. The movie’s world isn’t vividly realized, the forest’s inhabitants are bland and the story, which consists mainly of flashback and little present day conflict, isn’t good enough to make up for it.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just an extremely bland one, which is sometimes worse. Some talent went into its making, for sure, but that same talent was put to better use in 2010’s Despicable Me. There’s no reason why that film should be more inventive than this (because, after all, who’s more inventive than Dr. Seuss?), but it lacks in all fields and its message, despite being the entire point of the movie, is misplaced. There’s nothing inappropriate about The Lorax, so if your child wants to see it, there’s no reason not to go. Just be prepared to sit through what it is rather than what it could (and should) be.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax receives 1.5/5

Friday
Dec092011

New Year's Eve

There are lots of different aspects of a movie that can make or break it. One of the most important is focus. When a movie meanders too much or introduces too many characters or tries to juggle multiple stories in its short runtime, it almost never works. The exception to that rule is 2003’s Love Actually, a delightful, though still certainly flawed romance that now ranks among many people’s must watch love stories. Last year’s Valentine’s Day attempted to recreate that movie’s charm and scraped by on the skin of its teeth. Now that film’s director is attempting to recreate his own recreation with New Year’s Eve, an unwise decision. The small amount of luck he had with Valentine’s Day is all but gone and most of the joy that comes from watching it is due to how bad it gets as it draws nearer to its conclusion. New Year’s Eve takes cheese to an entirely new level.

The film is told through a number of vignettes featuring characters on December 31st, 2011 as they prepare for what the new year will bring. There’s Claire (Hilary Swank), the person in charge of the New York City ball drop, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), an unhappy record company employee who has just quit her job, Paul (Zac Efron), the young delivery boy Ingrid buys for the day to help her meet a list of goals before midnight, Stan (Robert De Niro), an old man dying in the hospital, Aimee (Halle Berry), his nurse, Tess (Jessica Biel), who is close to giving birth but is trying to hold out with her husband Griffin (Seth Meyers) until midnight because the first family to give birth in the new year gets a large cash prize, and Grace (Sarah Paulson) and James Schwab (Til Schweiger), the competing pregnant couple across the hall.

Believe it or not, I haven’t even come close to naming off all the film’s characters. Not mentioned in the above synopsis are Cary Elwes, Alyssa Milano, Common, Carla Gugino, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, James Belushi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Josh Duhamel, Ludacris and more. The film leaves no celebrity unturned, even going so far as to give Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons, a supporting role. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy playing “spot the celebrity,” but it doesn’t make for the most structured movie. Rather than introducing them organically through the needs of the story, they are introduced just as they are, as celebrities. It becomes distracting.

But in a movie with so little going for it, that hardly matters. As expected with a film that crams so much in a small amount of time, none of the individual stories are given room to breathe. Most are sped through so as not to make the movie five hours long, which gives little time for characterization. The two or three interesting stories are either overshadowed by a dozen other lousy ones or undermined by poor writing, where conflicts are thrown in arbitrarily in a desperate attempt to build emotion by the end, like the scene where Paul stands alone in a room with Ingrid and talks to his pal on the phone about how pathetic she is, as if she can’t hear him while she’s standing a few yards away. Moments like these derail New Year’s Eve from what is already a pretty wobbly track.

But hating the film is not easy. It’s cheery and optimistic, even if that optimism borders on annoyance. It knows its audience and it panders to them. The simplicity of its story is exactly what the people who go to see this will want, so in a strange way, you could almost call it a success. Luckily, however, its simplicity doesn’t carry all the way to its end. There are a few legitimate surprises in store for its viewers, a twist or two that actually manage to create some intrigue as the clock strikes midnight for the characters, even though the film’s window for emotion is long gone by then. Still, getting to those clever twists is a chore. New Year’s Eve is only two hours long, but its gooey amounts of cheese and hilariously awful song numbers will make it feel like you’re watching the whole stupid day unfold.

New Year’s Eve receives 1.5/5