Short takes: Neighbors 2, A Bigger Splash & Money Monster

Neighbors 2 sorority rising

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising — Neighbors 2 is not as consistently funny as Nicholas Stoller’s surprisingly hilarious original, though it does take admirable strides to be more inclusive and address some of the issues that held the first one back.  Sorority Rising goes out of its way early on to confront some of the homophobia that plagued the first movie, with one of the frat bros (Dave Franco) getting engaged and booting his former leader Teddy (Zac Efron) out of their apartment.  Teddy is having a hard time adjusting to life outside of college, especially with the extensive criminal record his feud with former neighbors Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne).  He fills the void (and a half-hearted desire for revenge) by helping a group of freshman women (led by Chloe Grace Moretz) start up a sorority in the same house.  That backfires when the sisters get weirded out by Teddy and kick him out of, and Sorority Rising really kicks into gear when he decides to team up with Mac and Kelly.

The women’s desire to start their own sorority is spurned by the gross sexism of the established Greek system, which only allows frats to throw parties.  Those parties largely revolve around debasing women, which makes the sisters’ struggle for independence much more sympathetic than the frat brother’s struggles in the first movie.  Their generational feud with Mac and Kelly is more poignant, if not as funny, than the first.  Sorority Rising is lacking in the manic energy and vibrant set pieces that helped the original overshadow its shoddy story.  There is one notable exception: a hilarious weed heist that Mac, Teddy, Kelly and a couple of their friends stage at football tailgate.  Teddy gyrates around on a stage to distract the sorority sisters while the others grab the drugs, and the resulting chase when they catch them mid-theft gives the movie a much needed spark.  Though there aren’t enough scenes like that, much of what worked in Neighbors still works well enough here, namely Rogen and Byrne’s comedic and romantic chemistry and Efron’s raw, warm physicality.  Grade: C+

A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash — Within the first couple minutes of A Bigger Splash, Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino map out two contrasting portraits of its main character.  There is the communal intimacy Swinton’s character, the musician Marianne Lane, feels as she takes the stage, and the quiet, sensual bliss she feels laying naked by the pool with her boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). The clash between these two scenes is jolting both in their shifts in atmosphere and in how Marianne is framed in them- a close-up of her silver streaked face as her eyes scan the crowd at the concert, a removed distance from her nude body reading by the pool as Paul sunbathes.

Though the concert scene is brief, as are the movie’s other flashbacks to Marianne’s rowdier rock star days, it helps inform her character’s interiority.  This is especially helpful given that for all of the present day scenes in A Bigger Splash, she is rendered nearly silent after a procedure on her vocal chords (she whispers occasionally). Her and Paul have retreated to the Italian island of Pantelleria for her to recover and relax, though that is interrupted when her old friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) shows up with his daughter (a scene-stealing Dakota Johnson).

Fiennes gives an unexpectedly aggressive performance here, burying Harry’s jealously toward Marianne and Paul’s happiness with rambunctious acts of attention-seeking.  Having an actress as transfixing as Swinton relegated to a largely silent part may seem a waste, but the power of her screen presence is one of the movie’s main focuses.  Harry’s desperate search for attention only underscores that.  Guadagnino’s camera captures the sun-drenched ecstasy of Pantelleria and ties its characters’ sexuality to the island’s earthiness.  They bathe in the mud while kissing, or lay out nude in the sun on hot black rocks.  The movie’s eroticism carries an undercurrent of dread that erupts in a tragic, unexpected climax.  A Bigger Splash is never less than transfixing, a sexy, jealousy-tinged pool party that becomes a quietly beguiling portrait of the privileges of stardom.  Grade: B+

Money Monster

Money Monster – Jodie Foster’s Money Monster is a serviceable, occasionally thrilling drama that stretches its own conceit too far to underscore a point.  The movie revolves around a financial TV show (also named Money Monster) that is taken over by one of its viewers who lost everything after investing in one of the companies that was recommended on air.  As Lee Gates, the host, George Clooney is woefully miscast.  The role calls for a trapped wolf, someone whose swaggering confidence is confronted with the real-life implications of his hyperbolic showmanship.  Clooney plays the role more as a disobedient puppy, trying to make Gates too much of an everyman too quickly. His performance works by the end, but only because the script abruptly transforms the character into someone who wants to help Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), the man holding Gates and the show’s crew hostage.

Julia Roberts fares much better as Patty Fenn, the show’s calm-under-fire producer.  She whispers into Gates’ ear through his ear piece throughout the movie, trying to help him interact with and appease Budwell.  Foster generates palpable suspense in these moments by playing off the nervousness of both Gates and his captor.  Though Budwell’s backstory is kept to a minimum, perhaps the movie’s best scene is in a brief exchange he has with his pregnant girlfriend via video chat.  The police, who set up a mobile command center outside the studio, use her to try and calm him down, but she unleashes a torrent of pent-up anger on him.  It’s here that the economic anxieties at the core of the movie crucially resonate.  Though Foster’s direction is polished and tense within the confines of the TV studio, it clashes with the more absurd turns of the third act.  Instead of going with the story’s unbelievability, it’s played with a completely straight face.  Money Monster’s highs in the first act make its limitations and unfulfilled potential in the end even more grating.  Grade: C

 

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