Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Catch-Up: Winter 2014-15

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: catching up with cold weather diversions.

The Interview
Dirs. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

2.5 out of 5

In the wild weeks that took The Interview on its ride from mildly anticipated comedy to potential national security threat to free speech cause célèbre, it was difficult to imagine how we could ever talk about it as a movie.  Turns out it didn't take much - you just had to watch the thing.  Far from the supposedly inflammatory, outrageously disrespectful screed that motivated a group of hackers to raid Sony Pictures' hard drives and threaten moviegoers with violence, the satire of The Interview is more like the prepubescent reaction to a hidden cache of Playboy magazines.  It feels naughty and vaguely transgressive, but it doesn't fully grasp the possibilities.

Just in case you are reading this outside the white-hot political crucible of late 2014, The Interview concerns Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen), the veteran producer of a tabloid news show hosted by Dave Skylark (James Franco), whose quest to boost the program's prestige leads to an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (Randall Park).  Rogen and Goldberg are savvy in presenting Un as a madman who only pretends to play the buffoon, particularly as he butters up the venal, guileless Skylark with an over-the-top bromance.  Still, The Interview has trouble deciding which route to take, so it often settles on silliness for silliness' sake.  The slightly more serious themes that buttressed Rogen's other 2014 film, Neighbors, are not to be found here, and the result is an amiably goofy yet shapeless comedy.

Top Five
Dir. Chris Rock

4 out of 5

Chris Rock is rightly considered one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all-time - a cultural, comic, and critical voice like few others in his generation - but you wouldn't know that from a cinematic oeuvre that includes misfires like Down to Earth and Head of State.  Even though his overall legacy is quite secure, the winning romantic comedy Top Five is a big step toward rectifying that career blind spot.  Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up prodigy turned star of the Hammy the Bear trilogy, a lowbrow yet wildly successful comedy film franchise that features Allen fighting crime in a bear suit.  He's trying to salvage his career and his self-respect by transitioning to drama, though he's also distracted by the sideshow of his impending televised wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union).  It all comes to a head throughout a busy day while Andre is in New York City promoting his newest project - a violent historical slave rebellion epic - and being shadowed by a reporter (Rosario Dawson) who forces Andre to come to terms with the decisions he's made, both in his career and in his life.

Top Five is a madcap, banter-heavy fireworks show in the classic screwball comedy tradition.  Rock is omnivorous in his influences, and has a blast combining the familiar - vintage Woody Allen, His Girl Friday, anything from Meg Ryan's late '80s/'90s heyday - with his own sensibility, forged within the traditions of African-American comedy and the fraternity of stand-up.  Though the movie rarely throws a true curveball, Rock follows his gameplan with energy and precision, keeping Andre's exaggerated plight grounded in details that paint a more robust picture of its lead couple as human beings.  Ultimately, Top Five's biggest advantage over more generic, focus-grouped comedies stuffed with cameos and throwaway jokes (which Rock admittedly takes advantage of as well) is its individuality - a quality derived from the movie's character-driven humor and Rock's own unapologetic point of view.

The Boy Next Door
Dir. Rob Cohen

1.5 out of 5

Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman) is the most impossible high school senior I've ever seen in a movie.  For the first 20 minutes of sleazy thriller The Boy Next Door, he's an incredibly buff, Iliad-quoting, garage door-fixing, great uncle-caretaking, surrogate-fathering fantasy for the recently separated Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez), a suburban schoolteacher whose current man of the house is her dweeby teenage son (Ian Nelson).  Noah and Claire inevitably bump uglies in classic late-night Cinemax fashion, but when Claire realizes her mistake and tries to break off their non-relationship, it doesn't take long for the boy to reveal him as an angry, manipulative psychopath - a even more preposterous character who tracks closer to "Batman villain" than "spurned jock."

There is nothing noteworthy about The Boy Next Door, a self-serious take on material that's one step above amateur erotic fiction and not nearly as fun as the Lifetime movie version would undoubtedly be.  Lopez's big comeback is limited to 30 minutes of lounging in various nightgowns and an additional hour of looking mildly concerned as feverishly dumb reveals pile up in a triumph of hackneyed storytelling.  (Though, to be fair, Claire's totally normal job as a classics teacher at a public high school allows the filmmakers to sprinkle in pretentious references to Oedipus and the works of Homer.)  Ultimately, The Boy Next Door exists solely for two scenes - the steamy May-December sexytime that's built up with all the subtlety of a softcore porno, and Claire's vigilante retribution against a lunatic who surely would have raised about a million red flags by now - presumably to pander to our most forbidden desires while reassuring us of our moral uprightness.  It's an annoying case of a movie trying to have it both ways.  Too bad neither of them work in the slightest.

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