(Video on Demand, October 2016) There’s something to be said for consistency in evolution, and so the best thing to say about Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is that it should make fans of the first film happy without necessarily re-threading its plot. Here, our new-parent homeowners (now expecting Child #2) have to deal with a sorority moving next door, further complicated by the fact that if the girls may be unbearable as a sorority, they’re not unsympathetic on their own or in their overall objectives. It predictable escalates, especially when the party wildcard of the first film (Zac Efron, still remarkably likable) is brought back by one side, and then the other. While the film takes a few minutes to bring together its three subplots, it predictably escalates to tit-for-tat aggression and a ramp-up to a big ultimate party in which everything gets solved. The R-rated humour is rarely subtle or refined, but the film does earn its share of smirks and smiles. Seth Rogan plays Seth Rogan, while Rose Byrne is once again very funny. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is not particularly refined filmmaking, but it works at being a crude comedy. Given the suburban ending, though, I wonder where else the series can go from there.
(Video on Demand, October 2015) By now, the Bond spy film formula has been spoofed, lampooned and deconstructed so often (even within the Bond series) that Bond-parodies have become a sub-genre in themselves. Spy arrives in this crowded field with a few advantages: Melissa McCarthy may have a divisive comic persona, but she’s absolutely shameless in getting whatever laughs she can, and when you have the production budged to get both Jude Law and Jason Statham as comic foils, it’s already a step up from the usual B-grade effort. So it is that director Paul Feig tries his damnedest to deliver a polished Bond parody, and does score a good number of laughs along the way. His action scenes may not be as good as they could be (although there is a pretty good kitchen fight late in the film) but Spy does have a reasonable veneer of big-budget polish. McCarthy isn’t entirely annoying as a CIA desk agent compelled to become a field operative, but Jason Statham steals the show as an insane and ineffective parody of the kind of action hero he often plays. (Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz also shine in smaller roles.) Otherwise, Spy gets a lot of mileage out of combining puerile humor with its spy subject matter, although the deconstruction/reconstruction mechanism is very familiar by now. It does feel a bit long (something that probably wasn’t helped by seeing the slightly-longer and more digressive “unrated version”) but there is a decent amount of plot to go with the improvised jokes. While Spy doesn’t break as much tradition as it thinks it does, it remains a decent comedy, a fair showcase for McCarthy and a step up for Feig, whose direction seems to improve slightly with every film.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) Complaining that college fraternity comedy Neighbors is too frat-boyish is entirely missing the point of the film and yet… it may still be a worthwhile point. As someone with fresh memories of taking care of a baby, I expected to feel more sympathy for the protagonist couple of this film, as they try to live next door to a fraternity house with raucous parties. But there’s a limit to the respectability of a protagonist when he’s played by Seth Rogen: weed addiction, profanity and raunchiness usually follow in close succession, and his performance as a flawed father in Neighbors is no exception. (I had to restrain myself from muttering a few instances of “Bad parenting! Bad parenting!”) I’m not going to pretend that the film isn’t funny: Both Rose Byrne and Zac Efron get a chance to earn theirs laughs and the escalation of absurdity between the protagonists and the frat-house denizens gets steadily more ludicrous. This is quality comedy, sometimes sloppy in its details but dynamic from beginning to end. For all of the reprehensible humor of the film, most characters get a few more introspective moments than strictly warranted and there’s a bit of thematic content about impending adulthood running through the film… all without ruining the often go-for-broke comedy. The very thing that makes Neighbors annoying (the irresponsibility of its so-called protagonists) is exactly what makes the film a bit deeper than expected. While it won’t become a classic, Neighbors should, at least, earn a grudging respect, even when it dips a bit too deeply into gross dumbness.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) The horror genre has a long history of great films leading to so-so sequels, and Insidious 2 is now part of that tradition. Insidious made a mark partly by being one of the first good American horror movie in a while that wasn’t trying to rely on found-footage tropes, and it heralded a number of similar or better movies in its wake, from Sinister to The Conjuring. Still, it wasn’t without its flaws, and this sequel seems to dwell at length on those less successful aspects while throwing in a number of old clichés. Oh, so a cross-dressing serial killer is the big bad guy of the series? Let me get my fainting salts. In overall impact, Insidious 2 cranks down the dial from Good to Average with far more conventional thrills and a familiar formula. (Keep in mind, though, that the titular “Chapter 2” is there for a reason: this is absolutely not a stand-alone sequel, and it is best seen immediately after the first film.) There are still plenty of things to like –including going back in time to explain goose-bumps from the first film, acknowledging its own absurdity with a well-placed “So that’s what it was all about”, an effective jump-shot explaining what the phantom piano-playing meant, and finding a more-than-adequate younger counterpart for Lin Shaye in Lindsay Seim. Shaye once again steals the spotlight during her short appearance, while Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne do what is expected of them (though Wilson has a harder dual role to manage). Meanwhile, director James Wan continues to perfect his technique: this follow-up is a bit less blunt in its scares than its predecessor. By the time the shock-ending title card rolls around, we’ve seen enough to be entertained, but not quite enough to be impressed: Insidious 2 gets credits for being an acceptable follow-up, but it’s far more ordinary that it should have been.
(On DVD, October 2014) Having missed Insidious in theaters, then on DVD, then on Cable TV even as its reputation grew as a good example of recent American horror, I found myself playing catch-up late at night, finally finding out for myself was the fuss was about. As it turns out, Insidious isn’t too bad, but director James Wan’s follow-up The Conjuring is a bit better and thus retroactively colors Insidious‘ impact. Both movies have similar starting points, with families in new houses being imperilled by demonic forces and semi-professional helpers coming to help them. But it’s the execution that counts, and while The Conjuring did well with a soft-spoken acceleration of horrors, Insidious is quite a bit blunter in how it marks scares with big musical stings. Much of the first hour feels conventional, as innocent people (and audiences) are progressively spooked by strange happenings. But there are hints that something weirder is at play, and by the time the last half-hour moves from haunted house to possessed bodies to astral travel, Insidious becomes interesting in ways that most horror movies third acts usually don’t. Still, that final half-hour is also in many ways the silliest, as the film’s ambitions run against its budget, and the literalization of some metaphors (coupled with a more frenetic rhythm) doesn’t quite work as intended. Once the monster is to be shown, part of the mystique disappears. Still, it’s quite a bit better than your average horror movie, and it benefits from a couple of good performances: Patrick Wilson is fine as the everyday-man protagonist with a secret, while Rose Byrne delivers exactly the expected as the suffering wife, but it’s really Lin Shaye who steals the spotlight as a paranormal expert who knows far too much. Effective scares and jumps and creepy hints all cleverly pepper the film, and the result is enjoyable. Still, in retrospect Insidious may be most noteworthy as a bridge to other better films, from Sinister to The Conjuring.