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Review: Neighbors

The promo materials implore us to vote either #TeamFrat or #TeamFamily on Twitter, though we’re way more likely to be split between #TeamPecEfron and #TeamByrneBoobsplosion.

 

2.0

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Neighbors
Photo: Universal Pictures

“He looks like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory,” marvels paunchy Mac (Seth Rogen) to his almost equally awestruck wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne), about the tank-topped boy next door. Because that taut and tawny boy Teddy (Zac Efron) and his alky band of fraternity bros are in the middle of noisily unloading their moving van filled with two-story beer bongs, turntables, and Dixie cups, their lascivious admiration doesn’t last. Neighbors, not so much homo-social as it is homo-observational, pits Mac and Kelly, vaguely reluctant new parents trying desperately to hold onto their waning good-time years, against a raucous guild of priapic party animals. Their barely intergenerational beefing would be all too meta for this roster of Apatow-adjacent players and filmmakers were the movie not so doggedly magnanimous, at least so far as its profuse male characters are concerned. Not for nothing do two characters spend the majority of an entire scene spitballing variations on the maxim, “bros before hoes.”

Mac and Kelly are in the middle of their joint post-quarter-life, pre-midlife crisis, not ready to relinquish their fondness for getting amped at unannounced Prince concerts, snarfing shrooms with both hands, eating pizza in bed, and having sex in every room of their new house. To wit, their first impulsive concern when they realize they’re going to have to share a property line with keg-standing night owls is that the college kids won’t think they’re cool, not that their infant is going to have to learn how to fall asleep to dubstep lullabies. They hope their preemptive peace offering from their personal pot stash will balance out their highly rehearsed chillax request to “keep it down.” It isn’t until slack pheromones and wilted prophylactics start drifting over onto their lawn that their Gran Torino instincts start to kick in. If they can get the university to hand the frat a third strike for violating the code of conduct, their gang will be forced to disband and put the house up for sale (hopefully to that cute gay couple and their playdate-ready baby).

Directed with uncharacteristic curtness by Nicholas Stoller, who previously turned The Five-Year Engagement’s foot-dragging Peter Pan syndrome into what felt like a four-hour ordeal, Neighbors sells the conflict between primarily Mac and Teddy as its main attraction. In fact, the promotional materials implore viewers to vote either #TeamFrat or #TeamFamily on Twitter, though the audience is way more likely to be split between #TeamPecEfron and #TeamByrneBoobsplosion. But predictably sublimated beneath their airbag-hiding, dildo-slapping, dance-offing rivalry are fears about transitioning from one dick-abundant phase in life to the next stage, one ominously lacking in phallic supremacy and instead dominated by one lone vagina. (Byrne’s own struggle to keep up a façade of fulfillment while staying at home to raise their daughter is relegated to B-story status.) The shrewdest moment in the entire film arrives via a series of flashback sequences that skewer the veneration boys have for this phase, depicting the purported “invention” of beer pong and toga parties during eras past, giving nodding cameos to the Lonely Island and the boys of Workaholics (an immensely savvier deconstruction of prolonged latency periods).

The movie must know most of its audience is on the same page because, pushing aside some of the climax’s excellently choreographed fight flailing, nearly every punchline in the whole film centers around how deliciously and reassuringly revolting male loins are…or are they? At one point, to raise badly needed funds, the fraternity casts molds of their own dicks to sell to their neighbors, managing to raise well in excess of $10,000. Selling particularly well is the baseball bat-sized unit modeled by Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Scoonie. And then there’s Dave Franco (who any reasonably cultured soul would know is actually what a gay guy would design in a laboratory) playing Teddy’s second-in-command Pete, a secretly scholarly psychologist who can accurately diagnose exactly why Teddy hates Mac, but who for some reason won’t acknowledge the true reason he’s able to spontaneously sprout wood whenever he’s in a room full of drunk 19-year-old men. Oh cum on, Cum Laude!

Cast: Zac Efron, Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gallo, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Craig Roberts, Lisa Kudrow Director: Nicholas Stoller Screenwriter: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O'Brien Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2014 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Working Woman Is Powerful Testimony to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Michal Aviad’s film forcefully brings home a reality that many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

3.5

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Working Woman
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

The general outline of director Michael Aviad’s Working Woman will be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the discussions provoked by Me Too—and familiar to most women professionals, for that matter. An industrious, white-collar working mother finds herself the target of her superior’s unwanted and violating sexual advances, and despite her attempts to vocalize her discomfort, both his relative power and her precarious economic situation stand in the way of her making a clean break. But—and in this way, Aviad’s film is not unlike Leaving NeverlandWorking Woman is able to forcefully bring home a reality many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

The film captures the unspoken pressures that keep sexual harassment victims silent and force them into situations where it seems almost impossible to say “no” with enough authority to make the harasser stop. Liron Ben-Shlush plays Orna, a young Israeli mother who gets a job working as a personal assistant to Tel Aviv real estate magnate Benny (Menasche Noy). Orna’s husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), runs a fledging restaurant, and their family comes to rely on her income as Ofer’s dream project struggles through its unprofitable first few months. As Benny’s assistant, Orna finds something like a calling: Intelligent and personable, she proves particularly adept at finding buyers for Benny’s under-construction high-rise on Rishon Beach.

It becomes painfully difficult to tell whether Benny’s praise of Orna’s sales acumen is genuine, as he uses his approbation to engineer situations in which, alone with her and unobserved, he can test and violate the professional boundary between them. His harassment of her starts with small comments: In an early scene, he uses a prospective buyer’s orthodoxy and wealth as an excuse to instruct Orna to put her hair down and wear a skirt (“conservative but chic”) to their meeting. The film grows increasingly tense and unsettling as these ambiguous comments—which you can see Orna trying to rationalize as mere professional advice—escalate to full-on assaults. Benny, performatively contrite after the first forced kissed, grows increasingly brazen, ignoring Orna’s obvious indications that she’s uncomfortable with his advances.

Orna’s experiences at work, of course, have an impact on her personal and home life. Her relationship with Ofer is both affectionate and mutually supportive, but Ofer’s support has limits determined by the same sort of toxic masculinity that produces the Bennys of the world: Ofer is unable to view Orna’s work situation outside of the framework of his own concerns, whether it be the restaurant or his supposed rights to her body. Emotionally and financially, Orna is increasingly painted into a corner, and most of this distress goes unspoken; one of the film’s points, of course, is that in such situations there’s no one to turn to.

This means that much of what the film has to communicate, especially for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew, is delivered through Ben-Shlush’s gestures and expressions rather than in dialogue. The actress signifies her character’s dubious acquiescence and repressed revulsion in a gamut of forced smiles and hesitant body language, but Orna never feels like a one-note character—a victim only. Her workplace is a source of pride as well as a threatening space. One can understand her getting caught up in the thrill of making a difficult sell and forgetting that celebration drinks with Benny might be a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t she be able to?

Aviad concentrates us on the physical and psychological details of harassment largely through such communicative performances and precise blocking. There isn’t excessive commentary in the film’s editing: At a crowded birthday party at Benny’s, we notice in subtly composed long shot the way Benny takes her by the hand to introduce her to other attendees (in actuality, we suspect, to separate her from her husband), and doesn’t let go. There’s no close-up of their hands, or on Orna’s face, but we can almost see her squirming on the inside, and can’t help but notice that Benny is refusing to cease physical contact with her.

Working Woman thus becomes a deeply and intentionally unsettling film. Like Benny, the tension creeps up on the viewer, and the stress ratchets up as Orna is forced into more and more impossible circumstances. Many professional women will probably not need Aviad’s film as proxy to relate to that kind of stress, but for those of us who haven’t directly experienced a Benny, the film is a powerful testimony.

Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen Director: Michal Aviad Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad Distributor: Zeitgeist Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.

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Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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Review: A Vigilante Is a Revenge Film with Delusions of Grandeur

It conspicuously tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess.

1.5

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A Vigilante
Photo: Saban Films

Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess, operating less as an action thriller than as a kitchen-sink character study. Sadie (Olivia Wilde) is a young woman who’s clearly been wronged, judging by the scars on her back and crying fits that suggest someone in the throes of PTSD. In what almost appears to be a form of therapy, Sadie helps women and children escape domestic abuse, running husbands and negligent mothers off with physical action, sometimes after forcing the predators to sign much of their net worth over to the aggrieved parties. In other words, Sadie is an Equalizer. However, Daggar-Nickson’s violent scenes are pointedly leached of the nightmarish snap of the set pieces of Antoine Fuqua’s Equalizer films.

The Equalizer and its sequel are less concerned with notions of justice than with providing the narcotic thrill of violence as wrought by an intensely charismatic actor. By contrast, A Vigilante foregrounds the pain of victims who’re usually reduced by revenge movies to inciting incidents. This film’s violence occurs in sharp, unpleasant bursts, and offers neither Sadie nor the audience relief. Daggar-Nickson lingers instead on the faces of battered women, particularly those in the support group that Sadie attends. The women are poignant, often whispering as if they’re still locked in the terrifying vice of their tormentors.

In case viewers miss the intensity of A Vigilante’s virtuousness, Daggar-Nickson also favors close-ups with hard lightning and landscapes that are rife with snow, sterile highways, and dead trees. Any sign of pleasure or life would compromise the filmmaker’s earnest devotion to hopelessness and trauma. Sadie isn’t even allowed to fleetingly enjoy the first sip of a bourbon that she orders in a bar that is, of course, sleazy and uninviting.

A Vigilante’s women and children may not be utilized as pawns for an action scenario, but it’s reductive how the film’s victims here are defined only by how they’ve been violated. Sadie is no exception to this rule, and we’re meant to unquestioningly champion her exploits in a manner that’s ultimately familiar of the manipulations of less self-conscious genre cinema, which usually offers at least the nominal value of disreputable excitement. A Vigilante sucks all the thrills out of a thriller, and offers nothing else to fill the void.

The irony of the film is that Wilde may have had a better role if she’d been allowed to indulge her inner bloodlust, as Denzel Washington did in the Equalizer films. In the end, Daggar-Nickson’s sermonizing becomes a kind of straitjacket. Wilde is a terrific actor, and it’s perverse to watch her whittle down her expressiveness so that Daggar-Nickson may make a theoretically “realist” genre flick. Wilde has one startling moment in A Vigilante, in which Sadie, after putting on makeup as she prepares for one of her equalizing campaigns, smiles with a manic quality that suggests both glee and madness. This brief scene evinces an originality, and a curiosity about Sadie’s inner life, that’s otherwise missing from the film.

Cast: Olivia Wilde, Morgan Spector, Tonye Patano, Betsy Aidem, C.J. Wilson, Judy Marte, Kyle Catlett, Olivia Gilliatt, Cheryse Dyllan Director: Sarah Daggar-Nickson Screenwriter: Sarah Daggar-Nickson Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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