The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

Big Top PT

The Greatest Showman

by Hope Madden

In so many ways, The Greatest Showman is a wildly inappropriate vision of the life of PT Barnum—a politician, spokesman for temperance, abolitionist and, above all things, an outsized promoter and self-promoter. He’d been all these things for decades before he dipped his toe into the circus industry, but what fun is that story?

Let’s rewrite. We need romance, lessons, heartwarming children and resolvable, tidy drama. Barnum as a tot, working dirty-faced and split-shoed besides his father, tailoring for Dickensian clients and wages. But he has dreams. Big dreams.

Yes, the film simplifies the actual story of Barnum’s life to its barest lessons-to-be-learned minimum. The oversimplification spills into the core conflict (of many) in the man’s actual history: his presentation and monetization of “human curiosities.”

But maybe that’s where this movie is closest to the truth. It is selling you an enjoyable time, spinning your head with breathless setpieces, color, glamour, surprise, happiness. Sleight of hand. And at the same time selling the tale that, no matter how Barnum may have used these people for his own profit, this is really a story of empowerment.

“Some critics might have even called this show a celebration of humanity,” says Barnum’s harshest critic, New York Herald writer James Gordon Bennett.

As genuinely if superficially enjoyable as The Greatest Showman is, there is something unseemly in embracing so tidy a view.

Still, Hugh Jackman—maybe the most charismatic performer in modern film—is in great voice in yet another big, big musical. His earnest likeability and exuberance convince you to disregard your instincts on this film just as surely as his Barnum uses the same tactics to lure uncertain outcasts out of the shadows and onto the stage.

Michelle Williams fares less well as Barnum’s wife Charity, saddled as she is with the bottomless devotion and forgiveness that is the mark of the underwritten spouse character. Rebecca Ferguson mines for emotional clarity in a small role and a magnetic Keala Settle is a natural fit for the heart and soul of Barnum’s “curiosities.”

Director Michael Gracey, working from a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, crafts a Moulin Rouge-esque vision that transports you, which is appropriate when tackling the life of PT Barnum.

It also works to convince you that all this—the spotlight, the manipulation, the exploitation, the laughter and the admiration—was the best possible thing for Barnum’s performers.

Barnum might have liked that spin, too, but maybe that’s the problem.

Hi Doggie!

The Disaster Artist

by Hope Madden

There is genuine affection in James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-scenes biopic that gets inside the making of the best bad movie of all time.

Yes, The Room is the best—better than Plan 9 from Outer Space and Trolls 2. They’re in the same league because The Room is what these “classics” are – a simply god-awful movie made with such unpredictable creative vision that you cannot help but be amazed. It’s just that The Room has it in greater abundance.

It’s also a story of Hollywood dreams coming true, as well as a lovely tale of friendship. And, of course, a glimpse at one of the most unusual men in film, Tommy Wiseau.

In 2003, Wiseau released The Room, a film he wrote, produced, directed, financed and starred in. Not particularly well.

Almost fifteen years later, The Room has seen cult adoration the likes few besides Rocky Horror would ever see. Because it is awful. So, so gloriously awful.

Directing his 19th feature (!!), Franco seems to have finally found a subject that suits his sensibilities, filling the screen not with vicious mockery as much as awe.

Jacki Weaver is magnificent as a baffled actor trying to do quality work. Zac Efron also turns in a startlingly solid performance – not because Efron is not usually solid, he is – but because this film doesn’t call for that kind of commitment. And Josh Hutcherson is a hoot in a bad, bad wig.

Franco’s performance as Wiseau is uncanny, and mercifully, his film doesn’t attempt to uncover the mystery behind this genuinely unusual creature. As future bestie (and author of the book on which the film is based) Greg, Dave Franco sets the mood almost immediately.

Recently embarrassed by his own stage fright during an acting class performance, Greg sits mesmerized by Wiseau’s writhing, prop-climbing onstage “Stella!” Where the rest of the class looks away in embarrassment, Greg soaks it in.

It strikes a sweet balance between embarrassment and affection that the film maintains throughout—one that not only allows us to embrace this freakish figure at the center of the film but mirrors the very emotion that has made The Room a lasting cult joy.

If you worry you won’t be able to follow The Disaster Artist without seeing The Room, two things: 1) Franco rolls scenes from both movies side by side to give you context and point out that this movie is no spoof. 2) Go see The Room!

Sexy Meddling Kids

Baywatch

by George Wolf

Did you hear about the lifeguards that fight crime?

“Wow, that sounds like a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show!”

So says Brody (Zac Efron), one of the new recruits on the super lifeguard team at Emerald Bay, and this very self-aware attitude is the main reason the big screen Baywatch works as well as it does.

Yes, the entire premise has always been a ridiculous excuse to ogle beautiful bodies, so director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) wisely chooses to have some fun with that and not be stingy with the slo-mo!

Dwayne Johnson is Mitch, head of the Baywatch team and all-around King of the Beach. He’s got Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach) as his veterans on the squad, while Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass) are rookies who just won their spots during open tryouts.

Then there’s Matt Brody (pinching his character name from two of the lead roles in Jaws is another clue this film’s tongue is in the right cheek), an Olympic swimmer nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” for the way his career flamed out thanks to gold medal partying.

Brody arrives thinking he’s God’s gift to Baywatch, quickly learns some humility, and joins the team just as they’ve stumbled onto another case. Could local business tycoon Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra from TV’s Quantico) really be the biggest drug dealer on the beach?

And she might get away with it, too, if not for these lifeguards and their sexy meddling!

Writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift come from the land of bad horror (Freddy vs. Jason, Friday the 13th reboot) but they’re able to tap into a witty and breezy R-rated vibe that tests some crude waters without ever diving in.

As often as the ladies flaunt buns and cleavage, Johnson and Efron’s suns out/guns out show gets even more attention, which seems only fair as their roles also have the most substance. It helps that the actors share an easy, likable chemistry and neither is above poking fun at their own image. Self-deprecation is usually endearing, and running gags involving Brody’s nicknames and a “mini-Mitch” aquarium decoration are consistent winners.

Hey, it’s summer, the perfect time for a trashy little novel to read by the pool. Baywatch fits that same bill, and ends up all the more fun for not trying to be anything else.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Altar Boys

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

by Hope Madden

Back in 2012, Aubrey Plaza starred in an eccentric little SciFi adventure based on a Craigslist ad. Safety Not Guaranteed was a surprised (and welcome) hit, partly because of writer Derek Connelly’s fertile imagination, partly because of the genuinely bizarre ad: Wanted: Somebody to go back in time. This is no joke. You’ll get paid after. Bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have done this once before.

That is ripe.

Since then, two all-American bros took to Craigslist to get dates to a wedding they were forbidden to attend stag for fear they would harass all the female guests and become generally unruly. That particular ad has already been milked of every conceivable bit of interest, with TV spots AND a book. A book! And yet, Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (writers behind the Neighbors franchise) have adapted the ad for the new film Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

It also stars Plaza, alongside Anna Kendrick, Zac Efron and Adam Devine as the destination-wedding-bound foursome.

Jake Szymanski directs the raunchy comedy that pits two lovable losers trapped in their never ending adolescence against the equally immature but more scheming young women just looking for a free trip to Hawaii.

Efron and Plaza co-starred in the very-R comedy Dirty Grandpa earlier this year, with Devine and Kendrick sharing the screen in both Pitch Perfect films. The four of them are likeable and – to varying degrees – talented. They’d have to be comedic lightning bolts to get this off the ground, though.

With a plot this thin, the film has to lean too heavily on shock situations and over-the-top language to generate any energy. Expect moms to call sons “assholes,” sisters to bare some pelt, and Aubrey Plaza to demonstrate sexual technique using texting as the metaphor.

The cast offsets the raunch with character earnestness (except for Plaza, who’s all in), but the film always feels too slapped together to hold water and a bit to mean-spirited to merit more than a smile here and there.

The whole thing is so thin, so desperate for content, it’s as if some idiot based an entire screenplay on a 400 word Craigslist ad.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

Fight for Your Right

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

by George Wolf

So, sororities aren’t permitted to have parties in their houses? Is that a real thing?

Obviously, I didn’t go Greek in college, but what kind of bullshit is that?

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising not only finds it a teachable moment, but the perfect springboard for a funny, and dare I say, socially conscious sequel.

College freshmen Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her new friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein – younger sister of Jonah Hill) don’t appreciate the “super-rapey” nature of frat bashes, so they decide to start Kappa Nu, an independent sorority dedicated to the high life. Guess where they find a perfect home base?

It’s the old Delta Psi house from four years earlier, right next door to the home Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne) have just put in escrow. The buyers have 30 days to think it over, so the desperate Radners turn to an old frenemy, former Delta Psi president Teddy Sanders, (Zac Efron), to help them drive the Nu neighbors out before their ragers tank the sale.

Director Nicholas Stoller and the writing team led by Rogen and frequent partner Evan Goldberg are all back, so expect more of what made the first film such a down and dirty treat. Byrne’s return is also integral, and not just because she’s proven to be a true comic talent.

Kelly’s spirited participation in the sex, drugs and body fluid-based gags made part one a refreshingly equal offender, and Neighbors 2 spreads similar wealth throughout the ladies of Kappa Nu. There’s a clear feminist undercurrent here, even if it is presented with the occasional awkwardness you might expect from a team of male filmmakers.

Moretz is a worthy new adversary for “the old people,” as she seems to relish the chance at digging in to comic edges we haven’t yet seen. Efron is even better, rising above another beefcake role to add sympathetic layers to Teddy’s struggle with life as an aging bro.

Though not quite as riotous as the original, Neighbors 2 still lands as one of the better comedy sequels. The laughs are familiar but they are steady, finding a comfort zone where raunchy charm and admirable conscience co-exist just fine thank you.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

We Are Your Friends

by George Wolf
 
Restless young men try to make their way in the city. They party, chase girls, work boring jobs and start to wonder about the bigger picture. Hopes seem dim, but one of the guys has an extra spark. Maybe it’s disco dancing, bartending, or more recently, stripping, but the point is this guy’s gonna learn some life lessons and make his mark!

This time, that mark starts with “just one track.”

We Are Your Friends gives us Cole Carter (Zac Efron), who pours over his music editing software, mixing beats that he hopes will lead him to the top of the club DJ scene in Los Angeles. James Green (Wes Bentley, nice to see you) is already there, so what luck that he takes Cole under his wing for no reason whatsoever, showing him the ropes as well as his very tempting girlfriend/assistant Sophia (Emily Ratajkowski).

This is the feature debut for director/co-writer Max Joseph, and there are certainly familiar trappings, requisite cliches and even a couple cringeworthy moments (Cole defending Sophia’s honor to some loudmouth assholes – ugh). But other times, there’s some real skill here looking for a good home.

Joseph utilizes slow motion, text graphics, animation and even flirts with the fourth wall, essentially providing an entertaining EDM for Dummies class for those of you (ahem, those of us) who are a bit late to the party. Breaking out such a bag of tricks is often just for show, but Joseph seems to have good instincts for storytelling with style. Once he can eliminate the sudden lapses where those instincts vanish, he’ll be fine.

Efron doesn’t show a ton of range, but honestly, he’s not asked to. He still displays the charisma of a budding star and Ratajkowski (SI swimsuit issue, Gone Girl) shows promise for a successful transition from modeling to legit acting career. Bentley, despite a Kenny-Loggins-in-the-Danger-Zone look, is the real treat. After numerous smaller supporting roles, he gets a more vital one here, and manages to give James some unexpected depth.

Like many of the films with this formula, the problem is what to say, not how to say it. We Are Your Friends doesn’t tap into a cultural zeitgeist as successfully as, say, Saturday Night Fever, but if you’re ready for a modern-day Cocktail with some thumping beats, serve it up.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars