Designing Women

GTY-Jessica-Chastain-ml-170530_12x5_1600If you’ve been following the film festival circuit, you no doubt have heard the fascinating observation from Cannes Film Festival jury member, Jessica Chastain about the current role of women in films. If you are unfamiliar with Chastain’s comments, the basic gist is that it is uncommon to find a female character whose main motivation is not simply reacting to what the male characters do. This complaint is not unfamiliar territory for Hollywood; however, Cannes is a renowned international film festival. In fact, most of the films that screen there are not from American filmmakers. Additionally, many of these films do not even get distribution in the United States, including the winning films.  My point being, the inferiority of women’s roles in film is often attributed to the American film industry, but Chastain’s comments open the conversation to a global stage.

What makes Chastain’s words ring even more true than most is the genuine way she presented herself. She introduced herself as someone who loves movies, and then discussed the unique experience of viewing 20 movies in 10 days, which is the process for the Cannes jury members. Having that broad and expansive experience allowed Chastain to make a relevant and sustained observation that with few exceptions, women in film are “mostly passive and empty shells of characters,” rather than resembling any woman she’d encountered in real life.

And, to put an even finer point on things, all of this occurred on the eve of the release of the American film Baywatch, a film supposedly all about the women starring two men, Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson, and some women presumably – I don’t believe the trailer or promotional posters gave any names of the female stars.

Speaking of Johnson, just to prove I am not simply a bandwagon feminist, please take my review of another of his films, San Andreas, a film I enjoyed actually, but contained plenty of blatant and institutional misogyny…and also raked in $474 million globally.

Here’s the interesting thing though. Money is not necessarily where the sexism is. As I mentioned, the Cannes Film Festival is not the destination for films that generally rake in the box office dollars. Cannes is more of a home for the prestige pictures that hope to play in awards circuits. In many cases, these films represent a more accurate picture of how artists see the real world. Blockbuster films present, in many cases, a fantasy that can and often does include well-developed female characters.

Top grossing film of each of the past three years:Rey-Star-Wars-Rogue-One-mother

2015: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (female protagonist, Disney)

2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (female protagonist, Disney)

2017: Likely to be a battle between Beauty and the Beast (female protagonist), Wonder Woman (female protagonist), Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (female protagonist) – Disney, Warner Brothers, Disney.

Best Picture for each of the past three years:

2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (male protagonist fighting with another male who wants to be the true protagonist)

2015: Spotlight (a bunch of male protagonists uncovering criminal conspiracy of men molesting boys)

2016: Moonlight (three separate actors portraying one male protagonist)

So what does all of this mean? It means that as an art form, the studios, auteurs, actors, writers, and directors who are responsible for the underlying reputation of the business are compelled to depict the stories that matter most to our culture from an overwhelmingly male perspective. It’s not that these artists or the system is sexist, but rather the society of which they wish to reflect is.

Fortunately, the art that imitates life has an impact and the response from Jessica Chastain is evident of this. As our Cineplex’s continue bombard us with the traditional summer fare, take notice of the entertainment the film industry thinks we want to see and how the stories are portrayed. More importantly, after the blockbuster season, be aware of the films that are selected as the year’s best and think about if they represent the society and culture you want to live in!

 

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

NeighborsDirector: Nicholas Stoller

Screenwriters: Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Nicholas Stoller, Evan Goldberg, and Seth Rogan

Cast: Seth Rogan, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Ike Barinholtz

I mentioned in my 2014 review for Neighbors that while I liked the film, “we may be starting to see Rogan start drawing from the bottom of the well.”  Now 2 years later the follow up to that film seems to confirm my assumption. The good news is that Neighbors and its sequel Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising fill a niche, namely the simple comedy.  Oddly enough, the traditional, simple, laugh-out-loud comedy is a dying breed.  Theatrical comedy is hitting such a level of broadness that if I see one more stupid, pointless buddy comedy, the eyeroll may be so intense I may never recover.  Seriously think about the last film that made you laugh in the theater that didn’t have superheroes or Kevin Hart teamed up with a white guy. It’s tough.  You’re likely to arrive at Spy or Trainwreck. So basically, it’s been a year since you laughed at a comedy in the theater. That alone is reason enough to go see Neighbors 2.

Rogan is back as Mac Radner who along with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) and daughter Stella (Still played by those adorable twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) are finally getting out from under the tough times that ensued from living next to a fraternity.  They have managed to sell their house and are looking forward to living in the suburbs as they welcome their next child.  Unfortunately, the sale of the Radner’s house must go through an escrow period where the buyer can back out if any issues arise, and guess what…they do.  College freshman Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her friends dissatisfied with the antiquated and sexist ways of traditional sorority culture have decided to create their own independent sorority.  Where you may ask?  In a recently vacated property right next to good old Mac Radner’s house.  In need of guidance, Shelby happens upon disgraced former president of Delta Psi Beta, Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), who is feeling the sting of a criminal record due to the consequences of his war with the Radners.  Teddy agrees to mentor Shelby and her friends as a way to feel valued but also as a way to get revenge on those Radners! Before you say, “Here we go again,” just know that this time it’s girls instead of guys, so it’s different.  Anyway, here we go again!

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising hits most of the same beats as its predecessor, but that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining.  It’s not as effective as the first film, but it does generate some genuine laughs and manages to be successful as just a simple routine comedy, nothing more.  One thing that does feel odd is the lengths the film goes to in order ensure that you know the filmmakers are not being sexist.  I mean if I’m looking for a movie with a message, normally I don’t look to a Seth Rogan movie.  But here I am getting a pretty sizable one about the rape culture of college campuses in the guise of an updated Feminine Mystique via unchartered sororities.  Now don’t get me wrong, that’s a fine message, but then why even invoke the Greek life at all? Why do these girls need a sorority to have their sense of value?  Also, there is not ONE mention of “going to class” or “getting an education” in this film, so let’s ease off on the pretense that there’s any kind of message here.  This is all simply a bold shout out by the five male writers that they are not misogynists.

Ok, so with that said, Neighbors 2 is a fine comedic installment that gets the job done when it comes to relatable, breezy humor. No need to “rush” out to see it, but if you want to laugh and learn how escrow works, then this may be the film for you! B

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.   

Neighbors

ImageRobert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The new Seth Rogan film, Neighbors pokes numerous holes in that philosophical statement and illustrates why Frost’s New Hampshire home was very, very well isolated.

This is not the first comedy film to go by the title Neighbors. In 1981, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi followed up the success of The Blues Brothers with a dark misfire about a suburban man (Belushi) whose life is flipped upside down by his obnoxious neighbor (Aykroyd). The film was a production nightmare and was also the last teaming-up of Belushi and Aykroyd before Belushi’s death. It was also a missed opportunity from a simple and potentially brilliant film idea.

Now, Rogan and co-writer Evan Goldberg seem to have righted a wrong by bringing their signature raunchy wit to their latest production.

Rogan plays Mac Radner, a new father, who with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne), is trying to adjust to a new responsible life now that the carefree days are behind him. Caring for a newborn proves to have its challenges but none measure up to the challenges of having a fraternity move in to the house next door. Not wanting to be the square neighbors who have to tell the kids to, “Keep it down!” Mac and Kelly decide to play it cool at first and let these frat brothers know that they are still hip and young. They approach fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) and awkwardly suggest he and his buddies keep the noise down. Within days, however the frat parties are out of control forcing Mac to call the police and report a noise violation. It may as well have been the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand because it’s an all out war from that point forward.

Image
Robert Frost’s home in Derry, NH.

Teddy and his band of brothers (including such familiar faces as Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Jerrod Carmichael) pool all of their intellect and creativity and aim it not at academics but at the Radners. Carefully placed air bags, hysterically themed parties, and shenanigans aplenty increase the Radner’s misery and decrease the Radner’s home value, making it impossible for them to move.

But don’t count those Radners out yet. Mac and Kelly, along with their divorced friends Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo), do not go down without a fight.

Neighbors has the edge, pacing, and cringe-worthy raunch we’ve come to expect from the best of Rogan’s efforts. The jokes are funny, but we may be starting to see Rogan start drawing from the bottom of the well. Much has been made of Rogan transitioning from playing characters who are more juvenile to those who are more mature and adult. This “maturity” seemingly comes along with some retreads or re-purposing of jokes that he has used before. One example would be the interesting biological party trick Dave Franco’s character Pete is able to “produce.” This is identical to the interesting “gift” Jason Mewes’s character Lester is able to “achieve” in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. This is more of an observation than a criticism, but it will be interesting to watch how Rogan “comes of age” as a major player in the world of comedy. What certainly does work for this film is how well suited the rest of the cast is for supporting Rogan and Goldberg’s script. Rose Byrne holds nothing back in her performance as Kelly and with this film as well as her uptight and hilarious turn in Bridesmaids she has become a surprisingly comic actress for one originally so suited to drama. Efron is perfect as Teddy and plays the character with endearing charm compelling the audience to both revere and revile him. Much of the film’s heart is a result of the tumultuous relationship scenes between Efron and Franco. Lastly, the baby (played by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) is flippin’ adorable!

Neighbors is a top-notch comedy and capitalizes on a simple but brilliant concept. B+

Neighbors is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes. Stay midway through the credits for more scenes of that flippin’ adorable baby!