Part food porn travelogue, part Grumpy Middle-Aged Men, The Trip is wholly delightful. Michael Winterbottom’s mockumentary finds actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon traipsing through northern England’s B&B’s and restaurants, playing slightly elevated versions of themselves as the former reckons with his lack of romantic stability and the latter butts up against the safe predictability of his married existence. Both share a lived-in rapport that expresses itself in one-upsmanship, particularly around the various impressions of actors that they use to thrust and parry at each other. Both are unqualified to be professionally mimicking someone like Anthony Bourdain (Coogan says the tomato soup tastes like tomatoes), but they are supremely qualified to entertain the viewer with their very funny back and forth.
Despite all kinds of useful research and technological advances, it seems like being a modern mother has never been more emotionally taxing. A never-ending stream of hysterical Mommy Blogs politicize every single decision a parent makes regarding her children. Hacky news reports raise the daily parenting stakes, elevating each purchase or choice or interaction as one that could doom a kid to mediocrity or worse. Toxins are everywhere and must be kept away from the sterile little angels fighting the urge to find out what dirt tastes like. Celebrity moms take great pains to make everything look easy, and if it's not, then buy this sponsored product that will make your life happier and healthier. All this nefarious marketing conspires to make women feel bad and doubt themselves while fathers seem to get copious praise for doing anything at all. This poison makes the culture ripe for a film like Bad Moms, and the cathartic premise itself likely contributed to its box office success. Moms behaving in their own self-interest to often funny results is a recipe for a timely statement on parenting, but writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore complicate the germ of the idea with inconsistent characterization and ridiculous plotting. There's enough here to recommend, but the total package is too sloppy to admire.
There's a scene in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising that briefly turns the film into a documentary before reverting back to the raunchy comedy it otherwise is. College freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) is learning during sorority recruitment that sororities are not actually allowed to throw parties from perfect chapter president Selena Gomez. Asserting that this is actually true and imploring prospective members to Google it, and by extension, viewers to do the same, director Nicholas Stoller tries to place his film in a feminist perspective. He returns to those frat bacchanals that were previously celebrated, but through Moretz and her friends' eyes, these are now wholly degrading horror shows where gross bros control all the social access. For a director and writer that delighted in stocking the fraternity-centered Neighbors with unspeaking eye candy in the background, Neighbors 2 is something like atonement.
Before Toni Erdmann, my standard line was that the longer a comedy gets, the less likely it is to stay consistently entertaining. Wedding Crashers certainly has this problem, as do the last three Judd Apatow-directed films. Clocking it at 18 minutes short of three hours, Maren Ade's German comedy dispels that rule. On top of the unheard-of runtime, Germany's not exactly known for its sense of humor, unless one counts the narration of Werner Herzog. Closer to the length of wartime epics than father-daughter mess-arounds, Toni Erdmann defies expectations and assumptions to be a consistently surprising and very funny film.
Stop-motion studio Laika's third feature, The Boxtrolls, isn't as intense or resonant or ambitious as their other work in Coraline, Paranorman, or Kubo and the Two Strings, but it might be the most charming entry from the house of Travis Knight. With its fish-out-of-water story in an eccentric steampunk society straight out of Gulliver's Travels, The Boxtrolls is aiming for comedy first. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi craft an oddball Dickensian world of social hierarchy where the overall motif tilts toward grotesquerie in all things, starting with the cheerful, bug-eating titular creatures and extending to the sallow faces and bad teeth of the human characters. Despite how outwardly repulsive and industrial the world is, The Boxtrolls still contains the beating heart implied by the Laika stamp, though in this case, that heart is held together with spit, gears, and lubricant.
American auteur Richard Linklater has made himself into a great chronicler of the ordinary. Upon the uninitiated's hearing such a description, they might think they're in for the kind of dreary, plotless slog that gives indie movies a bad name. However, while Linklater's films are often plotless, they are also dense with intelligent dialogue, well-observed with the strange byways of life, and often profound in how he's able to translate the mundane into the transcendent. What are his beatific Before films other than two people talking to each other, but that kind of reductive classification is insulting to the layered and knowing portrayal of a relationship contained therein. Nothing happens in Boyhood, but there are few depictions of memory and the passage of time that can rival the powerful experience of watching it. In Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater's latest, he's superficially at his most frivolous as he follows a team of college baseball players before the start of a new school year. Even here, in a film dedicated to finding something true in the mischiefs, rivalries, and grab-assery of care-free jocks, Linklater is true to form, making yet another irrepressibly alive, effortlessly entertaining masterpiece.
2015 redeemed the long-distance sequel with the good-to-great Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and The Force Awakens having a combined 50 years between their latest and previous outings. While George Miller didn't let a 30-year break impede him from making his apocalyptic masterpiece, Ben Stiller only needed half the time to mar his comic legacy. Zoolander 2 reinforces the default assumption that a lot of years between franchise entries is not a good sign.
Alexander Payne, along with Joel and Ethan Coen, is often critically knocked for looking down on or laughing at his cinematic subjects. This is a criticism I've personally never found that to be accurate, but then I watched Payne's debut, Citizen Ruth. In this satirical comedy about abortion politics, both sides are portrayed as ridiculous in their fanaticism and the central character, Laura Dern's Ruth, is a despicable person not worthy of their Herculean efforts. Matt Stone and Trey Parker often take this tack in South Park, where a manipulative individual plays both corners against each other to get the maximum benefit, thereby enriching themselves at the expense of the self-righteous, but Ruth doesn't have the craftiness of an Eric Cartman. She's simply an often-drunk, generally dumb mess with an affinity for model glue.
It's continuously frustrating how some great movies become commercial flops while hacky, recycled movies rake it in. During a summer that saw Angry Birds make it past $100 million, the superb pop satire Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping made less than a measly tenth of that haul. For whatever reason, films featuring the Lonely Island trio (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) in front of or behind the camera all seem to struggle or fail to make their budget back, but thankfully, executives keep giving them money. If not for their generosity, the world might never have known Connor4Real (Samberg) and his ouevre of pitch perfect pieces, parodying both the Top 40 playlist and the artists themselves.
The underrated 50/50 was one of the best films of 2011, and The Night Before reunites many of the primary players, including director Jonathan Levine, stars Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and producers Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Befitting a bigger, less-personal film, The Night Before adds bells and whistles amongst its core, with plenty of stunt-casting and drug-induced effects. The result is a step down from 50/50, but a film that retains the mix of earnestness and irreverence that Levine adds to most of his work.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.