Sunday, June 12, 2016


“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller has defied probability and made a sensational sequel, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), that surpasses its above-average predecessor.   Nevertheless, the second “Neighbors” movie serves up some rather risqué humor.  Seth Rogen delivers the best example.   When he introduces a Semitic couple to an American couple, Rogen points out that the pregnant Hebrew woman has “a Jew in the oven.”   This qualifies as the most controversial line in an otherwise empowering comedy of errors.   The lead couple’s young daughter forms an attachment to her mother’s vibrator and goes everywhere with it.  The parents are as imbecilic as the Greeks.  At one point, the sorority launches an artillery barrage of bloody tampons at the house inhabited by the thirtysomething married couple.  A couple of days ago before I saw “Neighbors 2,” I watched “Neighbors” on DVD for the first time.  I split my sides laughing at all its subversive shenanigans.   The “Neighbors” movies revived memories of “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”   Fans of the first “Neighbors” should relish the sequel, but the producers have broadened the demographics with the sequel to empower women.   Furthermore, Stoller’s riotous sequel succeeds because he has made few changes to the surefire farcical formula that coined “Neighbors” $270 million globally back in 2014.   
Some things, however, have changed in “Neighbors 2,” but most of the original cast return for cameos, including Officer Watkins (Hannibal Buress) the traffic cop.   Aside from the “Neighbors’” alums, Selena Gomez and Kelsey Grammer appear in bit cameos.  Gomez plays a sorority president, while Grammer is the father of the heroine.  Like the original movie, the plot is simple, shallow, and swiftly paced, but with a better ending.   Although all six scenarists are guys, they have made the women appear more sympathetic than slutty.  The estrogen-driven plot positions these female-friendly characters in the forefront of the action, something that “Neighbors” never had.  Basically, the loutish Delta Psi fraternity constituted the bad guys in “Neighbors,” while the Kappa Nu girls appear far less antagonistic.  Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz of “Carrie”), Beth (Kiersey Clemons of “Dope”), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein of “Fan Girl”) are college freshmen.  They attend a sorority rush party.  Audacious Shelby fires up a joint.  Phi Lambda President Madison (Selena Gomez of “Spring Breakers”) reprimands our heroine and stipulates that their sorority tolerates neither alcohol nor drugs.  Worse, Shelby learns the Greek sisters aren’t allowed to throw parties.  The trio make tracks and form their own off-campus sorority so they can party as they please.  Predictably, since it is the sequel, they buy the house that the Delta Psi brothers once occupied, much to Mac and Kelly’s chagrin.
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne encore as the foolish, parenting-impaired, married couple. Miraculously, Mac Radner (Seth Rogen of “Knocked Up”) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids”), survived the escapades of the Delta Psi fraternity.  They have a second child on the way, and they plan to leave the neighborhood.  Just when everything appears promising for the sale of their house, the Kappa Nu sorority shows up.  Mac and Kelly have sold their starter home to an interracial couple with an infant child.  However, the Radners’ real estate agent, Wendy (Liz Cackowski of “The Watch”), reminds them that the buyers have a 30-day escrow period to ponder their purchase.  When Mac and Kelly discover that Shelby and company have bought the house next door, they cringe at the prospect of what will occur if the new buyers drop by at a bad time.  Worse, they encounter an old adversary.
Adonis-chiseled Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) returns along with some of his former Delta Psi Beta brothers, but things have changed with them, too.  You may recall from watching “Neighbors” that Teddy Sanders was the Delta Psi president and his closest friend Pete (Dave Franco of “Superbad”) was vice-president.  After the debacle in “Neighbors,” Pete graduated and got a good job, while poor Teddy became a bare-chested model for Abercrombie & Fitch.  Unfortunately, Abercrombie & Fitch has decided they no longer need a shirtless model.   Not long afterward, Teddy learns that Pete plans to marry, but Pete isn’t going to wed a woman.  Instead, he decides to marry another ex-frat, Darren (John Early), and they ask Teddy to vacate the premises!  Teddy goes to the place of last refuge--the house next door to the Radners.  He happens to be around when shady Kappa Nu real estate agent Oliver Studebaker (Billy Eichner of “What Happens in Vegas”) sells Shelby and her friends the house.  These gals don’t have a clue about how to finance the house, much less recruit sorority members, but Teddy has all the answers.  Moreover, Teddy sees this as a way to pay back the Radners.  When Mac and Kelly meet him again with Shelby and company, they know that their dreams are swirling the drain. 
If you remember anything about “Neighbors,” you may recall it opened with Mac and Kelly getting intimate in a chair.  Mac got flustered because their infant daughter Stella was eyeballed them innocently during the sex act.  Similarly, “Neighbors 2” begins with Mac and Kelly at it again, but Kelly has a bout of morning sickness and barfs on Mac.  Remember, “Neighbors” and “Neighbors 2” qualify as lowest common denominator comedies that thrive on offensive, gross-out gags galore.  Not-surprisingly, Zac Efron has a difficult time wearing his shirt.  Stoller and his writers exploit Teddy’s bare-chested antics to propel the plot forward, especially during a zany marijuana heist scene.  As improbable as the “Neighbors” movies are, I find the premise credible.  One of my close friends experienced a similar predicament.  They went through what the thirtysomething married couple dealt with in “Neighbors” after a bawdy college fraternity brought the house next door and complicated their lives.  Apart from its outrageous humor, “Neighbors 2” not only serves to empower women, but it also refuses to ridicule gays.  Anybody who loved the original “Neighbors” will laugh their butts off at the randy sequel.


Walt Disney Studios should have changed the title from “Captain America: Civil War” (** OUT OF ****) to “Captain America: Stalemate” since none of the heroic combatants die.  Co-directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, who helmed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” have the two rival divisions, led by Captain America and Iron Man, knocking the shenanigans out of each other in this contrived, drawn-out, 147 minute epic.  Nevertheless, the worst thing that happens is War Machine loses control of his Iron Man style armored suit and makes an emergency crash landing in an open field.  Although he suffers spinal damage, Lieutenant James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is back up and walking around with some difficulty before fadeout.  Mind you, “Captain America: Civil War” amounts to a letdown when nobody puts anybody away permanently.  Ultimately, the two fractions emerge evenly matched.  Nobody like S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson is around to die and make a dramatic impact like in “Marvel’s “The Avengers” (2012).  At least the recent DC Comics movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” pretended to destroy one of the two title characters.  Of course, anybody with a grain of sense knows the adversary that perished in “Batman v Superman” isn’t dead.  Furthermore, the DC Comics extravaganza staged a funeral, and the characters engaged in a period of mourning. 

Although the premise that Captain America and Iron Man would clash is certainly provocative, the movie pulls its punches because the superheroes emerge with little more than either bruises to themselves or scratches on their respective armor.  Despite several competently orchestrated physical confrontations, “Captain America: Civil War” rarely generates a modicum of suspense.  Basically, the Russo brothers stage one spectacular smackdown at an evacuated airport, resolve the mystery behind the demise of Tony Stark’s parents, and introduce a new costume-clad crusader to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Black Panther makes his debut, but he seems rather tame compared with the other Marvel champs.  At one point, “Captain America: Civil War” seems more concerned with rebooting the “Spider-Man” film franchise than doing something with its protagonists that its PG-13 rating would condone.  Sadly enough, the characters that stand out here aren’t the title characters.  Essentially, Spider-Man and Ant Man make a greater impression than any of the other Marvel titans, and Black Panther looks like Mardi Gras was his destination until he paused to participate.

Approximately five characters die on-screen in “Captain America: Civil War,” but are super heroic. United at the outset, our heroes descend upon Lagos and tangle with former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow, (Frank Grillo of “The Purge: Anarchy”) a.k.a. Crossbones and his thugs.  These dastards want to hijack a deadly biological weapon.  Crossbones tries to kill Captain America with an explosion that obliterates his own life.  Miraculously, the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen of “Godzilla”) contains the blast and shifts it elsewhere to detonate.  Tragically, the blast demolishes a nearby building, killing many unseen, innocent bystanders.  The collateral damage fallout from this incident gives the Avengers some bad publicity.  Afflicted with a guilty conscience about the death of an African-American lad in Lagos, Tony Stark advocates the Sokovia Accords that the United Nations have drawn up.  Basically, the Sokovia Accords establishes a panel to oversee the Avengers.  Apparently, the indestructible Avengers may be responsible for killing more people than their own adversaries owing to the collateral damage that they have wrought during their escapades.  Captain America (Chris Evans of “The Fantastic Four”) abhors the Accords, and he refuses to ink the pact.  The death of Agent Peggy Carter solidifies his negative attitude toward the Sokovia Accords.  Longtime Avengers adversary U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt of “Dark City”) now enjoys a position with more prestige than power over them.  Ross, you may recall, hated the Hulk because the big green machine was in love with his daughter. 

Matters grow even more critical.  Steve Rogers’ World War II pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) is suspected of a igniting a deadly blast in Vienna where the Accords were being signed.  Surveillance cameras show that Bucky was in town when the incident occurred.  The blast kills King T'Chaka of Wakanda (John Kani of “The Wild Geese”), and his acrobatic son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman of “42”) dons a black bulletproof suit, a mask with cat ears, and gloves with retractable claws and embarks as The Black Panther to avenge his father’s death.  One of the many problems with “Captain America: Civil War” is that it bristles with far too many characters who do far too little to each other.  Mind you, T’Challa will soon have his own stand alone movie, but he looks shoehorned into this film with nothing memorable to do.  Worst, the chief villain is a bland family-guy-turned-vigilante, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl of “Rush”), who is a rather dreary adversary compared with previous Marvel villains.

Anybody familiar with the Marvel Comics graphic novel will tell you “Captain America” scenarists Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely have taken liberties with the source material.  In the Mark Millar graphic novel, lesser costume clad warriors destroyed an elementary school while a reality-TV crew photographed their endeavors.  This wholesale destruction prompted the President of the United States to enact the Superhero Registration Act to make superheroes more accountable for their actions.  Furthermore, the law required these costume-clad crusaders to divulge their true identities.  Now, these heroes face the prospect of serving as Federal employees or facing arrest.  Iron Man supports the act. “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense,” he proclaims, “if it helps people sleep a little easier.”  Captain America opposes it, “Super heroes need to stay above that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are.”  Later, Iron Man tricks Captain America and his Secret Avengers into responding to a petrochemical plant fire where hundreds people could perish. Ultimately, Captain America surrenders after Iron Man batters him into submission.
Altogether, “Captain America: Civil War” isn’t half as good as the previous two “Avengers” movies.


Although it isn’t coining the box office receipts that “Captain America: Civil War” commanded, “X-Men: Apocalypse” (**** OUT OF ****) surpasses “Captain America” with lavish spectacle, brinksmanship suspense, and fertile fantasy.  Part of the reason is that Twentieth Century Fox produces the “X-Men” movies, while Walt Disney Studios handles the “Captain America” franchise.  The “X-Men” franchise displays greater edge and paranoia than the formulaic, facetious, Disney Marvel franchises.  For example, the body count in “The Usual Suspects” director Bryan Singer’s latest Marvel Comics adventure “X-Men: Apocalypse” is double, perhaps even triple that of “Captain America.”  “Sherlock Holmes” scenarist Simon Kinberg and Singer have no problem with liquidating some X-Men characters.  Meantime, Disney produces Marvel sagas where few super-heroes suffer permanent injury.  The divide and take sides “Captain America: Civil War” concluded in a stalemate with Cap and Iron Man playing patty-cake.  The inescapable problem that Singer and Kinberg face in the ninth “X-Men” franchise entry is predictability.  The original “X-Men” trilogy charted the story of Xavier’s mutant super-heroes along chronological lines.  The second “X-Men” trilogy, starting with “X-Men: First Class” (2011), then “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014), and finally “X-Men: Apocalypse” ventures backward in time, examining the origins of various characters.  “X-Men: First Class” dealt with the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” unfolded at the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, and “X-Men: Apocalypse” transpires in the 1980s.  “X-Men: Apocalypse” makes several allusions to “X-Men: First Class” about Professor Xavier’s romance with CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert.  Since the second “X-Men” trilogy occurs before the original trilogy, we know the principal characters are in little danger of annihilation.  Nevertheless, Simon Kinberg’s screenplays for those three films have all been imaginative, audacious, with the X-Men taking things to the brink.  Clocking in at an extensive 144 minutes, “X-Men: Apocalypse” doesn’t wear out its welcome, and Singer doesn’t short-change his packed ensemble cast.  Furthermore, the malevolent Apocalypse in his first full-blown cinematic incarnation proves to be a challenging opponent.  “X-Men: Apocalypse” qualifies as a larger-than-life but slam-bang, sci-fi supernatural saga staged with considerable intellect, wit, and panache.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” opens during a pharaoh’s burial ceremony in ancient Egypt in 3,600 B.C. Naturally, Singer relies on spectacular CGI special effects galore to conjure up this vast, sprawling, ceremony as the first mutant, Apocalypse, finds himself betrayed by a duplicitous cabal.  They trap Apocalypse in a pyramid, and the structure vanishes into the earth for 5,600 years until the 1980s when CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids”) stumbles onto it.  She finds a passage that leads to Apocalypse’s burial chamber.  A cult has been struggling to resurrect the notorious lord, and Apocalypse emerges from captivity to find the world greatly altered from his day.  Dark and sinister, with tubes curving out of the back of his head, Apocalypse emerges as an ominous figure in a bizarre outfit.  He saves a Cairo street thief, Ororo Munroe (Alexandra Shipp of “Straight Outta Compton”), from two vigilantes.  Eventually, Ororo will become Storm. He recruits a fallen angel, Angel (newcomer Ben Hardy), and Apocalypse transforms Angel’s wings into steel so he has the ability to hurl razor-sharp metal feathers which are comparable to machetes.  The most important recruit that Apocalypse attracts is Magneto, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender of “Prometheus”), who is in no mood to love mankind.  Erik has suffered another great personal tragedy.  During the intervening ten years since the events in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” Erik has maintained a low profile as a factory worker in Poland.  Sadly, he is forced to reveal his mutant ability to manipulate metal when he saves a fellow factory worker from certain death. Unfortunately, the local authorities descend on him with bows & arrows.  Magneto flees and joins Apocalypse. Apocalypse is appalled at everything that has transpired during his protracted absence, and he decides to change everything with the help of Erik, Storm, Angel, and a “Wonder Woman” lookalike warrior Psylocke (Olivia Munn of “Ride Along 2”), who boasts both telepathic and telekinetic abilities and dresses like a dominatrix. The collateral damage that Apocalypse and his henchmen create overwhelms the entire Disney Marvel Universe.  Impudently, Apocalypse prompts all of the superpowers to launch their nuclear warheads into space where the ordinance will be useless and civilization will depend on the intervention of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy of “Wanted”) and the X-Men that are a lot younger than their predecessors.  Happily, Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Raven, and Nicholas Hoult returns as Hank McCoy aka Beast.
As exemplary as “X-Men: Apocalypse” is, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” still tops it, but the two movies differ in terms of scope.  Director Bryan Singer isn’t as enamored with the 1980s in “X-Men: Apocalypse” as he was with the 1970s in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” He cuts back and forth between the heroes and the villains as they clash.  This extravaganza serves up one good scene after another.  Two of the best occur when Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters of “Kick Ass”) aka Quicksilver and Wolverine demonstrate their respective skills. Quicksilver embarks on a rescue mission at Xavier’s School for Gifted Children after the building comes under attack. Quicksilver darts about like a wraith snatching somebody here and seizing somebody there, before the house collapses in a pile of smoking rubble.  This scene provides some genuine levity in the middle of Apocalypse’s devastating plans to renovate planet Earth. Without divulging too much information, Wolverine’s solitary scene is as savage as it is sensational. The grand finale between Charles and Apocalypse is a drawn-out, but exciting exercise that drums up white-knuckled suspense. The evil first mutant intends to freight his consciousness into Xavier's body and then appropriate Xavier's gift to connect with everybody’s mind on the planet. While Charles and Apocalypse tangle like maniacs, the X-Men have their hands full with Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen.

If you haven’t kept up with the “X-Men” cinematic universe, you may find its plot difficult to follow.