Tag: zac efron

The Greatest Showman


The Greatest Showman (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Viewers expecting a thorough and accurate presentation of P.T. Barnum’s (Hugh Jackman) personal life and business career are certain to be dissatisfied by “The Greatest Showman,” based on the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, since it is more concerned about delivering showstopping musical numbers than old-fashioned storytelling. Here is a film for fans of modern musicals: it makes the audience feel good, it moves quickly, and it has just enough willingness to move the audience toward a more emotional territory without necessarily enveloping them in subtlety and nuance. It is a project to be enjoyed on the spot, not to be thought about or pined over afterwards. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And so the picture must be evaluated through the scope of a modern musical. It surprised me because it has more than three good songs. Better yet: these songs do not always come from the same character singing about the same subject but only using different words. Standouts include “A Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” “Never Enough,” “This is Me,” and “Rewrite the Stars”—already composing half of the soundtrack. Better still—each song is supported by elegant visuals, whether it be sheets being blown by the wind toward a certain direction which matches that of how a woman’s dress falls just so or how a singer’s body keeps still but her graceful limbs deliver a spectrum of emotions. The film offers no shortage of musical and visual styles.

Had the filmmakers been more brazen with the kind of work they wish to deliver, it would have been wiser to drop the typical trappings involving the subject’s home life as his career soars, for example. On this level, it offers no originality. I quite disliked how Charity, Barnum’s wife, is written because there is barely any dimension to her identity and personality. Michelle Williams portrays the highly supportive spouse and she does what she can with the role. But one looks at her face and immediately recognizes she is not being challenged. Here is a performer who can deliver any emotion, oftentimes several emotions at once, across any genre… but the character is written without any fire or excitement.

The plot involves the showman hiring people who happen to have physical oddities. The theme is supposed to be a celebration of differences, specifically those living along the fringes of society, either living an invisible lifestyle or visibly shamed for being born a certain way. I found it curious then that halfway through, the so-called freaks are nearly forgotten. Certainly they appear during shows and at times we see them backstage saying a line or two, but we rarely get a sense of who they really are outside of their eccentricities.

For instance, Lettie, the Bearded Lady, played by Keala Settle, commands such an intriguing (and amusing) presence but the screenplay fails to delve into some of her past. What makes her interesting as a person other than her facial hair? What makes her such a jovial person despite her struggles? Instead, we are provided a more accessible subject: a romance between Phillip (Zac Efron) and Anne (Zendaya), how interracial relationships are shamed in the past. But one gets the impression that the various social disapprovals Anne and Phillip endure do not hold a candle against the level of hated and violence that interracial couples during that era had undergone.

It goes to show that smart execution and great energy can propel otherwise relatively average premises into solid crowdpleasers. “The Greatest Showman,” directed by Michael Gracey, belongs in this category and pulling off such a feat, despite the handful of aforementioned elements working against it, should be worn as a badge of honor.

Baywatch


Baywatch (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Fans of sophomoric comedy are likely to walk away somewhat satiated by Seth Gordon’s “Baywatch,” but those hoping for a range of comedy equal to the talent of the cast are certain to be disappointed. There is a reason why comedies are usually only about ninety minutes and this film, which is about two hours, wears out its welcome by repeating one too many jokes. Here is a picture that suffers from diminishing returns.

The plot is simple and has potential to entertain. Three potential lifeguards (Zac Efron, Jon Bass, Alexandra Daddario) are recruited to be a part of Baywatch, an elite team of lifeguards (Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera, Kelly Rohrbach) who do more than save drowning people in Emerald Bay, Florida. Being a part of Baywatch is a lifestyle, being a family, doing other people’s jobs before the official professionals arrive at the scene. It is most unfortunate that the plot revolves around catching a drug dealer (Priyanka Chopra).

At times it turns into an action film instead of focusing on being a comedy. The chases are self-serious, usually manically edited, and there is little to no tension behind them. Part of the problem is because the screenplay by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift is so empty that it uses action as a crutch, attempting to pass whatever is on screen as entertainment. But there is no entertainment value created when not for a second do we believe that the protagonists are in any real danger. Notice how the material’s structure is quite episodic. Divide it into three parts and a three-episode arc is revealed. Still, many television shows nowadays are better than what this film has to offer.

I enjoyed all six members of the Baywatch team because the performers are wiling to make fun of themselves. It is apparent that the actors were encouraged to ad-lib. It works occasionally, especially when Johnson and Efron exchange barbs, but it would have been preferred if the material is able to support its performers. There is only so much an actor can do or say; they certainly do not have control over the freshness of the plot, how characters are developed individually as well as a part of a team, and the range of jokes provided given a particular situation. Filmmakers cannot depend on actors to carry the work.

The film, in a way, is about new beginnings and so it is curious—and a missed opportunity—that the material does not capitalize on this. It is about new beginnings in two ways: introducing “Baywatch” to a new generation (while satisfying the fans of the original television series) and introducing trainees to a particular lifestyle. Pertaining the latter, we do not learn much about what the job entails outside of the obvious, the personal characteristics necessary to excel at it, and some of the surprises one might encounter on the job. And with the former, the writing fails to capture a certain level of excitement. The filmmakers probably assumed that just because they cast actors who are physically appealing, audiences would inevitably follow.

In a nutshell, “Baywatch” is hampered by laziness. If a sequel were to follow, it would be wise to hire writers who do not depend on the usual tropes, writers who are aware of how interesting comedies work, writers who have something to say about how it is really like to hold a job even though this particular universe is tongue-in-cheek. Contrasts and variations are interesting; regurgitation and recycling of ideas is death to comedy.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates


Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)
★ / ★★★★

Although starring performers that have been funny and entertaining in other projects, “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” directed by Jake Szymanski, is the kind of movie that only the brain dead would find even remotely amusing. It has a semblance of a plot but offers no intriguing story—even for a comedy that is supposed to be laid back considering the beautiful Hawaiian setting. Instead, the filmmakers make a habit of relying on the actors to ad-lib which leads to a lack of flow from one scene to another. The picture, for the most part, is nonsensical; there is no reason for it to exist other than to annoy and waste the audience’s time.

The title is so because Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) are given an ultimatum by their father (Stephen Root). Dad believes that if his sons bring dates to their sister’s wedding (Sugar Lyn Beard), they would not hit on every other woman around thereby avoiding desperation and disaster. Mike and Dave are instructed to bring nice girls specifically. Meanwhile, dirty-mouthed and hard-partying girls Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) are in need of a vacation. Having come across the men’s request for dates, the best friends pretend to be the nice girls required for the task in exchange for a free trip to Hawaii.

Notice how in every other scene somebody is either yelling, screaming, or tripping over themselves. For a while we wonder if it is meant to be a slapstick comedy given the number of people falling down and ending up in all sorts of contortions. But it is not a slapstick comedy. It is supposed to be a raunchy comedy—only it doesn’t work on any level because the dirty jokes have no intelligence, wit, or shock value behind them. The rise in decibels and the acrobatics occur because something—anything—needs to happen. It gives the impression that everybody knows that the material is not at all funny and so somebody must fall over.

For a movie involving a wedding, the picture offers no genuine, touching, or even a practical human connection. Dave and Mike are supposed to be brothers who are very close but they are not written in such a way that we understand or come to realize why they need each other other than the fact that they are brothers. The same goes for Alice and Tatiana; they are supposed to be best friends, but we are not provided situations that reflect the strength of their bond. Even the two people about to get married are one-dimensional wooden planks. They are about to get married, but there is no believable romance or sweetness in their interactions.

Kendrick must be singled out for being miscast. Although I’ve always liked her presence because there is often a grounded, geeky girl-next-door feel to her performances, Kendrick is simply not a convincing hard-partying girl. Whenever she and Plaza are standing next to each other and their characters are up to no good or are lying to the people they are talking to, Plaza steals the show completely. The key is in the eyes. Plaza has this playful roughness in every single thing that she does and so we believe her character. Kendrick, on the other hand, is too much of a warm presence. Someone more convincing should have been cast in her place.

Written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is a deeply unfunny, interminable experience. People should feel insulted for being presented this level of trash since the filmmakers actually had the audacity to disguise it as entertainment with the intention of getting away with it. We deserve much better than a would-be comedy made without any convincing effort to be funny.

Dirty Grandpa


Dirty Grandpa (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“Dirty Grandpa,” written by John Phillips and directed by Dan Mazer, has a most infantile sense of humor and an emotional intelligence of a plastic bag. Just about everything about it does not work because it has no understanding of what makes real people tick. The so-called jokes rely solely on behavior and so there is no involving story, believable characterization, and genuine humor is created. It exists to annoy and make the audience feel uncomfortable.

It flops right from the very first scene. The setting is a funeral and the source of humor involves our twenty-something protagonist named Jason (Zac Efron) being so into his career as a corporate lawyer that we are supposed to think of him as so uncool, so boring, a square. The problem is, however, the screenplay has not gotten a chance to set up the necessary tone and atmosphere to pull off an attempt at comedy—let alone dark comedy—at this point. Instead, the would-be jokes often come across mean-spirited.

The plot involves Jason being tricked by his grandfather (Robert De Niro) to drive to Florida right after the funeral. The latter’s goal is to get his grandson to loosen up and realize that the girl he is about to marry (Julianne Hough) is very wrong for him. Although the plot is far from groundbreaking, no effort is made so that the grandfather and grandson are able to connect on a genuine level. Instead, we are bombarded with scenes where they curse at each other, get into very awkward and uncomfortable situations (it’s supposed to be funny that Efron’s character appears to be sexually molesting a child at the beach), down to a scene where they share a bed and one of them gets naked. Cue the penis shot.

The Spring Break scenes are rightly over-the-top but completely unnecessary. One might argue that the brainless middle section is very insulting to women, the LGBTQ community, and African-Americans—often simultaneously—and one would be right. I argue that it is even insulting to Spring Breakers because there is no sense of real enjoyment among new and old friends. It is so fake that notice shots where just about everyone at the beach look as though they have perfect bodies. If they did not, Grandpa would make fun of the target for having extra weight. This film is a commercial—which is not necessarily a negative quality, but it is a bad commercial because it fails to appeal to young people of all sizes, color, and creed.

I suppose if the viewer was in it to see Efron’s abs, arms, buttocks, one could recognize a whiff of entertainment. But such rock-hard things can be seen at a local male strip club, so why bother to sit through a picture that offers no value, entertainment, or entertainment value? The filmmakers—and the studios—ought to have asked themselves this question before releasing this embarrassment to the public. I felt awful that Aubrey Plaza, the best comedian in the film, is a part of this humiliation.

The Paperboy


The Paperboy (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

The summer of ’69 is a turning point in the life of Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) because it is the season he meets Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a forty-year-old woman who has fallen in love with a man on death row. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was charged for killing a cop but there might be something more to the story. Ward (Matthew McConaughey), Jack’s brother, and Yardley (David Oyelowo), Ward’s co-worker in the Miami Times, pay a visit to Moat County, Florida to investigate and possibly expose a potential crack in the justice system.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Peter Dexter, “The Paperboy” is to admired on one level because it does tell a straight story. Yes, it is about two investigative reporters—one driven by idealism and the other by ambition—but it is not just about the truth. Perhaps more importantly, it is about characters so blinded by what they wish to attain that they fail to acknowledge the dangers or evils that are staring directly at them.

It is compelling to sit through at times. Two characters stand out. First is Ward, a man who loves his brother but is hiding a private shame. As the story unfolds, it becomes more difficult to keep it covered. In one of the most memorable scenes, in execution and content, we are tested how much we care about him. One might flinch at the scene or one may feel compelled to look away, but it is near impossible to not ask any questions.

The sudden burst of violence is not put on the screen for mere shock value. It builds and stirs until something must give out. McConaughey exhibits great control. The camera has a penchant for close-ups—for better or worse—and so just about every time it focuses on his face, we are left wondering where his character is looking, how he is looking at something or someone, and what he is thinking exactly. However, many of the other performers cannot communicate with just the eyes and so the close-ups end up distracting at times.

The second standout is Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen family’s housekeeper. She gives the picture a layer of humor and heart. Anita’s interactions with Jack are meaningful—much warmer than Jack’s interactions with his father and the woman he is dating. Given that Jack’s mother had abandoned him, Anita recognizes the pain and suffering in the boy—not always outwardly present but there nonetheless—and so she treats him like a friend. Sometimes Jack takes this for granted. But Anita understands.

The picture is driven by an important subplot that is often swept under the rug—a critical miscalculation. Although there are many scenes where Ward and Yardley talk about the case and a few where the convict is interviewed, there are not enough details as to how the investigators manage to connect the dots. In a way, the screenplay must function as a procedural so that the case makes perfect sense. Thus, when the disorder that unfolds during the final quarter is presented, our expectations are swept away.

Instead, we get scenes involving Jack being sexually attracted Charlotte. Although Efron and Kidman are game for the ridiculous things their characters say and do, it all feels like a performance. In other words, when they are on screen together, most of the time I felt taken out of the sweltering heat of that small town. I was too aware that I was watching actors rather than complex characters who happen to be caught up in something they do not completely understand. Less scenes of Jack and Charlotte and more scenes of Ward and his partner might have produced a better movie.

Directed by Lee Daniels, “The Paperboy” is not as trashy as many people build it up to be. These are likely to be the very same people who have not had much experience with foreign or independent movies. It is trashy to an extent but there is a story here worth telling. The level of focus in terms of which story is best explored is where it falls short.

Neighbors


Neighbors (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) have just moved into their new home and are ecstatic to raise their newborn baby girl in it. Just about everything is going right, aside from occasional concerns that they might have lost their youth and sense of fun, until a fraternity moves in right next door. Mac and Kelly are horrified, but they decide to “play it cool.” After all, they were young and in college once. So, they approach the president of the frat, Teddy (Zac Efron), and make sure all of them start off on the right foot. They do… temporarily. Then the loud partying begins.

You know you’re getting old when you start rooting for the parents more than the college students who just want to have some fun. “Neighbors,” written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, offers more than handful funny individual lines and exchanges, but it is far from a comedy that will stand the test of time, the kind that dares to set a standard. It is passable as light entertainment—nothing more—and there is nothing wrong with that if that is what one was looking for.

I enjoyed the performances as a whole especially Rogen and Byrne who play characters that consider themselves as “hip” mentally but their bodies say otherwise. They are convincing as parents who raise a child together, making a lot of mistakes along the way, and craving for some peace and quiet at the end of the day. Because it is relatively easy to buy into their characters, more due to the actors’ charm than a well-written characterization, Mac and Kelly’s efforts to shut down the fraternity becomes a good source of entertainment. There are few lines they are willing to cross to beat the beer-drinking, pot-smoking college students.

Efron and Dave Franco, the latter playing Pete as the frat’s vice president, also share good chemistry. And like Rogen and Byrne’s characters, these two are also thinly written although the effort is clearly there. I liked that the writers make Teddy and Pete nice guys in general. Sure, in reality, there are frat guys who are plain jerks, but from my personal experience, the guys that I met in college who happen to be in a frat are more like Teddy and Pete. You can approach, talk to, and joke around with them without them having to make you feel bad for not being in their circle of bros.

The greatest limitation of the film, directed by Nicholas Stoller, is its relatively stagnant screenplay. It fails to move beyond two neighbors attempting to get the upper hand. Is the point to show that Mac and Kelly, despite having a house and kid, do have some key similarities with their fun-loving neighbors? It would appear so. But such a message is obvious. Discerning viewers will easily recognize this less than halfway through and the rest becomes repetitive.

A dramatic shift in the latter half might have elevated the material. The two leaders of the fraternity should have been key to create a dramatic pull. First, Pete looking forward to starting his career outside of college. Second, Teddy’s fears that he might have peaked. During the Career Fair scene, a man who works for AT&T tells Teddy that they are not interested in considering to hire someone who is dumb. Efron may not be the most versatile actor—yet—but why not explore those fears a bit more?

The answer is, like in most mainstream comedies, to keep the laughs going. It is less of a risk to try to be funny consistently even if it does not feel right for the material than to switch it up suddenly and really surprise the audience, to give them something they did not expect coming into the picture. Such is the definition of average: no more, no less.

That Awkward Moment


That Awkward Moment (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) comes home one day and finds his wife (Jessica Lucas) with a lawyer. Not just any lawyer—he is also the man that she happens to be seeing. In order to help their best friend to go through a rough patch, Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) come up with an idea: for moral support, they will remain single indefinitely. This proves to be a challenge when Jason meets an author (Imogen Poots) who ticks all the boxes that he is looking for in a woman and Daniel begins to realize that he is in love with a friend (Mackenzie Davis) who acts as his wing-woman in bars.

I thought this movie was never going to end. Pretty much everything about writer-director Tom Gormican’s “That Awkward Moment” is synthetic, bland, seemingly inspired by egregious romantic comedies with one dead-on-arrival twist: young men—instead of women—facing a possibility of love, wrestling with it, and deciding what feels right. It offers nothing new to the table and so it becomes a chore to sit through.

It is not without charm and some chuckles. There is chemistry among the three leads so they are not unbearable to watch create a scene from nothing. As the outtakes has shown, Jordan, Efron, and Teller can ad lib and some of their efforts work. When they do not, the energy behind their deliveries are felt but that isn’t to suggest it is enough reason to overlook the overall lack of creativity, real feelings, and intelligence in the screenplay.

The perspective is misplaced. Instead of focusing on the most interesting friend, Mikey, who went to medical school right after college and led a life that he believed would grant him security and happiness, there are far too many scenes of Jason and Ellie supposedly being into one another. A smirk here, a sex scene in the middle, batting of the eyelashes there—what makes what they have more interesting than Mikey and Vera being on the verge of divorce? By comparison, the problems between the two couples are far too great. As a result, my mind is desperate to want to know more about the root of Mikey and Vera’s marital troubles. I could not care less about whether or not Jason the book cover artist would finally get together with Vera.

Daniel’s subplot is middling. I really like Teller as an actor because he often has a child-like quality to his performances. You just want to pinch his cheeks or tease him just to see how he might react. While he injects such a quality to his character here, the script fails to capitalize on the strengths of the performance. Instead, the material relies on Teller being able to talk really fast but the would-be jokes are mostly misses than hits. It is extremely frustrating seeing someone who is capable of doing so much more doing a lot less.

It is easy to predict a movie like “That Awkward Moment” but smart scripts make it work by amping up the human factor and masking the hurt with layers of comedy—irony, farce, screwball, for instance. Here, when secrets are inevitably revealed and feelings are hurt, I was unable to relate with any of them. Every character seems to have a one-track mind: love is a be-all and end-all of their existence. These are not people; these are products of an unimaginative, commercial-driven mind. I dare the writer-director to prove me wrong—if there is a next time.