20 May 2016

Nice Guys, Bad Girls, Mean Birds - Weekend of Champions

I didn't say much in anticipation of Captain America: CIVIL WAR (2016) two weeks back, and unbelievably, I also kept my mouth shut during the premiere of The Darkness (2016) and Money Monster (2016) last week. Today, however, we have a trio of films that we need to discuss. As I've done in years past, we'll spend every Friday from now until forever discussing the critical, commercial, and cultural potential of each big summer film. It's a big beefy version of this.

There are three wide releases dropping this week, and although some of them are kind of similar, they make for a good block of programming. I'm not convinced any will do all that extremely well, but there's no reason to doubt we have some quality films on our hands. First up, Shane Black's The Nice Guys (2016).
Fightin' 'round the world!

The Nice Guys found its way on my most-anticipated list this year, and I'm still pretty excited. If anything it's a great excuse to talk about Shane Black, who I think gets a little bit of flack for writing the game changing Lethal Weapon (1987), then copying his own style for years and years until he literally had to parody himself in Last Action Hero (1993), which soured a lot of people on both his talents and Arnold Schwarzenegger (I, of course, personally disagree, although it was a bit ahead of its time). He actually had the gall to follow that one up with a Geena Davis / Sam Jackson buddy cop movie that no one has seen, then took a break for a while.

Shane Black really is the buddy cop expert. Literally every film he's written with the exception of The Monster Squad (1987, and that was mostly Fred Dekker) have featured some kind of buddy pairing, whether it be meta-commentary or not. He arguably peaked with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), which more blatantly used all of Last Action Hero's fourth-wall breaking along with serving as the first entry in Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback tour (and Val Kilmer's. And Black's himself). That film was able to fulfill all of Black's tropes while toning down the extreme, over-the-top masculinity of something like The Last Boy Scout (1991), which is super-insane. It tempers his wild energy with freshness and charm instead of shock value.

The other big entry is obviously Iron Man 3 (2013), which remains one of the better-constructed Marvel films, even if the third act gets wonky and there's suddenly a fuss over the lack of a female villain. This isn't even really anything to get mad about. I mean, getting mad at evil corporations for wanting to make money is like getting mad at a pig for eating shit. It's objectively a sexist move, but we ought to stop thinking of big movies as creative, progressive expressions of art.

So, what do you do when you make the 10th highest-grossing film of all time (5th at the time of release..)? Obviously you scrap together $50 million to make an original goofy period buddy movie starring Russel Crowe and Ryan Gosling. It's really telling to see what movies directors choose to make after they get carte blanche. Nolan made Inception (2010). Bay made Pain & Gain (2013). Raimi made Drag Me to Hell (2009). Verbinksi made Rango (2011). Look at James Cameron making fucking AVABAR (2009)! It also reminds me of the Coen Bros riding astounding critical acclaim and a Best Picture win after No Country for Old Men (2007) settling into Burn After Reading (2008) and A Serious Man (2009). Who does that?! We've gotten some really great, really weird films from directors trusted to do whatever they want, typically using their name alone to sell the film. I don't think Shane Black's there yet, since this is actually only his third feature as a director, but it's nice to see this getting made at all and squeezing in among the blockbusters that he helped helm three years back.

The ad campaign for this has been light, fun, and witty, and it feels like a total throwback film, which I think will appeal to a certain age group. It can capture that certain feeling of older audiences who want to move on from juvenile superhero films (although CIVIL WAR is decently mature), but still have a fun and fresh time at the movies. That seems like a narrow window, though. Ultimately I think this could have a decent cultural effect if it's good and warrants a lot of repeated viewership. There's no real reason to expect it wouldn't, if Black is trending more Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than The Long Kiss Goodnight. What's most fair, though, is that his career in general is about equal hits and misses, even if his misses are fucking spectacular.
They call the JV squad "The Joeys"

Up next we have Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016) starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zach Efron, and a whole gaggle of insane young actresses. The first Neighbors (2014) was a spectacular film and pretty close to the funniest film of 2014. Seth Rogen rarely misses when he makes a film where his Rogen-ness is fully on display. The Green Hornet (2011) and The Guilt Trip (2012) are clear blemishes on his record, but I can get behind just about anything else he's ever done. It's that great ability to write really funny and intelligent scenes while playing up his natural doofiness. More than that, he just seems like he strikes the zeitgeist really well, providing a sense of humour tailor-made for the current generation of feisty youths. Neighbors nailed this to a T, offering a classic generational conflict that succeeded in part because the Frat House feels extreme yet believable. If their Sorority spin is any indication, we should see a lot more of that.

I can picture this succeeding pretty well because it's a classic extension of the premise that worked so well last time. It's exactly as simple an idea as the first film with just as enticing a cast and an assurance of similar levels of silliness. The only thing that could bog it down is the simple fact that comedy sequels so rarely work. We've discussed this at length here at NMW, but namely, that initial surprise that first generates the funny is difficult to sustain.

My only trust at this point is that Seth Rogen is smart enough to put a spin on the typical sequel. We've actually had some decent ones recently, most notably 22 Jump Street (2014) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013). Of course the latter is somewhat debatable (although I'd actually consider it superior), and the former is more the product of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who hide behind layers of meta and self-awareness to get past the groan-worthy hurdles of tired sequel tropes. I have similar faith in the Rogen / Evan Goldberg / Nick Stoller team. Of course, as a writer, Nicholas Stoller misses at least as often as he hits (for every The Muppets [2011], there's a Sex Tape [2014]). He also just gave us Zoolander No. 2 (2016), which doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Still, as a director, with Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Get Him to the Greek (2010), The Five-Year Engagement (2012), and Neighbors under his belt, you have to be excited for the chances this has to succeed.

Comedy sequels are also difficult because it's rare that they'll actually add anything new to the mythos. Ghostbusters II (1989), Christmas Vacation (1989), and even Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) did this pretty successfully, mostly because each one took the well-received characters from the first installment and put them in completely different situations (Ghostbusters II may come the closest to leaving this promise unfulfilled, but Viggo is at least as iconic, if not more so than Gozer). Sorority Rising doesn't really look like it's elevating above the original's source material. Instead it will probably just rely on being the funniest film of the Summer. I'm not sure we will really adore this flick 10 years from now or just blur it together with Neighbors. That's the Horrible Bosses effect.

Lastly we have The Angry Birds Movie (2016). Now, there is objectively no reason for this to exist, but we've seen a lot of movies like this lately. The LEGO Movie (2014) comes to mind for sure. That film relished in existential inter-textuality, though, while maintaining a really sincere level of goofiness. I'd argue that The Angry Birds Movie seems capable of doing the same thing as long as it adds layer after layer of irreverence.

The critical difference here of course, is that LEGO is a well-known brand that's been around for decades and I don't think anyone really cares about Angry Birds anymore. It's also really a lot less substantial of a brand. It's not nearly as expansive as the LEGO empire. But this is sort of an unfair comparison. How much money will this thing make?
I have no idea what Angry Birds is actually about.
Is this in the app game?

It's an easy assumption that The Angry Birds Movie will win the weekend. It has the broadest appeal and kids haven't really had anything to see at the theater since Zootopia (2016). May seems a little early, though, because most of those brats are still in school. There's a reason why Pixar does so well when it drops its flicks in late June when little wiener kids can actually go see it. I also can't really understand if little kids would even be into this. Doesn't Angry Birds feel really really 2013? Sure it does, that's when they started putting together this movie.

Then again, what else could win this weekend? Based on Civil War's hold, it'll probably pull in $30-some million, so that's the mark to beat. Neighbors somehow made $49 million back in 2014 and The LEGO Movie pulled in $69 million in February 2014. I don't really think either can be a direct comparison to now, but it may actually be a good bet that Neighbors 2 wins by hitting that $40-50 million mark. It likely won't have to compete much with the Angry Birds audience.

The film does seem to shoe-horn in a lot of how the game is actually played. We call this the Battleship (2012) effect. If it comes off organic that's great, but it also makes you question whether any of this was really necessary at all. It's one of those great mysteries. Does this count as a video game movie? No, it's an app movie, right? Do you think we'll get a ton of app movies now? Tinder: The Movie (2021) coming soon. Don't worry, they preserved the experience.

Ultimately like with anything else, the legacy of Angry Birds depends on if the film is actually any good or not. Zootopia, Frozen (2013), and every non-Good Dinosaur (2015) and Cars Pixar film ever makes its bank on its critical success, which attracts parents willing to sit through this crap in addition to giving it to their unloved bastard children. And to be fair, despite Jason Sudeikis' decidedly non-presence, it looks like it has its decent share of jokes. In terms of its production pedigree, it's a product of Sony Imageworks, which is really just building its animation tradition. On one end of the spectrum is the vastly underrated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009, and its arguably better sequel). On the other end is the Hotel Transylvania series. If it leans more towards the former we could be in a for a decent experience. After my endless comparisons, this really should have just been directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, right?

So, what do you think? What are you seeing this weekend? I can see each of these films fulfilling their niche and making some bank, or they could just all cannibalize each other. Go see something!

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