REVIEW: 21 Jump Street

16 12 2012

Recently, I watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1982 comedy still considered to be one of the best high school movies ever made, for the first time.  It has obviously become incredibly dated (but is still absolutely hilarious), yet it took me seeing the film to realize that virtually every high school movie for the past 30 years owes it a humongous debt.  Its fingerprints are all over the genre today, so much so that it has become almost inconspicuous.

The “Fast Times” social order still reigns supreme today.  Nice guys finish last, slackers come out on top.  If you’re smart, you’re a nerd.  If you’re a jock, you’re cool.  If you don’t hang around them, you probably aren’t.  And of course, just don’t try at anything because the naturally cool will just have people attracted to them like bugs to a light.  Whether the movies that came out of this mentality actually reflect high school is questionable, but they have all served to reinforce the “Fast Times” ideal.

21 Jump Street,” on the other hand, is a bird of a different feather.  It actually dares to question the preconceived notions of high school movies and imagine an entirely different set of tropes, ones that feel modern and appropriate.  The film’s protagonists, undercover cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) graduated high school in 2005 in a very “Fast Times” environment and expect little to have changed when they go on a covert operation to their alma mater in 2012.  Boy, are they wrong.

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REVIEW: Haywire

4 12 2012

There was a decent chunk at the beginning of “Haywire” when I was totally drawn in not by anything in the script or the story … but by Steven Soderbergh’s unique visual sensibilities.  And all of a sudden, it actually begin to sink in that the director actually intends to retire from the craft of cinema and what a loss that could be to the film community.

Soderbergh’s canon of films ranges from the heist films of the “Oceans” series to the zany genre-bending intrigue tale of “The Informant!” to immensely moving biopics like “Erin Brockovich” to hyperlink cinema like “Traffic” to tense thrillers like “Contagion” and even into strange experimentation with whatever the heck “The Girlfriend Experience” was supposed to be.  (Oh, and he also oversaw some movie about magic where Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey showed their butts.)

In just this one sequence where the protagonist of “Haywire,” played to dull effect by MMA fighter  non-actress Gina Carano,” escapes from her captors, there are flashes of almost all of his different movies.  They share a similar rhythm and vibe, achieved in a perfect harmony of cinematography, editing, and sound.  It’s truly remarkable that across so many genres and types of filmmaking, something feels like it’s coming from a single mind.

Now just because he has unified conventions doesn’t mean that they always work or redeem an otherwise poor movie.  Such is the case for “Haywire,” an action thriller that does some clever presentation and narrative organizing to brush up a conventional narrative.  Perhaps the medium is the message for Soderbergh, and his mere repackaging of familiar elements is the point in and of itself.  But the film just always feels like an all-too familiar experience.

Soderbergh does succeed in making it slick (for the ladies, he did get the eye candy of Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum for brief scenes) and subversively political, though.  Yet these victories seem small while watching and seem even smaller in retrospect.  Watch some of Soderbergh’s elegant sequences that have the grace of a ballerina on YouTube some day and skip “Haywire.”  It doesn’t go fully, well, haywire … but there’s got to be some new cinematic voice or story you can use your 90 minutes to hear and see.  C+





REVIEW: The Vow

28 02 2012

If you don’t read the fine print, you could easily be duped into thinking “The Vow” is the latest film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks beach read – I mean, novel.  The marketers were certainly happy to sell it as such, reminding us that the movie doesn’t just star Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum but rather the leads of “The Notebook” and “Dear John.”  Little did I, or many others, realize that their obsession with framing it in terms of Sparks’ work was just a big cover.  The movie is actually merely “inspired by true events,” Hollywood’s catch-all phrase that reminds us that something similar happened in real life and that they intend to take massive artistic liberties.

After seeing the movie, I can tell why they had to bombard people with the idea that they had to judge it on the “standards” of Nicholas Sparks (if you can even call them standards).  While it may be inspired by reality, it is based on his formula for tears and gushy displays of shameless romanticism.  Hollywood never seems to take the right lessons away from their smashing successes, and “The Vow” is just a further reminder of how skewed their logic has become.  Some things only work once, and to hammer them away into hackneyed oblivion.

There comes a point when these calculations eventually stop yielding success and the total becomes less than the sum of its parts.  “The Vow” represents that for the Sparks weepies, although it may have come earlier since I don’t make it a point to see movies like this.  A big group of friends insisted on seeing this movie (although I did remind them that there was a great movie called “The Artist” showing a couple of screens down), so I decided I might as well see what the fuss was about these movies.

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REVIEW: The Dilemma

12 01 2011

The whole premise of deciding whether or not to tell a friend that their wife is cheating on them sounds like something that would make a good episode of “Full House” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  The whole thought process is something perfectly suited to sustain a 22-minute sitcom episode.  However, “The Dilemma” takes that setup and stretches it out to nearly two hours, and all it does is prolong the pain.

Ronny (Vince Vaughn) catches Geneva (Winona Ryder) two-timing her husband and his best friend Nick (Kevin James).  Unsure of whether to meddle or not, he weighs his options carefully but finds physical pain instead of answers and decisions.  The choice is harder to make since the two buddies are business partners under a great deal of stress to deliver big and Ronny is also wrestling with proposing to his girlfiend Beth (Jennifer Connelly).

The longer he delays, the harder it gets to make the decision.  It ultimately results in all four parties revealing and uncovering long-held secrets, which are of course nothing surprising or profound to viewers.  For this reason, “The Dilemma” is quite a bit darker and more solemn than most comedies hitting theaters nowadays.  Perhaps the strange tone is what attracted Ron Howard to direct the film, an Academy Award winner with a curious fascination at having a versatile resumé.  He’s much better at directing such unremarkable and controlled period pieces, where he’s actually capable of making a decent connection with the audience, than he is at directing comedy.

Both Vaughn and James bring a game face to the movie, but their physical and vocal humor is ultimately stifled by an artificial layer of dramatic importance and a poor script.  They get into it, sure, yet they are undermined by either poor dialogue or ridiculous situations.  It’s like these two dynamite comedic forces are trapped in sitcom reruns and aren’t sure whether to escape or adjust their acting style.  The duo desperately needs to return to the R-rated comedy genre which is perfectly able to harness their energy and turn it into side-splitting laughter.  (And, for that matter, Channing Tatum needs to leave acting altogether and just go back to modeling.)

It’s pretty sad for any movie when its legacy will ultimately be not what’s on film, but the fuss over an unsavory epithet for homosexuals in the trailer will likely be the only thing worth remembering about the movie in the years to come.  Ron Howard and Universal gave us a conversation topic in October 2010, yet in January 2011, they didn’t follow up by delivering a quality movie.  By the time you escape from the tepid grasp of “The Dilemma,” you’ll feel as if you’ve watched a highlight reel of failed jokes and cringe-worthy moments.  C-





What To Look Forward To in … February 2010

7 01 2010

We’re still in some hazy territory in the month of February, but the new decade looks to give this month some much needed energy.  Fueled by two movies originally scheduled for release in 2009, I might actually drop a good amount of change at the movies in February (not just on repeat viewings of Oscar nominees).

February 5

Put “The Notebook” in front of anything and you are guaranteed a flock of screaming girls coming with boyfriends in tow.  Put wildly popular model/actor Channing Tatum in the poster and you can add some more girls aside from the hopeless romantics.  “Dear John” has just that: a super sweet story from author Nicholas Sparks and girl eye candy Tatum.  Thankfully for the guys, the filmmakers cast Amanda Seyfried (“Jennifer’s Body”), who isn’t so bad on the eyes either.

I’m a little weary to endorse “From Paris with Love,” another John Travolta villain movie.  He’s only good at playing subtle ones (“Pulp Fiction”) with the exception of “Face/Off.”  2009’s “The Taking of Pelham 123” was a disaster mainly because of Travolta and his villainy established only by constantly dropping the F-bomb.  Potential redemption here?  I’ll need positive word of mouth before I watch Travolta go evil again.

February 12

“Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is the name given to the film adaptation of Rick Riordan’s kids novel “The Lightning Thief.” Clearly Fox is setting up a franchise with the title, and they picked the right place to stake the claim. I read the book in seventh grade, and it is the real deal. I even got a chance to have lunch with the author, Riordan, who is one of the neatest people I have ever met. Whether they ruin it or not is yet to be known, but the movie is being helmed by Chris Columbus, the man who got the “Harry Potter” series flying. That has to count for something.

If Pierce Brosnan isn’t a big enough star to draw you to the aforementioned movie, you should find solace in “Valentine’s Day,” which features just about every romantic comedy actor ever. Literally, I can’t even list all of the stars of the movie here. The post would just be too darn big. Garry Marshall, director of “Pretty Woman” and “The Princess Diaries,” is in charge here, so I find some comfort in that. But if the movie flops, this will be a high-profile disappointment.

Sorry girls, the werewolf in “The Wolfman” is not played by Taylor Lautner. Academy Award-winning actor Benicio del Toro metamorphasizes in Victorian England into the hairy beast when the moon is ripe.  This werewolf is not based on cheeky teen lit but on the 1941 horror classic.  And this adaptation is rated R for “bloody horror violence and gore.”  Get ready for some intense clawing.

A big winner at Cannes and a contender for the Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, “A Prophet” is a foreign film that may be worth a look.

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REVIEW: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

13 08 2009

I will admit that I deliberately postponed this review a few days.  After writing “Mindless Moviegoing” in which I claim that there is hope for teens to look beyond the blockbuster, I would have felt like a hypocrite if the first movie I reviewed had been one.  That being said, I took my little brother to see “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” the morning after I finished the column.  He was begging, and so I just bit the bullet and took him.  Weary after the last disaster based on a Hasbro toy line, I decided I would judge the movie on two grounds: if it had some sort of understandable plot and if there was more to the movie than just explosions and fighting.  Did it pass?  Yes, but barely.  The movie isn’t highly ambitious, but it does attempt to provide a decent story and give its characters some depth (although it might help if the cast wasn’t all models to play this depth).  It provides bearable escapist entertainment, and it scores with the demographic that it targets because my brother now claims this to be his second-favorite movie ever (at least his favorite is “The Dark Knight”).

The movie revolves around a set of four warheads containing nanomites, a new technology with the strength to destroy cities.  They are developed by James McCullen, who sells them to NATO but intends to recapture them for his own use to achieve world domination.  He creates a team of warriors called Cobras that are fearless in the face of danger and virtually invincible.  Fighting these villains is G.I. Joe, an special forces unit comprised of elite soldiers from dozens of countries.  Duke (Channing Tatum, “Step Up”) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans, “Scary Movie”) are the U.S. soldiers assigned to protect the warheads and, as good soldiers do, refuse to release command until their mission has been completed.  They train and ultimately become a part of G.I. Joe as they attempt to stop the dastardly McCullen from destroying the world.

The acting is sub-par, which can be expected when the cast is comprised mainly of ex-models like Channing Tatum and the gorgeous Sienna Miller.  The comedian of the bunch, Marlon Wayans, doesn’t really provide any laughs.  Instead, the movie lets some corny lines and ridiculous acting take care of that.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt strangely follows up the amazing “(500) Days of Summer” with this.  Although I don’t fault him for maybe wanting to take a trip out of indie world, this seems like a curious movie to choose.  He has a kind of boy-next-door feel, and I didn’t really dig this villainous role for him.  However, I am thrilled that he wants to expand his repertoire.  What really boggles me is how Dennis Quaid chooses movies like this when he could be in any movie he wants.

My main comparison to “G.I. Joe” was the latest “Transformers,” and this is light years better.  It is much easier to digest and entertaining.  The movie makes a fair attempt to bring up some serious themes, such as emotion vs. logic, facing fear, and having a conscience about killing.  However, they are undeveloped and ultimately miss the mark.  If you are looking for escapist and mindless entertainment, this a decent choice.  It provides some cool, fast-paced action that will be fun for kids or the kid in you.  C+ / 2stars