Monday, June 30, 2014

Bay of Toys: "Age of Extinction" big, loud, dumb, longest

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
157 min., rated PG-13.

The "Transformers" movies are like all of those sugary cereals you might have eaten as a child. You wouldn't mind eating a bowl of Cap'n Crunch or Fruity Pebbles for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but as you grow older, you crave something more substantial. Not hackmeister Michael Bay, apparently. Using the line of Hasbro toys as a springboard, 2007's "Transformers" was visually excessive but often had a sense of smashing fun; 2009's soul-crushing, pile-driving "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" was one of the worst things to happen to action blockbuster filmmaking that couldn't even be excused by a writer's strike; and 2011's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," despite its miniscule improvements and odd moments of visually coherent spectacle, still added up to a mind-numbing bore. If the first three "Transformers" movies have neither significantly improved or worsenedbesides getting more ginormous, louder, dumber, and longerchances are a fourth one isn't going to turn things around much for the better. Once more directed by Michael Bay with a vengeance, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" still passes through the viewer like a fast-food meal, and while that might sound like a recommendation for some folks, it's just another crushing assault on the senses that never gets the show on the road.

After the Decepticons decimated Chicago (which is now rather impressively repaired) in the last movie, the government has now turned on the outlawed Autobots, rounding them up as their own property. Meanwhile, in Texas, widowed inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is trying to keep his home from being foreclosed on and put his 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), through college, but none of the junk he builds matters to the world. Once the truck Cade finds in a dilapidated movie house and brings to his work barn turns out to be Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) in disguise, black SUVs turn up on the Yeagers' land, refusing to leave until knowing Optimus' whereabouts. Cade, Tessa, and Cade's work buddy Lucas (an annoying use of T.J. Miller for comic relief) end up escaping with Tessa's secret Irish racecar-driving boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor) and going against emotionless Decepticon protoypes, programmed by tech developer Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) and deceitful CIA head honcho Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) with Optimus and the other Autobots. Millions of the human species will be annihilated by Decepticon leader Lockdown (voice of Mark Ryan) if he isn't stopped. Clean-up in Texas, Chicago, Hong Kong and Beijing, please.

Whereas last year's "Pain & Gain"a dark, sensationalistic cautionary tale that actually called for Michael Bay's slick, kinetic sensibilitieswas a step in the right direction, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is back to what Bay does all the time, outdoing himself in wearing us down. It means to be a big, awesome, exhilarating popcorn picture that gives us our money's worth and hopes the product placement will make us want to buy a Bud Light afterwards (or, refreshing Mandarin bottled water), but it's a relentless, 157-minute endurance test that enervates and prompts the questions, "Why isn't it over yet?" and "Why the hell not?" To be fair, credit is due somewhere. The shoot-the-works showman that he is, director Bay would rather go big than go home, knowing how to blow stuff up real good and shoot the hell out of a sunset, and he makes sure an American flag can be seen at least twice and all of the "bad" characters are introduced with low-angle shots. Bay isn't always given a fair shake and he isn't about to change the ways he makes movies for anyone, as there's a sameness to every explosion sequence where the characters run and lunge for the ground. Here, it might not entirely be his fault, either. It doesn't help that the director and his cast have been burdened with a negligible screenplay that probably read "Insert Action Here" in between imbecilic clangers of dialogue and exposition dumps every five pages.

The soul-free script by Ehren Kruger (who was lucky enough to write the previous two installments) exhibits a smattering of self-aware humor, perhaps one-sixteenth as cleverly self-reflexive as anything in the recent "22 Jump Street." Early on, a movie palace owner harps about movies nowadays just being "sequels and remakesbunch of crap." A character even has a strong disdain for "cheap knock-offs." Spoken words have never been more honest, which is more than what can be said of the clunky, painfully earnest father-daughter-boyfriend dramatics. None of that matters, of course, since it's all about bot-on-bot action of the big toys duking it out and leaving mass destruction in their wake. Altogether, there might be about thirty minutes' worth of "cool," including some creepy-crawly stuff with Tessa on a spacecraft; a vertiginous sequence that has Cade, Tessa and Shane crossing suspended cables from the alien ship to a city skyscraper; a deliriously ludicrous slo-mo rescue by Optimus Prime that nearly one-ups the deliriously ludicrous one in "Fast & Furious 6"; and hand-to-hand combat with Cade and a national-security heavy (a type-cast Titus Welliver) across the roofs of Hong Kong homes. The rest is otherwise undermined by Bay's swirling camera and lots of pixelated muchness.

As Shia LaBeouf dodges a bullet (and lately, that's saying something for him), Mark Wahlberg is a reliably solid presence, but when he tries to convince in Rick Moranis mode, it's not happening. He and most of his fellow human actors just get in the way of the metallic stars (who, by the way, should never speak, even if the voice performers include John Goodman, Ken Watanabe and John DiMaggio). Being paid no favors by filling the thankless "Hot Babe in Need of Saving" role, Nicola Peltz (who impressed on both seasons of A&E series "Bates Motel") is Megan Fox-ed up, shimmering with sweat in her shorty shorts and directed to run in heeled boots and call out "Dad!" while never losing the luster of her orange tan and lip gloss. It feels pretty smarmy and exploitative to watch the objectified young actress returning home from school, dressed as if she came back from a night of clubbing, to then seeing her pushed to the ground, crying and having a gun pointed to her temple. Instead of John Turturro or John Malkovich, it's Stanley Tucci who comes away with the brightest moments as a sniveling baddie with more color than expected, even if this is clearly a slumming vacation for him. Looking lost as if waiting for more direction, the cast at least tries to believably act as if they're occupying the same space as their hulking friends and foes.

There might be a vague statement about terrorism and illegal immigration buried somewhere underneath all the pyrotechnics, but who are we kidding? Everyone came to see Optimus Prime and his Transformer buddies, along with the additional Dinobots, who aren't around nearly enough and don't make their short appearance until it's too late in the exhausting game. "Transformers: Age of Extinction," like its three predecessors, is empty-headed and chaotic and bombastic, but we already know that going into the theater. Rather, the flimsy, albeit convoluted, plot is just a clothesline for director Michael Bay to string together equal-opportunity explosions and property damage in the U.S. and China for this vaporous, unspeakably bloated, so-what junk that's at least an hour too long and not fun enough to endure. Is there really anything else to say? Virginal teenage boys who still love playing with toys will be first in line, so there's that.

Grade: C -

Friday, June 27, 2014

Save My Ride: "The Rover" a riveting shaggy-dog slow-burn

The Rover (2014)
103 min., rated R.

Australian writer-director David Michôd's first film, 2010's gripping, assured and densely crafted crime drama "Animal Kingdom," was set in a harsh, tough world of an organized crime family. In contrast, "The Rover" is laconic, stark, spare and still effectively unsparing as ever in its violent battle of wits over a vast, bleak, harsh post-apocalyptic landscape. From a story by Michôd and actor Joel Edgerton, the film is much ado about nothing when you get down to it, but it's fully absorbing in the way it moves at a divisively deliberate but significantly elegiac clip that of a slow burn, punctuated by levels of unbearable tension and abrupt, savagely grim acts of desperate violence. By some, "The Rover" will be equated to a tedious slog, but it hooks and holds the viewer and never plays safe. Lives are taken and all hope is lost.

The time and place is ten years after the financial and societal "collapse" in the Australian Outback, which has now been reduced to a lawless, moneyless wasteland with the prices for water and petrol having costing an arm and a leg. A damaged, taciturn drifter (Guy Pearce), anonymous in the film but credited as "Eric," goes into a crummy bar for a drink. All of a sudden, three criminals (Scoot McNairy, Tawanda Mayimbo and David Field) who have just committed a crime flip their vehicle right past the bar and then steal Eric's car. Eric does manage to give them a chase, catching up to them in their still-functioning car to retrieve his own, but he winds up hooking up with the leading car thief's half-wit brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), who was left for dead with a gunshot wound. After getting Rey fixed up, they set out in pursuit of Rey's brother, but Eric has nothing to lose he just wants his car back, even if that means using Rey as bait.

From the very first frame, director David Michôd lures the patient viewer in, holding his shots a few beats longer than one might expect and allowing us to take in the quiet buzzing, stillness and desolation of such a dry, dangerous landscape. The particulars of "the Collapse" are ambiguous, and that's okay because "The Rover" is a shaggy-dog story. Eric is a bitter man with a singular goal. Wanting his car back is his top priority and the reason being is, for a good chunk of the film, a McGuffin. Although the contents in Eric's car are kept close to the vest, there is a sly hint in one of Eric and Rey's stops in retrospect. No matter his IQ, Rey might be just as dangerous; even if he's not all there, he feels betrayed by his big brother. The story's unpredictability comes in human nature, as it's not always clear which loose cannon has the upper hand. The film takes an unsettling detour to a travelling cirus of dwarves and other freakshow characters, led by a calm, seemingly genteel grandmother (Gillian Jones) who perpetually sits in a chair by the window, knitting and, upon Eric's entrance, offers him a young boy. When he asks if she has seen three men drive by in a car, she responds: "What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age." 

Guy Pearce is haunting in conveying the wounded heart of Eric, whose rage in his eyes (and gun in his hand) rarely ceases to intimidate. The jury might no longer be out, as Robert Pattinson has put a stake in the "Twilight" franchise and now seems to make edgy, interesting choices to challenge himself. As the developmentally stunted Rey, Pattinson gives himself completely to a seemingly simple-minded young man whose volatility makes him dangerous. Chilling and touchingly pathetic in equal measure, his convincing and persuasive turn initially seems studied, but whether it be Michôd's direction, Pattinson's chops, or a combination of both of their efforts, it resists falling head-on into showy, actorly tics. This could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg in Pattinson's admirable career transformation from a pretty, sulky matinee idol to a more nuanced and instinctive actor of unexpected gravitas.

A visual and aural ace, from cinematographer Natasha Braier's stunningly gritty lensing dusty, sun-scorched Australia, to Anthony Partos' moody score and Sam Petty's ominous sound design of nervy, dissonant clanging sounds, "The Rover" builds an edgy black cloud of dread and rarely lets up. (In the middle of the film, the jarring use of Keri Hilson's bouncy "Pretty Girl Rock" is a thing of offbeat brilliance, too.) The film isn't without a draggy middle that taps dry some of the tension, although whether that's a criticism or an observation is in the eye of the beholder. Eric's journey to the heart of darkness is an inevitable exercise in futility, as not much hope or victory waits on the other end. It feels kind of pointless, but it is riveting to watch. The final moments are initially befuddling and then subtle and heartbreaking that one doesn't know if laughing or a more guttural reaction is the correct emotion. The boiling heat and dry desert will be felt, and so will the emotional wreckage of both men. Don't even try shrugging this one off because it won't work.

Grade: B +

Monday, June 23, 2014

Some Night That Was: Off-key "Jersey Boys" rarely pops, despite that music

Jersey Boys (2014)
134 min., rated R.

Clint Eastwood would not be one's first choice to bring the popular 2005 Broadway jukebox musical "Jersey Boys" to the screen. Despite music being within his wheelhousehe directed "Bird," the 1988 biopic on jazz legend Charlie "Bird" Parker, and has been a composer for most of his films—Eastwood is clearly more comfortable with making weighty, melancholy films, like "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima," and "Changeling," than a splashy musical centering on '60s pop group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Apart from performances in bars and on the re-created "American Bandstand" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," as well as the closing credits, there are actually no showy production numbers, leaving this slavishly faithful big-screen adaptation to just dutifully follow the conventional rise-and-fall-to-fame biopic format in outline form and make up for a shortage of depth with clichés. "Jersey Boys" should explode and pop off the screen, and it just seems unremarkably low-wattage and bereft of dramatic interest. Those timelessly catchy doo-wop tunes will surely stick in your head, but the last thing the viewer should feel at the end of the show is neutral.

The story begins in a neighborhood Belleville, N.J., circa 1951, where one was either killed in the mob, or in the war, or you got famous, and don't you forget it. Holier-than-thou two-bit criminal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) takes 16-year-old hairdresser wannabe Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) under his wing after hearing the kid's voice of an angel. It's not long before DeVito's buddy, Joe Pesci (Joey Russo)—yeah, that one—introduces Tommy, Frankie and bass guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) to songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who's famous for composing the novelty song "Short Shorts" and ends up joining the group. Success comes calling when the band starts to find their harmonic sound, changes their name from "The Four Lovers" to "(Frankie Valli and) The Four Seasons," and finds backing from recorder producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle). Aside from making top hit songs out of "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man," the band members deal with their women and loan sharks and have numerous falling-outs.

Director Eastwood, working from a script by musical book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, approach their story as a straightforward rags-to-riches, boom-and-bust drama. The highs and lows that unfold on screen may have really happened in Frankie Valli's life—the financial problems, the infighting and bickering, an unsupportive wife, the loss of a child—but the way in which the story is told didn't have to be so safe and pedestrian, combined with such lethargic pacing. What does work are the cute contrivances acting as ideas for songs going off in Bob Gaudio's head; who knew "Big Girls Don't Cry" simply came from the boys watching Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling on the tube? Also, before the band's name change, Frankie takes it as a sign, literally, when the "Four Seasons Hotel" sign lights up outside of a bowling alley. Existing because it was in the show, the device of characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly as "Rashomon"-style unreliable narrators giving their own version on the story doesn't always work as playfully and as insightfully as it should. Less of a terminal problem, though certainly odd, the film is so insular, existing in a bubble and ignoring the context of its time and place, as if the world saw nothing but some doo-wop pop group. In what should have been the heart of the film, Frankie's father-daughter relationship with Francine (Freya Tingley) is so poorly handled and barely there. When a frame of reference would have helped immensely, the screenplay employs the shorthand, as if the recurring use of "My Eyes Adored You" and a funeral scene will automatically seal the deal. Apparently, Francine wasted her singing talent on drugs, and suddenly, we're expected to care, but it's too little, too late. The emotional moments should matter more and they just don't register. This glossy, square "Jersey Boys" deserved a livelier, punchier stage-to-screen treatment, one that actually capitalizes on what made the show such a success on the Great White Way and what would make Frankie Valli's life so fascinating to watch. 

The casting is primarily where Eastwood gets things more right than wrong. Originating the role of Frankie Valli that made him a Tony-winner and reprising it for the screen, theater vet John Lloyd Young emulates his real-life counterpart's distinct falsetto voice perfectly, indeed, and he has a magnetic smile, to boot. He's kind of a bland screen presence, though, and during some of his bigger scenes, Young seems to still be expressing for the stage. Portraying Frankie as a real person, he is mostly a cipher, as there is no sense of what makes him tick. Was Frankie in it for the money, or women, or really his passion for music? It's probably the latter, but we never feel it. Without hamming up the badda bing, badda boom shtick too much, Vincent Piazza charges the film with charismatic juice and a committed gusto every time he's on screen as wiseguy leader Tommy DeVito. As Four Seasons members Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda, both of whom have performed the show with separate touring companies, slip back into their roles with ease and pep. Renée Marino, also reprising her role from the stage in her feature film debut, is a frisky fireball as Frankie's wife, Mary Delgado, at least when eyeing up her soon-to-be husband and during their snappily written first date. One minute the newly married Frankie and Mary are walking happily out of the church, and scenes later they have a daughter and then three daughters. Once Mary gets pushed to the margins, Marino's characterization grows into a boozy, one-note nag and stays there, alas. As 'Gyp' DeCarlo, the only mob boss who would weep at the sound of Frankie's angelic voice, Christopher Walken brings a seasoned vitality that is more than welcome. Finally, and quite possibly the best in show next to those playing the Four Seasons, Mike Doyle is vibrant and funny as tough, gay record dealer Bob Crewe, his flamboyance just teetering on caricatured stereotype but never toppling over into embarrassment.

Dramatically flat and emotionally unsatisfying, "Jersey Boys" falls so short of the mark that one feels like crying like a little girl. Shot by Tom Stern, Eastwood's longtime cinematographer, with glazed, desaturated colors, the film even looks solid. Production values are workmanlike all around, except for an oddly artificial use of rear projection in a driving scene out of a '60s movie and the finale's hokey old-age make-up, further hampered by close-ups that distractingly draw attention to the actors' pearly whites. In the last five minutes or so, Frankie and the Four Seasons reunite at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and perform "Who Loves You" before the film segues into a curtain call of a full-blown, show-stopping musical number to "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." It's alive and jubilant and, finally, completely emblematic of what seems to be missing all along from the previous 129 minutes—energy—that you're almost convinced you've seen a more entertaining show than you really have. It's not hard to get one's foot tapping to a couple of the musical moments beforehand, but connecting with superficially drawn characters and scattershot "highlights" storytelling on an emotional level remains an unmanageable task. There are going to be audiences of a certain age who like "Jersey Boys," the movie, no matter what, but it can't work on nostalgia and hit songs alone. Few will be walking on air and able to agree with Frankie saying, "That was the best."


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Big Girl Choices: "Obvious Child" the funniest, most adorable abortion comedy ever

Obvious Child (2014)
84 min., rated R.

The Pregnancy Comedy is very much a "thing"—2007's "Juno," "Knocked Up" and "The Brothers Soloman," 2008's "Baby Mama," 2010's "The Back-up Plan" and "The Switch," and 2012's "What to Expect When You're Expecting," just to name a fewand it doesn't seem to be going out of style anytime soon. Being unfairly referred to as an "abortion comedy," writer-director Gillian Robespierre's feature debut "Obvious Child" dares to frankly broach such a difficult social issue or at least treat it as an option when most films just dance around and stigmatize it. Sure, there is nothing remotely amusing about an abortion, but the film isn't exclusively about that, nor does it make light of abortion or have an agenda to proselytize; it's about a young woman in flux even before she gets pregnant. In contemporary, liberal Hollywood, such a film shouldn't feel this subversive, but it actually does in a small, modest and pretty sophisticated way. 

Almost thirty years old and uninsured, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a struggling Brooklyn stand-up comic who relies on her income from working a day job at an old store for "unoppressive anti-imperialist bargain books" and acing the occasional organic douche commercial. Shortly after her boyfriend dumps her for a mutual friend, the book store is about to close and the draining feeling of her creativity energy, Donna gets sloshed the same night right before her set on stage and ends up having a rebound one-night stand with a dorky, aw-shucks stranger named Max (Jake Lacy). Within weeks, she realizes she's late with boob soreness, and a plus sign on a pregnancy test does not put Donna in positive spirits. Even if she fails to tell Max right away, Donna has a great support system in her divorced parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper), roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), and her comedian pal, Joey (Gabe Liedman), when she has already made up her mind about what to do about the pregnancy.

Adapted from a 2009 short film by writer-director Robespierre (which also starred Slate in the lead role) with lovely use of Paul Simon's song of the same name, "Obvious Child" is a slice of life that prefers to be more conversational than plotty and delicately low-key but boldly edgy and free-thinking. Natural, honest and funny with wittily coarse, laugh-out-loud dialogue and bittersweet pangs of reality, the film follows through on its own premise, without going too far to be heavy or offensive, and never reduces the pro-choice topic to sitcom wackiness. Robespierre might have too much of a fondness for bodily functions at times, but bowel movements and flatulence are never the focal points of a scene nor do they soften the sharpness and generosity of the film's tone. In the vein of Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath character on HBO's "Girls," Donna is self-involved, but she is trying to get her life in order and the viewer feels like just giving her free advice and a hug. Donna doesn't have much income and child-rearing isn't high on her list of priorities, so she's not exactly in the position to be a mother. If Donna actually were to keep the baby, the film would probably feel morally irresponsible and emotionally dishonest. 

Stretching beyond sketches, "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Jenny Slate shows major promise in carrying her first lead feature film, which could be viewed as a female rejoinder to Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk with Me." Whether making jokes about stained underwear and expelled gas, drunk dialing her ex-beau and leaving long, wine-induced voicemails, or choosing to have an abortion, she is adorably funny, touchingly vulnerable and identifiable as Donna. As Donna's very different and, thus, divorced parents, Richard Kind shares some nice moments with Slate, as does Polly Draper, who has a tender and true scene in which she confides a secret to Donna. Jake Lacy (TV's "The Office") lends a sweet, unassuming charm to the part of Max with whom Donna failed to use a condom ("I remember seeing a condom, I just don't know, like, what it did"). Finally, on her streak of comeback roles in TV and independent films, Gaby Hoffmann is wonderfully warm and acerbic as Donna's supportive, good-egg roommate and best friend Nellie.

When Max asks Donna if she wants to watch a romantic comedy, she says she can't connect with them. The film isn't so much an anti-romantic comedy as it is a smarter and more relatable example of one. The scene in which Donna finds the courage to actually tell Max about her pregnancy and her decision kills two birds with one stone: it captures the unembarrassed, unapologetic prickliness of the character's earlier improv set ("I was recently dumped up with . . . I would love to just murder suicide them"), while checking off the conventional public-declaration scene with humorous discomfort. Free of judgment and preachiness, "Obvious Child" is a breath of fresh air. Don't let the subject matter or Slate's opening comic act about vaginas reduce this small indie miracle or make it seem like a tough sell. It's like something Woody Allen might have made had he been born with lady parts.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Just Like Last Time: "22 Jump Street" a sequel that's proud to be a sequel

22 Jump Street (2014)
112 min., rated R.

With a bad sequel, the joke is usually on the audience for expecting to find anything fresh when more! more! more! will suffice. With "22 Jump Street," the audience gets to be in on it. No one was clamoring for a reboot to the 1987-1991 police procedural series, and yet "21 Jump Street" was knowing and hilariously witty in how it made fun of the age-old trend of Hollywood turning long-defunct TV shows into movies. On paper, a sequel should have had no reason to work, as the worst-case scenario sees sequels being bigger, louder and just cynically expensive Xerox copies of their predecessors with none of the inspiration and novelty, but it does work. "22 Jump Street" knows it's a sequel, takes the piss out of being a sequel, and takes a risk by unabashedly being more of the same and yet being just as funny, if not funnier, than "21 Jump Street."

Police officers and friends Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) find themselves back in the game, doing the exact same thing as last time and replaying their undercover identities as siblings Doug and Brad. Two exceptions: their police unit, headed by the perpetually angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), now sets up shop at a Vietnamese church across the street at 22 Jump Street, and instead of infiltrating a high school, the "power couple" is off to college at MC State. Someone with an unusual tattoo from a photo is supplying a new drug called "Why-Phy" (yes, it sounds just like the wireless Internet service) that has already take one college kid's life, and it's up to Schmidt and Jenko to sniff out which campus clique might be involved and gain their trust. While Schmidt joins the football team and falls in with a Zeta Theta Psi frat brother named Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), Jenko gives slam poetry a try and starts hanging out with the art students, particularly possible love interest Maya (Amber Stevens), since he would rather not engage in frat pledging and flipping over cases of beer. Once again, the two unlikely best friends find themselves in different social circles, losing sight of one another and the case. 

Sillier and perhaps even more boisterous than before, "22 Jump Street" is still clownishly, ticklishly funny and inventive in the ways it doesn't deviate from what made the first movie such a legitimate hit. Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are already having a banner year, heck, career with this year's "The LEGO Movie" that methinks they might be unstoppably brilliant, along the lines of another Peter and Bobby Farrelly or Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker (ZAZ). The first film's screenwriter, Michael Bacall, teams with newbie Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, and they bring an even more satirical edge and pay off every joke they set up. The whole meta conceit that everyone acknowledges they are in a sequel with a slightly bigger budget would seem like it might wear thin, but the film is so swift on its feet, always moving on to another version of or variation on the same joke. Once again, Nick Offerman, reprising his expository role as Chief Hardy, sets up our characters' new mission with a wink: "Nobody cared about the 'Jump Street' reboot, but you got lucky. So now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure 'Jump Street' keeps going." In one of many riffs on mega-budgeted sequels, Schmidt keeps barking at Jenko to not ruin any property during a car chase in a giant MC helmet on wheels, or their destruction will cost the department more money. 

It's a good thing "22 Jump Street" really does follow the same formula as last time because this one again hinges on the loose, dynamite chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum and champions the idea of the so-called "bromance," which is a relationship just as any but without the sex. Hill and Channing are likable as ever, the former making a "walk of shame" look adorable and the latter still very game and owning up to his newfound knack for comedy (listen to his endearing mispronunciation of "annals"). For all intents and purposes, Schmidt and Jenko are a couple. When Jenko starts spending time with Zook after a clever "meet cute" that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, they are like two peas in a pod, but he's torn between two men. There's a touchy-feely sweetness to both bromantic relationships, and both are played so earnestly that neither ever have the chance to become lame, forced gay-panic situations. The film even goes so far as to throw Schmidt and Jenko into an on-campus couples counseling session, force them into an "open investigation," and use a temporary break-up montage, cued to John Waite's "Missing You," that would be found in any conventional romantic comedy. A line of supporting actors and surprising comedians are solid in bit parts, too, with a few cameos, to boot. Ice Cube is also better used as Capt. Dickson, with a key plot surprise that reminds one of his January dud "Ride Along" with Kevin Hart, and he completely nails a bit in which Dickson attacks a buffet table. Amber Stevens, taking over for Brie Larson from the first film, is lovely and eye-catching as Maya, who might give Schmidt a chance, and synchronized-talking twins Kenny and Keith Lucas are a riot whenever popping up on screen as Schmidt and Jenko's stoned dorm neighbors. Above all of them, though, "Groundlings" alumnus Jillian Bell is the biggest scene-stealer. As Maya's blunt roommate Mercedes, she nails every deadpan putdown and shows off her sharp-as-a-tack improv skills that the editors probably had a hell of a time finding the funniest takes.

Directors Lord and Miller whip out plenty of quirky stylistic flourishes, like a "college essential" checklist of bean-bag chairs and shower poofs and an obligatory but giddily uproarious psychotropic sequence of Schmidt and Jenko's disparate states of drug-induced euphoria. And don't even dream of leaving before the gut-bustingly inspired closing credits, which take "sequel-dom" to a whole new level and imagine an endless onslaught of potential sequels, an animated series and video games. Comedy is relative, and as long as you're on the inside of the joke, not a stretch goes by without some sort of amusement. Not since the "Scream" series has a sequel been so aware of itself in both sly and obvious ways without driving the self-referential stuff into the ground and then delivering a very good representative of what it's referencing and roasting. Neither a sloppy comedy nor a lazy sequel, "22 Jump Street" is a total blast.

Grade: A - 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Planet of the Hazmat Suits: Lo-fi "Signal" impresses visually but remains an interesting failure

The Signal (2014) 
95 min., rated PG-13.

Sharing the same title as the nifty 2008 techno-horror item, "The Signal" might mark William Eubank as an interesting filmmaker to watch, it being his second feature, but beyond a strong visual sense and proficient work with actors, this lo-fi, mind-bending sci-fi mystery is purely a calling card for a better film in Eubank's future. Slick effects and technical ingenuity definitely belie a budget of $4 million, but take away the aesthetics and the film has very little else to recommend it. It defies categorization in wanting to be a few different things—imagine "Joy Ride" becoming "The Blair Witch Project" and then taking a turn into "TRON" and "Robocop" and "The Twilight Zone"although as a piece of storytelling, the characters are written with little depth or context, the three acts do not crystallize, and the story frustratingly never makes much headway. Perhaps its problem areas would be fewer if "The Signal" were solely a short.

Suffering from the early stages of multiple sclerosis and relying on crutches to walk, former athlete Nic Eastman (Brenton Thwaites) and his best friend, fellow hacker and MIT student Jonah (Beau Knapp), make a road trip out of taking Nic's girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to California for school. Along the way in a motel, Nic and Jonah receive coded messages from a hacker who calls himself "NOMAD" and has infiltrated their school and personal servers, so the boys decide to take a detour to confront the mystery man. The whereabouts of "NOMAD" bring the three to a spooky shack in the middle of the desert, and that becomes their final memory before facing somethinghow do we say this?otherworldly. Next thing he knows, Nic wakes up quarantined in a government facility and questioned by the mysterious Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne). He is told that he has made contact and is contaminated, while Haley rests in a coma. Nic's only chance to know what is happening is to break out.

When we first meet Nic, Jonah and Haley, "The Signal" is a road movie and the story seems to already be in midstream, as the male hackers have been tracking a rival hacker all along and the romantic couple has a big decision to make for their future. So far, so compelling. Once the setting switches to a sterile-white underground research facility, the film still remains mysterious and intriguing before slowing to a crawl and grinding its pacing to a halt just when it ought to be gaining momentum. Admittedly, there is a "Where's Waldo?" moment from Nic and Jonah's video footage that chills, but then an escape sequence, where every biohazard suit is apparently blind to the sight of Nic in a wheelchair and dragging Haley behind him on a hospital gurney, is just too incredulous. And an ominous experiment with a cow turns out to lead nowhere of note. From there, writer-director William Eubank's screenplay, co-scribed with brother Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, doesn't deepen so much as keep things consistently murky and withhold answers. Though the film was reportedly constructed as an allegory for rational and emotional thinking, one does not feel those deep-dish intentions coming through, nor is there much to the characters to carry a strong emotional punch, just half-baked ideas that could have formed something stellar.

Aussie native Brenton Thwaites is turning out to be a sturdy young actor with rising-star potential, having appeared in this year's "Oculus" and "Maleficent" and three more movies in the can. As Nic, he earns sympathy early on in a nice, telling moment with helping a young boy retrieve a toy from a claw vending machine. As Haley and Jonah, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp manage some appeal out of their deficient roles, too. As Damon, Laurence Fishburne knows how to play cool, humorless and suspect, and makes sauntering down an antiseptic hallway in a hazmat suit comically creepy. If there has to be a cheerfully nutty surprise, it's Lin Shaye as a religious nut named Mirabelle, who picks up the recently escaped Nic and Haley in the desert, but the inexplicable reason for her presence is really anyone's guess.

Where "The Signal" ends up going is like a joke that falls flat the setup is interesting and seems to be leading somewhere, and the punchline should be a kicker, but it's less than satisfying and not as mind-blowing as it might think it is. No buts about it, filmmaker Eubank's sophomore effort is technically well-made. David Lanzenberg's lush cinematography is great to look at, along with some striking imagery (the final moments on a stretch of highway are pretty staggering), and it does most of the heavy lifting. Otherwise, the film fails to connect all the dots or hang together as a cohesive whole. The final destination isn't really worth a slowly deflating journey.

Grade: C -

Friday, June 13, 2014

Undead Hotties: "All Cheerleaders Die" imperfect but peppy and bloody fun

All Cheerleaders Die (2014) 
90 min., rated R.

At first, "All Cheerleaders Die" feels like a giant step back for one Lucky McKee, something he might have made before 2003's "May" and 2011's "The Woman"—two great films that belong in the upper echelon of horror cinema. Here, the writer-director's fifth film is a joint effort with co-writer and director Chris Sivertson ("I Know Who Killed Me") and it's actually a remake of both filmmakers' obscure 2001 direct-to-video feature of the same name and same premise. Why they would want to reanimate the same material isn't immediately clear, but "All Cheerleaders Die" is such an oddly likable and enthusiastically made lark with offbeat sensibilities that all preconceived notions fall by the wayside. It has enough acerbic humor, bloody fun, and pert spirit, yes it does, to look past its existing imperfections. 

As such a title would suggest, "All Cheerleaders Die" is not based on a true story nor is it a straight-up horror pic, but it all does start with a neck-snapping surprise. Blackfoot High School outsider Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) used to be best friends with the sassy Alexis (Felisha Cooper), who's now in higher social standing as the cheerleading squad's captain. While Maddy shoots a video all about Alexis, the queen bee dies during a cheer jump. Three months later, Maddy has her own ulterior motives, setting her sights on making senior year for Alexis' apathetic boyfriend, alpha-male football quarterback Terry (Tom Williamson), a living hell and taking the cheerleaders down with him, particularly new cheerleading captain and Alexis' best friend Tracy (Brooke Butler) who didn't wait long to date Terry. Maddy's revenge plan goes as planned, making the team of pom-pommers and getting close to Tracy, which does not coincide with the pursuit of happiness for Maddy's needy Wiccan ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee). The night before the teens' first day of senior year, there's trouble in paradise with Tracy and Terry, forcing four cheerleaders, including Maddy and Tracy, to drive off and die in a car accident. Thanks to Leena's dark magic rocks, they all come back as literal man-eaters who need to be on an all-blood diet, and there are plenty of Neanderthal football players to go around. 

As written by McKee and Sivertson, this morbidly entertaining horror-comedy hybrid isn't that different from McKee's previous genre efforts in terms of having a female perspective. To McKee and Sivertson's credit, the film taps into the universal pain of one losing a close friend to a cooler social crowd. Though Maddy and Leena's relationship may have resonated even more with extra scenes before the mayhem breaks out, it's generously treated as a more delicate friendship instead of a way of baiting teenage boys who just want to see two girls macking. Whether the film passes the Bechdel test hardly matters, though, as "All Cheerleaders Die" is really a rape-and-revenge tale between "bitches" and "dawgs" (those terms are the cheerleaders' words, not mine) with a little succubus horror thrown in for good measure. Mashing up "Heathers," "The Craft," "Bring It On," "Mean Girls," "Tamara," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "Jennifer's Body," the film walks a tonal tightrope between dark horror and silly comedy without ever careening into outright spoof. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

I Love the '80s: "Ping Pong Summer" a slight but sweet love letter

Ping Pong Summer (2014)
92 min., not rated (but equivalent to PG-13).

Scrappy coming-of-age summer comedy "Ping Pong Summer" has the misfortune of coming after 2013's "The Way Way Back" and 2009's Adventureland," two subjectively familiar and superior films. While it doesn't quite nail the engaging, well-formed characters of its aforementioned predecessors, writer-director Michael Tully's film is so totally steeped in 1980s nostalgia and brimming with boomboxes, parachute pants and Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" that it will automatically be catnip to Generation Xers. It is sweetly silly and endearing, if a little wan and old-hat, but anyone who is tired of tributes to the '80s is probably no fun or an old curmudgeon. "Ping Pong Summer" is played with both sincerity and air-quote irony, so for better or for worse, it looks and feels like a movie locked inside a time capsule from nearly three decades ago.

It's the summer of 1985 in Mount Airy, Maryland, and time for the Miracle family's vacation to Ocean City. Packing his red parachute pants, Nike sneaks and ping pong paddle, introverted 13-year-old Radford (Marcello Conte)—"Rad" for short—his goth older sister Michelle (Helena May Seabrook) and their parents (John Hannah, Lea Thompson) rent out a beach house. It's a whole thing, but during his vacation, he makes double-quick friends with wannabe rapper Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey), finds a dream girl in the Pixy Stix-addicted Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley), bumps heads at the Fun Hub arcade with a preppy bully Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his rascally toady (Andy Riddle), and learns how to master his sport of choice with the "ball making contact" motto of neighbor Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), a ping pong champion who's now seen as the weird lady in town.

Like how Rad tries to breakdance, moonwalk, and conquer "The Worm," "Ping Pong Summer" constantly rides the line between cool and enthusiastically dorky. Writer-director Tully clearly has dear affection for the era, even if the film initially tries too hard and wavers between mocking parody and a loving reconstruction of the genuine article. Once the film settles down yet still giddily indulges in the summery '80s details, the proceedings breeze along with a quirky, charming spirit. For what it's worth, Tully and his production collaborators earn brownie points for re-creating the innocent, fun-loving and brightly colored period without making it tackier than it already was. The shaggy, unpolished production values coincide with a drool-worthy, retro-stylish credit sequence, among other editing flourishes, and an infectious era-specific soundtrack ("Stick 'Em" by The Fatboys and "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger). 

In his film debut, Marcello Conte is good-natured and suitably gawky as Rad Miracle, who will gain a sense of confidence by the end, but Myles Massey's Teddy, both endearing and goofily funny, is the more appealing standout. Surrounded by the young cast of unknowns, Susan Sarandon is a sparky female version of Mr. Miyagi, but she gives more than what the screenplay is willing to give her Randi Jammer. Lea Thompson is winning as Rad's not-so-hip, down-to-earth mother, who may not feel fully realized but doesn't come off as a caricature, either. In a walk-on cameo, Amy Sedaris pilfers laughs as Rad's perky Aunt Peggy who makes horny seashell art and finds no fault in showing off her tan lines. There is always something to be said for a story about a teenage boy following his passion and gaining a backbone in the process, but "Ping Pong Summer" offers little in the way of memorability with a plain red-letter summer story that isn't much more than "The Karate Kid" with table tennis. Nevertheless, this little trifle has a pure-hearted likability and righteous, all-smiles vibes.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Let Him In: "Borgman" hard to pin down but more unsettling for it

Borgman (2014)
113 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

When a film poses more questions than answers, the knee-jerk reaction is to peg it as an unintentional problem, as if the filmmakers made no artistic choice. Written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam, "Borgman" is a compulsively watchable curiosity that defiantly rejects audience hand-holding and makes you perform the legwork all on your own. It is something when a film makes two of 2014's arguably best films"Under the Skin" and "Enemy"seem accessible by comparison, but this horror-tinged whatchamacallit truly is uncompromising, unsettling, cryptic, elegantly shot and, frankly, quite weird. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Big Feet to Fill: "Willow Creek" makes few discoveries but manages slow-burn fun

Willow Creek (2014)
80 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

Thanks to 1999's groundbreaking "The Blair Witch Project," there is now an endless stream of found-footage cheapies. What makes the prospect of a pseudo-documentary about the hunt for Sasquatch so very exciting is the one at the helm. With "Willow Creek," writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait treks into woodsy horror. That the comedian had a couple of satirically incisive, risk-taking dark comedies (2009's "World's Greatest Dad" and 2012's "God Bless America") in him should not have come as a surprise because Goldthwait's next step in making a micro-budget found-footage horror pic was much less expected. The sky was the limit, so while it doesn't bring anything wholly new to the table of a juddering camera and mythical advocacy, "Willow Creek" at least feels deftly modulated in its mix of backwoods local color, verbal wit, relationship drama, and more-natural scares.

Laid-back documentary filmmaker Jim Kessel (Bryce Johnson) is eager to visit Willow Creek, Northern California's mecca to the community of Bigfoot. While she may not be a believer, he drags along actress girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) to help him shoot some footage. In their search for more information on the hairy creature, Jim and Kelly make a few stops through town before traveling to the site of the famous 1967 footage by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. They find themselves in a tourist trap, staying at the Bigfoot Motel and even tasting a Bigfoot Burger at a restaurant dedicated to the monster. Of course, there will be a few locals telling them to get the hell out of dodge, but the couple goes bushwhacking anyway and camps out in the wilderness of Bluff Creek. At night, Jim and Kelly will learn the hard way that they probably shouldn't have trespassed. 

Mounted with a compelling immediacy and informative rather than instantly horrific, "Willow Creek" is a slow burn in the truest sense, daring those expecting their scares to come fast and furious to stay put and wait it out. It certainly helps that writer-director Goldthwait positions his audience with Jim and Kelly, played by Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore with an easy, likable rapport and playful repartee. We like them and we are forced to experience exactly what they go through, from their tourist stops and local interviews on the Bigfoot legend to their confrontations with some angry yokels and then whatever comes to their tent at night. Apart from one sly meta reference where Kelly realizes they have no cell reception ("like the beginning of every horror movie"), the film is never a snarky send-up of the threadbare subgenre as one might expect from the wacky comic. 

In the middle of the film, there is a craftily goosey 19-minute sequence of long, uninterrupted unease with the static camera holding on the couple sitting awake in their tent. This frightfully rattling section is a masterclass in itself of what one can do with limited resources and just the power of suggestive sound, creepily using the widely spaced noises of distant howling, vocalization, wood knocking, and crunching footsteps closing in. After Jim and Kelly begin realizing they're hiking in circles, only for night to fall again, the film ends on a maddeningly rote note, letting down the viewer from what came immediately before. "Willow Creek" may not reach "rave" status or leave you screaming, but whether or not the faux-footage subgenre is ready to be put out to pasture, this little exercise still keeps it going without reinvention or regression.

Grade: B -