by Philip Price
With sequels these days there has come a feeling of such necessity that we have therefore come to experience many sequels complacent with simply re-hashing the original. “22 Jump Street” is aware of this and especially in the genre of comedy. Most comedies, be it “The Hangover,” “Rush Hour” or “The Nutty Professor,” are typically made with no greater ambition than making people laugh and maybe gaining a following once they hit home video, but I can't imagine any of them expected box office success resulting in a second chapter. This was apparent in each of the sequels to the aforementioned comedies, but the second chapter in this Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill collaboration not only knows it is a college movie that pays homage to the kind of National Lampoon mainstays (as well as a barrage of other comedic references), but a sequel that subverts sequels. They realize the expectation that everything is supposed to be bigger, more expensive looking, and louder which is why they choose to open this one with a big, fast action sequence. While the heart of the film still deals with the on-going relationship between Hill's Schmidt and Tatum's Jenko the real story of the film is not the one in which these two repeat the same undercover work as last time, but instead how the film goes about commentating on the way studios operate these days and what happens when they run into road blocks and disagreements. In order to set-up the last act of the film our boys are confronted with the issue of having no money left in their police budget, which is to say they've spent it all on that opening chase sequence, upgraded sets and a bigger scope. Lucky for us the third act also helps the film break from the mold of the first film in which it was so eager to repeat so as to not venture outside the safety net of success. Returning directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller understand that everything is funnier the first time around and that the jokes aren't as sharp the second time. They understand audiences think they'll not only be looking for the same things, but wanting them. The truth is, despite the fact audiences think this way, they will leave the theater disappointed if that's what they're given because it wasn't more than they assumed it would be. In responding to these inherent wants and needs Lord and Miller have crafted a film that both meets initial expectations and then bursts through the traditional sequel curse by giving us what we didn't know we wanted until it was served up fresh.
In a piece of perfect execution from the get-go Lord and Miller let us know they are in on the joke by recapping the events of the first film with a "Previously on 21 Jump Street" bit. From there we are dropped into the middle of an investigation as Schmidt aims to infiltrate a gang of drug dealers led by Peter Stormare with a new identity and character he is trying out while Jenko goes along against his will while attempting an accent that fails and lands them in a gun fight. To say the pair fails miserably is a bit of an understatement which brings to the attention of Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) that these guys are only good at one thing. In the wake of the Korean's buying back the church where Captain Dickson's (Ice Cube) undercover operations made their headquarters they had to move things across the street to 22 Jump St. (which justifies the title, naturally, because it was never in reference to the fact it was the second film). As we might expect Dickson walks them through what is basically the same case they solved in the previous installment though this time on a college campus. With Jenko having never been to college and Schmidt adoring the liberal and artistic nature of academic thinking the partners are more than psyched to jump at the opportunity to do as they please in this atmosphere. They are in search of a drug called "WHY-PHY" (Work Hard? Yes. Play Hard? Yes.), but before they get too far in their investigation they start to encounter more issues with their partnership. Whereas last time the film explored the ever-changing cultural trends that high school students go through this time we see the college experience work both for and against our dynamic duo. Schmidt gets an in with the artsy crowd, especially Maya (Amber Stevens) who he shares more than a fling with while Jenko has a meet Q-tip with Zook (Wyatt Russell). These two very different crowds lead Schmidt and Jenko to once again agree to an “open investigation,” in order to “investigate” other people. This is the only aspect that repeats too much of the same core dilemmas of the first film while taking up too much screen time. We'd rather just see the partners put aside their differences (as we know they will eventually) to divide and conquer as the elite cops we know they could be.
To make it clear, I really did enjoy myself in “22 Jump Street.” Let it not be thought that I didn't. The film has its issues yet I didn't necessarily want it to end and I know the more I watch it the more I will gain from it and the more I will like it. It is almost inevitable for me to not enjoy a comedy the more familiar I become and am allowed to catch things I didn't in my first pass, but “21 Jump Street” was the rare comedy that made a real impact on its initial viewing. Did “22 Jump Street” not leave as strong an impact? No, not necessarily but there are some great moments here. Whether it is little details like the twin roommates that live across the hall from Schmidt and Jenko or the outlandish scenes where Tatum displays his knack for playing the goofball idiot full tilt. It is in these spaces where this sequel re-affirms the hilarity and chemistry of its leading characters, but more than anything else it is a strong supporting cast (and two individual stand-outs) that keep the pacing and energy afloat under what could have been a more tightly structured and narrowly focused narrative. When speaking of these two standouts I'm referring to both Ice Cube and Jillian Bell. As Captain Dickson Ice Cube or O'Shea Jackson is such a hidden gem that we forget how much we love him and how much of an asset he is to this world until he shows up to flippantly dismiss our leads with profanity-laced verbal assaults. Cube has more to do this time around and the script involves him in some seriously hilarious circumstances while not over-indulging in the characters limited range from which he can create his ill-tempered humor. Where sequels often try to over-compensate is in their addition of new characters or giving a supporting character from the first that caught on with audiences a bigger role, but “22 Jump Street” does neither. They keep Dickson in check while both Maya and Zook are kept to purely supporting structures that help up the tension build between our leads furthering that plot strand while also contributing largely to the investigation Schmidt and Jenko are conducting. On the outskirts of it all is Bell's Mercedes who is an offbeat truth-teller that happens to be Maya's roommate. She wears funny t-shirts and unloads old people jokes with rapid fire on Schmidt, but if it weren't for Bell's stone-cold delivery and icy stare her character would have been little more than an afterthought.
Even as I'm a few days removed from seeing the film I've begun to contemplate if I enjoyed it more than I'm willing to admit. I already want to see it again because I know there are numerous jokes I didn't catch the first time around and likely more references buried within the deep love for movies and comedy this sequel clearly displays. I guess that is why I was both entranced and slightly disconnected with the sequel. I really do adore the first for its re-watchability factor and because of that have watched it countless times and so I went into this with a bit of apprehension so as not to get overly excited and be disappointed while trying not to set the bar too low. I knew to expect good things from Lord and Miller, but it also was clear the movie was put together in somewhat of a rush and that unfortunately breaks through at points; a truth I can't avoid. Tatum has two other films that were set to open this year while providing a voice in another and Hill came right off ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ into this (and provides a voice in the opposing picture this past weekend) while also receiving a story credit. The script has five credited writers and the directors also released “The LEGO Movie” in February. It is hard to fathom where any of the creative team found time to squeeze this sequel into their calendars, but in somehow doing so they produced a self-aware piece that somehow still manages to tread too much of the same ground. I realize it is somewhat contradictory to laugh at the film and appreciate it because it knows what it is and it knows that we know what it is and satirizes that idea while also criticizing the elements that are purposefully re-hashing the relationship dynamics from the first, but despite the point of the film playing up the fact it's a sequel we still expect the characters to grow and if anything Hill's Schmidt has yet to learn how to be a man despite his higher IQ. Tatum is the star here and the fact his character is more likable, more willing to explore and try new things only makes him that much more appealing while Schmidt drags the picture down in much of the first half by being a cry baby. As I mentioned earlier, it is without spoiling anything to know that they will reconcile their differences and in this Schmidt is redeemed. I can only hope they don't explore this same relationship issue again if they decide to go ahead with any of the twenty or so sequels pitched in the end credits.
by Philip Price
The definition of rover is a person who spends their time wandering. This interesting, edgy, somewhat vague word that has garnered several interpretations is used here to define a wandering, drifting society. There is one man in particular with whom writer/director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) is taken with in this transient existence and it is through this hardened and disconnected perspective we come to know the world ten years after it has seemingly collapsed. Everything about the world that Michôd has built through his imagery and his characters keep the outside world unclear and of little concern. This isn't a movie necessarily about anything as much as it is an analysis of what might happen were the structure we've always lived within to fall apart. All systems fail eventually, it is inevitable, but usually when something is perceived as failing it is because something better, more efficient has come along-it will have been superseded. This, unfortunately, is not the case in post-apocalyptic thrillers and while I am hesitant to use that genre classification at all I suppose it fits. The idea of society as we know it failing has always been an interesting idea because the reason something fails typically ties into the reason it was created in the first place. So, when we look at a world without any civilizing influences we begin to wonder what the point of it all was and why we allowed it to mean so much and determine such a portion of our lives, our happiness. Civility is cause for order and without either of them what we have is infrequent chaos and it is within one of these small pockets of havoc that Michôd introduces us to a protagonist, but not necessarily a hero, and sets us out on a journey with no urgent motivation. It isn't the trying to decode this incentive that pulls one into the film though, but instead the characters themselves and why they are who they are, how they have come to be this way and their own realizations of why they feel the need to take the actions they do. The Rover is an unnerving experience in many ways as it is slow, but never tedious. The actions that take place feel as random and authentic as the settings and physicality of the characters that the camera captures while all adding up to a beautifully depressing conclusion about what this life means to us and what our lives mean to others.
Michôd does not drop us into a world of good and bad people, like I said there is no real mention of motivation or planning, but instead we only come to sympathize with those we come to know better throughout the course of the film. I found it very interesting that one could essentially flip the story and follow those positioned as the villains of the plot and just as easily become compassionate with their plight. As it is though we come to know Eric (Guy Pearce) who we come to picture as an ex-soldier with the hardened exterior to match, but an intellectual soul that while he believes himself along with the world has already passed away still seems to be on a kind of self-discovering pilgrimage. Eric's "roving" as it were is as much about the physical actions he takes as it is the processes going through his mind as he's come to terms with the state of things. It is when a car of his is stolen, one of the last few possessions he has, that he becomes enraged with this kind of determination to get it back. The hijackers include Henry (Scoot McNairy), Archie (David Field) and Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) who roll into town, engaged in gunfire and exit as quickly as they can leaving Henry's brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) as good as dead on the road. When Eric launches into a chase with his thieves and comes face to face with them it is startling to see him approach the armed men with no hesitation and when one of them asks, "What makes you think I won't shoot you?" he responds with a very matter of fact, "Nothing." There is nothing else for him to live for and he knows it and if this is the only thing worth fighting for well then he may as well go out fighting. As Eric is being left for dead by Henry and his cohorts Rey is making his way off of the scorching pavement and under the shade of a tree where he inspects the gunshot wound he has incurred only hoping (maybe) that someone passes through before he bleeds out. Upon waking up and realizing his misery has not been snuffed out Eric continues on his journey recruiting Rey along the way simply to point him in the right direction, but whom he begins to turn in an unexpected manner towards his own understanding.
In many ways this is the bleakest road trip movie you might ever come across. It is a beautifully barren film as shot by cinematographer Natasha Braier. I have heard it compared many times to Mad Max or even John Hillcoat's 2005 film The Proposition in which Pearce also stars but I have not seen. Taking place wholly in the lawless Australian outback the comparisons are understandable, but what made The Rover so engaging for me were the kind of philosophical questions and theories it was implying without ever discussing openly. It is truly a delicate art to be able to convey certain themes and ideas without integrating them directly into the dialogue, but Michôd seems to pull it off so effortlessly here with each factor contributing to a whole composition that work together brilliantly. In saying that I mean we are literally given two characters, one of which isn't a fully competent adult, and we are asked to watch as they develop an understanding of their dynamic and the repercussions it will have on the small worlds they keep in rotation around them. It would be too simple to dismiss Eric as a man simply searching for the meaning of life, but instead one of his few speeches give us insight into his state of mind, but not how he views the world but why he views the world the way he does. Everything in The Rover concerns itself with fate. Social rank and wealth mean very little in this environment and so we begin to see what it is like when film characters lives are actually governed by forces out of their control. It is a surprisingly effective tool in that Michôd and Joel Edgerton (who gets a story credit) give us such a thin plot that practically anything else could happen in this world that we know very little about and to which the film gives little scope. All we as an audience need to know though is that this is not really about a stolen car as much as it is man and the natural world. The things we will fear the most are our own kind and in another of Eric's few lines of dialogue he relays to Rey that the price of killing someone is the inability to forget them. Pearce delivers the line with such quiet assertion though we can't help but think these are the only real emotions he feels anymore, the only ones he has access to. These very precise moments come out of this unpredictable world only aiding the overall film to be both disconcerting and affecting.
In focusing on the characters much of the weight of the script and its subject matter falls on the actors portraying them. As mentioned earlier, Pearce plays things mostly stoic with only slight hints of a soul beneath the surface for the majority of the the running time, but it is in the few intermittent moments where Eric is afforded the opportunity to open up that we see something much more intense. It is Eric who guides the events we behold, but it is Pattinson's Rey who more or less decides how things are going to turn out. To dismiss Pattinson because of his past roles would be a true injustice to what he is able to pull off here. It is clear the former Twilight star is trying to distance himself from that franchise and he seems to be handling things well as I've found his choices at least interesting if not always successful. The fact alone that Pattinson's mind leads him to a place where he is interested in making films such as this opposed to Abduction is a sign of higher intelligence, of a more acquired taste and of an ambition that yearns for more than instant gratification, but a type of legacy. Rey is not the smartest guy, he has a bit of a slow wit about him, but he isn't dumb either. Near the beginning of their relationship Eric flat-out asks Rey, "What are you?" and it isn't so much that he can't gauge the type of person Rey is, but more that Rey is erratic and slightly mysterious as if he is purposefully only letting Eric in so much with a greater agenda behind the smiles and indistinct slurs he throws out. For Pattinson, this is the type of role he likely craves; playing someone so far removed from his public image as he is able to play up characteristics that will define the person for the audience without other aspects seeping into our opinion, namely vanity. Like the world around them, these two men have been slowly breaking apart for some time now. Pearce is a pro and handles his nothing left to lose mentality with a certain calm as his persona would suggest, but Pattinson highlights the film and continues to pull us in with his unpredictable performance (it truly is unpredictable, anyone up for some Keri Hilson karaoke?) that lead to a few of the most tense moments I've experienced in a movie theater all year. The Rover is like a tone poem with its pounding and ever-present score, describing the sparse, desolate environment and the desperation man will take to survive leaving you with a feeling you can't shake.
by Philip Price
Having re-watched the first installment of Hiccup and Toothless' adventures the night before venturing into the sequel I wondered how things might hold up. I remembered going into “How to Train Your Dragon” (‘HTTYD’) with nothing in terms of expectations, but looking more for a care-free movie going experience. Clearly, what was found in the film that night was something much more substantial, something special that came completely out of left field and took me by surprise. ‘HTTYD’ not only exuded a fun, adventure story but it developed relationships to the point of authenticity whether they were between Hiccup and his father, his friends or his dragon. In the four years since the release of the first film it feels only more and more good will have built up for it which built a mounting set of expectation for the sequel, one that would pick up in real time and have the glorious advantage of being summer 2014's animated record-setter. Besides a sequel to last year’s “Planes” from Disney that was intended for direct-to-DVD release anyway, Hiccup and Toothless have the season all to themselves and needless to say they take full advantage of it. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (‘HTTYD2’) takes what we enjoyed about the first film and places things on a grander scale, but not because that's necessarily what sequels should do but because with their dragons the people of Berk have a much bigger world to explore. This idea of scope is introduced early when Hiccup skips out on a dragon racing competition and instead has taken Toothless out to explore in hopes of discovering new lands. Hiccup is putting together a map of what he discovers, essentially attempting to piece together the world he lives on. It is an admirable goal and one that shows how much the boy has grown since we last met him. Hiccup's consistent quest to push the envelope and discover the fascinating things around him has not subsided but the scale on which he pursues his inquisitiveness has only been heightened which helps to further define why he is such an interesting and worthy protagonist. He has grown into his lanky build and his just out of bed hairstyle is working much better for him these days, but while all seems well we know there can only be a sequel if trouble is brewing right around the corner. ‘HTTYD2’ does its best to make these consequences not feel like a necessity but more the natural progression of Hiccup's adventures and they do and we are all the better off for it.
Stoick (Gerard Butler) has requested that Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) take his rightful position as Chief of the Isle of Berk, but Hiccup is keen to ignore the issue. He doesn't so much tell his father no as he does completely avoid the subject at all costs. On one of Hiccup's quests for discovery he along with now girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) come across a kind of ice-cave that is being attempted to be scaled by Eret (Kit Harrington) and his crew that work for Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is putting together a dragon army so that he may control what he fears and eliminate all those who don't agree with him and as you can guess Hiccup will not agree with these methods. Complicating things is the fact that within this ice cave dwells a mysterious Dragon Rider (Cate Blanchett) who comes to appreciate Hiccup's skills and opens a new world to him, one much bigger than his own as he so craved, and gives light to the endless possibilities that might come to sway Drago from his bloodlust. Within this tug of war between ideologies though Hiccup witnesses the transcendence of it all through love and affection from the most unexpected of places. I hate to not discuss what the trailers have unfortunately already given away so I won't, but if you've seen any bit of the marketing campaign you can guess where these poignant moments draw from. Hiccup eventually becomes a symbol of protecting the peace, of hope for the future of men and dragon uniting and convincing those around him that war and domination are not the cures for misunderstanding and vengeance. They are, in many ways, deeply rooted human tendencies that address our fear of what we don't know (a theme apparent in several films lately) and tackles them head on by not simply having one universal resolution for these issues, but different ideas from different people with different backgrounds. It is telling of how well writer/director Dean DuBlois (who co-directed the first film) understands his world and his characters as he doesn't allow them to fall into archetypes despite their titles, but instead gives them a balanced and well-rounded perception of what danger there is and how they should approach it.
What is even more impressive about ‘HTTYD2’ is the fact it balances such a large cast of characters and integrates them into this second chapter so effortlessly. Gobber (Craig Ferguson) is back, but more in the capacity of Stoick's right-hand man than Viking mentor. We also have Hiccup and Astrid's co-horts in the fight against all that goes against their pet dragons that this time includes a love triangle. Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as well as twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) fly in and out of the story in the most natural of ways both in assisting their friends while existing as a whole just outside the main narrative. It is both the gorgeously detailed animation that is naturally leaps and bounds ahead of the first film as well as the energetic voice cast that keep things moving and consistently funny. The match between Snotlout and Fishlegs for Ruffnut's affection is the films winning running gag while the dynamic that has evolved between Toothless and Hiccup provides plenty of the "cute" factor as well as some great visual gags. Beyond an animated films adherence to the rule of having to provide some type of comic relief though ‘HTTYD2’ is really invigorated by its artistic imagery and touches of flair. The shot selections not only re-enforce the grander scale of Hiccup's world, but give the audience moments of pure bliss. There is one in particular where I was able to sit back and for more than a moment soak in what was gracing the IMAX screen in front of me. This scene specifically included Hiccup encountering the mysterious Dragon Rider for the first time and both her more distinguished dragon and Toothless face-off in a gunslinger stance while swooping the clouds around them into a frenzy. It is a frame so consciously put-together and meticulously crafted I couldn't help but include a still below and only give slight reference to the visual prowess of ‘HTTYD2’ because it is truly glorious and while I won't give away any more breathtaking moments, trust that there are plenty.
This brings us around to the question most will ask, though unnecessarily, and that is if it is better than the first film. In a gut-reaction, my mind would lead me to respond with "yes" in that the sequel is something new I have just experienced while the original is something I can reference any time I'd like. The exclusiveness of this second chapter (and it truly is a chapter, that is important) make it feel all the more fresh and vibrant, but I can't say with a satisfactory heart that the first film doesn't offer as many heartfelt moments and interesting character dilemmas as the first. Yes, the second film is more grown up but that is only because our hero has grown up and faces more mature problems. The plot for this new installment is indeed more complicated and even more sophisticated as the first could be reduced to the "junior knows best" scenario where the disapproving, authoritarian figure doesn't understand their underwhelming but thoughtful offspring. Hiccup was largely looked at as a disappointment in the first film by his father who only came to redeem himself in the third act while in ‘HTTYD2’ Stoick represents a much more human figure than the archetype he served in the first film. Does this make the all-around picture better? Maybe, maybe not. What I will say though is that while it is hard to compare the two films in a way that ranks one above the other it would be nice to simply accept them on an even scale. What I mean by that is these films don't seem to exist for the reason of creating a franchise, but more chronicling the transitioning of a boy into a man and next into whatever Hiccup's path holds. This is a franchise more along the lines of the ‘Before’ trilogy than say the ‘Madagascar’ films and while each of the chapters so far have their shining qualities that will outweigh the other in some regard they equal out to be a complete picture that is more fulfilling as opposed to a film series that is only as good as its strongest piece. I enjoy these films because as much as they feel innovative and invigorating upon first viewing in the atmosphere of a theater they still hit you right where they intend when you're sitting on a couch at home. To answer my opening question, yes, the original holds up very well and in regard to that and the pure joy the second film induced I can only try and patiently await where the next chapters in Hiccup and Toothless' saga will take us.
by Philip Price
What makes “The Fault in Our Stars” such a massive yet precise story is that in its universal themes we find the story of young love. You can call young love universal as everyone's lives have no doubt been touched with some slight experience of it. To couple that young love with the less innocent, more universally crushing realities of knowing someone who suffers from the malady we call cancer make it all the more affecting. “The Fault in Our Stars,” a film based on a young adult novel that features a different kind of lead female heroine is not so much a story intent on making you cry, but at the very least intent on making you realize. As written by John Green we experience the trials and tribulations of being a teenager with cancer through the eyes of Hazel Grace Lancaster. Hazel Grace, as she is so lovingly and consistently referred to by the great star-crossed love of her life, is a highly articulate and intelligent young woman whose diagnosis (because to say battle or fight would be to label the situation as something it so clearly isn't in the way we typically think of those terms) has allowed her serious perspective for her age. For Hazel everything is about perspective and everything that consumes her life is a measure of leaving as little hurt as possible behind when, not if, she dies. This selflessness is admirable and we understand her reasoning despite the fact our natural tendencies are to make sure we leave some kind of legacy, but it is this string of thought, and this need to feel substantial that comes to form the backbone of the relationship that develops between Hazel and Augustus Waters. As a film, this story is still able to exist solely within the view of Hazel and how she appropriately approaches her world. As she tells her story there is never a sense of pretension or ingenuity that would strike one of expounding these ideas on others solely for the satisfaction of the attention it might receive. Hazel's ideas instead simply relay a story that meant a lot to her as Peter Van Houten and his novel, “An Imperial Affliction,” did for her. She doesn't need the acknowledgments or the congratulations to know she and her love story are appreciated. It is in the power that has come in the form of the real-world reaction to this material that we believe in Hazel Grace and that the tears she causes come from the most sincere of places.
We meet 17-year old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) as she explains to us she has never been anything more than terminal and a grenade waiting to go off, but this is a story as much about her illness as it is about the life she chooses to live before its numbered days are cut short. In those numbered days she is introduced to Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) through a cancer support group that takes place in the "literal heart of Jesus" which is actually the basement of a church. This support group is led by the seemingly oblivious Patrick (Mike Birbiglia) who once had testicular cancer and who unfortunately doesn't get the character devotion here that he does in the book. Naturally there were going to be some differences between Green's novel and the screen adaptation, but for the most part screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter have translated Green's story to the screen in a way that while not encompassing every detail (and to my dismay some of the more vital ones that made the situation feel more authentic and not so much a clichéd love story) still keeps the emotions our main characters are feeling intact. The script still kept the majority of the heightened, yet completely charming dialogue. Augustus or "Gus" is the prince charming of guys who rarely exist; the boyfriend who doesn't like sports, but still enjoys video games enough that he seems somewhat imaginable but also completely competent when it comes to making every situation a best case scenario and never coming off as needy or clingy. These qualities are the things the hoards of young women in the audience for this film will take notice of and Green has tapped into each and every one of their desires in creating Augustus. Even so, what makes him desirable to Hazel is also what she comes to challenge the most within him. She sees Augustus, a cancer survivor who lost his leg in the process, as someone able to overcome their disease and live life to the fullest despite his setbacks while Hazel only dreams of being able to do such things. She re-assures herself with the fact Gus never knew what it was like to be terminal. Gus feels compelled to leave a widespread legacy while Hazel only strives to minimize the casualties in her wake. They balance one another out in this regard and it is this deeper connection that both young and older audiences will relate to. These deeper connections help the audience to accept this as a genuine love story and not the naive, easily-dismissed teen romance it could have so easily resorted to.
Clearly, I have read the book from which this film has come and though I didn't outright love the novel it was one that struck me with a measured amount of emotion that truly felt earned. The issue in translating that kind of story to the screen is re-capturing the elements that made the heavy emotion involved in a story such as this just as valid and credible within a visual sense (and a lack of wording) that can cause major differences in how an audience perceives it. The emotion needed to be conveyed in a way that didn't put the intent to make audiences cry at the center, but one that induced those feelings because we'd come to care about the characters. In order to do that the casting was going to have to find actors who could pull off these heightened reality teenagers and their almost academic-like speaking patterns and bring them to conceivable human form. In both Woodley and Elgort they have done so successfully and it is in these two core performances that we go along for this ride without a seconds hesitation. As Hazel, Woodley possesses an intelligence beyond her years in that she not only loves to read and fill her mind with as much new and useful information as possible, but also enjoys a well-rounded dose of enlightenment from the likes of “America's Next Top Model” while realizing what she is watching is junk TV and isn't really worthy of the analysis her counterpart likes to imply on anything he comes across. Gus knows what to say no matter the circumstances and this, while making him completely unbelievable, is also the defining characteristic that makes us trust him and his pure adoration for all that Hazel is and all that he could have dreamed of in a girl her age that exists in a time of social media and endless amounts of unnecessary information and ever-changing trends. As this ideal, Elgort gets everything about his character right (a star-making performance really) as he delivers line after line of perfectly calculated dialogue that strikes a balance of being both human, witty and sarcastic with just the right amount of modesty that he is impossible not to like and admire. Without these core performances the film would fail around them. Yes, there are supporting players like Nat Wolff who ups the laughter levels helping to balance the tears with his humor, and both Laura Dern and Sam Trammell portray every parent’s nightmares in perfectly understanding fashion, but as the driving force the faults of this film are not in its stars.
If the film has any faults they only come by way of not necessarily knowing what to do or how to perfectly close this accurate and relevant embodiment of the frailty of life. At a crucial juncture in the story we come face to face with the aforementioned author, Van Houten, as portrayed by Willem Dafoe. Van Houten's section is absolutely necessary to the progression of the story, but it always felt like the most unrealistic part of both the book and now the film. Both Augustus and Hazel refer to what they call "Cancer Perks" throughout the film and are self-explanatory in that they are slight passes they've been given in life simply because they have cancer. Though getting an all-expense paid trip to Amsterdam to meet your favorite author seems a little too far-fetched and in many ways reduces what I feel is the ability of Green to successfully convey all he wanted to in his story. To keep Van Houten at a distance would have been to never lose the mysticism that Hazel still found present in the world. What the meeting with Van Houten brings to the surface is that shattering of the already limited illusions Hazel allows herself to succumb to. In the execution of this as it's brought to the screen we realize how little the plight of Van Houten adds to the overall narrative. The fact that he comes in late in the second act, disappears and only re-appears momentarily again in the last fifteen minutes makes it seem the emotions and situations produced from his arrogance could have been created in a more realistic fashion that would have followed the guidelines of Hazel's narration all the more closely. This along with the film tacks on one too many endings in an attempt to hit all the beats of the book cause it to drag slightly in the last half hour. Much of these shortcomings are to be forgiven though as it is only doing its best to do justice to the beloved source material. Director Josh Boone captures the spirit of Green's words with non-intrusive directing and by letting the performances of his actors flourish in this carefully crafted, but all around natural environment. This directing style lands this picture carefully on the ground where it needed to be and needed to stay so that we too, can believe in something as precious as being a privilege for someone else to love.
by Philip Price
There will come a day when Tom Cruise not only doesn't make action blockbusters like this, but when he won't be able to and when that day comes we will miss it. Not necessarily just out of a sense of nostalgia, but because Cruise is the last of a dying breed; one of the only true movie stars left who, despite his image being tainted over the years, can demand the kind of budget and talent that it takes to put together an original effort worth standing behind. He has done this throughout his career, spearheading projects like The Last Samurai that would have never been made on the scope they were without the involvement of Cruise. So, even though the artistic edges may have faded in the wake of his public life being more important than his acting ability, he is still able to make movies he seems interested in, but that are more or less of a certain genre that has better odds of making a solid return at the box office than maybe a historical drama. With Edge of Tomorrow or All You Need is Kill as it was originally, less-generically titled (interestingly enough, I don't remember seeing a title card) Cruise has again stepped into the world of science fiction and though he seems to enjoy these kinds of worlds and the different rules in each of them he can explore what makes Cruise the still magnetic force and pure movie star that he always will be is how he digs into the motivations of the character and makes what could easily be looked down on as silly or nonsensical into a valid threat, a valid journey, a valid plan, or any part of it you'd expect to sound gimmicky or corny that is made all the more real, all the more immediate by not only the surprisingly rational dialogue, but by the fervor in which Cruise delivers it. Yes, Cruise is chief among his co-workers as a man who can still open a film and get people interested simply by having his name over the title. Still, what struck me more as I watched a nearly 52 year-old Cruise ride a motorcycle on the outskirts of some ravished city that highly referenced any number of Cruise films was that one day we will long to simply go to the movies and have the ability to watch a Tom Cruise blockbuster and that those kinds of opportunities will not always be there and so we should appreciate these occurrences especially when they are as entertaining and and thrilling as Edge of Tomorrow.
It begins, as any good apocalyptic film should, with a montage of news excerpts discussing an enemy that we seem to know little about and the measures we have taken to defeat it. There doesn't seem to be much success in taking on this enemy, but the invention of a weaponized suit that basically looks like a metal skeleton with guns attached wherever they can be stuck serves as the big idea the press and the military media liaison's are pushing which includes Major William Cage (Cruise). Cage has never seen a day of combat and doesn't plan to, but when he's unsuspectingly dropped under the command of General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) he is simultaneously sent into what amounts to nothing more than a suicide mission. He comes face to face with Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton in a great supporting role) and is thrown into one of his misfit squadrons that includes the likes of soldiers such as Skinner (Jonas Armstrong), Kimmel (Tony Way), Griff (Kick Gurry) Ford (Franz Drameh) and Nance (Charlotte Riley). These are not the kind of people Cage is accustomed to and these guys more or less know they'll either go down quick or go down fighting, but they seem to take pleasure in it. As Cage and his cohorts are dropped onto a beach in Germany it becomes clear they don't have the upper hand the military imagined they might. This battle on the beach becomes a central piece of the puzzle that is the whole film for the first hour or so. Cage is killed within minutes of landing on the beach that day, but in the fashion he was killed he somehow finds himself waking up a re-living that same day over and over again as if in a time loop. Getting to live this day over and over again though better equips the once inexperienced soldier for what he is facing, getting a little further each time he dies and comes back. Yes, it is essentially Groundhog Day but in the realm of a war film/sci fi actioner the implications of the ability to re-live this day are interesting enough we forgive the fact we've seen the premise before and become more and more interested in how far Cage can take this. In the midst of furthering himself Cage meets Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) or the Angel of Verdun who understands what he is going through because she too experienced it and may hold they key to unlocking not only how to better utilize Cage's new skill, but how to use it to destroy the enemy altogether.
The world expects only one thing from us, that we will win. Paxton's Farrell repeats this line several different times, but in the same tone as he does with every replay of the scenario and it is in this unwavering attitude that we see his character remain on task as Cage continues to develop and adapt to what he has seen and what he knows is coming. It is critical how they choose to play out the scenario the first time we, the audience, see it and director Doug Liman is careful to place emphasis on the things that will build and form points of motivation and become compelling the more they are re-enacted with every time Cage dies and comes back around to that moment. With this kind of inherently complexing premise and the questions it will immediately spurn into existence from adept movie-goers screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth are able to lay the plot out with limited exposition while breaking down the issues of anything having to do with re-configuring time into the simplest of terms. Their script along with the quick pacing of the editing creates little time to worry or focus on what could potentially be plot holes, but instead insist we simply go on the journey while not necessarily worrying about the logistics of everything. It is a nice relief in the way it doesn't let itself get bogged down in the technicalities of it all while the second and third acts are still able to rely on the rules it sets up for itself concerning the time loop that deliver on exactly where I hoped the script would go while still being able to surprise me. With a movie such as this that concerns time travel it is easy to set things up and pull an audience in with the initial promise of the possibilities these kinds of abilities open up, but it is delivering on those promises where films and stories that choose to use that tool typically fail, yet for every road that Edge of Tomorrow could have traveled it takes the one I was crossing my fingers it would and in some instances even goes to places I didn't expect, setting-up circumstances that brought a fresh new light to the narrative and opening up even more possibilities as to where the conclusion might land us. The further along Cage gets each time he resets and the more he fails the more hopeless he begins to feel, having to re-live more and more of the time he's already attempted, but as it is no doubt nothing more than stress piling up it also pushes towards that end goal that, because of these emotional barriers, becomes all the more real and valid in its need for resolution rather than simply existing for resolutions sake.
Liman, who has directed action blockbusters before with The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, has never managed to reach the spectacular visual sense he does here. When the troops are dropped from their Chinook-like carrier's and fall to the edge of the water and race onto the sand with their heavy armor and awkward artillery we feel at the center of it, we feel the tense and unnerving way in which they really have no idea what they are up against because we still don't know who the enemy is even as we are thrust into the action. Seeing this in glorious IMAX 3D (at Chenal 9 in the Promenade for local readers) Liman also utilizes the third dimension to better effect than I've seen in a while as it somewhat mimics Gravity in the way that pieces of helicopters and planes really look as if they're flying towards us in the midst of the wreckage that has occurred as Cage fights to stay alive or further, as he maneuvers through what he knows is coming. While the scope is grand and the film is more than consistent in its visual stimulation Liman also has the credits of directing more grounded, character-driven stories and that shines through in not only the work between Cruise and Blunt who elicit a strong enough chemistry to give the overall tone of the situation an uplift, but also in the way he allows his scenarios to open up the film. We are given just enough of the repetition that it becomes a second nature while keeping us still fascinated by the premise and its possibilities while each time furthering the narrative to the point we are on the edge of our seats (pun intended). To say anything more would be to divulge the pleasures of discovering this film and all its wonders upon first viewing. Each and every time Rita resets Cruise's character (who we don't inherently care for, but whose arc wins us over) he somehow experiences new facets of the same experiences and that seems to be the heart of what Liman and his screenwriters want to convey, that to look at something one way is to dismiss it entirely, but to step back and allow yourself to take in multiple aspects, multiple trains of thought is to truly find yourself in a complete world because at the end of his line Cage is a much different person than he was when we first meet him. Besides any metaphorical meaning though, this is simply solid cinema. This is complete popcorn entertainment in its finest form and I can't wait to reset and see it again as soon as possible.
by Philip Price
There was and seemingly remains something off about Tammy. Not just in the case of the titular character that Melissa McCarthy portrays, but in the nature of the film itself. After following up her breakout in Bridesmaids with successful runs in Identity Thief and The Heat along with a slew of smaller, supporting roles in major comedies and two stints on Saturday Night Live it became clear McCarthy was the real deal. Still, the idea she next chose to venture out on a low-budget road trip comedy directed by her husband Ben Falcone and was a project they wrote with one another seemed completely understandable. There was an intimacy to it that no doubt was unheard of in the mainstream crowd-pleasers she was taking part in before. McCarthy had earned her name above the title and so she was going to use that power to make something closer to her heart. This could only signal that the comedy and the execution of the story would be something that was cultivated by the husband/wife team and would certainly come across with more of an edge and better developed characters than most comedies these days, right? One would think so, but for all this pent-up optimism I held for Tammy she let me down in the toughest of ways in that not only did she not make me laugh or love her, but that there is essentially no reason for this movie to exist. That probably sounds a little more harsh than it should because it isn't the characters or even the situations that don't come up with anything it's just that they don't come up with anything new. I didn't really know what to expect from the film upon walking into the theater, but when it instantly became clear that this would be a film of self-discovery and redemption for a life without risk and full of regret through the format of a road trip comedy I was done. We've literally seen McCarthy go through this same evolution in the same way in the aforementioned Identity Thief so what was it that drove her and Falcone to make this movie over anything else? Likely a question we'll never get a satisfactory answer to, but nonetheless the point of Tammy was to capitalize on McCarthy's brand of humor and persona and while she is all over the place here she does no favors for herself or anyone around her as any laughs that came from the audience were more out of sympathy than anything else.
The problems start early in Tammy as the disheveled and dirty McCarthy stumbles late into the fast food joint where she works and is greeted by her manager (Falcone) in an angry fashion. Tammy comes off as a person who is rather out there as in not all there, but after being fired from her job she goes home to a life that seems drastically typical and neat compared to the elements she has so far displayed. Her car, her appearance and her job would all suggest a person so far off the beaten path there is little to no hope for them returning to what society deems acceptable, but then Tammy walks into a quaint house that clashes so hard with what she is set-up to be I literally thought there was a bigger joke at play. Her husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair with the neighbor (Toni Colette) and in an instant of anger Tammy walks out, gathering a few of her things, and walks over a few houses to where her parents (Allison Janney and Dan Aykroyd) live. Tammy asks for their car in order to break out of this town, but Deb (Janney) won't give into her as this is just another instance in a pattern of failures it seems. Lucky for Tammy her Grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) is more than happy to break out of the house with her and offer her car along with her considerable savings to fund their road trip. You can imagine where things go from here as both Tammy and Pearl come upon adventures and challenges that bring them together, force them apart and allow them to examine themselves and their lives a little bit closer.
As the film opened and The Outfields "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love Tonight" blasted over the production logos I was hooked and ready to love this movie. It didn't take long to realize the film as a whole was going to be more McCarthy improv than scripted situations. Basically, the script seems to have existed purely to create structure and a sequence of consequences for Tammy and Pearl to get themselves in and out of, but would rely on McCarthy playing off her talented supporting cast (which also includes Gary Cole, Kathy bates and Sandra Oh) for the content. The music does remain strong throughout with consistent references to the types of songs that hearken back to the summers of taking it easy and a strong sense of nostalgia which the film itself is trying to be. Unfortunately, it never gains the kind of momentum a good song like that needs in order to hit the climactic chorus in just the right kind of cheesy/accomplished fashion to make it a journey worth going on. Instead, Tammy floats along, treading old water and at ninety-six minutes is half an hour too long. I'd hoped, from the trailers, that Tammy might be a simple comedy without the broad strokes of something like a road trip comedy, but would instead focus on the minuscule moments and countless self-evaluations that come with working a dead-end job in the fast food industry in your mid-forties. In many ways I wanted this to be a dark comedy, with an introspective study on how people who end up in the position Tammy's in come to be that way and what informed this long period of static in their maturity, but instead of digging deep while keeping things basic on a plot level McCarthy and Falcone fell back on an outline we know too well.
In the concoction of a script they did produce though it seems McCarthy and Falcone clearly wanted an unexpected archetype for Tammy to play opposite and in that regard is where the film succeeds slightly. In hiring the veteran actress she is able to create what the director and writers essentially need their titular character to be. Sarandon is able to give her Grandma Pearl the right balance of eccentricities fueled by her issues while keeping her real in a sense that if you or I were sitting next to her we could formulate an actual conversation. There are only a few moments when we believe this could happen with Tammy (namely when she is interacting with Mark Duplass). Pearl is as realized a character as we get here and while McCarthy, who attempts to bring genuine heart and emotion to Tammy's plight, is derailed by the overall tone of the film which suggests she should be a caricature. Therefore, such an exaggerated version of this real person we can sometimes catch glimpses of causes confusion not only in how the audience is supposed to interpret the character but completely jumbles the tone of the film along the way. Tammy wants so bad to be a grotesque comedy yet still have insight into the psyche of its main character. The film clearly yearns to be an interesting comic character study which is indeed an engaging idea, but the film never elicits the comedy from a natural state of being within that person. Instead, we are left to laugh at bits that heavily rely on fat jokes and improvisation that isn't honed to a presentable state. We all understand that McCarthy is overweight, this is obvious, but going out of ones way to continuously drop Cheeto and fried pie jokes is unnecessary when the physical comedy is enough to re-enforce this point and clearly where McCarthy excels.
The thing about this kind of multi-faceted character that Tammy is trying to anchor itself by is that movies should strive to create these kinds of layered individuals and audiences in turn should crave that kind of realism in their fictional beings, but Tammy has the inability to find this balance. Clearly McCarthy isn't unable to create and convey this more complex kind of character because she is indeed a multi-faceted actress as displayed by her consistent ability to move from the comedic tones into a delicate and moving persona. My guess is she would likely be able to better pull it off here were it not for the weight of the entire film resting on her shoulders. Tammy wants to be that ridiculous comedy so much though that it forces McCarthy to swing so far into left field with her act making it is impossible to come back down and establish any kind of serious connection. Ultimately what's wrong with Tammy is that it's just trying too hard. There are more than enough talented people on board here and I can't help but wonder why none of them stopped in the middle of either reading the script or shooting some of these scenes and questioned the quality of how good or bad this might actually turn out to be. The jokes shouldn't feel so rehearsed and the chemistry shouldn't feel so forced, but they do and it does. Add all of these complaints to the fact the film feels as cheap as it actually was (with a budget of $20 million this thing will make money with plenty to spare) and was put together in such a slapdash effort that the only thing we can really take away is that this went from being a passion project to little more than money in their pocket through the course of the production.
by Philip Price
Walking into something like “Million Dollar Arm” you know exactly what you're going to get and so you are likely fine with that because you're choosing to walk into it in the first place. One may see the trailer for it and think it is worth giving a shot because the story seems interesting and heartfelt (plus it's based on a true one, so that's always a bonus) and it was made by Disney, a prominent feature in all the advertising as well as the fact it comes from the producers of “Miracle” and “Invincible,” so it is a safe bet there is nothing truly offensive but rather material that is inspiring and wouldn't hurt to take the children to if you feel like going to the movies, but not sitting through an animated flick or one of the several comic book movies out at the moment.
It makes sense, but when it comes down to it that is all “Million Dollar Arm” ever really feels like, alternative programming. That being said there isn't anything necessarily wrong with the film given the way it has been chosen to be told or how it is executed except for the fact that it is about twenty minutes shorter than those other comic book movies crowding theaters right now yet still feels twice as long, especially in the second hour when we better know the formula of where the movie is going and instead of delving into the highlights and lowlights of those spaces in time, director Craig Gillespie (“Fright Night,” “Lars and the Real Girl”) seems forced to make things fit squarely into the archetypes of all the inspirational Disney sports drama that have come before it. Screenwriter Tom McCarthy (a truly talented writer and director) knows how to make a film interesting and fresh while keeping things quirky while at the same time dealing with as universal a topic as sports (please take a look at his 2011 film “Win Win”) but here it seems he is more a writer-for-hire to get this real-life story down on paper that would appease the board at the Mouse House and create a nice, safe starring vehicle for an almost done with TV Jon Hamm. Again, no offense to be taken anywhere around this project (they even find the time to acknowledge what could be considered slight racism) and there are actually several moments of nice realizations, intimate portraits and interesting facets about the world of baseball, but as a whole the final result leaves us not with a “Remember the Titans”-like feeling, but something closer to that of “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Remember that one? That's what I thought.
We are brought into the world of sports agents through the current struggles of one John Bernstein (Hamm) or simply J.B. as he prefers to be called, who is currently looking to make his roster of athletes a little more reliable given that his previous talent (Emmit Smith, Barry Bonds) were all retiring and the well was running dry. He and his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) decided to strike out on their own a few years prior and it still isn't going as smoothly as they would have hoped thus the idea was born for the titular contest in which J.B. would travel to India to try and find two players out of over a billion people who could throw a baseball at over 90 miles an hour or over. Watching cricket on TV late one night while channel surfing also caused him to catch the clip of Susan Boyle's triumphant audition on “Britain's Got Talent” (no word on why “Britain's Got Talent” was on in Los Angeles or how Susan Boyle was auditioning in 2007 when these events actually took place as her audition didn't happen until early 2009, but who's nitpicking?) J.B. meshes the two thinking of India as the last, great untapped market for American sports. The country is known for its love of cricket; they have to pitch balls at high speeds in the game, would it be so hard to find prospects for major league baseball teams in a country with such a large population, a population he could convert to be fans of the sport and new buyers of MLB merchandise? He certainly hoped not and so after securing enough backing to turn the idea into a reality J.B. along with a curmudgeoned old scout (Alan Arkin), his assistant Vivek (Darshan Jariwala) and his new, free-for-hire translator Amit (a hilarious Pitobash who has some of the best moments in the film), who's always loved the game of baseball, but never been afforded the chance to play or be a part of the sport in any way, set out to find the first great baseball players from India. Within the first hour of the film we are introduced to Rinku (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire) picking up their first baseballs to being swept off to America to prepare for a major league tryout with innovative USC coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). The premise, in and of itself is engaging and a bit outlandish, but just far enough to the point you want to see if they can pull it off. That is the hook that holds throughout the first hour while not quite delivering in the second.
While I said in the first paragraph of my review that "there isn't anything necessarily wrong with the film given the way it has been chosen to be told," those words were chosen very carefully. The filmmakers and writer chose to tell this story from the perspective of Bernstein and in doing that they created a film that was about a man who is consumed by his career and prides himself on what he does within the realm of his job essentially allowing what he did for a living to define who he was as a man. There is nothing wrong with this approach at all especially given the no doubt countless people who can relate to that sentiment not only in the U.S. but all over the world and in numerous professions. The film uses J.B.'s profession and the unique opportunity afforded him in getting "Million Dollar Arm" off the ground to bring into his life the realization there is more to life than fast cars, loud parties and super models. The film uses Rinku, Dinesh and Amit to show J.B. the importance of having people around you who actually love and support you rather than those who are simply looking to gain something from your connections or abilities. The manner in which they were thrust into his life essentially forces J.B. to re-think not only the way he does things, but about the long-term effects of living life the way he has. While before he prided himself on living a single life the way he wanted to with no direction or limits from anyone (something he frowns upon when Aash uses them as excuses), when Rinku, Dinesh and Amit come into the picture and allow an actual relationship to blossom between J.B. and his tenant that lives next door, Brenda (the always welcome Lake Bell), as opposed to one-night stands he begins to see the prospect of a wife and children as something more than detractors of his life and his job, but a family that make him feel as if he's on the right path, a path he owes to these guys who he'd thought of purely as an eventual payoff. Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach as it features a great character arc and in the role of Bernstein Hamm delivers a fine performance that shows us this guy that is somewhat of a jerk, but with the layers of simply being driven and focused, not just because he's naturally a jackass. There is an admirable quality in approaching the film this way and the real-life Bernstein was no doubt approached with the idea of them making a movie about his life, but there are elements here that suggest the better film might have come out of telling this tale from the perspective of Rinku, Dinesh and Amit.
The American dream has become such a novel idea that it almost no longer seems attainable in the sense it was tossed around with even twenty-five years ago, but in many ways Runku and Dinesh were afforded an opportunity and took advantage of it in a way that delivered them the chance to live their lives in a way they never thought possible essentially earning them the ability to prosper through hard work, the basis of that now almost mythological ethos. It is from this perspective that the more unique, less formulaic film might have been produced. These two teenage boys were plucked from northern India and then rushed into the vastly different American lifestyle where they had to make what were no doubt not-so-easy adjustments. Nevermind the fact they could hardly speak a word of English, but that they were dumped in the lap of Bernstein who ordered them pizza night after night; a luxury they'd never seen before with no knowledge to the fact they could get food on demand and would now have to take into account a diet. We get a glimpse of the families that Rinku and Dinesh leave behind and that it is with mixed emotions their families let them go, but we never see what the special bond between Rinku and his mother might entail or why Dinesh feels such an obligation to his father and the work he does day-in and day-out that would easily be surpassed by the money granted from his baseball opportunity. I come at it from this angle because we know where the story of J.B. is going and ultimately we know that Rinku and Danish will be signed to pro teams as well, but it is what they do during and how they handle these journeys that makes a movie about the people and events interesting. It seems obvious the experiences and cultural differences in how Rinku and Dinesh might react to such situations and opportunities would be the much less predictable film. There is little to no hope in the lives of these people the film portrays in India and in these pre-determined lives Rinku and Dinesh were given a chance to break the mold, becoming heroes to children all over their country. You'd think that way of thinking alone would have been a good enough pitch from the other side of the tracks to convince Disney it might be more original to go with how the white man enabled hopes and dreams into realities, no matter his original motivators or intentions, rather than how the Indians taught the white man a valuable life lesson. The truth is though, we can all stand to keep learning and so no matter the approach there is no harm, no foul and we get a message perpetuating to think outside the box, something the makers could have stood to do, but instead deliver exactly what we expect.
by Philip Price
History is made up of moments better than our current situations or so nostalgia makes it seem. This obviously isn't always true and more times than not you will feel the same way about the given moment in ten years as you feel about ten years ago now. Time and perspective can cause both more insightful thinking of what once was while also romanticizing it to a point it becomes nothing like the reality of what actually occurred. This is all to say that much of what we see take place on screen in “Jersey Boys” feels a little more appealing than it might have actually been for those who lived it. There is a moment near the end of the film where Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) is talking into the camera as he reminisces about the best moments of being a part of his musical group, The Four Seasons, and how it came before the group hit it big when they sang acapella under street lamps. There is no doubt some truth to this sentiment, but were these really the best times in that moment when they were happening or did they become cherished memories with the frame of reference time helped lend? How much have these memories been idealized? In that actual point in their lives those four guys wanted nothing more than to get out from under the street lamps and get onto bigger stages with the only lights being the ones that hold their names. Per the usual, once that level of success is achieved there is always someone who can't deal with all that fame brings. It is even written into the tag line that time does funny things to memories in that, “Everybody remembers it how they need to,” and with each of The Four Seasons giving us versions of certain moments we can only assume this compilation of recollections is as close to the truth we will get, no matter how heightened it might be. The question is, as with every film, why should we care? “Jersey Boys” had the unique opportunity to bring to the screen a story we’ve seen a million times before in a fashion that might seem more arbitrary and authentic to audiences than say the standard music biopic like “Ray” or “Walk the Line.” The musical turned movie was going to tell an interesting story of national treasures rise to fame all while keeping the emphasis and the highlights of the production on the music, the one thing that is the reason for being a star, but never gets the attention it deserves in these kinds of movies. So yes, there are plenty of attributes here one could care about but as the credits begin to roll you feel more indifferent than you do starstruck.
Beginning in 1951 we meet seventeen year-old Frankie Castelluccio who is training to be a hairdresser by day and running with some not so suitable friends by night. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is the cocky kid in town who thinks he runs things as much as his ties in the mob do. Both Tommy and Frankie have a good relationship with Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) a local mobster who runs the gambling racket, but who provides a fatherly blanket of comfort over these juvenile delinquents. Frankie and Tommy were going nowhere fast, destined to befall the same fate as countless teenagers before them by garnering a record, never graduating from school and ending up in a dead-end job that brings no happiness and little more than a paycheck to support a growing family. DeVito knew Frankie had a gift though and recognized, if not for anything else, that it was just as much his ticket out of Jersey as it was Frankie’s. DeVito already had a band with the likes of his brother and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), but when they pulled in Frankie as lead singer they knew they were onto something and needed to fast-track themselves thus pulling in Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to complete the group. Gaudio was a singer/songwriter who’d already written a hit or two when he joined the then unnamed Four Seasons, but knew he could write for Valli’s voice after 13-seconds of hearing him sing. While the film plays up the mob influences of the environment these guys were raised around and the exceptional aspect that Frankie, Tommy and Nick ever made it out of the neighborhood alive, it is the dynamics of what evolves once they score their record deal and a slew of number ones that is more interesting. The film spends a lot of time developing the drama around each character, some of which could have been reduced to shorter scenes or cut completely but in doing this it builds up our expectations for where we think we know things are going only to play out with slight alterations to the standard formula. I enjoyed the fact it never became about the drugs or the women which serve too often as the undoing of hard work and determination, but that this was instead about the testing of friendships and the great corrupter that is money. Still, there are only so many ways “Jersey Boys” could end and if you’re optimistic then you get what you hope for here.
I’ve never seen the Broadway musical on which the film is based, but as a fan of these types of stories and pretty much any age of music I was very much excited to learn something about the music business in the 60’s. Not only this, but to learn the meanings, the stories behind songs I’d heard over and over again growing up but never having any context as to who performed them originally or where they came from. These kinds of novelty songs become so convoluted through time that the world forgets the talent that made them exist in the first place. Hits like “Sherry,” and “Walk Like A Man” are taken for granted in the belief they have simply always been a part of pop culture, but obviously that isn’t the case and if I took away anything from “Jersey Boys” it was the idea that nothing changes but style and even that comes back around at some point. As directed by Clint Eastwood the film has a somber color palette and a lack of energy that never really is able to get its feet off the ground (we don’t get the first full-on musical performance until a half hour in) as this isn’t a musical in the traditional way you’d expect it to be. Eastwood clearly approached this more as a drama that revolves around a singing group and in doing that he may have lost some of the spirit that reverberated through the group’s music that has made the stage show such a winner. The 84-year-old director saw the rise and fall of the actual Four Seasons so it is hard to blame him for wanting to place this story in a more grounded reality, but as I echoed in the opening paragraph doing something such as that is impossible when you have four different takes with all kinds of ambition and perspective between them and the actual events. What I did appreciate and what is out of Eastwood’s control, but he clearly takes advantage of, is that the groups decline never became about who sung lead and who got too big of a head. Everyone around him knew Frankie was the best and their sole purpose for existing. Everyone knew Gaudio had the songs and the brain to write such unequivocal hits and neither Nick nor Tommy were disputing that, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t cause rifts. Tommy was a man accustomed to being the ring leader, but when his talent couldn’t justify his position he slipped through the ranks and his ego couldn’t deal. Nick might have hung on were he simply taken into account more, made to feel like a creative asset, but did he ever show any interest beyond signing back-up and playing on the records? We don’t know, but luckily Eastwood’s version of “Jersey Boys” at least gives each their own even if it sometimes feels like it’s never going to end.
To that effect we come to why “Jersey Boys” doesn’t blow you away as there is much to like and become invested in here. The performances are fine as John Lloyd Young who portrays Frankie won a Tony for originating the role on Broadway and he understands the whole of the character by this point that he must feel a bit like he’s re-living the creation of Valli’s legacy. The performance that will hit you the most and make you interested in the actor playing him is Piazza as Tommy. DeVito is the straight-up bad boy/asshole of the bunch, but we are introduced to him through Piazza first and his wide-eyed look at the world and its possibilities is hard to not get on board with. Lomenda in his first big screen role does fine work especially in his one show-stopping scene as well as for playing up the goofiness of his role in each of their songs. Bergen (who looks like Chris Klein and Tate Donovan had a child) is the only one of the group not from Jersey and his reserved confidence in everything he does is reiterated in his final piece of dialogue to the audience. Walken is actually given little to do while we get an interesting history lesson concerning Joe Pesci’s (yes, that Joe Pesci) involvement with the coming-together of the original Four Seasons and how he now plays into their lives. As portrayed by Joseph Russo here he is not a distracting factor, but more an amusing side gag that will further entice the audience to read up on what the movie didn’t include about the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and how many liberties this version took with their story. Where “Jersey Boys” suffers is when it tries to do too much and loses focus. We get a whole third act subplot that concerns one of Valli’s children who it hadn’t mentioned prior that she wanted to be a singer, but brings it up as if common knowledge. There is too much telling in the resolution of Frankie and Tommy’s falling out that is meant to illustrate the values Frankie never lost even if Jersey feels so far away at certain points. These inconsistencies cause the film to go on and on while plagued with that kind of Eastwood melancholy and grey-tinted cinematography. I wanted more scenes that showed Gaudio and Valli crafting songs, of them going to record labels and begging for an audition and anything that offers more insight into this world not everyone breaks into. Instead the film settles for melodrama over insight and extravagance which doesn’t seem to fit the energy of the group and brings their feature presentation down a few pegs.
by Philip Price
Who exactly was this movie intended for? I couldn't help but to keep asking myself this as “Maleficent” played out, unsure of what it wanted to be, completely torn between two drastically different tones. There was naturally something interesting about this different approach to the current trend of re-telling classic fairy tales in live action form and casting Angelina Jolie as the titular villain guaranteed nothing short of a fair amount of interest but the final result we've been delivered is nothing but a badgering of the original Disney animated film that proves trying something different is truly hard to accept if it isn't done right. While it is easy to give credit to the machine that is Disney for at least attempting to think outside the box rather than simply bringing the same story to the screen with real-live people (though it looks like 90 percent of the film is CG anyway) “Maleficent” is actually less innovative than Tarsem Singh's 2012 take on the Snow White tale. At least that movie had a different rhythm to get in tune with while here we get exactly what we expect and even a little less depending what age group you belong to. So, it was a strong idea with factors that lent themselves toward what could have been an interesting execution yet what we have as the final product is anything but substantial and a film trying to be so many different things it ends up failing on all levels. This brings us back around to the question of who might this movie actually be targeted at? There were certainly a lot of children at the screening I attended, mainly young girls, and throughout you could hear them giggling at the intended bits of comic relief and gasping as Jolie re-created the famous scene in which Maleficent casts her spell on the young princess. To those reactions I began to wonder what I might have thought of this had I seen it as a child. Would it have been one of those my parents might have bought when it came out on VHS and I re-watched over and over? The only equivalent I came up with was Stephen Sommers’ 1994 adaptation of “The Jungle Book” that also came from Disney. It was very much a children's film while playing on the darker tones of the Rudyard Kipling story and that is what first-time director Robert Stromberg (yes, they entrusted this summer tentpole to a first-time director) seems intent on doing here as well, but his over-reliance on special effects and muddled screenplay do nothing but disservice what vision he might have had.
From the beginning it is immediately evident one too many hands dipped into the screenwriting pool on this one. There is only one sole screenwriter credited on the project (Linda Woolverton who has contributed to countless Disney productions since the late-80's) but there is not a doubt in my mind a committee of Disney big-wigs wrote as much of this script as Woolverton did on her own. We are awkwardly fed the backstory of why a divide exists between the moors, a fantastical place where mythical creatures such as Maleficent dwell, and the human realm. They don't trust one another and the creatures of the moor are hesitant to let any human get close enough for fear of what they might bring to their peaceful, free-spirited way of life. One day, a young boy by the name of Stefan shows up though and Maleficents' heart is weakened by an act of kindness towards her. Maybe humans aren't all that bad she considers. As they grow older they become close friends and as their friendship develops so unavoidably do deeper feelings. Nothing amounts of these affections though as Stefan becomes consumed by the thought of power within the human realm which in turn alienates him from the moors and the young fairy who would have given him her heart. With no connection to the bloodline of the throne Stefan gets lucky when the king proclaims his hate for Maleficent (quite randomly it should be noted) and promises that whoever kills her will be rewarded with the crown. Stefan uses his relationship with Maleficent to "get an in" only to betray her trust by clipping her glorious wings and taking them to the king to claim his rightful place as the successor to the throne. This act will cost him though as the loss of her wings spurn Maleficent into a life of hatred fueled by revenge and to this extent I was still along for the ride with the film. It is from this point out that it goes from a work-around of the 1959 animated feature to more of an excuse to just make up an alternate history. We see Aurora (Elle Fanning) grow from a child to a beautiful young woman while hidden away in the woods with the three good fairies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), as Maleficent and her faithful sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) watch over Aurora rather than try to locate her for sixteen years while the introduction and rendering of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) may as well have been neglected altogether.
None of these inconsistencies might have bothered me as much if Disney had not also produced this film, but the fact that they did and that so many elements of this new iteration mirror the '59 animated film don't add up is frustrating. They essentially forget the original narrative and substitute the second and third acts with material that would be impossible when taken in the context of the original feature and the feature most of the audience will no doubt go in referencing. The point of coming at this story from a different perspective not only was engaging because it felt fresh, but it allowed for Disney to continue its theme of placing the savior prince on the outside of the fence and illustrating to young crowds that there exists a different, equally powerful type of love that resonates between those who care for one another with no intent other than to be a part of each other's lives. It is a fine stance that “Frozen” delivered successfully but “Maleficent” falters on because it's grounded in such a dull, uneven story where we don't care about the characters or their fate no matter how much things either align or have been changed from the point of reference. This brings us to the main issue with the film, that being the script. We are given the outline for what we've all known in the back of our minds as the Sleeping Beauty story and that Maleficent was an evil witch who would stop at nothing to make sure the curse she placed on the innocent Aurora was carried out without a glitch. There was no way around the fact that these were Maleficents' intentions yet Maleficent wants us to believe that it was a very different set of circumstances that led to these events and the story “Maleficent” tells only matches what we've heard previously up until about a half hour in. Now, I can accept that these are just two completely different versions and that details have been changed to get the audience to sympathize with certain sides, but what I can't forgive is a film that is nothing but dull because it can't even come up with an alternate set of events that challenge the entertainment value of the other story. While Maleficent essentially calls Sleeping Beauty a liar that film at least had things going on, scenes that built on one another while this new version simply floats along waiting for those major events to occur so that they can hit the beats while Jolie hangs out in the woods creepily watching over Aurora.
This complete lack of rhythm could just as much be due to the uneven feeling of the editing and pacing, but I have to think that no matter what it ultimately comes back to a poor script with not enough to say. It is a good kernel of an idea, a nice thought to ponder, but unfortunately Woolverton wasn't able to come up with enough to sustain even the brief hour and a half running time that feels as if it drags on well past two hours. All of this being said, there are a few redeeming qualities to talk about here. First and foremost is the fact the film looks great (though it is too close to the aesthetic of “Alice in Wonderland”). Whether it be Jolie all dolled up in big bad baddie form or the large CG environments that have tree creatures crawling from the ground or the shot that Stromberg (who was a production designer before getting this directing gig) likes to return to where Maleficent soars above the clouds and then hangs there like a female Superman which are truly breathtaking. Still, everything is so oddly paced and contrived we never get the chance to really appreciate it. The scenes in which there are hoards of men and creatures rushing towards one another in battle and dragons breathing fire over soldiers only feel as if they've been included because a movie like this should have scenes like that. It is a cobbled together miss that never feels like a cohesive work, but more an experiment in how many dark undertones could be implied while still maintaining the facade of a kids flick. As for the performances themselves this should have been all about Jolie and her relishing in this outlandish character, but only in a few scenes do we catch a glimpse at what could have been. Otherwise, all they have to go on is the iconic imagery of the horns and the cheekbones and the silhouette that is played to the hilt, but nothing more ever comes of it. Yes, we get it, she looks great and it's really cool to see Maleficent brought to life, but you've got to have more to offer than that. Everyone else here seems to be grasping at straws because they are given nothing to go on and no arcs to play. Fanning and Riley simply exist in the shadows of the main character, beckoning to her every call, but are not fully formed individuals themselves. Sharlto Copley as King Stefan gets the worst of it in what should be as diabolical a role as Maleficent was in the animated version, but instead we feel absolutely nothing for him and his strange accents. To shrug this film off is to feel as enthusiastic about it as you can which is a shame because it's clear there was a lot of effort put into this in certain areas, but unfortunately not in the one movies live or die by.