Monday, July 30, 2012

21 Jump Street

"21 Jump Street" reaps the benefits of having a stocked comedic cast, which helps it succeed despite the overall inclination towards being a slightly altered version of the typical high-school film. The gangbusters pairing of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill is the most prominently ingenious decision, but having a mix of famous and more indie types (taken from Youtube, "Scott Pilgrim," and NBC alike), all exceptionally compelling performers, draws the audience in even further. Add to that an above-average sense of humor that slants into the meta- and into surrealism at times, and you have a comedy that will appeal to all sorts of viewers.

I know only enough about the television source material to have gotten the big climactic in-joke. I don't think that really mattered. What's here is a twist on the classic tropes of the jock and the nerd, which comments on how times can change very quickly and how social strata evolve accordingly. Tatum and Hill start playing exactly the roles you would think (the former popular but unsuccessful, the latter shunned but perennially on the honor role), but slowly and believably (after bizarrely becoming best buds at a police academy and getting an undercover assignment at a high school) move into acting against type.

I'm not really into revealing too much about movies I find funny, since I think even more than being blindsided by a twist in a thriller I like being surprised by laugh-out-loud moments. What I can say is that the first half is much more successful than the last one (largely due to the presence of an excessively profane Ice Cube as well as some off-the-wall drug humor). But "21 Jump Street" manages to stay at least moderately cohesive wall-to-wall and expertly retains interest all the way through the wacky credits. Apparently directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (previously known for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs") are following up this work with a picture about Legos. I wouldn't have given it a second thought before, but maybe I'll give it a whirl now having seen what they're capable of. B

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Easy Money

Daniel Espinosa's quintessentially European "Easy Money" is damn complicated (which makes sense given its origins as one part of a three-novel series), but it comes to be exceptionally engrossing due to the three main performances that drive the film. That makes the fact that the film is open-ended and incomplete all the more disappointing, with a letdown of a climactic scene. But while the film seemed to be heading for higher and higher ground, I was near completely enraptured. Matias Verela, Dragomir Mrsic, and especially Joel Kinnaman hold the screen with great intensity and vulnerability, and it's too bad that the filmmakers couldn't hold up on their end.

A whole lot happens in "Easy Money," but not a lot of what you'd call "action." Looking back, it's hard to believe how simultaneously absorbing and empty this movie is. A lot of the pathos is cheap, but it works to pin you to your seat while you wait for the next plateau. Business student JW (Kinnaman) tries his best to look affluent (convincing a lot of people with some tricky maneuvers), but in actuality he lives in student housing and wants better. He has a woman who loves him also (Lisa Henni as Sophie), but he's inexperienced with women and cares much more for monetary compensation. Escaped prisoner Jorge (Verela) has a pregnant sister to worry about. And Mrado (Mrsic) comes to understand the importance of being a father to his eight-year-old girl. All three of these men are involved in different ways in a cocaine ring: Jorge has the connection to his cousin that sets it in motion, JW has the money smarts to make the financial end work, and Mrado is a third party who wants in one way or another.

When push comes to shove, I don't think this is really a fulfilling movie. There's a lot of extraneous detail and weird filler (a missing sister, an anecdote about someone chopped in half inside an elevator), some of which probably was developed in more detail in a) the source material or b) its sequels. But it has some moving and emotionally involving moments, and a lot of strong facial acting (Kinnaman in a scene where he's forced to do something unspeakable is harrowing). It's a mixed and not entirely satisfying bag for sure, but definitely an involving one. B-

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dark Horse (Fragment)

I wrote a 3 paragraph review on this film and then accidentally deleted it the moment after it was finished. That was very frustrating. I will say more about this to people who want to hear more, but in short this is an extremely divisive film that I ended up liking more than a lot of people will. It's very uneven, and very shrill, but I came to appreciate the undertones of honesty and sadness Todd Solondz imbued under his typical sheen of intense irony. B

Not a lot of people seem to read this much anymore. Or at least use it as the forum for discussion that I'm into having. So I guess this little bitty review will be a sort of Rorschach test to gauge how interested people are in hearing my extended opinion. I pour a lot into these reviews and sometimes it feels futile. So I'll see how it goes.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Unfortunately for a film whose title features the words "Beasts," "Southern," and "Wild," Benh Zeitlin's debut doesn't very much truly capture the spirit any of those things. It hits all the marks it has to in order to be a mass-appeal success. Employing starkly enervating vibraphone music and the occasional jittery camera on the technical end, it trusts most of its responsibilities to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry (who will appear in Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years a Slave"). These are (previously non-)actors who at times are capable of excellent things but at times are given things to do that really exasperated me as a filmgoer. For me, this is a largely unnecessary work that provides some minute perspective but for the most part stirs up a bunch of clatter while trying to pull the occasional heartstring.

It takes place apparently during Hurricane Katrina, on an intensely communal island called The Bathtub off the Louisiana mainland. Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry) live in a couple of dilapidated dwellings with a lot of animals and have great kinship with their neighbors. Most people would call this squalor or poverty, but the two relish it and sense of place and community that these people have far surpasses many of those with a more conventional upbringing. The film seems too anxious to get moving, though, and I for one didn't get enough of this environment (save one sequence towards the start, one of only a few, that lives up to the title's promise of craziness) to feel ingrained in the movie. But Zeitlin doesn't seem too concerned with fleshing things out, and thus he lost me pretty early on. The rest of the film concerns their weathering of the extreme storm, and how they stay, and how it's frowned upon to stay. Also the human world (including health) intruding upon their seclusion. This could have been very interesting and engaging, but instead it feels flat and offhand (even if these are people who throw crabs on the table and say "pussy" and are in general "colorful").

Zeitlin and his screenwriting partner Lucy Alibar are pretty dramatically lazy all around, giving his heroine an absent mother and lines of "charming," essentially obvious narration to string things together. He also throws in some legendary creatures that seem to have no effect on the film other than to bloat the budget and to give some weight to Hushpuppy's bouts of stoicism. Sure, there is some real tenderness here at times, but that's largely due to Wallis and Henry (though there are some good lines at times). Nowhere near as restless as it should be, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is problematic and ultimately fits right into the tradition of mediocre Sundance pictures. To say it's a major highlight of the independent festival's history is to discredit works like Shane Carruth's "Primer." (Even more outrageous may be the fact that it won the Camera d'Or for Best First Film at Cannes.) C

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Magic Mike

I am the target audience for "Magic Mike" only in the sense that I follow the work of its director Steven Soderbergh and was interested in seeing what his newest effort would look like. Honestly, though, this man's oeuvre has only become distinguished by its unique visual style (designed, impressively, by he himself), still one of the best in the business but not enough to sustain film after lackluster film. Part of the reason for the inconsistency in his films must be his outsourcing the script to a different screenwriter each time around. This time, Reid Carolin (who also appears in the film) takes up the reins, and what results is extremely lazy and patchy, especially in key moments. Of course, the writing was never supposed to be good enough to distract the target audience from what they came for, but at times here it's a little bit below serviceable. It also distracts from all the supposed allegorical stuff, which is dangerous because it ruins the film's appeal as commercial art and instead makes it seem more just like a doodle Soderbergh made to pay the bills.

That isn't to say that the appeal of the film to others isn't understandable. As the titular main attraction and partial owner of a male strip club, Channing Tatum is, when he isn't failed by the dialogue, as much the likable presence as the film's champions have called him. He wants more and sort of gets the audience involved in his quest, even if it is a little hard feeling for someone who feels like they should be able to get whatever they want when they want it. And, playing the intensely devoted coordinator and owner of the joint, Matthew McConaughey's got a magnetism that he knows how to use and play with, edging at times into insane zeal with the knowledge that everyone else will follow along. He's by far the most interesting figure on-screen throughout the entire film.

But I can't see how people could buy Alex Pettyfer's Adam (a.k.a. The Kid), who, in a very pivotal role, shades cartoonishly from mild-mannered leech into insensitive male stripper prodigy over the course of a couple weeks. Cody Horn as the sister he continues to impose upon (and whom Mike develops a thing for) is just as inconsistent, if somewhat affecting in some bits.

Praising Soderbergh for his direction seems kind of a rash thing to do. His only significant contribution to the film is the light-drenched, somewhat '70s-esque cinematography, which is to rank among the year's strongest achievements. Though it makes the film watchable on a moment to moment basis, in certain instances (such as an impromptu visit to a beach off Tampa), it rises to the level of magnificence.   Since he's his own editor too, he knows how long to keep a take going and utilizes this command well. All that being said, he hasn't made a film in a while (ever?) that's truly won me over. C

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Your Sister's Sister

One of my biggest indie blind spots in recent years has been Lynn Shelton's "Humpday," which is supposed to be the more exemplary package of her style. I can at least tell from her new film, "Your Sister's Sister," that she has a good working relationship with Mark Duplass. He, along with co-stars Emily Blunt and Rosmarie DeWitt, was said to have a lot of input on the film's flow and dialogue, and I think such an arrangement suits this exceptional, winning funnyman. He is the engine behind this film, lending its shakier moments his humor and gravitas. He's a bit over-the-top at times, but I think that maybe the film would descend into the amiable-sitcom vibe it threatens to were it not for his presence. Blunt is very important as well, as she (though she seems to be pushing the edges of her comfort zone) has a real way with eliciting sympathy. DeWitt, such a great force in "Rachel Getting Married" (why is that film not more loved and discussed?!), is the weakest link here, but she still brings tenuous and at times explosive emotion to the situation (even if she's a bit of an outsider when it comes to the passions of the group). Unfortunately for all of them, Shelton, who seems to be keeping a good eye on the proceedings, slackens her grip in the film's final 15 minutes and seems to misunderstand what the film's really about.

The film does do a very good job exploring sensitive bonds between siblings and close friends. It looks first briefly at the depressed Jack (Duplass), who views his recently deceased brother Tom as a flawed figure and gives a typically-indie-awkward speech at a remembrance party that he feels is verging on hagiography. It then pries at the damaged yet still extremely tender relations between Jack's best friend Iris (Blunt) and her sister Hannah (DeWitt). This all is revealed at a cabin outside Seattle, where Iris suggests Jack goes for a head-clearing weekend. Hannah happens to be there doing the same thing, and soon Iris arrives even though she says she isn't going to be able to come. Since this is a romantic modern independent movie, there of course are things had between them that Jack sets off. And they're adeptly orchestrated by Shelton in ways both humorous and tragic, as many confrontations are to be had and sleep is to be lost and stuff like that. It never really goes beyond its parameters, though it would be foolish to expect anything like that. Maybe "Your Sister's Sister" would be stronger if they'd taken more than a handful of days to put it together. It's decent, a little disappointing, but still pretty funny, as uncomfortable as you'd probably want, and with a lot of beautiful nature (though the number of establishing shots validates the "sitcom" label). B-