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Saturday
Jun212014

22 Jump Street (2014)

Excessive Use of Recycling

Given 22 Jump Street's running gag about sequels being carbon copy cash-ins of the original ideas that made them possible, it's tempting to simply cut and paste my 2012 review of 21 Jump Street and call it a day. Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (working from a screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman) don't provide much to talk about beyond their aggressively cute meta-concept, so I wouldn't lose much sleep by simply winking back. 

The trouble is, the new movie doesn't hold a candle to its predecessor, despite being a bigger-budget replica. What made 21 Jump Street so much fun was discovering that Lord and Miller hadn't just turned in a flashy, disposable bit of brand recognition: they made a legitimate action comedy that paid homage to its 80s cop-drama source material--and even improved on it.

All the wonderful things I had to say two years ago are no longer true. The surprises are gone, and though the film's "Previously On..." opener ostensibly ends after a couple minutes, it actually stretches on for another two hours. America's worst undercover cops, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are recruited to infiltrate a college to bust a student drug ring. Schmidt is still schlubby and smart. Jenko is still fit but dim. Schmidt hooks up with another student while on the job. The main villain is again revealed to be right under the cops' noses--but is not at all who they'd expected. Gun shots. Quips. Explosions. End credits (more on those later).

Before you accuse me of not getting the joke: I fully understand what the creative team was going for here, but the screenwriters, in particular, must shoulder the blame for watering down what should have been either another clever and outrageous commentary--or a movie that never got made in the first place.

Here's the deal: An action scene that simultaneously goes nowhere and takes forever to get there doesn't become retroactively enjoyable by virtue of the characters' remarking about how lousy it was after the fact. 22 Jump Street's opening is a lazy trip down Amnesia Lane, packed with as much suspense and believability as a Warner Brothers cartoon. Our heroes saunter into a deadly Mexican-drug-ring sting with disguises that I might best describe as post-racially racist.* They then engage in a truck chase where Schmidt takes an I-beam to the face at seventy miles an hour--only to bounce back like a reset video game character.

I won't bore you with the rehashed drug trip, the multiple-set-piece Spring Break finale, or the mix-up involving Schmidt's would-be girlfriend (Amber Stevens, who played a much more interesting college co-ed on ABC Family's Greek five years ago). The movie played like an hour-and-fifty-two minutes of knock-knock jokes--only three of which wrung a chuckle out of me before the very end.

The closing credits on this thing are inspired, flashing forward to the boys' increasingly outrageous franchise adventures. From med school to military school and, eventually, space (of course), 22 Jump Street ends with beautiful promotional artwork and brainy belly-laughs at the actors' expense. It's as if the film had gone so deep undercover as a crappy, by-the-numbers sequel that it forgot to take off the disguise until crawling into bed. Sadly, fans of new and intelligent comedy** will likely want to see this criminal misfire hauled off to movie jail.

*The movie smears fine lines left and right, using this flimsy notion as cover: If clearly non-racist artists use racist stereotypes in their art, then the work itself cannot be construed as racist. In this movie, we're asked to forgive Latino gang banging stereotypes and one of the most embarrassing scenes in Ice Cube's career--in which he erupts in the kind of cartoonish "black rage" that is neither funny, helpful, nor insightful (the actress playing his wife in the scene speaks more to African Americans' roles in white-dominated buddy comedies by virtue of who she is and the fact that she's given practically nothing to say).

This logic also extends to the filmmakers' hazy stance on homosexuality. 22 Jump Street is rife with innuendo and wacky situations that suggest Schmidt and Jenko are latently gay. But they're played off with the same kind of not-really acceptance of the lifestyle that makes me wonder just whom the filmmakers were laughing at. There's a moment towards the end, where a thug drops "the other f-bomb" and gets the kind of over-wrought PSA response that comes from publicists instead of people. It felt to me like a particularly dry straw-man, set up to make sure the creators had an "out" for the rest of the film's outdated and unfunny views on social progress.

**No, intelligent comedy and dumb comedy don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Wednesday
Jun182014

Night Moves (2014)

Spare Me The Planet

I don't usually take notes during movies. In the case of Night Moves, I'm glad I made an exception. Kelly Reichardt's thriller(?) about young environmental activists is well-cast, competently made, and as fleeting as the polar ice caps.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Josh, an angry twenty-something who wants to save the planet by blowing stuff up. He joins forces with similarly deluded mod-hippies Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard) to detonate an explosives-packed boat near an Oregon dam. If you've seen Reservoir Dogs, Bully, or any other drama, really, about people plotting a crime, you've seen more engaging and stylistically enthralling versions of Night Moves. From the loose cannon who threatens to blow the whole mission; to the Nervous Nelly who wrestles with keeping an awful secret; and the unintended consequences of a plan that once seemed so simple, Reichardt recycles and repackages all the genre's tropes in and earthy, indie-cred box that she hopes you won't notice has been significantly marked up for retail.

It's unclear who we're supposed to root for, and not in a way that suggests intentional ambiguity on the part of Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond. Josh is an icy prick. Dena is a trust-fund kid from Connecticut who gets all her enviro-science knowledge from a single college class she took years ago. Harmon is the kind of twitchy, unwashed proto-Manson that anyone with half a brain would see as trouble from the word "Go." There's no entry point for the audience, no wide-eyed average citizen who gets drawn into this laconic world of slogan-spouting super-freaks.

The filmmakers fail to establish why we should buy these three as eco-terrorists. Josh, Harmon, and Dena aren't consumed by consumerism, the Internet, or pop culture. Josh lives on a successful commune/food co-op with a nice family. Harmon moves from place to place in a trailer. Dena tags along, and we get the feeling that, for her, "normal" life is just a tearful phone call and a plane ticket away. They're all loosely affiliated with a community of like-minded souls whose main idea of activism seems to be making bad movies about our dying planet and then talking endlessly about them to a captive audience. Reichardt and Raymond never show us what our protagonists are so grumpy about; there's never a clash-of-ideals/impending-urgency scene to illustrate the switch between clipping cabbage and scamming bulk fertilizer.

The most conflict we get is some spot-on soap-boxing from the patriarch of Josh's commune, Sean (Kai Lennox). When news of the dam explosion hits the paper, he laments the perpetrators' short-sightedness. There are ten other dams on that same river, he reasons, and the activists needed to either go bigger or focus on what they have the ability to change, positively, and leave everyone else out of it.

Is this the big turning point for Josh? Nope, it's back to paranoid stewing for our sullen hero.

I'll give Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt credit for making this journey into pointlessness a joy to look at. Night Moves looks great, and can just as easily be viewed as a commercial for the Oregon Tourism Board: "Relax along our winding rivers! Take shade in our sprawling, green woods! Ignore the handful of douchey locals!" The picture's first hour-and-a-half are well shot and occasionally carry a modicum of suspense (the highlight is the actual dam job and the roadblock that follows), but not even Roger Deakins could create a pretty enough distraction to make this film's contrived, stalk-and-slash last act worthwhile.

Speaking of suspense, allow me to call out an early scene whose warning signs I utterly failed to heed. When Dena visits a feed factory to purchase five-hundred-pounds of fertilizer, she encounters a by-the-book clerk, played by James Le Gros. He casually begins the paperwork and asks for Dena's social security card. She's unable to provide it, and immediately launches into the hair twirling, "Isn't there something we can work out?" routine. He'll have none of it, and insists on seeing the proper ID.

"How will Dena get out of this one?", we ask. The answer is peer pressure. A couple of old farmers wander into the office and tease the clerk for giving the poor little lady a hard time. Cut to Dena, Josh, and Harmon loading up their boat (the titular "Night Moves") with enough explosives to--well, bring down a dam. I'm not sure whose idea it was to undercut the previous scene's delicious tension with such a Bugs Bunny cop-out, but I wish bad things upon them.

I can't recommend Night Moves, but I can't exactly not recommend it, either. Most of the performances are fine, and the filmmakers get through a decent chunk of run-time before we realize they have nothing much to say. Still, I can't help but think the seed of this story would have blossomed more fully in the hands of a team that knew what kind of a crop they'd wanted to harvest.

*I use "stars" lightly here, as Eisenberg's screen presence has two modes. One is the devilishly obnoxious know-it-all from movies like The Social Network and (shivers) Now You See Me. The other is a mode of sulking passivity so absolute that the actors around him may as well be reacting to a dangling tennis ball that will later be replaced with a CGI approximation of a human being.

Friday
Jun132014

Lucky Them (2014)

Folk and Run

Watching movies in a theatre is nice, but when it comes to preview screenings, there's a lot to be said for the home-viewing experience. Case in point: I paused Lucky Them thirty minutes in and waited until my wife could join me from the beginning. Megan Griffiths' indie dramedy struck me as the kind of quirky, messy-relationship stuff she and I both enjoy--though mostly in the realm of television. Full of witty dialogue and dryly comic performances, the first part of the movie was harmless fun and we had a few good laughs winding leisurely through familiar territory.

At minute forty or so, Lucky Them became something different, something remarkable. On a dime, writers Huck Botko and Emily Wachtel veered from the saccharine safety of predictability, speeding head-first into a climactic reveal that took my breath away and gave profound new meaning to everything that had come before.

Let me back up. Toni Collette plays Ellie Klug, a fading Seattle rock critic at a fading rock magazine called STAX. Her beleaguered, pot-smoking boss, Giles (Oliver Platt), is under pressure from his corporate masters to boost sales--or at least interest--and assigns Ellie to track down her ex-boyfriend/enigmatic folk superstar, Matthew Smith. He disappeared after a gig ten years ago, leaving only a note and rampant speculation that he'd killed himself.

Ellie's luck with men hasn't improved in the ensuing decade. Through a series of mix-ups and bad decisions, Ellie leaves behind wide-eyed young musician Lucas (Ryan Eggold) to hit the road with a guy she dated briefly after Matthew split. Charlie (Thomas Haden Church) is clueless, disgustingly rich, and has the personality of Peter Griffin and Mr. Spock's love-child (with glints of Ashton Kutcher tossed in for maximum obnoxiousness). He agrees to spot Ellie some money for her story, in exchange for filming the adventure as part of a community-college documentary film course he's just enrolled in.

For awhile, Lucky Them breezes along as an alt-rock/indie version of a mainstream romantic comedy. Ellie is the cold professional who just can't be bothered with a relationship--until a hunky, free-spirited younger guy strums a smile back onto her face. The movie then transitions into a wacky road trip, with Church essentially reviving his role from the 90s sitcom Ned & Stacey. The filmmakers toy with us a bit, presenting both Lucas and Charlie as possible heart-tugging-finale love interests. But unlike most movies Griffiths and company make the bold decision to bare all their protagonist's shortcomings--indeed, to suggest that these guys might be too good for Ellie, instead of the other way around.

There are two big surprises here--only one of which I'll really get into. About half-way through the picture, Ellie's search for Matthew takes a detour, and we're treated to a seriously unflattering exploration of her damaged spirit. She spirals down a chasm of self-pity and doubt, alienating everyone who remotely cares about her. In these moments, Lucky Them becomes blissfully directionless--or, more accurately, not so plot-driven. As Ellie and Charlie's oil-and-water friction evolves into something more honest, I was reminded of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Enough Said. This film is a bit too cute in places where that one was real, but it's always nice to see characters (and creators) call each other to task, rather than gloss over deep flaws on the race to a happy ending.

The second surprise made me gasp. That's not an exaggeration, gang. I actually put my hand over my mouth and looked at my wife in disbelief when the filmmakers revealed the actor playing Matthew Smith. This information is probably on-line somewhere by now, but you won't get it from me. No, sir (or ma'am). All I'll say is that this crazy-famous movie star delivers his best performance in at least a decade--in a brief, powerful scene that is mostly meaningful looks with Collette (who, incidentally, is one of the best cryers in the biz).

I'm left to wonder if Griffiths' choice of actor is the ultimate meta statement about her film. It's as though she wants the audience to protect his identity as a means of allowing others to delight in its discovery, in concert and in contrast with Charlie's wish to delight in remaining anonymous. Regardless of the intent, I'm sure to remember Ellie and Matthew's reunion scene as one of the year's best.

I need to see Lucky Them again to figure out if it's just a really good film or a great one. Collette and Church create compelling, comedic figures who reveal flesh and blood beneath an ostensibly cartoon skin (and props to Eggold for cutting through the puppy-dog-eyed, perfect-guy cuteness to portray wounded assertiveness in just the right places). This movie is surprising, touching, and really about something. The more I consider the film's performances and themes, the less I'm bothered by its deceptively light start. As Ellie's best friend says towards the end, "There's a lot wrong with you, but the list is getting smaller."

Chicagoans! Lucky Them opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State Street). Definitely check it out, and bring someone you love!

Thursday
Jun122014

Willow Creek (2014)

Squatching Reality

Though Willow Creek is an intermittently funny film featuring a charming pair of leads, I spent much of it confused and bored out of my mind. And, yes, I absolutely recommend this movie--with a warning that you not approach it like our protagonists, Bigfoot enthusiast, Jim (Bryce Johnson), and his supportive girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore). With starry eyes and no back-up plan, they venture deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest in search of something they only think they know from pop culture. What awaits them is more bizarre and life-changing than they could have imagined.

Similarly, you might look at the film's eerie, painted poster (featuring a magnificent, skull-faced Sasquatch comprised of screaming, twisted souls) and assume you're in for a standard horror movie. But if you know anything about writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait's filmmaking career, alarm bells should immediately go off in the deepest, smartest part of your brain. Just as World's Greatest Dad is the blackest satire of single-dad dramas and God Bless America skewers media-culture cranks, Willow Creek offers a harsh examination of found-footage fright flicks. It's so effective because Goldtwhait camouflages his critique in a convincingly bland, frustrating shell that, by the end, will have unnerved you for all the right reasons.

Goldthwait doesn't hold back on filmmakers and audiences who've made the subgenre both increasingly disposable and exponentially more profitable. The confluence of The Blair Witch Project and the rise of do-it-yourself mega-fame outlets like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Vine have created a mystery vacuum at the core of our pop landscape. Today, it seems, there's no such thing as an idea that can't be explained away, laughed off, or simply swiped past if it proves too challenging (or, God forbid, scary).

This is Jim and Kelly's reality, precisely, which explains their trek to the heart of nowhere without weapons, military-grade GPS, or even a back-up plan. They simply drive until they can't--then get out and walk, with only some flimsy camping equipment and their digital camera as protection. At least the first leg of their journey to the abyss is fun--for them.

Kelly films Jim standing next to statues (and not-ready-for-prime-time locals who might as well be statues) for segments that they'll cobble together later for upload or micro-festival documentary consideration. Either way, based on the duo's iffy camera work and Jim's cheesy, anyone-can-be-a-host demeanor, it's clear that this effort was doomed from the start. As a moviegoing experience, Willow Creek not only dares the swipers and the watch-checkers to sit still (indeed, to not get up and leave), but also to reconsider the entertainment value of their own DIY art projects in the process.

Goldthwait and company intentionally wear out their comedic welcome early on. By the time Jim and Kelly cross over the barrier into the wild, they're about as sick of each other as the locals and the audience are of them. Squabbling, back-tracking, and refusing to simply go home, even when they begin to see evidence of the big, scary monster--these two gave me flashbacks to the Blair Witch crew (minus the gallons of watery snot).

Just when the empathy meter is about to zero-out, the lovely and terrifying tent scene comes along to re-set the picture. Following a tender-yet-awkward marriage proposal, Jim and Kelly are awakened in the middle of the night by a strange noise in the distance. Jim turns on the camera and its mounted light, and tries to convince Kelly that he's heard something. Kelly begs him to go back to bed--until she hears something, too. It's faint, but real...possibly.

Goldthwait holds on this shot for nineteen minutes, as the actors react to things moving outside their thin walls, drawing closer and making creepy calling sounds. This segment is driven by uncertainty, evolving from "Is there a noise?" to "Is that an animal?" to "Is it getting closer?" to "Is this tent really fooling anyone?"

Looking at that last sentence, I can understand the chorus of dismissive sniffles that just emanated from a thousand bathrooms, home offices, and commuter trains. I assure you, reading this scenario is much different than experiencing it in a theatre with a rapt audience. Goldthwait, his crew, and especially Johnson and Gilmore take us on an emotional journey in the middle of Willow Creek that cannot be understated. It helps that the director began the project with a twenty-five-page script that didn't include any dialogue for this scene--and that he didnt' tell his performers exactly what he'd planned to do here (and I guess it didn't hurt that the movie was shot in the actual middle of nowhere, under conditions that would not be considered "luxurious", "comfortable", or even "safe" by most definitions).

This is the dramatic high point of the film, but it's not the end. That comes after our tired, scared, and utterly lost protagonists are forced to take shelter under a tree, in the rain, with only a camera and clothes to differentiate them from every other animal in the woods. Your big question now is, probably, "Do they find Bigfoot?"

The answer is, "I don't know." Jim and Kelly find something out there, and it may be the basis for the legend, but also may have nothing to do with ol' Sasquatch. Goldthwait ends his film on a startlingly ambiguous note that is full of possibilities and realism--two factors lacking in many found-footage pictures. The last couple minutes will undoubtedly frustrate casual fans, simply because the writer/director doesn't cheat. There are no cute title cards, fancy edits, or suddenly omniscient points of view here. We're watching what a hiker might find on a battered camera someday, which he or she will have picked up from a heap of shredded, weathered flannel. In placing the cherry atop his Reality TV-culture sundae, Goldthwait goes back to the well of a famous documentary about similar subject matter--which I won't name for fear of spoiling the ending altogether.

This is a big recommendation from me, but a tough one. Depending on your patience, understanding of the wider themes being addressed, and comfort with movies sidestepping convention, Goldthwait's latest venture may or may not be for you. His is a beautiful example of the lost art of showing not telling, but not showing so much that the mystery gets trampled by a rote plot. There's so much to digest here that I saw the film a month ago and still find myself lost in Willow Creek.

Monday
Jun092014

The Sacrament (2014)

Deja Kool-Aid

I'm officially over Ti West. The writer/director's breakout picture, The House of the Devil, is one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. But as that decade wears on, his movies become more derivative, flat, and downright indefensible. That he's taken up with a cadre of hipster filmmakers who apparently think they invented the medium is, perhaps, just a sad coincidence. The blame for his downward spiral into mediocrity rests squarely on his shoulders, though--just as the blame for holding out hope with each new project rests on mine.

West pushes along his rusty, cumbersome "throwback" train with The Sacrament, a movie whose entire premise and execution will likely feel like a put-on to anyone over a certain age. Younger fans may be thrilled, terrified, and amazed by the adventures of three filmmakers traveling to the jungle to interview a charismatic cult leader. Father (Gene Jones) deploys the fire of scripture with the charm of Southern sweet tea, and has created a new, off-the-grid community called Eden Parish--all funded by hundreds of "congregants" he'd convinced to sell their worldly possessions. One of these poor saps is former high-society drug addict Caroline (Amy Seimetz), whose brother, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), teams up with the world-traveling, myth-busting show, Vice, to rescue her and expose Father's fraud.

If your Spidey Sense is tingling, congratulations on remembering the late-70s Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. The Sacrament is literally a found-footage version of that. From the secret intimidation and sexual abuse to the infamous Kool-Aid-drinking mass suicide climax and landing strip attack, the only thing new here is a tacked-on happy ending and gore. I don't mind updating movies for modern audiences, but I can't think of anything--anything--that West brought to the table, except for shaky cameras and the most profoundly un-self-aware protagonists in recent years.

Let me get this straight: Sam (AJ Bowen) is a big-wig at Vice, a show that prides itself on cutting-edge, globe-trotting investigative journalism. His cameraman, Jake (Joe Swanberg), has also, I assume, seen a lot of crazy stuff on his travels. Yet, they and Patrick are completely freaked out by the gun-wielding guerillas Father has posted outside his camp (and not in a "this could go either way" way, but in a "nobody told me there'd be automatic weapons in this lawless wilderness" way). These clowns are so lippy, obnoxious, and clueless that I thought for a moment West had tricked me into watching The Hangover Part 4.

The only bit of suspense West manages to wring from this picture is whether or not anyone will acknowledge Jonestown--the very template for the events in which these characters find themselves. It's like going into a production meeting for a bold, new sci-fi movie that features laser swords, an intergalactic empire, and a big secret between the main protagonist and antagonist--where no one mentions Star Wars.

The Sacrament falls directly in line with The Innkeepers, You're Next, and the V/H/S films, delivering slick mediocrity with a wholly unearned self-assuredness that prioritizes branding above brains or balls. In fact, West may have inadvertently fallen down a second meta rabbit hole with this one, as his film is also strikingly similar to V/H/S 2's segment, Safe Haven--a found-footage tale of a documentary crew heading into the jungle to expose a charismatic cult leader. That mini-movie shared Jonestown as a template, too, but added some nasty supernatural elements that completely changed the game.

In fairness, two of The Sacrament's actors make the movie almost worth watching. Jones is terrific as Father, painting an enigmatic portrait of a businessman who may have finally come to the ultimate crossroads of his own bullshit--or maybe he actually believes his nonsense.* Still, he's no Powers Boothe, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of maniac preacher Jim Jones in 1980. And Seimetz does very well with the thankless "hysterical hippie sister" role. But I'm not sure how much of my enjoyment of her was just a carryover from Upstream Color (the actress also appeared briefly in You're Next, a fact that got my butt into the theatre opening weekend. Lesson. Learned).

I dont' know what to make of these young auteurs. They have all the technical talent in the world, but little in the way of original thought (if their output is any indication). Everything is references, throw-backs, and snarky, uninformed comments on pop culture from decades past. I feel guilty beating up on them because I genuinely believe they think they're forging new territory. Unfortunately, it's easy to look at The Sacrament as just plain forgery.

*Which is scarier?

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