Pahokee


There is nothing that says optimism so much as high school football.

(2019) Documentary (Topic) Jocabed Martinez, Na’Kerria Nelson, Junior Walker, BJ Crawford. Directed by Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas

High school is a time in our lives that we endure while we’re living it and, often, treasure more when we’re older than when we’re actually there. The rituals and ambitions of high school are pretty much universal but there are places that they take on a more urgent quality.

Pahokee is a small agricultural town in South Florida on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Most of the residents are either African-American or Hispanic. Much of the work in the town revolves around working in the fields or in the processing plants. There is little more than that for the young people to look forward to; most who have ambitions beyond that know that they will have to leave Pahokee to get a college education

This documentary follows four students in Pahokee High School’s senior class of 2017 in a particularly turbulent year at the school. Jocabed Martinez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who managed to save enough from working in the fields to open their own roadside taqueria where she helps out after school working the cash register. She has been doing tremendously well academically and has a realistic chance at an academic scholarship to a four-year college. Na’Kerria Nelson is an outgoing and personable cheerleader who is running for the equivalent of homecoming queen. She has ambitions of getting into a nursing program but with fair to middling academics, she needs every edge she can get and will likely have to pay for her own education. Junior Walker is a drum major in the school band who is also father to a cute-as-a-button toddler, a daughter whom he dotes on. With few employment options and a baby to support, college isn’t likely as he seeks employment in the town. Finally, BJ Crawford is the bruising center and co-captain of the football team that is challenging for the state championship. Both of his college-educated parents are fully in support of him getting an athletic scholarship but his dad cautions him to have a plan B just in case football doesn’t work out for him.

The camera follows them through most of the high school high points, from homecoming, the football state playoffs, prom and graduation. In between there will be moments of triumph, disappointment and even tragedy as on Easter Sunday there was a shooting in the local park. The camera crew happened to be there and captured the chaos and terror of the moment.

There are plenty of compelling moments throughout including the shooting sequence. The problem is that the movie really leaves the audience hanging; the football team suffers a devastating blow and it is essentially left without any sort of context or follow-up. We are often flies on the wall but the teens are rarely questioned directly. There are some video diaries recorded on cell phones and those are weaved in skillfully but I would have liked to have seen the teens talk about some of the things that happen onscreen beyond the platitudes you would expect.

As a glimpse of rural life particularly for those of the ethnic groups previously mentioned this is a pretty decent diary. It could have used some more context and more discipline rather than stream of consciousness. There are a lot of shots of fields being tended, distant factories, trucks roaring down small-town roads used as linking devices. There are also some lovely sunset shots. More grating is that there are some wonderful moments all throughout the movie but they are essentially lacking any sort of cohesion. With a bit of a firmer hand in the editing bay this might have been an extraordinary documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some truly extraordinary moments throughout the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks cohesion; the film could have benefited from more disciplined editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bresnan and Lucas lived and worked in Pahokee making short films prior to tackling this feature documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoop Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ash is Purest White

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

Paper Towns


Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

(2015) Drama (20th Century Fox) Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono, Josiah Cerio, Hannah Allgood, Meg Crosbie, Griffin Freeman, Caitlin Carver, RJ Shearer, Susan Macke Miller, Tom Hillmann, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Jay Duplass, Kendall McIntyre, Emma O’Laughlin, Yossie Mulyadi. Directed by Jake Schreier

Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. Some of us learn early on and either go through a life of self-hatred or one of self-satisfaction, or at least self-acceptance. For others, we search and search, grabbing at maddening clues that seem to lead us somewhere but ultimately lead us back to ourselves. For some of us, the search is what makes us who we are.

Quentin (Wolff) is a senior in high school. He is one of those guys who everyone knows but nobody particularly cares one way or the other about him other than his two best friends, Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams). Quentin has his whole life planned out; he’s been accepted at Duke, intends to go to their prestigious medical school, become a doctor of oncology and meet someone special and have lots of babies and have a great life. The end.

Except he’s already met someone special, as far as he’s concerned. Her name is Margo Roth-Spiegelman (Delevingne) and she lives right across the street. She’s lived there ever since they were children and Quentin has had a crush on her from the first day he saw her. They couldn’t be more opposites; Quentin has a plan, tends to play things safe and wants his life on the straight and narrow. She, on the other hand, is adventurous, loves a good mystery and isn’t afraid to live her life outside the box.

That’s why they inevitably drift apart during high school. Oddly, she becomes part of the in crowd, the girlfriend of Jase (Freeman), a jock who has been cheating on her with her best friend Becca (Carver). Disillusioned, she shows up at Quentin’s window one night, needing a getaway driver. That’s because she wants to get revenge on those who betrayed her as well as those who knew about the betrayal and didn’t tell her, which would include her other best friend Lacey (Sage) and Lacey’s boyfriend (and Jase’s best friend) Chuck (Shearer).

The vengeance is complicated and bittersweet. Quentin is at first a reluctant participant, not wanting to get caught and have his carefully laid plans ruined, but as the night goes on he finds himself feeling alive like he never has before. He feels that old connection with Margo and it seems as if that feeling is reciprocated as she wonders in a sort of melancholy way how things might have turned out if she hadn’t abandoned him for the in crowd and stayed with him.

The next day, Margo doesn’t show up for school. Nor the next and the next. The police become involved but Margo’s mom (Miller) throws up her hands in disgust. This isn’t the first time Margo has run away from home and she’ll come back when she gets bored or runs out of money. She declines to file a missing persons report, earning her a parent of the year award from an incredulous Quentin.

He resolves to find her himself and of course his trusted friends are all in. Ben, in particular wants the opportunity to hang out with Lacey, who it turns out didn’t know what Jase was up to and is as concerned as to her whereabouts as Quentin is.

Margo has always been wont to leaving clues and this is no exception. Bribing her little sister Ruthie (Crosbie) to let her examine Margo’s room, Quentin discovers a volume of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which seems to indicate her state of mine. He also finds a scrap of paper with an address of what turns out to be an abandoned tourist memorabilia shop in a dicey part of town, which will lead him and his friends on the adventure of a lifetime.

This is based on the young adult book of the same name by John Green (who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars) which should have given it a built-in audience but the early box office returns have been less spectacular than the other film. Not bad, but not spectacular. The movie will make a tidy profit, but not nine figures like the first film did.

Part of the issue with the movie is that the leads are really not easy. Quentin is as white bread as they come, a little bit boring even. His obsession with Margo flies in the face of his carefully prepared life, and of logic – admittedly however teen hormones trump logic every time. Margo on the other hand is as self-centered a lead as you’ll see in the movies. Everything she does is about her and about her needs, and as it turns out, nobody really notices except for the astute Ben who tells Lacey “She doesn’t deserve a friend like you” and he’s right. She’s the sort that an adult can see right through, from the pretentious use of capital letters and her aphorisms which sound a lot wiser than they are. If Quentin is the average high school student, Margo is the high school student that doesn’t exist except in the mind of John Green. Which of course means she probably does.

The writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have an ear for dialogue, even more so than Diablo Cody and Kevin Smith who both write excellent dialogue but in a more clever vein. These kids talk the way kids really speak and that genuineness is part of the movie’s highlights. For me – and I admit this is strictly my own viewpoint – I found it refreshing that this movie, set in my home town of Orlando, portrays Orlando as a city where people actually live, even though Margo despises it so. She probably never hung out at the Enzian Theater. She’d have had a different opinion.

I would go so far as to say that this captures the bittersweet elements of one’s senior year in high school. It is a time of transition without those who are living it knowing it. Only towards the last weeks we realize that we are hanging out at the burger place for the last time, eating pancakes at our best friend’s house for the last time, going to science lab for the last time. Suddenly we realize we are being pushed out into adulthood and as eager as we are to grow up, a part of us is kicking and screaming.

The best part of the movie is the relationship between Quentin, Radar and Ben which is surprising since the movie is ostensibly about Quentin and Margo, but the bonds between the three boys becoming men are so genuine and so real; to their credit, the filmmakers realize that (and I think Green probably does as well) and at the end of the day, when Quentin is given a choice, he chooses to return home to his friends, even though after the summer they’ll all go their separate ways. It is a bittersweet ending, but the right one.

I have always thought that people latch onto a movie because they see a little bit of themselves in the characters, but I no longer believe that is true. I think we latch onto a movie because we see ourselves the way we want to be in the characters, and surprisingly, the character I saw myself wanting to be the most was Radar, whose loyalty to his girlfriend Angela (Sinclair) is sweet and admirable in many ways; I wish I had that kind of commitment when I was his age. I like to think I would have. In any case, while this movie isn’t going to set teen hearts aflutter, it might appeal to jaded adults like myself more than you might expect. Who would have thought that.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the bittersweet senior year nicely. The bonds between the guys are genuine.
REASONS TO STAY: A mite too pretentious for its own good. Margo is a little too self-centered to identify with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, teen drinking and partying, partial nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ansel Elgort makes a cameo as a gas station convenience store clerk.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Crude

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

3 Days to Kill


Kevin Costner isn't going to let anyone stop his career re-invention.

Kevin Costner isn’t going to let anyone stop his career re-invention.

(2014) Thriller (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Tomas Lemarquis, Richard Sammel, Marc Andreoni, Bruno Ricci, Jonas Bloquet, Eriq Ebouaney, Joakhim Sigue, Alison Valence, Big John, Michael Vander-Meiren, Paolo Calia, Eric Naggar, Alexis Jacquin, Frederick Malahieude, Patty Hannock, Marie Guillard, Mai Anh Le. Directed by McG

The ties that bind are often stretched, if not severed, by the needs of our careers. Success requires a certain amount of attention that is usually stolen from that which we turn on our homes and families. It is from there that we rob Peter to pay Paul.

Ethan Renner (Costner) has been living that life longer than he can count. It has cost him his wife Christine (Nielsen) and his daughter Zoe (Steinfeld) who live in Paris and rarely speak to him and find no real reason to seek that kind of thing out. Of course, Ethan has a somewhat unusual career – he’s an assassin for the United States government.

He has been sent to take out the Albino (Lemarquis), the right hand of a German arms dealer nicknamed the Wolf (Sammel). However, the meticulously set up hit goes sideway when the Albino recognizes one of the agents (Le), dispatching her in a particularly gruesome fashion. Ethan himself gives chase and has the Albino in his sights but collapses, nose bleeding and barely able to breathe. He manages to put a bullet in the leg of the Albino before passing out.

It turns out that Ethan isn’t well at all. He has a brain tumor that has spread into his lungs because, you know, the brain and the lungs are connected. He doesn’t have much time left to him; a few months at most. Faced with his own mortality, Ethan decides that killing for his country doesn’t have the same appeal and decides to spend what time he has left reconnecting with his wife and daughter.

While he tells his wife about his condition, he keeps that information from his daughter. Zoe is a typical teenage girl; sneaks out to go party with friends, check. Underage drinking, check. Argues with her mom like cats and dogs, check. Dresses inappropriately, check. Subject to wild mood swings that defy logic and reason, check. Yup, typical teenager girl.

Ethan is doing his best but it’s not a smooth integration into their lives. However, when Vivi Delay (Heard), a fellow assassin, shows up with an offer of an experimental drug that might give him a significantly longer life span in exchange for finishing his job and taking out the Wolf and the Albino, he leaps at the chance. He goes after the Albino’s driver Mitat (Andreoni) and finds him to be a family man who commiserates with Ethan’s dilemma with Zoe.  Through the hapless Mitat Ethan looks to work his way up the chain until he gets his man.

Unfortunately, the miracle cure has a few side effects that always seem to rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune moments. Ethan, who’d distanced himself from his own family so that the ugliness of his job doesn’t touch them, finds that they are being drawn in anyway. The whole point of taking this cure was so that he could have more time with Christine and Zoe but it only takes one well-placed bullet from one of the Wolf’s men. A bullet through the brain still has no cure.

This is fairly pedestrian espionage stuff. We’ve seen similar things with Jackie Chan, Vin Diesel and the Rock in the lead and with similarly mixed results. Costner isn’t really known for being an action star, although he has done a few films in his career that have required that element and to be honest, he can be quite good in that kind of role.

In fact, Costner is really the best thing this movie has going for it. He’s likable and down to earth, so we get a spy/killer who isn’t suave, who isn’t refined but is kind of rough around the edges. He’s had to reinvent his career to a certain extent, becoming more of a character actor as of late rather than a leading man but make no mistake, he’s still one of the most likable leading men in Hollywood history and he remains so here. His relationship with Steinfeld as Zoe is one of the movie’s high points – it’s genuine and most parents of once and present teenagers will tell you holds some of the same ups and downs that real life parents of teens are all-too-familiar with.

Heard is a terrific actress who is thrown into a part that is just misconceived from the get-go. She appears periodically in different wigs and looking like she just got off the runway at Milan, chain-smoking with a sardonic grin and far too young to be a master spy yet here she is. In fact, she oozes competence so much that one wonders that with her skills why does she need Ethan at all (the answer is that Ethan is the only one who’s actually seen the Wolf and might recognize him). Still, while I get the sense she had fun with the role, it’s just so badly laid out that it becomes distracting for all the wrong reasons.

The hallmark of a Luc Besson movie is well-done action sequences and there are several here that will keep action fans if not happy, at least not walking out of the theater. There’s nothing here that’s overly imaginative or challenging but it at least is professionally done so there is entertainment value throughout. The Wolf and the Albino, while having nifty monikers, lack any sort of menace. They both scowl a lot and other than the one scene where the Albino executes a female agent, you don’t get a sense that they pose any threat to Ethan or anyone else in the movie. They’re more or less just goals for Ethan to achieve and it’s more of a game of hide and seek rather than spy versus spy.

REASONS TO GO: Costner and Steinfeld are solid. Some decent action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Heard fares poorly. Villains not menacing enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action, a bit of sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming in Belgrade, Costner was given an audience with Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Paris With Love

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Non-Stop

21 Jump Street


21 Jump Street

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill prepare for the next Tour de France.

(2012) Crime Comedy (MGM/Columbia) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, DeRay Davis, Jake Johnson, Johnny Simmons, Johnny Pemberton, Dakota Johnson, Ellie Kemper, Holly Robinson Peete, Dax Flame, Caroline Aaron, Joe Chrest. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

 

Those of you who might remember the late 80s undercover cops in high school drama might mostly remember it for the presence of Johnny Depp, who used his appearance in the show to catapult himself into movie stardom. Most don’t remember that it took on issues of drug abuse, child abuse, teen sex, gang violence, school violence, racial tension and teen drinking, among others things. Sure, it was mostly formulaic and doesn’t hold up well over time (it was very much a child of the era) but it had its good points.

This film version, co-scripted by Hill, takes little of what originally comprised the series and kind of turns it for the most part on its ear. Schmidt (Hill) was a nerd in high school,  a sweet-natured kid who due to his girth, social awkwardness and braces was the butt of a large number of jokes. Jenko (Tatum) was a popular jock, not too bright unfortunately but all about fitting in. The two couldn’t have come from more different viewpoints if they had been born on different planets.

Yet they share something in common; both of them want to be police officers. What went on in high school seems to be continuing at the academy; Schmidt aces the written exams but does poorly in the physical training while Jenko rules in the physical aspect but fails the written exams. The two realize that they can help each other and thus an unlikely friendship is formed, leading to their graduation from the Police Academy.

They are immediately assigned to park duty on bicycles, which causes Jenko to muse “I thought there’d be a lot more car chases and explosions and less homeless people doo dooing on the sidewalk.”  They catch a lucky break when they find a bike gang loitering around in the park with drugs on them. They make the arrest but it’s immediately thrown out because Jenko fails to read the Miranda rights to the suspect; in fact, he does not even know what they are.

Both Jenko and Schmidt are exiled to a program that had been shelved since the ’80s; a high school undercover group headquartered at an abandoned Korean Christian church at 21 Jump Street. There they are given their assignment by Captain Dickson (Cube), the stereotypical black captain with anger management issues. They are joined by fellow officers Hoffs (Peete) among others who look at the two newest additions as losers.

The two are assigned to find the supplier of a new designer drug at Sagan High and are given new identities as brothers staying with Schmidt’s parents (Aaron, Chrest). One is supposed to be a nerd and the other popular, but because they are knuckleheads they mix up which one is supposed to be witch so Schmidt winds up being the track star/popular guy and Jenko the science nerd.

That’s just as well because things have changed considerably since they were in school. Compassion and ecological awareness is more what makes you popular these days and the two quickly find out  that the dealer is Eric (Franco), a sensitive sort who quickly bonds with Schmidt who finds that his second go-round in high school is far more enjoyable than his first. Jenko struggles at first with the learning but thanks to helpful science geeks he suddenly finds he has an aptitude for it.

The two have to put up with overzealous gym teachers (Riggle), an oversexed science teacher (Kemper) who’d like nothing more than to get inappropriate with Jenko and a sweet cheerleader (Larson) who has developed a bit of a crush on Schmidt. However, finding the supplier proves to be a tougher challenge than they thought and soon Jenko and Schmidt are facing being drummed out of the force if they can’t stop the tide of HFC flooding the school.

This isn’t a remake but more of a re-imagining and to nearly every critic’s surprise it actually works. This could easily have been just another big, dumb movie (which many remakes of classic television shows have been) that adds nothing to the mix but it actually is quite entertaining. It manages to balance the line between action and comedy nicely and even if Jonah Hill isn’t who you’d think of as the next action star and Channing Tatum the next big comic actor, they acquit themselves nicely in fish-out-of-water roles.

In fact, the reason the two do so well is that they play to their strengths and avoid doing things that are beyond their capabilities. Tatum has been busy of late (and will continue to be) with roles mostly in romances and action films but he relies on his not-too-bright character to generate most of the laughs, playing on cop show (and cop movie) clichés and becomes part of the joke rather than having the joke be on him. Hill isn’t a great physical specimen (although he lost 40 pounds for the role) and the likelihood that a pretty high school-age girl would fall for him are pretty long, he makes his character pretty decent at heart (although he does show some dick-ery during the second half of the film when he is trying to fit in with the popular crowd).

Larson is not only easy to look at, she’s also got a good deal of talent and does a pretty good job here; she’s one of those actresses who have a great deal of promise if she can get the right sort of roles and this one is one of them.

The action sequences aren’t super-exciting and they don’t particularly give you any gee wow moments, although they tend to focus on Schmidt’s complete lack of competence in the physical aspects, which adds to the comedy nicely.

I’d just like to go on record as saying I wasn’t a particular fan of the show when it aired and thus I had no expectations going in. I will say this is mighty entertaining although there are plenty of other films out there that are just as good. Let’s just say this is better than average and not a waste of time and in fact there are plenty of people out there who are REALLY going to like it. Do check it out and not just for the cameos.

REASONS TO GO: Credible action comedy that blends just enough action with just enough laughs. Plays to the strengths of the lead actors.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing groundbreaking here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug content as well as crude humor and sexual content, some teen drinking, a bit of violence and pretty much non-stop swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatum’s character Jenko is named for the first captain on the series, Capt. Richard Jenko who was played by Frederic Forrest and was killed off after the first season.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starsky and Hutch

ORIGINAL SERIES LOVERS: Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise make cameo appearances near the end of the movie as their original characters from the series; Peete is present throughout the film as her original character and Dustin Nguyen shows up on television several times when characters in the film are watching TV and the original series is always on.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

New Releases for the Week of April 29, 2011


April 29, 2011
You can bet that car-surfing will be the next big craze.

FAST FIVE

(Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Joaquin de Almeida, Gal Gadot, Don Omar. Directed by Justin Lin

Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Conner find themselves cornered in Rio de Janeiro, hunted by a corrupt businessman and a relentless federal agent. With imprisonment on one side and death on the other, the boys call on some of the best drivers in the world to pull off one last job, one which will allow them to escape both pursuers – but with the stakes this high, you know the job is not going to be an easy one.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, promos and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard. IMAX

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, sexual content and language)

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

(Omni/FSR) Brandon Routh, Sam Huntington, Peter Stormare, Taye Diggs. A human private eye who specializes in cases involving supernatural beings must find a way to prevent a war between vampires, werewolves and zombies in New Orleans. This is based on one of the most popular comic books in the world (and no, it doesn’t come from Marvel or DC).

See the trailer, clips, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Horror Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of creature violence and action, language including some sexual references, and some drug material)

Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil

(Weinstein) Starring the voices of Hayden Panettiere, Patrick Warburton, Glenn Close, Amy Poehler.  Red gets an urgent call from the Happily Ever After agency to rescue two innocent children from an evil witch. How can she say no, but she’ll have to put up with the Big Bad Wolf – possibly the dumbest operative ever and Twitchy the Squirrel if she’s going to be successful.

See the trailer, clips and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor, language and action)

Prom

(Disney) Aimee Teegarden, Thomas McDonell, Danielle Campbell, Yin Chang. The stories of a group of teens intersect as they prepare for the biggest night of their high school lives – the senior Prom. What could provide more drama than a group of high schoolers?

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Coming of Age Drama

Rating: PG (for mild language and a brief fight)

Winter in Wartime

(Sony Classics) Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Raymond Thiry. A young boy becomes involved with the Dutch resistance during World War II after aiding a British soldier. As he grows older and the war comes to an end, he comes to realize that there is a vast difference between the heroic adventures of his fantasies and the ugly reality of war.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War

Rating: R (for some language)