Back With Black

Shane Black might as well be an urban myth in Hollywood. He broke out by writing the buddy-cop classic Lethal Weapon in 1987 (along with the sequel two years later) but then only popped up in the credits of random 90s action movies with “L” in the title (The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight). He hit a second career peak in 2005 with his widely-praised but little-seen directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but again, he’d disappear until co-writing and directing Iron Man 3 in 2013. It’s as if every time he gets the break that’ll put him in the mainstream, he steps out of sight and out of mind just as fast. But don’t let his reputation (or lack thereof) sour the fact that anytime Black makes a movie, it’s a sure bet. Case in point: The Nice Guys.


It’s 1977 in smog-filled Los Angeles and if you’re being beaten down by creeps or bullies, you call the brutish but kind Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to rough up your enemies. If you’ve got issues that need some evaluation, you don’t call the alcoholic, thick-headed scam artist/private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Nevertheless, Healy and March cross paths while looking for a missing girl (Margaret Qualley). They run into a ruthless killer (Matt Bomer), a stressed head of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), March’s wise-cracking teen daughter (Angourice Rice) and the pair’s own vices in pursuit of the truth.



Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and Angourice Rice in “The Nice Guys”


Whereas most mainstream releases are franchise fodder, The Nice Guys feels like such a blessed oddity: a mostly original idea that relies entirely on an interesting mystery and the talent of the lead actors to be memorable. SPOILER ALERT: it really works. The atmosphere of 70s L.A. is one that grooves like a buddy cop movie but has shades of noir. What ties it all together is the tight screenplay from Black and Anthony Bagarozzi. Everything is littered with tough-guy bravado and sharp comic timing. It helps that the actors look like they enjoy every minute they’re on-screen. The main mystery is more of a motivator for the actions of the characters than something to get invested in. By the time the audience realizes who the bad guy is and what the endgame is, it wouldn’t be surprising if everyone in the theater went, “Oh yeah, there’s a plot here.” Whereas Black had the advantage of adapting Brett Halliday’s novel into Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he and Bagarozzi don’t have a story deeper or more complex than an acceptable Chinatown imitator (this time the California Water Wars is swapped out for air pollution and the Detroit/L.A. auto fair). To be honest, Black is a much better writer than he is a director. Not to say that he’s bad behind the camera (far from it), but there’s nothing that stands out about his directing. He could be described as an “actor’s director,” a guy who doesn’t show off with camera tricks and simply lets the camera roll while the actors do the heavy lifting. To Black’s credit, he and editor Joel Negron cut together some great gunplay and timing between dialogue. Everything about the movie echoes “cool.”


That cool comes from the two leads who are both at the comedic peak of their careers. Crowe is the growling straight man to Gosling’s screwy antics and the pair have amazing chemistry together. The comedic timing the two have is impeccable and their own character arcs make for nice snapshots of the washed-out machismo of the 70s. Sure Gosling looks great in a suit and mustache, but that doesn’t help him but down the bottle or put any effort into his investigative work. Crowe wants to be the Robin Hood of Los Angeles if he wasn’t so desperate for money and carrying a chip on his shoulder. He’s good, but good golly God is Gosling goddamn great. He looks like the coolest guy in the room (even with all of his suitcoat sleeves ripped open for his arm cast) yet so oblivious to his own stupidity and incompetence. No matter how many times the movie knocks him down by having him get ripped on booze or chasing porn stars, Gosling keeps bringing on the laughs with his unbridled confidence. The duo have great backup from the likes of Rice as the Penny Gadget to the wacky mystery, seemingly being the smartest of the good guys. But again, it’s mostly the Ryan Gosling comedy block and after his turn in The Big Short, it’s clear he’s as much a funny man as he is a serious actor.



If there’s a main fault with The Nice Guys it’s that it takes a while to find anything wrong with it when it’s all over. You’ll probably be too busy laughing and riding along with the smooth atmosphere the movie gives off. The Nice Guys reestablishes Black’s aura of top notch dialogue in a time where special effects drive mainstream blockbusters and roll of the dice experimentalism drive indie flicks. The Nice Guys feels classic all by itself, something untouched by the time it in and proud of being a violent vulgar guy film without succumbing to the stupidity of said genre. Now someone please give Shane Black more money to make movies so he can’t leave us again.


3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Going Through The (E)motions


For 16 years, Disney and Pixar have dominated cinema in the field of animated movies. Pixar movies like Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Wall-E have been both critical and commercial successes for their stunning animations and memorable characters. But what really set Pixar above the rest was their ability to translate important life lessons and interesting stories into something enjoyable for the short-attention spans of kids today and the cynical attitudes of adults as well. They weren’t just kids movies or cartoons, they were made with the quality and imagination of other grown-up movies that would earn critical praise. But, and not to scare anybody before their weekend starts, is Pixar starting to come down from their epic high of animated dominance? Their last three films haven’t exactly been given the warmest of welcomes; Cars 2 was an unnecessary mess, Brave was noble but disappointing and Monsters University was fun but unoriginal. We now have Inside Out, which Peter Debruge of Variety called, “The greatest idea that Pixar has ever had,”…….slow your roll there, guy.

Inside Out follows 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) as she and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco. This is a lot for Riley to process, especially for the five emotions running around in her brain. I mean “running” literally because her five core feelings are living beings working together to make sure Riley is being Riley. There’s Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black), who all present themselves at certain times in Riley’s daily life to create her personality. When Riley’s playing hockey, Joy’s behind the controls cheering her on. If there’s broccoli in the room, Disgust is scoffing at it like Riley would. But with the new house, new school and no friends, Sadness is more and more present for Riley, which does not sit well with Joy. When Sadness accidentally makes one of Riley’s happy memories sad and Joy tries to fix it, she and Sadness get sucked from the central nervous system (“central control” in this case) into long term memory. Joy and Sadness must make their way back before Riley loses all memory of who she is.

Now for those who have heard that Inside Out is a “groundbreaking original concept,” let me be one of the first to tell you it’s mostly a lie. Granted the only other times this concept has been attempted is with an early-90’s sitcom called Herman’s Head and technically with the 2001 animated movie Osmosis Jones, but Inside Out is still nothing original. More so, it’s another adventure movie where the main characters get lost at point A and have to get to point B. While the base of the concept is different for Pixar, the majority of the movie is the same as previous films like Up and Finding Nemo in which two characters who are total opposites have to find a way to work together to get to where they were at the start of the movie. With Inside Out though, having Joy and Sadness have to be the traveling opposites be the two characters seemed like the easiest piece of plot Pixar has ever done, but I digress. The characters in the movie are pretty one-dimensional, but that’s expected when their entire personality is just their name. Disgust is stuck-up and annoyed at everything (just like Kelly Kapoor from The Office) and Anger wears a suit and tie while yelling at everything (just like Lewis Black in real life). Amy Poehler’s Joy is a bit more fleshed out showing signs of stress while trying to keep moral up amongst the other emotions, but it’s hard not to hear signs of Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation in Joy. In fact, with two actors from The Office and two alums from Saturday Night Live, it’s easier to call this movie NBC Presents Supporting Comedic Actors’ Greatest Hits.

While the movie may be lacking in originality and three dimensional characters, it makes up for in comedy. The banter between the emotions is enjoyable, especially Bill Hader who was born to be a cartoon character. Poehler has enough bouncy energy to carry most of the scenes with a little help from Richard Kind as Riley’s lost imaginary friend, Bing Bong. The animation is still impressive, with enough color and imagination for visual eye candy. The problem with Inside Out is that it’s now easier to see the Pixar movie formula and easier to predict the outcome of the movie. There’s the obvious message of the movie (i.e. it’s ok to feel sad and express all your emotions), but the journey to that message makes the experience as a whole more interesting. Inside Out is funny and entertaining in bits, but the movie as a whole is weaker experience. The best thing for Pixar to do would be to come up with a new journey, mainly something that strays away from formula. But since Pixar is with Disney and fears original ideas the way kids feared monsters in their closets, let’s make due with Inside Out before Toy Story 4, Cars 3 and Finding Dory ruin the films they follow by being the exact same thing. Disney and Pixar, once here for art but now here for MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY!!!!!
Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars


The entire existence of Entourage, the TV show and the movie, can be summed up in the penultimate scene in the Entourage movie. The best buddies of Hollywood are walking the red carpet at The Golden Globe Awards and The Who’s “Eminence Front” is playing in the background. For those unfamiliar, the chorus of “Eminence Front” features guitarist Pete Townshend singing “Eminence Front – It’s a put on” repeatedly. That’s it, that’s Entourage in a nutshell: An Eminence Front, a put on, a fantasy, a false advertisement. Entourage, the HBO series about a hotshot actor bringing his three buddies from Queens out to Hollywood for all play and no visible work. They slept with hot girls, drove hot cars, slept by the pool and partied like there was no tomorrow (but still a lot of money). It was the bro capital of television before MTV even thought of Jersey Shore. Now, four years after Vincent Chase and co. went off the air, their back for a feature length effort of making rich guys look like assholes. ADVENTURE HO!!!!!! Co-written and directed by series creator Doug Ellin, Entourage features the same old gang back together: blockbuster playboy actor Vince (Adrian Grenier), nice guy manager/producer E (Kevin Connolly), short but spunky Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and Vince’s older brother Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon). Vince gets word that his former agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) is now the head of a studio and wants Vince to star in his Ari’s first movie. One catch, Vince wants to direct the movie too. Eight months and $100 million later, nobody has seen the movie, Vince is over budget and still needs more money to finish it. This means Ari, still dealing with outrageous anger issues, has to fly to Texas to kiss up to the film’s financiers, Larsen McCredle (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Travis (Haley Joel Osment). On top of that, E’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is about to have his baby while E is still sleeping around with models and porn stars (so relatable). Turtle is trying to put the moves on Ronda Rousey (one of the many celebrities playing themselves) and Drama is trying to make his own stamp in Hollywood. Entourage is a 104 minute episode of the TV series, with a lot of fluff and little to no substance. As the series has featured before, the movie is chock full of celebrity cameos including Jessica Alba, Warren Buffett, Liam Neeson, Kelsey Grammer, Emily Ratajkowski and Mark Wahlberg (one of the executive producers and the partial inspiration for the show). The cameos are so random and so brief, you could take a shot for every celebrity to show up and see how long you and your friends can make it through the movie. The lead cast members all fill out their less than respectable characters talking about hooking up with girls and how hard it is to juggle hooking up with girls. The funny this is, the guys aren’t sure whether they’re supposed to be loveable buddies who are stupid or just total douchebags. They’ll sleep with porn stars, but then wonder where their lives are headed and feel sorry about it. The only character with something close to an arch is E, but even when fatherhood comes knocking at his door, he just shrugs his shoulders and goes, “Hey bros, I’m a dad! SHOTS!” The only entertaining part of Entourage is Jeremy Piven’s Ari, who is still a total sleaze. His jokes are homophobic, racist and mean-spirited, so if that tickles your funny bone, good for you. Even the whole point of the movie (i.e. Vince’s blockbuster) is shoved off to the side and is automatically assumed to be completed. Purpose in this movie is as pointless as the last chick Vince slept with. It’s strange that Entourage even got made, because its depiction of Hollywood is very demeaning. With the rise of women like Melissa McCarthy leading Hollywood blockbusters and movies that have fully-formed gay characters instead of stereotypes, it seems like a step backward to make an Entourage movie. It’s barely any fun, cool to look at, but pointless to get invested in. It’s a bad sign when one of the comedic highlights is a cameo from Gary Busey. VICTORY….not so much. Final Verdict: 1 out of 4 stars

It’s Dwayne Johnson (featuring “San Andreas”) To The Rescue!

san andreas

I’m sure that, like me, everyone has a movie or two they love but can’t exactly explain why. The movies may not be good, or even so bad that their good, but it’s nice to watch whenever it’s on cable or HBO. For me, those are movies like Armageddon, 50 First Dates, or 2 Fast 2 Furious. While some tastes may differ amongst others, there’s one genre of film that is destined for repeat viewings on basic cable when it’s late enough to binge on ice cream and watch TNT in your underwear; disaster movies. Things like Twister, The Day After Tomorrow and Volcano are big-budget bonanzas with little sense and a lot of spectacle. It’s never meant to attract critics, but to distract movie fans from the horrors of real life reminding them “hey, it could be worse, you could be caught in a giant flaming tornado.” Despite being something as disposable as Adam Sandler’s newest project, disaster movies are still alive and well, seen most recently in last year’s found-footage based Into the Storm. But now, the latest disaster epic has the one thing all disaster movies have been missing for so many years…SUPERMAN…ok, it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but that’s pretty close.

San Andreas follows muscular helicopter rescue pilot Ray (Dwayne Johnson). On top of rappelling from helicopters and saving lives, Ray is dealing with a divorce from his wife (Carla Gugino), one daughter (Alexandra Daddario) going to college and the loss of his other daughter in a white water rafting accident. Thankfully there’s something to take his mind off of it; a cataclysmic earthquake all along the San Andreas fault line. Ray must make his way through the rubble with his estranged wife to find their daughter.

San Andreas is pretty much what it looks and sounds like; an action-hero running through impossible situations to get from point A to point B. It’s simple, it’s stupid and (thankfully) it’s totally harmless. Of course, the entire earthquake (or earthquakes, as it’s multiple in the movie) is probably totally impossible and absolutely over-the-top. For instance, Johnson and Gugino are using a center-console inflatable boat to get to the other side of San Francisco, but of course they have to get over a giant tsunami (SPOILER ALERT, they make it because one of them has his name on the movie poster). No matter how much science-talk the “experts” give out to explain the events (this time the “experts” are led by Paul Giamatti), everything going on is so unbelievable that the guys from Mythbusters would be laughing. There’s also the scumbag who gets his comeuppance by the disaster (this time it’s Ioan Gruffudd as Gugino’s new boyfriend) and the random love interest for the attractive daughter (this time it’s Hugo Johnstone-Burt as the nervous British guy who saves Daddario). There are so many modern cliches and ridiculous natural disasters popping up, one would think this is a Roland Emmerich movie.

The problem with a lot of disaster movies is that Hollywood places a bland-looking everyman in the lead role so that the audience can connect with him, like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, John Cusack in 2012 or…whoever it was in Into the Storm. But here’s the thing, if the events in a disaster movie aren’t realistic enough to relate to, what’s the point of relating to the main character? If the movie is going to be big and ridiculous, have it star a big and ridiculous human being. Make no mistake, Dwayne Johnson is big, ridiculous and freaking awesome. He’s the best part of San Andreas as he poses his muscles in front of collapsing buildings and triumphantly leads people to safety. He even makes a sex pun after parachuting into the AT&T Park and it’s ACTUALLY FUNNY! Michael Bay has been trying to do this right for years, and Dwayne Johnson gets it right. That’s got to be some kind of witchcraft. The funny thing is, Johnson has only just started to get solo lead roles in summer action movies. He’s been a supporting player in The Other Guys, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the recent Fast & Furious films, but only since last year’s Hercules has Johnson been the leader of a summer blockbuster. With his performance in San Andreas, he deserves a whole lot more.

So is San Andreas good or bad? To be honest, I’d say it was…..fine. Nothing to rush to the theaters for but nothing god awful. It’s a run of the mill disaster movie that’s best enjoyed with your brain turned off and your mouth full of popcorn. If anything, San Andreas is a reminder that Dwayne Johnson can handle summer movies on his own and should be given a shot with a real director or at least some more exciting action. Despite all the quakes, the destruction and the family bonding, San Andreas is nothing more than Dwayne Johnson’s demo reel. Somebody call him up!

Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 4 stars

Top 10 Movies of 2014

Well, it’s that time of year! With awards season kicking off and 2015 in its first days, I figure I showcase my picks for the best movies of 2014. 2014 was another great year for movies thanks to incredible variety. We had apes riding horses with guns, talking trees in space, a boy becoming a man before our eyes, and a man becoming a bird in his mind. Wives went crazy, sons saw monsters, and Jake Gyllenhaal saw the scary parts of Los Angeles (and liked it). So here’s to everything that got me hooked on a feeling of everything that was awesome at cinemas in 2014


10. “Wild”
With her sparkly smile and Southern-swagger making her one of Hollywood’s most charming ladies, it’s easy to forget that Reese Witherspoon is a dynamite actor. I use the word “actor” because she doesn’t just play female roles better than most actresses in Hollywood; she takes it in, chews it up, spits it out and struts away to her next movie. So in case you forgot about that, here’s a reminder.
Based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who walked 1,100 miles alone to rediscover herself after her mother’s death led her to drugs and infidelity, Witherspoon carries this movie like the heavy pack Cheryl carries from Mojave to Washington. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) shows Witherspoon building Cheryl’s soul up through her mother (a wonderful Laura Dern), then shatters it all through sex and drugs, adding up to the hiking along the country looking for her soul and the next step in her life. The common factor here is Witherspoon, raw and emotionally naked like never before.


9. “The Drop”
The death of James Gandolfini was a tragedy on many levels, one of them being that he was heading for a well-deserved movie career. Not only was he one of TV’s most iconic figures as Tony Soprano, but he put his heart and soul into supporting roles that screamed for more screen time. He should’ve had at least five big lead roles lined up for him and could’ve earned Oscars for at least two of them. Sadly, life can be cruel to great talents, but he left the world on a high note.
Co-starring with the excellent Tom Hardy, Gandolfini owns a bar that also serves as a cash depot for the Brooklyn mob. When the bar gets robbed, Galdonfini and Hardy struggle to appease the mob and trust each other. Hardy and Gandolfini are an awesome team, with Hardy being the sullen loner waiting for someone to make him snap and Gandolfini the old soul looking for respect. Both quiet but effective masters of acting with one still rising (Hardy) and one gone far too soon (Gandolfini).


8. “The Lego Movie”
One of the most exciting, colorful, creative, clever and hilarious animated movies I’ve seen in quite some time came out in February. February! A land known as movie purgatory (not movie hell, though…that’s January). I didn’t have super high hopes for this shockingly overdue cash-in for the Lego toy company, but sometimes going in low leads to walking out high.
Featuring the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman and Will Arnett (and a bunch of other side-splitting cameos), faceless builder Emmet (Pratt) stumbles across a mysterious item that could stop evil Lord Business (Ferrell) from destroying the creative universes of the Lego world. The jokes are super fast and whip smart (for kids and adults), the animation is brilliant and beautiful, the voice actors are game for the ridiculousness of it all. Writer/directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (who also helmed both installments of the rebooted “Jump Street” franchise) keep everything moving without a single sour note, especially for that killer twist near the end. Not to be corny, but when it comes to this movie, “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!”


7. “Nightcrawler”
Remember Homer Hickam, the bright-eyed, good-hearted rocketeer from “October Sky?” How about Donnie Darko, the quiet teen haunted by bad dreams? What about Jack Twist, the closeted cowboy in a tragic romance that he wouldn’t quit on in “Brokeback Mountain?” Well, they’re all dead, murdered by a sociopathic, manipulative, slithering cameraman named Lou Bloom. Then again, you might know all of these characters inhabited by one Jake Gyllenhaal, who erased all memory of these previous performances in one fell swoop.
Gyllenhaal devours all in his path as the well-spoken but thoroughly twisted Bloom in “Nightcrawler,” the directorial debut of writer Dan Gilroy (“Real Steel,” “The Bourne Legacy”). Gilroy shoots Los Angeles in an unflattering, faded light as he follows Bloom in his quest to achieve notoriety through the TV news business. Bloom, with the endorsement of a news producer (Rene Russo, the director’s wife) and the aid of a chilled-out assistant (Riz Ahmed), scours LA for stories of crime he thinks are disturbing enough to be filmed. Gyllenhaal is revelatory as Bloom tampers with crime scenes for a better shot, bluntly states his rules and demands to his peers and uses a crooked smile to slide into any situation beneficial to him only. “Nightcrawler” looks like a lost b-movie thriller from the 80s but feels extremely relevant in the time of viewer-driven content in news. It’s all driven home by Jake Gyllenhaal, who should be getting much more high-profile work after “Nightcrawler,” even though he may never chew through a movie with a character like Lou Bloom ever again.


6. “Guardians of the Galaxy”
As much as critics are supposed to pick high-brow, sophisticated expressions of visual art over comic book movies, you’d have to be made of stone not to smile and enjoy this wild space odyssey. It’s also a relief that Marvel (or the money-hungry hippo known as Disney) is willing to try new things besides setups and filler for the next “Avengers” movie. But mostly, this was just the right amount of silly nerdy fun.
Writer/director James Gunn (“Slither,” “Super”) presents the formation of intergalatic misfits: cocky human scrub Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), grey-skinned rage machine Drax (Dave Bautista), ill-tempered raccoon bounty hunter Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his trusty wooden sidekick of few words Groot (Vin Diesel). This group must stop Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) from using an Infinity Stone to wipe out humanity. Is it a groundbreaking plot? No. Does the villain matter to the rest of the film? Hell no. Does it have something tying into future Marvel movies? Of course. But don’t let that turn you off to the most enjoyable comic book movie since “The Avengers,” or maybe even the first “Iron Man.” Chris Pratt turns Peter Quill into this generation’s Han Solo, Dave Bautista shows heart underneath his grimace, Bradley Cooper gets to have as much fun as he did in “The Hangover,” and Vin Diesel revives his “Iron Giant”-shtick to make three words sound incredibly endearing. The gold medal here goes to James Gunn, whose sharp dialogue (co-written with Nicole Perlman) and freewheeling directing makes “Guardians” feel fresher than any mainstream action movie in 2014. Visual appeal of space travel have never mixed with obscure pop songs of the past so well. It’s Marvel’s movie version of “Firefly” without a single Whedon-ism in it.


5. “Snowpiercer”
It’s criminal that this wasn’t a big summer hit and that it took a freaking year for this to hit American shores, because it’s so cleverly disguised as a sci-fi/action blockbuster when it’s really an action movie with a good taste for art. But Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong knows action doesn’t need to be the focus of a whole movie. Fight scenes and shootouts are the mere background to this brilliant, snowballing story about crawling up the class ladder or the illusion that it all is. It’s smarter and more interesting than any other movie with guns and fists, but still kicks so much ass.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, “Snowpiercer” takes place in the distant future where Earth is frozen and humanity hangs by a thread on a giant train where the class system rules. In the dirt-poor back end, Curtis (a stellar Chris Evans) leads a rebellion to get to the front of the train. A simple canvas, but Bong paints a hell of a portrait on it. Bong reveals more and more of the bleak future and living hell Curtis and the others (John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and Kang-ho Song) are blinded to, with each new level of the train more shocking than the last. The acting is top notch, from Tilda Swinton’s buck-toothed bitch advisor Mason to Evans, who turns in a career best as the damaged leader. The pacing is perfect, the script is tight, and the action scenes are tense (thankfully no shaking camera). Bong manages to weave so many elements into “Snowpiercer” and still create a picture normal moviegoers can follow. “Snowpiercer” is above the average blockbuster, but Bong doesn’t make it so obvious. In a summer fill of robot dinosaurs and ninja turtles, this is the underdog action movie of the year.


4. “Dear White People”
Have you ever heard a white guy these days talk black, dress like a rapper, or even use the n-word? It doesn’t matter if he’s referring to a buddy or singing a verse in a rap song, does it make them look or sound any cooler? Black culture has been the envy of white people for a long time, but it’s become more obvious and more offensive in the 21st century. Thankfully, someone is taking it all and shoving back in everyone’s faces in the funniest (and most accurate) way possible. His name is Justin Simien, writer and director of “Dear White People.”
Four black students at an Ivy League college are the focus: There’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay journalism student who is either harassed for his homosexuality or marveled at for his afro. There’s Sam (Tessa Thompson), a fiery art student who hosts a radio show sharing the movie title pointing out the subtle offenses white people are responsible for and hopes to kickstart a black power movement at the school. There’s Coco (Teyonah Parris), a diva-in-training looking to get on reality TV but isn’t exciting enough. And then there’s Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the overachieving son of the Dean of Students trying to break out of his dad’s shadow. All four characters and the students around them collide when a white student, Kurt (Kyle Gallner), throws a party inviting those to dress up in blackface. Simian’s film is actually more about labels and stereotypes than racism. Sam prefers Ingmar Bergman, but her friends assumes she praises Spike Lee. She stands up for black people, but doesn’t want to be a leader. Troy wants to write comedy and smokes weed in private, but dates a white girl in public and tells others he wants to be a lawyer. The main issue comes clear in one scene with Lionel, as he stares out into campus thinking about how he could make friends at school. He could either join the flamboyant gay clique or go full gangsta with other black kids. There’s no middle ground for Lionel to be comfortable in with his own identity. “Dear White People” states the claim that, despite having a more diverse generation than ever before, there is still only one or the other, black or white. Simien, in his first movie, pulls no punches (because they’re all too funny to take away) in one of the most timely comedies (or just movies in general) to ever come out.


3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
There are very few directors I’d go out of my way to see when they put out a new movie, because those few directors often put in such exceptional effort to their work. In short, I believe perfectionists make the best movies. Wes Anderson is a prime example of a perfectionist, making sure everything from color, setting, costume, framing and even the smallest movements of characters is pristine to his liking. It may seem like overkill to some, but it’s hard to knock his track record (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”). This past March, he added one more gem to his resume and it may be his funniest yet.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” follows hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) as they tend to the needs of the elderly and rich in the 1930s. When one of the old rich women Gustave wined and dined (Tilda Swinton) dies suddenly, she leaves a treasured family painting to him and not her crude son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Dmitri accuses Gustave of murdering his mother, sending Gustave to jail. Hijinks and hilarity ensue, led by Ralph Fiennes in what may be the best comedic performance of the year only because it comes from Fiennes. Known primarily for true thespian roles and that bald guy without a nose from the “Harry Potter” series (what was his name again?), Fiennes is sharp as a tack (the excellent screenplay helps) and excels at the perfectly pitched physical comedy.
Other Anderson favorites, like Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are exceptional. It’s perfectly paced between screwball-silliness and actual heartfelt scenarios, like the sweet romance between Zero and baker Agatha (the lovely Saoirse Ronan). But as always, Anderson sets up every aspect of “Grand Budapest” like instruments in a symphony. With the wave of his hand, every instrument hits its notes beautifully.


2. “Gone Girl”
I have recently passed by people leaving screenings of “Gone Girl” in a state of shock. Some people loved it, some people hated it, and others were just too baffled to have a clear response. So what was this fascinating picture that was stunning audiences around the country? Quite simply, the most horrifying and appalling thing in the entire world…………..MARRIAGE!!!!!
The popular 2012 page-turner “Gone Girl” was given a spectacular movie adaptation this year thanks to director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn (the author of the book and of the film’s screenplay). Nick Dunne begins to face suspicion and public scrutiny when his wife Amy goes missing on the day of their anniversary. Cops are called in, secret revealed and flashlights illuminate the dark corners of Nick and Amy’s matrimony. Since Nick is depicted in the media as a creepy jerk with lady problems, who better to play him than Ben Affleck? No matter, because Affleck kindly reminds the world that he’s an ace actor. Fincher reigns in some thoroughly entertaining supporting players, some known (creepy Neil Patrick Harris and sly Tyler Perry) and others unknown (whip-smart Kim Dickens and droll Carrie Coon). But the acting prize (for the movie and for the year in the actress category) goes to Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. The deeper into her head we go and the more she reveals about her twisted (but shockingly accurate) portrayal of modern married life, you’d swear she could turn into a dragon. She bites the heads of anyone and everyone in her line of sight, including her husband. Pike is the cherry on top of this dark, dirty anti-love story orchestrated by the master of modern dread. Fincher has made better movies (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club”) with more horrifying subject matter (“Zodiac,” “Seven”), but never has something this dark been so much fun to watch, especially when it’s based on something my mom used to read in my living room.

And now………………….


1. “Birdman”
Whether it’s life imitating art or not, Michael Keaton has deserved a comeback for a long time. The former Caped Crusader has been a lost gem in Hollywood, meaning a great actor who was once huge, but somehow got lost in the shuffle. But he’s been patience, slowly waiting for that one role that was so fit for him yet also a challenge unlike anything he’d done before. As far as “Birdman” goes, he hit the jackpot because (pardon my french) HO-LY SHIT this movie is hands-down spectacular!
From writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu comes the story of Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a former on-screen superhero now just trying to keep his head above water. While starring/writing/directing a play on Broadway, he’s dealing with a monumentally pretentious theatre actor (Edward Norton), a post-rehab and highly agitated daughter (Emma Stone) as his assistant, his stressed out agent (Zach Galifianakis) and his annoyed girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). On top of all that, Riggan hears the scratchy voice of his caped (or winged, in this case) past nagging at him as other actors are making millions playing superheroes after he jumped the gun. Critics think he’s washed up, he’s inner circle thinks he’s losing himself and Riggan is questioning whether he wants the respect of his peers or the cheap adoration of fanboys.
As mentioned, Keaton is outstanding in the lead role. It’s heartbreaking to see him accept that he might be in over his head, especially with all of the nut jobs he surrounds himself with. Keaton’s character is trying so hard to pull himself away from the superstar he used to be, and maybe still wants to be. His soul is at war with his ego, and he’s not sure which one he’d be happier with. It’s also a cautionary tale for guys like Robert Downey Jr., Henry Cavill, Chris Evans and (soon) Ben Affleck to never buy into the myth of the cape and mask onscreen. Not all of it is “woe is Riggan,” as he starts to go off the deep end in the third act. He snivels and chomps at everyone and anyone in front of him, whether they be his cast, desperate fans, or a theatre critic who wants to castrate Riggan in the papers just because he’s a Hollywood guy. It’s a manic performance that Keaton pulls off in spades, and he’s not alone. Emma Stone, free from Sony’s sinking “Amazing Spider-Man” franchise, has never been better as Riggan’s bitchy daughter. She’s strung out and looking for another vice to fill the hole in her heart that Riggan left years ago. Edward Norton comes out swinging as the Broadway douchebag out to stomp over Riggan. With his reputation as a method actor, Norton seems like a prime choice to play a man who only seems to be truly living when he’s acting on stage. He’s starts off as a total dick, but when his concern is for the reputation of Broadway instead of himself, it almost a redeemable quality. Well, that and him throwing fisticuffs with Riggan in his tighty-whities. There’s also Zach Galifianakis, who excels as Riggan’s agent, his own Jiminy Cricket, trying desperately to keep Riggan in check.
“Birdman” is acting heaven, but it’s fantastic on a technical level as well. The whole film uses tracking shots to follow Riggan as he darts around backstage. It creates the ultimate “fly on the wall” experience, or an awesome behind the scenes special. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots everything in a pale, fluorescent light that highlights all the wrinkles and stress on the actors. Despite a few time lapses, the whole movie looks like one long take that keeps all eyes on the screen. Sure there is an explosion or two, special effects are kept to a minimum. Even Antonio Sanchez’s score, consisting of spastic jazz drumming, makes every scene hit harder.
“Birdman” is many things at once: funny, heartfelt, satirical, timely, topical and entertaining. Whereas most movies in the cinema today need to tend to fanboys or product sponsors, the best movies tend to no one but the imagination of the filmmaker. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu may be known for darker movies (“21 Grams,” “Babel”), but this may be his most accessible (and funniest) movie to date. But it stands out in 2014 just for doing one thing; letting actors act. No serving the needs of the audience, no cheap product placement, no cliches and no clean finish. This is raw talent at its finest, both in front and behind the camera. Movies today are overloaded with special effects and overcompensating elements when all that’s needed is great talent coming together. EVERYTHING about “Birdman” is engrossing, wildly entertaining, and enjoyable unlike any other movie I saw this year.

Honorary Mentions:
Edge of Tomorrow – A fresh, funny and more original sci-fi/action blockbuster from Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), Tom Cruise and a badass Emily Blunt

The Babadook – First time writer/director Jennifer Kent presents a terrifying story of the monsters that scared us when we were kids and how mad they make us when we’re adults.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Marvel turns Captain America from superhero to super spy with this cool and entertaining conspiracy thriller, featuring the debut of the The Falcon (the always superb Anthony Mackie).

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Dreamworks’ animated sequel shows a bigger heart, grander development of characters and a grander scale of gorgeous animation.

Big Hero 6 – Big, bright and bursting with energy as this Marvel origins story disguised as a Disney animated film provides satisfying relief from a year of “Frozen” hell.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Bryan Singer returns to helm the film franchise he brought to life and makes both old and new X-Men casts (especially Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver) gel together almost flawlessly.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – “Cloverfield” director Matt Reeves keeps the Apes franchise alive and well in this thrilling and emotionally moving sequel, featuring another stellar motion-capture performance by the great Andy Serkis.

Whiplash: The commitment and dedication to jazz has never looked so terrifying, especially if your teacher is J.K. Simmons

Half Shell, No Movie

Ok let’s just get this out of the way; Michael Bay is not at fault here. Mr. Bay, the notorious director who has been blamed for tainting another childhood cartoon franchise on the big screen, received some more angry words from shell-shocked fans when he was announced as the producer of the first live action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie in 21 years. The “Turtles” in question, which started as a comic book and a TV series in the 1980s, then a movie franchise in the 1992, have gained a new generation of fans thanks to a Nickelodeon TV series. Now, Nickelodeon Movies have backed a feature film complete with (brief) action, (nonthreatening) danger, and…turtle sex jokes.

            Yes, the 2014 “Turtles” movie is as immature and underdeveloped as one would imagine. Taking place in New York City, “driven” reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is tired of doing fluff pieces and wants to cover real stories. When she starts investigating the actions of a terrorist group called The Foot Clan, she also meets the mean green ninjutsu vigilantes who fight The Foot. Soon, she discovers her previous history with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and their master rat Splinter. She also learns that corporate big shot Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), who also has a history with April, is in cahoots with The Foot and their leader, Shredder. Shredder and Sacks have an evil plan to poison New York City and put a hefty price tag on the cure, so it’s up to April, her cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), and the Turtles to kick shell and take names.

            Now whether it’s because she was pregnant during the movie or she knew this film was not as artistically on par as her previous work, Megan Fox is awful in this movie. She’s not annoying, just phoning it in so obviously that the word “vigilante” is beaten into blandness every time she says it. Her character says she wants to be like “all the great journalists” without a single name of a great journalist mentioned (maybe she thinks “Access Hollywood” is missing some Pulitzers), so she clearly did her research. Even when she speaks above a bland octave, it’s hilarious how it doesn’t do anything. William Fichtner is, as always, bland and creepy like an unfunny Christopher Walken, so he’s useless. Will Arnett, however, is anything but useless as the comic relief (meaning the only thing funny in the movie). It’s impossible not to commend Arnett for really trying in such a limp feature.

            Now when it comes to the title characters, you pretty much get what you’d expect. The motion capture technology used to bring the Turtles to life is moderately impressive and not as creepy up close as the Internet keeps emphasizing (Splinter actually looks creepier than the Turtles). In fact, the special effects-laden action here is moderately impressive, if only it was edited like a visible film and not by a spastic man on a sugar rush. The action here is brief and in short supply, obviously to make room for the obligatory pizza puns, product placement, a god awful rap theme song, “cowabunga!” and “heroes in a half shell” quips (spoiler alert, no mention of turtle power anywhere). Besides all that, there’s nerdy Donatello, stern leader Leo, lone wolf Raph, and annoying “duuuuuude” Mikey in cardboard cut out action movie stereotypes.

            If anything good can be taken away from this, it’s that it is mercifully short. Only 101 minutes long and easily forgettable, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is Nickelodeon using two famous names (Michael Bay and Megan Fox) to cash in on their latest cartoon kid fest (which is odd considering the film’s PG-13 rating). If you’re a fan of the “Ninja Turtles,” stay away from this movie. If you have kids who like the current cartoon, show them the original movie from 90s, not this movie. If you’re looking for a big, stupid action to give your brain a rest, this isn’t even worthy of that distinction. It’s nothing more than a waste of time, like a shortened, less good looking version of “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”


Final Verdict: 1 out of 4 stars

Hooked on a Feeling

If you’ve ever wondered how Marvel Studios have been making ungodly amounts of money at the multiplex, it’s primarily because they like to roll the dice. It goes all the way back to the casting of “Iron Man” when, out of all the A-list talent in the world, the studio chose the guy with multiple arrests and a cocaine problem from “Ally McBeal.” The result was one of the biggest movie franchises of today and the emergence of one of today’s most beloved Hollywood stars. Next, Marvel decided to take another leap of faith by providing the first on-screen team up of their established franchises. The result was one of the biggest movies of all time and one of the best comic book and summer blockbusters of all time, thanks to Marvel choosing one of nerd culture’s most beloved figures to helm the project. Now, Marvel is rolling the dice again with the origins of intergalactic heroes including, but not limited to, a giant tree and a talking raccoon.

Yes it still sounds ridiculous, but Marvel’s latest comic-to-film venture may be its best to date. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is hilarious, exciting, cool, and entertaining without end (until the movie ends, at least). The “Guardians” in question start with abducted earthling turned scavenger Peter Quill, AKA Starlord (Chris Pratt). He stumbles upon a mystical orb that gets him arrested and sent to jail, along with green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), family man turned savage Drax (Dave Bautista), bounty hunter Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper, heard not seen) and his bodyguard/tree Groot (Vin Diesel, also heard not seen). It turns out the orb is being hunted by galactic warlord Ronan (Lee Pace) and his assassin companion Nebula (Karen Gillan), not to mention Quinn’s boss Yondu (Michael Rooker), Gamora’s associate The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) and government official Nova Prime (Glenn Close). The outlaws decide to team up and get the orb into the right hands before the galaxy goes up in smoke.

Major credit should be given to writer/director James Gunn for bringing the fun back into Marvel movies. Not that the recent Marvel films haven’t had some puns or in-jokes here and there, but “Guardians” is the first Marvel film in a while not to have a dark undertone. After years making B-movie tributes, Gunn finally gets the freedom (and the budget) to make thrilling fights on foot and in spaceships, along with creating some memorable characters.

If audiences are looking for evidence of Chris Pratt’s talent, his performance here is a damn good example. His “funny fat guy” persona from TV’s “Parks and Recreation” has morphed into a buff, sly, loveable action hero as Starlord. Pratt’s goofy and cool at the same time by never losing confidence even when his character is mismatched against galactic goons. Fortunately, he has Saldana in full badass mode as Gamora. Saldana has had a couple of roles as the tough female in an action movie (“The Losers,” “Colombiana,” and “Avatar”), and she hits all the right notes (and the right bad guys) here. Cooper sounds like he’s having a ball as the trigger happy Rocket, and Diesel makes just 3 words of dialogue count in the scenes he needs to speak. Even former WWE star Bautista manages to provide depth to Drax and make him as treasured as the rest of the group, which is impressive considering the depth he had at his old job. The cast of “Guardians” is a mixer of grade-A talent, from the awesome southern danger of Michael Rooker, the flamboyant Benicio Del Toro, the villainous Lee Pace, and even John C. Reilly helps out.

As far as space-set science-fiction movies, this doesn’t have a lot in common with the likes of “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” From the cinematography and design of the sets, “Guardians of the Galaxy” looks like if “Prometheus”-era Ridley Scott directed an episode of “Firefly.” What makes it so original and so refreshing this summer is how fun and exciting it is. The biggest Hollywood hits of the summer have been dark sequels or limp franchise entrees. “Guardians” is here for enjoyment and not as an ad for the next Marvel movie. There’s seems to be more heart and humor than in “The Avengers,” as it’s jokes and action are for the casual audience and not just those familiar to the comics. It stands alone as an awesome, wild spectacle, proving again that Marvel knows when to bet big.


Final Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

The Long Deserved Goodbye

 It looks like a quick easy payday for a troupe of aging English grumps and sounds like an old rock band playing their greatest hits to play it safe. But sometimes, a warm revival of comedy gold can be as unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition.

            On July 23rd, legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python completed their 10-night reunion run at London’s O2 Arena, which was also broadcasted to numerous movie theatres around the world. It was the (supposed) final showcase of the combined talents of John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones on stage. The remaining Python members (Graham Chapman died in 1989) hadn’t performed together in over a decade and there have been many reports about conflict within the group.

            Not that you’d know that by their on stage demeanor. All five men, all over 70 years old, were as jolly and silly as they were when they started in 1969. Idle, the songsmith of the group, never missed a note on classics like “Bruce’s Song,” “The Llama,” and “Every Sperm is Sacred.” Palin looked ageless as he took the stage in his shiny jacket and slick black wig to play “Blackmail,” the game everyone still wants to get off. Gilliam, known now for his groundbreaking directing skills, kept his lower lip uptight as he performed “Gumby’s Flower Arranging.” Jones sounds as enthusiastic about the varieties of Spam, especially as the old lady shouting out the various Spam dishes. And Cleese is still complaining about his deceased, stone dead, passed on, ex-parrot. It was very refreshing to know that age hasn’t affected the energy and commitment of these fine performers to their craft.

            The show itself wasn’t some quick restaging of set pieces from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” either. Instead, almost every sketch was accompanied by a live orchestra and costumed dancers to help keep the energy up. Idle’s performance of “I Like Chinese” included dancers twirling giant flags and singing backup, while the family friendly “Sit On My Face” featured the male and female dancers proudly thrusting their genitals out into the audience (and occasionally on each other). This had the delivery of a Broadway musical more than a sketch comedy show, but the performers are more than capable. Cleese and Palin would ad-lib on occasion, most notably in the “Dead Parrot” sketch when they note that the parrot had gone up to meet “Dr. Chapman,” which received rousing applause and the two performers giving thumbs up to their silly friend in the sky.

            The show fittingly concluded with all five men, in white dapper suits no less, inviting the crowd to sing along to “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” the most heartwarming middle finger to mundane life you’ll ever hear. It was a lovely sentiment to send off the chaps known for snark and sneer in their step. One would think these guys would leave on one last insult to…well anyone they could think of, but maybe Python deserved this warm final bow.

In fact, the entire show is like an overdue victory lap for the men who have influenced everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “South Park.” Monty Python inspired the concept of silliness and sharp wit coexisting in comedy, and think of how many other movies or TV shows still do that today. In the end, Monty Python deserve to know that the world loves them after being damned by government and religious groups in their heyday. This is where Python take a bow without turning over and sticking their asses out in front of establishment. Now the audiences are applauding them out of love and adoration, even after Monty Python’s signature phrase flashes on screen one last time: “Piss off.”

So…….Who Cares?

Wow. That is the word that is primarily associated with the work of director Michael Bay. Bay’s action scenes are meant for “wow.” The actors (or more specifically, actresses) in Bay’s films are meant for “wow.” The special effects are meant to bring out the biggest “wow” possible. Michael Bay has been the champion of “wow” for almost two decades. However, Bay has brought out a new form of “wow” in his films. For example, his 2009 film “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” brought out reactions like “wow, this is incredibly stupid,” “wow, there is nothing interesting going on here,” or even “wow, this is one of the worst movies ever.” Similar reactions have been following Bay ever since his debut in 1995 with “Bad Boys,” but Bay’s films have been losing their “wow” factor gradually since he first signed on to bring Hasbro’s robots in disguise to the big screen in 2007. So now Bay has decided to give his cash cow franchise a spit-shine polish, despite not being super interested in making another “Transformers” film. The good news is that Bay has successfully eliminated the negative “wow” factor his films have garnered recently. The bad news is that it’s been replaced with an annoyed “ugh,” as in “ugh, this crap again.”

To be fair, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” does fill out the basic requirement of Michael Bay moves in that it looks cool. Sunsets and sunrises flood the Texas sky as muscular mechanic/inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, replacing Shia LaBeouf as the human hero) tries to scrape together cash to put his daughter Tessa (the unspeakably attractive Nicola Peltz) through school. When Cade and his employee Lucas (T.J. Miller, an actually funny comic relief) find an old truck that looks like it’s been through more than just road rage, Cade brings it home to discover that it’s actually Optimus Prime. Prime, along with the rest of the Autobots, are on the run from the governments of the world that are hunting down the robots after the Chicago attack seen in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” But when a government special ops team, commanded by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, stone faced and barely breaking an octave in his voice) infiltrates Cade’s farm, Optimus springs into action and reunites with the four remaining Autobots he can find (yes, Bumblebee is one of them). The Autobots then discover a high tech corporation, led by sophisticated but sleazy Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, replacing John Turturro as the “weird, spastic old guy played by a credible actor” character), have harnessed the metal of the Transformers (called “transformium,” of course) and are starting to create their own army of Transformers.

I’m starting a new paragraph here because the previous dissertation is only half of the entire plot of the movie. In fact, “Age of Extinction” could be split into three separate movies instead of being (very poorly) put together for a nearly three-hour bonanza of boom. There is terrible pacing and transition between scenes, with nearly nothing to make moments gel together. The acting is either forgettable or just bland, especially from Nicola Peltz and Kelsey Grammer. Mark Wahlberg does his job of saying silly lines as serious as possible, which almost makes his lines enjoyably ridiculous. The Transformers themselves, Autobots and pseudo-Decepticon alike, are mostly forgettable despite being voiced by the likes of John Goodman and Ken Watanabe. No matter how many times the robots pull out a gun from nothing, transform, or ride robotic dinosaurs (which did tug at the heart of the 8 year-old in me), the new robots are better off as toys than they are as memorable characters.

In fact, the problem with “Age of Extinction” is that it has lost whatever lasting impression the previous films have left. Sure, the “Transformers” movies have left good and bad tastes in the mouths of others, but at least there was something to talk about when leaving the theatre. Even when “Age of Extinction” travels to China for its climax, has a cool looking spaceship, and tries to incorporate the robots’ involvement in the dinosaur extinction on Earth, it does nothing to make the viewer shift closer to the screen. While there may be some awe-worthy scenes for the young boys seeing the movie, anyone else will find “Age of Extinction” dead on arrival. It’s certainly not Michael Bay’s worst film (“Revenge of the Fallen” or last year’s “Pain & Gain” are tied for that dishonor), but it’s certainly the blandest film Bay has ever done. Think about that for a second: the man who is known for monstrous robots fighting each other in front of beautiful women and explosions made an extremely boring film about monstrous robots fighting each other in front of beautiful women and explosions. If one dares to view “Age of Extinction,” this question should be brought up after the movie’s over: Who is less interested in Transformers, the viewer or the director?


Final Verdict: 1.5 out of 4 stars

“Jump Street” Tells Sequels to Suck It


            I’ll say in all honesty that I didn’t buy “21 Jump Street” for a second. The late-80s teen mystery TV show Johnny Depp starred in turned into a comedy? With Jonah Hill and the pouty dancer from “Step Up” as buddy cops undercover as high school students? It sounded like a throwaway that didn’t look a bit funny. Fortunately, the movie itself knew that not a lot of people would bet on it, so they mocked itself and other action clichés while stepping to its own silly beat. The result: a hilarious, freewheeling, and fresh comedy not seen in a long time. It showed viewers how good of a writer Jonah Hill is, how funny Channing Tatum can be when he embraces his inner idiot, and how far the anger of Ice Cube can go. It gave me great pleasure to tell others that this was a remake that actually worked, and now it gives me even more pleasure to report that Hill, along with returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, have delivered a comedy sequel that actually works.

            “22 Jump Street” follows undercover cops Schmidt (Hill, now with 2 Oscar nominations) and Jenko (Tatum, still with multiple abs) blowing another assignment. Therefore, their deputy chief (the always reliable Nick Offerman) passes them back to their now highly funded and upgraded Jump Street division, which no one saw to be successful at first and now, thanks to said success, has more money to spend (wink, wink). Jenko and Schmidt are assigned by their captain (Ice Cube, still angry and funny) to go undercover as college students to infiltrate a new drug being passed around campus. Schmidt is still an insecure nerd and Jenko is still a dumb jock, so Schmidt blends in with the art majors while Jenko becomes a football star.

            The main joke in “22 Jump Street” is the fact that this is a sequel, so the film acts like a sequel. Similar problems arise (Schmidt and Jenko get in too deep and have issues with each other), action scenes pop up here and there, and bromances blossom. What “22 Jump Street” executes is being so Meta about being a sequel that you’d think Abed from “Community” was behind the camera. There are subtle hints to “The Benny Hill Show,” along with the obligatory genital humor. There is a drug trip and the return of characters from the previous films, along with some great new supporting characters (specifically the droll but sharp Jillian Bell). The old parts are shined up and the new parts added on make the machine work all the more.

            Hill and Tatum are still fantastic as the physically mismatched but personally in-sync duo. Hill throws in more of a physical element to his work, whereas Tatum gets to burn his bro-tastic image more than ever. It really is satisfying to know Tatum can have fun with himself, and he bounces around like a kid on a sugar rush.

            Not every joke is a homerun, but it’s easy to smile or nod at the efforts the film makes to really knock this movie out of the park. “22 Jump Street” is funny, but not as funny as it wants to be. It’s more commendable for having the guts to both be an overblown sequel and step on the toes of other overblown sequels. It’s unclear if a trip to 23 Jump Street would be worth it, but take comfort in the fact that there is a comedy sequel that still wants to have fun instead of fill a quota (looking at you, Ron Burgundy).

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars