Friday, March 30, 2012

Movie Review: “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”

The Brothers Duplass are at it again with two superstar comedic leads.

**** out of 5
83 minutes
Rated R for language including sexual references and some drug use
Paramount Vantage

Article first published as Movie Review: Jeff, Who Lives at Home on Blogcritics.

The Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) may be the two busiest men working in the independent film industry. Every Sundance Film Festival seems to feature at least one (this year being Katie Aselton’s (Mark’s wife) “Black Rock”), while at the local theater seems to come another one. Their casts are getting better as the studios show faith in their unique filmmaking virtues, and their films maintain everything that has gained them fame from their mumblecore beginnings. With what could be their three biggest stars yet (Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon), they set out to tempt moviegoers destiny with their new comedy, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”

Jeff (Segel) lives at home. He spends his day smoking pot, watching TV, and tape recording his mystical musings about the film “Signs.” His mother, Sharon (Sarandon), just wants Jeff to fix the missing slat in her wooden blinds upstairs. She left him a note and some cash, but as he tells her, “I haven’t been upstairs yet.” After, Jeff receives a phone call for someone named Kevin, who doesn’t live with them. Jeff is absolutely certain that the phone call means something as he is convinced that everything happens for a reason, not excluding his father’s death in 1995. Back at work, Sharon begins receiving anonymous instant messages on her computer from a secret admirer and her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) can’t help but be jealous.

Meanwhile, Jeff’s brother Pat (Helms) has just informed his wife Linda (Judy Greer) that they are now the owner’s of a brand new Porsche. Linda has finally had it with Pat as all she wants to do is buy a house and possibly start a family at some point. Eventually, Sharon calls Pat to find out what happened to Jeff who seems to have gone missing. Turns out Jeff wound up getting mugged after stalking someone off a bus because he had the name Kevin on the back of his jersey. Now Pat and Jeff will soon learn that there may be more to their chance encounter outside the local Baton Rouge Hooter’s after Pat drunkenly crashes his new car into a tree leading them to see Linda at a gas station with another man whom they follow to a diner that Pat hates, and alas, wacky hijinks ensue.

With their independent practicalities in tow, the Duplass brothers bring to life what can only be described as subtle wackiness. While the film may be chock full of misadventures, and features two hilarious leads, they never allow the film to boil over into theatrics. Dialogue is a key element as always, and there are lots of surprisingly heartfelt conversations along the way. Jeff’s opening monologue about the film “Signs” is a huge clue as to how the film may play out, but there’s still plenty of surprises and hearty laughs along the way even if none of them may be of the gut busting variety. But at least Segel gets the chance to star in another film and showcase his softer side to comedy and Helms is kept under control and finally not allowed to sing one of his offbeat songs. Now here’s hoping that the Duplass brothers manage to find the same kind of success with “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” as they did with their last mainstream entry, “Cyrus.”

Photos courtesy Paramount Vantage

Movie Review: “21 Jump Street”

“21 Jump Street” makes its way to the big screen and we get to revel in every minute of it.

**** ½ out of 5
109 minutes
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 21 Jump Street (2012) on Blogcritics.

Academy Award-nominee Jonah Hill sure has come a long way up the comedic ladder. While a regular scene-stealer in just about anything Judd Apatow touches, he’s never been as on the ball as he is here with his own rendition of “21 Jump Street.” Creators Stephen J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh may have wrung five seasons out of their series, but here’s hoping for a new cinematic franchise. While some may balk about a revamping of yet another canceled ’80s TV show, what Jonah Hill (who shares story credit with screenwriter Michael Bacall) has pulled out of his hat is a mix of “Hot Fuzz,” “The Other Guys,” and even a sprinkling of The Lonely Island.

That last one may at first glance seems more of a coincidence. But one scene in particular really focuses your attention back on the fact that the film’s directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were the masterminds behind “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” There they brought a slew of inventiveness to the world of computer-animated family fare. And considering that film featured Andy Samberg brings us right back to The Lonely Island (particularly “Hot Rod”) since they were both executive producers of their “Awesometown” TV shorts, so now it all makes perfect sense.

In the new “21 Jump Street,” we begin in 2005 where Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are high school seniors and couldn’t be more different. While Schmidt walks around with his Eminem styled hair sporting a mouth full of hardwire, Jenko can’t help himself with being the F-grade flunky his principal knew he’d wind up being. Turns out now that Jenko is banned from prom and Schmidt has no one to go with after his hot neighbor turns him down in front of Jenko in the hallway. Springing forward to the present, Schmidt and Jenko wind up at the same police academy and decide to become friends since Jenko is good at the physical elements and Schmidt is all brains.

Upon graduation, they think it’s finally their time to kick some ass, but instead they wind up as a couple of bike cops at the local park. After they try to take down some cocaine wielding bikers and forget to read one his Miranda rights, a technicality sets him free. Now Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) sends them off to a program canceled in the ’80s and they are to report to a particular address that’s right on the tip of his tongue. In a defunct Korean church (complete with its own Korean Jesus) lies a program full of undercover cops who are all young looking enough to pass as high school students.

It’s all part of a program to infiltrate local high schools to route out illegal activity, overseen by the always angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Now Schmidt and Jenko are undercover at Schmidt’s parents’ (Caroline Aaron and Joe Chrest) house and they’re trying to track down the culprits behind the new drug, HFS after one student, Billiam Willingham (Johnny Simmons) dies. Soon enough, Schmidt and Jenko are up to their elbows in high school students, trying to fit in, but finding just how different things are now. The nerds are the new cool kids and the jocks have fallen down the social ladder. But can Schmidt and Jenko’s new friendship withstand the bond they’ve made as Schmidt gets popular and starts getting friendly with Molly Tracey (Brie Larson) while winding up as HFS’s best dealer, working under Eric Molson (Dave Franco, yes, brother of James). And why won’t flammables explode during high speed chases?

Thank you, Michael Bacall. Thank you for showing us that your last writing debacle (“Project X”) was just a blip on your otherwise nice little resume. It seems that being friends with Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright actually has managed to pay off. If anyone was ever going to “want” an Americanized remake of Wright’s brilliant “Hot Fuzz,” consider this compensation of sorts. While we all know no one in their right mind would truly ever ask for that, at least it shows that Bacall learned a thing or two while co-writing “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” Bacall also brought along a few of his “Scott Pilgrim” friends as well, in the likes of Larson (Envy Adams) and Simmons (Young Neil).

In the meantime, does everything work? Not exactly. But is the film hilarious? Without a doubt. While at times you may think they’re about to run a particular joke into the ground, they always find a way to either make you laugh until you cry or let it go only to bring it back later as a hilarious punchline. And alas, if you were looking for cameos from the original series, the most recognizable belongs to Holly Robinson Peete. So if you’re wondering if the film is worth the ticket? Most definitely. While I may have had plenty of love to share for last month’s “Wanderlust,” as charming as that was I have no reservations proclaiming “21 Jump Street” the funniest film of the year so far.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Movie Review: “The Snowtown Murders”

“The Snowtown Murders” finally gets some light shed on the subject.

**** out of 5
120 minutes
Not rated
IFC Midnight

Article first published as Movie Review: The Snowtown Murders on Blogcritics.

As if I don’t already have enough reasons to avoid dark alleys and camping in the woods here at home thanks to our own true crime and horror genre; now, recent Australian cinematic endeavors seem hellbent on making sure I avoid the outback as well. Whether it’s looking out for Mick Taylor (“Wolf Creek”), keeping out of the water (“Rogue,” “Black Water,” “The Reef”), fearing thy neighbors (“Animal Kingdom”), and soon enough, to never turn down a date to prom (“The Loved Ones”). It’s not all just “Dot and the Kangaroo” or “Muriel’s Wedding” Down Under. Now director Justin Kurzel (making a fantastic debut) seems dead set on making sure that your neighborhood watch is out for more than your safety in “The Snowtown Murders.” Based on the novels “Killing for Pleasure” by Debi Marshall and Andrew McGarry’s “The Snowtown Murders,” the “Bodies in Barrels Murders” is brought to life, giving us the story of Australian serial killer, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall).

The murders took place from 1992 until the barrels’ discoveries in Snowtown, South Australia in 1999. It wasn’t until the producers of this film managed to get a judge to lift suppression orders preventing the publication of details that the story could be brought more to light. In “The Snowtown Murders,” Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) lives with his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris), who is separated from her children’s father and is sick with cancer. They both live with the rest of the family, including Jamie’s two younger brothers, and older brother, Troy (Anothony Groves). Elizabeth is smitten with her neighbor Jeffrey (Frank Cwiertniak), who lives across the street. But after a cross dressing NARC comes calling, Elizabeth learns that Jeffrey is actually a pedophile who has taken lewd photos of the younger brothers and nudes of Jamie. Not to mention that Troy has a habit of sodomizing Jamie.

Now John has stepped up to be a father figure and also leads a vigilante-styled neighborhood watch support group. He takes the boys under his wing and shows them the ways of revenge. First they write “fag” across Jeffrey’s front windows then John encourages the boys to commence throwing ice cream cones at the house. Eventually, things begin to heat up when John and Jamie move up to splashing down Jeffrey’s doorstep with dismembered kangaroo parts. After Jeffrey finally moves away, John sets his sights on trying to “help out” poor Jamie and wants to teach him the ways of self defense. John knows what happened between Jamie and Troy, and forces Jamie to shoot his dog. This, of course, still isn’t enough to dip Jamie over to the dark side. It’s not until after John murders his best friend (because he’s a junkie) and an episode with shooting heroine, that John finally gets Jamie on his side after torturing Troy in the bathroom and Jamie decides takes matters into his own hands to end it.

Director Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant have shown a true descent into madness here. Whatever the creators of “Chronicle” thought they were doing, “The Snowtown Murders” shows them how it’s done. This is the film that “Hannibal Rises” only dreamed of being. At first it may come across as a companion piece to “Animal Kingdom,” but remember that this is all based on true events. And while it sounds like it may be chockfull of gratuitous violence, most of it is off screen and the more gruesome parts of Troy’s torture scene is merely flashed upon. The situation only made more menacing by Jed Kurzel’s score. They honestly spend more time showing John hack up the defenseless kangaroo than they do on any of the human violence. But don’t let this sound like it’s not effective. A sound effect can be far more stomach wrenching than anything a movie can throw at you. While certainly not a film for everyone, those seeking out the true crime genre will definitely not feel their penny wasted on “The Snowtown Murders.”

Photos courtesy IFC Midnight

Movie Review: “John Carter”

Edgar Rice Burroughs' original sci-fi cowboy gets the treatment he deserves.

**** ½ out of 5
132 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: John Carter on Blogcritics.

Another Pixar Animation Studios alumnus strikes again. Just two months ago we were treated to the best “Mission: Impossible” yet with Brad Bird’s live-action debut, “Ghost Protocol,” and now here comes Academy Award-winning director, Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”), bringing us one of the best sci-fi action adventures in quite awhile. Yes, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter” (marking his first appearance in 1912’s “A Princess of Mars” and played by Taylor Kitsch) has finally made it to the big screen, and was totally worth the wait. While Disney may have dropped the “of Mars” from the title, this is still the “John Carter” we’ve been waiting 100 years for.

The main thing I’m beginning to realize after seeing what both Bird and Stanton have brought to the big screen, is that maybe all action directors should have some kind of education at Pixar under their belts. As for “John Carter,” who better to have brought the misplaced Confederate to Mars than a director who has already “been” to outer space? I think the main thing being brought to the table here is their sense of storytelling taking the front seat to the special effects. Believe me, “John Carter” is almost nothing but CGI, but oh what glorious feats they are. There hasn’t been this good of photo realistic computer-animated characters in who knows how long.

Haters start your engines, but George Lucas, eat your heart out. Here, Stanton wisely uses the effects to enhance story elements rather than trying to polish over the fact that Lucas made three glossy turds and continues to use his computer bay to downgrade his beloved franchise. Filled with plenty of one-liners, “John Carter” also has something most appreciated, a sense of humor. Had things been played completely straight, it would have been a bombastic bore. I can only pray that Stanton continues the series and he’s already stated that he’s currently writing the first draft of the potential sequel, “The Gods of Mars.” I’m sure things in the writing department were only helped with the fact that Michael Chabon (“Wonder Boys,” “Spider-man 2,” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) had a crack at the script; along with another Pixar alumnus, Mark Andrews (Pixar shorts “One Man Band” and “Jack-Jack Attack”) co-writing with Stanton.

Backed with terrific cinematography courtesy Dan Mindel (“Star Trek”), some rather creative editing by Eric Zumbrunnen, another adrenaline-fueled score from my personal favorite composer, Academy Award-winner Michael Giacchino (“Up”), a great use of 3-D, and “John Carter” completely deserves to score big at the box office in spite of Disney’s blundering attempts at trying to market the film. Maybe if more of an emphasis was placed on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ name, maybe tying it in with the fact that he created “Tarzan” (already a Disney property), or just name drop “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” and they wouldn’t be having these problems. As it stands, “John Carter” is one of the best films of the year so far and will undoubtedly wind up making my list of favorites once 2012 has played out.

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Monday, March 5, 2012

Movie Review: “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax”

A most unfortunate birthday present for Theodor Seuss Geisel.

** out of 5
86 minutes
Rated PG for brief mild language
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012) on Blogcritics.

It only took four films, but I am now completely convinced that feature films just are not the place for Dr. Seuss. I have never been a huge fan of Ron Howard’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but at least it had a few pleasant moments sprinkled throughout thanks to the casting of Jim Carrey. While I will never find this film in my own personal collection, I know many people who consider it to be another holiday “classic.” Leave this moniker to the true classic 1966 version. In the live action realm, the less said about Mike Myers’ “The Cat in the Hat,” the better.

When it was announced that “Horton Hears a Who!” would be computer animated, I had high hopes, aside from the fact that it was under the guidance of the team behind the law of diminishing returns’ “Ice Age” films, Blue Sky Studios. While definitely a step up from the likes of “The Grinch” and especially “The Cat,” the film still managed to be extremely underwhelming. Considering the filmmakers were already stretching a 72-page book of charming whimsy into an 86 minute film, things got particularly boring in the Jungle of Nool. Now Universal Pictures has taken Dr. Seuss’ even shorter 45-page book about environmentalism and turned it into 96 excruciating minutes of soapbox preaching. Unfortunately, subtlety is the last thing you’re going to find in the world of Thneedville.

The creative minds of the far greater “Despicable Me” now bring you the misadventures of 12-year-old Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) and his search for the truth behind what happened to all the missing trees of Thneedville. The world full of plastic is run by the greedy Mr. O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle), who is scoring big money off of his O’Hare Air. But Ted has the hots for classmate Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift), and one day flies an R/C airplane into her backyard. Audrey ushers him out back where she shows off the giant, seemingly extinct, Truffula trees she has painted onto her house and tells him that she would marry anyone on the spot who can show her a real, live tree.

Back at home, Ted’s Grammy Norma (voiced by Betty White) tells him he needs to find the mysterious “Once-ler” (voiced by Ed Helms). Only he knows the key to where the Truffula Trees be. Alas, Ted seeks out the “Once-ler” where he is then told the story of what happened to the town’s environment, for it was he who chopped down all the trees, much to the dismay of the little orange speaker of the trees, the titular Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito). Now Ted has to discover that the power to save the planet, at least of Thneedville that is, if he can find the strength to stand up against big business and all its dastardly ways.

What directors Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”) and Kyle Balda have brought to life is anti-consumerism preaching at its worst. While some may have balked at the oil tycoon character of Tex Richman in “The Muppets,” it doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Mr. O’Hare and his cans of clean air. Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (the masterminds behind such “classics” as “Bubble Boy,” “The Santa Clause 2,” “Road Trip,” and “Hop”) have wrought upon moviegoers is cinematic preaching of the most offensive kind. While Dr. Seuss’ original story may have been a nice little fable of the dangers of industrialized society, the film hammers you over the head relentlessly (and in 3-D to make it hurt even more) with its supposed messages.

If anyone ever wanted to call “Act of Valor” some kind of propaganda, hopefully I can warn you away from the antics on display here. For about 30 minutes I was on board with the film wanting to be the allegory the original book was, but then things became ever more boring. Eventually, the film screeches to a halt and becomes the beacon of preaching with one of its big musical pièce de résistance, “How Bad Can I Be?”

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that it’s a musical? Well that seems kind of hypocritical when they know the soundtrack is available for purchase now isn’t it? All “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” winds up being is as bad as everything they set out to crush with their agenda, which ultimately winds up only being all hope for an entertaining time at the movies.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Movie Review: “Project X”

More like “Project X-crement.” If this movie had a face I would shoot it. Reprehensible filmmaking at its worst.

Zero stars
88 minutes
Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem - all involving teens
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Project X (2012) on Blogcritics.

Ladies and gentlemen, the found-footage format has officially taken its nose-dive into the ground. It is with deepest respect that we say adieu and wish it well. It is a foundation that was already built on shaky ground. From the boom ushered in by the likes of “The Blair Witch Project” to “Cloverfield,” we can thank the last few months for completely digging a hole to bury these films in. While I am a fan of those films, the quintuple threat of “Evil Things,” “Apollo 18,” “The Devil Inside,” “Chronicle,” and now this weekend’s “Project X,” that show us just how badly the format should officially be put to rest. This horse can take no more.

In the opening shot, teenage Costa (Oliver Cooper) invites you to “Project X.” Along with Dax (Dax Flame) holding the camera, Costa sets out to not only make a historic video for his best friend Thomas’s (Thomas Mann) 17th birthday, but a testimony as to how to ruin your best friend’s life and get away with it (just wait till you see how this thing ends). We get the initial walk through as Dad (Peter Mackenzie) explains to Thomas the house rules we’ve all heard a million times in these party-gone-awry films, while Mom (Caitlin Dulany) frets in the other room, insisting on being overbearing. Have no fear dear Mom as Dad comforts her by letting her know that even he thinks Thomas is a loser and they have nothing to fear.

So alas, Costa embarks on inviting anyone he can see on their high school campus, also making sure to invite local high school baseball legend Miles (Miles Tiller). At first, Thomas and Costa, along with their friend JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), are certain no one is going to show as it’s already 9:00 and the only person who has shown up is their gal pal Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton). While Thomas may be excited that Kirby is there and may or may not have the hots for her, but all Thomas really wants to do is wind up scoring with the hottest girl in school, Alexis (Alexis Knapp, clearly cast for her derriere and willingness to take off her bra, but who am I to judge?) Soon enough, the entire high school, including a recent graduate who has moved on to be a Playboy Bunny, come out of the woodworks and it doesn’t take long for the alcohol to lead to ecstasy and rioting.

The biggest problem with the entire film is that from the start you don’t give one iota about the trio of Costa, JB, and Thomas. A film of these extremes must begin with characters you either want to see prevail in the end, or who are at least likeable enough to keep the rest of the headache-inducing shenanigans entertaining. All we’re left with here is someone thinking to throw in a character who would make “American Pie’s” Stifler blush into the middle of the plot to “Superbad” and take out all of the jokes.

Shame on writer Michael Bacall for leaving his name in the credits on this racist, homophobic piece of reprehensible filmmaking. I can’t help but wonder just how little he either had to do with the final product here and how much he actually contributed to his last writing effort (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”). I have a feeling we’ll find out after “21 Jump Street” comes out next week. I’m hoping that film winds up being hilarious and that is a mere misstep. The man is friends with both Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino for crying out loud. This has to be an anomaly of some kind but we shall see.

In the meantime, who should see this? I want to say no one, but unfortunately, every college frat boy on the planet will probably plop down their wasted dollars to laugh at every vile joke director Nima Nourizadeh didn’t cut out of co-writer Matt Drake’s attempt at delivering the world’s biggest birthday bash ever. However, the real blame here must be placed on producer Todd Phillips who is clearly announcing to the world just how morally bankrupt he has become since he finally made it huge with his “Hangover” films. He has apparently moved on from working with producer Ivan Reitman and is now partnered with Joel Silver, signing some kind of deal with the devil in the process to get the likes of “The Hangover Part II,” and now “Project X,” unleashed upon moviegoers, which just makes me think that someone needs to call a priest.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures