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Column Fri Mar 16 2012

21 Jump Street, Casa de mi Padre, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, Footnote & Seeking Justice

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21 Jump Street

They deal with it right up front, the often annoying and unsatisfying manner in which Hollywood recycled old material (via remakes, TV adaptations or videogame-inspired films) and try to pass it off as something new. One of the most thoroughly entertaining surprises of the year so far is the way in which the makers of 21 Jump Street feels fresh by simply throwing out the formula of the TV show that launched the career of Johnny Depp in the late 1980s and turning it into the story of a high school outcast who gets a second chance at being cool and popular.

The film opens with an encounter between a teenaged Schmidt (Jonah Hill, who also has a story credit with screenwriter Michael Bacall and is executive producer on the film) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, also an exec producer). The shy Schmidt attempts to ask a pretty girl to prom, and she flatly rejects him much to the amusement of Jenko. The two aren't friends, but it's clear that Schmidt is extremely smart, while Jenko is popular but dumb. And there are moments where they wish they could switch places, as when Jenko doesn't get the grades he needs to even go to prom. Jump forward several years, when both men are in the police academy of their unnamed city. Schmidt can pass all the tests but he needs help with the physical training; Jenko is an ace at the training but continues to fail the exams. "Wanna be friends?" The problem is solved, and the two get each other through the academy and become best friends and partners.

After a botched arrest (because Jenko is too dumb to memorize the Miranda rights), their chief (a fun cameo by Nick Offerman) bumps them over to the Jump Street unit, a group of young-looking officers who pose as high school students to stop crimes like drug dealing. Schmidt and Jenko pose as brothers and receive instructions from their unit captain (Ice Cube, perfectly epitomizing every angry black captain role in every film ever) to find the supplier in the school, which will lead to the dealers. But something interesting happens when the boys go back to school. Times have changed; nerds are popular and people who don't try are looked down upon, no matter how good they are at a sport. Suddenly, Schmidt is popular and Jenko is the one struggling to make friends.

As much as 21 Jump Street keeps its plot about cops attempting to bust up a drug ring selling a new drug that has killed a student, the reason it succeeds is because of the second-chance element. Both men are forced to face the things in high school that scared them the most. At one point, Schmidt has a chance to ask a girl he likes (Brie Larson) to prom, and there's real doubt whether he'll even be able to get the words out. While Jenko must actually work to get good grades and not be made fun of for being a big dummy. There's a sweet undercurrent to the movie that Hill and Tatum really play up amidst the car chases, explosions, partying and multiple forms of violence.

The film's directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and executive producers of "Clone High") do a great job of just letting the comedy flow from the situations rather than try to wedge in joke after joke. While we expect Hill to make the humor look easy, Tatum is the one who has some of the best lines, and he's surprisingly funny and adept at improvisation. Almost stealing the show is Dave Franco (brother of James) who has a genuine charm and casual sense of humor that I loved. Also on hand as the high school gym coach and all-around tool around school is Rob Riggle, who has a couple of really funny encounters with the "brothers." In a sequence in which he's heckling a school play, Riggle gives us a prime example of why he is so capable of playing the king of the douche bags.

Peppered throughout the film are a few great supporting performances, including Jake Johnson as the school's principal, who seems deficient in the ways of actually stopping anything bad from happening, and Ellie Kemper as Jenko's chemistry teacher, who seems to be the only female in the school who realizes and reacts to how good looking he is; you can almost see the angel and devil on her shoulders when she looks at Tatum. On top of the funny acting, there's actually a couple of worthy action sequences, some rather bloody shoot-outs, and one or two surprises for fans of the original show. 21 Jump Street is the funniest game in town right now, but it's also a solid cop movie, buddy picture, and coming-of-age story (a little late in life, perhaps, but whatever).

I want Hill and Tatum to become the next big comedy team in a series of films (not necessarily a sequel, however); the two clearly have an affinity for what the other brings to the table in a way that Hill never had surrounding himself with like-minded comic actors like Seth Rogen or Jason Segel. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the movies he made with those guys, but this is something wholly different and substantive, while never forgetting to be ridiculous and outrageous. The bar has been set early and high for R-rated comedies with 21 Jump Street.

Casa de mi Padre

I keep reading (mostly from people who haven't seen this new Will Ferrell comedy) that Casa de mi Padre is a parody of a telenovela from Mexico, but I don't think that's quite accurate. Clearly meant to look like a b-movie made in the 1970s, the movie is more like the comedic take on Grindhouse, featuring truckloads of sex, violence, drugs and trippy psychedelic fever dreams that turn things positively surreal. But the key to the success of fully subtitled Casa de mi Padre is that Ferrell and his team of largely heavy-hitter Mexican actors are playing things straight and letting the absurdity of the concept and situations make the audience laugh.

The entire time I was watching this, one thought dominated: there are a lot of people that are not going to get this. And I don't mean to say that people are too dumb or narrow-minded to get this; I mean that if you haven't been exposed to these kind of films, there's no way you'd realize how accurate what Ferrell and director Matt Piedmont (a former SNL writer and director of countless Funny or Die shorts) have created actually is to the material that inspired it. Ferrel plays Armando Alvarez, a lifelong Mexican rancher and son of Miguel Ernesto (the recently deceased legend Pedro Armendariz Jr., who starred in The Mask of Zorro, Once Upon A Time in Mexico and Tombstone), who views his oldest son as something of a failure since he never made a life for himself or met a woman to marry. But his younger son Raul (Diego Luna), who comes to visit the ranch, seems to have it all — a booming business, nice car and a stunning fiancee, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez, recently seen in Man on a Ledge).

But the truth is, Raul is mixed up with a dangerous drug lord (Gael Garcia Bernal), who has been executing men he suspects of betraying him on the ranch. To make matters worse, Armando is falling in love with Sonia, and the feeling seems mutual. And for some reason, in every crowd shot, there are visible mannequins being used to make it look like more people are present. Clearly fake animals are used frequently, and there's a sex scene involving... well, some surprises should be left for you to discover. But my point is that this is a different kind of absurdist comedy from Ferrell. He's so committed to keeping things largely authentic (except for his horrible accent) that it's easy to forget that there's some seriously funny material here, scattered throughout this spare-every-expense production.

Despite some bombastic performances by Garcia Bernal and Luna, the film leans more toward the passionate than the silly (although silly does thrive in this universe). Perhaps one of the best moments in the film is just before what is supposed to be a very expensive sequence, but instead we get a long, detailed title card explaining why the sequence doesn't exist. Rarely has Ferrell committed himself to a world so completely in even the best of his comedies, like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, but there's something kind of great about the fact that this movie even exists. In some ways, you have to buy into the concept of the film before feasting your eyes on a single frame. If it sounds stupid to you, odds are you won't like it. But if you smiled when you first saw the trailer and recognized and loved Ferrell's take on the material, I bet you'll laugh a lot. I certainly did.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Like most films written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus and even their latest, The Do-Deca Pentathlon), Jeff, Who Lives At Home is made of perfect moment after perfect moment, all adding up to a unique movie-watching experience rooted heavily in emotional truth, honest humor, and fully developed characters coming to grips with some aspect of their progressing life. Rarely (if ever) venturing over the 90-minute mark, the films of the Duplass brothers are tightly edited and almost never have a wasted scene or throwaway line. Whether they knew it while they were shooting, everything, every word means something.

Jeff might my favorite of the Duplass brothers' works because of the utter unpredictability of its flow and the largely dramatic performances they pull from comic talents Jason Segel as Jeff and Ed Helms as his estranged brother Pat. Jeff lives in his mother's (Susan Sarandon) basement and does very little but get high and come up with theories about the way the universe works. Presently, Jeff is obsessed with the movie Signs and is now a fervent believer that the world around him is showing him signs of a greater purpose. Jeff's beliefs tap into something so fundamentally true about human behavior and our sometimes overpowering desire to make our mark in the world. And some of us just want superpowers.

When mom asks Jeff to run an errand, he hesitantly ventures into the world armed with the belief that the name "Kevin" is important, and it guides the way his day goes from that point forward. I don't want to go into too much detail about Jeff's journey, but it does intersect with Pat, who is in the doghouse with his wife (Judy Greer, recently seen in The Descendants) after buying a Porsche against her wishes. Pat suspects that his wife may be having an affair, so he pursues her with Jeff.

In a storyline worthy of its own its own movie, almost all of Sarandon's scenes are at work where she is being wooed by a secret admirer via interoffice instant messages. Her best friend at work, and co-investigator into the identity of the admirer, is played by the still lovely Rae Dawn Chong, who is so good here that I want every casting director to rediscover her and put her in everything. Sarandon's story balances Jeff's weird adventure with the very authentic tale of a single, middle-aged woman suddenly remembering that she may be considered attractive still.

As the film moves on, the realizations Jeff and Pat have about their disappointing lives come to a head in a series of difficult-to-watch scenes, involving a bitter argument between Greer and Helms and what is probably the first heartfelt conversation between the brothers. Both scenes are small in scale, but the impact and believability are devastating. The Duplass brothers excel in using improvisation to get to the dramatic core of every scene and occasionally bring the laughs as well. And the balance they strike in Jeff, Who Lives At Home could not be more impressive. I could probably go on for eight more paragraphs about how much I loved and was moved by this movie. I've seen it twice and can't wait for to watch it again. This is one of those movies that might sound too odd for your tastes, but it's not. It's a note-perfect look at the human condition with all its flaws and unexpected triumphs. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Footnote

Nominated for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film, this offering from Israel is something of a dry and distancing piece from writer-director Joseph Cedar (Time of Favor). Footnote establishes early that it's about a practically lifelong rivalry between father Eliezer and son Uriel Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba and Lior Ashkenazi, respectively), both experts in their field of Talmudic studies. Both men are wildly proud and egocentric about their approach to the work. Eliezer is frustrated that his more traditional interpretations have left him unrecognized for his work (with the exception of one footnote mentioning him in a legendary scholar's work), while his son is a rising star in the field with more progressive ideas.

One day Eliezer gets a call informing him that he has received the Israel Prize, the top honor for scholarship in the nation. And while Uriel is happy that his father has finally been recognized, the announcement opens up the father's resentment of his son's accomplishments. So imagine the surprise when Uriel finds out that the prize is actually meant for him and that the person who made the call didn't know there were two Shkolnicks. So the question becomes, does the committee that awarded the prize tell the old man, effectively killing him, or do they give it to the wrong person? More than half the film is just this debate, discussed among various combinations of scholars.

While the acting in Footnote is quite good, and the bitterness between father and son is mapped out beyond believably, there's really only so much debate and discussion on this topic that I can handle before it all starts to seem redundant. I love that the Eliezer becomes completely full of himself after he thinks he's won the prize, and it takes every once of will power and consideration on the part of Uriel not to destroy his father's nasty pride. And that might be a big part of the problem I had with the film — none of the characters are especially relatable or likable. And while I don't necessarily need either to enjoy a movie, I had a tough time finding an entry point into this story. Footnote has some great moments, especially when we discover why the academic community has always disliked Eliezer, and I enjoyed a few of the truly biting moments of humor but overall, it left me feeling like I was on the outside looking in rather than engaging with these characters in these pivotal moments. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Seeking Justice

It's a new month, so it must be time for a new Nicolas Cage movie. I'll admit, my hopes were high when I saw that the director of this one was Roger Donaldson, a technically savvy filmmaker who likes to mix up the types of movies he does, including No Way Out, Cocktail, Species, Thirteen Days and The Bank Job. And admittedly, the set up for his latest, Seeking Justice, is intriguing as a kind of update on films like Magnum Force or The Star Chamber, in which a secret society takes justice into its hands when the police can't or won't.

Cage plays New Orleans high school teacher Will Gerard, whose cellist wife Laura (January Jones) is attacked and raped on her way home one night. While anxiously waiting in the hospital waiting room for his wife to wake up, Will is approached by buttoned-down stranger Simon (Guy Pearce), who asks Will to make a decision — give the word and Laura's attacker will be taken care of immediately, or leave it to the police. Will is torn but in the end he endorses the vigilante justice, and the price is a favor somewhere down the line. It seems Simon is part of a network of favor givers who essentially pass it forward, and it isn't long before Will is asked to kill another hardened criminal (or at least that's what he is told the would-be victim is), something he refuses to do.

Where the story goes from there isn't really important. A series of double- and triple-crosses seem completely manufactured and unnecessarily complicated. There are elements to the story that seem important in the beginning but then never pay off. Surprisingly, the one thing you can usually count on in a Nicolas Cage movie — Cage acting some degree of crazy — isn't really a factor in Seeking Justice, and that may ultimately be why I can't recommend (or event remember details about) any aspect of this movie. I'm certainly as much a fan of Cage when he puts forward a nice dramatic part as long as it looks like he's trying, but other than a few tense moments near the beginning of the film, the man is basically sleepwalking through this one. This one is a disappointment on nearly every level. But if you wait about a month, Cage will probably have another, better movie out for you.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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