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Column Fri Jun 13 2014

22 Jump Street, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Obvious Child, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Night Moves, The Grand Seduction & The Signal

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22 Jump Street

The real question shouldn't be whether 22 Jump Street is more or less funny than the first film about two undercover cops (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) who infiltrate a high school drug ring; the real question should is it funny at all. Even if 22 Jump Street is slightly less funny than 21 Jump Street, that's still better than most comedies that have been released this year thus far. But all of these questions are arbitrary because the new film is just as funny as the first, maybe for different reasons. There are still plenty of laughs, many of them made at the expense of action movie sequels as an institution and rightfully so.

One of things that made the first movie so funny was the idea that Tatum's Jenko and Hill's Schmidt could ever pass for high school students; and let's face it, their days of passing as college age are pretty far behind them too, so jokes about how old they look still play great. Hill takes especially brutal verbal abuse from his girlfriend's roommate, played Jillian Bell, a former "SNL" writer and regular on "Workaholics," "Eastbound & Down" and supporting player in The Master and Bridesmaids, as well as the funniest thing in this movie. The story's new blood really does make the film a better place in general, especially Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) as football star Zook, who quickly becomes best buds with Jenko. Returning players, such as Ice Cube and Nick Offerman, offer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) the perfect chance to skewer sequels, but it's these new faces that push the story forward.

A big part of the plot involves Schmidt and Jenko questioning the strength of both their partnership and friendship, as each makes friends in college while they are attempting to once again uncover a drug ring and unveil its leader. Jenko drifts into the jock and fraternity crowd, while Schmidt gets involved with a group of artists and other hippies. Both get to live out a college experience they never got to have, and it threatens to rip them apart. I certainly don't mean to make the film sound like a complete bummer. In fact, scenes of them arguing sound a lot like a couple agreeing to take a break and see other people; it's quite funny. And there are plenty of low-brow jokes to go around as well, but even those feel somewhat more knowing and well crafted than your average gross-out comedy.

One of the film's best moments comes during the early part of the end credits, where we are shows "previews" of upcoming Jump Street sequels (Culinary School? Space Camp? Even one where Hill's character is temporarily replaced by another actor). Some may question whether the idea of making a similar story to the first film is justified by just making a few cracks about how unoriginal sequels can be; it works here quite well, but if they try it again, there could be trouble. Hill's performance manages to happen in broad strokes, while still filling it out with some great moments of comic timing and well-placed improv nuances. Tatum, on the other hand, heads down a very different path in 22 Jump Street, forming a new bond so convincingly with Russell's character that it's almost sad that he has to reveal himself as cop at some point.

Some of the more explosive action sequences work and some of them don't. Peter Stormare as (seemingly) the main bad guy in the film is fairly wasted, which is a shame because the guy can be so funny when given great material. There are definitely a few more moments than I would have liked of jokes that don't work or non-comedy moments that are stretched far too thin. Schmidt's romance with co-ed Maya (Amber Stevens) has a great twist to it, but adds very little to the story, nor does it develop the Schmidt character at all.

But dammit, I laughed a lot during 22 Jump Street, and that's what I took away from it more than any flaws. I could watch it and enjoy it just as much a second and third time, and I hope Hill and Tatum continue on as one of filmdom's only fully functional comedy teams. The film will make you laugh, stir your heart a bit, and satisfy your need for bigger and better... or at least bigger and the same.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

There are certainly films aimed at younger audiences that I may not enjoy as much as they do, but I can still see the appeal that a younger person might find in it. But in that rarest of instances (although it happened to me with this year's The Lego Movie too, so maybe it's not as rare as it used to be), I actually found myself being somewhat transported back to childhood and remembering the things in the world that used to tantalize me and that I used to obsess over, one of which was a world in which dragons roamed small corners of the earth. I'm fairly certain that fixation began after my first time reading The Hobbit, or maybe it was after I saw Sleeping Beauty for the first time. But I know the last time I felt this crazed about dragons was last weekend at a screening of How to Train Your Dragon 2, and not during one of the many films and television series that feature dragons presently.

In this viking universe, set five years after the first film and still led by Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), dragons are now part of the landscape, and everyone seems to have one as a pet. Stoick's son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his sleek black dragon Toothless are the greatest flying combination in the land. But one day, they stumble upon a group of dragon trappers who are collecting all of the known dragons for their mysterious boss, eventually revealed to be one Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who has a history with the vikings and unnatural need to rule the planet by controlling all dragons using the telepathic controls of his monster-sized alpha dragon.

Hiccup runs back home to warn his clan, but decides that he's a good enough netogiator to convince Drago not to invade their home and steak its dragons. On the way to find Drago, Hiccup is snatched by another Dragon Rider named Valka, who has a strange (if slightly predictable) connection to his past and is voiced by Cate Blanchett. She oversees a secret ice cave that houses something like a dragon sanctuary loaded with hundred of the unique and colorful creatures. The sheer volume of creativity that went into designing each dragon and making them different from each other in some way is breathtaking. Director and co-writer Dean DeBlois (who co-directed the first film, as well as the wildly entertaining Lilo & Stitch) has a true gift for not making sure his actors don't overplay their lines — a common flaw in animated fare — and that his animators never forget to use their imaginations in dragon designs.

As with the first film, Hiccup is surrounded by a funny bunch of friends and supporting characters, including those voiced by Jonah Hill, America Ferrera, Kristen Wig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Craig Ferguson, and even Kit Harrington from "Game of Thrones." There is certainly plenty of kid-friendly humor in Dragon 2, but the real surprise is how mildly terrifying things can get, especially in the big battle sequence between Drago's forces and Stoick's army. I won't lie, the alpha dragons (there are two here) freaked me the hell out.

But almost as impressive as the variety of dragons is the vast landscapes that act as playgrounds, battlegrounds and foregrounds for all of characters. I've essentially stopped mentioning in my reviews how a film that can be viewed in 3-D looks, because so few of them these days really make a difference; but Dragon 2 is a 3-D sensation, rendered bright and crisp and beautifully layered and textured. Those dragon POV flight sequences are going to make your stomach do flips. At this point, it should probably be mentioned that the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is again credited as a creature consultant on the film; that alone should be encouraging news.

I'm also a fan of messages of this movie, from the boy and his flying pet relationship, which is threatened severely in Dragon 2, to themes of diplomacy vs. war, family, how Hiccup and Toothless are basically soul mates with their artificial limbs that somehow bond them. It's a beautiful, elegant, nicely written and sweeping epic animated work that ranks among the best of what any animation house has given us in the last 10 years (at least). Above all else, it's a film that makes you afraid to blink for fear of missing some fantastic new creature or other visual treat. If it were only that, I'm not sure I'd recommend it. But How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so much more; it's magnificent as both a visual and plot-driven production.

Obvious Child

In what is clearly a film in contention for one of my favorite of 2014 (it's certainly near the top of the list at mid-year), writer-director Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child is a work that manages to be both darkly funny and quietly devastating thanks in large part to a take-no-prisoners performance from "SNL" vet Jenny Slate as stand-up comic Donna Stern. In the span of about 24 hours (I believe on Valentine's Day no less), Donna is dumped, fired and knocked up by a complete stranger named Max (Jake Lacy), a nice enough guy but perhaps not quite ready to jump in the deep end of Donna's messy life.

Without any big moral or political debate, Donna decides she doesn't want to have this baby or be pregnant at all and makes an appointment for an abortion. To be clear, Donna's decision to terminate her pregnancy is the point of this film; it's what happens around her once she makes that choice that is wholly believable and often quite funny. No one here is making fun of abortion (okay, there might be on really hilarious joke that crosses a line, but if you get offended by anything Donna says at that point in the film, you clearly slept through everything that came before). The truth is that this random hook-up with Max starts to look like a promising relationship, and the debate becomes whether Donna should tell this new guy or not. Donna's conversations with her best friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and fellow comic Joey (Gabe Liedman) are priceless as both truth conduits and sources of raw, unfiltered comedy.

There's a sequence where Donna and Max are in the waiting room just before her procedure, and what they are saying to each other begs the question: can a relationship in the making withstand this type of opening chapter? It's a fair and poignant question that may or may not be answered. Slate has been so good in featured roles in everything from "Parks & Recreation" to "House of Lies" to "Kroll Show," but nothing had quite prepared me for the levels of honesty and unbridled humor, especially in one stand-up routine done completely drunk that turns into a gigantic pity party. But it's her final routine on stage, the night before the abortion, that will floor you with its naked and sweet confession-like quality. I hope at the end of year, some editor somewhere is reducing that routine into Slate's award-show clip. Obvious Child allows a struggling young woman's soul to be put on full display without having the world step on it and squash it. It's a terrific film. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Obvious Child star Jenny Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre.

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

Yes, this is a love letter from first-time feature director Mike Meyers (Wayne's World, Austin Powers) to his close friend, musical agent, film producer and celebrity chef promoter Shep Gordon. But there are very few times in Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon that it feels like Meyers is sugarcoating the life of this man who has lived and worked in the shadow of his famous clients and friends.

Supermensch doesn't just cover Gordon's professional life; it also dips a bit into his personal life as a ladies' man (he dated Sharon Stone in her absolute prime), sometimes husband, and champion of a few not-so-well-off friends (his Groucho Marx stories are as inspiring as they are heartbreaking). The Alice Cooper stories are worth the price of admission, but there are so many terrific tales of making the deal, making sure his people got paid, and legendary falling outs that the film almost feels too short when it's over. A parade of famous faces get in front of the camera, both in archival footage and new interviews done by Meyers (Cooper, Michael Douglas, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Sylvester Stallone and even Tom Arnold). And those are just the people who were interviewed. Hearing Gordon's tales of mingling with Hendrix, Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd and the like are like traveling into a time machine that takes you to another planet as well as another time.

As far as Gordon's personal life, Supermensch digs into his Buddhist beliefs, friendship with the Dalai Lama, his brief marriages and longing for a family, his love of cooking, and of course, his decades of being the consummate ladies' man, especially during his music-managing days. Meyers keeps things light, except when he decides to pry a little bit at a time into Gordon's past with an cruel mother and passive father. In the end, it's a complete, moving profile of a man who has made it his life's work to make sure his clients get all that they need and want. It's a great deal of fun, filled with fantastic stories of decadence and revival. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Supermensch subject Shep Gordon, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Night Moves

Sure, the new film from director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff, all of which were co-written with her writing partner Jon Raymond, as was this one) features an overwhelmingly tense sequence involving three environmental terrorists bombing a hydroelectric dam in Oregon as a form of protest, but that's really only the beginning of things going from good to great in this story. Because once the damage is done — and the three discover that a camper was killed in the subsequent flooding — is when the tension and paranoia begin to creep in, and we discover that guilt and fear impact everyone in different ways.

In a truly coiled and tense performance, Jesse Eisenberg plays the reclusive Josh, who plots the bombing (which happens off camera, as if to underscore the meaninglessness of the act as it relates to this story), along with a female counterpart in a different commune, Dena (Dakota Fanning). They recruit Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former military man and acquaintance of Josh's, who happens to know how to rig this explosive device. And as much as the planning and execution of the actual bombing isn't the most important thing in Night Moves, Reichardt still manages to front-load the movie with so much suspense, you almost want to leave the room until it's gone.

But once the camper's death is discovered, Dena begins to let the guilt get the best of her, and she mentions to Harmon that she's considering turning herself in. Naturally, the boys don't like this idea because she could draw a clear path from her to them with the authorities. And what follows is a beautifully paced, perfectly realized descent into the madness that is trying to figure out what other people are thinking. Eisenberg's Josh has an almost constant look of angst and fear that seems to rub off on those around him; while Dena develops a strange rash as the result of unbearable stress. Harmon becomes just a voice on the phone, feeding Josh's paranoia like a devil on his shoudler.

The film loses a bit of its quiet intensity toward the end, succumbing instead to more traditional means of dealing with a loose end, but that doesn't really take away from the nerve-shattering morality playground that Reichardt and Raymond have built for their characters and audience. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Grand Seduction

Many years ago, I fell madly in love with the obtuse mind of Canadian actor-writer-director Don McKellar (Last Night), mainly through his very fun series "Twitch City," but also through man other acting roles in such films as eXistenZ for David Cronenberg, The Red Violin for Fran├žois Girard (which the two co-wrote), and . for Atom Egoyan. McKellar even had a small part in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. His latest directing effort (from a script by Michael Dowse and Ken Scott) is The Grand Seduction, a low-key comedy about a small Newfoundland fishing village (is there any other kind?) that is attempting to seduce a big company into opening a factory in their economically depressed community. The kicker is, the company insists they have a full-time doctor, so the townspeople set the stage for a visiting big-city doctor, Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), to want to stay permanently without letting him know of their needs.

Lifelong resident Murray (Brendan Gleeson), who unofficially runs the town (the mayor has run away, so he's a little more official than usual), takes it upon himself to think of ways to fool the doctor into thinking living there would be a great life, doing everything from encouraging a romance between the doctor and a local woman living nearby, telling everyone in the town to show up to his clinic on the same day, lying to the doctor about the town's love for cricket, even leaving money on the ground around his home for him to find, as if he lives in a lucky place. The deception is quite elaborate and often very funny. Not surprisingly, Murray begins to feel guilty about the deception, but with a deadline looming from the company and money to keep up the ruse running out, decisions have to be made, at the risk of hurt feelings.

The Grand Seduction reminds me of those British comedies of the 1990s (Waking Ned Devine comes to mind), often set in smaller towns and cities, and cranking up the comedy vibe just a little more than necessary. And that is without a doubt firmly in place here. But when you've got Gleeson leading the charge in any film, you don't have to worry too much about anything else. Even Kitsch is surprisingly good here, and aside from his character being perhaps a little too oblivious to some truly blatant manipulation, he plays this man as a great mix of intelligent and lonely — his hometown girlfriend back in the states is being less than communicative and may be cheating on him, which would be good for the town, since that would be one less reason for the good doctor to leave.

There isn't a whole lot here that will make you scream with laughter, but I found myself with a slight grin on my face for most of The Grand Seduction. The pretense is just dumb enough to be believable, but the performances sell the gimmick righteously, and the undertones of a small town struggling to stay afloat seem all too authentic. Director McKellar has an affinity for quirky characters under quirky circumstances, and this work certainly qualifies. Did I mention this film is a remake of a French-Canadian work that I never saw called Seducing Doctor Lewis? That probably means as much to you as it does to me.

This is one of those films where each townsperson has a "trait" that distinguishes him, but the only one I want to mention in Simon, Murray's best friend, played by the Gordon Pinsent (the attentive husband to Julie Christie in 2006's Away from Her), one of Canada's great theater actors, with a small but important line up of film credits as well. He's remarkable here, considering how few lines of diaglogue he's given. The film isn't difficult to predict, but that makes it no less elegant or charming. It's an amusing, lightweight work that still manages to sneak in an emotional and cultural moment or two that packs a fairly substantial punch. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Signal

I feel like talking about this film too much ruins what actually works in it, so I'll be brief. The Signal starts off as a film about three college kids who are also computer wizards — Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp) and Haley (Olivia Cooke). They are on the trail of a master hacker named Nomad, who has hacked into the MIT servers and is clearly aiming for something bigger. Nic and Jonah are so obsessed with finding the guy — they lost important files during the MIT hack — that they track him down to some isolated corner of the dessert to a creepy shack in the middle of nowhere. But once at their destination, something... happens, and no one is quite sure what for quite some time. Ultimately, Nic wakes up in a private research facility surrounded by scientists and security people (led by Laurence Fishburne, who has a real knack for bringing the voice of authority and sense to just about every role he plays) all in contamination suits telling him that he had alien contact and he may be contagious to some degree. And that just how the story begins.

The Signal is as much about a creeping mood and atmosphere as it is about plot, so even when the plot goes a little sideways toward the end, there's a real substance to the visual style that carries it through. Mixed into this science-fiction tale is a story about a relationship dissolving as Haley is moving to California for a year to study, which threatens to destroy the relationship she has with a clearly insecure Nic. The stop they make to look for the hacker is part of a road trip to take her from coast to coast, but to drive is also a painful look at a fairly credible 20-something coupling that I found really intriguing and honest.

But once the sci-fi kicks in, the relationship stuff gives way to some really interesting technology contemplations, an unraveling story that reveals its true nature gradually and with a great deal of suspense. This is the second feature from director William Eubank (I never saw his debut, Love), and it's a confident work that becomes less so as it speeds toward its rather silly climax. Still, The Signal is a great-looking film that hopefully heralds a new creative force in the science-fiction arena, and it's certainly worth a look if you consider yourself a connoisseur of the genre, if only to see how the younger set it tackling it. It doesn't quite reach the levels of what more recent works like Another Earth of the upcoming I Origins does, but at least it's aiming in that direction. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 

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Culture Tue Nov 04 2014

7,550 Miles from Home, Chicago's Ethiopians Build a Cultural Museum

By Danielle Elliott

Some 7,550 miles separate Chicago from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. For the 10,000 Ethiopians living in Chicago, that distance seems a lot smaller due to the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Nov 21 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Foxcatcher, The Homesman, Force Majeure, America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth, National Gallery & Miss Meadows

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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