Hercules (2014)

Review forthcoming.

Third Person (2014)

imagesPaul Haggis is the Oscar-winning writer/director of Crash, so a man not known for subtlety. And that can be fine, but with his latest effort, Haggis wastes his time on a sluggish triptych that doesn’t come together in any satisfying or clever manner. Like Crash, we follow multiple storylines that we expect to intersect or crisscross. Liam Neeson plays an arrogant author checked into a French hotel trying to write his next novel. He engages in a series of cruel and flirty games with his mistress (Olivia Wilde). Adrien Brody plays a fashion spy in Italy who grows a conscience to help an immigrant regain her daughter. Mila Kunis is a New York actress struggling to get her life in order so she can regain some measure of custody for her son. Right away, the characters are rather bland and remote, refusing to provide much depth or development. Then there’s the fact that the plot requires so little of them, falling into a deadly lethargy that it can’t shake free from. You keep waiting for something more significant to take place but the characters just dawdle, spouting dialogue that never feels authentic. I kept waiting for the twist spoiled by the trailer for Third Person, and by the time two hours passed, I had to note that it was not a mid-movie twist spoiled by the trailer, it was the twist ending. Did the marketing department watch their own movie? I’ve never seen that before; late plot developments, yes, but never the twist ending. There is a reason why these characters are so poorly developed but it’s still not a satisfying reason to watch blasé people blunder around with little direction for over two hours, especially when they have no discernible connection to one another beyond heavy-handed linked themes. Hey, at least Third Person has a favorable amount of Olivia Wilde nudity to keep your interest, if you’re like me. After that’s done, though, you can check out just like this array of substandard and morose characters.

Nate’s Grade: C

Life Itself (2014)

life-itself-poster1I would not be a film critic or even as ardent a lover of movies if it weren’t for Roger Ebert and his towering influence on generations of curious cinephiles. Every film review is likely going to touch upon their own personal relationship with Siskel and Ebert and this one will be no different (full disclosure: I contributed online to make sure this documentary would reach completion. You can find my name last in the end credits “thanks” section. The perks of being a Z-kid). When I was young, I would sneak into my parents’ room and wake them up, eager to watch not cartoons but the latest episode of Siskel and Ebert’s take on new releases. For me, Roger and Gene opened an entire new world for me, and hearing their spirited discussions over the latest Hollywood blockbuster or indie experiment would stimulate my imagination. Therefore, Life Itself, a documentary chronicling the life and death of Roger, including those difficult final months of his fight against cancer, is a tremendously emotional and personal experience for me. Even now it’s hard for me to write this review as I have a wealth of feelings churning. It’s like watching one of your heroes ride off into the sunset; eternally grateful for those years they had on Earth to inspire. It’s fitting that Roger become a part of the movies himself with a documentary that’s one of the year’s best and most poignant films.

This was never meant to be a film about Roger’s death. It was intended to be an adaptation of his 2011 memoir, the titular Life Itself. Filmmaker Steve James, best known as the director of Hoop Dreams (Roger’s #1 film for 1994), tackles the essential biography bits we’d expect tracing the cradle-to-grave approach. What makes this film more interesting is that it too follows Ebert’s own perspective he utilized in his memoir. Rather than writing from the point of view of being in the moment, Ebert acknowledges his age and looks back on the past not as it’s happening but as an older man reflecting upon his life. The thoughts are not so linear, the consideration more meditative, thoughtful, and overalls thankful. This is a man looking back and taking stock of his life, grateful for the people that have elevated his experiences. The framing device of the movie happens to be Roger’s last five months of life, going in and out of the hospital and adjusting to the ever-mounting hurdles of his deteriorating health. It can be downright shocking and horrifying to watch this Ebert, his jaw hanging loose like an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Never has the man looked more vulnerable and so mortal. It’s not how you wish to remember him, and Roger is without vanity as he wants the cameras to have access to his day-to-day reality no matter the hardships. As the months pass and Roger’s communication starts fading, everyone has to come to terms with the inevitable, and the viewer is right there too, bidding goodbye with Roger’s grieving family.

LifeItselfMM-544x320While tears will be shed, do not think of the movie as an elegiac tribute meant to fill your heart with dread for the demise of a great writer and a great man. As the title indicates, it’s a celebration of the man’s life, illuminating a figure that was much larger than his prolific publications (note: not a fat joke). Can you picture Ebert as a skirt-chasing Chicago Sun-Times reporter? How about as a guy who would get drunk and hang from the rafters, causing scenes? Many likely don’t know that Ebert has one screenwriting credit for Russ Meyer’s 1970 camp-tastic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a job Ebert likely took on so he could, in his words, “get laid.” There’s even a lengthy bit over their populist film critiques and whether the famous “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” model was helpful or harmful to film criticism. Life Itself does a fitting job tracing the roots of the man, with each chapter of his life given due development and consideration. I could have watched a four-hour documentary on the man’s life, but I’m not the general public.

The film is defined by two central relationships: Roger and Gene and Roger and his wife, Chaz. The first is the most famous. We track their initial growing pains taking the leap adapting their styles to the realm of TV. Gene was a natural, Roger less so, which only made Ebert more furious (photos of Gene “ladies man” Siskel gallivanting with Hugh Hefner are a hoot). The impact of their advocacy cannot be overstated. There are plenty of filmmakers that got their big break thanks to special consideration and publicity from these two. No matter the medium, these were the most famous critics of the twentieth century, opening up the world of movies to a new and hungry and appreciative audience. As enjoyable as it is to watch Siskel and Ebert in agreement, there was a special pleasure in watching them disagree because of the unleashed intensity. They really felt like they could convert the other person through sheer force of will. Their egos were both massive and Siskel knew exactly which buttons to push to set his cohort into aggravation. We see TV clips and unused rehearsal video and you feel like they might start a fistfight at any moment. And then that ire and ego forged into a deep admiration and love for one another, a love that Ebert reflects more tenderly of in the years since Siskel’s death in 1999. Gene didn’t want his loved ones to watch the clock, waiting for him to expire, and so he told nobody of his terminal brain tumor until the end. Roger was always wounded by this and vowed to be as open as possible if he suffered severe health setbacks.

The other relationship we get to witness come to a close right before our tear-stricken eyes. Roger met Chaz in AA, a fact she says she’s never publicly admitted before. He was over 50 when he married. He accepted her children as his own, whisking the family on faraway vacations and sharing his love of cinema with his stepchildren and grandchildren. Ebert credits Chaz with nothing less than saving his life, asserting he’d have drank himself to death without her. It’s a love story that forces us to watch the heartbreaking finale, namely Chaz coming to grips with the reality of losing her husband, of letting the love of her life go, something so profound. We’re right with her, wanting to fight on, try the next surgery, always hopeful, though in our circumstances we have the dread of foreknowledge. Then again perhaps Chaz and those close to the Eberts suspected as much as well, especially as his health faded so quickly in the spring of 2013. Just watching her talk about Roger in the past tense, you watch the ripples of pain reverberate through this woman. She’s the unexpected heart of the movie and one of many torchbearers when it comes to the legacy of Roger.

3031057-inline-i-1-the-trailer-for-roger-ebert-documentary-life-itself-is-funny-and-beautifulUltimately, Life Itself is a love story. It’s a love story about two men who go from rivals to close friends. It’s a love story between a man and a woman. It’s also the love story of a man with the movies, a love that he felt eager to share with millions of his readers and television viewers, because in the end (danger: sentimentality approaching) it’s our love and passion that will ultimately outlast us all, and the people we touch are the living embodiment of our legacies. And Roger’s passing has touched many. As fans, those who grew up with him, I think we all felt like he was partly ours. Life Itself is a touching, engrossing, invigorating, and fitting tribute to a man larger than the movies.

Nate’s Grade: A

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn_of_apes_teaser_posterAnyone else think the titles of these Apes prequels should be retroactively switched? Coming off the heels of the surprisingly excellent flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes, those damn dirty apes are back with another summer blockbuster that’s just as mature, engrossing, emotionally resonant, and visually remarkable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the previous entry, with mankind devastated by the “Simian Flu,” the same bug that has kick-started the evolution of the primates. Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is leading a fairly conservative life; he has a home, a family, a wife, and a community he’s trying to build. Then a group of humans wander into their territory needing access to the remains of a dam for a power supply. The apes do not trust the humans, but Caesar accepts their terms, looking to avoid war. However, fear, resentment, and hate fester on both sides, and it’s not long before it’s apes vs. humans and you witness one of the greatest things your eyeballs will ever see – an ape firing two machine guns while riding a horse. Plot-wise, this film is more a bridge to a larger conflict between the two factions. The human characters (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are given short shrift. And that’s fine because the movie belongs to the apes; they are the stars rightfully. Half of this movie is in subtitles for ape sign language. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) dwells in the moments other blockbusters don’t have time for. He lingers in the shadows, with silences, and we slowly integrate into the world of the apes and their own power dynamics. The all-out action of the third act doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the thoughtful movie that has played out until that point. The visual effects are again top-notch and the motion capture tech captures a stunning range of human emotions that you can witness play out across the CGI creations. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) portrays Koba, the more hawkish member of the ape tribe, and he is just as good as Serkis, which is saying a lot. I’d still call Rise a better overall film, but Dawn is a more than worthy follow-up that reminds audiences what great storytelling can achieve with the right people behind the scenes.

Nate’s Grade: A-

In the Name of the King 3: The Last Mission (2014)

MV5BMjE4NDU3NjE4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg0NjAyMTE@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_AL_You ever get a sense of déjà vu while watching movies? The world of cinema is replete with derivative ideas and an intense sense of, we’ll call it, sharing. However, when it comes to notorious director Uwe Boll, the man has a habit of changing his style to suit his newest interest in flattery (i.e. ripping off some other influence). With In the Name of the King 3: The Last Mission, he ends up ripping off himself, namely the previous film.

Hazen Kane (Dominic Purcell) is a mercenary looking to get out. He’s been working in Bulgaria ever since a tragic event in his past. His boss (Marian Valev) gives him “one last mission” – kidnapping two preteen daughters of Bulgarian royalty and locking them in a shipping container. Hazen reluctantly goes through with the kidnapping, but after he takes one of the girls’ strange necklace, a portal opens that sucks him into a fantasy kingdom, a kingdom that just also happens to be called Bulgaria. Hazen is befriended by a pair of sisters (Ralitsa Paskaleva, Daria Simeonova) who we learn are deposed princesses. Their uncle Tervin (also Valev) killed their father and usurped the throne. Tervin also has a dragon at his command. The sisters and the people of the land look to Hazen as the man who will save them from their evil king. Oh, and he has to figure out a way back to Real World Bulgaria because he feels guilty about those locked away kids.

There truly is no reason for this movie to exist, which may seem obvious to many simply by having Boll’s name attached. The reason is this: In the Name of the King 3 is pretty much the exact same story as In the Name of the King 2. Sure there are qualifying differences in plot and character, but once again it’s a fish-out-of-water tale as a modern man, with military/mercenary experience who’s gone somewhat rogue, is transported into a magical fantasy world in dire need of rescue. Once again an evil king has slain the good one and the bereaved royal relatives need a hero to topple the current order. Once again the protagonist kinda sorta falls for a lass from the fantasy kingdom. Once again there’s an ancient prophecy to be reckoned with. Once again, there’s a dragon that sort of is forgotten about. It’s the same plot beats just given a “copy and paste” treatment because, perhaps, Boll still had access to the medieval costumes and didn’t feel like returning them just yet. The more interesting aspects of the previous film, namely Dolph Lundgreen’s blasé fish-out-of-water observations, are replaced with a rush to get to the finish line, resulting in one of the most predictable, formulaic fantasy films imaginable. Just given the premise, you can likely foresee every major step in the plot that follows, and the movie puts forth no effort to surprise or entertain if you deign to have higher standards.

in-the-name-of-the-king-3-blu-ray-dvd-IMG_3654_rgbThe shopworn, simple story is also sabotaged by the most one-note of characters, each given futile amounts to work with. These people are more defined by their outfits than anything they say or do. In seconds, I had Purcell’s character figured out. He’s got a woman’s name engraved on his watch he stares at with great despondency, so it’s either got to be a dead wife or a dead daughter. He’s in deep with some shady people but wants to get out, which shows him as flawed but with some form of a moral compass intact, making him dangerous but acceptably bad. Apparently his dead wife (surprise, not daughter) insisted he get a certain tattoo design, and this tattoo just happens to look exactly like the necklace emblem of the kidnapped Bulgarian royal girl. Did his wife have any connection to Fantasy Bulgaria or did she have any sense of clairvoyance when it came to her husband’s destiny? We’ll never know. The deposed Fantasy Bulgaria princesses are just as bland as you would expect, more basic fantasy avatars than people. They ride horses, shoot arrows, and talk tough. Oh, and they’re pretty. The assorted supporting characters, all resigned to sad stock roles, fail to register, so much so that the actually evil king Tervin only has two scenes before the final battle.

The action is unspectacular, routinely unable to conceal the limitations of Boll’s budgets,, chiefly the small number of fighters present. When we flash to Tervin’s castle, it always seems like the majority of the castle guard must be on an extended lunch break because the place is so lightly fortified. If the princesses had just studied the guard lunch habits, they would be able to retake the throne without even having to wait for their Chosen One. The special effects for the dragon are decent for the low budget but it too points out the limitations. If you had a dragon under your spell, why wouldn’t you continuously use that strategically valuable asset to engulf all your enemies in flame? A few of the dragon attacks are then followed by the dragon being mysteriously absent, as if this winged creature was too aloof to follow-through with killing its prey, like a cat with a bug. This dragon is a hard creature to read. In one moment it’s chasing the good guys, then taking out the bad guys, then just doing whatever it wants. Maybe it is like a cat. Anyway, if you like watching people in cloaks and thatched huts talk about prophecies and destinies and a childish notion of good and evil, then enjoy In the Name of the King 3.

I may be reading too much into this film in a vain attempt to search for any sort of meaning, but there was one storyline that left me feeling odd. In Real Bulgaria, Hazen kidnaps two royal sisters and locks them away, and then when he is transported to Fantasy Bulgaria, he’s immediately teamed up with another group of royal sisters. This is no coincidence, right? They have to be stand-ins for the imprisoned gals. For crying out loud, it’s even the same actor in both worlds that threatens them (Valev plays both baddies and no mention is made about this fact). If this all connects, then it’s really uncomfortable when Hazen starts making out with one of Fantasy Bulgaria’s princesses. She’s the analogue for the captured pre-teen girl in Real Bulgaria, and he’s becoming romantically involved with her. Weird, right?

37R1YaKPurcell (TV’s Prison Break) has become the latest actor to assimilate into the Boll Repeat Players, appearing in three Boll flicks in a row. He actually performed well in Assault on Wall Street, a Boll movie that almost worked, but in this movie he’s just the Reluctant Hero set to sleepwalking mode. He’s supposed to be haunted by his past, his gambling debts leading to his wife’s demise, but it never seems like anything rattles Hazen, who just kind of half-heartedly shrugs his way through the entire fantasy journey. He grumbles and spews profanities (the film’s only R-rating quality), but at no point do you ever feel like he has processed just how strange what has happened to him is. He even stops to brew and savor a cup of coffee in the same room he just murdered a bunch of security guards. The rest of the actors are unrecognizable to America audiences and may be to Bulgarian audiences as well. There’s no standout, however, there is one single standout moment. It involves Valev responding to a charge of betrayal. “Betrayal?” he bellows indignantly. “Whatdoyouknowaboutbetrayal?! I’vebeenthroughthisallmylife,” then spills out like a chunk of undigested word vomit, the words falling all over one another. After I heard this awful line reading, my attention refocused. I had to watch the scene again just for this. It’s the highlight of the entire movie.

Another complaint: whoever came up with these character names (presumably debut screenwriter Joel Ross) should be fired and never given this privilege again. The protagonist’s name is Hazen Kane, not to be confused with Raisin’ Canes, the delicious fried chicken restaurant that would be a better use of your time and money (love me that Cain sauce). According to Babynamespedia.com, “Hazen” had its peak of naming around 1901 when it was the 807th most popular baby boy name. Not to be outdone, our villain’s name is Tervin. That’s the kind of name of the kid who gets picked on at school, not a feared tyrant. Other names include Arabella, Emeline, Alys, Ayavlo, Andon, Ana, Alekandar, Kardam, and Sophie. Just from a screenwriting standpoint, it’s not a good idea to have a vast majority of your speaking roles all start with the same letter as it can get confusing to the reader, let alone the eventual audience, if there is one.

By all accounts, In the Name of the King 3 is a step backwards for Boll, both figuratively and literally. It’s a simplistic and lazy fantasy film that doesn’t bother to set up its characters, develop those characters, or even provide much in the way of entertainment. The fact that Boll is essentially repeating the previous In the Name of the King, which makes it even harder to justify its existence. It’s your typical fantasy epic with the epic parts sanded down to the limits of its budget. The characters are nonstarters, our hero is dull, the quest is rushed, the action is plain, and even the dragon is under utilized. I’ve seen considerably worse with Boll’s name attached as director, but rarely have I seen a Boll film where I’m struggling to even come up with anything, good or bad (mostly bad), to reference to possibly validate a derisive viewing. This is just bland, formulaic pap from start to finish and nobody puts much effort into disguising this. Three films is more than enough for this undercooked fantasy film series. Let it stay in Fantasy Bulgaria for good.

Nate’s Grade: C-

America: Imagine the World Without Her (2014)

118951_galConservative author and political speaker Dinesh D’Souza struck gold with his last documentary, 2016: Obama’s America. The 2012 film struck a chord with enough moviegoers to earn over $33 million at the box-office, and it earned my own hallowed award for Worst Film of 2012, a puerile character hit-piece that only served as agitprop. My in depth review even got picked up by other outlets and message boards and became something of an e-mail forward itself. So when D’Souza announced his follow-up, America: Imagine a World Without Her, I knew I would have plenty to write about. It’s not as overtly risible as 2016 but its true intent is possibly even more sinister. Let me assure you, dear reader, that I go into every movie to objectively critique what works, what doesn’t and why. I would welcome a conservative counterpart to Michael Moore, but Dinesh D’Souza is not that filmmaker, not by a long shot.

The film begins with an interesting “what if” scenario questioning what might have happened in history if George Washington had fallen on the battlefield and America had lost its revolution for independence. American monuments are turned to dust and ominous music pervades. However, instead of following through on this slice of alternative history, D’Souza switches gears immediately and points toward a new goal. He wants to change what he sees as a “shame America” narrative, fostered by the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and the “blame America first” crowd of liberal and academic nogoodniks. To do so, D’Souza seeks out to reclaim America’s past, which amounts to defending or mitigating the famous sins of America’s past. D’Souza’s demonstrably shaky logic disputing America’s past ills only takes a modicum of critical thinking skills to see it for the intellectually facile, dishonest, disingenuous, morally bankrupt rhetoric of a charlatan. Allow me to examine D’Souza’s rebuttal of the five reported thefts he examines in the film.

Conservative commentator and best-selling author, Dinesh D'Souza exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse after pleading guilty in New York1) “Theft of land from Native Americans.” This one seems pretty obvious. They were here first. American settlers, as well as other nations, came, conquered, and Manifest Destinied the continent. D’Souza tries to argue that the Native Americans themselves would engage in war and take over other tribes’ territories; therefore their original claim to the land is nil. Also, the land is only valuable because of what the new owners built on that land. I guess America’s national parks have no inherent value then. It almost ends up transforming into a rhetorical line that the Native Americans didn’t know how best to use their own land, so they didn’t deserve it. The worst part of this segment, besides breezing over the Trail of Tears and countless broken treaties, is that D’Souza has the temerity to dispute the semantics of “genocide.” See, D’Souza opines that with genocide there has to be intent to do harm, and Europeans simply bringing along deadly infections the natives had no immunity for cannot count. Never mind the whole smallpox blankets episode, America’s earliest form of biological warfare, which was intentional. D’Souza then compares the decimation of the Native Americans via disease to the Black Plague. “We don’t call that genocide,” he smugly asserts. Let me provide a more fitting analogy: if Turkey had invaded the European continent, bringing with it the Bubonic Plague, and then purposely spread it to the natives to eliminate them, while claiming the land as Turkey’s own, establishing settlements, and forcing the weakened Europeans into small unobtrusive clusters, well maybe we would accurately call that by all accounts genocide.

2) “Theft of labor of Africans.” First, re-read that sentence and really let D’Souza’s slimy word choice sink in. “Theft of labor” is what we’re calling slavery now? How about theft of life, theft of rights, theft of future, theft of family, theft of dignity, theft of their basic humanity? This rebuttal is curious because at the outset D’Souza admits, “Yes, slavery was theft.” Everything referenced after this point cannot alter this declaration, meaning the rest of this segment is all about mitigating the terror of slavery. D’Souza says the United States didn’t invent slavery, and that even Africans would enslave one another. He literally uses the “everybody else was doing it too” argument children use to get away with misdeeds. He even tries to turn it around as a positive, enthusiastically informing us that America is the only country to fight a war to end slavery and that makes us a special place. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way would be to celebrate other countries that didn’t require bloody wars to come to a consensus that owning other people as property was morally repugnant. Then D’Souza flouts anomalous examples to try and muddy the disgraceful practice of slavery. There were black slave owners, yes, because these people still exist in a crooked system. What does the existence of black slave owners prove? D’Souza’s unsourced claim that there were as many black slave owners as white slave owners is so obviously dishonest that it takes your breath away. But even if it were true, which it is most assuredly not, what does it prove? Is D’Souza trying to say blacks are just as complicit in slavery? Then he adds that white indentured servants worked alongside many slaves and they had it rough too. Indentured servants were still seen as people with human rights. There is no comparison to slavery. The end.

3) “Theft of land from Mexico.” This one is given even shorter shrift, mostly boiling down to a simplistic analysis of how lousy life is in Mexico. The United States gained much of the western states after annexing them from Mexico. D’Souza reasons that after the war we had all of Mexico and we only took half, so that should be acceptable. “I wonder how many of those in Mexico wish we had kept all of their country,” he intones.

4) “Theft of independence with foreign policy.” I forget the exact wording on this one, but really it just amounts to the American wars and conflicts in the last 50 years. Tackling Vietnam, D’Souza offers a straw man that has never existed in mainstream thought: that we went to war in Vietnam to take over their land as imperialists. The war in Vietnam was a result of the domino theory in thwarting the spread of communism, not to take over Asia. On top of this, let’s ignore the Gulf of Tonkin incident that was manufactured as a rationale to escalate a war in South Vietnam. All D’Souza does is interview one P.O.W. veteran who says he went to war to spread democracy. That’s fine, but one man’s experience is anecdotal and not indicative of the whole, let alone of the military command. D’Souza then says we gave back Iraq to the Iraqis and didn’t ask for anything in return, except, you know, permanent military bases that they objected to. Wars aren’t just fought for territory, they can be fought for profit by powerful interests; just look at the military industrial complex run amok. And yet, weirdly, D’Souza never combats Noam Chomsky’s listing of all the American-assisted coups across the globe, from Iran (1953) to Chile (1973) to Brazil (1964) to Guatemala (1954) and others. In 2011, documents over the Iran coup were declassified and admitted CIA involvement as “an act of U.S. foreign policy conceived and approved by the highest levels of government.”

pic_giant_062914_SM_DSouza-America25) “Theft of wealth by capitalism.” D’Souza actually comes to the defense of Wall Street, lamenting that America’s wealthy are under unfair attack from the unwashed masses. First, D’Souza conflates a critique of unregulated, Laissez-faire capitalism with capitalism itself. There are socialists and communists and others of similar ideology out there, but the mainstream left is not arguing for the wholesale destruction of the economic system of this country. A lack of oversight and unchecked greed and fraternal collusion lead to the financial meltdown of 2008, bringing the world to the brink of economic ruin because of the bad bets of Wall Street. Instead, D’Souza stages a silly example of himself running a fast food restaurant, complete with himself playing all of the workers and with a comical (?) Indian accent. He flatly contends that it costs the consumer more money to make a hamburger at home than to buy one from his restaurant, ipso facto “the American people are not being ripped off.” This is D’Souza’s insufficient summary of capitalism, ignoring the 2008 financial crises, ignoring the robber barons, ignoring strike-busting, ignoring the reasons the unions had to be formed in the first place because of dangerous, unfit working conditions that would still exist without intervention. Thomas Piketty wrote a 700-page book on the history of capitalism that has become an unexpected runaway bestseller. He studied hundreds of years of documents of all sorts and concluded that return on capital is higher than the growth rate of the economy, meaning the rich get a bigger part of the pie as time goes on. Economic inequality is hitting record rates not seen since the Great Depression, but somehow for D’Souza this is Obama’s failings and not those of the enshrined 1%, a.k.a. the “job creators.”

Each of these segments runs less than 10 minutes and D’Souza seems to brush through them with little effort as if the man can’t be bothered to knock down his own poorly reasoned straw men. Every claim that D’Souza makes is lacking in substantive facts. He has little evidence to support his slanted and mischaracterized claims. I only recall him ever once citing a source as he worked through his rebuttal of America’s past transgressions. That’s because D’Souza’s assertions don’t hold up under any trace amount of intellectual scrutiny, which is why he often defers to emotional appeals and anomalous anecdotes (Hey, a black woman became the first female millionaire selling hair products, therefore all ex-slaves could have prospered in this country if they only worked hard, never mind Jim Crow and all that). We watch re-enactments of the P.O.W. being tortured in Vietnam, and obviously our empathy goes out to this man, but that doesn’t erase a million dead Vietnamese and 55,000 fallen Americans. There is an absurd amount of historical re-enactments in America, to pad out its running time given the paucity of its argument, but mostly to fall back upon unfettered emotional appeals. D’Souza relies on the symbols of patriotism and actors portraying great figures from history, notably Abe Lincoln, to persuade his audience about the unimpeachable history of America rather than the integrity of his unsubstantiated and spurious claims.

D’Souza doesn’t even bother to cover his obvious biases with his interview subjects. He asks Michael Eric Dyson why the re-election of Obama doesn’t mean “the end of racism” (forgetting that half of the country did not vote for the man, and no, this does not mean every non-Obama vote was a racist). He props extremist Ward Churchill as the face of modern liberalism, referencing his comparison of 9/11 victims to Eichmann, and prompting him to justify dropping an atomic bomb on American soil as retribution. D’Souza then spends the duration of an interview with a Mexican-American student by asking him what the American Dream means to him. His interview subjects are also rarely identified onscreen, nor does D’Souza disclose such pertinent facts like the talking heads belonging to prominent conservative think tanks, ones that have lined his own pockets. There’s also a noticeable lack of follow-up questions. D’Souza’s interview style is also haltingly slow and modulated, as if speaking slower is the same as being reflective. But my favorite interview by far begins with these magical words: “Senator Ted Cruz, why did the Mexican-American War take place?” Oh my.

AmericaAmerica lacks a general workable thesis to hold its claims and counter-claims together, which is something at least 2016 had going for it. This may be because the film’s possible real intent is only revealed in the closing twenty minutes, and it amounts to a plea not elect Hilary Clinton to the White House. D’Souza’s last effort to stop Obama’s re-election didn’t work out, even though he claims his ridiculous assertions have come true (the debt hasn’t doubled since 2012 and Israel has yet to become the “United States of Islam” as well). D’Souza enjoys reasserting conservative bogeymen, which is why we get more references to Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, and especially Saul Alinsky. Until a few years ago, I doubt anyone even knew who this man was but now D’Souza, and others, have pinned him as the ultimate political bogeyman, contorting America from beyond the grave. That’s because his disciples are living out Alinsky’s anti-capitalist dogma, chief among them Obama and Hilary Clinton. There is a goofy re-enactment where a young Clinton is introduced to Alinsky in a high school cafeteria, and the scene is played with such ominous music and lighting that it’s meant to convey a sit-down with none other than the devil (Alinksy is quoted as taking organizational tips from Lucifer, so you make the connection, audience). Hilary wrote her college thesis on the guy even. However, when she graduated she turned down working for the guy and instead became a lawyer, so… I don’t know what. Hilariously, the Alinsky re-enactments are bursting with overwrought menace including one incomprehensible scene of Alinsky sitting in his car and scoping out school children for likely nefarious purposes. “Alinksy would love Obamacare,” D’Souza notes, which makes little sense considering the ACA is all about providing new clients to private industry. As a socialist, I imagine Alsinky would have preferred the public option found in every other Western nation.

It’s these kind of broad generalizations, armchair psychological projection, and guilt-by-association pleas that typify D’Souza’s documentaries. Last time he said Obama’s “anti-colonialist” views were all because he wanted to appeal to an absent father he saw a couple of times in his life. Now D’Souza is warning us that Hilary Clinton is doing the same but trying to appease the ghost of Alinsky, a man she turned down working for way back when.

The real question is WHY would anyone even pose arguments to mitigate the horrors of slavery and genocide? What morally charitable rationale can even be created to try and argue that these horrors were not as bad as history has thoroughly documented? D’Souza says he wants to take control of the “shame America” narrative, but in doing so he’s whitewashing and mitigating this country’s mistakes just to make, what, his core audience of conservatives feel better about themselves? In this, I must quote my critical colleague Ben Bailey, himself paraphrasing a quote from Al Franken: “Franken once observed that, while liberals and conservatives both love America, they love it in different ways. Liberals love America like an adult loves their parents, seeing them not just as mom and dad but as complex individuals with strengths and flaws. Conservatives love America like a baby loves his mommy, who in the child’s eyes can do no wrong, and anyone who says so is a lying bastard.” Patriotism does not mean turning a blind eye toward your country’s mistakes, past and current, nor does it make the ignorant more patriotic than the educated that accept their country’s past, warts and all, and pledge to ensure that those same mistakes are never repeated. Now, slavery isn’t exactly likely to return any time soon to this country, but the core tenets that enshrined slavery were looking at others as subhuman, as undeserving of equality, rigging a system to deny people fair opportunities, a true lack of empathy for the hardships of others. These traits still exist today and can still be found in modern domestic and foreign legislation.

Dinesh-DSouza-America-640x360As a movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her is also a failure. It’s a political polemic that preaches to the faithful, assuaging any feelings of guilt they may have had over the past sins of our country, and yet D’Souza doesn’t even offer a vigorous or even competent attempt to do just that. Unless you are already converted to D’Souza’s worldview, you are unlikely to be persuaded by this crackpot expose. The film lacks corroborating evidence for its outrageous claims and rebuttals, conveniently ignoring a larger context in many cases because it would disprove D’Souza’s disingenuous claims, that is, when D’Souza isn’t inadvertently disproving his own claims. History is written by the winners and Zinn wanted to show history from the point of view of the oppressed, the disadvantaged, and the lower classes that typically get lost amidst the resuscitation of kings, generals, and Great Men of Industry. D’Souza’s view seems to be, yeah history is written by the winners, so stop whining minorities and suck it up. After all, the Native Americans get to open casinos, so how bad off can they be? Here’s the thing: most people, liberals and conservative and everyone else, don’t feel guilt per se about Native American genocide or slavery, mostly because we were not alive and responsible. I feel no more guilt over these issues than I do over the other numerous acts of genocide, slavery, and general horror that populate the far-away past. But civilization is a constant work in progress and the responsibility of every citizen is to try and make this world better than it was before. The past informs our actions and our understanding of the world and us. Nobody except the fringe thinks America is a pit of unrepentant evil that has done the world nothing but harm. It has been a force for good but it’s also made mistakes, but to quote Stannis Baratheon, “The bad does not wash out the good, nor does the good wash out the bad.” We all love our country but just because some recognize certain inconvenient historical facts don’t make them any less patriotic.

With all of this exhaustively analyzed, allow me one more moment of examination, borrowing some of the armchair psychological speculation that D’Souza likes to primarily trade in. It appears that D’Souza has a healthy opinion of himself bordering on obsessive narcissism. He cheerily lets us know his past film ranks as the number two highest-grossing political documentary of all time, omitting who owns the number one spot and by a large margin. His name is listed SIX times in the opening credits, including credits for having written the source book, writing the screenplay, and “creating and narrating” the film. Much of the film involves D’Souza in his turtlenecks strolling along national monuments and looking forlorn. He is the star of the film. But there’s also the problem that D’Souza pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance fraud, posing as third parties to continue making campaign donations in 2012. D’Souza admits, “I made a mistake. No man is above the law,” but he frames his guilt as martyrdom. D’Souza makes himself seem like the “latest victim to be targeted by the White House,” instead of, you know, a man who broke the law and got caught. He argues the White House, using the NSA and the (debunked) IRS scandal, are out to silence dissent, abusing whatever measures they have at their disposal (never mind that Bush began the wiretap surveillance program). I propose that America is nothing more than a cover for D’Souza’s conviction and to save face amidst impending jail time. It’s a 90-minute excuse not for America’s misdeeds but for D’Souza’s.

Nate’s Grade: F

Snowpiercer (2014)

snowpiercer-posterI have seen Snowpiercer twice and it’s still a hard movie to describe. It’s the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Joon-hoo Bong, notable for The Host (the good one) and Mother. It’s based upon a French graphic novel only printed in France and South Korea. It’s an international production, filmed in the Czech Republic, and populated with recognizable actors like Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It’s a dark dystopian allegory about class warfare, it’s a stunning sci-fi action movie, it’s a parable about humanity, it’s a stylish thriller that puts most of Hollywood to shame; it’s many things, chief among them, an incredible movie that demands to be seen on the big screen when able.

To combat global warming, world leaders disperse a chemical to lower temperatures, and oh boy does it work, inadvertently causing a new Ice Age that kills almost all life on the planet. Almost, because a few hundred got aboard the train owned and operated by Wilford (Harris), a rich and secretive industrialist. He built a train that can circle the globe, running on a perpetual motion motor. The last of humanity is housed on Wilfrod’s train. After seventeen years aboard, the class system has become rather rigid. The important and wealthy are at the front of the train, and the poor are crammed in the back, given gelatinous protein blocks to eat, and kept in line by armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is plotting a revolt, biding his time, consulting with the wise Gilliam (Hurt), an aging leader missing several limbs. Together, they storm ahead, capturing effete Wilford spokesman Mason (Swinton) as a hostage, rescuing an engineer (Kang-ho Song) with a drug addiction who will help them open the train cars, fighting car by car to take control of the train. Naturally, those in power fight back in force to maintain the uneven status quo.

snowpiercer-main-review-e1375509690609Short of the adrenaline-soaked Raid 2, there hasn’t been a better action movie this year than Snowpiercer. It starts slow, drawing the audience in, setting up its initial burst as a prison break of sorts where the tail section passengers have to figure out a way past the guards and several security doors open for only a few seconds. When the break does happen, in a clever fashion, you feel the full rush of the new opportunity thanks to the movie properly setting up the stakes and obstacles. Each new car presents a new world and a new obstacle. There’s one car where Curtis and his revolutionaries are met with fifty ski-mask wearing grunts with axes. This is the standout action sequence because of how it keeps changing. At first its brawn versus brawn, complete with swinging axes. Then the fighting stops briefly and all the grunts put on night vision goggles. The train enters a long tunnel, condemning Curtis and company to the dark. The grunts then go to town, spearing and slashing the hapless passengers blindly swinging in the dark. I won’t spoil the solution to this scenario but it too is properly set up and leads to some extremely satisfying action imagery, the kind of stuff that pops in a trailer. There’s an entirely different sequence later that also stands out. As the train goes into a long curve in the track, certain train cars are visible from others. Our chief heavy, listed as Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), sees Curtis in the car ahead and starts firing. Eventually Curtis and Franco blast small holes in the protective glass and wait, wait for their moment, for their shot. It’s a tense neo-Western standoff moment, and another delightful addition. The accumulative action has a surprising degree of variety and development.

Snowpiercer is a stirring action movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it does an equally impressive job of building its world and adding dimension to its storytelling. Reportedly, Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the 126-minute film, but I’m puzzled as to where those edits would come. Every scene in this movie drives the film forward or imparts crucial pieces of information or metaphor that will play out later. Even something as comical as stopping for sushi in the aquarium car (balancing the ecosystem) has greater meaning and subtext when you look back at the film as a whole. Joon-hoo Bong and his co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have given serious consideration to how this world operates and what life would be like when all of humanity is confined to one long train. The past is revealed incrementally, gingerly allowing the audience to become consumed with this odd dystopian landscape, our fascination brewing with each new puzzle piece being added. I was enthralled with the rich details, the cruel methods of keeping those in the tail section in line, the regular head counts, the protein block bars and what they truly are made of, the annual celebration of passing a certain bridge marking their own New Year, and especially the deification of Wilford. The characters worship the engine, and why not since it is the source of life for them, or as the chirpy schoolteacher (Alison Pill) sings: “What happens if the engine fails? We all freeze and die!” The later reveals are the best, giving full explanation why tail section children are important and, particularly, why Curtis is so ashamed at having two good arms. That monologue by Evans, looking back on the earliest and most cruelly chaotic days on the train, is a whopper. I truly hope that aspiring actors will use it during future auditions. It will make an impression.

snowpiercer-tilda-swinton1Its dark sense of humor and political and philosophical subtext provide an even richer texture to this strange, bleak world. The political commentary isn’t exactly subtle, I’ll admit, but it’s exceedingly better executed and integrated into its plot than, say, last year’s Elysium. The class-consciousness provides a greater depth to the proceedings, providing a new spin on the have/have nots that’s just as relevant today. It’s not just tacked on, either. The political commentary is intertwined with the mechanics of the plot, as we’re witnessing class warfare against inequality, how barbarous acts can be co-opted for personal gain. When Curtis and his small company finally reach Wilford and the engine, it’s a moment akin to visiting the Wizard in Oz, the man behind the curtain they’ve heard so much about. There’s a great degree of incredulous humor from Wilford’s vaulted perspective, but the longer you listen, the more you start to follow his twisted logic and why exactly the status quo must be upheld despite the bloody consequences. Then there’s the macabre humor, which can be bracing at points, none more so than the school car sequence with Alison Pill (TV’s The Newsroom). Also doing plenty of comedic heavy lifting is Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, We Need to Talk About Kevin) with such an odd authority figure character. With a mouthful of fake teeth, some owlish glasses, and a peculiar speech pattern, it feels like she stepped out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and we’re all the better for it. Often she’s the only source of humor in what is otherwise a dreary story about the strong preying upon the weak.

Stylish, intelligent, rewarding in surprising ways while still being thoroughly entertaining, with tremendous technical attributes such as production design, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi flick that borrows from many but creates its own unique and enthralling landscape. Rare is the movie going experience where you sit at the edge of your seat, completely taken in by the creativity of the artists at work, transported to somewhere new and exciting, and you dread the approaching end credits. Snowpiercer is an experience that’s hard to describe beyond an unrelenting checklist of positive, glowing adjectives. Simply put, it’s movies like this that make going to the movies special.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

fault-our-stars-movie-posterWith a premise involving two teenagers with terminal cancer, you’d be correct to assume that The Fault in Our Stars is a sad experience. It wants to be an unsentimental version of the Big Cancer Weepie, like a more hip version of Love Story. It wants to obliterate your tear ducts but in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes from an overdose of maudlin material. Based upon John Green’s international best-selling young adult novel, the doomed romance of the year has already devastated millions of moviegoers. Is it the feel-bad movie of the summer with a soundtrack Zach Braff would approve?

Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl dealing with lung cancer. She lugs around an oxygen canister to her group therapy sessions, really to everywhere she goes. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) try and give her enough space, try to make her feel like a normal teenager, but they all know what is coming. Then one day at group therapy she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a tall, handsome, effortlessly confident young man in remission himself (he had a leg amputated from cancer). Gus hones his sights on wooing Hazel, winning her over. She resist at first but then finds herself falling for the charming fella (“I fell for him like falling asleep; at first slowly, then all at once.”).

A Fault In Our StarsWith constant life and death stakes and the certainty of a young life, it would be easy for the film to go overboard with its emotional histrionics, and yet the real grace of the film is its more realistic approach to portraying this life. It just doesn’t seem fair for someone so young to be stricken with a deadly disease that will pluck him or her from the Earth before settling into adulthood, but these things happen. Hazel and Gus are characters that aren’t begging for sympathy or even special treatment; they’re tired of being treated like lab specimens too fragile to be left on their own. It’s easy to lose the person when the outside world completely identifies them as afflicted. The skill of this movie is that it’s heavy with drama and sadness but it doesn’t quite overwhelm, at least until the last act. Until then, much like the characters, the movie finds the moments of happiness, connection, and tenderness with human contact. You feel the bursts of nerves and excitement over the flirty connection between Gus and Hazel. You’ll enjoy the couple-y moments they share, finding their own identity as a pair, like claiming “okay” as their own secret coded language. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy over that first kiss. It’s a winning pairing that produces a steady stream of sweet exchanges and discoveries. This is something of a silver lining movie that can make you ruefully smile through your tears.

But as a Big Cancer Weepie, and with two suffering lovers, there is a definite cloud that hangs over the entire movie. You’re nervously waiting for some sort of turn for the worse. From a storytelling standpoint, I think every ticket-buyer knows with two cancer-stricken leads that at least one of them will be dead before the end credits. And so we wait for the bad news, wait for that other shoe to drop, and this unsettling dread permeates the first half of the movie, tainting all those happy couple moments. Gus and Hazel have several cute moments, but I found myself holding back, waiting for the proverbial hammer to drop on their small shared happiness, and sure enough it will come. The entire third act is dominated by one character’s descent into terminal. For the sake of spoilers I won’t say which, though readers with keen analytical skills can likely guess which of the pair is more expendable from a plot standpoint. It’s at this point when the movie transitions from sad to full-blown weepie, looking to draw out every last tear. With the diagnosis set, our couple heads toward that date with oblivion, and we get all sorts of weight heart-to-hearts, teens grappling with their own legacy, and even a practice funeral for friends to say exactly how much the soon-to-be-departed loved one mattered. Every step is wrung out, even to the point of one last letter/message before death that serves as the closing, considerate voice over. It’s hard to resist the cumulative effect of all these big dramatic plays at your emotions (I got teary at several points but held my ground).

The question arises at what point is this blatant emotional manipulation? The first half of The Fault in Our Stars finds a balance between the heaviness and the levity of first love, grounding its characters and their emotional highs. However, with that aforementioned turn of sullen events, the plot then becomes one long series of Sad Ruminations. What will the friends do without their pal? What will the family do? What does this harsh realization do to other terminal characters and their own family relationships? What about coming to grips with certain death? And then there’s the practice funeral. For a movie and a set of characters that refused to dwell in a pit of sadness, that’s all that the second half of the movie feels like. It also feels like the two-hour-plus plot is overextended to squeeze in one sad ruminating scene after another. In a way, it reminded me of the onslaught of emotional punishment that was the last act of Marley & Me, an otherwise enjoyable movie that devastated every dog owner by its conclusion. It feels a bit much.

fault-in-our-stars-movie-trailer-twitter-reactions-mainAnd this leads me to another issue with the adaptation process, namely that Gus is actually a character with little depth to him. He’s a smiling, immensely likeable figure who doggedly pursues Hazel and falls for her hard. But what is he as a person? He’s overly confident, compassionate to others, witty, charming, but these are more superficial descriptions than deeper analysis. I suppose one could argue he’s just decided to embrace life smiling, but for the most part Gus comes across as a prime figure of squishy wish fulfillment. He’s too good to be true, and with a lack of stronger characterization, that’s the way he plays. Now, I certainly liked the character and found Elgort (Divergent) to be a charming lad, but when the film transitioned to sadder territory, my feelings felt blunted. I would have felt more for this couple had Gus felt more like a real person.

It’s a good thing then that Hazel is the protagonist and main point of view, especially when Shailene Woodley as lead actress. I’ve raved about Woodley before, particularly last year’s underrated Spectacular Now, but every new leading performance is further proof that she is one of her generation’s best young actresses. There is no artificiality in this woman’s body. Her performances are master classes in exuding naturalism, blending into the character, finding subtle ways to express a wide range of emotions; seriously, this woman can express so much just with a tilt of her head and the right kind of smile. Woodley is terrific once again, instantly locking in your sympathy. Her trial of love and suffering run the danger of being heavy-handed but Woodley seamlessly anchors the movie, guiding the audience back to her sphere whenever things get too overwrought. When she tears up, I teared up. When she unleashes a howl of grief, I had to fight every impulse in my body to join her. Her chemistry with Elgort is suitable if unspectacular, but Woodley sells every emotion and without a hint of artifice. If she were in a Big Cancer Weepie, you’d never know it given the skill of her performance.

I can’t imagine there will be much surprise for anyone who watches The Fault in Our Stars. Two young lovers with terminal cancer have a way of writing itself. What separates this story from other sappy tearjerkers is its presentation and perspective. This is a movie that flirts between jaded and maudlin, scoffing at the overt sentimentality of grief culture yet finding a middle ground that feels humane and honest and earned. Woodley’s strong, emotive performance helps ground the film even when the long string of manipulation begins. I wish Gus was a stronger character rather than a charming romantic compliment, a dream boyfriend who indeed comes across as too good to be true. I wish the movie also would not get swallowed up by the heavier elements it found balance with before. With all that being said, this is an engaging drama first and an amiable romance second. You may see the end coming from the start, but the same can be said about all of us. We all know how our own story is going to end. The only difference is the people we touch in between the start and the stop. That is our lasting legacy. The Fault in Our Stars is more a journey than a destination, and it does enough right with enough sincerity and intelligence to endure the pain.

Nate’s Grade: B

22 Jump Street (2014)

When 21 Jump SMV5BMTcwNzAxMDU1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE2NTU1MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_treet was proposed as a movie, nobody thought it was a good idea. Even its stars and writers. They used that as an opportunity to craft one of the more charming, surprising, and hilarious films of 2012, a movie so good that it was also one of the best films of a relatively great year at the movies. Now that was something nobody expected with a 21 Jump Street movie. As often happens, Hollywood looks to keep the good times going, and 22 Jump Street is knocking at the door. In Hollywood tradition, sequels usually follow the “more of the same” format with a dash of “bigger is better,” a fact that 22 Jump Street takes to heart.

Having successfully busted a high school drug ring, Officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are the toast of their unit. That is until they let a dangerous criminal (Peter Stormare) get away with a shipment of drugs. It’s back to the Jump Street program, as their police chief (Nick Offerman) laments that everybody just needs to do the exact same thing that worked the last time. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) has assigned Schmidt and Jenko to go undercover at the state university to sniff out where the student body is getting a powerful and deadly designer drug. Schmidt grows close to Maya (Amber Stevens), an art major who knew a girl who overdosed on the new drug. Likewise, Jenko is falling for team quarterback Zook (Wyatt Russell), or more accurately the bond they share as two athletes with a similar brain. The partnership of Schmidt and Jenko may be in trouble for the long haul if they can’t work together.

22-Jump-Street-2This may be one of the most meta movies of all time, existing outside itself in tandem to always provide a winking dose of commentary about its own silliness, excess, and corporate mentality about replicating success through the least creative means possible. There’s even a character with a literal red herring tattooed on his bicep. There are plenty of in-jokes without breaking down the fourth wall, and the meta cleverness is an entertaining way to pave over the general same-ness that goes along with the limited undercover premise. While cracking wise for its full running time, 22 Jump Street really is “more of the same.” For most, myself included, that is completely acceptable since the first 21 Jump Street was an unexpectedly witty and comically brash outing. Seeing another adventure with this same team is more than justifiable, especially with the kind of comic kinship that Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Tatum (White House Down) share. Once again the guys go undercover to bust a drug operation, and once again they each get close to a different set of students, and once again their relationship takes a personal hit. It’s the same plot beats but with different jokes (like the R-rated version of Anchorman 2). The entire “going undercover as a school student” concept is so dated to begin with, and neither Hill nor Tatum can credibly pass at this point, so the entire enterprise feels like they’re squeezing the most they can while they can, enjoying the good times, the good chemistry, being silly on the studio dime, and counting their luck.

The end credits for 22 Jump Street deserve special praise just for the appearance of burning down its franchise. Throughout the film the guys are mocking the very notion of a sequel. By the end, they mock, without abandon, the idea of a franchise. We flash through an absurd array of new assignments, new sequels, and new school-setting undercover gigs, and it’s almost like a flash-forward into the timeline of the movie, like the finale of Six Feet Under. There are some amusing cameos and business satire to mock with as well as the general ludicrous nature of repeating this plot/formula (Magician school?). The end credits leave the audience feeling buzzy and giggly, a perfect comic high, and it’s the best end credit high since the original Hangover.

The real enjoyment is watching Hill and Tatum continue to mine what has become one of film’s best onscreen bromances of all time. I never would have pictured these two fitting together so smoothly, or Tatum being such an unexpectedly natural comedic talent. Thank goodness for the 21 Jump Street movies for offering us these untold comic gifts and for knowing what the main attraction is and how to properly develop it. The relationship between friends/colleagues/bros Schmidt and Jenko is the most consistently interesting, surprisingly emotional, and comically ripe subject in the film. We have two great actors and watching them butt heads is just as fun as watching them get along. In the sequel, the guys go through what serves as an analogue for a separation, wanting to see other partners. We know in our hearts these two are meant to be together, and so much of the fun is watching just how this odd coupling now seems so indispensable to one another, with Tatum’s zigs blending ever so delightfully with Hill’s zags. I could watch another movie of just these guys doing paperwork.

In the first film, Jenko and Schmidt were set up to fall back into stereotypical roles before the movie found a better solution. Jenko was going to be the jock with sports classes, and Schmidt the nerd with AP classes and drama. Then a mix-up, and they have each other’s identities, and the movie is that much better, forcing each out of their comfort zone and finding the better comic scenario. With 22 Jump Street, the movie falls back to the old social order. Jenko hangs with the football jocks and the frat brothers and gets to be the super popular student-athlete, while Schmidt is left to investigate the art majors who knew the dead coed. It has them falling back into their high school roles (popular vs. outsider) and it’s not nearly as interesting, especially after seemingly growing beyond these moments. The side characters aren’t as interesting either, many lacking material to develop beyond one-note joke machines, like Zook. I was mildly intrigued by H. Jon Benjamin (TV’s Archer, Bob’s Burgers) as a football coach obsessed with protecting the goalpost, but I wanted more. Twin stoners who talk at the same time are not enough.

channing-tatum-and-jonah-hill-drive-football-helmet-car-on-set-of-22-jump-streetThere is one supporting actor given enough material to shine and that is Workaholics’ actress Jillian Bell. She plays such a deadpan, biting, sarcastic, no-nonsense roommate who won’t entertain for one second that Schmidt is who he says he is, and she is wonderfully brutal with her insults. There’s a later scene where she keeps wrongly misinterpreting a fight with Schmidt into something else. It’s a highlight of the movie, a great example of her physical comedy skills and sense of timing, and it’s a plumb example of taking a topic that a situation that could be uncomfortable and finding the right balance to guide an audience along for the best laugh.

Like before, once the movie adapts to its action-filled climax, the jokes start taking a backseat to the action theatrics. Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) have kept their same brand of rambunctious spirited comedy alive and well, which keeps the movie’s pace brisk and always open to fresh weirdness. While some jokes don’t work as well the second time (Vietnamese Jesus, the drug freak-out fantasy sequence, though its use of Creed music almost makes up for that), this is still more sequel than retread. This is not an Austen Powers that repeats the exact same jokes with slightly different settings. Lord and Miller understand how to satiate an audience without overt pandering. They know how to build payoffs that are small and payoffs that are big, ones directly linked to character goals. There are strong comedic set pieces unrelated to any sort of meta commentary, Schmidt’s impromptu slam poem being one of them. It’s a manner of giving people what they want while still finding new ways to surprise, because otherwise comedy is dead without the subversion of expectations.

“More of the same” is the best and worst summary for 22 Jump Street, and despite 1500 words of film criticism, all you really need to ask yourself. Is more of the same good enough for you when it comes to another 21 Jump Street movie? Sure, we’d all wish for the same sort of unexpected cheeky revelation that was the first film, but then again no one had any expectations that a 21 Jump Street movie would be anything worth watching, let alone one of the best films of that year. 22 Jump Street is hilarious, witty, aggressive, irreverent, and even when it has to take on the role of action-comedy, it does so with a consistent wink, pointing toward all the sequel tropes and absurdity without rubbing your nose in every single reference and gag. The second time around Jump Street is, by definition, never going to be as fresh, but the company is still top-notch, the jokes are still layered and cracking, and the determination is high. It’s a sequel that delivers what it promises. I’m ready to take this franchise as far as it can conceivably go for two men well into their 30s-posing-as-high-schoolers. Magician school, here we come.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Maleficent (2014)

115231_galWe’ve seen several stories try their hand at reclaiming villains, telling the tales from their relegated and forgotten points of view; after all, history is written by the winners. This technique can be illuminating and fascinating when done right, like Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s popular Wicked novels. However, does the public really have that much knowledge of Maleficent? Did most people even know what her name was? For that matter, do most people even know what the real name of Sleeping Beauty is or do they, like myself, just indifferently refer to her as Sleeping Beauty? That relative audience ignorance provides a wide canvas to retell this woman’s story.

In an ancient kingdom, there were two lands, one with men and one with magical creatures. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a cheerful fairy with long angelic-like wings and a pair of horns coming from her head. She befriends Steffen (Sharlto Copley) an orphan with ambition to be the next king of men. He betrays Maleficent, drugging her and cutting off her wings to prove to the dying king that she is dead. Years later, and now king, Steffen has a christening for his new baby daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), and Maleficent shows up. She curses the young child, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinning needle, fall into a deep slumber, and only be awakened by true love’s kiss. Steffen destroys all the spinning wheels he can find and sends out his daughter into the countryside for protection where she’s raised by three fairies taking on the form of humans (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple). It’s really Maleficent who helps raise her, watching over her and protecting her through the years, regretting the horrible choice she made in anger.

115234_galI’ll start by saying the reason you should see this film, by far, is Angelina Jolie (Wanted). She is terrific. You can readily tell how much fun she’s having with the character, and everything from her command, her physicality, her presence, her vocal delivery, is top-notch. She’s great from start to finish, the perfect embodiment of the character. Would you believe this is her first live-action film role in almost four years? Wow, did movie audiences miss her. If only the remaining movie was as good as Jolie.

It’s a shame then that just about everything falls into a rigid fantasy formula that squeezes any sense of magic dry. Maleficent is the queen of the fantasy half of this world, and after her betrayal by Steffen (more on that below), she seeks vengeance, cursing an innocent child and then remarkably caring for her through a hasty montage. It’s hard to ever accept Maleficent as a malevolent character, and I’m sure that’s by design by the Mouse House. She doesn’t do anything too scary and when the time comes she ends up making the right decisions. There isn’t really much of an exploration of her character here. There’s the pretense that she’s hero and villain but that falls away very quickly, especially with her loving relationship with Aurora. She wants to do right and feels terrible about the curse, but again that’s quickly taken care of. Aurora literally spends five minutes onscreen in her “eternal slumber.” It’s more like a magical nap. If the relationship between Aurora is what makes our heroine whole again, then the climax is saving Aurora, not getting vengeance against Steffen in a dumb CGI battle.

The magical fantasy world also feels oddly underutilized. At least in past Disney efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, the worlds at least felt like they had been explored, with many of the magical creatures pitching in during an Act Three battlefield. That isn’t the case here. The opening with young Maleficent (Isobele Molloy) introduces some strange creatures and some fairies, but they end up being little more than background dressing, meant to only communicate the change in Maleficent. In the end, it’s just Maleficent and her trusty crow (Sam Riley in human form) and that’s it. Question: if she can transform her pet into any number of creatures, including a dragon, then why didn’t she do this before? When she’s racing to save Aurora from pricking her finger, would a dragon have not been a faster mode of travel than a horse? Maleficent’s powers are also too ill defined, and her big weakness just happening to be iron feels trite, like her version of kryptonite. The fairy world and its powers aren’t given the examination it deserves. As a whole, the world of Maleficent feels less than magical. It feels more like a series of scenes rushing through a plot holding fast to the beats of recent Disney live-action hits.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into what is intended as a fantasy film for families, but Maleficent is one big analogue for rape. Hear me out. The title character falls in love with a man who likewise tells her he loves her but is just using her to his own advantage. He then drugs her drink and while she’s unconscious has his way with her, leaving her physically disfigured and feeling betrayed. She turns inward, rejects the outside world, and dwells in sadness and seclusion. She doesn’t tell others about her attacker until many years later. The public is quick to blame the victim. And then ultimately, once she feels “whole” again thanks to reaching out to others/support, she is able to confront her attacker and rise above his destructive influence, returning to some semblance of her former self. When looked at in its entirety, does that not sound like an intentional analogy for rape/sexual assault? Maleficent’s character arc mirrors the experiences of rape victims, and the fact that this kind of mature storyline is played out in a Disney summer family film is kind of extraordinary. It’s not so explicit that little kids will walk home asking mom and dad about the persistent nature of “rape culture,” but its presence and articulation is a start. As a rape analogue, it’s not offensively handled unless you are one who finds its very inclusion an offense for a PG-movie. Now, this storyline does transform the character in a way others may dislike. Rather than being a powerful agent of evil, she’s a woman who was victimized by a man and that’s why she turns toward the dark side. For some this will be a disappointing turn of events. I can’t say one approach is better than the other from a feminist point of view, but I credit Disney for following through with uncomfortable symbolism for rape to describe Maleficent’s arc.

91116_galThe rest of the cast fill out their roles but lack the flare of Jolie. Copley (District 9) is proving that he may be best under the guidance of Neil Blomkamp. He was one of the better parts of Elysium but without Blomkamp he makes such mystifying choices as an actor. His voice and performance were powerfully wrong for Spike Lee’s unnecessary Old Boy, and his demeanor is all over the place with Maleficent. To his credit, the character is horribly underwritten and given so little mooring to try and understand his ever-changing decisions and temperament. Fanning (Super 8) is an innocuous Aurora though the actress has often showed much more ability. Here she just laughs a lot. Riley (On the Road, Control) is wasted comic relief and as a companion. The three color-coded fairies are consigned to broad comic relief, usually bumbling and getting into slapstick brawls with one another. I can’t imagine children finding them too funny.

Maleficent the character is given great care by Jolie, the actress. Maleficent, the movie, is slapped together and feels devoid of any sort of engaging storytelling or big-screen magic to leave a favorable impression. It’s a rather expected and unexceptional retelling that hits all the notes you’d expect, though without as many magical fantasy creatures, which seems like an oversight for a world of fantasy. The rape analogue is a bold choice for the filmmakers and deserves credit. I wish I could also give them credit for the storytelling and characterization, both of which are rather flat and rote. The special effects are likewise unremarkable. Outside of the rape symbolism, this is a movie you can likely predict every step of the way just looking at the poster. I was able to even predict the left-turn ending concerning “true love’s kiss,” though Frozen already got there first. If you have low expectations and simply want to watch Jolie and her killer cheekbones be fierce, then perhaps Maleficent is worth checking out. Otherwise, this villain’s retelling feels far too familiar and safe and underwhelming to be worth the effort.

Nate’s Grade: C

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