Saturday, March 31, 2012


Taking a page from Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlbeg from 2010's "The Other Guys," here's another buddy cop duo who absolutely nail it, but now it's Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill taking bromance to a whole new level. The term bromance comes from a platonic love from one guy to another, which has been explored countless times before. The onscreen pairing of Tatum and Hill, however, feels like something brand new in being so comically rewarding. In their bumble-headed playfulness, they effortlessly show how guy relationships can be both complex and stupid -- much like "21 Jump Street" itself.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) went to high school together in 2005, and their dynamic is clear straight away. Schmidt was the ultra nerd who got shot down by girls when asking them to prom while Jenko was the handsome and popular, yet academically challenged, jock. Seven years later they're good friends after attending a police academy together, and as immature-looking rookie cops, they get assigned to a special division where they must infiltrate a high school while undercover. They're both forced to relive their high school experiences; Jenko thinks he has the bad boy popularity thing down while Schmidt dreads walking the halls again. But a switch-up in their class schedules puts Schmidt in classes more suited for an idiot jock while Jenko gets put in advanced chemistry.

It's not only their stereotype swap that's throwing them off. High school has changed since their time. The cool kids aren't bullies but rather environmentally savvy hipsters led by Eric, the head of a drug ring played with weird, surfer bro charisma by Dave Franco (the destined-for-stardom younger brother of James Franco). Hilariously placing the blame of a changed high school lifestyle on "Glee," Jenko no longer knows how to keep it cool and fit in. Playing up a perfect dumb face, Channing Tatum proves his comic chops outside of his usual Nicholas Sparks typecasting, especially in his scenes where he realizes he may not be as dumb as he always believed. The tables have turned, and Schmidt finds his way into the cool crowd to bust the drug ring.

What makes "21 Jump Street" more than a reimagining of some TV show from the 80s and a hapless remake is the way the comedy knows that it is exactly just that -- and then plays with the formula. While you might think you've seen this setup before (because you have), the movie knowingly makes sure to explode and rearrange our expectations into something that consistently manages to surprise and shock. Thanks largely to creative direction from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") and an irreverent script from Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall ("Project X") -- featuring more iterations of the word "dick" than you could imagine -- the movie is absurd for the sake of absurdity à la "Anchorman" with a joyous, ridiculous spirit.

The supporting cast is along for the goofy ride, too, including Ice Cube who is uproariously vulgar as the hardened police captain who does Samuel L. Jackson proud. And for how off-the-wall the whole ordeal is, there are hints of truth sneakily hidden in there giving us a rather candid and honest look at high school life considering the circumstances. Best of all, "21 Jump Street" is chock-full of gut-busting funny scenes to remember. Take for example a car chase in a student driver car with Tatum dressed in a hoodie covered in atomic bonds with Hill sporting a Peter Pan costume or, another instance where the duo, to prove they're not narcs, pop a mind-altering drug that literally shreds their minds (and ours) to pieces.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Breathe easy, everyone. "The Hunger Games" is not the next "Twilight," not even close. Don't even utter that title -- think more along the lines of the "Harry Potter" series. Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic tale that has thrilled millions of readers is now affirmed worthy of being the next big screen literary phenomenon. It's an accomplished, strong and unflinching adaptation that lives up entirely to the source material and even to the hype surrounding it. And with that, the next big franchise begins.

Director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit") does a superb job of establishing Collins' vision of her futuristic Panem, what was once North America. The bleak opening alone effortlessly displays the tension between the gaudy, colorful luxuries of the Capitol and the twelve districts that lie below in desperation and desolation. It was seventy-four years ago when the districts rebelled, and as a punishing reminder the morally-corrupted Capitol hosts the annual Hunger Games. Each district must offer up one boy and one girl as tributes to compete in a fight to the death between 24 children and teens with only one emerging victor. Not only that, the competition is a widely celebrated national media event within the Capitol while every district is forced to watch loved ones fight for their lives.

The story's heart lies with 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who, during the Reaping Day ceremony where tribute names are selected out of a daunting fish bowl, hears the name of her young sister, Prim Everdeen. In a bout of adrenaline and sacrifice, Katniss leaps forward and volunteers herself as tribute to save her sister. Facing the games and her possible death, Katniss is not the ferocious, fearless heroine. The brilliantly cast Jennifer Lawrence (of "Winter's Bone") digs deeper. She shows Katniss as fighting out of necessity to stay alive. She is intelligent, tactful and skilled when it comes to hunting. She knows her capabilities and knows what must be done if she's faced with having to kill another person. With a signature thick braid trailing down her back and completely unaware of her own natural beauty, the Academy Award-nominated Lawrence is the best incarnation of Katniss as there ever would be.

Picked alongside Katniss is the baker's son who saved her life, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson of "The Kids Are All Right"). They're both from the downtrodden District 12 where Katniss otherwise spends her days hunting for scraps of food to keep her sister and widowed mother alive. Along with them, Katniss leaves behind her close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth of "The Last Song" with girlfriend Miley Cyrus) who she illegally hunts with on the outskirts of the district. Hemsworth has an appealing presence while Hutcherson is great as the boy with the bruised heart, and both of their characters may be secretly pining for Katniss.

Inside the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta are treated to a world of decadence that both allures and takes them aback. This is while we're treated to a wonderfully charismatic supporting cast. Among them is Elizabeth Banks as the prim and proper Effie Trinket whose phrase, "May the odds be ever in your favor" holds a malicious aftertaste. Then there's Haymitch, played up with humor and heart by Woody Harrelson, the District 12 mentor who's all too used to having tributes with no potential. Every tribute gets a makeover, and Lenny Kravitz serves as Cinna, Katniss' affectionate stylist guru who fashions her a dress that is literally on fire.

The games have an artificial glamour to them thanks to Caesar Flickerman, played with excellent sinister charm by a wig-wearing Stanley Tucci, who serves as the TV host. Katniss and Peeta are instructed by Haymitch how to pander to the audience and suck up to sponsors so they drop them crucial supplies as gifts while in the arena. The District 12 duo becomes labeled as the star-crossed lovers, but is Katniss truly falling for Peeta, or is she just trying to save both their lives? Your call.

The movie is brutal when it needs to be concerning the bloody teen-on-teen violence in the arena. Most of it is off-screen slaying, but the implication is nonetheless disturbing. When the countdown ends and the games officially begin, the initial scene is one of wild intensity that sets the tone. Once inside, we follow a mostly silent Katniss on the watch for predators; Lawrence here is particularly expressive moving with quick confidence. A lot of shaky-cam captures the action to a great and jarring effect; the cinematography overall from Tom Stern (best known for working on Clint Eastwood films) turns the environments imagined by Collins into truly cinematic creations along with Thomas Newton Howard providing a moving score.

For once this could be a situation where the movie adaptation nearly outshines the source material thanks to impeccable casting and solid acting. Perhaps thanks to Collins' own involvement in the screenplay alongside Billy Ray and Gary Ross, there is a vast amount of exposition and detail packed in. It's remarkable considering how lean and trim the script is without a moment of downtime within the expansive 2-and-a-half-hour running time. Best of all, any potential for cheesy moments or trite dialogue is checked at the door. What unfolds feels entirely visceral and real. Ross knows when to keep things tastefully understated and when to kick up the "wow" factor to sensationalize.

When not in the arena we're shown the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who mandates the Hunger Games to spite that one rebellion against him. With him is the Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and his assistants who manipulate the conditions of the arena to ensure maximum cruelty. With that comes subtle allegory -- the moral ambiguity when it comes to most guilty pleasure reality shows today. Most important, though, is the very human story here, one that resonates not just as teen fiction but thought-provoking entertainment for adults. And it doesn't hurt that it's so skillfully done. This is the best adaptation of "The Hunger Games" fans could have ever imagined or hoped for, and the sequels can't come soon enough.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


"Friends With Kids" marks the first movie sense "Bridesmaids" to continue that same brand of humor -- a female-driven comedy with just the right levels of raunch, wit and heart. It's the proof that Academy Award-nominated Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo truly started something. And so it's even more fitting that "Friends With Kids" also serves as an unofficial reunion of the "Bridesmaids" cast.

Jessica Westfeldt -- who co-wrote and starred in 2001's "Kissing Jessica Stein" -- goes solo this time writing, directing and starring in this candid look at adult relationships; ones affected by that tricky life obstacle we call having kids. The movie looks like any other rom-com you've seen set in bustling New York with sleek nightlife and nifty apartments. Setting it apart, though, is Westfeldt's screenplay full of sharp dialogue which brings up smart observations giving her characters more to chew on. Westfeldt, 42, clearly knows raising children is no easy feat, and her intensity on the topic shows. The movie's cynicism and harsh, biting humor is off-putting at first, but it eventually eases into a bittersweet balance.

Longtime friends Julie (Jessica Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) watch as their coupled friends have kids and, consequently, start losing sight of their formerly fun selves. Maya Rudolph paired with Chris O'Dowd and Kristen Wiig with Jon Hamm (all of "Bridesmaids") play the married duos, and they're consistently great. While Julie and Jason revel in their carefree and sexy lives going on dates and being unattached, they still want to have a baby -- just without the baggage of a relationship. So, on a whim they decide to have a baby together while sharing custody but remaining in their separate apartments with their separate lives.

After their baby Joe is born, Jason goes out and meets a dancer named Maryjane (an interesting choice of Megan Fox who is perhaps purposely kept quiet) while Julie finds love with a suave divorcee, Kurt (Edward Burns). Meanwhile baby Joe bounces back and forth between their two lives, like a shared custody post-divorce without the messiness of a divorced marriage. Their friends, having had kids in wedlock, aren't sure how to take Julie and Jason's unique situation. It's used as a clever platform to launch the movie into a lot of talk with the kind of frank, graphic conversations contemporary R-rated comedies are having now -- for adults -- about relationships, marriage and sex. And it's all good talk.

The question: do they remain friends? Well, "Friends With Kids" is at its very core a standard rom-com, so answer that one for yourself. But through it are plenty of moments worth remembering. Adam Scott, of "Parks and Recreation," is a scene-stealer as the snippy, smart-mouthed Jason who has a revelationary monologue during a snowy cottage getaway with the six friends. And Westfeldt proves a fine leading lady who also shows in a worthy directorial debut that she knows how to get the most out of a fantastic ensemble cast.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


A movie about three high school losers trying to make a name for themselves by throwing a crazy, out of control party has absolutely no right being this good. It's colossally irresponsible, reprehensible, morally vacant, carnally raunchy, every teenager's wet dream and every parent's worst nightmare.

Comprised of a bunch of nobodies, first-time director Nima Nourizadeh pulls off something astounding. Conventional wisdom tells me to hate everything about this movie, but something about it is impossible to dismiss. It's the perfect post-Oscar remedy. It's a bold, brave and daring movie made with ingenuity no matter what the subject. Produced by Todd Phillips, Nourizadeh is simultaneously channeling "The Hangover" while smashing it to bits one-upping the chaos and debauchery at every turn. It's the "Animal House" of this generation, which doesn't completely work as a compliment. But it does make you look at how far our youth have come.

The title of "Project X" works in that it's not called "Best Party Ever" or "Epic Party" -- instead, it's labeled as a project, an experiment in filmmaking. While the found footage, shaky cam, making a documentary style is nothing original (see earlier this year's "Chronicle"), doing such to capture a huge party sort of is. It's a drunken "Cloverfield," a terrifying-in-a-whole-different-way "Paranormal Activity" and an even more disorienting "Blair Witch Project." And for being 2012, it marks the perfect apocalyptic, destructive party at the end of the world. Everything that could go wrong does, and it's all for Thomas (Thomas Mann), a nobody high schooler celebrating his 17th birthday with his two best friends.

Costa (Oliver Cooper) is the spearhead of the trio. With an obnoxious personality but enough charisma to get a crowd going, Costa invites everyone at their school sending out mass texts and email blasts to make sure Thomas' birthday bash isn't a bust. JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is the schlub of the group, the down-on-his-luck third wheel who actually has a hidden attitude and recklessness about him. The fourth of the group is the camera man, Dax, who remains mostly unseen but gets a shot of every bit of the action.

Before Thomas' parents leave for the weekend, his dad warns him that nobody better lay a finger on his Mercedes. Well isn't that a dead giveaway? The party goes from an unassuming 50 attendants to an explosion of 1,500 party-goers going hard -- really hard. To say things get excessive is an understatement, and we get to experience every detail. Fast-edited montage sequences capture the sweat, booze, puke, pulsating bodies, fist pumping, crotch grinding, bare breasts, flashing neon lights, and it's all set to a bumping soundtrack. It's pure party mayhem with mad tonal shifts flickering between awe and dread of the impending repercussions for Thomas when the sun comes up. And this is all before a ceramic gnome gets shattered with a baseball bat scattering Ecstasy pills all over the lawn.

The thing about this movie in its pushing the limits of taste is that it feels real. Comedies have grown grosser and more outrageous as the years have gone by, and this one is just the next step. It's in the same way horror films have progressed and gotten gorier, more graphic. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but it certainly is a reality. I sat with my mouth agape not believing what I was seeing. I spent more time in absolute shock than I did laughing. You walk out of the theater talking about it into the next day like you were there, and I think that that's exactly the point. "Project X" is a VIP pass to the best party you've never been to.