Movie DopeMovies

Movie Dope

21 JUMP STREET (R) 2012’s biggest surprise to date has to be this brilliantly dumb comedy from star-producer-story contributor Jonah Hill. A pair of pathetic new cops, Schmidt and Jenko (Hill and comedy revelation Channing Tatum), blow their first bust. As a result, they are transferred to a special undercover unit that sends fresh-faced policemen into local schools to nab drug dealers and the like. Their angry black captain (played with perfect apoplexy by Ice Cube) tasks the duo with finding the supplier of a new synthetic drug. Schmidt and Jenko hilariously discover that today’s high school flips their previous experiences. Former cool kid Jenko is banished with the nerds, while Schmidt experiences what it’s like to be popular. What should not work in this remake of the late ’80s/early ’90s Fox program, most famous as a launching pad for Johnny Depp, does with surprising comic force. The mission that Hill’s The Sitter half-accomplished is successfully completed by this flick, thanks to Scott Pilgrim scripter Michael Bacall’s smart riffs on ’80s action movies and two perfectly in sync leads. Could Hill/Tatum be a new comic duo or is this a one-time, lightning in a bottle deal?

ACT OF VALOR (R) At times, Act of Valor betrays its humble origins as a military recruiting tool (think of the National Guard/Three Doors Down video for “Citizen Soldier†expanded to feature length), but at its high-octane best, this action experiment rivals its bigger-budgeted, star-laden competitors. What really sets Act of Valor apart from its action brethren is its non-professional acting troupe, an elite team of active duty Navy SEALs playing an elite team of Navy SEALs. Understanding the soldiers’ dramatic limitations, the movie tends to focus on the military tasks at which they excel, and it is rare for an action movie to feel as real. The plot feels like excised hours from one of Jack Bauer’s day-long terrorist battles on “24,†but separating the truth from the fiction becomes difficult once the fighting starts. What could have just been Call of Duty: Modern Warfare—The Movie exhibits technical prowess and a singular, successful gimmick that elevates the military flick above today’s stock action movie. Act of Valor cannot deliver the emotional payoff of The Hurt Locker, but it does not dishonor our fighting men and women.

THE AVENGERS (PG-13) Head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) brings together a super-team composed of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) to save the world from Loki (Tom Hiddleston). This summer tentpole is Joss Whedon’s make-or-break movie. Can the beloved geek icon translate his prodigious talents to the widest audience available? Not a one of these heroes is my favorite, but I cannot wait.

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (PG-13) No better Avengers counterprogramming could exist than this British dramedy starring Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Oscar winner Maggie Smith and Oscar winner Tom Wilkinson and directed by Shakespeare in Love Oscar nominee John Madden. A bevy of Brits travel to the subcontinent to stay at the posh, newly renovated Marigold Hotel, but the adverts prove misleading. Still, the hotel does begin to charm its English patrons. Based on the novel by Deborah Moggach.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (R) Horror movies do not come much more perfect than The Cabin in the Woods, written by geek god Joss Whedon and one of his strongest protégés, Drew Goddard. A sublime tweaking of the entire slasher genre, Cabin’s deconstruction may be less meta than Scream, but its elaborate mythology—a staple of the Whedonverse—is transferable and adds a brand new reading to nearly every modern horror film. Five college friends (the most familiar face is the beardless one of Chris “Thor†Hemsworth, soon to be seen in Whedon’s The Avengers) take a weekend trip to the woods that ends in a bloodbath. The setup may be threadbare, but rest assured the twisty execution, hinted at in the trailers and established from the first scene between the excellent, seemingly out of place duo of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, hits its mark with every bloody, brilliant shot. I dare not say more without ruining the surprise. The Cabin in the Woods deserves its considerable genre hype and is the best horror movie of the year. It’s not going out on too weak of a limb to say it’s the best (written) horror movie since Scream.

CHIMPANZEE (G) Disneynature releases their most stunning Earth Day documentary yet. Too bad they did not include an alternate narration to substitute for Tim Allen’s; the sitcom giant is no Morgan Freeman. Nevertheless, the Bambi-like story of chimpanzee Oscar unfolds with some of the most unbelievable footage ever witnessed in a nature doc, and that’s not just me saying that; Jane Goodall, Ms. Chimpanzee herself, agrees. After tragedy strikes Oscar at the age of three, he is fully adopted by the alpha male of his group. “Planet Earth†documentarians Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield luckily catch this extremely rare event, which makes for a tremendously human narrative, while filming in the middle of the rainforest. The last few years I have appreciated but not really cared for Disneynature’s films. The sheer dynamism of the imagery of this year’s entry easily overwhelms any flaws. Plus, that little Oscar fellow is pretty darn cute.

THE DEEP BLUE SEA (R) Adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan, the newest film from award winning filmmaker Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes, which is screening as part of Ciné’s Fifth Anniversary Series) stars Rachel Weisz (a nominee for the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actress) as Hester Collyer, the wife of a British judge, who begins a torrid love affair with an RAF pilot (Avengers villain Tom Hiddleston). Nominated for Best Film at the London Film Festival.

DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX (PG) Released on Dr. Seuss’ 108th birthday, this pleasant animated adaptation of the beloved children’s author’s environmental fable fails to utterly charm like the filmmakers’ previous animated smash, Despicable Me. The Lorax may visually stun you, and Danny DeVito’s brief time as voice of the Lorax could stand as his greatest role, one that will go unrecognized by any professional awards outside of the Annies. Unfortunately, the movie spends a lot less time with the fascinating, entertaining forest fighter than it does with Ed Helms’ The Once-ler (I’m usually a big Helms fan but his zany naïf felt incongruously calculated here) and bland Zac Efron’s bland protagonist, Ted. On the bright side, the film excels as a traditional movie musical, where characters naturally transition into songs that deepen their character or advance the plot without some silly justification via subjective dream sequences or glee club memberships. The songs they sing could be more memorable; I cannot recall a single one a day later. The Lorax is not the year’s best animated feature (imagine what Pixar could do with Seuss), but the childishly funny film does not pander to its audience, young and old, even if it does preach a bit.

• THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (R) As written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, the acting-writing-directing duo behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement almost sells its initial gag too well. Nearly the entire first act plays out like the airheaded romantic comedy in which the smart comedy writers plan to poke holes. Then the change comes and The Five-Year Engagement begins its lengthy, though not overlong, slide into relationship complications (more real than scripted) and comic gags (some sold with more skill and less obviousness than others). Tom and Violet (Segel and Emily Blunt) get engaged on their one-year anniversary and then struggle to pull the trigger, as life sends the soulmates obstacle after obstacle. The stars have a breathable chemistry. Segel fans will welcome the “How I Met Your Mother†star’s opportunity to doff his Marshall Erickson togs. With every performance, Blunt reminds us how much better she is than romcom standards, Kate Hudson/Katherine Heigl. As with all Apatow-produced comedies, the support—Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Brian Posehn, Chris Parnell and more—adds to the whole. Pratt and Brie are unsurprisingly exceptional. It’s not the next Bridesmaids, but its marriage of laughter and (a little) drama is a strong one.

GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (PG-13) Marvel’s Neveldine/Taylor experiment might have gone better had the company had the guts to release another R-rated flick a la their two Punisher flops. The Crank duo brings their frenetic, non-stop visual style, but those wicked paeans to hedonism had a narrative need to never slow down (its lead character would die). Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance must pump the brakes occasionally to let the “story†catch up, and Neveldine/Taylor never seem as comfortable when the movie’s not rocketing along at 100 miles an hour. They also don’t keep a tight enough rein on their star; Nic Cage is allowed to unleash every one of his worst acting instincts as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, tasked with saving a young boy from the Devil (Ciaran Hinds). A handful of my favorite actors (Hinds, Idris Elba, Anthony Head) cannot save this merrily daft movie. Not even the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert, who makes the most of his pitifully small screen time, is a match for the movie’s voracious, unhinged lead. Nonetheless, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a step up from its tremendously awful predecessor (Neveldine/Taylor > Mark Steven Johnson).

THE HUNGER GAMES (PG-13) While a successful adaptation of a difficult book that near everyone has read, The Hunger Games has little cinematic spark. It’s a visual book report that merely summarizes the plot. It’s a well-written book report, but it’s still a book report. Seabiscuit director Gary Ross was not the most obvious choice to direct this dystopian adventure in which 24 teenagers are randomly selected for a contest in which only one will survive. That bleak premise was handled with more appropriately bloody violence in the Japanese film, Battle Royale, and America’s version of the game needed more of a visceral gut-punch to look less like “Survivor: Teen Island.†The book’s R-rated violence was deliberately shot with near incomprehensibility so as to retain a PG-13 rating. Seeing these popular characters brought to life proved most of the controversial casting choices were successful. Jennifer Lawrence has Katniss’ steely beauty, and Josh Hutcherson has Peeta’s magnetism. The jury is still out on Liam Hemsworth’s Gale. Woody Harrelson nails the obviously less alcoholic Haymitch. More time spent in the Capitol with Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna will be a boon for the sequel. All critiques aside, I was left with one question: How long until Catching Fire?

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME (R) Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the better entrée into mainstream cinema for the filmmaking Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark (“The Leagueâ€â€™s Pete), than their previous film, Cyrus. Jeff is a simple, sweet, comedic character study about a 30-year-old slacker (the eminently likable Jason Segel has never seemed like so much of a giant) who lives in his mother’s basement, while watching Signs one too many times. Jeff looks for signs in everything, and one fateful day, those perceived signs lead him on a bit of an adventure with his brother, Pat (Ed Helms). Pat, as played by Helms, really wants to be a Danny McBride character, but at heart, he’s just too nice. The largest criticism one could level at Jeff is that the movie is too nice. It lacks a harsh bone in its sweet, man-child body. Otherwise, the film is easily the most complete, the most traditional of the Duplass’ four features. With its cast of television and movie stars (Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer join Segel and Helms), Jeff gives off little of the mumblecore vibe that dominated the Duplass’ earlier films. Jeff is just a solid, independent film; no hip genre required.

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (PG) Considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef, 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono works tirelessly in his legendary restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, which includes all of 10 seats in a Tokyo subway station. Meanwhile, his son, Yoshikazu, struggles with the unenviable task of filling his father’s sushi chef coat. Before he turns his knife over to his son, Jiro longs to construct the perfect piece of sushi. Director David Gelb makes his feature film debut.

JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (PG) Journey 2: The Mysterious Island’s biggest problem might be time. Many of the young people who enjoyed its 2008 forebear, Journey to the Center of the Earth, might have outgrown the Brendan Fraser/Dwayne “The Rock†Johnson brand of family adventure movie. Sean (Josh Hutcherson, soon to be Peeta in The Hunger Games) and his future stepdad, Hank (the always appealing Johnson), travel to the mysterious island to find Sean’s granddad (Michael Caine). Along for the ride are a goofy helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman, being as Guzman-y as ever) and his gorgeous daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). The island’s giant, 3D-tastic flora and fauna make for a movie that’s fun to look at for an hour and a half, especially on the big screen, but does not create the sort of lasting impression needed to survive in today’s oversaturated entertainment market.

THE LONG DAY CLOSES (PG) 1992. The fourth film of Ciné’s Fifth Anniversary Series: For the Love of Cinema, The Long Day Closes follows up The House of Mirth filmmaker Terence Davies’ autobiographical feature debut, Distant Voices, Still Lives. Poor young Bud uses the local movie house to escape ’50s Liverpool and his new school’s bullies. A Palme d’Or nominee, Davies did pick up a Best Screenplay prize from the Evening Standard British Film Awards and a Golden Spike from the Valladolid International Film Festival.

THE LUCKY ONE (PG-13) The Notebook it is not, but The Lucky One will not disappoint Nicholas Sparks’ fans looking for some sappy romance and a shirtless Zac Efron. A Marine named Logan (Efron) survives several incidents after finding a picture of a woman. When he returns to the states, he seeks out this woman, whom he learns is named Beth (Taylor Schilling, still recovering from Atlas Shrugged: Part I) to thank her for saving his life. But things get complicated when he falls for her and her young son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), and runs afoul of her ex/Ben’s dad (Jay R. Ferguson, who excels at clueless d-bags), a deputy sheriff and son of big-time local judge/prospective mayor. The war scenes are thankfully short, making me wonder how much worse they could have been on the page, and director Scott Hicks (some fine films like Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars) illustrates this romance with some gorgeous, magazine spread cinematography (word to Alar Kivilo, whose work to date has never betrayed this artistic an eye). Will love conquer all or is this another one of Sparks’ tearjerkers? Only 141 minutes of your life stand between you and the answer.

MIRROR MIRROR (PG) Not much clicks in 2012’s first reimaging of Snow White (the darker Snow White and the Huntsman drops in June). Julia Roberts does not an Evil Queen make; the anachronistic dialogue is wincingly unfunny and the live action cartoon, overflowing with Stooge-y slapstick, is a tonal decision only pleasing to undiscriminating children, many of whom found Mirror Mirror to be rousingly delightful. It’s not. The classic Grimm’s fairy tale remains largely the same. When the king (Sean Bean) dies, his evil queen (Roberts) takes over and hatches a plan to take his rightful heir, Snow White (Lily “Daughter of Phil†Collins), out of the picture. Instead of dying, Snow meets up with a band of dwarves, meets a charming prince (Armie Hammer) and winds up happily ever after. Pretty much all that happens in the new version, but Snow is more proactive heroine and less distressed damsel. Naturally, Tarsem stages the silliness with the lush, visual wizardry one expects from the Immortals director, but the returns are diminishing. His amazing visions need to be matched with material that can equal them, and to date, they have not.

• THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (PG) You could do a lot worse than The Pirates! Band of Misfits when choosing animated flicks to see with your kids. Aardman Animations, the British folks that brought you Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run, hit the high seas with the Pirate Captain (v. Hugh Grant) and his oddball crew. While seeking the coveted Pirate of the Year Award, the Pirate Captain runs into Charles Darwin (v. David Tennant, the tenth, and my personal favorite, Doctor), who wants the scurvy rascal’s feathered mascot, a thought-to-be-extinct dodo. The jokes are funny and often smart, and the stop-motion clay animation refreshingly different. The voice cast could have traded up (Jeremy Piven? No Ian McShane? Mostly, Jeremy Piven?!). Still, The Pirates! is cute, humorous and well-animated. Kiddie flicks come with a lot less booty than this buccaneer.

PROJECT X (R) This teen “greatest party ever filmed†flick could use a more descriptive title, preferably one that doesn’t get as many children of the ’80s’ hearts racing at the thought of a remake of the Matthew Broderick, Helen Hunt and a monkey movie. As a former teenager, I wish I’d been invited. As a responsible adult, I lament how this teen comedy, produced by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, condones the Internet era’s hedonism as teenage rite of passage. Three unpopular high schoolers—Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown)—throw a party so wild (sex, drugs, alcohol, fire, a midget; it’s like the boys go to Bret Easton Ellis High) that not even the cops can stop it, a conceit that play rights into teenagers’ already overinflated egos. The appeal of Project X truly depends on the perspective—adult or teen—from which you view it as the party supplies few surprising acts of debauchery. It does add a novel running gag about two overzealous, overmatched teen security guards. Their misadventures had a sense of freshness from which the rest of this slightly tired party flick could have benefited.

• THE RAVEN (R) Too bad The Raven wasn’t made by an Italian. As a giallo flick, this fictionalized account of the unknown events surrounding the last week of Edgar Allan Poe’s life could have been a better match for John Cusack’s laudable characterization of the American literary giant. Instead, V for Vendetta/Ninja Assassin director James McTeigue chose an ill-fitting Saw Meets Se7en vibe. When several bodies turn up murdered in a manner inspired by the works of Poe, America’s premier writer of the fantastic and grotesque may be the key to the police investigation, led by Inspector Fields (Luke Evans, The Three Musketeers’s Aramis). After Poe’s beloved, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve, She’s Out of My League), is kidnapped, the author’s urgency manifestly increases. The inventive story by writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare is charged with potential that their screenplay, McTeigue’s direction and subpar supporting players quickly strangle. Dialogue is weak, at best, and Cusack is propping up everyone but Brendan Gleeson (though the near cameo from “Downton Abbeyâ€â€™s Brendan Coyle pleases). Those weaknesses could be overcome with a sense of giallo style; imagine the mad field day even aged Argento could have had with this tale.

• SAFE (R) Fans who order the usual from the successful House of Statham franchise will be pleased by Safe, in which the charismatic proto-man plays Luke Wright, a former cop-turned-cage fighter viciously protecting a little Chinese girl (Catherine Chan) from the cops, the mayor, the Russian thugs who killed his family and the Triad. An appearance by James “Lo Pan†Hong is always worth a few extra points, but Safe is about as grimly typical as a Statham flick can be. I prefer mine balls-out crazy like the two Neveldine/Taylor-helmed Crank hits. Having seen enough of Statham’s action movies to know action means important, dialogue not so much, Safe provided some key moments for me to continue crafting my never-to-be-written essay on Jason Statham. Today’s query: Is Statham better off having missed the ’80s/’90s action heyday, when he would have been competing with Arnold, Sly and Bruno at the top of their game? Would he have joined the aforementioned big three or been relegated to the lower tier with Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme? You should have time to develop your response during Safe or any of the other three to four movies the Brit action hero appears in this year.

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (PG-13) A fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) attempts to make a sheik’s dream of bringing fly fishing to Yemen a reality. The newest film from multiple Academy Award nominee Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules) sounds like the sort of feel good, crowd pleaser at which he excels (think Chocolat). A script by Slumdog Millionaire’s Academy Award winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy should not hurt. With Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas and Amr Waked.

THINK LIKE A MAN (PG-13) Anything I wanted to like about Think Like a Man is tainted by the casual homophobia, sexism and racism the movie attempts to pass off as comedy, and that’s a shame for the hilarious Kevin Hart, who is finally, smartly given a showcase role. Based on Steve Harvey’s romantic self-help tome, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, the movie, written by the scripters of Friends with Benefits, sometimes feels like a late night infomercial for Harvey’s patented way to win a man. We have six unbelievably mismatched buddies—Hart’s divorced dude, Romany Malco’s “playa,†Michael Ealy’s “dreamer,†Jerry “Turtle†Ferrara’s noncommittal white dude, Terrence J’s “mama’s boy†and some other white married guy—and the women (Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson, Meagan Good and Regina Hall) who want them to settle down. Begin the chapter scenarios. Woody Allen attempted something like this to funnier results when he adapted Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex; a more relevant and even less successful adaptation would be 2009’s He’s Just Not That Into You. If you really want to take romantic advice from Steve Harvey, filtered through Turtle, it’s your love life.

A THOUSAND WORDS (PG-13) An Eddie Murphy family comedy, directed by Brian Robbins (Meet Dave and Norbit), that’s been in the can since 2008? Nothing in this sentence implies anything good (or funny). A literary agent, Jack McCall (Murphy), is taught a lesson on truth by a spiritual guru via the Bodhi tree that appears on his property. Every word Jack speaks leads to a fallen leaf; when the last leaf falls, so does Jack. With Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington, Allison Janney, Jack McBrayer and Clark Duke.

THE THREE STOOGES (PG) Apparently, a modern update of Three Stooges is not an idea as utterly bereft of laughs as one would imagine. As staged by the Farrelly Brothers, the violent misadventures of Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), Larry (Sean Hayes, “Will & Graceâ€) and Curly (Will Sasso, “MADtvâ€) now involve a murder plot, a reality TV show and saving an orphanage at which Larry David entertainingly plays a nun. Fans of the Stooges should be pleased as the chosen trio and their younger counterparts—Skyler Gisondo, Lance Chantiles-Wertz and Robert Capron—are swell stand-ins for the originals. Their performances may simply be long-form impressions, but they stand up to scrutiny. If anyone could be knocked for shallow, sketch-level work, it is “MADtv†alum Sasso; however, Curly’s mannerisms and catchphrases have so long been repeated, it is hard to imagine his “nyuck, nyucks†not seeming mere imitation. Boo to the Farrellys for splitting up the Stooges in the last episode (the movie is segmented in three) AND including an unwanted “Jersey Shore†gag. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the Stooges (I was always a Moe fan); this movie reminded me how much fun those three could be.

TITANIC (PG-13) 1997. One of the biggest hits of all-time and the winner of 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) gets even bigger with the addition of a third dimension. The shocking maritime disaster that took 1,514 lives becomes the backdrop for the love story of Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) in King of the World James Cameron’s old-fashioned, blockbuster epic. I scoffed at the rerelease, but a recent trailer left me surprisingly interested to rewatch the film for the first time in years.

THE VOW (PG-13) Nicholas Sparks has to be kicking himself for not coming up with this plot first. A young couple, Paige and Leo Collins (Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum), struggle to fall in love again after a car accident erases all of Paige’s memories of Leo and their marriage. As these plots are wont to do, Paige’s rich parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) and her ex-lover (Scott Speedman) use her tabula rasa to rewrite their past wrongs, while Leo must cope with the realization that his wife might never remember him. The Vow climbs out of the romantic drama pits mostly due to its two charming leads, McAdams and Tatum, who must overcome some spotty dialogue, obvious plot developments and weak supporting players (not a lot of recognizable faces outside of those five already mentioned). Director Michael Sucsy, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Grey Gardens, transitions to the big screen with surprising success considering the tear-soaked tissue of a true story with which he had to work. The Vow won’t make romance fans forget The Notebook, but it is better than most of the fake (and genuine) Sparks Hollywood’s been peddling.