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Review: ’22 Jump Street,’ Good, Silly Fun

'22 Jump Street'
’22 Jump Street’
Cheerfully embracing its existence as a cash-grab sequel, 22 Jump Street delivers another big slab of good, silly fun.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum return as Schmidt and Jenko, respectively, police officers who were sent undercover to crack a high-school drug ring in 2012’s 21 Jump Street. The first film tracked the development of their friendship as their own high school experience was flipped upside down: Schmidt, the lonely geek, found himself in favor, while Jenko, the popular jock, found himself on the outside looking in.

The new film recycles the drug-related plot, sending the partners to live in a college dorm. It also reverses their social acceptance: Jenko’s athletic abilities are instantly recognized on the football field, while Schmidt has trouble fitting in.

Once again, 22 Jump Street mixes jokes, quips, and humorous line readings with a generous assortment of physical gags. It’s a scattershot approach that leans heavily toward nonsensical antics and a healthy disinterest in reality. Yet the film also relentlessly jokes about the nature of the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko; it seems that nearly everyone believes them to be gay and romantically involved, while the two men remain oblivious to the signals they’re giving off.

Using the f-word to refer to gay people is specifically condemned in a scene that comes late in the movie, though it feels like it was inserted to ward off any possible criticism of the earlier sequences that are reliant on two men “acting” gay. Frankly, it’s discomfiting, and not in a way that has anything to do with being politically correct.

In any event, the hit-or-miss nature of the comedy here is not as sure-handed as it was in the original, and occasionally the film slows down to the point where it’s a bit too aware that it’s a sequel and that expectations have, rightfully, been lowered. When the comedy kicks in, though, it’s very funny indeed, and the hits outnumber the misses by a good percentage.

Hill and Tatum make for a good comedy team; their physical differences and varied styles of delivery are used to fine advantage. Ice Cube returns to give good glare as their always-angry supervisor. The supporting cast features delightful turns by Amber Stevens (in the thankless role of Schmidt’s love interest, Maya); real-life twins The Lucas Brothers (as new dorm mates), and Jillian Bell, who practically steals the show as Maya’s roommate Mercedes, a dour young woman who rattles off insults like an out-of-control vending machine.

Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, working from a script credited to Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, keep things lively, though it feels as though there are fewer flights of fancy. Perhaps they spent all their creativity on the end-credits sequence, which, without spoiling things, is the funniest thing in the movie.

Still, 22 Jump Street is a bright and funny picture, and generates more than enough laughs to justify its existence.

The film opens wide in theaters across North Texas on Friday, June 13.

Review: ‘Godzilla,’ Bold and Breathtaking

Gareth Edwards' 'Godzilla' (Warner Bros.)
Gareth Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ (Warner Bros.)
Bold and breathtaking, Godzilla is a most unusual monster movie.

It’s a big-budget production that reflects the personal touch of director Gareth Edwards, who made his feature debut with the “languid and dreamy” Monsters in 2010. (My review here.) That independent film, for which Edwards created the visual effects on his laptop computer, followed a relationship that develops between two people as they travel through a near-future world that has been devastated by an alien invasion.

With Monsters Edwards said he wanted to begin where every other monster movie ends. So Godzilla is, in a sense, a prequel to that movie, while also serving as a respectful reboot of Toshiro Honda’s Gojira (1954). In this version — story credited to Dave Callaham, screenplay credited to Max Borenstein — the U.S. atomic bomb “tests” in the Pacific were actually attempts to bomb Godzilla back to the Stone Age. In 1999, an incident in the Philippines leads to the destruction of a nuclear plant in Japan.

That sets up the modern-day setting, as military bomb disposal expert Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home on leave to his loving wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco, only to be called to Japan to bail his father Joe (Bryan Cranston) out of jail. Joe, who ran the doomed nuclear plant, believes that a cover-up was involved, one that still poses a grave danger 15 years later, and he refuses Ford’s entreaties to let it go. Joe is proved right, and giant monsters are soon threatening the future of mankind.

Godzilla is a serious, solemn movie, as befits the story of the (possible) end of the world. This in itself marks it as different from the usual run of summer blockbusters, which usually rely on wisecracking, super-powered characters to deal with apocalyptic threats. The humans here are little more than live-action narrators, inserted to provide exposition and explain what the visuals do not convey. That may be intentional. Ford Brody, his wife, his father, his mother (Juliette Binoche), a Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe), a British scientist (Sally Hawkins), an American general (David Straithairn) — they’re all too fallible, too human, too tiny to make much difference in the battle that breaks out between the monsters. Oh, they are self-sacrificing heroes, willing to give their lives, but to Godzilla and his kind, they are barely more than annoying gnats.

The trail of destruction is often glimpsed obliquely, which further reduces the humans to furtive, childlike figures, futilely seeking to avoid death. Whatever happens, their fate is not within their control. Godzilla makes a very strong case that human beings are not the masters of the Earth, but instead are temporary residents, here today and (perhaps) gone tomorrow.

It’s a sobering message, delivered as blockbuster entertainment.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas today. See it, if you can, in 3D at the Cinemark 17 IMAX Theatre, where the experience is well-worth the surcharge.

Review: ‘Chef,’ A Tasty Fantasy

Jon Favreau's 'Chef' (Open Road Films)
Jon Favreau’s ‘Chef’ (Open Road Films)
A fantasy about food, family, and social media, Chef is a pleasant confection served up in an appetizing manner. The service is a bit slow, but the food is tasty when it arrives.

Writer, director, and star Jon Favreau, who lately has found gainful employment making impersonal, big-budget extravaganzas, returns to his indie roots to tell the story of Carl Casper, a chef who has lost his way. Once he turned heads with his culinary abilities, but he has fallen into a rut serving the same, albeit popular, menu at a high-priced Los Angeles restaurant owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who doesn’t want Carl to change a thing. Meanwhile, Carl has become distant with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who is steadily losing hope that he still plays an important role in his father’s life.

Things come to a head when “the most important restaurant critic in Los Angeles” (Oliver Platt) gives the restaurant a bad review, singling out Carl for some bitingly personal comments, and prompting him to start a flame war via social media. Carl ends up out of a job and, eventually, in Miami watching Percy while his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) conducts some business. She’s been urging him to get a food truck and cook the kind of food he wants to cook, and finally he capitulates after Inez’s ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) gives him one.

Naturally enough, Carl is so talented that his food truck becomes an instant sensation. Naturally enough, Percy is such a social media whiz that the food truck becomes an instant sensation wherever it stops on a road trip from Miami to Los Angeles. Naturally enough, plenty of delicious-looking food is served, everyone loves it, and family bonds are strengthened.

If this all sounds pro-forma, a string of episodes allowing Favreau to expound upon his philosophy of life, love of food, and discomfort with criticism, well, it is. Yet Favreau is a convivial host, and he’s called upon his friends — those already noted, as well as John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, and more — to fill out the cast with sincere and palpable camaraderie. Life lessons are gently imparted with a light touch; the episodes are peppered with humor and seasoned with a spirit of generosity

Chef may be a familiar dish, but it’s cooked with honesty, integrity, and good ingredients. That makes it a welcome addition to any film lover’s menu.

The film opens today at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, AMC NorthPark 15, and Cinemark West Plano and XD.

Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2,’ Love Conquers Action

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'
‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’
Laced as it is with spectacularly-staged action sequences, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, at heart, a grand love story.

Sparks flew between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in the first installment of the rebooted Marvel franchise under the direction of Marc Webb, and love bloomed. Having in mind the collateral damage that is already accruing due to his embrace of his super-powers, however, early in the second installment Peter decides that he must break off the romantic relationship. Gwen tries to make this her call — “I break up with you!” — leaving the weapy-eyed Peter to mope and mourn and pine for her throughout the summer after their graduation from high school.

As mercurial as teenage romances can be, the love between Peter and Gwen is the old-school type of affair, harkening back to the mid-20th century stereotypes that declared first love lasts forever, leading inevitably to a lifelong marriage, 1.5 children, and a home in the suburbs with a white picket fence. It is an old-fashioned ideal that nonetheless informs Peter as he wrestles with the early stages of adulthood and the weight of his responsibilities as Spider-Man. This is borne out as well in his relationship with his beloved Aunt May (Sally Field), who still grieves for her late husband even as she struggles to make a living and strains to understand the very strange boy/man she considers her son. She embodies the ideal woman, in Peter’s mind: a loving caregiver who must be protected at all costs.

Gwen is attracted to Peter’s altruistic heart, but she has needs as well. She doesn’t require his complete attention; she understands that he has to go to work and may sometimes have to spend long hours in the “office,” especially as he gets his career established. Still, she doesn’t want him constantly deciding what’s best for her; if she wants to pursue the relationship over the objections raised by her late, highly-protective father, she will do it. And after living under such a loving but somewhat smothering man, she’s not about to settle for that in a romantic partner. She knows the risks involved, but she wants to be in charge of her own life, thank you very much. That’s what being an adult means, after all, isn’t it?

The romantic elements provide the underpinning for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and if they were somehow divorced entirely from the requirements of a big-budget summer blockbuster, they’re strong enough to stand on their own as a convincing love story. The raison d’etre of the movie, of course, is not the romance but the flying and the fighting and the exploding.

And those elements are what must be graded on a curve nowadays. Generally speaking, the action here is framed and staged on a wider canvass than is often seen, and paced in a slightly more comprehensible manner, so that it’s easier to follow where the participants are located in space and time. That being said, the close-quarters action is as frenzied as any found-footage movie and/or superhero blockbuster of the 21st century, which has left me cold for a very long time.

The mechanics of the menace and the villains and the evil and the violence both threatened and carried out upon the people and property of New York City is, well, mechanical, eating up huge portions of real estate and helping to inflate the running time well beyond what is necessary to tell the story. Multiple villains are the name of the game nowadays, which requires more set-up and explanation, and then even more time to dispose of them, and it’s all quite wearisome.

Add to that the new franchise requirement of setting up the next installment(s), and the movie sags under the weight. The high points are, at least, higher than they were in the first installment, and the lows are not as low, so progress is being made.

Andrew Garfield makes for an adequate Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but it is Emma Stone who steals the show as a strong-minded, quick-witted heroine who simply doesn’t have enough to do. She could save New York City all on her own, if only a radioactive spider would bite her.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens in theaters across Dallas on Friday, May 2.

Review: ‘Oculus’ Merges Paranormal Activity and Psychological Trauma

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in 'Oculus' (Relativity Media)
Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in ‘Oculus’ (Relativity Media)

A methodical psychological drama that reaches for more than the usual jump scares is a tough sell for modern audiences.

Oculus is not, by any means, a traditional thriller. It doesn’t build suspense so much as it occasionally releases tension. Set in a house that is apparently haunted by a dark force residing within an antique mirror, the film proceeds to dissect the two main characters and questions whether it is they who are haunted by past actions, rather than the mirror itself.

Eleven years ago, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaits) survived traumatic events in the family home. Kaylie now works at an auction house with her understanding boyfriend Michael (James Lafferty). Tim has been confined to a mental hospital ever since the inciting series of events, but he is now declared “cured” and thus released on his 21st birthday.

Kaylie is happy to reunite with Tim, yet she barely allows him to breathe the fresh air of sanity before rushing him back to their former family home, where she has re-installed the accursed antique mirror. She is determined to do something to rid them both of their nightmares, yet Tim is resistant to her scarily-detailed plans.

The whys and the what-fors subsequently unfold in unexpected, quietly executed twists and turns. Events of the past and future waltz the narrative backward and forward in time, as more family secrets are unveiled and the “truth” is given a severe beating about the head and face.

The film, directed by Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard (based on a short screenplay by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman), does not stint on explicit bloodshed and eyebrow-raising shocks, though they are rarely delivered at the front door. Instead, they come sneaking into frame, sidewinder-style, often catching the viewer off-guard.

Gillan and Thwaits make for an unlikely pair of siblings; she is assured even when she is expressing pitiful emotions, while he is unsteady and sounds more mechanical. At first, I thought that Thwaits was simply not up to Gillan’s level. But, given the long gap of years when the siblings were separated, it makes perfect sense that the ease of their relationship might have hardened. As their younger versions, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan create aptly different personalities. As their parents, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane bring unusual and disturbing shadings.

With its dry, sober approach and languid pace, Oculus rows against the tide of popular horror movies. Moments of levity are few and far between, and post-modern wisecracks are nowhere to be found. Relying on an unsettling atmosphere, a menacing tone, and clashing characters who do not obey the rules, Oculus goes bump in the night and leaves many bruises.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, April 11.

Review: The New ‘RoboCop’ Is The Same, Only Different

'RoboCop' (MGM / Sony)
‘RoboCop’ (MGM / Sony)

Zoom zoom zoom! The sleek new version of RoboCop sprints at high speed through a multitude of plot points and sociological concerns, leaving little room for emotional impact and absolutely no compelling artistic reason for its existence.

The surface is highly-finished and reflective. Writer Joshua Zetumer copies the story and characters of the 1987 RoboCop so closely that original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner also receive credit for the screenplay. Certainly there are differences, most significantly with the individual credited for the “creation” of RoboCop, Dr. Dennett Norton, played with fierce adherence to subtle emotional modulation by the reliable Gary Oldman.

Dr. Norton is portrayed as a man of science who earnestly wants to avoid any of his work being weaponized for military purposes. He’s fooling himself, of course — he is employed by OmniCorp., which is (apparently) entirely devoted to the manufacture of drones and other mechanized weapons for use by the U.S. military — and it’s only a matter of time before OmniCorp. head Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his nasty minions (ice-cold Jennifer Ehle, sleazy Jay Baruchel, and dead-eye Jackie Earle Haley) coerce Dr. Norton into making RoboCop into the mechanical man of their financial dreams.

As Dr. Norton wrestles his conscience into submission, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) struggles with the loss of his manhood, both literally and figuratively. The new film demonstrates a heightened awareness and increased sensitivity toward Murphy, who is treated (eventually) with the kindness and patience accorded a soldier disabled in military service. While no direct connection is made on that front, the film’s opening sequence takes place in Tehran, Iran, and explores the political impact of drone warfare on public consciousness, and it’s a short step from there to viewing Murphy as an unwilling pawn of the U.S. government.

Except the film doesn’t really “go” there; it conjures up a controversial law banning the use of completely mechanized weapons, and focuses like a laser-beam on the premise that U.S. citizens of the near future are most desirous of having humans manning robotic death machines, which neatly avoids the far more controversial issue of gun control. Within this film, it’s more like “gun control control.”

Always keeping meaningful issues at arm’s length means that the film pens itself into a prison of its own devising. Padilha’s action sequences unfold with brutal efficiency, though none of the actual bloodshed is shown; dozens of people are killed throughout the movie, but almost always without an ounce of blood flow, all the better to secure a PG-13 rating, rather than a more honest R rating.

Honoring a film because it is not as bad as I anticipated really doesn’t make any sense. To be fair, the cast invests the film with as much heft as possible, which threatens to topple the slender the narrative into pomposity. Oldman is terrific and Kinnaman makes the role his own; notable additional contributions are made by Abbie Cornish (as Murphy’s wife), Michael K. Williams (as Murphy’s partner), Marianne Jean-Bapiste (as Murphy’s commander), Samuel L. Jackson (as media commenter Pat Novak), and Aimee Garcia (as Dr. Norton’s lieutenant).

The abundance of talent on hand ensures that the film is competently made and acted. But the original film still exists and is still as fresh, timely, and poignant as ever. Why watch a copy when the original is so widely available?

RoboCop opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Wednesday, February 12.