Friday, June 13, 2014

22 Jump Street: The Most Meta Action-Comedy Sequel Ever

Most sequels all have the same inherent problem: they try to take all of the best elements of what made the original so successful and expand upon them, make it bigger, and attempt to retain the high quality of the original and make more money.  A lot of the time the sequel becomes a carbon copy of the original, placing the characters in a new setting and tweaking the conflict, but creating what is essentially the same plot (I'm looking right at you Hangover II).  The best sequels expand upon the characters and not the plot.  They create new conflicts and new scenarios for the characters we know and love to have to overcome.  Yes, sequels always get a higher budget and always amp up the energy of the first movie, but the good ones use this budget effectively (Terminator 2, Aliens).  22 Jump Street recognizes both achievements and very unsubtly parodies the outcomes of both sequel scenarios.  In turn, this decision makes 22 Jump Street a highly self-aware and effective sequel.

The plot begins the same.  Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are sent undercover as college students (expanding upon the high school students they played in the previous entry) to find the dealers of a new synthetic drug in order to take down the supplier (the exact same thing they did in the previous entry).  This time, instead of Schmidt being taken in as the cool one, and Jenko as the outcast, the roles are switched once again.  They even solve the crime by discovering that it was a teacher on campus who had a hand in the drug distribution... exactly as it was in the previous entry.  Lessons are learned about brotherhood and friendship and what it means to succeed in life and college.  However, this is just the first half of the film.  The second half is about going bigger.  It's about adding a twist to the structure of the first one and a half Jump Street films.  It's about not replicating the same plot from the first film, but about taking the characters we love and bringing them to new, organic conflict that has them dealing with a situation that is out of their league, appears unwinnable, and forces the audience to wonder how in the hell they're going to make it out alive.

This entire plan of mocking sequels, and more specifically action sequels, isn't exactly a subtle artform to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.  In 21 Jump Street it was all about mocking how Hollywood is incapable of coming up with new ideas, so they decide to reboot something from the past that no one really gave a shit about in the first place.  It was chock full of "reboot" references and jabs.  This time, it's the action movie sequel.  There are blatant references to Lethal Weapon, Face/Off, Mission: Impossible 2, Iron Man 3, Ice Cube's music career, and loads of 80s action tropes. All of the references successful and even make sense in the what the two cops are trying to accomplish plot-wise.  It's a smart film, if not just a little bit too overt with their tactics.

What's strange about movies today is that most films are critically unsuccessful unless they defy convention or parody it.  A straight sequel to 22 Jump Street would've probably done about the same in the box office.  But, in order to boost that score on rotten tomatoes, they had to satirize everything about what it means to be a sequel.  This is something Muppets Most Wanted attempted briefly, but failed to explain as witty as 22. Originality and self-awareness is the name of the movie game in 2014.  Anything else just comes off as hackneyed and cheap.  Though, I feel a majority of the films released in the last decade have these themes, it's a new day and age where the film industry has done so much we have to parody the parody at this point.

But, it is a very funny movie.  I wouldn't say it's any better or worse than the original.  If you enjoyed 21 Jump Street, then you will be pleased with it's sequel.  It's Channing Tatum as a charming, brutish idiot, something we may not get to see again.  And it's Jonah Hill-- a douche.  But, he's a very funny douche.  He will not fail to make anyone laugh.  There are some fun cameos, and one really stupid one.  Ice Cube steals nearly every scene he's in.  And there's something funny here for everyone.  It's a very successful sequel that doesn't fail to point out why it is successful and how it would've failed.  It's a commentary on the film industry's laziness... with dick jokes.  So, you know... it's a pretty good balance.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: Groundhog Day With More Tom Cruise Dying

Tom Cruise gets a bad rap.  He really does.  Dude honestly picks good movies.  Yeah, he's batshit crazy in real life, but the guy knows how to pick films.  Other than his latest sci-fi failure, Oblivion, his choice in sci-fi/action is generally stellar.  War of the Worlds was underwhelming, but he was good in it and Minority Report is arguably his best work in his lengthy filmography.  Other than the blight of Knight and Day (which we can all agree was ruined completely by Cameron Diaz) and his personal life, there's no reason to distrust Tom Cruise's film choices.  Yeah, he kinda looks like an aged-pretty-boy midget wiener, but he's picking roles now that honor that about him. His role of Cage in Edge of Tomorrow does this best I've seen.  What I'm trying to say is this: of the films released thus far in 2014, Edge of Tomorrow is by far the best.

Edge of Tomorrow will suffer in the box office due to two distributing errors.  One, due to his vomit-inducing craziness, Tom Cruise is a tough box office sell.  And two, here we have another sad case of poor trailer representation.  The trailer doesn't really give much away except that Tom Cruise is in another science fiction movie where he is apparently the sole badass.  The trailer poorly represents the awesomeness that is Edge of Tomorrow.  Cruise plays Cage, a major involved in the PR side of the war against aliens that have come to Earth in an asteroid.  He's not a fighter.  He's a huge wuss that wants nothing to do with the way.  He's the spokesman to the people to let them know that the armed forces are doing everything they can to get rid of the alien force.  Then, when he's unwillingly sent to the beaches of France to fight in the biggest battle yet, he's forced to find the man-testicles that have eluded him in his career thus far.  Unfortunately, they don't last long when he's killed on the beach by an alien, or Mimic.  However, once he dies, he's sent back to the day before the battle has begun to relive the same day over and over and over again.

He doesn't understand how he's achieved this ability, but by having it he's able to join forces with British female badass Rita, dubbed "Full Metal Bitch", train to become the soldier he's portrayed himself to be, and hopefully figure out how to stop these aliens from destroying the planet as we know it.  Without giving anymore away, this is a great premise for a sci-fi.  Taking the best elements from Groundhog Day, combining it with what worked so well in films like District 9 and Independence Day comes one of the best sci-fi flicks I've seen in a long time.

What's great is the Cruise doesn't try to take control of the film with his movie star ego.  He allows everyone else, soldiers who actually have warlike ability, to show off their skills and teach him a thing or two about the fight. It only makes sense that a four-foot-two scientology dwarf would be able to learn any skill, even if that is how to perfectly fight a manic alien force, with the repetition of the same day playing out over the course of what could be years.  Hell, anyone could.  It's how Cruise handles himself as a self-aware puss with no real tactical skills that adds that extra level of sophistication to the already tight script.  Unlike the recent Godzilla, it actually makes time for character development that feels organic to the story.  And, the aliens are actually something new we haven't seen yet that don't look like CGI laziness.

Everything about Edge of Tomorrow works well.  It will probably be one of those films that will do much better at Redbox than it does in theaters.  I strongly suggest anyone reading this to get out there and see it.  It was offered in IMAX and 3D.  Not being a fan of 3D myself, I don't necessarily think this is one that needs to be seen in that format, but IMAX, on the other hand, may just be that perfect, visually powerful sci-fi we've been waiting for.  Great film.


Monday, June 2, 2014

A Million Ways To Die In The West: Surprisingly Less MacFarlane-y Than You'd Expect

I have a strong dislike for Seth MacFarlane, and yet I have a very high respect level for him.  He has a unique sense of humor that you either love or hate.  I, personally, hate Family Guy in all its forms.  One, it's essentially a rip-off of one the best show of all time: The Simpsons.  Two, it's a very easy show to write with one-note characters that learn no lessons whatsoever.  It's the callback show.  The remember-the-time-I... joke that a four year old on acid scribbling with an Indian Red crayon could write on a wall.  I don't find it funny.  It goes for cheap laughs and anything that doesn't involve a brain cell I pass on.  However, MacFarlane, himself, is anything but an idiot.  He knows what people like and what the general public will laugh at.  And, with Family Guy, he has run with it for years.  Then, he decided to cross over into live action film with Ted.  Ted still had the same immature toilet, vulgar, potty mouthed humor that Family Guy exudes weekly, but there was more heart and character development and laughs.  It showed Seth MacFarlane's ability to adapt in an unfamiliar territory and provide his same group of followers with a different side of him.

Most of the time a Seth MacFarlane vehicle will feature the same type of laughs: you'll get pushing-the-envelope vulgarity, disgusting sight gags, undeniable political incorrectness, obscure celebrity references/cameos, and drug humor.  Ted was able to do this successfully.  So, going into A Million Ways To Die In The West I was expecting the same type of MacFarlane-ness as his previous work.  I was, strangely, and pleasantly surprised that it was... lacking.  AMWTDITW is shockingly less of a Seth MacFarlane film and more of a mainstream romantic comedy... set in the old west.  There are still plenty of MacFarlane-isms in the film, but they're very scarce and and mild compared to everything else he's done.  A few reviews I've read have even reprimanded him for "losing his touch" and "bitching out."  However, I see this less as a comedian's laziness and more of a step in the direction of comedic maturity.  He could've gone balls out with his idea of western vulgarity and self-awareness, which is what I was expecting.  For a film title involving all the different ways to perish in the old west, I was mostly expecting a cavalcade of over-the-top, gross-out, gruesome death scenes.  And yet, it was reserved in that aspect.  This could be viewed as disappointing to those hoping for MacFarlane's previous work to come forth in his new projects, but I view it as, once again, comedic maturity.  The film is funny enough with the characters he's created and the situations he's put himself into.  And, minus one strange and unfunny drug hallucination, I feel like AMWTDITW hits more positive notes than negative ones.

The film tells the story of Albert (MacFarlane), a cowardly sheep farmer who has just been dumped by the love of his life, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) after chickening out of a gunfight.  Trying to win her back, he challenges her new beau Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) to a gunfight.  Only one problem, Albert has never shot a gun before.  He makes friends with a new beauty that's recently come to town, Anna (Charlize Theron) who has a more than a few tricks up her sleeve.  She just happens to be the wife of the most dangerous outlaw in the territory, Clinch (Liam Neeson) who doesn't take kindly to the fact that she's made "a new friend".  Hilarity ensues, yada yada yada.

It's amazing how well the characters and situations just work in this film.  Anna hates the outlaw life, so she is instantly attracted to the "nice guy" in Albert.  I can't believe this is something I'm actually writing, but MacFarlane and Theron's chemistry is top notch.  One of the positive things I can say about MacFarlane as a writer is that he's got this knack of being able to write dialogue that sounds just like real life.  Their conversations, when they're alone, of pure bullshit sounds like a bullshit conversation two people attracted to one another would have.  It's full of subtle jokes and poking fun at one another without sounding too rehearsed or fake.  It almost has the feel of an improvisation, which I'm sure a majority of it was.  But, the two together have an amazing chemistry that actually makes you feel for them, something that is primarily absent in nearly everything else MacFarlane has done.  Their relationship could be put into any decent romcom and it would work just as well.

There's also other great side characters and scenarios.  Albert's best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) is a virgin engaged to Ruth (Sarah Silverman) who is the town's most successful prostitute.  Yet, the two are Christian and haven't conjugated, so to speak, because they don't want to piss off the Lord.  It's an ironic relationship that is, again, ripe for great comedy.  I feel like I'm praising the movie like I'm biased somehow, but this is actually coming from someone who generally doesn't advocate MacFarlane-esque entertainment.  But, I was wildly impressed with this film.  It's dirty, it's crass, it's fun, it's bloody, it's cute, it's engaging, it's a joy to watch, and most importantly... it's a very funny film.