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Monday, March 26, 2012

21 Jump Street: Really Smart and Really Funny

NOTE: There's some naughty language in this post, but I'm writing about a naughty movie, so what the fuck?

Well, I gotta hand it to Jonah Hill. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in Moneyball (if you don't count the stinker The Sitter), he scores again with a rowdy comedy that spoofs the now barely remembered '80s Fox TV series that made Johnny Depp a star.

In a 2005 prologue, we meet nerdy high-schooler Schmidt (Hill), in full Eminem drag, trying to ask a pretty classmate to the prom, but before he can even get the words out, she's pleading with him not to do it. Watching the proceedings is Jenko (Channing Tatum), one of the cool kids, who mocks Schmidt's desperate attempt, causing him to run away in shame.

But later, Jenko (who's not the sharpest knife in the drawer) is humiliated by a teacher for being stupid, and we next find them sitting on separate benches wiping away their tears, and it's a testament to the filmmakers' cleverness that this scene is actually quite touching, humanizing the characters from the outset.

Seven years later, Schmidt and Jenko are training in the same police academy. Jenko can't pass his written exam, so he turns to his former adversary for help, and they form an unlikely bond: Schmidt will help with the scholastic requirements and Jenko will coach Schmidt in athletics.

After a lame drug bust foiled by Jenko's inability to remember the Miranda Rights, things look grim until they are recruited to go undercover as high school students by the perpetually pissed-off Captain Dickson (an amusing performance by Ice Cube) to sniff out and arrest the manufacturers of a synthetic drug called Holy Fucking Shit—HFS for short. They watch a YouTube video of a kid experiencing the effects of HFS, broken down into four hilarious stages: “the Giggs”, “Tripping Balls”, “Insane Over-Confidence” and—finally—“Holy Motherfucking Shit.” Stage Five can either be "Asleepyness" or death.

To keep their cover, the guys have to go live with Schmidt's parents, whose house is near the school they're going to attend. But when they show up for their first day of class, they're confused by the cliques, whose members they can't identify with. And when Jenko makes fun of a kid for listening to "gay" music, he readily admits that he is gay, and his classmates stand up for him. It's a whole new world.

Schmidt, meanwhile, begins to realize that he has a chance to be one of the school's cool kids, getting involved in the drama club and track and field. Conversely, Jenko finds himself bonding with the geeks in the science lab. It's a fun twist on normal expectations that is well-supported by a clever script. Indeed, the film's sunny view of high school students as liberal, nonjudgmental and post-bigotry, is a breath of fresh air.

The partners finally track down a student dealing HSW, Eric Molson (Dave Franco, brother of James, whom many will remember from the hilarious "You're So Hot" video with Christopher Mintz-Plasse). They buy a couple of hits from him, but he wants them to prove they're not narcs by taking the drug in his presence. They do, and we get to watch them go through the four aforementioned stages in a foot-stompingly hilarious sequence.

Schmidt falls for Molly (Brie Larson), a sweet girl in drama club, but has to keep his dick in check because she's just a kid. And Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper), the chemistry teacher, also has to keep her hands to herself when she's tempted by the supposedly jailbait hunk-o-Jenko.

But some students clearly see through the ruse; one of the geeks (Dax Flame) asks, "You look really old. How long were you held back?", to which Jenko responds, "You look really young. How long were you held forward?" Social media success story: Flame created himself on YouTube and is also currently in the outta-control party movie Project X.

The action sequences are a scream. When Jenko and Schmidt are being pursued by bikers involved in the manufacture of HFS, they keep shooting at trucks containing high-level explosives and fuel, only to wonder why they aren't blowing up. Incidental scenes are equally hilarious, as when Schmidt, in his bedroom, phones Molly to engage in some high school small talk, only to have Jenko rush in, beat the shit out of him, dry-hump him, and otherwise engage in hilariously brotherly behavior to ruin the moment. It's comedy gold.

Hill's Schmidt is a well-realized character, maintaining his geekiness while trying to spread his new-found wings as one of the cool kids at last. Hill was also responsible for co-writing the story, and it definitely demonstrates that he can double careers (a valuable thing these days). Tatum, who was so impressive in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting (I didn't see his teen smoochy or dancy films), seems to be having a blast sending up his bruised beauty image here, and it's infectious.

Yes, there are cameos by original Jump Street alumni, but to find out who participated, you'll have to go see the film. I hope my review has persuaded you to do so.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Spidey Project Swings Into Hollywood

Article first published as Theater Review (L.A.): The Spidey Project Swings into Hollywood on Blogcritics.

On February 11th, 2011, New York-based actor/writer Justin Moran, appalled by the budgetary excesses of the problem-plagued and frequently-stalled Broadway musical, Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, threw down the gauntlet via YouTube, asserting that he could write, score, cast, stage, advertise and and open a Spider-Man musical on a nonexistent budget by March 14th, one day before the opening of the bloated spectacle.

Moran says he posted the video at 3 a.m., never thinking it would extend beyond his own circle of friends, but he woke up to find his voicemail full, hundreds of Facebook friend requests and even messages from Broadway pros who wanted to participate. With that, The Spidey Project: WIth Great Power Comes Great Responsibility was born.

Needless to say, Moran made his deadline (even though the other show didn't). And his worries about...ahem...copyright issues were alleviated when executives from Disney Theatrical (the muscle behind SM: TOTD) came to see the show.

This month, The Spidey Project is making its West Coast premiere via the Theatre Unleashed company, and it certainly lives up to the hype. Proudly wearing its impoverished heart on its sleeve, it nevertheless boasts an appealing, talented ensemble, a solid back-up band and enjoyable musical numbers.

David Chrzanowski, director of the Los Angeles production, says he added 15 minutes to the original's brief 60-minute running time to focus more on the acting. He also expanded the cast from eight to 10, which allows for richer ensemble singing.

Ryan J. Hill plays Peter Parker/Spiderman with tons of energy. He's a little guy, but he can really bounce off the stage walls. Kyle Cooper is an equally energetic Flash Thompson, Peter's rival for the heart of cute Gwen Stacy (Krista Taylor), and his "Chipotle" number is one of the show's comedic high points. Ben Atkinson is a crackup as Peter's fast-talking boss, J. Jonah Jameson, and Lauren Turner is amusing as Jameson's assistant, Betty Brant. Also fun are Melissa Jobe and Darren T. Mangler as Peter's Aunt May and Uncle Ben. The chorus is enthusiastic and sounds great, and the intimacy of the space makes that enthusiasm infectious. The audience I was with roared appreciatively throughout.

Never forgetting the original's humble beginnings, the staging is intentionally spare. When Peter/Spiderman swings through the concrete jungle, he's accompanied by actors waving illustrations of skyscrapers. And his slo-mo fights with various low-budget villains (during which they make sure to freeze for photo-ops) are a scream.

Speaking of intimacy, the four-member band is ensconced in a closet off to the side of the stage whose door is ceremoniously opened when it's time to start the main theme.

Theatre Unleashed's managing director, Gregory Crafts, says they've contacted the organizers of Comic-Con International to perform Spidey at this year's WonderCon in Anaheim and Comic-Con in San Diego. They'd be fools to refuse—not only are these perfect venues for the show, I can easily see it becoming an annual event.

The Spidey Project, with book and lyrics by Justin Moran and Jon Roufaeal and music by Adam Podd and Doug Katsaros, plays at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hollywood.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; select Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; through April 14th. Reservations can be made by calling (818) 849-4039 or online.


Photos: Alicia Reyes

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Can Hammer Films come back from the grave?

For me, the mere mention of Hammer Films evokes delightful images of fanged mouths, bloodshot eyes and overflowing bustiers...all in shockingly gorgeous color. When I was a kid, the name Hammer was synonymous with red, red blood.

Let me explain. In the 60s, the Universal Shock Theater package was bringing Universal classics to television for horror kids like me all over the country, but they were often creaky and slow-moving black and white movies. Worse yet, Universal stuck a bunch of Z-grade mysteries into the syndication package, so after getting my parents' permission to stay up until midnight to see Creature Feature on channel 28, Murders in the Blue Room would be playing. Crap! Nevertheless, I was determined to stay awake to retrieve my hard-earned prize, but my eyelids would start to droop as the boring B-picture unspooled and the next thing I'd remember is waking up in my own bed. How did that happen?

Hammer was a different story altogether. Just hearing the first few notes of James Bernard's themes that echoed the titles of the films he scored ("Drac-u-la!") and seeing the overexposed day-for-night scenes of the English countryside always set me up for something special: vampires, gorgons, werewolves...okay, the studio also made some mummy movies, but they didn't provide the same visceral fun.

Sadly, fangs and breasts weren't enough to keep American audiences interested in the Hammer product as we entered the "summer of love" and the Vietnam war era during which George Romero released his primal scream in the form of Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Wes Craven took it even further with Last House on the Left (1972).

Hammer tried its best to stay relevant, moving into more sexually explicit territory (1970's The Vampire Lovers) and modern settings (Dracula A.D. 1972), but it came off like your grampa making his moves on the dance floor to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. By 1980, the studio that dripped blood was virtually no more.

As the years went by, there was frequent talk in the fanzines about a Hammer resurrection. I loved the idea, but what could the studio do to make itself relevant in the gory, DUI home video generation of the 80s and 90s?

I was smitten by the 2008 Norwegian vampire film Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson, so when it was announced that an American remake would be written and helmed by Cloverfield's Matt Reeves under the Hammer banner, I became a big supporter, hoping that it would bring the company back from its moribund status.

But it was a terrible bomb.

Let Me In is a damn good remake. Reeves kept much of the story intact, but he moved the adults into the background, with the exception of Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas as the town sheriff, a new character. Aside from a bit of rather silly Gollum-like GCI, it is an excellent revisualization of the original. At least it helped to boost the careers of its wonderful young stars, Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Hugo).

Wake Wood was next for Hammer, starring Aiden Gillen, who'd been in the Channel 4 version of Queer as Folk and HBO's The Wire. It got a bit of theatrical exposure, thanks to Dark Sky Films, Dread Central and Bloody Disgusting, at my beloved New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Reminiscent of The Wicker Man, it also foreshadowed the new Hammer's biggest hit to come...

The studio rounded up two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and its original superstar, Christopher Lee, for The Resident, a suspense thriller about a young doctor (Swank) who rents a too-good-to-be-true apartment in Brooklyn, only to discover that her landlord (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has set up an elaborate A/V system to spy on her.

Instead of playing out like a modern Repulsion or The Tenant, which it was set up for, the film squanders its promising premise and just runs around in circles. It was released direct-to-DVD in the United States, which is the way I saw it...and I was simultaneously frustrated and bored to tears.

Last week I saw The Woman in Black at an actual movie theater! Thanks to the dual powerhouses of Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe in the starring role and a popular book and long-running play as its source material, it was the biggest Hammer film opener of all time in the U.K. and has managed to hang on for more than a month in the States, which is a big deal these days. Determinedly old-fashioned, this film manages to dredge up the old Hammer memories better than any of its other new releases.

This is a beautiful film. With exteriors shot in Sussex, North Hampshire and Yorkshire, it just screams local color. Radcliffe does well in his role as the solemn protagonist Arthur Kipps.

Perhaps it suffers from too many pop-up scares accompanied by jarring musical crescendos and moments that stretch credulity, but it redeems itself with a nice, nihilistic ending. And it made me happy to think that Hammer may have a chance after all.

With nostalgia being so popular, I think the time has come for Hammer to go full-circle and remake some of the classics from its prime. Vampire Circus in 3D? Why not? But who could fill Christopher Lee's shoes as Dracula?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Geeks! The Musical! World Premiere

Article first published as Theater Review (LA): Geeks! The Musical! World Premiere on Blogcritics.

It was bound to happen. The annual Comic-Con Expo in San Diego, California, has grown into such an all-consuming cultural monster, eating everything in its path, that it was only a matter of time that someone would create a theatrical piece based on the experience. The good news here is that Thomas J. Misuraca's new production, Geeks! The Musical! is an enjoyable riff on this phenomenon.

Geeks! takes place during a typical Comic-Con weekend, attended by the usual Expo types. Arriving first are best friends Jordan (Jonathan Brett) and Chip (Tyler Koster). Jordan's dream is to find a mint copy of Batman #92, and Chip just wants to geek out for the weekend with his pal.

But Kerry (Redetha Deason)—a rare female of the Geek species—shows up, and Jordan is smitten. She's accompanied by her bitchy best friend, Emerson (Wil Bowers), and Jordan begs Chip to distract Emerson while he makes his moves on Kerry.

Also at the Expo is Audrina (Juliette Angeli), a goth girl who dreams of hitting it big with her new comic book series, illustrated by her would-be paramour, Trey (Brandon Murphy Barnes), a self-proclaimed bisexual artist. Lastly, there's Mel Tyler (Richard Warren Lewis), a washed-up, middle-aged actor from a cult sci-fi series who has come to the conference to sign autographs for his remaining fans.

Of course, these characters intersect and collide in the dealer rooms and lobbies of the San Diego Convention Center, and it makes for an enjoyable evening of light entertainment. You don't have to be a sci-fi nerd to catch all the references, but it helps. If arguing the pros and cons of the different actors who played Dr. Who can keep you riveted all night, and if you blame the release of the Star Wars special editions for your bitter outlook on life, this show is for you.

The book and lyrics by Misuraca take good-natured jabs at all the sci-fi convention tropes, accompanied by composer Ruth Judkowitz's workable score. It's really the cast that puts the material over, and this ensemble does it nicely, especially Koster, Angeli, Bowers and Lewis. The "Geek Chorus" provides some good background color, aided by Liz Heathcoat's fun choreography, which occasionally reminded me of the "Time Warp" number in Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I mean that in a good way.

A few of the songs are worth a smile, but others provide some true guffaws, including Emerson's cynical "I Hate It!", in which he slams Lucas, Spielberg and Bay; Kerry and Audrina's duet demanding the empowerment of "Women in Sci-Fi," and Chip's hilariously pedantic "Who's Who of Doctor Who."

Certainly, Geeks! The Musical! is lighter than air, but with subject matter like this, one doesn't expect to encounter Eugene O'Neill. Instead, Misuraca maintains a nice, satirical tone that has fun with these impassioned fans without being cruel. In fact, I can visualize this show being performed in Hall H prior to the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards.

I had the good fortune to attend Comic-Con in 2008, and Geeks! brought back happy memories of that weekend.

Geeks! The Musical! plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Write Act Theatre, 6128 Yucca Street, Hollywood, until March 17th. Tickets can be obtained by calling (323) 469-3113 or online.

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