Fist Fight (*) is a forced confrontation

fist fight

Fist Fight – 2017

Director  Richie Keen
Screenplay Van Robichaux,Evan Susser
Starring Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, Dean Norris

As far as I can tell, this movie exists to show everyone that Ice Cube still has an intimidating frown for people like Charlie Day. Nothing that happens at Roosevelt High School is remotely recognizable to someone who has been in an American high school. This does not matter though, because it’s only happening to finish the job of making Charlie Day’s English teacher seem balanced, relatable and normal.

The excuse that they use for an unrelenting amount of chaos and destruction is that it’s Senior Pranks day. This means porn in the hallway, horses on meth and penises drawn on the chalk board. Charlie is a nice guy, so he puts up with it. Ice Cube is, well…

“I don’t need to be liked. I need to educate.”

Educating means scowling, grimacing, grabbing cell phones and throwing them against the wall. And that is before he attacks the student’s desk with a fireman’s axe. The principal is busy firing whole departments, though, and there is no time for the teacher’s code. The resulting situation pits Cube against Day in the parking lot. After school. With fists.

So at this point, Day’s Cunningham is (finally) distracted. Everyone in the school knows that Cube’s Strickland is going to kick his butt. Then we hear the stories and see flashbacks of Cube beating people in various scenarios.

If I left out any details, it’s mainly because none of them matter. So many decent (and not so decent) actors doing nothing of consequence, it is mind numbing. Bell is there to say even more inappropriate things than she normally does. Tracy Morgan is there to make Day feel even more desperate about his circumstances while he is oblivious to kids making lewd patterns on the lawn. Hendricks is there to be a crazy violent prude. Talk about casting against type. Norris is at once cruel and helpless.

The kids are all living in a plane of existence far above the clueless teachers. They are free to do just about anything to anyone besides Cube. Everything comes up roses for them. Cunningham is desperate to keep his job because he has a wife who is expecting.

On the plus side, there is a nice advertisement for MacBook Pro in the middle of the film. We are made aware that only dumb families don’t have them.

Dumb comedies exist only to set up the next punchline. Every single aspect of the film is a weak excuse to have us see Charlie Day sweat and scream obscenities on the roof. Once in a while we see him repeat himself in class with increasing degrees of frustration. Then we get to see weak joke set ups get muted payoffs further down the line.

If you are Ice Cube, what makes you want to be in a film like this?  It’s a soft touch film with too much swearing to attract the families. He’s asked to make a one liner out of one of his signature works to no effect, and then he’s supposed to make a Charlie Day ass whoopin’ seem believable. Tough sell for a film that is marketed to the 17-22 age range.

This is a lot of words to say a movie is bad.

(* out of *****)

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Straight Outta Compton (****) is almost brutally honest

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Straight Outta Compton – 2015

Director F. Gary Gray
Screenplay by Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, R. Marcus Taylor, Keith Stanfield

Straight Outta Compton is a story I needed to see. I knew nothing about most rap in the 90’s, even though my music collection was vast. The Replacements spoke more to my experience than did the Los Angeles culture that created the first sounds of discord that I noticed in the post Civil Rights era. If this and Boyz N Tha Hood are all I ever know about that scene, I am sure I will be missing something. But I am understanding a little more than I did.

First things first. This is a very good film. Almost great. And there are some fantastic, and very real performances, worthy of Oscar nominations. First on that list has to be Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. He takes what was, to me, the most unapproachable character of the group and makes him totally human, without sacrificing the edge that made him seem so dangerously disreputable. The film wisely takes a multi-dimensional view of E and it helps round out the story immensely. Yes, this guy is fraught with problems. Yes, he was taken for a ride because he was placed half a step up from his band mates. Yes, he was capable of redemption. One thing they fail at in developing his character is to largely ignore the things that led him to die of A.I.D.S. at 35. Mitchell’s performance overcomes this, however, and still provides the most dimension to the overall story.

As Dre, Hawkins is given perhaps the least to work with. Yeah, we see the talent, and we witness his struggles to show his artistic potential. We see the barest glimpse of his family life, and, for the most part, he comes out looking like a saint amongst sinners. Too good to be interesting, unfortunately. More unfortunately, he leaves out any reference to his many incidents of abusing women. If Dre the producer thought that leaving this out would help his marketability, he failed. He addressed it in Rolling Stone after the film was released, but the omission is too glaring to give the movie a pass, especially in an art form that is notorious for its misogyny.

Cube’s son, Jackson, Jr. fares better in a deceptively straightforward performance. He nails Cube’s bottom line personality, as well as his incredibly lyrical prowess. His business acumen is legendary, and we get a good view of its early stages. Cube has always been a favorite actor of mine, and his son completely captures the essence of his father. It’s not just that he looks pissed. It’s showing with complete subtlety why he is pissed.

Brown, Jr. and Hodge give a good rounding out of the rest of the group. In watching their performances, one gets a legitimate view of who they were as people, ultimately loyal to Eazy-E. A telling scene is watching their reaction to Cube’s No Vaseline. Yella (along with E) can’t be too pissed to  recognize the genius. While Ren is beside himself with rage. Dre sits back and takes it all in. This scene is integral to understanding all the players as people.

Giamatti is remarkable yet again as Heller. He manages to make him seem sleazy and legitimate at once. His character is key in that it is he around whom everyone revolves. Walking that thin grey line between right and wrong as the viewer gets to choose with whom they sympathize. Cube smells a rat and bails. Dre falls under the influence of Suge Knight temporarily, and Eazy E stays a little too long. His character is so nuanced, its tough to tell who is right. Gray and the screenwriters really win on this point.

This is the second best work that Gray has done, after The Italian Job. The only thing that is lacking is the honesty about the brutality of some of its subjects. If we were to believe the script as directed, the only violent one in the story is Knight. That is a missed opportunity for depth, which is a true surprise, since one of the writers is a woman.

Ultimately, this film is a winner in telling part of the truth of the life of those in the communities out of which rap was berthed. It joins the lexicons of the integral works representing a time I am still learning about, even if I missed a good chunk of it while living through it.

(**** out of *****)

22 Jump Street: Does Blanche do heroin?

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22 Jump Street – 2014

Directors Lord and Miller
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stromare, Ice Cube, Amber Stevenson, Jillian Bell, Wyatt Russell
Screenplay Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman

Conventional wisdom tells us the story about most sequels, and it tells even more about those who review sequels.  Many sequels are made on some sort of auto pilot that just applies more explosions, more speed, more money into the same story.  More reviewers head into sequels already knocking a point or two off of their rating.  It almost takes an act of Congress to restore it.

To be completely honest, my want to see the 2nd Jump Street film was not as high as it probably deserved.  They were coming back with the same team of stars, directors and writers.  What could go wrong?  For this reviewer, its been Jonah Hill fatigue.  His film work lately has received more praise than it was worth, and the debacle of his use of homosexual slurs had me tired of his over apology.  He knew it was stupid to say what he did.  He knew more the financial cost of not bending over backwards to appease those who might be offended by it.  The whole thing stunk as insincere.  Give me Shia LaBeouf any day. There’s a guy who knows how to avoid going to therapy just because he went on a bender in NYC.

When it came down to it, 22 Jump Street looked like the only film fellow reviewer WeMissE and I had not seen either together or separately, so that was that.  Good decision by elimination.  This time around, with the guys going to College instead of High School, it was better than the first.  Mainly it was self awareness that allows it to be so.  Much of the talk in the beginning centers around the coincidence of their new location, along with management’s desire for Schmidt and Jenko to just do what they did the first time around. Some of the early references fall flat, but it’s the long game that counts and that is where everyone succeeds.

The story, in short, is about a new drug called WhyPhy (wifi).  A college student is dead from its effects, and for some reason, just like the first time around, the police has caught up to this drug in it’s first location – fictional college MC State – and they know the dealers plan to go National from there, even if they don’t know who the dealers are.  Such moments remind me of the speaking while driving segments of the Lethal Weapon films.  We need exposition, and for the film makers, there are better things to do than mine that out of the story naturally.  In the Jump Street films, the better things to do is provide comedy.

Do they ever provide comedy, though.  The main trio in these films, Hill, Ice Cube and especially Tatum, are perfectly cast for their roles.  It’s as if everything in their acting life has lead them to this point, and the result is pure magic.  Their performances once more match almost perfectly with that of the scribes and directors. There are moments that might stretch too far, like Cube’s meltdown at the dinner buffet, but if anything, the wisdom was to alter the course just enough so that what we expected to be stale is different. Even better, the chase scenes and the violence were actually scaled back, making them seem a tad more realistic, if that is at all possible.

Among the highlights in supporting cast, most prevalent is Bell.  Her deadpan delivery works exceptionally.  Her remarkably awkward scene with Hill towards the end of the film is pure magic.

There are the Yang twins in the dorm across the hall, played by The Lucas Brothers.  Every moment with them is funny, and even better, it brings another element to Schmidt and Jenko, playing brothers who are so completely different.  The wise decision to make the point that Schmidt looks much older allows for a potentially worn out joke to breathe and as a result, be funny.

It’s nearly impossible to picture Peter Stromare as anyone other than Karl Hungus from The Big Lebowski.  Even so, he is not really on the screen enough to distract from the story.  If anything, it’s better having him there because a stock character needs to be played by a reliable character actor.

This is indicative of the strength of Lord and Miller as filmmakers.  They are not reinventing the wheel in any way with their work.  They just make it a little wobbly, and thereby more entertaining to watch.  If they excel at anything other than turning convention into a weapon, it’s pacing.  There is never a moment that we spend thinking about anything other than what is happening on the screen.  The best example of their continued magical chemistry with the writers, Bacall especially, is the pondering of drugs today versus those used by The Golden Girls.

Tatum is a decent actor, but he’s never been close to as effective in any of his other work as he is here.  Jenko is a rare bird: a person at war with his brain.  He keeps expecting it to work for him, but at crucial moments, it just doesn’t.  The key is not overplaying it.  Other actors might play him as a buff, but functional retarded man.  He is just short of the Pain and Gain guys, but he is capable where one might expect.  This time around, he finds someone who fits his personality like a glove.  Zook, played by Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.  The interactions are not forced and seem just enough for a couple of kids who were made for college sports, and not much else.

Hill, for what it’s worth, is back in his wheelhouse.  It’s not that he isn’t good at dramatic film-work.  He is just not as good at it as the press would have one believe.  This will probably play itself out in 2 or 3 years, and his opportunities might diminish a bit.  He’s made brilliant choices on who to work with so far, and the press has loved him for it.  There are only so many times you can play the same quirk.

Ice Cube has something that no one else can do.  His skill is much like Charles Barkley’s.  Who else can give an explicit insult to “Korean Jesus” in one moment and then sing the praises of the “Vietnamese Jesus” the next?  Making him a father is a stroke of genius.  Making him the father of a college age kid is beyond genius.  Just wait to see who the mother is.

It’s unclear whether there will be a genuine sequel to this film.  Given the hilarious sequence of sequels they roll out with the credits, it might be a bridge too far.  My favorite is 33 Jump Street: Generations.  After that brilliant sequence, they’d be foolish to try to top it.  Then again, I thought they would be fools to try to make a movie out of such a conventional show, so many years after it was over.  These guys can do a lot with convention.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Ride Along is what you call a vehicle

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Ride Along – 2014

Director Tim Story
Starring Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Laurence Fishburne
Screenplay Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Ice Cube is one of the most likable stars out there.  It must be the permanent scowl.  Ever since the movie BarberShop, the secret’s been out, though.  The director of BarberShop, Tim Story, has had a consistent career.  Almost every one of his films has made money, well except for Hurricane Season, but that was a high school sports drama.  Story’s valiant (and financially if not artistically successful) attempts at The Fantastic Four notwithstanding, he’s had a winning career.  He’s even directed a few of the Kevin Hart comedy specials.

Kevin Hart has been in a ton of films.  Most of us wouldn’t know it, unless we saw him once more in those films.  That’s what one sees in an aspiring career.  So now, we get to see what Hart can do with a little help from an established star like Cube.  The result is nothing you haven’t seen in 50 better and, say 1000 worse films.  I honestly cannot imagine why it took 4 writers to craft this plot, when most of the laughs seem to be spontaneous reactions by Hart.

The story is about aspiring police officer, Ben Barber (Hart) who is dating the sister (Sumpter) of a hard as nails Atlanta Police detective James Peyton (Cube).  Trying to win a spot on the police force and the approval of his potential Brother In Law, he agrees to go on a Ride Along with Peyton.  He gets to experience a series of 126 (nuisance) calls.  When Barber gets a whiff of what is going on, he calls Peyton’s bluff at exactly the wrong time.

The point to Ride Along is not to give an original, or in any way a harrowing story.  It’s easy to see what’s going to happen from the first scene.  The point to this movie, like any buddy cop movie, is to see the chemistry between the duo.  After taking a while to warm up, Cube and Hart show that they have it.  Somehow, we get to see Barber’s gaming skills actually help to solve crucial parts of the case.  This assumes that the video game makers work harder than the scriptwriters to achieve authenticity.

Ride Along is not an ambitious film, but it succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish.  The career of Kevin Hart has officially achieved overdrive.  How long it stays there depends on  a few things, like who he works with.  He’s done pretty well so far.  Let’s hope he’s smart enough to continue to dance with who brung him.

(***1/2 out of *****)

21 Jump Street takes a different, better turn

21 Jump Street – 2012

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Ellie Kemper, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube
Screenplay Michael Bacall

It’s not that I did not ever watch the original television show, I just didn’t ever make it a point to watch 21 Jump Street.  All of the hullabaloo surrounding Johnny Depp, Richard Grieco and what I considered to be the wrong member of the DeLuise family didn’t appeal much to me.  I don’t even remember when it went off air.  All these years later when the movie was announced, I had mixed feelings.  Jonah Hill was an interesting choice, but how could anyone be enthused by the selection of Channing Tatum as his partner?  Tatum has mad appeal to women of all ages, as shown by the above average performance of his films, most of which kind of suck.

How surprising, then, to discover that the most memorable performance of the film belongs to Tatum.  His comic chops, shown successfully in the otherwise average Haywire, and dismally in the waste of time The Dilemma.  Tatum’s turn in this movie is perhaps the most delightful performance of the year.  While not being entirely dimwitted, he puts enough of himself in the position of a fool who, while not hopeless, must make a change to…just about average.  Just like only Nixon could go to China, only someone who is not the brightest could pick up a thing or two by the end of a well devised comedy.

Tatum is not alone in his development.  Somewhat more prototypical journey is from the geek to the popular guy.  Hill, however, doesn’t need to win everyone over at the school, he just seeks little victories, making each one sweeter and more rife for real comedic potential.

The movie’s direction seems at one with the script.  Aside from some early goofball antics that stretch believability past funny (humping a pimp, really?), there are enough little touches (the Captain flicking Hill’s injured elbow) that ring true.  Funnier still is the play on typical loud action expected in any film with cops and bad guys.  Jenko and Schmidt (Tatum and Hill, by name) spend much of the time perplexed when conventional stuff does not occur.

The peripheral characters add much to the enjoyment of the story.  Again, it’s because they are played not quite against convention, but, rather, with a touch of realism that allows for more genuine laughter than the same crap you’ve seen in almost every movie since Porky’s.  Geeks are still geeks, but they have a use, and, importantly, are not universally hated.  The best of these is the portrayal of Brie Larson as Molly.  She is part of a crowd that have a special place in the school, but for reasons that would have made them pariahs 10 years earlier.  Larson is very pretty and at ease on camera.  Last thing I saw her in, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, she was as good as anyone else in the film, playing Scott’s ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams.  She is headed in a great direction, if these two movies are an indication.

Ellie Kemper gives the most deliciously wicked performance as Ms. Griggs.  Along with

What’s that you say, Ms. Griggs?

her work in The Office and Bridesmaids, she is fast becoming one of the classic comedic actresses of our time.

Ice Cube has become a reliable comic commodity, and here is no exception.  He has the rare talent of being fearsome, mean, funny and comforting at once.  There is no one else like him.

The film is filled with surprises, and even the expected ones take a turn for the better.  The cohesion between Lord, Miller and Bacall bring to mind the classic works of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, or perhaps Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis.  Magical.

21 Jump Street must be seen if you come anywhere close to liking comedy.  Even if you don’t, I dare you to try not to laugh at this one.

(****1/2 out of *****)