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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street

by Steve Habrat

Just a few short weeks ago, director David O. Russell brought us American Hustle, a sexy, cool, and confident look at a bunch of leisure-suited misfits trying to obtain the good life in the amber glow of the late 1970s. Fast-forward the clocks to the late 1980s and enter legendary director Martin Scorsese with his equally sexy, cool, and confident The Wolf of Wall Street, another comical tale about a money-hungry American who will do whatever it takes to live in the lap of luxury, even if that means breaking the law to do it. At an epic three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is a slap of energetic entertainment that finds Scorsese at his absolute raunchiest, using the true story of Jordan Belfort as his road map through sex, drugs, and, well, even more sex and drugs. The ringleader at the center of this sleazy circus is Leonardo DiCaprio, who sinks his teeth into the role of Belfort with ravenous comedic fury and an Oscar statute burning in his twinkling eyes. DiCaprio has never seemed hungrier for the award, which makes the word “Wolf” in the title very fitting. While this may be DiCaprio’s show, coming up hot on his heels is Jonah Hill, who delivers another surprising performance as Belfort’s business partner, Donnie Azoff.

The Wolf of Wall Street picks up in 1987 and introduces us to young Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who has just been hired in as an intern at a firm run by Mark Hana (played by Matthew McConaughey). Hana takes an immediate liking to the up-and-coming Belfort, so he decides to take him under his wing and recommend that Belfort embrace a lifestyle of sex and drugs to get him through the workday. Things seem to be going smoothly under Hana, but Belfort ends up on the street after the firm closes in the wake of Black Monday. Determined to find another job, Belfort, with the help of his young wife, Teresa (played by Cristin Milioti), finds a job at Investor Center, a hole-in-the-wall business that specializes in pink slip stocks. Belfort quickly excels with this new company, making a small fortune that allows him to buy a flashy sports car and live comfortably. One day, Belfort is approached by Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), an owl-eyed salesman who is curious about what Belfort does for a living. The two strike up a fast friendship and together, they decide to open their own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which rakes in millions by using Belfort’s aggressive business tactics. The employees of Stratton Oakmont begin to embrace Belfort’s wild lifestyle, which is dominated with sex, drugs, and wild office parties, all of which catch the attention of Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent convinced that Belfort is up to no good. Belfort is able to keep the FBI off his back for a while, but when he starts laundering money from the company to pay for his lavish lifestyle, Denham closes in and threatens to bring down Belfort and his merry inner circle.

The Wolf of Wall Street’s main focus is Belfort’s insatiable hunger for wealth and luxury, two things he obtains very quickly. Yet Scorsese explores Belfort’s excessive lifestyle in a comical light, making it seem almost cartoonish as marching bands parade through his office, hookers sprint topless through the cubicles, businessmen snort up cocaine like vacuum cleaners, and sex parties suddenly erupt in the bathroom. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Belfort starts his career on an honest note, refusing to sip martinis and do cocaine with Hana while the two dine on a four-star lunch that overlooks New York City. Yet you can see that Belfort is intrigued by all the flesh and powder dangled in front of him. He resists it at first, acknowledging it with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders, but after sticking a crack pipe in his mouth, he is sent into overdrive and the endless shower of money makes it impossible for him to control his debauchery. When the parties get bigger, the drugs gets stronger, the women get prettier, and the behavior gets even more reckless, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes absolutely revolting and hilarious in equal measures. One of the more shocking moments comes when the employees of Stratton Oakmont gather at a beachfront mansion for a gonzo party that culminates with a drugged and drooling Azoff coming up with the idea to approach up-and-coming show designer Steve Madden about allowing the company to sell shares of his company’s stock, Belfort meeting the beautiful Naomi Lapaglia (played by Margot Robbie), and the belligerent Azoff pleasuring himself to the gorgeous Naomi in front of the entire party.  It’s unruly and downright hilarious in its extremity, showing off just how monstrous money and power can make people.

The Wolf of Wall Street

As Belfort, DiCaprio becomes a party animal that would make Jay Gatsby blush. Once he snorts that little white line, pops the Quaalude, and downs a glass of wine, he becomes a wrecking ball that just can’t be stopped. Naturally, he develops a drinking and drug problem, at one point proclaiming that he refuses to die sober while aboard a smashing and crashing yacht. He’s wildly materialistic, chuckling at the suggestion that some of the dishes aboard his overdone yacht may get smashed in a particularly bump journey. When he isn’t busy destroying his Lamborghini, he is preoccupied with flying his helicopter home from a hookers-and-cocaine binge that results in him almost crashing the chopper into his home. When the FBI begins breathing down his neck, he contemplates bowing out of his company to avoid prison time, but in the heat of the moment, he just can’t say no to making even more money, something that he already has more than enough of. His destructive and disgusting behavior is egged on by his employees, who look at him like a pin-stripped god that has taken them all to millionaire heaven. Yet through it all, you can’t help but sort of like Belfort, even if he is a brash show-off who won’t listen to anyone. DiCaprio makes him a beam of charisma, even when he is dry humping a stewardess, laughing in the face of the law, or slithering his way out of the local country club in a daze.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, Hill never shies away from the ad-libbed humor that he has become known for. He lobs zingers as the equally excessive Azoff, a foul-mouthed salesman who is married to his cousin and who likes to party just as much as Belfort. McConaughey continues his hot streak as Hana, a fast-talking broker who demands martinis brought to him in rapid succession and who recommends that Belfort embrace a destructive lifestyle of sex and drugs to survive Wall Street. Robbie fogs up the screen as the beautiful Naomi, a goddess who loves money and nose candy just as much as Belfort does. Chandler is bullish and straightforward as Denham, the FBI agent who is convinced that Belfort may not be as squeaky clean as he likes to pretend to be. The secondary players consist of P.J. Byrne as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, another close friend of Belfort who proudly wears an atrocious headpiece. The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal stops by as Brad Bodnick, a juiced-up drug dealer who helps Belfort sneak cash into a Swiss bank account. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin turns up as Jean-Jacques Saurel, a Swiss banker who flashes false grins at the desperate Belfort. Rob Reiner gives a snappy performance as Max Belfort, Jordan’s father who tries to keep the boys of Stratton Oakmont in check. In smaller roles, Jon Favreau stops by as Manny Riskin, a seedy lawyer hired to keep Jordan out of prison, and even filmmaker Spike Jonez pokes in as Dwayne, the geeky Investor Center manager who hires Belfort.

In true Scorsese form, The Wolf of Wall Street is a snazzy piece of filmmaking that tickles your peepers with hilarious slow-motion shots, characters talking directly to the audience, and wicked narration from Mr. DiCaprio. Given that the film clocks in at nearly three hours, you’d assume that there may be one or two places where the picture is dragging its feet, but the endless scenes of wild parties never loose their bite, humor, or their entertainment value. You just can’t wait to see what grandiose act Belfort commits next. Scorsese also keeps each and every scene as stylized as possible, making the entire experience go by in a flash. Overall, while it may not be quite as sharp as American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street is still a raunchy examination of a man who had everything but still demanded more, more, more. You’ll find yourself buzzed by the racy script from Terence Winter, elated performances from DiCaprio and Hill, and a stinging sense of black humor that keeps you in stitches even when it threatens to cross the line into the inappropriate. The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, shiny Christmas gift from one of the greatest American directors alive.

Grade: A

This Is the End (2013)

This Is the End #1

by Steve Habrat

With interest rapidly fading in the abysmal The Hangover Part III, the film that almost everyone assumed would be the must-see comedy of 2013, the slot for “best summer comedy” has been left up for grabs. I have a feeling that over the next few weeks, that slot may end up being filled by This Is the End, an apocalyptic horror-comedy from the stoned minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Lovingly paying tribute to a whole string of horror films (look for nods to Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Evil Dead, and Zombie) and firing off laughs faster than a machine gun spits out bullets, This Is the End is a gross-out laugh riot that leaps from one frenzied shock after another. Nothing is off limits here and every single actor or actress in front of the camera (just know that each and every one of them is playing an exaggerated version of themselves) throws themselves into the project with plenty of maniacal gusto. To make it even better, the film boasts such a fresh and unique concept, making you wonder why no one has ever tried something like this before. Did I also mention that the film gets incredibly freaky when the demons come out to play?

This Is the End begins with Jay Baruchel arriving in Los Angeles to hang out with his old buddy Seth Rogen. The two arrive at Seth’s new home where they instantly smoke a ton of weed, watch Seth’s 3D television, and play video games. When their interest fades in doing that, the two decided to go to a housewarming party that is being thrown by James Franco. While at the party, Jay and Seth mingle with countless other celebrities including Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Danny McBride, Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari, to name a few (trust me, there is a slew of others that turn up). After Jay grows uncomfortable at the party, he asks Seth to accompany him to the nearest convenience store so that he can pick up a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, beams of blue light shoot through the ceiling of the convenience store and suck up several customers. Terrified, Jay and Seth flee into the street where chaos has erupted. The two manage to make it back to James Franco’s home in time to warn everyone. Most of the partygoers refuse to believe their story but after a giant sinkhole appears outside and the Hollywood hills erupt with fire, the guests scatter and most of them die horribly. The only survivors of the incident are Jay, Seth, James, Craig, Jonah, and Danny, who proceed to barricade themselves into the lavish mansion they were all just partying in. Terrified and confused, the group begins trying to make sense of their situation and figure out if the destruction outside will pass or if it really is the end of days.

This Is the End marks the directing debut from Rogen and Goldberg, which would automatically make you assume that the finished product would be a somewhat wobbly experience. While there are a few pacing issues, Rogen and Goldberg show that they are extremely competent and confident blockbuster directors who also know their way around a good horror film. Even if they are borrowing most of their wink scares, there are more than a few moments that will have your arms breaking out in goosebumps. The amount of horror in the film is surprising, but it never once gets in the way of the infinite amount belly laughs strung throughout. You’d assume that the film would exhaust itself early on, especially when you get a load of the numerous cameos crammed into the first fifteen minutes. It’s a giddy delight that just keeps getting more outrageous, especially when Michael Cera turns up as an obnoxious cokehead slapping Rihanna’s ass and blowing a handful of cocaine into Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s face. Honestly, even if you have no interest in the film whatsoever, just go see it for his performance. He pretty much steals the movie. Yet when 98% of the partygoers get sucked down to Hell, the film never even misses a beat. The guys instantly start bickering over food, water, beer, drugs, a Milky Way, masturbating, sleeping arrangements, scavenging, and, yes, there is even a conversation about raping Emma Watson. As if it couldn’t get any better, the guys decided to make a homemade sequel to Pineapple Express.

This Is the End #2

Perhaps the most inspired part of This Is the End is that Rogen and Goldberg, who also wrote the movie, decided that everyone should just play a cartoon version of themselves. Using the image that most of the public has of them; the guys and gals instantly crank it up to eleven. Rogen goes fully stoner with a sellout edge while Hill goes full nice guy as America’s sweetheart. Robinson brings his teddybear charm while sweating profusely in his “Take off your panties!” t-shirt and McBride unleashes an even darker version of Kenny Powers, if that was even possible. Franco plays with the idea that everyone thinks that he is a bisexual art snob obsessed with Seth Rogen and Baruchel nabs laughs through the idea that everyone is sort of familiar with him but not entirely. Together, they erupt in a flurry of adlib conversations that are just downright hysterical. What is even more shocking is the fact that these guys really go for the throat, burning Rogen for his gravel laugh and Green Hornet and poking Franco for Spider-Man and Your Highness. It certainly is a set that demanded thick skin and deep-rooted relationships. Just when you think you’ve seen everything that This Is the End has to offer, wait until you lay eyes on the axe-wielding Emma Watson, who completely skewers her innocent public image. You will never be able to look at her or Michael Cera the same way ever again.

While This Is the End certainly benefits from its fast and furious humor, there are still a few guffaws that fall painfully flat. This doesn’t happen often but be prepared for one or two lines to be met with the sound of crickets. Despite these fizzlers, This Is the End never looses its momentum and it arrives at a towering inferno climax with a few more cameos and sight gags that are guaranteed to have you doubled over in laughter. The film also dares to get a little preachy in a few places and its interest in the biblical apocalypse was certainly unforeseen, but This Is the End delivers a message that this viewer could stand behind. This message is simple—don’t be a jerk and you’ll be just fine when you meet your maker. Fair enough. Overall, with an inspired idea and a cast that is game to poke fun at themselves and each other’s public persona, This Is the End is ablaze with uncapped creativity, pop culture references, and stoner charm. It may not be for everyone and it is sure to offend your mother, but this is one comedy that begs to be seen with a huge audience ready to have a raucous and raunchy good time.

Grade: A-

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012)

by Steve Habrat

For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.

Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.

Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?

Django Unchained (2012)

Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.

As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.

Grade: A+

The Watch (2012)

by Steve Habrat

What do you get when you put Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill in the same movie? Apparently, an extremely mediocre product with a flabby screenplay and a small handful of memorable chuckles. The Watch is the newest comedy misfire in a summer that has been loaded with comedy misfires that really hurt (The Dictator, That’s My Boy). In a way it is pitiful because The Watch stumbled right out of the gate and it has never really been able to right itself. The film has been unfairly overshadowed by the real-life murder of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator. The studio countered with scrubbing away “Neighborhood” from the title and they crossed their fingers that the film would still be a big late summer draw. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to realize that their science-fiction/horror/comedy hybrid wasn’t really all that funny or freaky. The Watch really tanks when it asks Vaughn and Stiller to deliver most of the funnies through improvised sequences that are supposed to act as the glue holding the shoddy alien invasion plot together. In all actuality, it is slightly embarrassing for Vaughn and Stiller, who are both talented guys if they are handed the right material. They are just lucky that Hill steps up and does most of the heavy lifting.

The Watch takes us to the small Ohio (!) town of Glenview, a peaceful community that Evan Trautwig (Played by Stiller) calls home. The busybody Evan works as the manager of the local Costco but his public service doesn’t stop there. In his free time, Evan creates a number of neighborhood clubs ranging from the jogging club to the Spanish club. After one of his Costco security guards is gruesomely murdered and skinned one night, Evan decides that he is going to make sure that the killer is brought to justice. Evan forms the Neighborhood Watch with the hope of attracting a slew of gung-ho recruits eager to wrangle this menace. Evan ends up with the mouthy construction worker Bob (Played by Vaughn), the mentally unstable wannabe cop Franklin (Played by Hill), and the recent divorcee Jamarcus (Played by Richard Ayoade). What begins as a distraction from their boring day-to-day lives takes a bizarre turn when the group stumbles upon a strange metallic orb lying on the side of the road. In addition the orb, a number of locals are turning up dead in the most gruesome ways imaginable. As the group’s investigation deepens, they stumble upon an alien invasion that threatens to wipe out the planet.

A good majority of The Watch finds our four concerned citizens plunked down in Bob’s glorified man-cave while they sip beers and gripe about their daily problems. This would all be fine with me expect that these four funny-guys can’t seem to gel. Stiller is all jittery pleas for the group to stay focused while overseeing the club with an iron fist. Stiller’s jitters sometimes seem like they are not simply a character tick but maybe nerves over having to improvise every joke he delivers. Vaughn is the polar opposite of Stiller but not in a good way. He is meant to be the party animal who finds comfort in the company of his bros. Most of his motor mouth improvising will have you wishing he would stick a cork in it for a while and let Ayoade and Hill have the floor. The British Ayoade is a promising talent but he rarely gets a chance to show you what he is made of. While Ayoade tries to brighten things up, Hill takes things from ho-hum to hilarious when he finds his whacked out groove. He gets all the films best lines with his dry delivery. Halfway through the film, Hill gets a moment at a teen party that had my group of friends and I in stitches. Sadly, the sequence doesn’t last long enough so savor it while it lasts.

The best parts of The Watch come from the more emotionally charged moments in the script. Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg serve as the screenwriters here so it is no surprise that the intimate buddy moments are splendidly written. A small scene between Bob and Evan in the middle of the film is a standout, one that narrowly saves the entire film. The scene finds the two just sitting on a park bench having a few beers and talking about all their problems a home. The scene really hits the mark when Evan confesses a piercing secret that really makes you feel for the guy and understand his intensity a bit more. Bob, on the other hand, is a terrified and confused parent who just wants what is right for his teenage daughter, a nice touch to an incredibly annoying character. Meanwhile Ayoade’s, Jamarcus and Hill’s Franklin are both left underdeveloped, surprising considering they are much more interesting than the characters that Stiller and Vaughn are stuck with. The script is eager to give away secrets about Jamarcus so when we finally arrive at the big twist near the end of the film, it falls short because we saw it coming about forty-five minutes ago. We never really do learn much about Franklin, only what he chooses to reveal in early scenes, which is that he is a deranged failure who shacks up with his mom. I was left wanting more from his character.

The rest of the background players of The Watch all quickly evaporate from your memory when the credits roll, which doesn’t really work in the film’s favor. Will Forte shows up as a bug-eyed cop who is dumber than dirt. Rosemarie DeWitt is present as Evan’s wife Abby, who is mostly there to look sexy and try to seduce him. Billy Crudup pops in as Evan’s creepy new neighbor who may be up to no good in his eerily lit basement. The last act of the film falls victim to tons of lousy CGI aliens, distracting explosions, and chaotic gunfights that are meant to riff on action movie clichés. It appears that the filmmakers suddenly remembered that they had to tie up the alien invasion plot so they just blew a bunch of stuff up and called it a day. The rest of the film resorts to clunky jokes about penises, orgies, and fellatio, all of which are complimented by classic hip-hop songs, which do nothing to make the film funnier. I will admit that I did chuckle more than a few times throughout The Watch but I only laughed hard two or three times. I should have laughed hard a hell of a lot more than that, especially with this cast of clowns at the wheel. The Watch ends up being another colossal letdown in the comedy department.

Grade: C

21 Jump Street (2012)

by Steve Habrat

How good it is to have the buddy cop movie back in action, brushing off the cobwebs that have formed over the tired genre all these years. Maybe it’s the odd couple pairing of funny guy Jonah Hill and chiseled Channing Tatum that gives the buddy cop genre fresh life and sends 21 Jump Street to soaring heights that I would have never thought possible! This revamped take on the 80’s television series gorges on pop culture references and classic action flicks all while leaving its own mark with its raunchy, rambunctious personality. At this party, anything goes, ranging from perfectly placed cameos, high speed action, and more toilet humor than you can shake a shot off penis at! 21 Jump Street’s keep-the-party-going mentality does get a bit exhausting at a few points, but the fatigue is quickly shaken by the uncertainty over what the film will throw at us next.

21 Jump Street picks up in 2005 where we meet nerdy Schmidt (Played by Jonah Hill), who looks like a slouchy Eminem without the rage and the jock bully Jenko (Played by Channing Tatum) as they near the end of their high school careers. Jenko can’t keep his grades up and therefore can’t attend the school prom. Schmidt, meanwhile, is trying to work up the nerve to ask the girl of his dreams to the prom, only to be coldly shot down and laughed at. The film speeds ahead to present day, where Schmidt and Jenko are currently attending a police academy and earning their badges. The two bump into each other and strike up a friendship despite the fact that Jenko bullied Schmidt in high school. They aid each other through the police academy and finally earn their badges, but after botching a drug bust, they are sent to 21 Jump Street. It is here that they meet their new scowling boss Captain Dickson (Played by Ice Cube) and learn they are going undercover at a local high school to bust up a drug ring. The two begin trying to infiltrate the group of kids they believe to be dealing the drugs, but they soon find themselves losing sight of their mission and get caught up reliving their glory days.

There is plenty of Hill’s trademark off-the-cuff adlibs to keep the audience in stitches through much of 21 Jump Street and the surprisingly funny Tatum matches Hill every step of the way. They are absolutely hysterical together watching their opposite personalities clash was a riot. Their chemistry keeps the audience giddy through much of the film and they are always making sure that you have a smile slapped across your face. It is clearly their show and everyone else makes sure that they don’t step on their toes, especially an insanely likable Ice Cube, who finally gets to release a few bellowing F-bombs that he has been bottling up inside while he has been starring in kiddie flicks. Then there is the supporting cast that is made up of Ellie Kemper as the tongue tied science teacher Ms. Giggs, who has the hots for Jenko, Nick Offerman as straight shooting Deputy Chief Hardy, Chris Parnell as ostentatious theater teacher Mr. Gordon, and Rob Riggle as the wacky motor-mouth coach Mr. Walters. The beauty is that every guest comedian gets a moment to shine, a chance to be center stage and leave his or her own mark in 21 Jump Street.

Much of 21 Jump Street plays around with the idea of reliving your glory days, when you didn’t have a care in the world. Schmidt suffers from never having taken a risk and never having much confidence in himself. When he goes undercover at the high school, he quickly works his way in with the cool kids and begins living the popular kid dream. Jenko, on the other hand, had way too much fun on his first run and now finds himself spending his evenings with the nerdy crowd, people he would have laughed at and tormented when he was in school. It is a knee slapping role reversal and it consistently works. Seeing Tatum play nerd is comedic gold but it is Hill who really turns up the funny, slowly finding himself infatuated with instant messenger and texting. He even gets a run at popular girl Molly (Played by Brie Larson), which adds a bubbly if a bit creepy romance aspect to the film.

Director’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller both keep 21 Jump Street zipping along making the finished product feel like a crazy party rather than a movie. It is ripe with nostalgia for rollicking action films and outrageously coarse teen comedies. They keep the film moving at a brisk pace, but at times, 21 Jump Street would hit a bump in the road that stalls the momentum the film naturally builds up. There are a few spots where the comedy isn’t as sharp as it was a few minutes earlier or even worse, a joke falls flat. Part of the problem is that both the directors and our leads fire off jokes so rapidly, it is hard to keep up and they begin getting lost in each other. This isn’t constant in 21 Jump Street and what a relief that is, but part of the problem may also lie in the fact that the film is a bit too long. An extended party sequence could have used a little trimming, as could a scene where Schmidt hangs out with teenage drug dealer Eric (Played by Dave Franco) at his home. But the film balances out with scenes like the uproariously funny car chase where our heroes, both wearing outrageous getups and zooming along in a driving school car, battle to be in control of the chase. It’s absolutely awesome, right down to the string of failed explosions that leave our heroes disappointed with each dud.

21 Jump Street may have a few dry spots but the film never looses our interest. You will be consistently entertained by it and you are left eager to see where they will take Schmidt and Jenko next, as I’m sure there will be another 21 Jump Street. The film also has an awesome cameo from original 21 Jump Street cast members Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, a sequence that almost steals all the thunder from Hill and Tatum. Be warned that 21 Jump Street is a ball of energy that will leave you choking on its dust if you are unable to keep up with it. I can’t say that you will walk away a better person when the credits roll on 21 Jump Street, but like the morning after a good party, you will stumble away breathless and energized, a little drained and dazed, raring to do it all again. That, my friends, is never a bad thing.

Grade: B+

Must-See Holiday Season Movie…GO!

Moneyball (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Believe it or not, I really enjoy sports films. Sports films usually follow a character that is completely engulfed in their art. Yes, I consider sports an art form. The athletes are there to entertain and often times inspire you. Sports lure out all different types of emotions from the athletes themselves, be it soaring happiness or the lowest form of defeat. Yet I always find myself in awe over their dedication to whatever it is they perform. There is also something about rooting for the underdog in these films, which usually borrow from real life events. It allows the viewers to believe in the idea of miracles and prove to us that hard work pays off. To some, it could suggest a higher power looking over the little guy or gal. These athletes will sacrifice their personal life, love, their sanity, and even their own sanctuaries—their bodies, all in the name of their art. I guess I can relate because I dedicate myself to movies completely. I will go to great lengths to see a movie I am infinitely excited about to the point where I will practically be collapsing from exhaustion at work the next day. I just had to see that midnight showing. I love it when people are overcome with a dedication to what they love. It to me means that they stand for something. For athletes and the people behind the scenes of the specific sport, they are dedicated to winning and an ultimate triumph. The victory symbolically wipes away any defeat they have suffered in the past.

Take Moneyball, the casual and self-assured new true-story sports film not about athletes themselves, but about the individuals who build baseball teams. Moneyball is about the ones who give themselves over completely to deliver wins and leave a legacy. We see countless scenes where characters sit around television screens and discuss a player’s form. They sit around tables and debate about what player has the ideal appearance for America’s favorite pastime. They fight with each other, feelings are hurt, and lessons are learned. It’s all in the name of what these men love. At the heart of all of it is Billy Beane (Played by Brad Pitt), who seems to be suffering from sleep deprivation behind a protruding bottom lip that is filled with chewing tobacco, sagging eyes, and a face that shows traces of Benicio del Toro. Beane is the GM (General Manager) of the Oakland A’s, who are in a scramble to rebuild their crumbling team after a crushing loss to the Yankees. They can’t compete with the salaries of teams like the New York Yankees, but boy, do they have heart and passion for their team. Beane travels to Cleveland, Ohio to discuss player trades with the Indians and during the meeting, notices a bright young number cruncher/player analyst named Peter Brand (Played by Jonah Hill, in one hell of a dramatic turn) who picks favorite players based on mathematics and science over form and physical appearance. Impressed by the young Peter, Billy hires him to devise a system to pick up gifted athletes without shelling out a huge sum of cash. As Beane tries to reinvent the scouting system and stacks his team with a group of misfit players, the experiment is met with criticism from those around Beane. As the experiment falls apart, Beane begins to reflect on decisions he made and grapples with the fact that he may loose his career over the gamble.

I’d be bluffing if I said I understood every word of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s well-spoken script. It fires off more sports vocabulary and trivia than I could keep up with. Sometimes, it sounded like Greek. It had the two friends I saw it with giddy by the little nods to sports history and player cameos (I should clarify that it is players depicted by actors. They knew instantly who they were. I just shook my head and smiled.). I was there for the story and I can say that I walked away satisfied, like Zaillian and Sorkin treated me with respect. They didn’t dumb the film down for viewers like me, which I extol. This is a sports fan movie. This is also a warm film, one that made me feel like I was sitting in on these conversations that were taking place. I felt like I was sitting in the room with them. The men stick chew in their lips, spit into cups, shift nervously and uncomfortably in their seats, and sometimes stumble through their dialogue like a real individual would. Everything seems so spontaneous. Never like it has been memorized. When Oscar comes calling, I hope it remembers Mr. Pitt and Mr. Hill. The dialogue flows from their lips with ease to the point where they ceased being Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and morphed into Billy and Peter. I loved it.

Much of Moneyball’s success rests on the shoulders of director Bennet Miller, who always makes the film disarming, even when it suffers from a few editing problems and a disregarded climax that feels barely there and insignificant. The film builds up to this one moment, and it quickly passes with weird fade-outs, and glum voice-overs from sports commentaries. Miller can construct a scene, but sometimes the editing stubs an emotional moment. His pacing is superb and he had my undivided attention, even if the film runs a bit too long. He also builds suspense nicely; especially during a ballgame sequence that will leave you feeling like one of the fans on the day the real game was played.

Moneyball boasts an A-list cast of seasoned vets who punch in some phenomenal acting. I could not get enough of Pitt’s Beane, whose love of baseball outweighs a rocky past of humiliation and regret. His past starts to bite him in the ass, and we can see the beads of sweat forming on his brow. It’s quite possibly his most humanistic performance, where for once he shakes off the viewer’s perception of him. Every film he is in, no matter whom he plays I always think “Hey! That’s Brad Pitt!” Not to say he is not a talented actor (the man plays some seriously eccentric chaps), but here he seems approachable and on our ordinary level. Hill gives one of the finest performances of his career, playing the diffident Peter who drools over every pitch thrown. I honestly bought his love for the game. There is a scene near the beginning of the film where he approaches the A’s stadium. Some of the stadium employees are pulling down hulking banners of their beloved players who have left the team. He stares up at the theater in amazement. Peter is bewitched by game. The music is quiet strums on an electric guitar as he gazes lovingly upon his new home. It’s such a magnificent scene. There is also the welcome presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s beer bellied coach who casts icy glares at Beane and goes against him at every turn to save his career. He’s a background character, but it is now Oscar season so it makes sense he would pop up in this, an Oscar contender.

Moneyball is just shy of greatness. For someone who is on the outside of sports, it’s one heck of a story. It also is an eye-opening encounter, as I never knew what went in to scouting baseball players. Like all sports films, it does try to tug the heartstrings with its underdog traits. Sadly, it’s weighed down by a dragging run time and a handful of scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s great to see a celebration of passion and dedication. A testament to those who will risk their reputation to stand by what they love. I just can’t help but smile when Beane admits that he does not do what he does because of money. In the end, it’s Pitt and Hill who become the MVPs of the film. They hit a few home runs, but I wish that the film would have stepped up and delivered a grand slam. Grade: B+