For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Friday, April 13, 2012



Every culture has a responsibility to pass on its ancestry and heritage to each new generation. That’s the only way to ensure that traditions and histories survive the withering of passing years. In Israel, this task is doubly important for existential destruction is an ubiquitous fear; to preserve the work of scholars and historians who spend their days tracing back the years, making connections and discoveries, and encasing in time the culture of an entire people ensures that those people achieve a level of immortality—even if immortality for a single person remains impossible.

Footnote, the excellent Israeli drama by Joseph Cedar, posits these concepts intimately and extensively with exceptional attention to the details of its characters. Shlomo Bar Aba plays the cantankerous Professor Eliezer Shkolnik, a septuagenarian Talmudic philologist at a top university in Jerusalem. As an academic, Eliezer has been passed over again and again by his peers: decades of scripture and manuscript dissection have long gone unrecognized by his field’s highly venerated elite. We learn in one of the film’s many quirky, narrated, tangential segments (straight from Amelie’s discarded reels) that 30 years of Eliezer’s backbreaking scholarship was hijacked and published by a bitter rival. Now, his only claim to fame is a footnote in the book of his mentor recognizing an iota of contribution.

What complicates things is that his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is also a professor of Talmudic history at the same university. Only Uriel is constantly being exalted for his work, receiving a multitude of prizes and honors. In the film’s opening segment, Uriel is granted membership into the highly esteemed Israel Academy, but throughout his five-minute acceptance speech, the camera never leaves Eliezer’s heartbroken face. Cedar’s astute artifice is effective at educing an ocean of unspoken animosity between father and son. Even though Uriel thanks him warmly in his words, citing his father’s vocational philosophy as a major influence on his own publications, Eliezer reads the peace offering as mere condescension.

When the prestigious Israel Prize—an annual award recognizing Israel’s brightest minds—announces its winner later on, will it be Eliezer’s year? Will he finally receive the honor he so desperately craves? Or will his son swoop in and win it from under his nose? With a number of inventive visual flourishes and just the right amount of absurdist humor, Footnote is not your average story of familial rivalry; instead, it’s a thematically rich tale of jealousy and sacrifice told with nearly parabolic Old Testament allusions, and also more modern insinuations about the importance of personal as well as ancestral legacy. Populated by deeply complex characters in a provocative narrative billowing with moral opacity, the film finds a fervid distinction between a scholar’s own professional responsibility to the truth and Man’s more complicated adherence to it. As Eliezer begins to comprise his integrity and morality for the sake of a mere prize, we can see he’s really gathering artifacts to aggrandize and preserve his own existence. Footnote becomes less about who someone is and more about how they’re remembered.

Parallels between father and son are drawn—both have offices stacked ceiling high with documents—to remind us of the tragic irony of their feud. It also creates an allegorical conflict between Man and his past—fueled by the fear he might repeat the mistakes of those who came before him. The two central performances bleed with candid emotionality. Bar Aba plays Eliezer as an anti-social grump who’s alienated his family and colleagues out of bitter spite. But behind his sullen visage is a sensitive old man, desperate to achieve the kind of immortality that the historical and religious subjects he dedicates his life to studying have done. Ashkenazi gives Uriel a dignity and propriety that his father lacks, but as the situation grows more precarious, Uriel starts to resemble his father in manner and attitude; he even severely and unjustly reprimands his own teenage son in a scene exploring the intergenerational legacy of familial dysfunction.

To understand Israeli cinema is to understand how the past and the present are always linked, like a father to his son. From their banishment from the Holy Land 2000 years ago to the Inquisition to the pogroms to the Holocaust to today, Jews collectively recognize the fragility of their small existence throughout history. Just as Israel’s geographical snugness is lampooned in a scene depicting a meeting in a cramped and crowded office, the sense of existential crisis is manifest in Eliezer. At one point, his son defends him against the head of the academic council by saying, “You’re seeking honors, just like every other mortal.” Footnote’s depiction of a cranky old man’s dishonorable crusade for honor leaves you with the sense that his actions weren’t only understandable—they were somehow necessary.

Monday, April 2, 2012

21 Jump Street


21 Jump Street, an action/comedy reboot of the 80’s TV cop drama that starred a young teen-beat Johnny Depp, is a funny but puerile and inconsequential bromance and wish-fulfillment fantasy starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. They play two overgrown kids with guns and badges who manage to suppress their underlying homoeroticism long enough to infiltrate a high school and stop a drug ring. The only thing this weakly transmuted adaptation has in common with its source material is the title and the squalid abandoned church headquarters that provides the eponymous address. The rest is a 21st century makeover that sheds the original series’ risible earnestness to make room for a full layer of parodic flippancy and dick jokes.

To call 21 Jump Street loosely plotted is being kind. Way back in 2005, a Slim Shady clone named Schmidt (Hill) gets shot down by his dream prom date while the wispy haired and doltish jock Jenko (Tatum) looks on and laughs. “You’re a dork and she’s hot,” he teases at the outcome. Years later, the two are paired up in police academy and become partners and friends. Expectations of car chases and fiery explosions are quickly replaced by park duty and bike patrol. Luckily, the two are fresh-faced enough to join Captain Dickson (Ice Cube in a hilarious performance of muted aggression) and his covert unit of undercover high school students.

A slimmed-down and reigned-in Jonah Hill plays his usual insecure and luckless man-child, still stammering awkwardly through conversations with coeds. In Moneyball, Hill took a huge step forward as an actor, complimenting Brad Pitt’s movie star machismo with a nerdish reticence that made the geek/jock collision of modern sport statistics seem like a fetching antipodal mélange. Here, that maturity has been washed away and replaced by the Woody Allen-ish, nervous romantic-underdog bit that’s grown tired since Superbad. The far more accomplished performance belongs to Hill’s sidekick Channing Tatum, for whom this project is actually a progressive one. With his West Point crew cut and linebacker’s build, Tatum has an All-American virility and innate physicality that, as Jenko, he gets a chance to subvert with tasteless humor and blockheadedness and belie with notes of sympathetic ambivalence.

High school’s changed a lot since Jenko ran things. Only seven years removed from his glory years, he’s shocked to learn that there’s no room for old-fashioned schoolyard thugs when the popular kids are into tolerance and environmentalism. So he falls in with a trio of AP Chemistry wiz-kids, instead. At the same time, Schmidt’s desperate keggers and drugged-out turn as Peter Pan—complete with tights and feather—wins him favor with the socialites, a group of pretty people who might be supplying the student body with a lethal new designer drug. With the roles reversed, Schmidt has not only infiltrated the crime syndicate he was brought in to bring down, but also the clique of preppies that represent the teen-dream lifestyle he missed out on the first time around.

Like Peggy Sue Got Married, 21 Jump Street is a post-school reverie about getting a second chance at adolescence. But it somehow seamlessly hybrids that with something like Hot Fuzz—an action movie about a generation of kids weaned on action movies, grown up and handed guns with no place to discharge them. The final act really detonates into a blood-soaked shoot ‘em up—poking fun at viewer expectations. At some point in route, all the John Hughes and Lethal Weapon self-awareness starts to feel like felicitous cover-up for a poorly written story that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller don’t seem to care much about. Forget the hail of bullets and inside jokes, 21 Jump Street remains a raunchy and ribald teen-angst comedy that gets you guffawing, if hardly ever caring.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home


I never thought the movie Signs could be anyone’s life philosophy. But when we first meet Jeff (Jason Segel)—you know, the one who lives at home—he’s looking into the camera and in pre-credit soliloquy expounding on his deep admiration for M. Night Shymalan’s alien invasion thriller. Though it’s not just the aliens that strike his fancy; it’s the idea of signs—the faith in cosmic order and spiritual destiny with which Jeff lives his life. From the first few moments of Jeff, Who Lives At Home, the gently inspiring new dramedy from the Duplass Brothers, we learn that our hangdog hero doesn’t only live at home to avoid paying rent; he’s waiting to find out where he’s supposed to be.

The prologue also helps us slip easily onto the movie’s purposefully banal but romantically sparkled wavelength, where Segel, the disarmingly kind teddy bear in Judd Apatow’s troupe of Gen-Y slackers, comfortably plants his 6 foot 5 inch self. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the comedian made a joke out of his over-sized vulnerability by appearing completely nude during an emotionally naked break up scene. As Jeff, a 30-year-old couch potato who lives in his mother’s basement and finds even the simplest tasks beyond his capabilities (when his mother asks him to fix a broken shingle, she might as well be Caesar demanding he build the Coliseum), Segel is rich with overgrown childish wonder and simple innocence, selling Jeff’s half-wacky, half-profound confessionals about fate as completely earnest.

The plot of the film follows Jeff’s misadventures over the course of a day, as he chases what he thinks are signs that make up some larger grand design. After a wrong number bellows for someone named Kevin, Jeff is sure to investigate as many Kevins as he can find. Later, by chance, he runs into his more responsible brother, Pat (Ed Helms), who’s marriage to Linda (Judy Greer, the dependable every-woman who played the spouse of George Clooney’s nemesis in The Descendents) is coming apart at the seams—she might or might not be having an affair at the local Comfort Inn. Meanwhile, the boys’ mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), sits in her cubicle, on her birthday, puzzling over a mysterious admirer who won’t stop blowing up her computer with instant messages. The film explores how these threads are connected, and it begins to take on the characteristics of Magical Realism: the uncanny and unexplainable start encroaching on the everyday as we follow kind-hearted Jeff in pursuit of his destiny.

As a lost child in a costume of hoodies, unkempt facial hair, gray sweat pants, and bong smoke, Jason Segel gives his best performance since Sarah Marshall. He speaks for a generation of developmentally arrested young people who know they won’t be as rich as their parents, so decide not to grow up instead of trying. Helms, a veteran of TV’s The Office, is a pro at handling the story’s broader comedic bits—like when his spanking new Porsche plows straight into a tree—but also proves considerably adept at navigating the character’s more emotionally complex shades. Sarandon’s poignant subplot is like an independent vignette about an aging woman coping with the growing ambivalence she feels about her sexual allure and ability to make interpersonal connections. The element bubbling below the surface of things is the father and husband whose death ten years prior has become, to each individual person, an open sore of unhealed grief.

Mark and Jay Duplass, whose previous film Cyrus made an actor out of Jonah Hill, have again proved that their trademark mumblecore cinema is probably the closest thing we have to American Realism. Shot on location with naturalistic lighting, digital cameras, and quick zooms straight from a sitcom mockumentary, this sub-genre of Independent Films focuses on out-of-the-crowd protagonists with an Average Joe’s problems and relationships. Films like this one are refreshingly light and achingly human, sacrificing grandeur or Hollywood’s high-stakes faux-grandeur for the delicate sweetness and genuine sorrow that ordinary people feel in their ordinary, mundane lives. Moreover, their protagonists, as is the case here, are often young men free-floating in ennui per post-grad dislocation, pinpointing a generational malaise spurned on by an uncertain zeitgeist.

Jeff is like the literal incarnation of unchecked American entitlement and Peter-Pan-Syndrome anxiety. But he’s a charming and loveable ragamuffin who’s just waiting for the right day to take responsibility for his life. And like they say, there’s no day like today. Beautifully written, directed and acted, with a simple but acknowledgeable xylophone score, this movie captures the spirit of American middle-class listlessness, but doesn’t propose wallowing in it; rather, taking action and seizing life. So, get out of your mother’s basement, follow the signs, and find your destiny at the theater with Jeff, Who Lives At Home.