The Length of Love (The Book of Life, 2014)

Book_of_Life_posterLa Muerta rules over the joyful Land of the Remembered, while Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten. He tries to convince La Muerta to change sides, but she is not interested.  He proposes a wager. Observing the rivalry of two young boys (Manolo and Joaquin) over their friend Maria, each god chooses a boy as the one who will marry Maria.

La Muerta disguises herself as an old woman who asks if Manolo might give her a piece of bread.  Instead he generously offers a full loaf. Xibalba tries the same thing, but Joaquin is not so giving. Maria is sent off by her father, returning years later.  Sensing Maria is favoring Manolo, Xibalba tricks Manolo into giving up his life.

In the afterlife, Manolo discovers he has been duped and seeks the help of La Muerta.

The design of this film is remarkably charming.  The framing device is that a museum tour guide is telling the story, and all the characters look like wooden puppets.

The Land of the Dead is a wonderfully bright and colorful world. The characters are full of charm. La Muerta is a kind and gentle, yet fearless goddess.  Xibalba on the other hand is both scheming and yet friendly (he is voiced by Ron Perlman, whose performance is just a lot of fun).  And while the story frames Manolo as a kind and generous artist and Joaquin as a cheerful braggart? Joaquin is not a villain.  The story is pitting the two against each other, and it obviously favors Manolo as the man for Maria. But Joaquin is seen as simply misguided and in need of a lesson. The film has sympathy for him.  And then there is Maria.  She is not interested in belonging to anyone and regularly challenges her two friends. And there is Chuy the pig who makes a sound like a goat.

The music of the Book of Life blends American Pop music with latin flavors to great effect.  But the highlight are the two original tunes I Love You To Much and the Apology Song.

The Book of Life is a charming fairy tale of love, loss and rebirth.

Go Ahead and Jump (22 Jump Street, 2014)

22_Jump_Street_PosterAfter the success of the first film, a second was pretty much inevitable.  And so Jenko and Schmidt are on a new mission that goes hilariously awry.  This leads into the running gag of the film.

Sequels are soulless cash grabs, which admittedly, they often are.  Here, they are told they screwed up the mission and it was just to different.  They are sent to the new Jumpstreet.  22 Jump Street to be exact.  It has a bigger budget, is in a new location and so on.  Same boss, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) with the same attitude.

They send the boys on a new undercover job at a college to bust a drug ring…you know…like the first movie.

The end result is a movie that manages to live up to it’s successor.  What really works, yet again, is the chemistry of Tatum and Hill’s characters.  As college relationships seem to pull them apart, they start to fail at their mission.  It is only their realization that it is their differences that make them a great team that they can solve the mysteries of the drug ring.

Schmidt meets a girl, Jenko meets a boy and friendships drift apart.  There is a gay subtext to the relationship of Schmidt and Jenko, but surprisingly, it is not of the “Eeee!” kind of attitude so frequent in “bro-comedies”.    There is even a brief scene were Jenko expresses remorse upon realizing how many gay slurs he used to use in high school.

I was skeptical when they announced the first film…by the end of the second one, I was more than willing for another round.

The end credits are must watch.  I was in tears with the running gag of the endless sequels and merchandising.  Though, the fact that there is a 21 Jump Street/Men in Black crossover makes the gag a bit ironic.

Might As Well Jump (21 Jump Street, 2012)

21_Jump_Street_PosterA trend began in the early 2000’s of making movies based on dramatic action shows from the 70’s and 80’s, but treating them as a joke.  This has had…decidedly mixed results.

21 Jump Street was part of the line-up of a upstart new network called Fox.  It was the story of a division of young cops who would go into schools undercover, posing as students, to bust drug dealers and the like.  The show’s biggest claim to fame was that it introduced Johnny Depp to the world.

In the film, we meet loser Schmidt (Jonah Hill) who has a humiliating day at school.  He is rejected by a girl and pushed around by his bully Jenko (Channing Tatum) .  Except, Jenko is having his own trouble…his grades are so bad, he is not going to be allowed to go to prom.  A few years later they are both at the police academy.  At first, Jenko resumes his role as bully, but they quickly realize both can help each other get through.  As Jenko helps Schmidt with the physical tests, Schmidt helps Jenko pass the mental ones.

They are disappointed to discover their first gig is as bike cops in a park.  But an ill fated drug bust leads them to Jump Street, an old program that is being revived.  They are sent into a high school to determine who is selling a new and dangerous drug.

The story is not entirely fresh, and yet, this is kind of the point.  The filmmakers are seeking to have some fun with both cop and action film tropes.  This leads to a lot of entertaining visual gags.  The drug ring is run by hip and socially conscious kids.  When Jenko tries mocking kids for being concerned about the environment, he is informed that this is just so uncool.  In fact, the two friends find their social heirchy inverted.  On top of that, they confuse who is which undercover character, forcing both into roles outside their comfort zone.

21 Jump Street is not an outright parody of it’s namesake.  It is set in the same universe as the show (with original actors reprising roles from the TV Show), but it sees some of the absurdity in the concept.  And it plays with the conventions pretty well (including the very problematic area of the “Inappropriate Love Interest”).

What really holds the film together though is Hill and Tatum.  They are a genuinely enjoyable combo with a friendship that is a bit endearing.  The action scenes are well choreographed.  And, important to any action comedy film?  The action and jokes do not step on each other, so to speak.  21 Jump Street is a pleasant surprise, with it’s combination of humor and enjoyable characters.

Refueled (xXx: Return of Xander Cage, 2017)

xxx-roxc-poster12 years after the franchise stalled, comes an attempt to revitalize it.  Director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia) takes the reigns as Vin Diesel returns to the role of Xander Cage.  This time around, the idea is…”if one Bond is awesome…imagine if we had nine of them!”  Xander has been presumed dead, but when the CIA is hit by some highly skilled enemy agents who steal a dangerous weapon, they find Xander hiding out.

This time around, Cage sets up his own xXx team.  These are highly skilled extreme types. And they get a government agent assigned to them.  A cute and plucky girl named Becky.  She is also their “Q”.  On their way to retrieve the weapon, Cage and friends end up discovering he is up against other xXx agents that were recruited by Samuel L. Jackson’s Gibbons.  This ultimately leads to all the agents teaming up to take down the real bad guys.

The xXx films are pretty much “What if Bond was on steroids.”  Except this film.  The Return of Xander Cage is really “What if xXx was on steroids???”  It seems like the last 40 minutes were non-stop action and a Gospel Choir.

This film does not totally rewrite the book.  Instead, it is more of a blending of the Bond formula and the Fast & the Furious.  It is exciting and fun, and if you enjoyed the first two films, it is unlikely you will be disappointed by this one.  I would totally be in for the entire cast (those who make it out alive) to return for another round.

Franchise Adjustment (xXx: State of the Union)

xxx-sotu-posterSo, one year before Casino Royale, xXx is back.  Vin Diesel is not, but yeah, the Franchise soldiers on.  Although both Diesel and  Rob Cohen were both signed on, they eventually dropped out.  In a bit of irony, the film is directed by the director of Die Another Day, Lee Tamahori.  Replacing Diesel’s Xander Cage as the new xXx is Ice Cube’s Darius Stone.

Samuel L. Gibson’s Gibbons is back in charge, and they face a situation that requires someone tougher than Cage.  That is Darius Stone.  Stone is a highly decorated Marine who tried standing up to his corrupt commanding officer and was locked up for it.  Stone is pretty much a one man army, as evidenced by his prison escape.

It turns out, his former CO is part of a dark plot that needs Stone, as xXx, to take him and his cronies down.  And that is pretty much it.  Like it’s predecessor, State of the Union is mostly a showcase for outrageous stunts and action sequences.  And snappy comebacks.  Ice Cube is always reliable for attitude fueled quips.

The film was very obviously setting itself up for a sequel, setting the franchise up to have a different actor in the role each film.  This seems like a setup of necessity.  This is a serviceable sequel with the expected performances from it’s cast.  If you are looking for deep espionage, xXx: State of the Union is not going to be all that satisfying.  It is, however, a pretty fun popcorn action spy movie.

Ghosts With Tattoos (the Ghosts of Mars, 2001)

ghosts_of_mars_posterIn the future, the terraforming of Mars has begun  There are colonies all over Mars.  The world is now a Matriarchy.  A police force is sent to Mars to transfer prisoner Desolation Williams.  They arrive to find the town empty except for some folks in lock up, including Desolation.  He and the others have no real answer for what is happening.

They soon discover that there may be more to it than a murder spree.  The ghosts of Mars indigenous population are taking over the bodies of earthlings.  Melanie Ballard is a tough space cop and finds herself aligned with Williams, who proclaims his innocence in the murders of countless colonists.  While she believes he is not a killer, she believes in following her orders and bringing him in, but survival requires them to wait on that and work together.  The spirits or organisms (whatever they are) take over people…in stage one they stare intensely at their hands.  Then they start mutilating themselves.  Then they get violent.

The exploration of the mystery gets slow at times, and there is a lot of running around that feels like padding for the story.  The film is bloody and violent when not being slow and expository.

The story is basically told in flashback with Ballard giving testimony about what happened.  Then there are the flashbacks in flashbacks.  This gets tiring fast as characters show up to tell Ballard what she missed.

In addition, the acting is fairly weak in most cases and nothing is to compelling.  The reveal of the cause it a twist that neither surprises nor adds to the situation.

It is interesting to note that the film started as Escape From Mars, a Snake Plissken tale.  The studio got a bit uncomfortable with a third Escape film and opted to have Carpenter change up the story.

There is no telling if Escape From Mars would have been a better film than Ghosts of Mars, but this is easily the worst of Carpenter’s work.


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