Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Elf (2003) **½

I suppose this has become a Christmas classic, and I would be embarrassed at having waited so long to see it, but it’s also one of  those movies that isn’t really as good as people tell you it is.  It’s funny, but it’s also goofy, predictable, and rather trite.
“Elf” is the story of Buddy, an orphanage baby who accidentally stows away in Santa’s bag one Christmas.  Raised by elves, grown-up Buddy is oblivious to his human origins, despite being 6’3” and terrible at making toys.  When he learns the truth, he sets off from the North Pole for New York, to find his birth father.  There he walks around in an elf suit doing the kinds of goofy things Will Ferrell would do in a movie like this.  His long-lost father is a publisher and kind of a jerk, but of course, like the Grinch, his heart grows three sizes, and in the end Buddy saves the day with his Christmas cheer.
One gets the sense that this story might once have had  something of an edge to it, but by the shopworn, heartwarming ending, that edge is completely blunted by a swelling score, and everyone learns an Important Lesson about Christmas.  It's as treacly-sweet as the maple syrup that elves apparently eat on everything.
        Surprisingly, Will Ferrell is the best thing in “Elf.”  I’m normally not a fan, but his stupid, earnest schtick actually works well in this story.  Zooey Deschanel plays a charming love interest, but she is pretty much the same surly, big-eyed character she plays in every movie.  Peter Dinklage does put in a memorable cameo as a children’s author who, as an achondroplastic dwarf, gets a bit prickly about being called an elf.
If I am overly Scrooge-like about “Elf,” it is probably because I came to it too late.  This is really a movie for kids, and as such, it isn’t bad.  It isn’t nearly as good as the animated “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” but it is way more watchable than the live action Grinch movie.  If you are looking for a Christmas movie, watch “Die Hard” or “Bad Santa,” but if you are looking for one to watch with your kids, this will do.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, December 14, 2012

21 Jump Street (2012) ****

The thing about filmmaking is that in the right hands, a truly dumb concept can turn into a great movie, just as a good story can get turned into a bomb in the wrong hands.  When I heard about “21 Jump Street,” I thought, “Do we really need another movie about adults going back to high school?”  To make matters worse, this one is based on an old TV show, usually a sign that a movie will suck.  To my surprise, the movie is a complete hoot!  They almost take the lack of originality and make it an advantage.  Instead of worrying too much about plot, the film focuses on good acting, physical comedy, and action, and they come up with a winner!
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play Schmidt and Jenko, a couple of rookie cops.  The two were high school classmates, where Jenko (Tatum) was a popular jock and Schmidt (Hill) was a nerd.  They wind up becoming friends in the police academy, and after screwing up as bicycle cops, they are sent to 21 Jump Street, an undercover project that sends young-looking cops into high schools to infiltrate drug rings.  Jenko promises to take Schmidt under his wing and show him how to be cool in high school, but it turns out that styles and attitudes have changed just enough that Jenko’s efforts to seem cool fall flat.  It turns out, however, that a funny, smart, fat kid who secretly has nothing to lose can fit right in, so Schmidt winds up hanging out with the cool kids, including the main drug dealer (Dave Franco, James Franco’s brother).  Meanwhile, Jenko sulks his way into the science lab, where the nerds wind up lending him their technical expertise to help bust the drug gang.
I can’t even believe I just typed all that.  The plot is so silly and predictable it actually hurts to describe it, but directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller manage to make it work.  The screenplay, co-written by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall, lets the actors stretch out and have fun, while letting the movie poke fun at its own hackneyed plot and lack of originality.  Unburdened by an earnest plot or some misguided message, Hill and Tatum deliver excellent comedy.  The supporting cast delivers as well, including Dave Franco (“You know what they do in prison to handsome guys like me?  It rhymes with GRAPE!”) and Ice Cube as the “angry, black Captain.” “21 Jump Street” may not win the Oscar for Best Comedy, but it would win Best Comedy Based on a Short-Lived ‘80s TV Show, with room to spare.

4 stars out of 5