Life is precious and fragile. It’s important to live in the moment and make each one count as much as it can, because in an instant, it could be all over. This is the central message of “If I Stay,” one that director R.J. Cutler delivers in a powerful way.
I admire the structure of the screenplay. This type of narrative arrangement is very difficult to pull off, but screenwriter Shauna Cross does it brilliantly, based on the novel by Gayle Forman. “If I Stay” starts off with a snow day in Portland, Oregon. The Hall family—mom Kat (Mireille Enos), dad Denny (Joshua Leonard), son Teddy (Jakob Davies), and daughter Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz)—go for a drive. An oncoming truck loses control on the icy road and there’s a terrible accident. Mia wakes up outside of her body. She can see herself lying on the ground and can see and hear all of the people around her and everything that’s happening, but they can’t see or hear her. This is the starting point. From this moment, the story continues forward as Mia and her family are rushed to the hospital and family and friends come by for support. We also flashback to Mia’s past experiences, mostly centering around her expertise in playing the cello and applying to Julliard, and her relationship with up and coming local rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley).
A film like “If I Stay” could easily be heavy handed, dumping on one tragedy after another. There are tragic things that happen, to be sure. But the film is smart in that it doesn’t dwell on the sad, it celebrates the wonderful. In one of the film’s best scenes, Mia reflects on one of the best days she ever had: an impromptu jam session around a bonfire where she plays the cello, Adam plays the guitar, and everyone swells with joy while singing “Today Is the Greatest Day of My Life” by the Smashing Pumpkins. Even as I write it, I know how hokey it must sound. Trust me, it’s not. There’s an authenticity to it that feels palpable. Probably because by this point in the movie, these are people you have come to know and love. The central question in “If I Stay” is: Will Mia fight and wake up and live, or will she give up and cross to the other side? This movie makes you care deeply about the answer to that question and what decision she’ll make. “If I Stay” is well made on all levels of film craft, and hard as it may be to watch in some parts, it is ultimately an awesome celebration of life. Buy It.
The film “21 Jump Street” for me was a mixed bag. I loved the first half where Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) trade identities and it is a fish out of water story. A lot of funny comedy is derived from that. Way less funny is the second half where it degenerates into a witless action movie (cheeky though it tried to be) with repetitive jokes and an appalling ending that belonged more in a sick horror movie than it did in a comedy. Luckily, “22 Jump Street” did not hold the same issue for me—and it’s darn funny to boot.
Schmidt and Jenko are back, as is Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). In one of the movie’s meta gags, the location of the headquarters gets moved across the street from 21 to 22 Jump Street, and the captain’s office is built to look like what Schmidt describes as “a giant cube…of ice.” Speaking of Ice Cube, he is utilized much better in this movie than in the first one. He plays the “angry black man” shtick with more purpose, and as funny as Hill and Tatum are, he steals the show away from them whenever he’s on screen. His is one of the funniest performances of the year as far I’m concerned.
“22 Jump Street” also examines the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko. Now that they’ve been partners for a while, they look inward to see what the future holds for them. Are they too different and will they have to go their separate ways? Or can they find that common ground that made them great partners in the first place, and recapture that magic and carry on? Some of the best moments in the movie are the two of them dealing with their “couples” issues. It’s also worth noting the perfect comic timing in the performance of Jillian Bell, who plays the weird, creepy roommate of Maya (Amber Stevens), Schmidt’s girlfriend. In all, “22 Jump Street” is better written than its predecessor, with better use of a very funny supporting cast. Sometimes it helps to spread the humor around to make things more funny. “22 Jump Street” does just that. Rent It.
“Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” That’s the full length official title, and Robert Rodriguez does credit iconic graphic novel writer Frank Miller as a co-director on the film. Ostensibly, this is because he wants to give Miller the respect he deserves. Another more secret reason could be that he wants his name disassociated with this uninspired and lackluster sequel as much as it can be without going the full Alan Smithee.
“A Dame to Kill For” is done in the same living graphic novel style as the 2005 “Sin City” film. But whereas that film was bold, original, and daring, this movie seems to know the music but not the words. It takes on all the same themes of sex, nudity, violence, and depravity—as filtered through the mind of a thirteen year old boy, which is the level Miller operates at a lot of the time—but does nothing with them except splash them on the screen for exploitation purposes. The first film at least had a psychological drive to all of the terrible things that happened. Nothing in the excessive voiceover narration in “Dame” really helps get to what motivates these characters. They spend more time explaining what they’re doing, rather than why they’re doing it. That is a huge key difference. In one of the better stories, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a gambler with extremely good luck, out for revenge on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). He narrates his story like there’s no tomorrow, talking about what’s going on as if we can’t see it for ourselves. We eventually find out a basic superficial reason for his revenge plot, and that’s it. It goes no deeper from there. One of the benefits of voiceover narration is that it allows a glimpse into a characters psyche. If all you’re going to do with it is give a play by play, it’s pointless.
Another issue is the stories themselves. Frank Miller has nothing new or interesting to say about the goings on of Basin City. With the exception of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt tale, the stories feel the same. The formula is: Some sexy femme fatale (Jessica Alba, Eva Green, Rosario Dawson) gets into trouble and gets some big, tough as nails lug (Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Christopher Meloni) to come along for the ride and risk their lives to help her get payback on whoever did her wrong. These men are invariably thinking with the wrong head, and the stories conclude with shootouts and home invasions. Seriously—two major stories in this movie involve the heroes sneaking onto a compound, shooting it out with guards, getting into the mansion, and having the final stand with the main baddie. One end sequence like this is trite enough, since it’s done in every other movie that comes out. Two just pushes “A Dame to Kill For” over the ledge. Skip It.
Also out this week: “Alive Inside,” uplifting documentary and Audience Award winner at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, about the healing power of music; “And So It Goes,” unfortunate generic title for a movie starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton, and directed by Rob Reiner; “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” excellent example of German expressionism in this chilling silent film about a killer somnambulist and his doctor; “Coming Home,” powerful and moving Hal Ashby film about Vietnam veterans returning home from the war, starring Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, and Jane Fonda; “The Dark Half,” with Timothy Hutton as a horror writer who tries to kill off his pseudonym—with deadly consequences; “It Happened One Night,” Frank Capra’s delightful and bubbly 1934 rom-com starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable--one of only three movies to take the “top five” at the Oscars; “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” spectacular animated feature from legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, about a young girl (voice of Kirsten Dunst), on her path to becoming a full-fledged witch, who leaves her home in the county and starts a delivery service in the city; “Monkey Shines,” director George Romero’s tale of a trained monkey who anticipates her owner’s (Jason Beghe) every desire—even the homicidal ones; and “Princess Mononoke,” Miyazaki anime about a young man (voice of Billy Crudup) who ventures into a forest and meets a young warrior princess raised by wolves (voice of Claire Danes).
Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday; he lives in Connecticut.