Chuck Koplinski: Eastwood's 'Jersey Boys' offers fresh take, new turf
One would think that with more than 30 films under his belt as a director, Clint Eastwood would be out of tricks.
And yet, with his big-screen adaptation of the Broadway smash "Jersey Boys," he not only breaks new ground for himself — as this is the first musical he has directed — but is also able to bring a new perspective to the genre and this story as well.
Re-imagining the play slightly, Eastwood is able to give us a more personalized point of view regarding the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. While this approach pays dividends, that's not to say that the movie is without its faults, as far too many elements of the story are given short shrift, ultimately offering a less than complete picture.
The film begins auspiciously in New Jersey in 1951, where young Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) makes his first public singing appearance at the request of his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who is looking for talent to help his own music group get off the ground. He knows this kid from the neighborhood is special and does his best not only to nurture him but also to make sure he doesn't get away.
DeVito's groups come and go, musicians join, then drop out, and it takes some time before the other two core members of what will become the Four Seasons are in place. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) ably fills the role as bass guitarist while Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) proves to be their secret weapon as he winds up writing a string of doo-wop classics that not only put the group on top but help to define a generation.
The most refreshing aspect of the film is that it's told from DeVito, Gaudio and Massi's respective points of view. Each takes a turn moving the story along by addressing the audience directly, giving us the basic historical facts while providing their own opinions of these happenings.
This device provides the movie with an ever-growing sense of momentum as we see Castelluccio — now Valli — and his cohorts attempt to weather the ups and downs of the music business. Not only do they have to contend with the usual infighting that develops in this sort of group dynamic, but also trouble with organized crime as it's revealed that DeVito's skills as business manager are shady at best.
Unlike a traditional musical where, say, a lovesick guy suddenly starts singing in the rain, the music here stems organically from the action on screen. Whether the group is working through a song or performing on stage, none of these numbers breaks the sense of reality the characters are in. That's not to say that the film is without its share of corny Hollywood tropes (check out how the group gets its name), but there are too few to ruin the overall sense of "realism" Eastwood is attempting.
The Four Seasons' musical catalogue is on full display here, and if there's one criticism where it's concerned, it's that not nearly enough of the songs are played. All of the big hits — "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "My Eyes Adored You" — are given their due while only fragments of some of the others are heard. This is a testament to the depth of their legacy, and if anything, the film encourages the viewer to rediscover it.
The four principals were all chosen from various incarnations of the play with Lloyd Young having belonged to the original cast. They all accord themselves handsomely, and each makes the transition to the screen without missing a step. And while Massi describes himself as the Ringo of the group, nothing could be further from the truth as all four prove sympathetic and engaging.
'Jersey Boys' ★★★½ out of 4
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Johnny Cannizzaro, Christopher Walken, Joseph Russo, Lacey Hannan, Renee Marino and Erich Bergen.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; produced by Tim Headington, Graham King, Robert Lorenz and Eastwood; screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.
A Warner Brothers release. 134 minutes. Rated R (language). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16 IMAX.
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"Immigrant" familiar but effective. (★★★)
It comes as no surprise that director James Gray was born in New York City. Each of his films is set there, and he's fascinated not only with how the city works, but more with how the environment shapes the people who live there. In "Little Odessa," "The Yards," "We Own the Night" and "Two Lovers," characters are forced to compromise themselves in a variety of ways to survive, all faced with "rock-and-a-hard-place" situations that ensure that no matter what path is taken, they will be damaged in such a way that morally they will never be whole again.
This dilemma is at the core of his latest effort, "The Immigrant," a period piece set at the turn of the century that attempts to tell the tale of all European immigrants by focusing on the experiences of a few.
Filled with the hope of a new beginning, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has arrived on Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) eager to see those streets paved with gold she has heard about. However, when the younger sibling is detained because she has tuberculosis, the woman becomes distraught and unsure what to do.
However, she meets Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), an opportunistic businessman who promises to find her work as well as get her sister released. Ewa soon finds that her savior is actually a pimp and that he expects her to prostitute herself for him. Thinking she has no choice, she reluctantly accepts her fate, hating every minute of it, yet she spies a bit of hope when she meets Emil (Jeremy Renner), Bruno's cousin and amateur magician. More than a bit of enmity exists between the two men, and it only gets worse when they both fall for Ewa, a situation that's sure to end badly.
If all this sounds like a melodrama from the silent film era, replete with a moustache-twirling villain and knight in shining armor, you wouldn't be far off. Gray paints his story in broad strokes while his characters are rendered with nary a shade of gray. All is as it is presented, and you can see the fine cast struggling to bring a sense of humanity to the stereotypes they're saddled with. For the most part, they succeed with Cotillard tugging at our heartstrings without overreaching, while Renner wisely underplays his part, approaching it as a man in love, not a hero. Only Phoenix stumbles here, obvious from the start, failing to bring out anything distinctive in Bruno, giving us nothing more than a villain from central casting.
That being said, there's no denying that "The Immigrant" is a well-made film that benefits greatly because of Gray's decision to portray this environment in a grim, realistic light and not an idealized one. What plays out daily in this New York City is social Darwinism in action. Only the strong and canny survive, assistance offered is a trap in disguise, and once you've fallen, don't look for anyone to give you a hand up. It's vital that this be stressed again and again so that we might, while not necessarily agreeing with the character's actions, at least come to understand their reasoning.
"22 Jump Street" more of same, and that's just fine. (★★★½)
Mismatched partners, police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) have been handed a ridiculous assignment — they're to enroll as college students in order to track down the source of a fatal drug that's sweeping the campus of MC State, despite the fact that they are obviously much older than the average student there.
Reluctantly, they go undercover, and soon Jenko finds himself immersed in a group — the football team — where he feels right at home. Unfortunately, Schmidt is the odd man out, the eternal outsider who finds solace in his friendship with Maya (Amber Stevens), an English major who inexplicably finds him attractive.
Deciding to investigate the case from their different perspectives, Schmidt and Jenko unexpectedly find their friendship tested as they each wrestle with their own existential angst, wondering if police work is what they're truly cut out for and if they can rely on one another.
If this plot sounds woefully familiar, then you've seen "21 Jump Street," which is precisely the point. Explosively funny and unexpectedly smart, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's "22 Jump Street" is a 112-minute riff on how unnecessary movie sequels are that, in the end, proves the exact opposite. Along the way, allusions to not only the first movie but a wide variety of other pop culture touchstones ("Benny Hill," anyone?) as well as the film's very own plot conventions pepper the narrative landscape, making this a meta-exercise that Dennis Miller would be proud to call his own.
When the film is funny, it's explosively funny, to the point of laughing until you're gasping for breath. Maya's roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell) rips into Schmidt with a litany of barbs about him obviously being much older than them that's as pointed as it is vicious; a scene with the perps from the first film, the now-incarcerated-cellmates, Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle) and Eric Molson (Dave Franco), is a mandatory cameo that doesn't feel unnecessary because it's so funny; while a sequence in which Dickson gets a piece of unwanted news proves once and for all that Cube is the secret weapon in both these films.
But the hands-down, funniest moment I've seen all year belongs to Tatum who, when he finds out what's distressing Captain Dickson (a wonderful Ice Cube), delivers a wholly inappropriate celebration dance that will leave you breathless.
To be sure, "22 Jump Street" delivers more of the same but does so in such a way that, like a favorite meal, you don't mind eating it more than once as long as the quality remains the same.
As to what "23 Jump Street" might bring us, a look at this film's credit sequence gives us some idea of what Lord and Miller have in mind, all of which looks far smarter and more funny than most of the comedic fare that litters the multiplex.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuck firstname.lastname@example.org.