A simple story in ‘The Rover,’ but it sticks with you

The lead character in the Australian import “The Rover” does not speak until about 15 minutes into the movie, and this sets the tone for this grim but surprisingly engrossing film, directed by David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”).

The character is named Eric and is played with a quiet intensity by Guy Pearce. His name is Eric, but the only way the audience learns that is by seeing it in the credits.

Michod wrote the screenplay, based on a story on which he collaborated with actor Joel Edgerton (“The Odd Life of Timonty Green”). The film moves slowly and requires patience but before long it is easy to get hooked.

The story takes place in Australia “ten years after the collapse.” What collapsed is not elaborated but as the narrative unfolds it seems to be a breakdown of the economy and infrastructure throughout the country. In the opening moments, Eric is seen sitting silently and solemnly in his dusty car. He eventually exits the car and shuffles into an old rundown building, which turns out to be a karaoke bar.

While he is gloomily having a drink, the scene cuts to a speeding pickup truck in which three excitable and armed men are fleeing from what probably was a botched robbery. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is upset because they had to leave his brother Rey behind, possibly dead from gunshot wounds. The activity in the vehicle gets so intense and out of the control that the truck goes into a roll and ends up tangled in debris right outside the karaoke bar.

The three men climb out of the truck, spot Eric’s car, hot-wire it and drive on.

By the time Eric sees what is going on and runs outside, the three bandits have sped off in his car. He climbs into the wrecked truck and finds it still runs and manages to free it from the debris. He goes after his stolen car and follows it until the armed men stop and confront him. Eric demands they return his car and gets knocked cold and left by the road.

Meanwhile, Rey (Robert Pattinson from the “Twilight” series) is not dead. He regains consciousness and manages to stagger to a Humvee used by the military unit now serving as law enforcement, and drives off, nursing a wound to his left side.

Eric awakes to find that at least the thieves left him the truck. He continues on, making stops at whatever settlements he finds in this vast, mostly uninhabited Outback area of Australia, asking if the car with three men passed through. He also obtains a gun in a rather abrupt and bloody way.

During one of Eric’s stops, Rey also pulls into the area and seeing the truck thinks it is his brother and partners in crime, only to learn it is now in the possession of Eric.

Eric, upon learning Rey is a brother of one of the criminals, takes the man to a doctor (Susan Prior) for treatment, and afterward demands that Rey take him to wherever his brother and partners are hiding out. Rey is a bit handicapped mentally and is easily taken under control by Eric, who eventually convinces him that his brother must not have cared much for him if he was willing to leave him for dead.

Eric and Rey develop an uneasy alliance, and it is the interplay between these two men that captures the viewer’s attention. Eric is a man of few words and we learn very little of his background. Rey soon is revealed as a simple-minded man who is coerced with little difficulty. When he is rebuffed impatiently by Eric for talking about things in his past, he pouts and says, “not everything has to mean something.”

Another gripping aspect of the movie is why Eric is so obsessed with getting his car back. Because he has the truck, which serves just as efficiently for transportation as a car, there must be more to the stolen vehicle than just a possession.

Along the way, Eric mostly has to take charge of situations, only to be surprised when Rey proves resourceful at times.

Serving as a backdrop to shaky association between Eric and Rey is the gorgeous but unforgiving landscape of remote Australian Outback territory. During their journey, the two men encounter desperate people torn between trusting others as a means of survival or just fending for themselves.

Michod tracks the story along so that it is impossible to figure out what will happen if and when Eric and Rey catch up to the thieves. In the end, the viewer has been treated to a very simple story, yet the character development is so skillful, using minimal dialogue, that “The Rover” will rattle around in the viewer’s mind for a while.

Eastwood uses the right pieces to make ‘Jersey Boys’ work

Here is something you do not see often in movies these days. As “Jersey Boys” opens, the camera settles upon a street in New Jersey in the early 1950s. Then Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) comes into the scene and immediately addresses the audience, laying the foundation for the story and giving the film an intimate one-on-one feel. This is a device employed in the stage production as written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice — who also wrote the movie screenplay — and used occasionally throughout the movie, Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation of the popular award-winning musical.
Because of the success of “Jersey Boys” on stage, the story is well known, chronicling the rise and eventual fall of The Four Seasons, the pop group that had several huge hits in the early 1960s. Also, because of the high profile of the play, the screen version has been widely anticipated, especially in the directorial hands of Eastwood, already a proven talent behind the camera.
Eastwood’s smartest move was casting John Lloyd Young, who already has won a Tony Award, in the pivotal role of Frankie Valli, the falsetto-voiced singer who provided the Four Seasons with its unique sound. In fact, Eastwood opted to have stage actors rather than film performers, wanting to get people who have become familiar with the roles from playing them repeatedly.
Of the major characters, only Piazza, who has played Lucky Luciano in “Boardwalk Empire,” and Christopher Walken have extensive film experience.
The result is an exhilarating film, loaded with music, along with its share of drama, humor and tragedy. It’s early, but “Jersey Boys” could be a contender for Academy Award nominations.
Young’s ability to mimic Valli’s voice really cements the authenticity during the many song productions in “Jersey Boys.”
Young’s Valli is a basically decent teenager when “Jersey Boys” opens, a youngster in New Jersey who falls under the influence of the street-wise DeVito, and although DeVito briefly leads Valli astray with some illegal activities, their brotherhood is sealed.
DeVito also is the leader of a pop group, featuring Valli as lead singer, that goes through several name changes before a neon sign inspires the group to become The Four Seasons.
The story follows the usual path of a group struggling to establish itself, doing gigs wherever it could get bookings while trying to generate interest in demo records.
The key relationships that help propel The Four Seasons is the hook-up of songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) with the group, introduced to the band by Joe Pesci (yes that Joe Pesci, but played by Joseph Russo), who starts cranking out the hits; and meeting up with producer-songwriter Bob Crewe (a scene-stealing Mike Doyle).
Fame and fortune follow, along with the inevitable problems. Although devoted to his wife Mary (Renee Marino, also reprising her stage role) and family, Valli’e excessive absences while he is on the road leads to the crumbling of his family.
Meanwhile, DeVito’s irresponsible handling of finances amounts to massive debt, which in turn triggers a splintering of the group.
Before that, Gaudio, a lot more savvy about the music business, forges a partnership with Valli so that once The Four Seasons are no more, the two can continue to make music.
Tragedy almost has Valli completely dropping out of the business until Gaudio brings him another song that he reluctantly takes a look at. It turns out to be “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” another enormous hit that revives Valli’s career.
Walken adds some nice touches as Gyp DeCarlo, a neighborhood boss in New Jersey who takes a liking to Valli’s singing and later proves to be a valuable ally in solving the Devito-generated financial disasters.
Amid the great scenes of The Four Seasons peformances is the familiar story of the glory of success and how easy it can disintegrate. But it also is a story about loyalty and allegiance that became a foundation to the lives of Valli and his fellow group members.
“Jersey Boys” is a throwback to those great musically-centered movies of decades ago and a viewer does not have to be a fan of The Four Seasons to appreciate the production, which concludes with an all-cast dance routine to “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” as the credits begin to roll.

’22 Jump Street’ is a rehash, and it knows its

The pairing of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill for a cop-buddy comedy was inspired and led to the 2012 hit “21 Jump Street,” based on the television series that featured Johnny Depp. Thus it was a no-brainer that a sequel would hit the screens.
The bad news is that “22 Jump Street” is pretty much the same plot as its predecessor. The good news is that the co-directors of the original, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with one of the “21” screenplay writers, Michael Bacall, are back, and they cleverly poke fun at the fact the movie is a rehash.
Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum), who were pushing it in “21 Jump Street” by trying to pass themselves off as high school students in an undercover assignment, are again posing as students, this time in college, in an effort to break up a drug ring. Ice Cube is back as Capt. Dickson, still antagonistic, still employing colorful language.
Once on campus, the two officers, who had prided themselves on being a team, doing everything together, find themselves splitting apart. Jenko finds a kindred spirit in the college’s starting quarterback, Zook (Wyatt Russell) and fits in comfortably with the partying jock element on campus.
Schmidt, meanwhile, cannot compete there but hooks up with the bohemian art majors, drawn there by Maya (Amber Stevens), who brings out his sensitive side.
Amid their investigation, Schmidt and Jenko feel the tension as they continue to drift away from each other, especially when Jenko begins to consider pursuing a college football career.
There are a few twists along the way, including a stunning revelation involving Capt. Dickson.
Per usual, there are the slapstick scenes that exploit Schmidt’s athletic shortcomings, as well as Jenko’s stumbling efforts at improvising. The age jokes are prevalent also, mostly coming from Maya’s roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell), who delivers relentless zingers at Schmidt.
The chemistry between Hill and Tatum is again a strong point of the movie, and Ice Cube offers a hilarious presence with his unabated rage and disgust. Surprisingly, the unlikely pairing of Schmidt and Maya has a sweetness that makes it authentic.
As amusing as “22 Jump Street” is at times, the highlight comes at the end, while the credits roll, and everybody involved in this comedy flat out make fun of the concept of sequels. So stick around to see it.


The more he dies, the more heroic Cruise becomes in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

In a way, the gift that Tom Cruise’s Maj. William Cage receives in “Edge of Tomorrow” is enviable. It is the ability to relive past moments in life and correct the mistakes made to ensure a better result. The down side: You have to die in order to “reset” the time and go back.

That is the premise behind “Edge of Tomorrow,” yet another in the nasty-aliens-invade-Earth genre.

With a relentless assault of “mimics” gaining more ground in an attack on the planet, mankind has found that even technological advances in weaponry cannot thwart these creatures. Amid all this, Maj. Cage, a PR officer quite content with his job that leaves him “in the rear with the gear,” is summoned to Europe to meet with Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who tells the major he is going to be on the front lines of a massive land attack that will make or break the humans’ defense of the planet. Cage resists and is seized and rendered unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself at the military base where the massive assault is being prepared. He is assigned by Master Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton) to a squad and given a crash course in combat.

The next day the assault commences and is a disaster. Cage dies within minutes and at the moment of his death wakes up with a start and is back at the base and it is the previous day.

So once again he goes through the preparations and dies in the attack, and wakes up again back at the base. He soon realizes to his amazement he is in some sort of time loop. This is baffling to him but at least every time he goes back into battle he lasts a little longer, knowing what has happened and how to delay his death. In these battles he encounters the Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who soon realizes what is happening to Cage and tells him, “When you wake up, find me.”

Cage has to AWOL but does track down Rita on the day before the attack, and she enlightens him on what  he is experiencing and how they should be able to use this ability to gain an advantage over the enemy. Cage does not want any part of this, but Rita tells him it is either this or confinement to a psycho ward or a final stop on a dissection table. Rita takes him Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), a scientist whose theories on the alien species have been dismissed as looney but hold the secret to victory.

Once Cage has been trained — a darkly-humored sequence in which Cage’s mistakes require a “reset” — the major and Rita must go into the battle repeatedly on that deadly beach, advancing a little more in their quest to administer a crushing blow to the aliens.

Maj. Cage is not a recycled Cruise hero like Maverick of “Top Gun,” Ethan Hunt of “Mission Impossible” or Jack Reacher. For much of the movie he is bumbling and inexperienced, exasperating Rita, but eventually develops into a man now capable of rendering the final blow to the enemy.

Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), maintains a swift pace, slowing only as Cage and Rita analyze what they have learned and go from there. There is little time for quiet moments between Cage and Rita although they obviously have grown fond of each other. There are no back stories on either character, so their actions and reactions amid the deadly chaos have to be the key in drawing the audience to them. Fortunately, Cruise and Blunt have a chemistry together that blends well with all the action.

The screenplay, by Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher”), Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, manages to keep things rolling, with touches of humor, despite repeated scenes. The audience is held in suspense on what the next challenge will be for Cage and Rita and whether there will be yet another “reset.”

 Seth MacFarlane offers a funny view of the Old West

Seth MacFarlane, whose “Ted” has forever changed the way we view cuddly teddy bears, takes a step into Mel Brooks’ territory with his raunchy look at the Old West in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Fans of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” animated series know he likes to push the envelope in his humor, and those going in to see his “A Million Ways” can expect to be exposed to very crude material that mostly is not sophisticated — although some of the jokes may go over most people’s heads — but is infectious.
As director and co-writer — along with his collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild — MacFarlane had the power to put himself in the lead role as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer of minimal success living a few miles outside of the dumpy town Stump Hill and a man who is quite aware he is out of his element trying to survive in the harsh conditions of Arizona in 1882.
The opening credits appear to be a salute to Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” which in turn played homage to the serious old Westerns, using the same bold and colorful type face on the screen, accompanied by a majestic orchestral theme by Joel McNeely as the musical backdrop to the panoramic views of a gorgeous land  still mostly untouched by progress.
Then there is the opening scene of a typical showdown gun duel on the main street of a town. At that point, all the seriousness breaks down.
Albert, challenged to a draw, does not approach this with narrow-eyed confidence. Instead, he talks his way out of the gun fight, promising instead restitution to the challenger in exchange for likely being shot to death.
All of this is conducted in front of the town folk, including Albert’s girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who then dumps him and soon takes up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the conceited owner of the town’s mustache grooming shop.
With what little confidence he had now imploded, Albert, while sitting in a bar with his best friends, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), laments the lethal trappings of living in the West.
In a sidebar plot device, despite Ruth being the most popular of the town’s prostitutes, she and Edwards have a chaste relationship.
Meanwhile, the notorious gun slinger and robber Clinch Eastwood (Liam Neeson, having fun in a rare villain role) and his gang are active, and while he is conducting his work, he dispatches his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) and  Lewis (Evan Jones), one of his minions, to lay low in Stump Hill.
Lewis foolishly shoots a man in the town bar, sparking a free-for-all brawl. Albert and Edward do everything they can to avoid getting involved in the melee until Albert sees Anna in danger of being injured and saves her.
Soon, Albert and Anna strike up a friendship, as Anna lends a sympathetic ear to Albert’s lamentations. She suggests they attend the upcoming carnival as a couple in hopes of sparking jealousy in Louise. Albert is reluctant to go because, he says, people always get killed at the carnival. But Anna talks him into it.
Yes, there are some macabre but sickly humorous deaths at the carnival, but also more humiliation for Albert, who in a fit of anger challenges Foy to a gunfight. Upon regaining his senses, Albert is in a panic as he is lousy with a gun, but Anna assures him she can teach him how to shoot.
As in many adult-oriented comedies, amid the raunchiness there is a sweet undertone, and the friendship between Albert and Anna, that is able to develop because she never tells him the truth of her circumstances, is a nice pause in the hilarity. It appears that there might have been some improvisation in the conversations between Albert and Anna, as Theron’s laughter does seem spontaneous.
Of course, just as Albert and Anna fall in love, Clinch comes to town and throws everything into chaos. Before long, Albert has fled Stump Hill and is out in the middle of nowhere, where he is captured by a tribe of Native Americans, led by Cochise (Wes Studi), and this encounter is the key to Albert becoming a man who can summon the courage to face Clinch.
The story is rudimentary and predictable, but the humor comes in loud and hardy, sometimes with an unexpected bang.
“A Million Ways” is not a gentle comedy by any means, nor is it destined to be a classic. It is deeply embedded in guilty pleasure territory.
MacFarlane’s Albert is a likeable goof, and the supporting cast, particularly Theron, Ribisi and Silverman, provide some gems. Only Seyfried comes off as being under-used.