Hail, Caesar! (2016)

★★★★

Hail, Caesar! PosterDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: February 5th, 2016 (US); March 4th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Mystery

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich

Hail, Caesar! might as well be a sequel to the Coen brothers’ early-90s writer’s block masterstroke, Barton Fink. The filmmaking duo are back on familiar turf, their gaze once again fixed upon their own industry, only this time it is an exploration of post-screenplay life. Set in 1951, a decade after Fink, we re-enter the mania of motion pictures during a time of internal and external struggle; as studios lose control within the self-contained confines of Hollywood, the real world is dealing with political crises and threats of nuclear decimation. Thankfully George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are on hand to spread some joy.

Even those wary of their thematic craftsmanship or storytelling abilities must hold the Coen brothers’ world creation to the highest of standards. Here, the duo conceive Capitol Pictures (another Fink throwback) in all of its glory: bombastic sets tinged with old charm; backlots bearing their own gravitational pull that revolve around the movie star present — when interested parties hear Baird Whitlock (Clooney) will be starring in their feature, the reaction is an audible “oh my”. And office doors get in on the excess, wearing flashy, golden-chrome nameplates. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, fresh from stunning work in Sicario, shoots the grandiosity with skill and a sense of cosiness. It all just looks right.

The studio system is on its last reels and given the aforementioned extravagance, it is plain to see why. The social zeitgeist is one of populism, of westerns and biblical epics designed to quell the moviegoer’s fear of Communism and nuclear war if only for a few hours at a time. On a side note, Hail, Caesar! and Trumbo might make a worthwhile double-bill as here we are introduced, teasingly, to the Communist cause without ever delving far into its core. The Coens are interested in the production line, the behind-the-scenes craziness, of which there are many components — too many for such political allegiance to warrant thorough analysis.

Eddie Mannix is the common thread binding those components, superbly played by Josh Brolin (straddling the line between aloofness and competence). He is not a moral man, or so his cigarette-decrying priest would have him believe. He is a studio fixer, that is, a liaison between star and head financier. As the story progresses Mannix increasingly takes the form of a walking, talking manifestation of movies as life’s be all and end all, therefore false pretences must be upheld and personalities must be moulded to suit the needs of a fearful America. “The public loves you because they know how innocent you are,” Mannix informs Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran. She is pregnant and single, which is obviously a problem.

Less of a problem is the town’s new personality ready for shaping, that of proverbial cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is an amiable up-and-comer who has plied his trade horse-riding and lasso-snapping, though the Capitol leaders wish to broaden his appeal. Of course, the kid has no experience in dramatic acting, especially not in delivering the mirthless chuckles and ruefulness ordered by his new, pompous director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes in fine cameo form). Regardless, Hobie will be the next big thing because that’s what Mannix wants, and on the basis of his performance, Alden Ehrenreich will be too.

The movies we see in production adhere to a culture of emboldening, where lighting cues are so obviously artificial you cannot help but laugh when they announce themselves, and where acting is defined not by subtlety but by overemphasis. Clooney, playing the easily cajoled A-lister Baird Whitlock, is a master at such overemphasis: an early scene in which he is drugged by two plotting extras, the real life version of Pain and Panic from Hercules, ought to rouse significant amusement at the behest of his delayed water guzzling. It is a delay brought on by the actor’s strenuous effort to convey the hilarity of a joke, of course.

Whitlock spends the entirety of the film wearing the same gladiatorial costume and Clooney answers by sauntering like a Roman solider, sword a-swinging. We get those idiosyncratic moments, Coen watermarks, side quests not related to the central storyline but that are an absolute hoot to watch: two of the best in Hail, Caesar! involve a raucous religious rabble and an impromptu enunciation lesson. There is a sequence in the third act during which the piece knowingly gets ultra-meta: a late-night drive is montaged, scored by brass, Dutch angles invoked. It is like watching a movie within a movie about classic Hollywood movies.

Perhaps the need to accommodate as many kooky industry strands as possible means the film can’t be as richly textured as the Coens’ previous outings (although there are similarities with Barton Fink, deep thematic layering isn’t one). However, you are hoisted along with so much momentum by waves of nutty humour that it is almost impossible not to revel in it all. You find yourself gleefully anticipating the next big, showy scene, expecting it to topple the last in levels of arrant silliness — a high bar awaits tap dancing Tatum, though he sails through with flying colours.

Mannix spends time considering whether or not to ditch his Hollywood gig and assume an executive position at the aerospace organisation, Lockheed. A salesperson from the company occasionally appears, looking to coax Mannix into signing on the dotted line. “I’m sure the picture business is pretty damn interesting, but I’m sure it’s frivolous too,” the Lockheed man says. He’s right, in a wider world context, on both counts. Fortunately, thanks to movies like this and filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, that which is interesting far outweighs that which may be frivolous.

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actor

A rubbish film can bear great performances, but a great film can’t really bear rubbish performances. The actor, in many ways, is the bread and butter of motion picture creation. It is his or her job to take the prescribed raw materials (a screenplay, a set, a prop) and recalibrate those errant parts through personal experience and analytical understanding into a final, visceral product that audiences can — hopefully — relate to or engage with.

2015 was another tiptop year on the acting front, across the board. Mainstream movies, under the radar indie flicks, big budget creations, genre pieces — you name it and there was at least one performance of note. Now that said year has ended and we are hammering down the motorway towards awards season, I think it is worth reflecting on some of those excellent portrayals.

These are my top ten male performances of 2015 (five leading and five supporting). If you so desire, you can check out my celebration of the work done by a few fantastic females here.

Leading Roles

5. Jake Gyllenhaal — Southpaw

A film and lead performance indicative (at least to an extent) of the first sentence in this feature, perennial powerhouse Jake Gyllenhaal elevates Antoine Fuqua’s riches-to-rags-to-riches boxing tale beyond convention. The actor has never really had a bad patch to bounce back from — unlike, say, Matthew McConaughey — but his work in recent years has been McConaissance-esque in quality. In Southpaw he plays a devastated boxer, matching a chiselled physique with a nuanced emotional exterior. It’s a shame his name has dropped out of the Oscar race, because this showing genuinely is a knockout.

Southpaw - Jake Gyllenhaal

4. Matt Damon — The Martian

It is always a pleasure to sit back and watch smart people do smart things, and Mark Watney fulfils that criteria. The Mars-stranded botanist was originally conceived on the pages of Andy Weir’s novel, and while books by nature offer readers a blank canvas to visualise content as they so please, it is tough to imagine anyone other than Matt Damon as Watney. He purveys a resilience that endears, a wit that encourages laughter, and an occasional serious streak that demands wholesale sympathy. Good thing too, given Damon spends the majority of the two and a half hours on-screen by himself.

The Martian - Matt Damon

3. Michael Fassbender — Steve Jobs

Giving a personal face to an Aaron Sorkin screenplay seems difficult enough, but turning the notoriously hard-headed Steve Jobs into someone we can somewhat relate to is something else entirely. Michael Fassbender does just that as a specific version of the Apple genius — the showman — taking us on a journey through three product launches and three personality evolutions. There is a magnetism to the way he interacts with those around him as well as an initial, purposeful iciness that naturally melts into generous acceptance. Between this and his headline role in Macbeth, Fassbender’s had a strong year.

Steve Jobs - Michael Fassbender

2. Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Transformative performances are in vogue in the world of Eddie Redmayne and it’s clear to see why: he is very good at them. Redmayne is back among the awards chatter having opened 2016 as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, but his early 2015 portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything is the superior of the two. The actor is exposed for all to see as the physicist, with very little to fall back on. His co-star Felicity Jones brings beautiful subtlety to Jane Hawking, the inverse of Redmayne’s painstakingly physical delivery. He won the Best Actor Oscar early in the year, and justifiably so.

The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne

1. Oscar Isaac — A Most Violent Year

While Redmayne and co. celebrated the industry recognition afforded to them via golden statuette, Oscar Isaac found himself devoid of even an invite to acting table. Criminally overlooked as struggling businessman Abel Morales, in A Most Violent Year Isaac — and I mean this with absolute sincerity — nears an Al-Pacino-in-The-Godfather level of performance. J.C. Chandor’s script is cool and careful, affording Isaac a platform to excel from. Abel’s aura is built upon composure and a need to maintain moral correctness, but shots are occasionally fired and with real menace. Isaac ensures we never dislike him though, which is saying something given the murky presence of vehicle hijackings and loan sharks. It’s not a showy performance, simply an utterly engrossing one indicative of a genuine movie star.

A Most Violent Year - Oscar Isaac

Special Mention: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher

Major props ought to go to the trio at the forefront of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, all three as worthy of a top five spot as any. Ruffalo reverberates with awkward allure, playing someone who is keenly aware that his younger sibling could be as talented a wrestler as he. As said sibling, Tatum infuses the nominal jock archetype with a sense of unyielding desperation and highly sought after humanity. And Carell swaps bumbling comedy for haunting creep, dressed in a prosthetic getup that disguises his usual cheeriness and instead promotes true horror.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Ruffalo

Supporting Roles

5. Oscar Isaac — Ex Machina

It has been a terrific year for Isaac — he’s also great in an underserved Star Wars: The Force Awakens role — one that got underway in Alex Garland’s mind-prodding Ex Machina. Like Foxcatcher, this is another outing bolstered by three capable performances (and, indeed, a whole lot more). Isaac juggles a host of familiar attributes, from a macho physicality to a technological savvy to a weariness brought on by wealth, and it is fitting therefore that we can never quite pinpoint his mindset at any given moment. The untamed beard helps too.

Ex Machina - Oscar Isaac

4. Emory Cohen — Brooklyn

You’ll do well to find a more charming male protagonist this year than Tony Fiorello. He is the ideal boyfriend, nurturing but not overly invasive, and never a sappy thanks to Emory Cohen. Aided by Nick Hornby’s wonderful screenplay, Cohen brings a commendable amiability (particularly commendable when you consider who he acts opposite — the interminably delightful Saoirse Ronan) and a retro flair akin to that of James Dean: the wavy hairdo, the cheeky grin, the enigmatic charisma. It’s all there.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

3. J.K. Simmons — Whiplash

There is very little else that can be said about J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn as a maniacal music teacher in Whiplash, but I’ll say some more anyway. Having carved out a career playing bit part supporting roles, it feels right the most critically acclaimed turn of the actor’s career is his meatiest supporting stance to date. As Terence Fletcher, Simmons strikes fear into not only the mind of Miles Teller but of viewers also, unleashing a poised (and then not-so-poised) ferocity conceived in a pair of all-knowing eyes. No rushing or dragging here.

Whiplash - J.K. Simmons

2. Benicio del Toro — Sicario

Mystery is the key to Benicio del Toro’s negotiation-avoiding brute. In my review of Sicario, I lauded his performance as follows: “Del Toro saunters on-screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.” That is to say, he’s quite good.

Sicario - Benicio del Toro

1. Mark Rylance — Bridge of Spies

Like the aforementioned J.K. Simmons, Mark Rylance has never really be one to court the cinematic limelight. He has primarily plied his trade in theatre, but there is nothing theatrical about his portrayal of potential Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Precision is key; you can’t keep your eyes off Rylance because every inclination, every stutter, every action appears to have some sort of meaning. The chemistry he shares with Tom Hanks — another would-be worthy addition to any celebratory list — breeds authenticity across a companionship that might otherwise have felt cold. Full Marks.

Bridge of Spies - Mark Rylance

Images credit: Collider, Nerdist

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight Pictures, LionsgateSony Pictures Classics, TSG EntertainmentUniversal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesThe Weinstein Company20th Century Fox

Clooney and the Coens, Together Again?

O Brother Where Art Thou - Clooney 2

According to Deadline, George Clooney is set to reteam with the Coen brothers on Suburbicon, a noir-drama penned by the sibling duo. It appears Clooney will be taking up the directorial reigns, the silver-haired silver screen star having already successfully overseen the making of other outings such as his beautifully crafted 2005 piece, Good Night, and Good Luck.

The screenplay has been languishing in the bowels of Hollywood, or Coen-wood, for at least a decade — Empire reported on Clooney’s potential involvement as far back as 10 years ago — but now the stars seem to have finally aligned for the trio. Clooney and the Coens have been working together since 2000 when the actor starred in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an uproarious Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Only the Coen brothers could conceive a Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Their collaborative portfolio portfolio also includes Intolerably Cruelty (2003) and Burn After Reading (2008).

Clooney & Coens

Despite the lengthy waiting period, details remain fairly sketchy regarding Suburbicon’s plot, though I suspect it’ll have something to do with crazed unicorns wreaking havoc on a quiet suburban locale. Whatever the case may be, should Deadline’s report come to fruition Clooney will certainly be hoping for a more positive critical outcome than that fostered by his last directorial product, The Monuments Men.

Joel and Ethan will direct Clooney again in their latest upcoming venture Hail, Caesar! which is set for release early next year and could figure prominently throughout awards season. The film harkens back to 1950s Hollywood and will see Clooney star as big name actor Baird Whitlock who is kidnapped mid-production. Fixer Josh Brolin is the man called in to solve the should-be entertaining mystery. Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand are among a host of other actors involved.

If the trailer is anything to go by Hail, Caesar! will be another gloriously shot brash comedy with sardonic skin. In other words, one you ought not to miss. Channing Tatum is playing an actor playing a sailor — look at that grin for goodness’ sake!

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: Indiewire, Vanity Fair, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesUniversal Studios

Foxcatcher (2015)

★★★★★

Foxcatcher PosterDirector: Bennett Miller

Release Date: January 9th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Sport

Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo

You could single out any number of attributes and relate them to Bennett Miller’s directorial portfolio, but depth wouldn’t be one. The New Yorker has created four films since 1998 and, at a rate of one film every four or five years, Miller obviously doesn’t take job choices lightly. After a seldom seen documentary feature called The Cruise (1998) and his critically acclaimed biographical drama Capote (2005), Miller tried his hand at exploring the inner workings of American sport on the big screen. Moneyball (2011) was polished and affecting, but never set out to irritate because it was never meant to be that kind of story, just as baseball isn’t that kind of sport.

Foxcatcher, on the other hand, is that kind of story. Whereas Moneyball told a consumable tale that reflected the everyday popularity of baseball, Miller’s latest piece bathes in the sweaty discomfort and disassociation of wrestling. It’s uncensored, but subtly so. It’s damn good too.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an amateur wrestler. We first meet him as he somewhat timidly relays semi-encouraging words to a less than half full hall of school children. Perhaps timidness is the wrong adjective. Mark isn’t necessarily a shy person, but his inability to open up is reflected in his distanced demeanour. All he knows is an everyday, basic existence. And amateur wrestling. Tatum excels as the hard-boiled grappler, his physicality more than matched by a powerhouse emotional range that develops alongside the story. He hobbles as you’d imagine a wrestler would, and wears sweatpants and an unforgiving exterior in and out of the gym, unlike the more outgoing Dave.

Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is Mark’s older brother, the man Mark is filling in for during the opening scene. Dave is also an Olympic champion and, for one reason or another, the more popular brother. Ruffalo brings an awkward charm to the role; we’re instantly drawn to him as he graciously interacts with American wrestling officials, Ruffalo dragging his toes as he shakes hands as if to highlight an inert clumsiness. The siblings train shortly thereafter, and Foxcatcher unleashes its first taste of the brutish sport — as Dave gets the better of Mark the latter lashes out, emphasising Mark’s simmering displeasure towards his overshadowing older brother.

Both men receive the opportunity to head up an all-American wrestling team at Foxcatcher farm, funded by John du Pont (Steve Carell). “Du Pont, a dynasty of wealth and power”, are the words that echo from a History Channel-esque montage about the rich family. Mark accepts, aspiration outweighing alertness, whereas family man Dave rejects. Though the film breeds an air of morbidity from the outset, it really kicks into gear upon the arrival of a terrifying looking du Pont. The three primary actors deliver wholly, but it is Carell’s skin-crawling turn as the internally maniacal financier that’ll stick in the memory and continue to probe long after the final pinfall. Assisted by facial prosthetics more suited to the latest House of Wax horror instalment, Carell maintains false poise that’s ready to burst. He’s devilish and utterly detestable.

Miller’s film teases the inevitability of chaos bred from a relationship between the three men, but refrains from delivering on the fact until the final act. Much of the first hour and a half of Foxcatcher instead focuses on the relationship between du Pont and Mark, a partnership that is clearly on iffy terrain from go. Their first face to face meeting at the farm is one of a catalogue of tension filled moments; du Pont sells his wrestling project to Mark (the multimillionaire wants to foster a gold medal batch of grapplers) under the guise of honour and patriotism. Rob Simonsen and West Dylan Thordson’s score is noticeably absent here as we hang on du Pont’s every word in tandem with Mark.

Although the screenplay relays a number of striking lines — “Horses are stupid. Horses eat and shit, that’s all they do” is a particular stand-out that comes from the mouth of du Pont, breeder of amateur wrestlers — the piece doesn’t necessarily rely on words to succeed. Rather, it’s about tension and ambiguity and the toxic atmosphere burning the three men involved. The overarching moodiness serves a purpose, but it is also a necessity given the real life framework. Foxcatcher resembles David Fincher’s Gone Girl in many ways, though the Gillian Flynn-penned film alleviates tension via brief moments of humour, unlike Foxcatcher. This incessantly serious approach works given the context, and Miller’s tactful management of the potentially tricky sullenness is a true masterclass in pressure-building on screen.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it’s unsurprising that the camera refuses to shy away from raw moments — shots are dynamic when showing matches and totally still otherwise. Greig Fraser’s cinematography effectively positions the audience in amongst any wrestling and as such captures the fleshy warring in full flow. Both Tatum and Ruffalo ought to be commended on their very immersive abilities, and it’s also worth noting the most horrifying celebratory expression in recent memory from Carell after a victory.

The culmination is game of pawn playing, a deliberation of moral values, and of blind understanding. Three men are at the forefront, their rapport with each other and with amateur wrestling challenged. Foxcatcher might only be Bennett Miller’s fourth film in almost 20 years, but it is absolutely his most accomplished.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images credit (©): Sony Pictures Classics

White House Down (2013)

★★★

White House Down PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: June 28th, 2013 (US); September 13th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal

White House Down is bonkers. The President of the United States wears white trainers; kids can get through security with an easily obtainable Chocolate-Factory-esque ticket; Channing Tatum has an 11-year-old daughter. Madness. Indeed, profusely fun madness. Roland Emmerich’s film will never win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — or anything, truthfully — but at no point does it set out to. Unlike the director’s genre-relevant 1998 attempt at Godzilla, a film still languishing in a pit of sheer idiocy, his most recent action-packed attempt promotes an infectious need to have fun. Spearheaded by a pair of goofy opposites, White House Down is more thumbs up.

In the midst of a tour of the White House set up to appease his politics-loving daughter Emily (Joey King), John Cale (Channing Tatum) suddenly finds himself as the sole agent against a group of terrorist insurgents. The Capitol police officer, fresh off an unsuccessful job interview, must formulate a plan to shield the President (Jamie Foxx) from intended harm whilst also saving the many hostages in danger, one of whom is Emily.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this big budget summer popcorn bonanza is flawed. The screenplay written by James Vanderbilt sorely misses narrative intuition. During its predictably mellow opening act we can pretty much piece together the various components as the make themselves known on screen. In that dimly lit room over there is a shifty-looking group of janitors. Our lead has just been scorched for an insufficiency in trustworthiness. He missed his daughter’s recent talent show too. (She’s just popped off to the toilet alone.) Man, if only there was a way he could redeem himself. Wait, what is that sweaty, nervous chap doing with a concealed trolley? Those are only a handful of the film’s commonplace elements. This might be perfectly fine escapism, but it wouldn’t hurt to add a slither of acumen occasionally.

Its unwillingness to deviate from the cookie-cutter norm aside, there are other issues. The fact that characters aren’t well-defined in general is likely a factor, but it should be noted that females don’t necessarily get a fair swing at things. Yes, Joey King’s youngster Emily is a girl who, on more than one occasion, displays intellect far greater than many of her male compatriots — Joey is great, by the way — but the significance is that she’s a child rather than a female. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays one of the President’s assistants and early on looks like she might be thrown into the action, but is told to go home before impact. (“And that’s an order.”) Two others are fodder for Tatum’s macho-cool father: Rachelle Leferve, criminally underused as Cale’s ex-wife, and Jackie Greary as his current partner, or something. It’s not brilliant, but then, character development takes a universal back seat.

On a more positive note, White House Down is a heck of a good time. Foxx and Tatum are together throughout the vast majority of goings-on, their companionship a comedic revelation. The two couldn’t be more unbelievable as President Sawyer and would-be service agent, but the lack of realism is their collective selling point. In truth, Foxx plays Sawyer as a bit of a bumbling idiot who makes smoking jokes in a time of crisis and doesn’t know what YouTube is. It’s exceedingly difficult not to laugh out loud as he sticks his head out of a moving limousine, rocket launcher in hand. Often, Cale manifests as the saner of the pair, but he too gets in a helping of humorous quips. Both actors succeed at elevating the lazy script, at least in terms of its comical output. Their dynamic is utterly absurd but wholly endearing. Unlike its White House disaster counterpart Olympus Has Fallen, which fails because it takes itself too seriously, Emmerich’s piece is far more audaciously light-hearted.

Discretion isn’t on the menu. We nod knowingly at Independence Day references, guffaw fully aware at pictures of a flaming White House and are reminded that bombs are dangerous by their accompanying rapidly booming theme song. But it’s easy to accept these inclusions that would otherwise incur a barrage of sighs, because Emmerich directs with energy and a carefree nature that is sort of charming. At over two hours the film bustles by fairly quickly and the director should be commended for ensuring that proceedings consistently retain a sense of alluring anarchy. One of the funniest moments sees a character throw the phrase “military-industrial complex” into the bubbling cauldron of crazy. Its flippancy is ironic and probably intentionally so.

Though coated in numerous explosions — of which the film insists on singling each out, as if in confession — White House Down actually looks rather splendid. The visual palette is both impressive and excessive; fireballs erupt skywards from grandiose helicopter crashes, whereas on ground level Tatum and company fight it out in clashes layered with grittiness. It’s a testament to special effects team that high ocular consistency is obtained. Like Michael Bay, but entertaining.

Roland Emmerich wins the 2013 big screen battle of American homeland threat by quite some distance. His film certainly struggles to engage in fresh ideas and lacks far too much in the depth department to be considered as anything more than surface splendour, but it’s never boring. There’s no high-and-mighty movement going on here; this is popcorn-chewing, Coke-Zero-slurping cinema at its tastiest.

White House Down - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

22 Jump Street (2014)

★★★

22 Jump Street PosterDirectors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Release Date: June 6th, 2014 (UK); June 13th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Comedy; Crime

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

As simply a comedy film, 22 Jump Street lands its fair share of guffaws. And this is primarily offspring of the humour genre: from acting upon the comedic strengths of its leading pair to unwaveringly owning up to sequel-dom, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s second trek down Jump Street fulfils many a Mark Kermode six laugh test. Yet, albeit competently amusing and even occasionally side-splitting, the outing ceases to be complete. Though the directors’ panache for funny bellows through, their film isn’t consistently hilarious. Not many are. Necessary then, is another anchor to steady the ship when proceedings aren’t quite as raucous; a sturdy narrative perhaps. Sadly, the one presented to us is rather flimsy when it comes to chapters that aren’t laden with jokes.

The final bell having rung on their undercover high school lives, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) now find themselves caught up in a whole new world: college. Their location is the only difference though, given the partners are once again involved in a narcotics mystery. The new drug is called WHYPHY and has already seen to one student’s untimely demise. Whilst attempting to sideline nostalgic football dreams and romantic engagements, Schmidt and Jenko must also overcome any strains in their own relationship in order to solve the criminal dealings before things get any further out of hand.

Opting for humongous sign-waving as opposed to measly eye-winking, 22 Jump Street isn’t exactly flippant in self-referential deliberation. After an opening montage that takes us through the key scenes of its predecessor — Previously, on 21 Jump Street… — we soon find ourselves camped alongside Schmidt and Jenko in Nick Offerman’s office where Offerman’s Chief Deputy Hardy is openly counteracting the potential pitfalls of sequel syndrome by facing the fact head on. (“Do the same thing as last time, everyone’s happy.”) It’s back to the old headquarters for our two agents then, though the base has conveniently moved across the road. In the background preparations are under way for the construction of 23 Jump Street.

There aren’t any thoughtless attempts to evolve the Jump Street apple cart and the film vociferously makes us aware of that. Though in doing so, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s creation (or recreation) takes on a disguise of irony that is inherently funny. It uses this self-referential prerogative as a weapon, to cut through any sequel-related audience apprehensions and subsequently endear itself to us. We are constantly reminded that our expectations should be low, or at least no higher than last time around, for what’s about to come is a mirror image. The ruse works; we’re too busy laughing at the source’s jokes — driving through a cash machine — to fully consider the mechanics of the source itself. Essentially, by admitting the sequel is going to be much the same as the original, 22 Jump Street is a more engaging proposition because it serves and then effectively manipulates our preconceptions.

That’s just one running gag. The film motions forward in its prejudicial tirade by tapping into assumed college culture too. The volatile drug is aptly named WHYPHY, pronounced Wi-Fi, and it’s no coincidence that the side effects are a temporary buzz followed by likely danger. Notions surrounding internet addiction are vaguely pertinent but never wholly realised. We discover that the student majoring in art is unlikely to make any money when she graduates (who knew?) and there are also an obscene amount of “Bros” and “Dudes” verbally volleyed between the football players. College satire isn’t the film’s strongest comical outlet.

Indeed, the funniest moments throughout 22 Jump Street are delivered by the two leads. Both Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are comfortable in their roles and the duo’s dynamic prevails as a result. It’s refreshing to see Hill continue along a path that he obviously loves navigating despite having tasted the golden allure of critical success. The peaks of his dramatic work — most of those roles are infused with humour anyway — would suggest that he’s probably a highly sought after fellow, but he seemingly still has much to offer in this genre.

Hill plays the socially awkward Schmidt across from Tatum’s Jenko, whose smarts are inversely proportional to his skill at football. The two funniest scenes involve each man without the other; it’s Schmidt’s slam poem versus Jenko’s slowly simmering realisation, and the difficulty in picking a winner is an indication of how funny both actors are in equal measure. Ice Cube, who returns as Captain Dickson, should also be noted for his hugely enjoyable turn as their always animated boss. Ride Along might have crashed and burned, but the man of many trades has shown he can be infectiously amusing when delivering superior material.

Unfortunately, the dramatic narrative between Schmidt and Jenko is a problem. Unlike the smart use of self-reference, there’s nothing shrewd about the less than budding brotherly developments between the two. Their collective arc is annoyingly mundane and, although this could be construed as another of the film’s this-is-a-sequel-so-don’t-expect-much contributions, it falls far short of the entertainment mark. The troll-like concept is funny in its manifestation as a running gag with frequent pit stops, but it fails to reward when blending into an overly schmaltzy and all too familiar story. In this instance there aren’t any jokes to veil Schmidt and Jenko’s generic bond and when attempted wisecracks are communicated, they fall on deaf ears. (The open investigation malarkey is a bit cringe-inducing due to its lack of invention and continued implementation.)

Two-hour-long gags aside, was it worth creating a sequel? I’d say so. Though not nearly as snappy or galvanising as The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller’s latest offering does trump their first visit to Jump Street. The deliberation now centres on where the franchise is headed next, if anywhere. It looks like the filmmakers have shot themselves in the foot regarding the prospect of a third film. (That sequel quip won’t work twice.) We’ll just have to wait and see.

There’s no uncertainty here. If this review of 22 Jump Street is at least moderately successful, I’ll consider writing another one. Fair warning: It’ll be exactly the same.

22 Jump Street - Hill, Tatum, Cube

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

This Is The End (2013)

★★★

Directors: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen

Release Date: June 12th (US); June 28th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy

Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where a pick-n-mix group of inherently comedic actors and Rihanna could converge together to play themselves effectively. Not on purpose, anyway. The concept is harnessed too tightly before it’s even able to leap from the screen; in a peculiar dynamic, the only genre truly capable of housing said character-actor flip-flopping is the comedy genre, because the gimmick of self-depiction is supposed to a funny one. But there’s a problem. This Is The End runs into a brick wall of indifference built by past humorous undertakings from the tongues of its cast: Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and company are playing the same characters that they always do, and the fact that these personifications happen to be extensions of their own selves is irrelevant. Though, once the failed gimmick attempt is established as a misfire, the film is able to advance as a fairly solid profanity-laced comedy. The only real happenstance of ingenuity here is, well… this is the end.

Jay Baruchel arrives at Seth Rogen’s serviceably plush residence in Los Angeles hoping to spend some time with his Hollywood buddy. It doesn’t take long for the Hollywood norm to encroach in their affairs though, as the pair receive an invite to James Franco’s housewarming party a dash up the hill. This is too bad for Jay who hates back-patting social gathers and isn’t all that fond of many expected guests, namely Jonah Hill. However, before the duo can settle in to their raucous surroundings (or in Jay’s case, get uncomfortable) an enormous earthquake sends shudders through the ego-mansion, leaving Jay, Seth, Jonah, James and pals stranded in the midst of a fiery apocalypse. And not even Emma Watson is exempt.

Paraded as a depiction of real actors, or ‘celebrities’, fraught and bumbling as their world collapsing in front of them — almost as if self-cleansing — the film doesn’t click. Primarily because those on screen are the foul-mouthed, comically-obnoxious and quip-firing knuckleheads of recent past. We’re not seeing Jonah Hill, we’re seeing Schmidt from 21 Jump Street. Seth Rogen isn’t playing Seth Rogen, he’s playing Ben Stone from Knocked Up. Nick from Hot Tub Time Machine makes an appearance, not Craig Robinson. And that ain’t really James Franco, it’s Pineapple Express’ Saul Silver. Essentially, each of these aforementioned characters — including those present in This Is The End — are all amplifications of the actors portraying them. Therefore the gimmick presented doesn’t stand out as inventive or extra-funny in this instance because we’ve seen it numerous times before.

In fact the only time it does work is when Emma Watson is on screen. The lovely lass whose wand waving skills and crisp pronunciations in Harry Potter have envisaged an image built on pleasantries, turns into a sweary and aggressive pit bull. The Emma Watson here is an exaggerated version — or not — of the widely held self-endorsing, peer-adulating celebrity perception. It’s not actually Emma Watson, and it’s never intended to be Emma Watson (I can’t imagine too much weapon wielding goes on in her life, though I’ve been wrong before). Unfortunately, this nuance collides head on with the presentation of the others as their real selves. Clinging to the rubble and remains of a crumbling ‘it’s actually us’ mantra, the film relentlessly takes pot shots at the idea that famous folk cannot work their way out of a paper bag without external aid. Again, the aforementioned stodgy dynamic on display does consume all and thus this approach struggles to come off as planned, but that’s not to say the film isn’t funny. Because it is; often giggle-worthy, periodically laugh-out-loud.

After meandering through an auspicious beginning, directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen realign the camera with the focus on funny, as opposed to a crippled narrative gadget. Light does occasionally seep through this otherwise irreparable artifice, with James Franco’s on screen manifestation proving the most successful of the bunch, certainly within the context of real-life satire. He projects himself as an art mogul — a trait not far off the mark if Comedy Central’s Roast of James Franco is anything to go by — and his magnified pompous demeanour feels the brunt of many a gag (“This place is like a piece of me”). Intentional momentary lapses in arty bravado are just as humorous too, such as his vociferous defence of solitary right to a Milky Way. Whereas Franco’s snob is alienating but not offensive, Jonah Hill’s hollow delivery sees his character assume a position above the others. A condescending Hill oils his excellent comedy chops, evoking the sole deadpan tone amongst a rabble of manic jesters. These remaining hoaxers are serviceable: Jay Baruchel is the only normal bloke, and suffers a tad; Seth Rogen is his usual drug-driven self; Danny McBride bellows obscenities like there’s no tomorrow (to be fair, there isn’t); and Craig Robinson is the cowardly squealer-cum-good. Sound familiar?

On a final humour-related note, as far as camp comedy goes the final scene delivers in abundance. It’s the best part of an outing that bats decent gags throughout, ardently dancing far away in the distance atop the league table of hilarity.

This Is The End seeks jaw-aching victory through a narrative ploy that is prematurely shackled by the jaws of defeat. Besides, self-humiliation isn’t too admirable given that the chaps on screen have constructed comedic careers above such a ridiculing foundation. Despite these grand shortcomings, the film delivers almost consistently in the gag-realm and sort of has its heart in the right place. Given the hilariously absurd finale, you’ll probably leave not really caring about the rest anyway.