22 Jump Street (2014)

I’m quite sure this film doesn’t need my review, and those who want to see it will go and see it regardless. I myself certainly wasn’t expecting it to be as fun or as silly as the original 2012 reboot of creaky 80s high school detective TV series 21 Jump Street, but I wasn’t expecting it to push through silliness to something quite so generic. Of course, having fun with genre signifiers is part of what it’s playing at, and there’s even a speech by the chief (an enjoyably Ron Swanson-ish turn by Nick Offerman) which could read as a meeting between the filmmakers and the studio about the need to do exactly the same thing in the sequel — a premise which sees this film move to a university for its otherwise identical drug-ring-busting plot, but also allows for the most fun bit of the film which is the end credits sequence imagining further sequels. I feel as audiences we’ve got used to the trope of ‘a film that looks like it was fun to make’ as code for ‘but not fun to watch’ and if it’s not ever entirely tedious (it has a few laughs), it certainly does skirt close to being that. The university setting allows for lots of jokes at the expense of its stars (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) and their age, which is a canny way not to alienate an adolescent audience, I suppose, yet it feels a bit condescending at times, though at least the scenes of deadpan student Mercedes (Jillian Bell) poking fun at Hill’s age are among the film’s funniest, and Mercedes gets to come into her own in the denouement. However, in riffing on audience expectations from this type of film, the filmmakers also spend a lot of time trying to push the cop buddy-film homosociality towards something affecting, but it never comes off as anything more than sophomoric, and the sheen of engaged awareness doesn’t elevate the bromance beyond pseudo-homophobic locker-room crassness. Which is all by way of saying, I didn’t really like it as much as I perhaps expected to, given the fine pedigree of its directors and cast at doing this kind of thing, though at the very least it is certainly aware of exactly what it is doing. And it was probably a lot of fun to make.


© Columbia Pictures/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller | Writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman (based on the TV series 21 Jump Street by Patrick Hansburgh and Stephen J. Cannell) | Cinematographer Barry Peterson | Starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Jillian Bell | Length 112 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 22 June 2014

My Rating 2 stars worth seeing

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The cinema of Martin Scorsese quite often deals with self-regarding, testosterone-fuelled men. It’s a place to learn about the contemporary construction of masculinity more than anything else, and this is his latest chapter in that ongoing exploration, placing itself in the milieu of high finance — specifically a “boiler room” stockbroking firm from the late-1980s through the 1990s. This is the domain of self-made man — wise guy, almost — Jordan Belfort, played at full throttle by the still youthful-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, though he at least has the decency to look a little worn by the end. It’s been written up largely as a film of swearing, drugtaking and hedonism, but really it’s another periodic health check for the struggling ideal of the American Dream. It doesn’t preach or moralise, but the message is pretty relentlessly, propulsively, loudly clear for its three hours.

I made the error of looking at the recent 12 Years a Slave somewhat as a film trying to teach us about the evils of slavery — a lesson hardly needed, and certainly not at the heart of the film’s purpose. Likewise, you can’t really wonder if the The Wolf of Wall Street is trying to get across the idea that financial corruption is bad, or if the people involved are morally questionable. There is literally not a single character in the film that has any claim to our sympathies — the closest we get is the FBI agent Patrick (Kyle Chandler), but even he is given to pettiness, and hardly seems enthused by his life. I’d say there’s no one who is likeable, but most of them are likeable enough on their own level, which for most of them is a fairly amoral level. There’s pathos too (or perhaps I mean to say, most are pretty pathetic), but for the majority of the running time you can keep these guys at an arms’ length: they are not like us. They are embodiments of the primal, rampaging id, who have freed themselves from quotidian concerns through their relentless acquisition of wealth. It’s not until near the end, after nearly three hours of their childish petulance, that you get a sense for where it’s all headed — encapsulated by a underplayed final scene (introduced by the real Belfort) which brings Jordan back into something recognisably like our world.

Up to that point, though, things are blackly comic — madcap and slapstick at points — as Belfort struggles to build his wealth after the Wall Street firm where he begins his career goes bust in the 1987 crash. He restarts by trading penny stocks to working-class guys from a dowdy office in New Jersey, moving on to creating and enlarging his own firm with the help of his low-life friends, chief among them the garrulous Donnie (Jonah Hill in horn-rimmed specs and shell suits) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne), called “Rugrat” because of his glaring toupee. He marries a model blonde wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) and lives a hard-partying lifestyle. The movie can indeed be charted largely by Jordan & co’s ingestion of narcotic substances, starting with a hit of a crack pipe with Donnie near the New Jersey office, before progressing primarily to cocaine (taken in various locations and, er, from various orifices) and Quaaludes. Most of the film is structured around Jordan getting loaded (making money, taking drugs), before the final act charts his rocky comedown — crashing not just from drugs and booze, but financially, maritally and even nautically.

It’s a classic story, and Scorsese really attacks it stylistically with all the tricks learnt from his many decades’ worth of filmmaking. It feels like the kind of free-wheeling spirit of Casino (1995), certainly in the glitziness of the enterprise, which matches that of the characters (or at least, their entitled sense of self-worth). DiCaprio gives a narration from Jordan’s point of view, even addressing himself directly to camera in a few scenes, as he explains his criminal enterprise with scarcely-concealed glee. There are freeze-frames and jump-cuts too, but this isn’t the vacuous-style-for-its-own-sake brand of filmmaking that you get from Scorsese’s latter-day imitators (to take one recent example amongst many, in Pain & Gain), but it adds to the deadening affect of this flamboyant world. Scorsese also reminds us that he is deft at comedy, whether it be the earnest discussions of humiliating excess (the dwarf-throwing that opens the film), or a marvellous sequence when DiCaprio needs to return home but finds himself floored by extra-strength Quaaludes — a scenario which might be done with all the hallucinogenic trippiness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but which Scorsese films from a fixed vantage point with no gimmicks or trickery, just documenting the physicality of DiCaprio’s performance, and which is all the funnier for it.

As a whole, the film feels a bit like this, like being the sober one at an increasingly riotous party, with people who are fun to be around initially, but whose drunken antics soon become quite draining. There’s no overt judgementalism about the narcotic excess (there are in fact many open proclamations of how enjoyable it is), but then there doesn’t need to be: this film hardly glorifies drug use, given it chooses avatars who are so existentially loathsome. If there’s a more potent criticism it would be that this remains very much a film about boys; there are women, but they are largely seen through the eyes of the (as I hope I’ve made clear, hardly upstanding) male protagonists, and therefore mostly sexualised and ultimately humiliated, although the warping power of money seems to blind everyone in the film to it. But despite this, it still feels fairly effortless as a film, while managing to give a real — and disturbing — sense of malaise, which, as we see in the final scene, is only just out of our reach and beyond our control.


© Paramount Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Martin Scorsese | Writer Terence Winter (based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne | Length 179 minutes || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 27 January 2014

My Rating 4 stars excellent

This Is the End (2013)

No matter where this directorial debut from Canadian actor Seth Rogen may go — and it goes to some pretty ridiculous places — it always seems to retain the goofy charm of a low-key stoner movie, something like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) but far more self-referential. After all, everyone in the film is playing a (clearly fictionalised) version of themselves, partying and hanging out in Los Angeles. It’s a brittle conceit, and it works better than by all rights it should, but you can at least imagine all the guys in this film — and it is very much a guys’ film — being friends in real life.

The set-up sees Jay Baruchel arriving at LAX to stay with his old friend Seth Rogen while he’s in town. Both grew up in Canada, and while Jay is concerned Seth is being swallowed up by Los Angeles, Seth’s LA friends see Jay as a last link to the Canadian past he needs to slough off, leading to tension between Jay and the rest of the cast. After a bit of bonding over video games and weed, Seth drags Jay along to James Franco’s housewarming, at a deranged brutalist bunker decorated with kitschy art and populated by a large number of familiar faces. It’s here that the core cast is introduced. If Franco is a preening whiner, then Jonah Hill is chanelling a more right-on holistic West Coast vibe as the ‘sensitive’ emotional actor, while Craig Robinson is a no-nonsense party guy who spends the whole movie wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Take Yo Panties Off”. There’s little point mentioning any of the celebrity cameos here, as part of the fun is in spotting the faces, but it’s fair to say that (as many critics have already pointed out) Michael Cera gets the standout role.

These are enjoyable scenes, certainly, but this is a film about the Apocalypse, and it doesn’t take too long before things get biblical. Part of the joke is that when it comes — and it starts with the Rapture, when the souls of the worthy ascend to Heaven — only actors are left behind, such that Franco’s party becomes something like a gathering of the living damned. Eventually only a handful are left holed up in Franco’s home; they must try to survive and find a way out of the apocalyptic hellscape that Los Angeles has become.

For a film that trades so heavily on Christan iconography, it’s interesting that almost all of the film’s creators are of Jewish upbringing, but perhaps that’s a key to the film’s success. They get plenty of anarchic fun out of their premise, one which trades on the more skewed aspects of theistic belief that are part of the American cultural upbringing, and which have naturally been inculcated through generations of Hollywood fantasies. For the most part Rogen and Goldberg tap into that (there are all kinds of movie-literate quotes, not least from The Exorcist), abetted by their ensemble cast.

It does at times feel strained by its limitations. One such is the fact that this is a very male-dominated film. These kinds of apocalyptic fantasies do, after all, tend to be the preserve of a certain kind of nerdy fanboy and indeed, the opening scenes position Rogen and Baruchel rather neatly as such. To be fair, the film tries to critique its own limitations, such as when Emma Watson shows up briefly, but the guys’ subsequent conversation — with its self-consciously parodic ease at outing one another as potential rapists — still feels in rather poor taste, even if Watson’s response is just right.

However, it always manages to pull itself back on track, with goofy and well-meaning charm. Some of that may be dependent on how much you like the core cast members — they are playing versions of themselves, after all — but for me, the insouciance at the heart of the enterprise was sufficient to carry me through even the most adolescent of dick jokes. There are quite a few adolescent dick jokes. But I laughed even so.


© Columbia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg | Cinematographer Brandon Trost | Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 29 June 2013

My Rating 3 stars good