Saturday, March 31, 2012

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street seemed on the surface like yet another old TV show adapted into a movie by a Hollywood that's bankrupt for ideas. And you know what? They actually acknowledge that fact within the movie. Unlike many of these situations, though, Jump Street has an infectious energy to it. It's directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who I previously underestimated when they made Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a movie that looked kinda generic but wound up being quite clever and fun. I've decided not to underestimate these guys anymore; I like what they're doing.

Reimagined as an action comedy, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as two underachieving cops, who, after a botched arrest (Tatum never learned the Miranda Rights, a running gag through the movie) are assigned to the revived Jump Street division, where young-looking cops go undercover at local schools as students. Their mission is to find the source of a new synthetic drug that is growing increasingly popular among the students.

They are given new identities but wind up getting themselves mixed up and have to take each others' classes. I thought it was an interesting spin and a good opportunity for comedy, because rather than seeing them fall into the same social statuses they inhabited as teens, we get to see their situations reversed. High school is a much different place than it was even ten years ago. There's a funny joke where they look at all the new cliques that have emerged and can't figure out what the hell they are.

The cast is all around good. I'm always ready to like Jonah Hill in things, and he's been having a pretty good run lately. Channing Tatum really surprised me. He's never really stood out in anything to me. I assumed there must have been something I wasn't seeing, since I knew Steven Soderbergh has been using him a bunch these days. The strong supporting cast includes Nick Offerman, Ice Cube, Ellie Kemper, Brie Larson and Rob Riggle.

I don't want to ruin things, because there are a lot of big laughs in 21 Jump Street, and a surprisingly fun story. Screenwriters Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall manage to juggle a lot of funny situations and running gags throughout the movie, and by the time they pile up at the end, they result in some really good payoffs, one after the other.

It's only March, but I think 21 Jump Street is a pretty strong contender for the comedy of 2012. It felt like one of those movies where the screenplay, cast, and director just clicked, and there's a real sense of liveliness to it as a result. You know how if you're doing something, and you can sense that it's good, your enthusiasm makes it even better? I think that's what happened.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Game Change

I wasn't sure if I should review Jay Roach's new HBO movie Game Change or not. I'm not really the most politically minded individual, and there's nothing I dislike more than debating with people. I do follow the news to a degree and hold my own opinions, but, as my website says, "I like to like things"; meaning I don't really like to get bogged down by the negative.

Game Change is the story of John McCain's (played by Ed Harris) 2008 Republican presidential campaign. When Barack Obama is selected as the Democratic candidate, his political advisors (led by Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson) assure him that the only way he would be able to maintain his "maverick" image in the face of that is to select a woman as his vice president. After looking at all the potentials, they fall upon Alaska's extremely popular governor Sarah Palin (played by Julianne Moore), and at a cursory glance, she appears to fit the bill.

Unfortunately, they were so dazzled and excited by her prospects, that cursory glance is the only glance they make, and that mistake keeps coming back to get them. They didn't really do a thorough background check. They didn't check to see if she had knowledge of international affairs. Palin, while charismatic and controversial, just wasn't ready for the pressure the campaign would put on her.

Julianne Moore does a great Palin, her performance goes deeper than just being an impression. I didn't see the movie as a smear campaign against her. In fact, I felt the movie humanized her and made her more a little more sympathetic. She was dealing with a level of pressure and scrutiny that she'd never dealt with before way out in Alaska. She obviously cared a lot what people thought of her, as evidenced by how upset she was over Tina Fey's Palin bits on SNL.

That said, Palin also looooooved the positive attention. She knew how to play in front of the camera, as long as they didn't as any "gotcha questions". Her advisors tutored her and had her memorize what she couldn't charm her way through. She really saw this campaign as a chance to get out of Alaska.

At least, this is how the Game Change portrays it all. I don't know what's true and what isn't, though the movie seems pretty plausible to me, and is based on a book featuring several insider accounts of the events. As a whole, I enjoyed Game Change as a film, though there were some scenes that seemed maybe a little too overdramatized, such as advisor Nicolle Wallace's (Sarah Paulson) tearful admission that she couldn't bring herself to vote. Still, I felt it shed some light on what wound up being a very bizarre and singular occurrence in political history, where the candidate for Vice President stole the spotlight from the candidate for President.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies / OSS 117: Lost in Rio

I take back anything disparaging I might have said in my somewhat disappointed review of The Artist. Michel Hazanavicius is a GENIUS. I thought The Artist was fine, but after all the buzz and the hubbub, I walked out of it feeling pretty underwhelmed. But his spy spoof, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, and it's sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio are exactly my kind of movie.

I had known of these movies' existence for years, and had been interested in seeing them, but I had never made the connection that The Artist was directed by and starring the same guys, Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin.

OSS 117 is a spy spoof based on a long running series of French novels and movies that predates even James Bond. The agent in question is Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, who is basically all of the worst qualities of Sean Connery's James Bond pushed to hilarious extremes. He is cocky and arrogant, racist, sexist, and xenophobic, not all that smart, and incredibly lucky.

In the first film, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, Bonisseur de La Bath is sent to Cairo to investigate a missing fellow agent. While there he runs afoul of Nazis, Soviets, and Muslim extremists. Really, Muslims in general, after he beats the crap out of the guy who keeps him awake at night by ringing the early morning prayer bell. There are all of the ingredients of a good spy movie, cars, action, violence, betrayal, and girls, including Dujardin's The Artist costar, Berenice Bejo as Larmina.

Cairo, Nest of Spies is set in the late 1950's and Hazanavicius shoots it in the style of films from that time period. The camerawork, production design, and wardrobe are spot on. Of the old Bond movies, it is probably most visually similar to the first two, Dr. No and From Russia with Love.

The sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, follows Bonisseur de La Bath as he teams up with a sexy female Mossad agent in Brazil to hunt Nazi war criminals and recover a microfilm that would be damning to the French government. While there, he encounters vengeful Chinese, a foul-mouthed CIA agent, alligators, and hippies.

Like the previous film, Lost in Rio is also shot in the style of a film from the time period it is set in. This time around, it's set in 1967. One of the funniest running gags in the whole movie involves the extreme overuse of the slick split-screen editing style of such late 60's films as The Thomas Crown Affair.

After watching these movies, I'm convinced that Jean Dujardin is one of the funniest comedy actors in the world. Nobody on earth plays smug and self satisfied as hilariously as he does. He plays that up a bit in The Artist, too. Sometimes he smiles proudly to himself at a one-liner he makes, even when nobody is around to hear it. I also love what a terrible spy he is, completely ignorant of other cultures, politics, and even foreign languages. A joke that runs through both movies is that he doesn't know a word of any foreign languages. He learns to count to five in Arabic in the first one, and nods dumbly as the CIA agent endlessly insults him in English. He doesn't even seem to know what exactly the Nazis did that made them France's enemies. I also loved all the smaller details about his character, such as his disgust at the dust on Larmina's car.

I can't recommend the OSS 117 movies enough. They're smart and goofy at the same time, balancing high brow and low brow comedy pretty perfectly. I laughed a ton during both of them. Not only that, but I think they've improved my opinion of The Artist, too. Seeing it in context as a piece of Hazanavicius' body of work really helped. He was doing for silent movies of the 1920's what he did for spy movies of the 1960's with these, though the OSS 117 movies are considerably sillier. I now eagerly await whatever Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin have up their sleeves for us next.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Escape from New York

It's no secret that John Carpenter made a lot of really fun movies in the first ten to fifteen years of his career. Most of them are now considered cult classics and 1980's mainstays. Watching one of his movies brings me back to the days of looking at the walls of VHS tapes at the video rental on a Friday night, trying to decide what to watch with my friends.

Escape from New York is one of those culty '80's movies that somehow eluded me in my rental-frequenting adolescence. The story is gloriously ridiculous and pretty minimal: It is the future. The year 1997. New York City has been converted into a giant walled island prison. On its way to a summit, Air Force One is hijacked and crashed into the city. The president (Donald Pleasance) survives, only to be caught and held hostage by the inmates. The guards, at a stalemate, have no choice but to recruit a former prisoner, Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell in one of his most iconic performances), to rescue him.

The movie is goofy and tongue-in-cheek, yet still sincere, in that way that Carpenter's more action oriented fare is. I love the hilariously dated vision of the future we're given, with Atari-quality computer graphics and whatnot. Plissken must go through a lot to save the president, who is basically dead weight. The prison warden (Spaghetti Western legend Lee Van Cleef) straps a bomb to him and gives him a 24 hour deadline. He teams up with a cheerful cab driver (Ernest Borgnine), and an imprisoned scientist and his girlfriend (Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau). He faces various New York gangs, all sorts of crazies, and The Boss (Isaac Hayes), the prison kingpin.

Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is, well, it's Kurt Russell's Clint Eastwood. He walks into town like The Man with No Name, cleans out the riff raff (well, to an extent. It's a prison.), and gets out of dodge. He has very little dialogue throughout, he just conveys his character through squinty stares and sneers. I love that Carpenter had Russell do Eastwood in this and John Wayne in Big Trouble in Little China.

Harry Dean Stanton is pretty great as The Brain, too. I bet he didn't get too many chances to play scientists throughout his career.

Escape from New York provides a whole lot of fun, and delivers as an over the top action movie and as a piece of cheesy 80's kitsch. I love that Carpenter had Russell do Clint Eastwood in this and John Wayne in Big Trouble in Little China. Big Trouble is still my favorite of Carpenter's films, but the two movies make great companions.


Hello, everyone! I'm back. I know I haven't written much in the last few weeks. I needed to recharge my reviewing batteries, so I was on a self-imposed hiatus. I wasn't even planning on coming back so soon, but then included a link to my page in their weekly Email newsletter. I'm not sure if I was chosen randomly, or if somebody there actually liked what they saw, but this little piece of positive reinforcement gave me some much needed motivation, so I've got a lot of catching up to do. Thanks, Total Film!

I've actually been meaning to watch Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film, Alphaville for a few years now. I hadn't seen any of Godard's other films yet, but I've seen a few other French New Wave classics, and the thought of a French New Wave science fiction film noir was too cool to ignore.

Alphaville is the story of Lemmy Caution, played by American actor Eddie Constantine, a spy sent into the titular city undercover as a journalist. His mission is to find and destroy Alpha 60, the malevolent artificial intelligence that controls the thoughts and hearts of all of the city's residents.

Lemmy Caution is the embodiment of the American film noir detective, rumpled trench coat and fedora and all, displaced into a dystopian near future. It's pretty cool that Godard got an actual American to play the role, I can't imagine there were a ton of American actors fluent in French at the time (or now, for that matter).

I found the computer, Alpha 60, to be an interesting character. Cold and logical, it rules the city with a iron (silicon?) thumb. If anybody shows any outward signs of irrationality, AKA emotions of any kind, it calls you to a room, interrogates you, and if it deems you irrational, executes you. I read that Alpha 60 was voiced by a man with one of those tracheotomy rings that smokers who got throat cancer use. It gives it a much more unsettling feeling than most other monotonous computer voices from the 1960's.

The city of Alphaville is pretty much just modern Paris. There's not much in the design that makes it very science fiction, it was mostly very modern for the time. Many of the settings in the film were the newer buildings that were built in Paris, presumably after World War II, which looked quite different, colder, and more futuristic than the city's older buildings, and that is actually enough to give Alphaville the space age feel it needs.

Alphaville may have been the first movie to cross science fiction with film noir. I'm not 100% on this, but if that is the case, then other great films such as Blade Runner and Dark City may owe a debt to Godard's film. It's definitely a must watch for any lover of science fiction and/or French movies of the 60's.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tiny Furniture

Hi, everyone! I'm going to keep this one short, because for some reason, these independent character pieces are the genre I am the absolute worst at writing about. Still, I like to say a little bit about every movie I watch, so here goes:

Tiny Furniture is the story of Aura, an aspiring filmmaker who has just finished college, and is unsure of what to do next, so she moves back to her unwelcoming home in New York with her mom and overachieving sister. As she goes through her post-graduation crisis, we follow her through a series of bad decisions: she gets in a couple relationships with a couple of jerks, gets a lame job as a day hostess at a restaurant, falls back in with her old bad influence friend, and blows off her bestie from school.

I very much liked the movie. Newcomer Lena Dunham wrote, directed and starred in it, and it comes across as a pretty bold and fearless debut in all three categories. Her real mother and sister play the roles of her mother and sister, who are both quite good, too, and what you get is probably a pretty accurate portrayal of what Dunham's upbringing was probably like.

Dunham comes across as honest, funny, and self-deprecating, and she does great work at letting the viewer inside of her world. I'm looking forward to seeing more from her.

This might be the first time I said I'd keep one of these short and actually followed through. I deserve an award.