March 31, 2012

Film review: 21 JUMP STREET

Poster design by Bemis Belkind
I perhaps fall into a strange demographic with regards to 21 Jump Street: I wasn't old enough to watch the show when it first came out but I am not so old I don't remember high school - all of 12 years ago.

The film adaptation 21 Jump Street is a film with a very knowing, self-aware script. There are more than a few little jabs at the entire concept behind re-invigorating the "franchise" with a remake of the TV show (more of an "in-universe" cinematic sequel) and the studio culture that encourages it. It is also a film very aware of the cliches of the cop-action genre and, like Hot Fuzz before it, plays up to them and plays them up.

From a script by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall (the actor/writer on something of a hot streak lately) this incarnation finds Jonah Hill's Schmidt and Channing Tatum's Jenko as guys on opposite ends of the high-school spectrum. However, years after high-school, when they find themselves both signing up for the same police academy intake they become fast friends: Schmdit, the chubby brain helping Jenko with his tests and Jenko, the handsome but dim jock type, training Schmidt up for the physical side of things.

Due to, frankly, their own damn ineptness at anything approaching actual police work they find themselves swiftly bounced to the newly re-opened undercover operation at the eponymous address. There's a new drug doing the rounds at one of the local high-schools and Schmdit & Jenko must assume new identities and infiltrate the dealers and find the source.

But hey, high-school culture has moved on significantly since these two were last wandering the hallways. And due to Jenko's well-meaning stupidity theses two find themselves in the wrong identities: Jenko is hanging with the science geeks, while Schmidt finds himself, for the first time in his life, with the cool kids. Hilarity, explosions and tests on the bonds of friendship ensue.

Jonah Hill is in his known and recognised Jonah Hill mode, his comedy schtick now perhaps approaching Seth Rogen levels of saturation and awareness. More of a surprise is Channing Tatum, who has bounced around a number of attempts to really break out; from self important dancing movies to teary romantic drama, smaller character focussed roles and big silly fun action flicks. He brings a real sweetness to the dumb-jock Jenko, and an insecurity that really fuels his need to fit in and be 'cool'.

The film is directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, making 21 Jump Street another recent instance of animation directors making the transition to live action. These are the two behind one the most gloriously demented animated films of recent memory, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and they bring that sense of comedic timing and a pretty good, if not outstanding, eye for action. In fact, a fair amount (and more than really necessary) of the action scenes are filled with strange, slightly unfinished looking CG effects. I don't know if the pair just felt more comfortable working in the computer when it came to these moments but they weren't really necessary; just about every instance could have easily been accomplished in camera.
21 Jump Street certainly doesn't re-invent the wheel when it comes to bromances, buddy comedies or cop-action films but then, it doesn't ever set out to. It is a film blessed with a script that knows exactly what it is, and with a couple of wisecracks and jokes that help elevate it above what it otherwise would have been.  

March 27, 2012


Poster design by Ignition Print
Suzanne Collins' trilogy of YA novels have been called the new Twilight but they are much, much better than that. Where Twilight had an insipid young woman unable to define herself past the men (a sparkly vampire and shirtless werewolf) in her life, the heroine of The Hunger Games is a flinty, mature and ass-kicking young woman.

For those unfamiliar with the source material (or the numerous reviews and marketing materials spelling out the set-up): in a far, far future the remains of North America are constituted in the new country of Panem. Panem is made up of the Capitol and 12 outlying Districts, with each District providing some much needed service to the Capitol. The Districts that lie closer to the Capitol, such as 1 and 2, share some of their wealth while those outlying Districts, such as 11 and 12, are poverty stricken and all but forgotten. To punish the Districts for daring to rebel against the Capitol 74 years previous, each of the 12 Districts must put forth a young man and a young woman to compete in the annual Hunger Games - a televised fight-to-the-death where teenagers compete against one another (and the Game-makers) to survive.

It is into this hard life in District 12 that Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen finds herself - with a dead coal-miner of a father, an emotionally crippled mother and a younger sister, Prim, who Katniss loves more than anything and would do anything to protect. Katniss and her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) supplement their meagre food rations by illegally hunting game in the wild - something that will come in handy for Katniss. It is Prim's first time in the ballot for the annual Reaping - the ceremony that randomly selects Tributes - and, of course, it is her name chosen as the female Tribute for District 12. Willing to do anything, Katniss instead volunteers herself in her sister's place. And so she finds herself questioning how far she'll go to survive and what it will cost her to get home.

As premises go, it's hardly an original one, with the novel and film sharing DNA with a number of sources/influences; everything from Lord of the Flies to The Running Man to Death Race 2000 to, yes, Battle Royale and Winter's Bone. But, quite frankly, that is nothing to hold against it. The Hunger Games is not a direct rip-off of anything in particular, but merely uses similar situations and setting to explore its own ideas and themes.

Gary Ross, the director of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, is not the first choice one would assume for a big sci-fi franchise starter. But it was an incredibly astute choice: his previous films have a focus on character and means his is a more subtle touch. He is comfortable allowing a look or a small action to stand in for a long, expository and didactic speech. I'm not so sure about the choice of using shakey-cam throughout the film. The style has begun to grate with me lately; instead of the intended affect of making me feel closer to the action, it in fact just draws attention to itself. The introduction to the world of District 12 is especially choppy, Ross constantly careening the camera around and cutting before we can get more than a glimpse of anything. It does settle down, thankfully, and allows the film to work its way into you.

The anchor for the whole film, the character and actress it all hangs around is Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen. She was astounding in her debut in Winter's Bone and in The Hunger Games she amps it up further. There's a lot beneath the surface of the character of Katniss, a lot that is left unsaid. But it's all there in Lawrence's performance. Whether it be as the provider for her family, the person who desperately volunteers as tribute to save her sister from the barbarity of the Games, the tough country girl attempting to preen for the cameras or the girl who finds herself, moments before the Games begin, shaking with a fear she cannot quite control.

For those of us that have read the novels, there are some revisions and additions to the text of the novel as there should be in any decent adaptation. And they all serve the story, as they should do with any decent adaptation. The Hunger Games is a serious minded science-fiction film, with a compelling lead character and a fair few interesting ideas hidden beneath the young faces and genre trappings.

Also, as a final note: The Hunger Games is not, as has been "hilariously" tweeted and retweeted "Battle Royale with cheese". I love Battle Royale but, godsdammit, it was not the first film to pit kids against one another and it CERTAINLY wasn't the first time audiences were entertained by death-matches. Did you catch all the very Roman names in The Hunger Games? Yeah, there's a reason for that. Sorry. It just feels like a lot of people being very lazy with their criticism towards The Hunger Games, with more than a whiff of the "Hunger Games are so lame 'cos I remember when I saw that cult foreign film that one time". Yes, there are similarities but it really wouldn't be the first time this has ever happened in the history of fiction. 

March 22, 2012

Film review: THE IDES OF MARCH

It has taken me a little while longer than usual to come around to writing up George Clooney's latest directorial effort. Part of that is due to my scriptwriting MA and the increasing demands on my time. But an equal, or even larger, part is down to just being unsure what I made of The Ides of March.

Yes, the film is an intelligent, well acted and fairly involving peek behind the curtain of the world of politics (adapted from the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon). But beyond the film's obvious pedigree, I found myself feeling like something was not quite there; that the film hadn't completely enveloped me.

The world's current favourite heart-throb/internet meme Ryan Gosling is Stephen Myers, a young career campaigner who has managed to, somehow, maintain his idealism so far. The latest campaign he's working on is for George Clooney's Governor Mike Morris, running in the Democratic primary. Morris is the front-runner but his challenger is nipping at his heels; the contest isn't over yet. Morris has made a believer out of Myers - Morris is, essentially, the dream liberal politician and the man a lot people have pinned their hopes on.

That all changes when Myers agrees to a meeting with Paul Giamatti's Tom Duffy - the campaign manager for the other side. When Phillip Seymour Hoffman's campaign manager for Morris, Paul Zara, finds out he fires Myers. Myers, in the act of having his ego stroked and initially keeping it from Zara and Morris, finds his bright, fledgling career over. Not even Duffy will take him. The Ides of March is the story of the downfall of a, more or less, innocent man. How a good man can become a cold, calculating political animal. There's more to it, involving Evan Rachel Woods' smart, beautiful intern who Myers finds himself involved with

George Clooney's strength as a director lies in his unflashy presentation and ability to get out of the way of the material. He has, happily, moved on from the overt visual chicanery evidenced in his debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He has built a library of obviously personal films and usually casts himself in a role that plays with his public persona; here as a Democratic candidate full of more Hope and Change than Obama and with the charm, charisma and intelligence of, well, George Clooney. But the film isn't the Clooney show - the role of Mike Morris is little more than an extended cameo with Gosling taking and owning the centre spotlight, while Giamatti, Hoffman and Marisa Tomei all do excellent work around him.

I cannot help but feel the story of Myers' descent would have been better served with a series; like a flipside to the optimism of The West Wing. An HBO mini-series would have allowed more room and time for the characters to really breathe. As it is, there are more than a couple sudden character reversals; one being a suicide that feels less like a real character decision and more like a plot device that was needed to get the story and characters into their required places. Very good, but falling just short of great. 
The Ides of March is a solid, intelligent and well-acted film that is not entirely remarkable. 

March 15, 2012

Film review: THE RAID

The high-stakes premise of The Raid is brilliantly simple: a team of elite SWAT-type cops must make their way up an apartment block in the slums of Jakarta to capture a gang-leader of gang-leaders, without raising the alarm. They have to be quick and quiet as the block's tenants are gang-bangers, drug-dealers, machete wielding psychopaths and more; it is, essentially, the Mos Eisley of apartment blocks.

When the cops are some 6 floors up, the alarm is raised and the full block's worth of residents descend upon them with automatic weapons, knifes, handguns and bodies. The cops are cut to pieces with no hope of back-up. It is up to the few remaining cops left alive to fight their way through floors of pissed off bad guys just to survive and, hopefully, escape. Throw in a few juicy character secrets, mix with bone-crunching action and baste in a pace that barely lets up. Cook for 100 hot minutes and serve up a sweaty, exhausting and fuckin' awesome movie.

This is Welsh director Gareth Evan's second film with lead Iko Uwais and The Raid is leaps and bounds above their impressive Merantau. Uwais is a practitioner of the Indonesian martial art of Silat - a fighting style that seems to involve using every part of yours and your opponents body to inflict maximum damage. Evan's keeps a steady hand on the proceedings, knowing when to bring a shakey, intense dynamic to the camera and when to let it smooth out. The camera work is muscular and physical; and it has to be to keep up with these guys beating seven shades of shit out of each other.

The cops run out of ammo fairly quickly and, to be honest, none of them really looked that comfortable firing a gun. The film, and the actors, really pick up when they're fighting hand-to-hand, occasionally using a firearm in close quarters (as in, point blank). These aren't gun-toting action heroes; these are brutally physical guys that go at one another with feet, fists, knees, elbows, knifes, machetes, walls, lights and damn near everything else.

And those action scenes are all incredibly well constructed. You can see the thought, planning and passion that has gone in to each one. And they're not short. No, that'd be too easy. Too easy for the characters, too easy for the film and too easy for the audience. Instead Evans has each fight scene build and build and build, using the photography, the editing and the music to build the tension and eventual release. It's exhausting, especially to an audience more accustomed to the quick and close fight scenes of Western action films. You may recall my Anticipated Films of 2012 and how I simply posted the trailer for this film. I'll be honest, I was a little worried that the trailer had already spoiled all the best bits; all the best kills and impacts. I worried needlessly. No trailer could hope to capture a fraction of the combat in The Raid.

But The Raid is more than just the fight scenes. The way Evans builds and deflates tension is, in of itself, a masterclass. The audience is given precious moments to get its collective breathe back, before biting their nails or cheering in their seats. The Raid is not just fight-scene after fight-scene pummelling the audience into bored submission, but instead a series of continually building scenes that usually climax but just as often end quietly or (beautifully) anti-climatically.

There is a wonderful sense of economy to The Raid and it succeeds due to the absolute simplicity of the story, with quickly established characters & clear stakes, and the absolute commitment of everyone involved. Seeing this film with an appreciative audience is a hell of a lot of fun, as the crowd laughs, cries out and applauds these bravura punch-ups as one.

Just a quick idea: The Raid is out in NZ cinemas on March 22nd and, a week later, Attack the Block is released. May I recommend a double feature of Attack the Block followed by The Raid for all your block tower related awesomeness. 

March 13, 2012

Film review: JOHN CARTER

From Mondo Tees, by JC Richard:
vastly superior to any of the official work
John Carter is a big-budget science-fiction adventure film, from a celebrated animation director branching out into live-action and based on a popular series of pulp novels first published over 100 years ago. And to top it all of, the series of novels have been so influential on pop culture over that last century or so, almost every beat of the story and every character detail has been re-appropriated by other filmmakers.

Andrew Stanton, director of Pixar classics Finding Nemo and WALL.E, had his work cut for himself then, bringing this long gestating passion project to the big screen. But as Brad Bird recently proved with Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, animation directors can make the successful leap to live-action. And so, despite a lacklustre marketing campaign and numerous critics condemning before it had even been released, I was looking forward to John Carter; especially to see if this proto-science-fiction tale stacked up.

The story finds ex-Confederate soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) on the run from, well, damn near everyone. He's a complex man of conflicting characteristics: 
a man weary of war who doesn't shy away from throwing himself into a fight. He is quickly established as a hurt, ornery man with a crafty intelligence and, while taking refuge in a cave lined with gold, finds himself miraculously and quite accidentally transported to Mars. The planet is known as Barsoom by it's, largely humanoid, inhabitants who are themselves all caught up in a planet-wide civil war: the evil, resource devouring Zodangans fighting the last outpost of Helium. Caught up on the sidelines are the Tharks - a harsher, more primitive race of 8-feet tall green-skinned, be-tusked, four-armed aliens.

It is a tribe of Tharks, and their leader the kinder, more thoughtful Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), who first discover Carter on Mars. And thanks to the lower gravity on Mars/Barsoom Carter is gifted with vastly increased strength, able to leap huge distances in a single bound - he is very much a proto-Superman.

The leader of the Zodangans, Sab Than (Dominic West) is gifted with an ultimate weapon by the shady and manipulative Matai Shang (Mark Strong) - a member of an incredibly powerful godlike beings. He decimates the Heliumite forces, but offers to cease all hostilities if the Princess of Helium, Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins) consents to marry him. She runs and Carter (very literally) leaps to her rescue. Carter is a wrinkle in the plans of Matai Shang and finds himself becoming more and more involved with the world and war of Barsoom.

Yes, there is a lot of heavy plot mechanics and silly sci-fi names going on here. But there is also a fully conceived and constructed world. Obviously there is a vast amount of original material that Stanton and fellow script-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon have been able to pull from to create this world. But it was these details, these constructions, that made me happy to go along for the ride; I never felt like the filmmakers were talking down to their audience.

And Lynn Collins' Deja Thoris - the Princess of Mars of the original story's title - is the strongest female character in science-fiction since Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley. In fact, it isn't difficult to see how much the character influenced Lucas' creation of Leia. Deja Thoris is strong, smart (she's not only a scientist but the lead scientist), an ass-kicking warrior who throws herself into the fray and who carries herself with an effortless sex appeal. Collins absolutely invests herself in the role, delivering even the most ridiculous sounding sci-fi dialogue with heart. She is a true bright spot in the film; offering heart, smarts and sex appeal.

Stanton proves himself no slouch in the action department. One scene in particular is a remarkable stand-out; Carter throws himself into a rampaging band of Tharks and becomes a one-man rampage. Stanton uses the scene to reveal the broken heart of the character and not just as an excuse to show-off some cool lookin' shit.

John Carter is hardly a revelation of a film or even a break-away hit; it has it's shaky moments, when you feel like it hasn't quite been carried off. But it certainly isn't the boring stinker a lot of people are proclaiming it to be. There's crazy aliens, a genuinely cute six-legged dog sidekick, a beautiful princess, a reticent hero and delicate solar powered ships that sail through the sky. The plot workings get a bit intricate and complicated but John Carter, overall, works. 

March 5, 2012


The centre-piece event of every year for me is the New Zealand International Film Festival. It's two weeks of film-gorging as I get my face in front of as many new and interesting films as I can. I volunteer as an usher each year, I watch up to 5 movies a day and, lately, I've been blogging my daily experiences. It's an intense fortnight and one I absolutely relish.

There is, however, a smaller film festival that runs for two weeks around Easter (in Wellington). It's only at the one theatre, the Paramount, instead of the larger festival's six, and plays an interesting grab-bag of films; some returning from the previous year's Film Festival, others entirely new and unheard of. This is the World Cinema Showcase and I love it.

I almost feel like the Showcase doesn't get enough love. Certainly not from the casual Film Festival crowd - those people who only go to films at the Film Festival dahling; it's somehow seen as "lesser" or some such bullcrap. But true film-lovers know, the Showcase is where it's at. 

The Showcase, as you may expect, is a more low-key affair. There's no allocated seating and it is strictly on a first-come, first-served basis. Of course, when there's a popular film playing, such as I'm Not Here not long after Heath Ledger's death, it can be a bit of a madhouse. But the vibe, generally speaking, is genial and easy-going.

The Showcase is also a brilliant opportunity to catch a number of films that may not make it into the larger Film Festival for one reason or another (timing, the sheer size of the Festival) and have a question mark over their theatrical release. Last year alone I was able to catch the documentaries Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Restrepo, Bill Cunningham New York and the excellent Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. I was also able to finally see the questionably questionable "documentary" Catfish. The Showcase in 2010 finally brought the much-talked about and eventual Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker to New Zealand audiences. That year also brought us the phenomenal Bronson from Nicolas Wending Refn, with Tom Hardy breaking out in the central role.The list of fantastic films I've seen at the Showcase could just keep on going: Princess Mononoke (my first Miyazaki film), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Buster Keaton's hilarious classic The General, JCVD and more. 

Yeah, the Film Festival is the centre-piece film event of the year but I believe the Showcase is an equally valid entry in the calendar. It arrives at that sweet spot in the year, just when all the serious-minded awards type films are petering out but before the popcorn blockbusters are in full swing.

It's perfectly placed and perfectly sized. It serves to cleanse the palate and whet the appetite. The Showcase programme is out this Thursday and I can't wait to start flipping through it and sorting out my Easter viewing.