Hail, Caesar! (2016)

2017 #23
Joel & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Hail, Caesar!

The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

4 out of 5

Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

The Duological Monthly Update for September 2017

Well, I don’t know about you, but September flew by — it doesn’t feel like we can be in the last quarter of the year already. But here we are.

Two weeks ago I posted a mid-month update that noted September was behind average and asked the question, “could this be the first month in over three years to not reach the ten-film threshold?” Well…


#119 Antz (1998)
#120 Vintage Tomorrows (2015)
#121 Lions for Lambs (2007)
#122 Guardians (2017), aka Zashchitniki
#123 Life (2017)
#124 T2 Trainspotting (2017)
#125 Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
#126 Yojimbo (1961), aka Yôjinbô
#127 Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (2013)
#128 Black Swan (2010)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle
.


  • So, the answer to the mid-month question: no. I watched exactly ten new films this month, maintaining that double-figure minimum for the 40th consecutive month.
  • However, that does make it the lowest month of 2017. It also failed to reach the September average (previously 11.78, now 11.6), the rolling average for the last 12 months (previously 14.25, now 13.83), and the average for 2017 to date (previously 14.75, now 14.2).
  • Part of the reason for this shortfall is I’ve been making more of an effort with my Rewatchathon. More on that later.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: Akira Kurosawa’s pre-make of A Fistful of Dollars, the superb samurai movie Yojimbo.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film: with everyone getting in a tizzy about mother!, I thought it was a good time to finally get round to Black Swan. No idea what I’ll make of Aronofsky’s new one (I’ll catch it on Blu-ray or something), but I thought Black Swan was fantastic.
  • This month’s titular adjective comes from the fact I watched Trainspotting 1 and 2, Kingsman 1 and 2, and Wayne’s World 1 and 2. Just a coincidence, that. Shame I didn’t watch Sanjuro ‘n’ all, really.



The 28th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
When I eventually get round to reviewing them, there’s a couple of films this month that will likely get the full five stars. Neither of those were the most enjoyable experience I had in front of a screen this month, though. That honour goes to Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I don’t know what I expected, but it turns out a Russian superhero movie whose trailer went viral purely because it featured a bear wielding a machine-gun wasn’t actually the basis for a great film. Sorry, Guardians.

Best Poster of the Month
Eh, sod any of these films’ posters — documentary Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is stuffed full with some of the greatest movie posters of all time, all painted by Drew Struzan, of course. For me, his three posters for the Back to the Future trilogy take some beating.

Best Dance Scene of the Month
Natalie Portman may have undergone a tonne of personally-funded training so she could do 80% of Black Swan’s ballet sequences for real, but she’s got nothing on Channing Tatum’s poison-induced moves in Kingsman.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
For whatever reason, this is by the far the lowest-ranked most-viewed new post of the year so far: previous ones have all been in the top ten most-viewed posts for their month (surrounded by posts that weren’t new, obviously), but September’s victor was down at 16th. And for the fourth time this year, it was a TV review; specifically, my thoughts on the Twin Peaks season 3 finale. (The highest new film review was Kingsman: The Golden Circle, in 23rd overall.)



As I mentioned above, this was a good month for my Rewatchathon; in fact, it’s tied with May as the best so far.

#29 Jumanji (1995)
#30 Godzilla (1998)
#31 Trainspotting (1996)
#32 Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
#33 A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
#34 Wayne’s World (1992)
#35 Wayne’s World 2 (1993)

Lots of films I’ve been meaning to re-watch since my childhood this month — Jumanji, Godzilla, Wayne’s World — all films I watched on or close to their original release but haven’t seen since.

Godzilla was also my latest attempt at watching something in 4K. I’m beginning to come to the opinion that 4K does actually look better than 1080p, but, Jesus, it’s hard to tell. When I switched from SD to HD the difference was like night and day (that’s not the case for everyone, I know — some people either can’t tell or don’t care enough to notice), but from HD to UHD it’s like, “Is it better? It might be… I think…?” Maybe a side-by-side comparison would make this clear, but I’ve not been arsed to set one up. I think I’ll continue to get the 4K option when I subscribe to Netflix in the future, but I certainly have no plans to invest in a new Blu-ray player or start re-purchasing (or even initial-purchasing) my collection on 4K discs.


Party like it’s 2049.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

2017 #125
Matthew Vaughn | 141 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Critics, eh? There’s a lot you could say about them, both individually and en masse, but right now I’m concerned with the fact they’ve given Kingsman: The Golden Circle a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 50%.* More than that, many have gone further: I’ve read one-star reviews from several major outlets. Audiences disagree. On IMDb it’s got a very respectable 7.4 (just a few points down from the much better-received Wonder Woman, for comparison) and it topped the box office this past weekend, beating the latest LEGO movie in the US and almost doubling the first film’s opening weekend in the UK. Well, I’m definitely an audience member rather than a critic. In fact, I’m still weighing up the possibility that The Golden Circle might be even better than its predecessor.

I’ll return to both the critics and the two films’ relative merits later. For now, the obligatory plot summary: a year on from the events of the first movie, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a fully-fledged Kingsman agent and is dating Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). An encounter with former wannabe-Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) sets Eggsy on the trail of Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drugs kingpin with a ’50s Americana fetish and a plan for global domination. Eggsy and tech whizz Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to the US of A to team up with their sister organisation, Statesman, in a bid to stop Poppy’s nefarious scheme.

Magic us out of this one, Merlin

That’s the coy version of things — more coy than the trailers, certainly, which brazenly gave away major developments and revelations. (You’ll note my summary’s shortage of big-name stars, for example, who have been plastered all over the advertising.) Director Matthew Vaughn even asked the studio not to reveal one thing in the marketing — namely, that Colin Firth was back — but they went ahead and did it anyway. I know they had a movie to sell, but I’m not convinced they needed to ignore him on that. Actually, that connects to my first complaint about how critics have treated the film: those one-star major reviewers seemed to hate the film so much that they were happy to spoil bits left, right, and centre. No such disregard for the audience here (though there will be minor spoilers, if you’ve not seen it yet). Nonetheless, if you were one of those people who seemed to find the first film’s anal sex joke to be the most heinously offensive sin committed by cinema since The Birth of a Nation, maybe read a couple of those reviews for a benchmark if you’re undecided about seeing this sequel — it may also offend your delicate sensibilities for reasons I can only vaguely comprehend.

To me, The Golden Circle represents a commitment to being purely entertaining. It’s consistently funny and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The action sequences are crazily hyperkinetic to the nth degree. It mixes in all the classic spy movie shenanigans, like far-fetched plots and cool gadgets and exotic locales; but it also works to subvert, expose, or develop some of those things. Beyond that, however, it has surprisingly good character work for what could’ve been a mindless comedy shoot-em-up. I mean, Merlin’s arc… well, i said no spoilers. But the film also makes time to be concerned about Eggsy’s relationship and how his work might affect it. It’s almost a good subversion of the gentlemen-spy sleep-around stereotype, though the Glastonbury sequence rushes through that rather than meaningfully deconstructing it (more about that already-infamous scene later).

The Lepidopterist

Then there’s Harry’s return — not just a pleasant surprise, but an emotional minefield for our other heroes, who were still coming to terms with his demise. Now, some critics reckon that Harry’s revival lowers the stakes for the rest of the movie. Well, only if you choose to disregard the details of his return. OK, yes, there’s now a safety net in some scenarios; but a gel that slows the effect of a headshot isn’t much use if, say, you get blown to pieces. Also, the idea that Harry was “very much dead” is actually an assumption that’s not wholly supported by the first film. I mean, obviously it was implied that Harry is very much dead — that was the point at the time — but watch it again: you don’t actually see much detail of what happens, other than that Valentine shoots him somewhere in the head and he collapses to the ground. The scene ends almost immediately. Vaughn and co use this to their advantage, having the Statesman turn up with seconds of the shot being fired. Yeah, it’s still implausible, but then I don’t think people’s heads explode in choreographed light shows either, and that was a big part of The Secret Service.

Comparisons to that previous movie abound in other reviews, I guess because it went down well while this one, which is ostensibly more of the same, hasn’t. Also, to be fair, because the film itself is constantly making such references too. Consequently, some critics are focused on the idea that what The Golden Circle lacks is the freshness of the original. Well, personally, I enjoyed the first one more when I re-watched it a couple of days ago than when I first saw it back in 2015, so the “I’ve not seen that before” factor is not its defining quality for me. Nonetheless, this is the kind of sequel that’s somewhat derivative of its own predecessor, with many riffs on stuff you’ll remember from before. The most regularly repurposed is the famous church fight, though I’d argue that it’s taken the style of that sequence and then applied it to several more in this film, rather than merely producing an outright copy of what came before — something I would (and did) accuse, say, X-Men: Apocalypse’s Quicksilver sequence of doing (even though it tried to find fresh angles on the same basic concept).

Skipping rope in the snow

One particular way that half the action sequences feel like they’re deliberately riffing off / ripping off that church fight is that they’re set to pop songs, and often unexpected ones. It may be repeating a trick, but this use of music is consistently entertaining — I mean, hasn’t Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting always wanted a fight set to it? And the country-fied cover of Word Up for the finale is bang on. That’s not to mention the score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson. I always liked the main theme from the first film, which is carried over here, along with effective action cues (for those times it goes without a pop song) and a neat integration of melodies from John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. That song is used to very particular effect at one point, and, listening to the soundtrack while writing this review, the bit of Mark Strong singing it that’s included did actually leave me with a little something in my eye — again, not what you expect from a film like Kingsman. Though I must clarify, that is due to the memory of the film, not the quality of Mr Strong’s singing, which is certainly… Scottish-accented. Something I didn’t notice particularly when watching the movie (and why would you on a first viewing?) is that those melodies are there right at the start, played on bagpipes and segueing into the opening theme. Cheeky foreshadowing beggars.

While there may be some dimension of merit to some of the criticisms I’ve referenced so far, others merit mention only to be ridiculed. I mean, one critic slagged off the fact that most (but not all) of Poppy’s scenes take place in one location, which must be the most ludicrous factor contributing to a film getting one star that I’ve ever read. Relatedly, that the big-name new cast members are given less focus than the returning characters seems to be a recurring sticking point. Well, what do you expect? In fact, what do you want? It’s like thinking the solution to Quantum of Solace’s woes was to spend less time with James Bond and more with Agent Fields. Plus, surely the fact that some prominently-billed new names turn out to be glorified cameos is more to do with the marketing overhyping them — as you do when you’ve got genuine movie stars in your movie — than the film itself fundamentally underserving them. Sure, I’d like more of Channing Tatum’s character too, but hey-ho; and it’s not like his limited screen time isn’t put to memorable effect, several times over. The same can be said for Julianne Moore and, arguably best of all, Elton John. They may reuse the same Elton gag a couple of times too often, but on the whole he has a surprisingly effective part to play. On the other hand, after “more Halle Berry” was something that eventually undermined the X-Men films, I’m fine with her role being kept to a minimum. Still, for everyone who wished for more of Tatum and co, there are already rumours of an extended cut coming to DVD and/or Blu-ray. Oh, but those critics moaned about it already being too long. There’s no pleasing some people…

More Tatum, less Berry

There is perhaps a case to be made that the film has bitten off more plot than it can comfortably chew. I’ve already said that some sequences feel a little too hasty, and there might be one big set piece too many — I assumed the film was about to head into its final act, before remembering we hadn’t had all the snowbound set pieces from the trailers yet. Personally, I didn’t mind this additional length — at no point did the film bore me. I’ll be more than happy if that extended cut does materialise. Perhaps the paciness despite the length is what led many critics to call it out for having too complex a plot, an accusation I find somewhat implausible. I can only assume they weren’t expecting to think at all and so almost literally turned their brains off, because this isn’t some intricate thriller, it’s a big action spy movie that moves pretty linearly from plot point to plot point. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And if you want to go the other way and overthink the film, some people do get very het up about what the political messages and affiliations of these two movies may or may not be. Now, I’m not going to argue they don’t have a political dimension — that would be a patently ludicrous position to take, given how much they both allude to real-world issues like climate change and the drug trade — but, allowing for that, I don’t think the films care what their political allegiance is. That’s how some people can manage to read a movie in which the working-class hero blows up the world’s conspiring elites in order to stop the common folk from massacring each other as nothing but a right-wing fantasy, and how other people can manage to read a movie in which an unaccountable intelligence organisation gentrifies a lower-class kid to make him worth something, before blowing up an environmentalist and President Obama, as proletariat wish-fulfilment. Both of those describe The Secret Service, but there are elements in the sequel that have the same effect — this time, it’s your stance towards the war on drugs and how we deal with addicts that is being prodded.

View to a kill

All of that said, the more I’ve thought about the film afterwards (as you do, especially if you’re going to, say, write a review for a blog or something), the more some issues do begin to become apparent. While I don’t inherently object to the Glastonbury sequence (I’d wager it in part exists as another way for Vaughn to thumb his nose at critics of certain parts of the first movie, and he got ’em too), I do think there were cleverer ways to handle it. Vaughn has said that sequence is meant to be about having to do something you don’t want to do for the sake of your job, but that doesn’t wholly explain the teenage smuttiness of how it plays out. I mean, wouldn’t it be funnier if Eggsy felt he had to stick to his principles and find a way to clumsily shove his finger up Clara’s nose? Then phone Tilde back: “It’s okay babe, I only put it up her nose.” “You did what?!”

So yeah, it’s not a perfect movie. But, at least while it was on, I was having way too much fun to care. If you’re the kind of person who found something (or lots of things) about the first movie offensive to your moral fibre, chances are slim that you’ll like this sequel. Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who misses ’90s lads-mag culture, you’ll bloody love it, mate. For those of us somewhere on the (very broad) spectrum between those two points, other reviews make it clear that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it was very much to mine. The niggles I’ve mentioned have led me to give it a lower score than the first film, but I reserve the right to change my mind as soon as I get a chance to rewatch it — I can envision myself ultimately revisiting The Golden Circle more regularly than The Secret Service.

4 out of 5

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas most places now, and in the other places soon.

It placed 15th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

* At time of writing. It was 49% on Saturday and 51% on Sunday, so it might be different again by the time you read this. ^

22 Jump Street (2014)

2017 #99
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

22 Jump Street

After the genuinely surprising success (both critically and financially) of the 21 Jump Street movie, a sequel was inevitable. This is that sequel — and it won’t let you forget it.

In the first movie, best-buddy cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) went undercover in a high school to unearth a drug ring. Now, they go undercover in a college to unearth a drug ring. Sequels, eh? But it’s okay because the film makes a running joke out of how it’s just rehashing what worked in the first movie. I say “it’s okay” — some people seem to fundamentally object to this, saying that acknowledging that it’s a copy doesn’t stop it being a copy. Personally, I give the film a bit more credit than that. It’s a copy because it’s funny when it’s a copy, not because it has absolutely no new ideas.

In part, it knows when to improve on itself: they’ve taken one of the most memorable and likeable bits of the first movie — the meta-jokes at the expense of the film itself — and ramped them up to 11. And it works. Or, at least, it did for me. Is this the most meta comedy ever? I dunno, but I can’t think of another that so relentlessly riffs off both the expected tropes of its genre and its own status as a sequel. It broadens the remits to movies in general, too — when it finally paid off, the meticulously over-constructed ‘meet cute’ gag elicited one of the biggest laughs I’ve had at a film in a long time. I’m almost loathe to mention it, because it works best when you have no idea that’s where it’s going, but oh well. Similarly, the widely-discussed end credits must’ve been a real hoot when they were a total surprise. Fortunately, they’re still a ton of fun even if you’ve had the joke ruined. (As I’ve already half-spoiled one moment, and the credits were pretty widely covered back when the film first came out, I shall say no more.)

Crash helmet

The one shame in all this is that it rehashes the last movie’s relationship arc for the leads. Gags about it being exactly the same movie are funny when they’re overt, like with the main drug investigation plot, but it’s like no one in production noticed that they’d reheated the character arcs. It does kind of go somewhere new with it, but only in the sense that it’s inverted which of the pair soars and which feels left out. Nonetheless, it stills leads to some funny scenes, like the “break up” and a counselling session, so at least it’s not a complete loss.

When a movie nobody expected anything good of becomes a hit and they rush to produce a sequel, you’d expect nothing more than a lazy rehash. 22 Jump Street takes that ball and runs with it, turning its lazy rehashery into meta-humour that makes the movie more-or-less the equal of its predecessor.

It’s a shame the threequel seems to have become lost down the dead-end of making it a Men in Black crossover because I wouldn’t mind seeing trilogies given the Jump Street treatment. But you never know, maybe that’ll become the silver lining to the Han Solo fiasco.

4 out of 5

Channing Tatum stars in another spoof cop series, Comrade Detective, available on Amazon Prime from today.

The Book of Life (2014)

2016 #50
Jorge R. Gutierrez | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

A myth-like animated musical adventure based around Mexico’s Day of the Dead, most notable for its unique art style that presents gorgeous visuals throughout.

Otherwise, it has the right ingredients but in disappointing proportions. The story is good, but too long in the telling. The humour isn’t consistently amusing. The songs are mostly re-appropriated pop tracks, plus two new compositions. The latter are more effective, though shoehorning a rendition of Radiohead’s Creep into a kids’ movie is memorable for the wrong reasons.

Some viewers may lose patience with it, but I thought enough was likeable to keep it ticking over.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

2015 #169
The Wachowskis | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Ah, the Wachowskis. They made Bound, and no one much cared. Then they made The Matrix, and they were the biggest thing in blockbusterdom since George Lucas took us to a galaxy far, far away. Then they made the Matrix sequels, and no one cared again. Following a period when I don’t think I was alone in wondering if they were ever going to make anything else, they managed to return to the realm of mega-budgeted sci-fi action (I guess the Matrix sequels cleaned up at the box office and that’s all that matters). First there was Speed Racer (which I called “a candy-coloured masterpiece”), then Cloud Atlas (which I haven’t got round to still), and most recently Sense8 (which I certainly haven’t got time for — there’s way too much promising telly to spend time on a show I haven’t heard anyone talk about since its release day).

And earlier this year there was Jupiter Ascending, best known (as far as I’m aware) for provoking speculation it would cost Eddie Redmayne the Oscar for Theory of Everything because it came out during voting season and he was so gosh darn bad in it. And it’s also known for being just generally dreadful and universally disdained.

But, hey, look — Channing Tatum! 2015 is (as mentioned) the year of Channing Tatum for me. And this is a big sci-fi blockbuster, so chances are it would cross my visual cortex eventually regardless (though there are so many sci-fi blockbusters these days that they don’t feel nearly as precious as they did even ten years ago). And the universal disdain wasn’t actually universal — I have actually seen some people praise this film. I know, right?

Sadly, I still thought Jupiter Ascending was awful.

The plot… oh, do I have to explain the plot? It’s some rubbish about a cleaner (Mila Kunis) getting attacked by aliens and some alien crossbreed in magic flying shoes (Channing Tatum) coming to her rescue, and taking her to a half-bee man (Sean Bean — there has to be a “Sean Bee-n” joke here…), and then into space, because she’s… nope, not the Chosen One (makes a change, at least) but a reincarnation of someone important, and her surviving family members (Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Eddie Redmayne) have a vested interest in her — which may or not be that they want her dead (again).

You might thank me for clarifying that, because it’s mindbogglingly messy in the telling. A sheen of originality, partially aided by world-building so dense it’s conveyed in massive infodumps that blur into incomprehensibility, tries to mask the fact that Jupiter Ascending is immensely derivative, including of the Wachowskis’ own work. One of the best bits, a gently satirical sequence of red tape and bureaucracy, is all but lifted wholesale from Hitchhikers or the films of Terry Gilliam — who turns up in a cameo as if to underline the point. Elsewhere you might recall David Lynch’s Dune or The Fifth Element — the latter in particular, although there the campiness was deliberate.

Some praise the visuals, claiming the film at least looks fabulous. Parts of the film carry a level of extravagance and detail thus far found exclusively in a certain genre of sci-fi novel cover art, presumably because CGI has finally reached a point where it can replicate all that on screen in motion. I guess it works for some people, but while it’s not bad, it also didn’t do much for me. And every time something almost works, something else undermines it, like Tatum’s make-up, or his flying boots, or Redmayne’s bizarre, affected performance. Though, to be honest, I think he’s so bad he’s good, a phrase you often hear bandied around but rarely see actually happen.

All things considered, the worst part of Jupiter Ascending is its first half-hour or so. Once it gets past that dreadfully messy first act, it settles down into something that works as passable entertainment. Sure, you might spend the rest of the time (and it does feel like a long time) playing “spot the influence”, or wondering just how exactly Redmayne’s performance came about, or, if you’re versed in British TV, going, “oh, it’s them, from… um… that other thing!” (Eventually there’s a whole spaceship full of “people off British TV”.)

But hey, at least it’s not dull.

2 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending debuts on Sky Movies Premiere tonight at 4pm and 8pm.

Foxcatcher (2014)

2015 #136
Bennett Miller | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The director of Capote returns with another true-crime tale. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) feels overshadowed professionally by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), so when John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir of the richest family in America, offers his support in the run up to the 1988 Olympic Games, Mark eagerly accepts. Moving to special facilities constructed on the Du Ponts’ Foxcatcher estate, Mark soon finds himself in an odd symbiotic relationship with John, which turns increasingly sour when Dave is finally persuaded to join their team.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I was too young to be cognisant of events surrounding an Olympic Games held 27 years ago (the story’s climactic events actually occurred a few years later, but still), but I didn’t know what striking event happened at the end of Foxcatcher, just that something did. That tension — knowing something significant happens, but not what it is — lends the film a little air of the thriller. However, that angle is something entirely brought by myself (and anyone else who doesn’t know the story). The film itself is ‘just’ a character drama.

Fortunately, it has three leads who are up to carrying a narrative of that nature. In a rare dramatic role, and lumbered with a hefty prosthetic noise, Carrell’s John Du Pont almost feels like a caricature rather than a plausible human being… but apparently the film has actually toned down how odd the man was, so what are you gonna do? It’s a memorable performance none the less. Tatum is an understated lead, demonstrating he’s a better actor than you might expect as he displays emotional complexities in a man who doesn’t seem especially emotionally complex. Showing a character struggling with feelings he probably doesn’t quite understand is quite a feat, especially when it’s not explicitly conveyed in dialogue, so applause for Tatum there. Ruffalo, meanwhile, provides typically strong support, embodying a wrestler — right down to a very specific, unusual way of carrying himself — from the guy who plays Bruce Banner rather than the Hulk.

Unfortunately, for all their effort, the film is a little lacking in insight. Reading up some afterwards, it seems no one knows the true motivations behind the aforementioned surprising events, so it’s left to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and director Bennett Miller (for whom this story was something of a passion project), to posit any explanations. They do this subtly, leaving it up to the viewer to read what they want — or can — into everyone’s actions. However, it’s an issue that some facts have been bent to make for a more succinct narrative, making one wonder if anything the film may suggest is consequently wide of the mark.

As it finally shakes out, Foxcatcher is a solid movie, and certainly worth a look, but only really for the performances and the passing interest of finding out what happened, if you don’t already know.

4 out of 5

The Eagle (2011)

2015 #60
Kevin Macdonald | 106 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Hungary / English & Scottish Gaelic | 12 / PG-13

The EagleChanning Tatum is a brave Roman general whose father lost his company’s standard, the titular eagle, north of Hadrian’s Wall (a real historic event, coincidentally depicted in Centurion). Determined to reclaim his family’s honour, he ventures north with slave Jamie Bell to attempt to retrieve it.

Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth, director Kevin Macdonald’s film is, perhaps surprisingly, almost leisurely paced, as much about mood as it is about action. Big fights and battles clearly aren’t the film’s goal or forte, though an early sequence where Roman forces battle druids outside the fort Tatum commands is excellently done. Conversely, it makes the last-stand climax feel a little underwhelming, even somewhat anticlimactic in its briefness.

Between the two battles, Macdonald has made almost an understated second-century buddy movie, as Tatum and Bell trek across the North, bonding — or not — as they encounter the locals. Personally, I rate both of these actors (Tatum, a little to my surprise, has really grown on me this year), so the focus on their cautiously-trusting, always-uncertain relationship worked for me. However, the movie’s real strength lies in how incredible it looks, with rich cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle that shows off some dramatic scenery, shot on location in Scotland and Hungary. When the duo reach a far-north tribal camp, there’s an edge-of-the-world — indeed, almost other-worldly — Sceneryquality to the setting, characters, and imagery that’s quite striking.

The Eagle is a little more thoughtful and measured than you might expect from a PG-13 adaptation of a children’s adventure novel. Clearly a movie that doesn’t meet with all tastes, it has a number of strong qualities that did mesh with mine.

4 out of 5

21 Jump Street (2012)

2015 #62
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

21 Jump StreetHaving turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good story of a machine that makes it rain food into an entertaining and amusing movie, and the unlikely-to-be-any-good concept of a LEGO-centred film into an entertaining and amusing movie, is it any wonder that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller also turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good premise of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill starring in a remake of a forgotten ’80s teen TV series about police officers who go undercover in a high school to find drug dealers into an entertaining and amusing movie?

The prime difference from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The LEGO Movie lies in the rating: those are kids’ films (with adult-friendly angles), while 21 Jump Street is an out-and-out R. That’s unusual in itself, given the US studios’ obsession with PG-13 and this being set in a high school, but it allows Lord and Miller to push at boundaries; not just being able to be ruder and grosser, but even the whole “teens doing drugs” storyline. They manage to make the extremes funny without descending too far into toilet humour — compare it to A Million Ways to Die in the West, for example, which had its share of clever edginess but undermined it with some terribly crass bits.

Perhaps the film’s best material revolves around the changing face of high school. Tatum and Hill’s characters grew up in an era of the traditional mould, where jocks ruled and nerds were bullied. When they return undercover, the tables have turned: getting good grades and caring about the environment is cool. In a classic bit of role reversal, Shot outthis leaves Hill hanging out with the cool kids — and being lured down the path of parties and their shallower friendship — while Tatum falls in with a gang of ultra-nerdy nerds and starts actually learning stuff. Distilled like that makes it sound pat, but in the film it works; in part because they don’t overplay the clichéd “friends fall out irretrievably… until it’s retrieved for the final act” story arc.

I only watched 21 Jump Street to see what all the fuss was about, expecting to find it unlikeable and unfunny. Happily, I was completely wrong — Lord and Miller win again. Next, they’re working on an animated Spider-Man movie. At the risk of jinxing it, that sounds likely to be quite good…

4 out of 5

White House Down (2013)

2015 #51
Roland Emmerich | 126 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

White House DownUS Capitol policeman Channing Tatum is visiting the White House, trying and failing both to impress his estranged daughter and get a job in the Secret Service, when terrorists attack and try to take President Jamie Foxx hostage. Tatum rescues him from some of them, but with the rest occupying the building the stage is set for “Die Hard in the White House”.

White House Down is less known for that pithy (but accurate) summary than it is for being released the same summer as Olympus Has Fallen, which has virtually the same plot. This had the misfortune of coming second, meaning it took less at the US box office and was dismissed by some critics, too. That said, others — particularly over here, apparently — assert it’s the better of the two. I think where your opinion is likely to land is most succinctly summed up in Film4’s review by Rebecca Davis: “Whether or not you enjoy this film depends entirely on whether you judge it to be po-faced or parody. If you believe it’s the former, you’ll probably hate it. If you believe it’s the latter, you’ll have an absolute blast.” That’s bang on, and I definitely judge it to be a parody. To clarify, not an out-and-out Airplane-style parody, but very much a self-aware retro-styled tongue-in-cheek Action Movie.

I can’t help but feel that most of the movie’s critics didn’t get in on the joke, but I’m really not sure how they missed it. Perhaps they have to watch so much poorly-made crap that they can’t spot when something’s been done deliberately. But White House Down is so gloriously, unashamedly cheesy that it has to be deliberate, and it’s so much fun because of it. It’s certainly not original, nor particularly clever, but a healthy awareness of the inherent ludicrousness of the very concept (and of all the clichés of the genre) keep it entertaining throughout. And based on everything I’ve read, it probably does a better job of being a Die Hard movie than the last couple of real ones have.

It's not a Die Hard movie, honestIf there’s a downside, it’s that this $150 million movie looks like it was made for closer to $15. There’s an overabundance of digital sets, ‘exteriors’ obviously shot on incorrectly-lit soundstages, and terrible CGI. Goodness only knows where all that money went — the actors’ salaries? Tatum and Foxx are good, but I’m not sure they’re worth that much. And here’s a good a time as any to say that this year I’ve become a bit of a Channing Tatum convert. I’d written him off because, to be honest, he looks a bit of a lug and I still think he’s woefully miscast as Gambit in the forthcoming X-Men spin-off. He’s brilliant in this and 21 Jump Street, though, showing a real likeability and flair for comedy. Someone should really team him up with the equally comically adept Dwayne Johnson.

Anyway, White House Down: it may be derivative and look practically direct-to-DVD cheap, but get yourself in the right frame of mind and it’s a ton of fun. It’s a shame the po-faced Olympus Has Fallen was a bigger hit (in the US — worldwide, White House Down won) and is getting sequelised, because I’d far rather see a second adventure for this President/protector pairing.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow, my review of Olympus Has Fallen.