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.

Moneyball (2011)

2016 #163
Bennett Miller | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

MoneyballBased on a true story, Moneyball concerns the management of baseball team Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season. General manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) struggles to put a squad together due to a comparatively low budget for players, which has seen all his best ones drift off to richer contracts elsewhere. Fed up with the traditional scouting system, he recruits Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to use statistical analysis to select a cheap team of quality players. The rest of his staff despair, including coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to play the team as Beane and Brand suggest, which unsurprisingly leads to self-vindicating failure — until they force his hand…

So Moneyball is a movie about sports and statistics — a pair of topics that will bore some people to tears, while still others will enjoy one but not the other. Generally, I couldn’t care less about sport, but statistics? Well, maybe.

Unfortunately, despite what you might’ve heard, Moneyball is more about sport than statistics. Worse, it makes too few concessions to people who know fuck all about baseball. You can follow the general arc, but it’s like turning on a real game of any sport you know nothing about: you can discern some stuff, but the coverage is not being produced for you. At one point it cuts to a match and a caption informs us it’s the “bottom of the 9th”. I’m sure that means something to baseball fans, but I can tell you the rest of us haven’t got the foggiest. Is the “bottom” at the beginning or the end? Or somewhere in the middle? Or is it something to do with score rather than time? The 9th what? And is it the 9th of 9 or the 9th of 10? Or 12? Or 15? Or 18, or 25, or…? Or is it the fact it’s the 9th that’s significant here? Maybe there’s normally only 3 or 4 of whatever it is? For Moneyball as a movie in its own right, rather than some niche special interest thing, this attitude is a drawback.

Brad to batProblems extend beyond the sporting specifics. It’s quite some way into the movie before it gets stuck into the meat of the plan working, and before that it often throws in asides that meander around through Beane’s earlier playing career and current family life. The former has some bearing on the plot, though feels inadequately integrated — as one flashback it might work, but as a series of them it’s not enough to constitute a parallel story. The latter, his family life, provides character texture, but it’s slight, uninformative, and ultimately unnecessary. You could cut it and the film would lose nothing.

Moneyball was going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who apparently had some interesting ideas about how to present the wealth of statistical material — ideas that were too interesting for Sony, as it turned out, because they shut down production days before shooting was due to start and kicked Soderbergh out. He was replaced with Bennett Miller, who previously directed Capote, which was fine, and later did Foxcatcher, which I didn’t really like (I gave it 4 stars, but my review reads more like 3 and that’s how I remember it). I’m beginning to dislike the guy. According to IMDb his next project is A Christmas Carol, because we really need another version of that.

On the bright side, Soderbergh’s departure was when Aaron Sorkin came on to write a new version of the screenplay. Swings and roundabouts, eh? But this does not feel like a film written by Aaron Sorkin. Where’s the sparkling dialogue? Where’s the impressive structure? The former is perfunctory and functional; the latter is, if not a mess, then certainly lacking the rigour of his other work. Apparently Sorkin only agreed to do a re-write if previous screenwriter Steven Zaillian kept a credit, because Sorkin felt the script was great “This screenplay's shit.” “Well I didn't write it.”and didn’t need any work, which probably explains why it’s not so Sorkin-y. Zaillian is not a bad writer — his credits include Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York, both of which are in my 100 Favourites, and the US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I gave full marks — but I wouldn’t say he has a unique voice. Moneyball’s screenplay is fine for what it is, but it doesn’t have that frisson that Sorkin brings.

Baseball doesn’t interest me in the slightest, partly because I’m not interested in much sport, partly because I’m not American. So I watched Moneyball for three reasons: one, because it seemed like it might be more about the stats than a traditional sports movie. It’s not. Second, because it was written by Aaron Sorkin. But the screenplay displays little of his usual verve. And third, because it’s a Best Picture nominee from this millennium and I’m intending to tick all of those off eventually. In that respect, at least, it was a success — of course, it couldn’t fail to be.

3 out of 5

Superbad (2007)

2015 #128
Greg Mottola | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s semi-autobiographical comedy sets Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) (see what they did there?) on a quest to obtain booze for a party where they hope to copulate. Or, “every American teen comedy.”

Presumably the key to Superbad’s acclaim lies in the details, then. The narrative is implausible (hence “semi-”) but creates amusing situations — it’s a comedy, so, fine. Seth’s all-encompassing sex obsession feels extreme, but also accurate to many teenage boys.

The most interesting aspect is the guys’ college-threatened codependent relationship. Or maybe it’s people saying rude sex words — your mileage may vary.

3 out of 5

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

2015 #45
Dean DeBlois | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Four years ago, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon came as a pleasant surprise: a film I thought looked weak in almost every respect, but which turned out to be immensely entertaining and beautifully made. This sequel has the opposite level of expectation, then, but fortunately it’s (mostly) up to the task.

Part of its success stems from being bold with the concept. Rather than just rehashing the first film’s story, or taking it in only a slightly different direction, returning writer-director Dean DeBlois (his former co-director, Chris Sanders, having moved on to fellow DreamWorks hit The Croods) jumps the story forward five years, in the process changing the status quo of the film’s world enough to keep it fresh. So whereas the last movie ended with dragon-hating vikings having some kind of grudging acceptance of the titular bewinged creatures, here those dragons have been fully integrated into viking society; and the teenage heroes have been aged up to be young adults.

The latter, in particular, necessitates some great design work to age the younger characters appropriately. It’s the kind of thing that looks obvious in retrospect, but it isn’t — how many animations can you think of that have to reimagine their characters as slightly older; enough to make a notable difference, but not as extreme as, say, turning them from young children to adults, or from middle-aged to very old? I can’t think of any. Nonetheless, the team here have done a faultless job. That applies to the film’s visuals on the whole. It looks gorgeous in every way: the design, the animation, the construction of the digital world, the lighting… and so on.

Tonally, DeBlois has been productively inspired by The Empire Strikes Back: it’s still child-friendly, but nonetheless more mature, and with some striking emotional beats. The main plot — concerning an army that enslaves dragons, vs. our hero vikings who live alongside them — is a little hit and miss, with some construction issues (which I’ll come back to). The characters and their emotional arcs, however, are more consistently realised, sometimes with a less-is-more approach. For instance, it’s quite nice that DeBlois doesn’t introduce needless jeopardy into the romance between Hiccup and Astrid: they’re just a couple, and happy — that’s not rammed home, nor do they quarrel over nothing; they don’t split up only to inevitably get back together. Such beats are overworked and over-familiar, and the film has enough else going on not to bother with some fake-out relationship trouble. However, challenging the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, even if only briefly, is a much more emotionally rewarding thread to pull. Of course, to say how it’s challenged would be a gigantic spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that.

The first film quickly and effectively sketched a largish supporting cast, and they’re deftly used again here. Their parts may be doled out in snippets — a couple of lines here, a short scene there — but they build subplots and comic relief, and pay them off too, all without shifting the focus too heavily on to things that fundamentally don’t matter. Perhaps this is, in part, the benefit of a starry voice cast (where the supporting players are bigger names than the leads!)

If there’s a flaw, it’s in some of the new characters. The primary villain is underused, introduced too late in the game to become a palpable threat. More time spent building him up, seeing his evil on screen rather than just being told about it, would’ve been appreciated. So too for the mysterious vigilante dragon-rider, who turns out to have a very significant role. The deleted scenes include a prologue that would have introduced the character at the start, which would have better established the mystery and import of their role. It’s clear why it was deleted (to focus on Berk and keep the initial tone light), but I still think it would’ve worked better in the film. In the final cut, the vigilante is mentioned all of once, then turns up and is unmasked about two minutes later. Really, though, these are niggles — even for them, the cumulative consistency is certainly better than, say, its Oscar conquerer Big Hero 6.

To make another inter-film comparison, on balance I’d say that the first Dragon is probably better, but there’s little between them — they’re just different. By pushing the world and the characters in new, interesting, more emotionally mature directions, this is a sequel that ensures there’s a welcome freshness to proceedings. Too many animated films skimp on that side of things, but thought and care has been put into making this a worthwhile continuation rather than a cash-in re-hash.

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

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

2014 #99
Martin Scorsese | 180 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.




The Wolf of Wall StreetWhen someone says “100-million-dollar epic”, you probably don’t imagine a film about a swindling stockbroker; but, with a three-hour running time and a nine-figure budget, that’s exactly what Martin Scorsese’s black comedy biopic is.

Based on a true story, the film sees Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) start out as a stockbroker on Wall Street just before 1987’s Black Monday, which sees the firm he works for close down. Desperate for a job, he finds employment shilling cheap, crap shares to unsuspecting normal folk. Bringing his big-money skills into a grimy little environment, he revolutionises the way business is done, and soon finds himself back on Wall Street, where drug- and drink-fuelled parties, expensive houses, cars and yachts, and dodgy (well, flat-out illegal) business practices are the name of the day.

Some critics and viewers reckon the film is condoning or even glamourising that lifestyle. To which the only sensible response is, really?! How much must those people need their morality spelt out clearly and handed to them on a plate? Scorsese doesn’t out-and-out condemn the behaviour depicted, but nor does he present it as a jolly good time brought low by the cruel machinations of The Man. He’s more of an observer: this is what happened, both what they got away with and what they didn’t; both what was fun and exciting and what went wrong. There’s everything from moments where our own independent morality/irony is clearly meant to be brought to bear on these characters (such as the scene where they’re discussing dwarves) to sequences that outright depict the downside of their behaviour (such as the sequence where Jordan and Donnie take ‘Lemmon’, or indeed a good deal of the movie after that point). The film does not judge these people, but invites us to — Worse for wearand the closing shot clearly shows how many people have already judged them to represent something desirable, regardless of what position the film might take. Some people want this lifestyle, in spite of all the problems it wrought, and even if the film had clearly condemned it that wouldn’t change. In the end, to say Scorsese approves of it purely because he doesn’t lambast it is too simplistic a reading.

Despite the real-life nature of its tale, and the fact the illegal actions surely brought misery to many, the film nonetheless works best as a comedy, which is fortunately its default tone. In the rare moments it shoots for drama, it doesn’t function quite so well — whatever the results of their action, these lives and situations are so outlandish that it’s hard to find an empathetic foothold. The characters may be based on real people, but they don’t live in a world of “real people”; but that’s OK, because I don’t imagine the actual people involved would come over as much more than “characters” if you encountered them in real life.

In this regard, every cast member is excellent. You may most easily identify that quality among the top-billed names (Leo, Jonah Hill, break-out star Margot Robbie), or the masses of recognisable faces in cameo-sized roles (Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin…), Ensembledbut almost every supporting character gets a memorable line or scene, a moment where they shine brighter than everyone else; and even when the smaller roles aren’t dominating a scene, they’re part of a first-rate ensemble that functions like a well-oiled machine. My personal favourite was P.J. Byrne’s ‘Rugrat’, but yours may well be someone else.

One criticism I will hold with is that it’s too long. There’s fun packed throughout, but every now and then the pace flags or I found myself checking the clock. I can well imagine that on a re-watch the less-engrossing bits will be thumb-twiddlingly irritating while waiting for the quality memorable material to roll around. A tighter focus, probably at the writing stage but maybe it was salvageable in the edit, might’ve helped this.

And if you’re wondering how it cost $100 million, it’s packed to the rafters with CGI. Some of it is obvious (specifically, when they attempt to sail a yacht through a storm, with disastrous consequences), but there are also tonnes of more subtle digital set/location extensions and changes — check out this video if you want them revealed. Plus they used visual effects to obscure a gay orgy and avoid an NC-17. So that’s nice.

Toast of AmericaAs one of two period comedies about real-life financial crime that contended at the 2014 awards (and neither of which won a single Oscar, as it turned out), The Wolf of Wall Street is the more entertaining victor, for me. However, despite many high-points, some scattered niggles throughout its excessive running time hold back unequivocal praise.

4 out of 5

The Wolf of Wall Street debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm, and is already available on demand.