Need for Speed

Posted in Review with tags , , , on July 21, 2014 by Ben Browne

 

Skidmarks.
 

Need for Speed (2014)

So Need for Speed didn’t exactly bomb, but certainly underperformed when it was released earlier this year. People have put this down to it being a video game adaptation. I can’t really see that logic when Transformers: Age of Extinction (based on a cartoon created to sell toys to kids, lest we forget) can make enough money to buy at least 7 pairs of “Beats by Dre” headphones. It’s odd that games don’t seem to work when adapted for film because the two mediums have been aping each other so much that I’d assumed they would have converged into a singularity by now. Why don’t video game films work? It’s a pertinent question. Sadly, it’s probably because they’re never passion projects, just business opportunities to cash-in on a known brand to the oh-so-important teenage demographic. Nobody on the creative teams for these things cares enough about them or respects the medium.They break the bones of the game to fit their restrictive blockbuster mould and discard potentially great elements because they don’t know what to do with them. This almost always ensures that a grey, generic sludge is produced, only vaguely related to the source material, that understandably pisses off game and film fans alike. Case in point, Need for Speed.

“They took everything from me.”

Two years after Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) was framed for the death of his friend, he is released from prison and immediately sets out for revenge on the true culprit behind the fatal car crash, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). In order to get back at Dino, Marshall needs to qualify for and enter the legendary De Leon race, headed by the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton). The one massive flaw in the plan, however, is the fact that Marshall is on parole and forbidden from leaving the state. There’s also the fact that he has a bounty on him, with a supercar promised to whomever manages to stop Marshall and his passenger, Julia (Imogen Poots) from getting to the start line. The film is a basic revenge narrative set in the world of superfast cars, which is fine by me. As a massive Breaking Bad fan it pains me to say this, but Aaron Paul just doesn’t work as the stoic hero they’re going for. I’m not sure whether it’s just a case of miscasting or the script not being meaty enough for Paul to work with. Dominic Cooper does well as the suited slimeball Dino. He’s one of the better villains I’ve seen in a while, but the writing rears its ugly head to make sure he’s only a partial success. Imogen Poots is decent enough, but is definitely slumming it. The oddest performance is Michael Keaton who is somehow hammy and understated at the same time- and not in the good way that might imply. I get a real sense of lack of effort on Keaton’s part, although it definitely doesn’t help that he’s in the same room for the entire film and only very occasionally interacts with any of the cast. He’s a weird, floating presence mostly used to explain any shit they couldn’t be bothered to fit in anywhere else in the film.

I get what Need for Speed is trying to do. It wants to be a throwback to the Steve McQueen era, even going so far as to have Bullitt playing at a drive-in theatre and the soundtrack being modern covers of classics like “Fortunate Son”. It’s a half-hearted attempt to return to that very vague yet oddly specific era of Americana that probably didn’t exist in the first place. It also wants to have a B movie vibe, like some of McQueen’s filmography. This is fine, but it doesn’t really commit to it and these elements barely feature in the rest of the film. Despite what you might think, the film is more of a road movie than anything else, focusing on Tobey and Julia’s race to get to the er… race. The sticking point is that neither character is particularly fleshed out. There are concessions to normal storytelling occasionally, but most of the time it’s like watching two amnesiacs trying to figure out who they are. Same with Tobey’s apparently loveable pit crew. I watched this film a few hours ago as of writing this review and I would struggle to fill a Post-It Note with what I remember about them. All I know is that there’s one call Pete or Petey that is so tediously wide-eyed and innocent he may as well have a bullseye stapled to his forehead. Plus there’s some bullshit about Pete’s “visions” that never convinces in being anything but a cloying, hackneyed addition to the script that doesn’t work in any capacity.

The usual counter-argument to all this is the Transformers argument: “but’s it’s just a dumb action film blah blah blah”. True, it is an action film and yes, you can hardly expect Shakespeare and ruminations on the human condition in a film made to appeal to teenagers who love fast cars and violence. I’m aware of the limitations and am accepting of them (big of me, I know). 2013′s 2 Guns wasn’t going to win any writing awards, but it was solid enough to make the non-shooty bits almost as entertaining as the shootier bits. Need for Speed, on the other hand, is bad through and through. It takes elements like a cross country race whilst pursued by cops and rouge drivers and somehow makes them boring. I found myself forcing to accept some of the weak characters and head-scratching decisions just so I could get to the film’s racing bread and butter. I didn’t care about any of the characters and as such was left numb by it all. The film tries to give the characters depth but fails massively. The introduction of Imogen Poots’ character outlined this for me. So Tobey and Pete et al. have just finished working on a legendary car and are admiring their handiwork. She sidles up, acting all ditzy and asking basic questions like “is it fast?”. They start being rather patronising in response.She soon convinces them to pop the hood and proceeds to expertly list all the components to the surprise of Tobey and Pete. She then gets on her high horse and scolds them for assuming she knew nothing about cars. Thing is, they don’t know her at all. If you’re going to play dumb when meeting new people then the only real assumption they can make about you is that you’re dumb. It reminds me of this comic: click. The film is full of stuff like this and it became harder and harder to forgive as it went on.

I looked up who was responsible for the warcrime of a screenplay and it’s George Gatins, a first time writer who just so happens to be the brother of one of the producers, John Gatins. Don’t you just love Hollywood nepotism? There’s an overabundance of writers out there that could take the basic elements of this and create something really entertaining, but they give it to some rich prick’s brother. Awesome. As for the action, it’s the film’s only saving grace. There’s an impressive commitment to practical stunts and some of the races and crashes are incredibly well done. This is hardly surprising as director Scott Waugh has a long history of stuntwork, so there’s a legitimacy to the action sequences. That’s about it though. The car stuff is decent.

“*Some other fucking awful line that I can’t be bothered to look up*”

So yeah, Need for Speed isn’t good. It’s boring, terribly written and it made my head hurt. You’d have a hard time convincing me that anyone involved (apart from Paul and Cooper) genuinely wanted to make a good film. Disappointing on many different levels. Not recommended.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on July 19, 2014 by Ben Browne
 
Apes together strong. Humans not so much.
 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Contrary to what Green Day once sang about, I don’t want to be in the minority. Well, not this kind of minority, anyway. The kind where you don’t think something’s as good as everyone else does. I had my first taste of it this year with How to Train Your Dragon 2 where I gave it an average 3 when some people were showering it with perfect scores and hyperbolic buzzword-y, poster-ready endorsements. Posting an honest opinion of disappointment in that climate feels like I’m excluding myself from the massive joy block party where everyone’s high fiving each other over a shared positive experience. Anyway, I bring all this up because DOTPOTA has put me in a similar situation and I don’t know who to punch to make me feel better about it.

“Apes do not want war!”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes and focuses on what has become of man and apekind alike after a lab-bred virus wiped out most of humanity. We rejoin Caesar (mocapped and voiced by Andy Serkis), alpha ape and leader of an entire ape community in the forest. Caesar has a son, named Blue Eyes, and a new arrival on his mind when a group of humans stumble across several apes, setting wheels in motion that lead to huge tension between the two groups. Whilst the designated leaders for each side (The Big C and some bloke named Malcolm (Jason Clarke)), there are members of both species who want to nudge the precarious situation into all-out war between humans and apes. I will say this about Dawn, it’s not afraid to be a blockbuster with brains. There are some really solid ideas in play and motivations are strong and coherent. The motion capture and the effects work by WETA is awesome stuff. Whilst the apes still aren’t 100% convincing, there are moments where you forget that a huge portion of the cast aren’t really there. The ape cast are great. Andy Serkis is just the fucking don at this stuff and his performance as Caesar is fantastic. Toby Kebbell is brilliant as Koba, Caesar’s aggressive second-in-command. Koba is a truly sinister presence and all credit goes to the CGI people and Kebbell’s unhinged performance. Karin Konoval also returns as the fan favourite Maurice the orangutan, which is brilliant news for fans of the loveable flat-faced fella like me. All of the main apes have distinct features and interesting personalities.

Same can’t be said for the humans, unfortunately. Jason Clarke is annoyingly earnest as Malcolm, a “nice guy” with shit-all personality. Not to be mean, but Clarke has no screen presence. I’d honestly forgotten his name was Malcolm about half an hour after leaving the cinema. Not a good sign. It doesn’t help that his family are boring too. His wife is barely part of it and he has some vaguely sad backstory that’s meant to stand in the stead of giving her something to actually do. His teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) rivals him in the no-personality stakes by having only having one defining thing- he draws stuff. That’s it in regards to character. He doodles in a sketchpad. (Cough) Gary Oldman elevates things just by being him, but it all added up to me being impatient to get back to the monkey business.

OK. Like with How to Train Your Dragon 2, I didn’t hate Dawn. However, I still walked away disappointed. Perhaps it’s just the hype generated by my love of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but I don’t think so. The writing’s certainly not as sharp, for sure. It’s thematically rich and full of interesting philosophies, but I was ahead of the film every step of the way- a phenomenon not experienced whilst watching Rise. It’s not because I’ve wasted more time watching films than most people either. This is some really basic and generic stuff. I kept wanting to be surprised or for it to display at least a bit of narrative sleight of hand to distract me from the fact that I knew how everything was going to play out. There’s one character, Carver (Kirk Acevedo) who starts everything off by shooting at a young ape. Despite seeming to exist purely to fuck things up and having created conflict out of nothing, Malcolm decides to take him to a disputed hydroelectric dam because “he’s the only one who worked there” or some crap. That’s just clunky writing and contrived as anything. When they decide that he can tag along the second time, it’s obvious that he’s going to cause more trouble. Not because we know the character, but because we know his function to the story. Would it have made any difference if it was one of the other people who shot at the ape? Not at all and that’s what bugs me. I can see the seams rather than being too lost in proceedings. Rise was flawed too, but it spent more time making the characters seem like real people, rather than plot-convenient pawns to slide into place when needed.

It’s frustrating because despite the bland-as-balls subplots, the main thrust of the story works incredibly well. The film is nicely morally ambiguous, with both sides having valid reasons for acting the way they do and avoids providing an easy goodies vs baddies scenario. The building conflict between apes and humans is by far the most interesting thing to me and there are some awesome tension-filled scenes where characters are trying to talk their way out of violence and find a diplomatic solution, which is a lesson that our actual, shitty non ape planet doesn’t seem to be interested in heeding of late. When guns are whipped out, everything gets ten times worse. It’s not all talking though. When the action does occur, it’s expertly done. The sight of a snarling ape dual wielding LMGs whilst riding on horseback is worth the price of admission alone. In fact, Koba steals the show for me. He’s a proper villain (spoilers, but Rise and Dawn make it abundantly clear that his defection was only a matter of time) and he’s in my favourite scene. You may have seen the bit I’m about to talk about in trailers and clips (thanks trailer people, I was almost surprised for a moment) but in one scene Koba is caught by a couple of armed guards and he goes all-out pet ape, posing, rolling around and recreating his favourite scenes from Dunstan Checks In. Whilst they’re caught up in the show, Koba grabs one of their guns and blows them both away. It was fucking brilliant and an easy contender for my now world-famous Scenes of the Year list.

“We’ve been through hell together! We spent four years, FOUR YEARS fighting that virus, and then another four fighting each other! It was chaos!… But you all know what we’re up against! And I want you to know, it’s not just about power! It’s about giving us the hope to rebuild, to reclaim the world we lost!”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is good, but not great. It’s worth a watch, certainly. I just wasn’t as involved as I was with Rise and too many things kept diverting my attention from the solid choices and amazing effects. The whole thing feels slightly undercooked. I’m fine with the amount of praise it’s getting, especially considering the current blockbuster climate. However, when more than a few are saying it’s better than Rise, I feel completely alienated. I genuinely wish I could join your apetastic Fuck Yes DOTPOTA! party everyone, but I’m going to have to sit this one out. I hope we can catch up at the Guardians of the Galaxy Fuckin’ Rules bash.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Posted in Review with tags , , , on July 3, 2014 by Ben Browne
 
Robots in disgrace
 

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

There aren’t many franchises that could make me feel compelled to see the fourth instalment after the previous films were so completely awful that they seem less like entertainment and more like clandestine scientific studies into the limits of the human gag reflex. Still, I felt I needed to see this one, because the Bayformers sequels are fascinatingly bad and because they’re handy yardsticks in measuring how dumb Hollywood thinks people are. It would be gauche of me to not mention the fact that despite all this, I still kinda like Michael Bay, or at least several of his previous films, and want him to make things like The Rock and Bad Boys again.

“Fuck this film”

Inventor and robotics enthusiast Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) brings home a dilapidated truck for scrap and on closer inspection finds out it’s actually Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). The CIA, under the command of Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) storm the Yaegers’ home and threaten Cade and his daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), having a zero tolerance policy on alien robots since Chicago got totalled, causing mass civilian fatalities. Initially, Age of Extinction is probably the most coherent of the films since the original. The first 20 minutes or so were borderline OK. The story they were sketching out was dumb as fuck, but still decent enough to be forgiveable. Then it snowballs. Characters switch motivations and ideologies on a whim, practically everyone is a sociopathic arsehole and it became hugely unpleasant to sit through. Acting ranges from flat to actively bad. Marky Mark gives a weirdly earnest performance, but delivers his lines like he’s back in The Happening.  The only decent presences are Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer who are that damn good at acting they make the insane nonsensical shit they have to say seem legitimate.

I hate to sound like a bored, fusty old retiree writing into the Daily Mail, but this film is morally reprehensible. My expectations weren’t high. I’ve seen all the previous films and am aware that the very best it could be is a dumb action film based on a line of action figures. This film has racism, sexism and all the other kinds of “isms” peppered throughout. I’m not sure whether it’s down to Bay or writer Ehren Kruger or both, but there is some ugly shit below the surface. So, Cade has a daughter, a character we’re introduced to via a low angle crotch shot getting out of a car. She is kept on a tight leash by her dad, not allowed to date or express herself in any way. The script is at great pains to state that she is a minor at 17 years old and that all Cade wants to do is “protect” her. In fact, I’d say a good 30% of Yaeger’s dialogue contains the word “protect” or a variation. When shit hits the fan, Cade and Tessa are rescued by Tessa’s secret boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor) and cue lots of awkward moments. Thing is, the way the characters are written, it feels like Cade is in love with his daughter, spending most of the runtime competing for her affection with Shane. It’s a fucking creepy love triangle. It’s not as if it’s subtle, either. There is one part where they’re talking about her being underage and Cade being tempted to call the police on Shane for having sex with a minor (there’s all sorts of icky shit in here, especially concerning the Madonna/whore complex) and- I shit you not- Shane pulls out documentation on the Romeo & Juliet laws in his defence. This is meant to be a dumb, for the masses CGI abusing blockbuster- why the fuck are we even talking about statutory rape and underage sex, especially since the writing is so fucking stupid it can’t handle basic human characters, let alone a pointy and complex issue like that?

That aside, how does the rest fare? Not well. The humans are creepy and the Autobots are kill-happy jerks. They can’t shut up about how much they enjoy killing. It hardly makes you want to cheer for them. Basically, Kelsey Grammer’s character is right in wanting to destroy all the Transformers, regardless of allegiance. Too many people die when they’re around. They’re not heroes. The whole film is gravid with shit like this and it’s exhausting to watch. It’s nearly three hours long and it’s basically done with the simple story it wanted to tell halfway in. How about the Dinobots, eh? Yeah, they’re not in it much. Think of the ghost army in Return of the King. Few token scenes then show up in the final battle, only to fuck off afterwards.

I’m aware that not all people care about narrative, they want to see ‘splosions and lots of them. The arguments are always the same. “But I just want to turn my brain off and have fun” or “I just want to see giant robots beating the shit out of each other” etc. Thing is, even the action’s not great. Whilst it is possible to distinguish one robot from another this time, it’s just the same old shit with an over-reliance on slow motion shots to show off how “cool” everything is. The action doesn’t mean anything. There are no stakes. It’s just noise. I think even the most forgiving of violence junkies will be pissed off at how flat the action is and how much time the film spends on the incestuous love triangle instead.

Critics have said that by naming his play “As You Like It”, Shakespeare was taking a jab at his audience, frustrated that they just wanted knockabout comedies instead of his more serious work. I think Age of Extinction is Bay’s As You Like It. The Transformers franchise is way too much of a money juggernaut for Paramount to lose Bay. He’s a selling point. We know Bay has never had any qualms about “selling out” considering his background in advertising and the shameless product placement in his films. My guess is that they keep offering him embarrassing amounts of money to stick around and this is him accepting his fate. This film is a soft reboot and there are a further two films planned. He’s stuck. So, here he is, packing the film with all sorts of shit because he can and nobody is going to stop him. The worst part is that people are eating it all up and clamouring for more. That’s seriously depressing.

“Seriously though, fuck this film”

So yeah, Age of Extinction is pretty much the worst. It’s a cynical, hateful, loud film with absolute contempt for its audience.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on June 30, 2014 by Ben Browne

 

How to Drain Your Passion

 

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

How to Train Your Dragon is a film that doesn’t need a sequel. It’s a complete story and ties things off nicely. However, the first film was a huge hit, so money again wins over artistry. That’s not to say a sequel couldn’t work, it’s just unnecessary. I was on the fence until I saw this awesome teaser:

Just watch it. It sold me on everything. It captures the joy of the first film whilst promising new things like Hiccup’s wing suit and best of all, it gives fuck all away. So of course they ruined it by releasing a second trailer that gives away 90% of the entire film. Luckily, I managed to avoid seeing it after being forewarned, but damn. You’re making me not want to watch trailers, you film douchebags. That’s the opposite of what you want. Anyway, back to the review.

“You have the heart of a chief and the soul of a dragon.”

HTTYD 2 picks up five years after the original. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a 20 year old man, struggling to balance his duty to his village and his father with exploring the wider world with his trusty dragon pal Toothless. It soon transpires that an old enemy of Stoick’s (Gerard Butler) a villain named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) is alive and hellbent on amassing a dragon army to take over the world. Things get more complicated for Hiccup when the mysterious dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett) shows up and kidnaps him. The basic story is decent enough to justify its own existence. In a genre where keeping the status quo when it comes to sequels is the norm, the decision to age the characters is a smart one.  It gives the characters new purposes and ensures that the film isn’t just a retread of what’s come before, at least in theory. The cast are good, but additions like Jon Snuh actor Kit Harington and the aforementioned Cate Blanchett and Djimon Hounsou  aren’t given particularly meaty roles to really shine. On that topic, fuck knows what is up with Blanchett’s accent in this. It veers from Scottish to European to an accent never before heard by human ears.

On the surface, everything is fine. Hiccup is still a good lead, the friendship between him and Toothless still charming and the flight sequences still great. It totally looks the part as well with beautiful, colourful vistas and fluid animation. However, I found myself really underwhelmed by it all. Look, I know I’m in the minority here as this thing has had crazy praise laid at its doorstep by critics, but when they’re saying it’s better than the original, it makes my head hurt. It’s a clusterfuck of ideas and scenarios, with the film feeling aimless at times, not sure how to stitch together scenes of Toothless being adorable. Despite having the leg up on who these characters were, I found them to be unengaging and at times, boring. One of the main reasons is how generic it all feels in comparison to the first. The main villain, Drago Bludvist, is a cookie cutter baddie with no real goal. In my little blurb above, I was trying to remember what his ultimate plan was and couldn’t- eventually settling for a vague “world domination” thing. He does get more interesting later on, but like Zod in Man of Steel, the revelation and backstory come way too late in the film and just before the climactic fight, a part where you specifically don’t want to sympathise with the bad guy because he’s about to get stomped by the hero. There are too many moments that just don’t ring true for it to be a minor problem. For all the lovely colours and dragon antics on screen, the kids sitting in the row in front of me seemed bored, with one of them resorting to punching his brother in the face with a popcorn box over his fist. They weren’t laughing much either. Food for thought. Also, that whole teaser sequence does appear in the film, but they’ve slapped some sugary pop song over the top, robbing the scene of most of its majesty. Fucking sigh.

It’s not bad by any standard. A lot of the film is quite good with some neat ideas played with. There’s one scene for instance where Hiccup, Stoick and the Vikings have to protect a dragon nest and its alpha dragon from attackers, the exact opposite of the climax of the first film. That’s a nice touch and there are several others like it scattered throughout the film. It’s just not enough. I felt disconnected from the film, like I was watching snatches of it through a neighbour’s window. Despite now being an adult, Hiccup’s motivation is pretty much the same as in the first one- change how people think about dragons and to become a responsible adult. He doesn’t want to be who his father wants him to be. Same exact skeleton of a conceit with different bells and whistles. The motivations for all the characters are fairly weak and ill-defined. As a result, don’t be surprised if you don’t care about anything happening on screen.

“C’mon, bud. There’s a whole other world of dragons out there!”

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a slide in quality. It still has clever ideas, wit and charm, but it’s harder to recognise them amongst the stilted storytelling and often painfully unambitious bits. The trailers for the god-awful looking genre stablemates Planes 2 and The Nut Job before the screening reaffirmed that the HTTYD franchise is still leagues above the pandering bullshit they’re clogging up multiplexes with, but judged by its own standards it’s a step back, not a stride forward. The worst thing is that I wanted to be caught up in it all and I was left on the sidelines. I’m legitimately disappointed. Still, there are plenty of worse ways to spend 90 minutes. Plenty of better ways too though *wink*. Seriously though- ladies, hit me up.

How to Train Your Dragon

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on June 30, 2014 by Ben Browne

 

Toothless is more

 

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

OK, deep breath. I kinda thought HTTYD was average as all hell when it first came out. In fact, I wrote a review four years ago saying as much. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, it’s just for the longest time I couldn’t see anything more in it other than a distracting electric babysitter for spoiled little shits. However, time has softened my judgement and when I decided to rewatch the original in preparation for the sequel and found myself reacting to it very differently. I’m a proud man, but willing to admit I was wrong. It’s chuffing brilliant. Sorry it took me so long to join the party.

“Either we finish them, or they’ll finish us! It’s the only way we’ll be rid of them! If we find the nest and destroy it, the dragons will leave.”

How to Train Your Dragon follows awkward Viking teenager Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). As the son of the aptly named chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) there are a great many things expected of him, although the town regards him as a screw up. They live in the village of Berk, a very old place with suspiciously new buildings. Turns out Berk is a hostile dragon hotspot and is regularly raided by the fire-breathing monsters. After he wings an attacking dragon with a net and grounds it, Hiccup names it “Toothless” and starts bonding with the creature and starts to question whether dragons are the fearsome killers they’re made out to be.  It’s a simple tale, but it’s incredibly well executed. Dreamworks’ film before this point tended to feel like snarky joke-delivery vehicles, but HTTYD is a “proper” film. It’s beautifully animated and it has a really appealing art style, similar to Asterix, with the big, burly Vikings clearly attending the same buffets as Obelix. It shares a lot of Disney DNA, especially with Lilo & Stitch, which also has a human/creature relationship at the centre of things. Jay Baruchel’s reedy, perpetually breaking Hiccup voice is perfect for the part. Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson Scot things up a bit as Stoick and Gobber, although the mystery of how Vikings ended up with Scottish accents when the kids speak with American tones is never solved. The voice cast is decent with several reliable comedians like Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig popping up.

The film is charming. It focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. The slow process of two fearful beings slowly trusting each other and liking each other is seriously well done. When Hiccup does finally fly with Toothless, it’s exhilarating. The music, the gorgeous visuals and everything else blend together into something genuinely special. The film isn’t all whiz-bang dragon flying though. It has time for human characters too. Stoick’s relationship with Hiccup is relatable and touching. They may be talking about dragon slaying, but the emotions are believable. Same with Astrid (America Ferrera). The film pays great attention to giving her an actual personality, rather than just being the stock “love interest”. There are some really decent messages contained within. Be kind to animals, brain over brawn etc. Crucially, it never feels preachy. The motivations, theming and all that good behind the scenes stuff is top quality too. I won’t say that the film deals with surprisingly dark stuff as most kids’ film worth anything do, but it handles mature ideas with a deft touch and it makes the film all the more enjoyable to know that the film isn’t just content with being flashy colours and shapes to sedate its young audience.

There’s been a lot of criticism over the idea that HTTYD is derivative. Yeah, I’m sure you could find countless films that share the same basic story. However, HTTYD doesn’t feel like a cynical, rip-off cashgrab. It takes basic storytelling elements and runs with them, giving us a unique setting and colourful characters. Here’s the thing. It’s one thing to stuff your film with a bunch of clichés, but it’s a completely different thing to understand their purpose and function. HTTYD knows these things and uses them to create a solid framework. Most of the time it’s when tropes are handled badly that it really becomes noticeable and you can see the stitches barely holding all of it together. The script is slick and efficient. Notice I didn’t say “great” because the dialogue is the only real thing that needs to be punched up. It’s not as funny as it should be and the lack of jokes outside of dumb kid pandering stuff is noticeable, but not a problem when taken as a whole.

“This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. “

How to Train Your Dragon is fantastic. I can see why it’s resonated with so many people. Strong characterisation, a lovely central friendship between a boy and his dragon and some thrilling flight scenes coupled with an epic scale finale make it a modern classic of the genre. It’s a joy.

22 Jump Street

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on June 24, 2014 by Ben Browne

 

Sun’s out, puns out
 
 

22 Jump Street (2014)

Comedy sequels are, on the whole, pretty terrible. Something about the “same but different” just doesn’t mesh well with comedy, as it boils down to repeating the same tired gags in the hopes of getting the same reaction. This film is going to be the shining example of how to do comedy sequels i.e. “Well, it’s no 22 Jump Street, but it’s not an Anchorman 2 level disaster either”.

“Remember me? I’m your best nightm… I’m your worst nightmare!”

After a botched arrest (sound familar?), we reteam with Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) who are assigned the same basic job as before- to pose as students and go undercover, but this time at college and find whoever is selling a new synthetic drug called Work Hard Yes Play Hard Yes (WHYPHY), which enables the user to be laser focused for several hours and then party hard for several hours after that. Much like with the first one, the script is sharp and incredibly meta and self-referential. This is a sequel making fun of sequels without it being too knowing or smug. It’s found a way to make the “same but different” approach work and should really be commended for that. Beat for beat, it’s practically the same film as the first. However, it doesn’t feel like it. It’s fantastic being in the company of Hill and Tatum again. They work incredibly well together and this film has cemented them on my all-time favourite buddy cops list that includes Gibson/Glover, Smith/Lawrence and Pegg/Frost. Ice Cube again gives a scene-stealing performance as Captain Dickson and has a lot more to do this time round. Peter Stormare doesn’t really get to do much as the villain and Jillian Bell proves she’s the best deadpanner since Aubrey Plaza.  The supporting cast is really decent. Kurt’s son Wyatt Russell is fun as the meatheaded Zook and comedy greats like Patton Oswalt and Archer actor H. Jon Benjamin show up for limited roles. It’s nice to see Queen Latifah again too, playing Dickson’s wife. We don’t see much of her, but she does get given a sneaky “Straight Outta Compton” line before her screentime is up.

So, the main question: is it funny? Damn right it is. I chuckled throughout and there are some scenes that had me gasping for air. Most of the film revolves around the knowing joke of the first Jump Street operation being a surprise success. The film flips the roles so now it’s Jenko’s turn to fit in and rediscover a yearning to play American football. Jenko falls in with a bunch of dumb jock friends and Schmidt is left on the outskirts. It’s a clever way to incorporate a “will this work a second time?” theme without coming across as too knowing and clever-clever. Whilst Jonah Hill is the one with the comedy background, and does well as the straight man, it’s Tatum that really comes into his own. There’s one scene where Jenko comes to a realisation that is easily the funniest thing I’ve seen this year. The decision to give Ice Cube more of a role is also a sound one. His interactions with Schmidt at an awkward family meeting are genius. Put simply, there’s bound to be something that makes you laugh. There are big slapstick moments as well as subtler gags, such as Jenko, fresh from attending a Human Sexuality class, realising he’s used gay slurs in the past and may be a “homophone”. I’m not a huge fan of mere references, but the film also has a genuinely funny White House Down nod and a great Annie Hall parody going for it.

Actually, since we’re talking about it, of the very few negative reviews and articles about this film, they tend to be focusing on the “gay jokes”, especially the bromance elements between Schmidt and Jenko. I must admit, the film does bang that particular drum pretty consistently. However, I see it as a meta joke rather than just a “LOL gay!” cheap yuk. Maybe it’s because the film is smart in other areas. If anything, I see it as the film burying that particular trope, Cabin in the Woods style. Having said that, there was scene that was desperately unfunny in the form of Jenko and Schmidt visiting the imprisoned Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle) and Eric (Dave Franco). Something is really off in this scene. It’s tone deaf and contains the sort of weak shit I’d expect from a Seth MacFarlane film.

Apparently, Lord and Miller were so busy with Lego shenanigans that they didn’t have time to do any script revisions before filming this film. I would say it shows a little bit. Whilst the gag rate is high, it often feels like it’s needlessly repetitive at times, especially with Jillian Bell’s “old jokes” which become just that after the first few. It also feels like there are a few scenes missing, especially when it comes to Schmidt dating a student and the whole Spring Break finale, which I’d forgotten all about, despite it featuring heavily in the posters and trailers. I reckon another pass would have tightened these scenes right up and we could have been talking about an instant comedy classic. However, we’re talking about a very good film instead.

“He has one class in Human Sexuality, and now he’s Harvey Milk.”

I suppose secondary question is: is it as good as the first? In my opinion no, but it’s a very close run thing. I may need to rewatch it, as there were some jokes that passed me by in the first one that have become laugh out loud moments on a second go-around. It’s funny as hell and a hugely enjoyable experience. They make a lot of jokes about sequels in the film, but if they decide to do 23 Jump Street, I’ll be all for it, as long as they keep the same creative team. Hell, I’d watch all the way up to 2121 Jump Street if they did that.

21 Jump Street

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on June 22, 2014 by Ben Browne

 

“We’re reviving a cancelled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
 

21 Jump Street (2012)

The whole concept of 21 Jump Street is unappealing. A slick big-budgeted comedy based on a vaguely well remembered ’80s TV series is just one of those ideas that makes you want to grab a sleazy greenlighting exec and shake them by their cocaine-dusted lapels. However, it’s so much better than it has any right to be and, at least in my opinion, is one of the funniest all-out comedies in recent years.

“You are here because you some Justin ‘Beaver’, Miley Cyrus lookin’ motherfuckers.”

After a botched arrest attempt, rookie cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are put onto a recently revived police program that takes young-looking officers and plants them in undercover roles in high schools. Jenko and Schmidt are tasked with finding and stopping the people responsible for flooding a local school with a dangerous, potentially lethal synthetic drug called Holy Fucking Shit (HFS). The script is smart. Much like many others aspects of the film, it takes something eye-rolling and generic and makes something great out of it. It takes the meta approach, nudging and winking along with the audience and it works. It knows how unappealing the premise of an ’80s reboot is and focuses on making the best of it. If more films did this, I’d find very little to complain about. It’s partly a parody of action film conventions, but doesn’t get hung up on references and tells its own story. It’s pretty much the American Hot Fuzz. Jonah Hill is on form, but it’s Channing Tatum who turns out to be the surprise MVP. The guy has on point comedic timing and can deadpan with the best of them. This film, coupled with Magic Mike, is the reason why I began to like Channing Tatum and refer to him as “Chan the Man”. Ice Cube is also surprisingly funny as the standard “angry black captain”, Captain Dickson. Brie Larson and Dave Franco are also welcome faces and both do well with what could have been limited supporting roles.

On the surface, 21 Jump Street looks like any number of other modern comedies. It’s got base, vulgar gags, it’s edited in a frenetic, stylish way etc, but it just proves that a good script can overcome most obstacles. I think the thing that sets it apart for me is the attention to character. A lot of comedies nowadays revolve around a prick being a prick to other pricks. Much like horror, comedy works better when you have an emotional reaction to the characters. Funnily enough, screenwriter Michael Bacall also wrote the abhorrent Project X, a theoretical “comedy” that encapsulates everything wrong with films of its ilk. I hated every single character in that film, which yes, is an emotional response, but there’s no payoff to it. There’s no knife-wielding maniac picking them off or anything. Even by the film’s own narrative, they have no comeuppance. We’re meant to like them and that very fact alone was enough to make me hate it. 21 Jump Street, on the other hand, knows that character is important in driving story. Let’s not get carried away here though, it’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it’s enough to draw you in that little bit closer.

It’s got the same crude humour as other contemporary films, but I found myself more willing to laugh at the knob gags because it had more to offer than simply that. It’s got some neat observations of how high school has changed since Jenko and Schmidt attended. There’s some clever role reversal as the nerdy Schmidt finds a niche with the new breed of popular kids and the former popular Jenko finds himself lumped in with the dweebs. Schmidt soon starts buying into his cover and starts treating the whole thing as a second shot for a less lonely and dismal experience. It’s smart stuff. It doesn’t feel like just a bunch of things happening for the sake of being funny. The duo of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum is also a big part of why the film succeeds. It’s an oddball pairing but they play off each other well.

You know a film is doing something right when you genuinely laugh at the apparently obligatory “drug trip” sequence. This is just it- the entire film takes shit that is so played out and somehow makes it funny again. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the absolute kings of this, as proved by the brilliant Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the awesome Lego Movie. It’s quite comforting to know that I’m capable of laughing at crude humour and that it was the modern bollocks featuring it that was at fault, not the other way around. I probably sound like a right snooty twat with that statement, but it can’t be just me sitting stony-faced through most contemporary comedies. I’m a pretty lowbrow guy, but something like A Million Ways to Die in the West makes me feel like I’m above coarse innuendo and the like. Not all the gags are winners. Don’t get me wrong, the joke hit rate is damn high, but Rob Riggle’s sports coach didn’t get many laughs from me. His humour is a little “standard” for my liking and found it strangely ill fitting. Still, the film wisely focuses on Hill and Tatum, so a mere minor niggle with Riggle.

“Chemistry’s the one with the shapes and shit, right?”

You’ll have noticed that I’ve spent quite a bit of this review talking about other films and not focusing on this one. Y’know- the hallmark of a terrible reviewer. The reason for this is that I can’t say much more about the film without just repeating jokes and funny scenes. I’ve watched 21 Jump Street a bunch of times now and it doesn’t lose its charm. It’s become a real favourite for just slapping on and enjoying whenever I feel cat-kickingly grumpy.

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