Sunday, June 29, 2014

22 Jump Street

This will be very short and not very well-written. I’m not having the greatest of times finding motivation to write reviews on non-Oscar contenders, so I’ve compromised by mainly just putting down raw thoughts with a little embellishment rather than going too much into the nitty-gritty like I normally do.

Is it as funny as the first? That’s the question that seems to be on everyone’s minds. Many reviewers thought it was, while I feel many I’ve talked to say it’s a close call, but that the original may still be funnier. I honestly don’t know. But it really doesn’t matter because 22 Jump Street is a fabulously entertaining, incredibly hysterical movie that, like its predecessor, breaks the mold of off-the-wall comedies and comes out the other side all the better for it.

Nowadays it seems every comedy is either a bad rom-com (why they’re bad will be left for an entirely different discussion) or a movie with ridiculous people doing ridiculous things. There’s a lack of decent gags (where have sequences like Michael Palin and the dogs gone?) and a plethora of terrible jokes and antics that are annoying rather than funny.

That’s where 22 Jump Street comes in. Sure, it’s silly and outrageous, but it’s not wholly defined by those characteristics. This is especially true of Schmidt and Jenko, the protagonists. They’re really average guys who do extraordinarily ridiculous things in specific situations. But that ridiculous thing is never the redundant. Their normality is also important. Most of the time, they’re like people you know. Their relationships with others are startlingly normal, even if they’re done in an over-the-top fashion. So when they do really stupid stuff it makes it that much funnier.
As many have said, the movie works because it’s so self-referential. Aside from the perfect use of references to sequel-quality, the meta nods to genre clichés (the 1st did this excellently well), to various movies, and to the personalities involved in the movie are all terrific.

To delve a little into some specifics, the screenplay is spot-on and could end up as one of my year’s top five adapted screenplays, just as the original’s did. Once again, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are gut-bustingly funny. While most thought Tatum stood out in the original, I was more impressed with how great Hill was as more of the straight man. This time around, though, Tatum really is the MVP. He runs the show from beginning to end and headlines what I probably think is the movie’s funniest scene. But he couldn’t have done it alone. He probably couldn’t have even done it with anybody other than Hill; their chemistry is just that good, which leads to my next point.

Hill should really think about playing the straight man in more comedies. I know I’m in the minority as I find him only reasonably funny when he’s being ridiculous, but I think he really has a tremendous talent for knowing how to make the most out of a straighter part (not a completely straight one, though). Also, Ice Cube is not a good actor. He has just one setting and that’s loud, but he’s used to perfection here. His early scenes were a little too over-the-top for my taste, but his later scenes and reactions are some of the funniest in the movie.

After ruminating a little, I think I’ll say the 1st installment is slightly funnier. The gags may be equally funny on the surface, but I think the original’s work on a purer level. You laugh because they really and truly were funny, whereas the gags in the 2nd require the self-reference to achieve the same level of laugh inducement. Some of the originality is gone. That the gags and jokes are still pretty much equally as funny on the whole is really a testament to Hill and Tatum and to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as they easily could have presented the movie’s meta aspects poorly. All that being said, 22 is arguably a better overall movie than its predecessor. It has the laughs, but it also brings the heart. Its actual dramatic scenes flow naturally from the previous absurd scenes and are well-done. Schmidt and Jenko’s “break-up” scenes particularly stand out, being both heartfelt and hysterical.

I hope there’s a sequel and I hope there isn’t. The movie gets so much out of making fun of sequels that a less funny third one could ruin everything good that’s happened. That being said, a 3rd one that knows how to be dumb could be great, and I thoroughly hope we get the chance to enjoy it.


Monday, June 2, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m going to make this short because you and I both have things to do.

Every once in a while, you find a diamond in the rough, a needle in a haystack, if you will. For the unfortunately burgeoning superhero genre, that diamond, or rather those diamonds, in the rough, are Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies. In the original trilogy (or tetralogy) of X-Men, X2 (United), and The Last Stand (Origins being that questionably included fourth installation), Singer directed the two best: the first and second. Last Stand and Origins are both enjoyable and entertaining enough, but neither attempts to be anything but an action movie, whereas Singer’s tended to include interesting, thoughtful commentaries in addition to being remarkably entertaining action flicks.

Thankfully, Singer has retaken the chair and has rattled off arguably the two most accomplished superhero movies ever not made by Christopher Nolan. Though it has its detractors, First Class is, in my opinion, a terrific movie that succeeds both as a pure action flick but also as a thoughtful commentary on intolerance, and not just that of the oppressors. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Singer picks up exactly where he left off, delivering a great movie, though not one I can wholeheartedly say lives up to its immediate predecessor (The Wolverine is dumb and doesn’t count).

Beginning about 10-15 years in the future, the film quickly shifts into the 1970s and handles it perfectly. Wolverine (you know who) must find the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto (McAvoy and Fassbender) in order to prevent the human-mutant war that necessitated his time-travelling expedition to 50 years in the past.

The movie’s first scene in the ‘70s is hysterical, and its handling of the ins-and-outs of everything, from the clothing to the cars, is spot-on. The writing helps too, and milks as much humor from its premise as possible without overdoing it. But the script also tosses aside characters too nonchalantly. The really fast guy utilized at the beginning is soon forgot about when his powers almost certainly could have come in handy later on. McAvoy and Fassbender are also sidelined too much to Jackman. Dinklage’s part is also a great example of how to make a villain unthreatening, uncomplicated, and boring, three insults to the man’s significant acting abilities.

Singer’s direction is fluid and frenetic and, dare I say, terrific, strange considering the scatter-shot nature of several of his directorial flourishes (i.e. the Pentagon kitchen scene, the Prof. Xs’ conversation, etc.). But it’s by no means perfect. Too many of the action sequences are choreographed and directed (and possibly even written) so as to become too far-fetched. Most of these actions are results of the mutants’ powers, but if an event is such that I have to think too hard about how on earth it could have happened before I chalk it up to a superpower, then there’s a very good chance the powers have been overutilized. After the original plan goes up in flames, too many of the plot developments require too much suspension of disbelief as well. It almost seems as though the writers said, "It would be cool if this happened to screw everything up. Damn, how the heck are we going to get out of this jam? How about a semi-ridiculous plot twist?" When things like these happen, the movie’s realism, which its non-superhero, allegorical elements have in spades, is undermined.

In comparison to every single other X-Men film ever made, this one’s acting is bar-none the best of the bunch. As the young Professor Charles Xavier (Professor X), James McAvoy gives easily the greatest X-Men performance ever and arguably the greatest ever leading performance in a superhero movie. His borderline-leading-supporting performance is powerful and fun and captivating and emotionally fulfilling. Michael Fassbender, as Erik Lensherr (Magneto), is given much less to do than in First Class, but still manages to create an interesting, believable character throughout, even though the limited screentime I just noted does make his critical character transition too rushed.

Patrick Stewart gives his best performance of the series. His screentime, though, is just too little to make that much of an impact. Nevertheless his dream-based speech scene is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. The truest lead, Hugh Jackman, does a characteristically great job of being a solid, watchable lead, and his one-liner deliveries are all, without exception, hysterical and brilliant, but he never overcomes the unfortunate one-dimensionality the script prescribes for him.

Lastly, Peter Dinklage, who could make an excellent villain, is shunned by the script in terms of both nuance and menace. Usually when a villain is robbed of nuance, he’s only evil. But the script decides to scrap it all and provide Dinklage with some of the most unmenacing scenes and dialogue I can remember. Part of the issue, I believe, is Dinklage himself. He fails to create the sense of fearful hate the man needs. He also lacks the domineering physical presence his character needs. (Watch season two of Game of Thrones to see what I’m referring to. Just because you’re a dwarf doesn’t mean you can’t have a domineering physical presence.)

The action scenes are virtually all excellently done, and I firmly believe it should receive a visual effects Oscar nomination. But as has been previously mentioned, several of the scenes are too ridiculous for a moment or two.

I return to one of the film’s greatest strength, its ability to thoughtfully explore fear of the unknown. Singer’s first to X-Men films and First Class as well delved deeply into humanity’s fear of what it doesn’t know, of the pain we inflict on others when we don’t yet know what they are capable of because we are so scared they might destroy us first. It also takes a brief look at a question altogether unaddressed by contemporary reviews: nature vs. nurture. Lensherr is believes only a violent solution is possible because of the unimaginable cruelty inflicted upon him in his youth, while Xavier’s more pleasant upbringing made him a more caring person. This fourth Singer movie is no different. Its commentary on intolerance is smart and nuanced. Perhaps more importantly, it’s not heavy-handed.

By no means superhuman, the movie is still another fine example of the wonders Singer can do with superheroes.