Monday, 26 March 2012

Back to School: "21 Jump Street"

Up front, I really liked 21 Jump Street. It's very funny and surprisngly poignant. It's also one of the more focused comedies of recent memory.

It's based on the TV show which ran from 1987 to 1991 and put a young actor named Johnny Depp on the map, which makes it funny how the film's lead character, police officer Schmidt (Jonah Hill), was a former geek in high school. The film opens in 2005, with Schmidt unsuccessfully asking a girl to the prom. The scene also establishes Jenko (Channing Tatum), a school jock who makes fun of Schmidt. We later see Jenko can't go to the prom because his grades are awful. The film flashes ahead seven years, showing Schmidt and Jenko in the police academy, putting their differences aside and becoming friends.

When I saw the film, I thought this all went by a little too quickly. I wanted more of the high school backstory, more of the police academy bonding. Looking back, all this is done very economically,  not wasting time getting us to the main set up of the film, which is Schmidt and Jenko, due to their youthful appearances, are assigned to go undercover at a high school in order to expose a drug ring.

There's a nice reference when Schmidt and Jenko's police captain (Nick Offerman) mentions how the program is being recycled from the 80s and how nothing's original these days. The filmmakers are basically telling us they "we know how unoriginal it seems to be making 21 Jump Street in to a movie but don't worry, we'll have fun with this concept." The film is very unconscious of cop movie cliches and stereotypes like Ice Cube's "angry black police captain." There's also a nice bit during a car chase where we keep expecting vehicle to blow up. The punchline, where a certain vehicle does blow up, is very funny.

Fortunately, the film doesn't become so meta that it becomes like a Scream movie (not a knock against those movies). While the film has the plot device of undercover cops in high school, sssentially the film is about these two guys reliving high school through each other's shoes. Schmidt becomes the cool kid and falls for Molly (Brie Larson) and becomes friends with Eric (Dave Franco), who's dealing drugs, but as a result gets too deep with the people he's supposed to be investigating, and as a a result pushes away Jenko, who becomes smarter after hanging out with the science crowd. These trajectorities may seem "obvious" and "familiar" to some but I found the way in which these characters develop very poignant and relatable. Despite it's goofiness, the film shows us what it'd be like to have a high school do-over- we'd try not to have the same labels.

This is the first film I've seen Channing Tatum and similar to what others are saying, he is quite funny here, mostly because he's not trying to be funny. After he and Schmidt have to take drugs to retain their cover, he has a great moment where he draws an equation on a whiteboard and then says "Fuck you science." Jonah Hill is the kind of actor who I find grows on you and becomes more endearing the years progress. He's good here as the outcast who finally gets to be popular- and get the girl. Brie Larson is lovely here. Like Hill's co-star in Superbad, Emma Stone, she has a down to earth/girl next down relatability which makes her appealing, and their blossoming romance is sweet.

The film, as expected, ends with a set-up for a sequel. Due to the film's positive reception, both financially and critically, I think we will be seeing a sequel. I hope it's not a rehash of the first film but takes these characters and concept in interesting directions. As this film stands, it's funny, smart and has a pretty big heart...and dick jokes.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

How "The King's Speech" Foreshadowed This Year's Oscar Race

When The King's Speech won Best Picture at the Oscars last February, and ever since then, the academy hs been criticized for being too traditional and "safe" in their choice. The other nine contenders included more modern fare such as David Fincher's The Social Network, which chronicled the creation of Facebook, the website that has shaped a generation, and Christopher Nolan's Inception, which played with narrative structure and created a unique take on the heist film. The Kids Are All Right told the story of a lesbian couple and 127 Hours took a risk by telling the true story of a man who was trapped in a canyon.

I think there was a nostalgic, "they don't make them like this anymore"factor to The King's Speech's victory. Interestingly enough, this year's Oscar race is very much based on nostalgia. I wouldn't call every film nominated for Best Picture this year "traditional" but several of these films, including the winner, appeal to the academy's sense of nostalgia for films and filmmakers of old. This year's winner The Artist, while unique for a film in 2011 because it was silent and in black and white, still appeals the nostalgia for the silent film era and stars of that era. What makes Jean Dujardin's Oscar winning performance so moving is how he reminds us of movie stars from the silent era. The film also has an uplifting ending which tells us that despite "talkies" taking the place of silent films, the artists who made those films have the ability to cross over to "talkies" and create art.

Martin Scorsese's Hugo, while using the very modern technique of 3-D, like The Artist, appeals to nostalgia for the silent film era and more importantly for the pioneers of film including George Melies, played in the film by Ben Kingsley. Christy Lemire and Ignaty Vishnevetsky, co-hosts of Ebert Presents At The Movies, have also said they feel Scorsese's film captures the style of silent films better than The Artist.

Other nominees also have a nostalgic/traditional quality to them. The Help is reminiescent of an old fashioned social issue film. Steven Spielberg's War Horse has been compared to the work of John Ford. Vishnevetsky also said there is nothing in the film which wouldn't have gotten past the Hays Code from the old studio film. Woody Allen's Midnght in Paris, while critical about nostalgia, still creates nostalgia for a bygone era; and as critic AO Scott points out in his review of the film, audiences also have a particular kind of nostalgia for Woody Allen..

Even Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, the most modern and daring film of the nominees, is essentially about a man looking back at his childhood in the 1950s. The film, in part, is a tribute to growing up in that era. Moneyball, The Descendants, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are actually the only three Best Picture nominees to take place completely in the present, though even  Moneyball and ELIC  both take place about 10 years ago.

I found this year's Best Picture line-up, with a strong focus on the past, in opposition to last year's more modern day line-up. The King's Speech stood out a little bit last year; this year it would have fit right in. I feel The Artist is consciously going for a traditional style whereas The King's Speech just falls in to that style but I think The King's Speech did foreshadow The Artist's victory. I'll be interested to see if the academy goes back to honouring edgier fare as they were doing with films like No Country For Old Men or The Hurt Locker. Can Christopher Nolan's final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises be the first superhero film to win Best Picture. I think that's a little bit too much to hope for, particularly this far out; but if  any of the academy members are feeling nostalgic for Batman...