21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

Confession: I have a very big soft spot for buddy cop movies and have seen way too many that is considered healthy for a normal bloke by civilized society. I like the setups, the witty banter, the themes of overcoming differences and looking inside the friendships and brotherhood between men. Some noteworthy examples of mine are The Hard Way, The Last Boyscout, Curry and Pepper (with Stephen Chow and Jacky Cheung), the Lethal Weapon series, Tsui Hark’s Double Team (no cops but it technically counts),  Die Hard with a Vengeance, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang… the list goes on. Even though it was probably for the better how things turned out, I was really rooting for Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon 5 script to be filmed. Yes, see what I mean?

Now with my bias established, on with the review…

First off,  I’m unfamiliar with the original show, all I know is how much Johnny Depp hated being on the show but it was where he did his 10,000 hours of honing his craft. The idea of cops going undercover as students seems like such a far-fetched and out-dated idea that it would only seem to work as a comedy. So the question is… does it work?

Suffice to say, it really does. I laughed a lot more than I expected with 21 Jump Street. In many ways this is what Cop Out failed to do. 21 Jump Street does do  the genre convention gags and references movies but unlike Cop Out does not focus the entire movie on them. The convention gags (I am not going to spoil any of them here.) are handled well with balance. It never goes overboard with its meta sensibilities and still manages to deliver surprises.

Jenko (played by Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (played by Jonah Hill) are two believably stupid characters. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. Jenko and Schmidt start off as classmates, one is a jock and the other is a geek who both end up befriending each other in police school when they need each other’s strengths. That bromance story is something that I never really get tired of. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. There is a decently written plot and it provides some nice twists and turns that genuinely surprised me. I’m going to spend the rest of the review mainly talking about the comedy writing

The time change between the present and the 1990’s is also addressed and 21 Jump Street does it in an interesting way: it addresses the idea of popularity and how it has changed since the 90s. Nerds (specifically hipsters) have become cool and jocks are out. It becomes the best gag in the entire movie and is the source of many of the best jokes. When the reversal of popularity dawns on Channing Tatum’s Jenko, he’s suddenly become the social outcast.

This is proof that you should never ever write anybody off because chances are they will find their niche and surprise you. This is the Channing Tatum’s greatest role yet and probably the best thing I have ever seen him in since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Tatum is doing a parody of himself and plays it absolutely straight to a cheeky level. He’s the good looking straight man hero, he knows it and the film knows it. As he gets more mad at being ostracized and left out by his nerd friend Schmidt, we laugh harder at him struggling and attempting to process that anger. A funny noteworthy scene is where Jenko enters a room and starts beating Schmidt with stuffed toys and humping him as he is on the phone with the love interest Molly (played by Brie Larson). There’s no dialogue, it seems like a friend messing with another friend but we get totally why Jenko is beating him. The fact that Schmidt is unaware makes it totally funny. 

There’s a trend of lazy writing going in comedies these days with the Judd Apatow movie trend, where he turns on the the camera and lets his actors improvise too often. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but overall he relies on it too much. I’ve read a draft of the Funny People screenplay and it was clear that they just wrote down the gist of the scenes and improvised their way through shooting. I bring this up because it came very apparent to me that 21 Jump Street seemed it was really written by writers who stayed up late at night on expressos chiseling the right zingers.

The issue with improvised lines is that they draw a lot of attention to themselves because often the audience instinctually feels that the camera is lingering for something that’s not moving the story forward. Many of the comedic zingers in 21 Jump Street were throwaway lines and there is something very artful about them. Jokes come and just past by. You have to catch them or many of them will zip by. It was a more engaging experience that way and I found myself finding new funny lines on a second viewing.

I laughed throughout the entire movie (last movie where this happened for me was 2010’s Morning Glory) and still am currently quoting lines with friends. It was equally enjoyable on a second viewing and I actually noticed new things that made me laugh. I would recommend this to anybody but especially for anybody is a fan of the buddy copy genre.

Please sign me up for the sequel!

Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

Nick Fury, director of the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., recruits Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to form a team that must stop Thor’s brother Loki from enslaving the human race.

It’s here, finally. The movie that Marvel really wanted to make and arguably the film every fan really wanted to see, anyways. It really started to test my patience while I was watching Captain America: The First Avenger. It wasn’t that it was a bad movie, but it’s more or less of the same thing and I wanted to see these Marvel movies go somewhere else. The good news? The Avengers go somewhere else with it and it works!

The major sell of The Avengers are the characters themselves and that’s what the story is mainly about. In Joss Whedon’s own words, there is no reason for all these heroes to share a movie. After all, if I had superpowers and had the ability to solve my own problems, why would I work with another dude? Or take orders from somebody that’s supposedly weaker than you?

Whedon accomplishes this with a lot of discipline and balance. For example, the alien army that Loki employs to take over the Earth with are underdeveloped and their motivations are quite simplistic, but it works because it acts only as an extension of the heroes’ conflict. They’re fighting these aliens not because the monsters necessarily have a direct beef with our heroes, rather they just exist as an idea to push them to working together as a team. It is functioning quite like a musical in that aspect. Conflicts are physicalized in the form of fights (everybody fights with everybody at some point like a fighting game), comedic verbal banter and things are kept light and bounce along smoothly. Personally I found myself enjoying the banter more. Yes, The Avengers was a lot more funnier than I expected.

It was fun anticipating and seeing how each character interacted with each other, very much like how you might anticipate different friends will interact with each other at your birthday party. Like in 2009’s Star Trek, I appreciated that each member had a individual specific contribution to the team.

People tend to argue about how filmmakers interpret the Hulk in the past. I do like the Ang Lee version because Lee attempted to bring a genuine pathos to The Hulk that seemed unpopular with the masses. The issue I actually have with the Hulk is that his character never seemed heroic to me because he is not in control of his own actions once Bruce Banner is in the Hulk state. It’s just random carnage and it happens that he’s a hero because he does good, albeit accidentally. Suffice to say, they solve that in this movie.

As for the switch with Mark Ruffalo, fans will perpetually argue over which actor played the best interpretation of the Hulk. I personally do not see an actor-specific interpretation. It seemed like Ruffalo is playing the continuation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk after the events of The Incredible Hulk (what Edward Norton would have played had he stayed in the role). This is a less conflicted Bruce Banner who’s made peace with who he is and is in better control. I do not know why in the past the actors who have played Bruce Banner did not get to play The Hulk on motion capture, I am glad that is over because the consistency really makes a huge difference. Ruffalo manages to be scary at times but it is ultimately drowned out by the film’s light tone. The ever-present humor does work against the story at times because I would have liked a few darker moments in the film. Suffice to say, Ruffalo makes the role his own.

I can see from a writer’s standpoint how Captain America is a challenging character to tackle. There is no real darkness within him and he always does the right thing. So how do you make that engaging? The story of The Avengers was originally going to be based from Captain America’s point of view and there was a whole subplot about him trying to reconnect with the modern world. I’m glad that was cut out (this is fully packed as it is). All those scenes can totally be in Captain America 2. Even stripping his storyline away, they do manage retain Steve Roger’s charm in The Avengers. The charm of Captain America are not his powers; the character represents the human limit and how human will and heart can push someone to do great things. He is a competent superhero in his own world and story, but his powers do not mean much standing next to Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man or even the alien army. They do highlight this fact in the battle scenes. There were many instances where I was thinking, “Wow, Captain America can totally die right now.” The humanity and obvious vulnerability of the character engaged me and it stood out as he starts leading the Avengers. It made me think about how poorly Cyclops was handled in the X-men movies. Captain America was the stand-out character for me.

The Hawkeye and Black Widow story is serviceable and it only gives them enough motivation for the duration of this installment, which really is just giving them an excuse to exist and kick ass in the story. It doesn’t really develop them that much in my opinion, I’m not complaining but it didn’t really do much for me either. They are not interesting enough to have their own movies.

Robert Downey Jr. has really settled into his Tony Stark role and gets all the zingers, as expected. I liked that his character is consistent with the end of Iron Man 2. They give him a small arc in The Avengers and I rather liked that. He is comparatively less of an ass and more likable than in Iron Man 2. Shane Black is doing Iron Man 3, sign me up baby!

I like Chris Hemsworth as Thor, he plays the role with the right combination of masculinity and vulnerability. Thor carries the guilt of bringing a new threat to Earth while trying to stop his brother’s madness without killing him. The film presents all this but it seems like there’s a lot more untapped drama that is not explored. We only get a very serious side of Thor compared to the last installment because the characters like Jane or Darcy that bring out other sides of Thor are not present. I do look forward to seeing if there are more Thor scenes in the 30-minutes of cut footage.

Tom Hiddleston oozes charisma as Loki. Honestly at times I found myself rooting for Loki to win. It’s important that people see Thor to understand his motivations. I wonder if fresh viewers will miss Loki’s complex characterization and magnetism. He’s magnetic as hell and steals the show.

The set pieces are great and should satisfy any comic book fan. We get every superhero match up possible without hindering the story. The end set piece is reminiscent of the finale in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I do wonder if Michael Bay is at home screaming, ripping his hair out right now. The Avengers puts his Transformers films to shame and shows how a similar finale can be truly exciting by developing characters and a story.

So the problems? My biggest criticism of The Avengers is probably that it was overhyped. Even with actively avoiding all the promotional clips and featurettes online, I dangerously felt the presence of the movie before actually seeing it. There’s enough clips of the movie currently available online right now for anybody to piece together the entire story. It was a real fight to go in with a fresh clean mind. There’s a moment at the very end of the finale that was ruined by a shot that was shown in the trailer and I would have preferred if they just left that one shot out because the pre-knowledge ruined the tension of the scene. If it was left out, it would have been more tense wondering if the movie would have just ended on a dark cliffhanger with a character possibly being dead.

It’s imperative that I warn anybody who has yet to see the movie: do not see this movie in 3D. The light loss was problematic (duh!) and I found it very difficult to follow the action scenes (to it’s own credit, they were not edited in a choppy fashion) or anything indoors or at night. Please do your part and pay to see it in 2D and let 3D die. And also, there are 2 end credits scenes, stay till the very end.

What can I say? Marvel has made an awesome achievement with The Avengers and it only seems natural to ponder how Marvel will escalate things for the future. For my money, it seems superfluous to have to go through another set of sequels with each individual hero before an Avengers 2: Still Avenging. Let’s just get to it!

Womb by Benedek Fliegauf

Womb (film)

A woman’s consuming love forces her to bear the clone of her dead beloved. From his infancy to manhood, she faces the unavoidable complexities of her controversial decision.

There is a dark intensity to Eva Green’s face. I always thought this since Casino Royale, and it’s well utilized in the film. Rebecca is a character who simply cannot let go of her grief and move forward with her life. In some other film, there would be a new man who’s romantically available for her (she’s Eva Green after all) but the film does not even go there. She embodies a unrelenting stagnant pain under a quiet demeanor, and trying to move forward by progressing backwards. The love story takes a while to set up but is truly touching, and feel Rebecca’s loss when Tommy is taken away from her. Oddly that’s two science-fiction films she’s done this year that were pretty good.

Set in a unspecified barren location and minimally populated setting, Womb strongly operates in a fairy tale-like setting. Nature acts as a character in the film. There are numerous wide shots of the ocean with the actors as little specks off looking off into the ocean. The scenery evoked a looming feeling of nature, possibly to imply that nature is bigger than all of us.  Eventually it made me think about how man prehistorically came from the sea.

It’s impressive how Womb immerses the audience into its world. The outside world beyond the town is never shown. It’s a world where cloning exists but we never cut away to some cloning protest in a religious country elsewhere or spend too much time watching a news anchor give Basil Exposition on TV. The workings of the world are shown through scenes within the town where parents discuss whether they should allow their kids to play with clone kids (“copies”, a sort of slur for clone). That’s something really artful about Womb. It slowly gets creepier and creepier as the story progresses, especially when Matt Smith shows up again as the new adult Tommy. There is a scene where the new young Tommy (played by Tristan Christopher) and Rebecca playfully wrestle, Tommy pins down Rebecca and Rebecca just eyes him lovingly in a romantic way. You dread the idea of incest. I found myself really afraid for the new Tommy as the slow-burn tension arises to him finding out the truth. After all, what is the meaning of his existence? He’s her son but treated like her love underneath.

Womb proposes some challenging questions about cloning, but it does not run too far with it. It stays with its story and characters and moves towards its inevitable conclusion. It doesn’t tap out and give up on its own convictions. It does not end up being a piece of anti-cloning “issue-tainment”  and it remains a tale about someone not being able to let go of a loved one.

Bad Ass by Craig Moss

Bad Ass by Craig Moss

Decorated Vietnam hero Frank Vega (played by Danny Trejo) returns home only to get shunned by society leaving him without a job or his high school sweetheart. It’s not until forty years later when an incident on a commuter bus (where he protects an elderly black man from a pair of skinheads) makes him a local hero where he’s suddenly celebrated once again. He’s christened as “Bad Ass”. But his good fortune suddenly turns for the worse when his best friend Klondike is murdered and the police aren’t doing anything about it. Bad Ass decides to take action.

This film is pretty conscious of it’s goals and if you are not going along with the kitsch of it, you simply will not enjoy Bad Ass. Danny Trejo is currently 68. So you are not exactly getting well-choreographed fights, and it doesn’t need it. The whole crux of how this film works is seeing dummies mess with Trejo and getting their asses kicked because he has a mean ass looking face and can beat your lunch out of you. These dummies don’t know what they’re messing with till it’s too late. I laughed throughout consistently. It’s funny to know that this story was based on a real incident.

There are a few subplots and sequences that feel inserted to prolong the length of the movie. It could have been a lot shorter. The subplot where Frank romances his neighbor Amber (played by Joyful Drake) is a bit ridiculous but I found myself going along with it. I can’t say any of this was good by any means. There seems to be no point to get mad at it. It’d be like going to The Expendables and walking out feeling mad because it was all about the action. If you’re watching this, you most likely know what you’re in for.

I cannot help but compare this to Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. I enjoyed Bad Ass for the same reason I did not enjoy Machete. One of the major problems I had with was that Machete, while appearing like a bad ass protagonist, had nothing to do in his own movie. Bad Ass as a character is much more likable, the story gives you a lot of reason to empathize and root for him. Frank Vega is actually trying most of the time to avoid a fight, but is very unfortunate because he lives in a bad neighborhood full of people who want start trouble. He beats them up  and then thanks them politely afterwards for their help with a straight face. Yes, Bad Ass has much more to do in his own movie than Machete.

Mainly, Danny Trejo is character actor with an engaging presence and it’s nice to see him play a nice guy with a huge goddamn beard. Charles S. Dutton is also hilarious as the over-the-top villain Panther, I would never have pictured him playing a role like that. See? Everybody seems to be having fun here. I do not see why I shouldn’t. A fun rental for sure.