Review: Hail Caeser

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DIR/WRI: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen • PRO: Tim Bevan, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Eric Fellner • DOP: Roger Deakins • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DES: Jess Gonchor • MUS: Carter Burwell • CAST: Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton

To utilise a recurring phrase from Hail Caesar the Coens Brothers always make prestige pictures. Though increasingly their individual filmic output seems to be instantly and strictly branded by critics as either serious fare or lighter fluff. Based on their own terse thoughts in interviews, it’s hardly a distinction the brothers make themselves. And yet here we are again, ostensibly and somehow undeniably at the lighter end of the sliding scale of seriousness.

Cards on table, I am avid fan battling to hold onto impartiality and discernment. Still, I can’t fight the feeling that the serious pictures are being a tad over-praised these days and the lighter pictures unnecessarily lambasted. Early word and trailers for Hail Caesar! were highly promising. The studio setting. The welcome presence of Josh Brolin in a lead role. Clooney looking to poke fun at acting hubris. What’s not to love? And since when have the Coens not wrangled tension, humour and even emotion out of a kidnap plot?

The elements are all present and correct. And yet something at the heart of the film fails to fire, leaving the entertainment soufflé stubbornly refusing to rise. Certainly, there are moments of quality and levity that hit the mark but they are scattered throughout the film like an bony archipelago where a spine should be. Hail Caesar! is brightly shot and endearingly performed by a terrific ensemble cast but crucially and fatally, it’s never exactly fun or funny.

It’s a danger for any reviewer to start reviewing the film Hail Caesar! with what could or should have been but I contend that the promotional materials promised one film while delivering another. Not an uncommon occurrence but insightful since the most effective trailers for this film pitched it as a thriller. And surely that was the connective tissue to ease an audience through this maze of murky plot and uneven tone. The central character Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a Hollywood studio fixer and initially seems to be occupying a recognisably hard-boiled world. Everyone else is literally acting in a different movie – which may be a very meta-joke as Eddie flitters from film set to film set trying to quell problems – but it’s still an unsolved flaw at the heart of Hail Caesar! Summed up by the kidnapping of one of the studio’s biggest stars Baird Whitlock (Clooney) being drained of any tension by the audience being privy to both sides of the abduction from the get-go.

Again, the Coens are proved masters of making even this scenario sing but here it’s off-key. Thrillers need tension and so occasionally do comedies. Moments of potential interest like studio extras being braced for information are referenced in passing but not depicted – who doesn’t want to see that scene? And yet the Coens are clearly more enthralled with evoking this era on soundstages onto which Mannix walks to impotently watch entire musical numbers of impressive scale but scant narrative interest. In The Big Lebowski, the Dude’s drug fevered dreams still advanced the story and deepened character. As impressive as Channing Tatum’s dance sequence is, beyond the nimble hoofing, it has nothing going on under the hood.

Even by Saturday night multiplex standards, the whole thing starts to feel frightfully slight. Amiable performances alone aren’t enough. Ralph Fiennes returns to mining his recently discovered comedy chops and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich has fun as a drawling cowpoke pushed into a period drama but it’s all a little dramatically inert. Even the solace of great dialogue is mainly absent but of course, there is the occasional golden line.

Overall, one has to be careful and acknowledge historical precedent. The Coens’ body of work contains several films that have grown in affection and stature as the years pass. Personally, Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty have risen off the floor and proved to have an afterlife. I fervently hope Hail Caesar! grows in prestige as the years go by. Hell, that would be swell.

James Phelan

12A (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes

Hail Caesar! is released 4th March 2016

Hail Caesar!  – Official Website

 

 

 

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Review: The Hateful Eight

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DIR: Quentin Tarantino • WRI: Quentin Tarantino • PRO: Richard N. Gladstein, Shannon McIntosh, Stacey Sher • DOP: Robert Richardson • ED: Fred Raskin • DES: Yohei Taneda • MUS: Ennio Morricone • CAST: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino hates you. He really hates your guts. His hatred for humanity is all too clear from this hateful film The Hateful Eight, coincidentally his eighth feature film and by far his worst. He feels no shame for this utterly brazen and immense hatred. He is proud of it. This film is his best expression of contempt for his audience and indeed life itself.

Do you agree with Danny Boyle’s rule-of-thumb that there’s rarely a good reason for a film to be longer than two hours? Quentin Tarantino loathes you. He will punish you with a pace slower than the melting of glaciers for more than two and a half hours for a story easily told in half the time. He will draw scenes out as long as they can be with over-written repetitive dialogue bereft of any charm it had in his other films.

Do you love the characters he and his collaborators have brought to life on-screen before? Tarantino’s had enough of that for now. The clue is in the title. Every character in The Hateful Eight is hateful in a literal sense, so despicable that there is no reason to be invested in what happens to any of them. When a mystery unfolds surrounding the poisoning of coffee, that could still have been an interesting dynamic to see play out, had it not taken almost two hours of tedium for the film to reach that point.

Do you invest in his reputation for writing strong female characters? Among the male-dominated cast of characters, the outlaw Daisy Domergue has tenacity and roughness in the hopes that these superficial traits hide that she is a damsel-in-distress and a plot device. She is also loathsome in every way, giving you no reason to wish her success in overcoming the captors bringing her to justice. At the same time however, you have no reason to enjoy the really distasteful and repeated violence inflicted on her.

Do you appreciate his attempts at writing strong characters for people of colour? He wants you to shove it. Sit back and watch Demián Bichir wasted on a stereotype of Mexicans so egregious, that even Robert Rodriguez would surely reprimand him and that’d be coming from a director who once cast Willem Dafoe in brown-face. Hear so much about the vivacious shack-owner Minnie and then discover an outdated black mammy caricature when she shows up. Assume Samuel L Jackson’s character is an upright bad-ass who walks the path of the righteous man, as it were. Turns out he’s a lying scoundrel who rapes people as punishment.

Oh yes. In what has to be one of the film’s most bizarrely misjudged scenes, of which there are far too many to choose from, he recounts to the father of a man he murdered that he had forced the man to fellate him. This man was a racist confederate so that might make one less inclined to care about his well-being. If, however, Samuel L Jackson’s character reveals that he considers rape a fitting punishment, hilarious in its symbolism, one also cares significantly less about his. As you should any character who considers rape appropriate in any circumstance ever.

But perhaps you like it when Tarantino pushes limits? Well just because a film is “challenging” does not make it good and the circular logic that anyone who doesn’t enjoy a film like this is either a baby or a prude is such a lazy strawman defence. Tarantino still hates you though and he seems intent on making you regret what you wish for. It’s not just wounds and severed limbs that gush with obscene amounts of blood; poisoned characters vomit blood in such ludicrous quantities that it passes beyond the cartoonish fun of his previous films and just becomes obnoxious.

Did you like how brilliantly Pulp Fiction played around with chronological order? Tarantino hates that you did, so very much and this time around, he is going to have a clumsy, snail-paced flashback entitled “Earlier that morning…” more than two hours into this bloated mess.

Do you care about film in general, as a medium for visual storytelling? Tarantino despises you. This brings us to the moment where he atrociously fails as a filmmaker. There are several scenes of characters talking about each other’s back-stories. We do not see these past exploits; we see characters sitting in a coach or a shack talking about these past exploits even when they sound like more interesting stories to see than the film we got. Characters are not revealed through action but through other characters talking about them. This is not how film as a narrative medium works and it is astonishing that a seasoned filmmaker with Oscars and a Palme D’Or needs this explained to him.

The truly unforgivable lapse in competency comes long after the film’s half-way point when we hear a narrator’s voice that had not been introduced previously, explain additional details about what different characters are doing. Rather than conveying that information visually. LIKE A FILM. Who is the narrator? Quentin Tarantino himself, of course. This is basically a filmmaker of iconic status, openly admitting that he has failed as a filmmaker. The film got to the point where his footage was no longer good enough and he personally stepped in to fill in the gaps. That this voice-over is established so late in the film is what makes the crutch so glaringly obvious.

This, along with so many other baffling decisions, amount to such an abject failure in basic, fundamental, visual storytelling that it could only have been deliberate. It is as if Tarantino is intentionally, purposefully trolling the world by setting out to frustrate audiences as much as possible. And the only defence flimsier than “you just didn’t like it because it was challenging” is “I don’t make films for audiences; I make films I want to see”. This is a new low for him and you can absolutely afford to skip it.

Jonathan Victory

18
167 minutes (See IFCO for details)

The Hateful Eight is released 8th January 2016

The Hateful Eight – Official Website

 

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Jupiter Ascending

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DIR: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • WRI: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • PRO: Bruce Berman, Grant Hill, Roberto Malerba, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • DOP: John Toll • ED: Alexander Berner • MUS: Michael Giacchino • DES: Hugh Bateup • CAST: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean

 

The Wachowski siblings have arguably struggled to reignite the commercial success of The Matrix, which altered the parameters of the science-fiction blockbuster in the late 1990s. Whilst their ambitious visual style marks them as visionary masters of their craft, critical opprobrium generated by films such as Speed Racer (2008) and Cloud Atlas (2012) points to an inability to reconcile an intense and elaborate visual technique with that of nonsensical and awkward plots. Such criticism has become the norm in the Wachowskis’ oeuvre and Jupiter Ascending does not appear to deviate from this career trajectory. Originally scheduled for release in July 2014, the film was delayed by seven months owing to an intricate editing process, casting a grim foreboding air over its future.

Written and directed by the Wachowskis (with more than a nod to Dune), Jupiter Ascending is a science fiction space opera starring Mila Kunis as Jupiter, a dissatisfied cleaner who discovers via genetically engineered ex-military hunter Caine (Channing Tatum) that she is the genetic reincarnation of the murdered matriarch of the intergalactic royal Abrasax family and rightful owner of Earth, the most profitable planet. The three Abrasax heirs are one of the ruling dynasties of the universe who harvest the planets once overpopulated to create a youth elixir that will see them live for millennia. When the Abrasax siblings discover Earth and their vast galactic inheritance rightfully belong to Jupiter, the duo embark on a frenetic galactic odyssey, intercepting the Abrasaxes attempts to kill her and reclaim ownership of Earth.

Adapting the classic big guy versus smaller guy narrative and attempting to elevate it to another level fails miserably in Jupiter Ascending and this is largely owing to the film’s egregious script. Whilst the reported $175 million budget for the film is clearly evident through its ambitious production design, resplendent costumes and intricately choreographed combat sequences, once the enterprising if not rather turgid spectacle has been stripped away, the audience is left with not much else. In an attempt to compensate for an over-investment into the film’s elaborate special effects, the Wachowskis infuse the narrative with a romance between the protagonists but this proves to be regressive, misplaced and underwhelming in a film containing convoluted sub-plots and involving too many archetypal characters delivering hackneyed and disjointed dialogue. All that is achieved is a chaotic core narrative with the film’s players evidently overwhelmed by the deluge of the CGI stunts involved and having very little else to do.

Kunis is undoubtedly miscast as the hapless toilet cleaner turned kick-ass action heroine and Tatum, as the hypermasculinised, saturnine, elf-eared hero, is just redundant throughout. Kunis struggles to connect with the oppressive characteristics of Jupiter and can only muster enthusiasm for the role once involved in combat. Only Eddie Redmayne as the dastardly, camp Balem Abrasax and Sean Bean as poker-faced Stinger appear to inject any sort of emotional depth into their characters, although Redmayne does border on the comical at times.

Unlike The Matrix or Cloud Atlas, which provided texts rich in philosophical musings and religious symbolism, Jupiter Ascending fails to offer its audiences anything other than a one-dimensional and disappointingly regressive visual saga of sci-fi fantasy and 1950s pulp. As craftspeople, the Wachowskis cannot be faulted for the dazzling spectacle they have created in Jupiter Ascending. Alas, this has come at a cost to both the film’s actors and audiences, who have just been deposited into a glaring void of ennui and confusion.

 

               Dee O’Donoghue

 

12A (See IFCO for details)

127 minutes
Jupiter Ascending is released 6th February 2015

Jupiter Ascending –  Official Website

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Foxcatcher

 

Foxcatcher

DIR: Bennett Miller • WRI: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman • PRO: Anthony Bregman, Megan Ellison, Jon Kilik, Bennett Miller • DOP: Greig Fraser • ED: Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill • DES: Jess Gonchor • MUS: Rob Simonsen • CAST: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

There is a scene toward the beginning of Foxcatcher, the sports drama about wrestling star Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his relationship with troubled millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), that neatly encapsulates the depth of the film.

Mark grapples with his brother Dave, whom he is eclipsed and overshadowed by in the wrestling world. They playfully twist and turn, circling around and clambering at one another. On one level, it is a friendly spar between two close brothers and competitors who respect one another’s skill.

But in each spirited stretch there is a kind of simmering tension and a sense of unease. The careful observer sees the frustration in every lock and the jealously in each hold. Eventually it boils over and Mark delivers a headbutt that causes Dave’s nose to gush blood. Dave shrugs it off, but the illusion of friendly sibling competition is over.

Foxcatcher trades blows under the friendly veneer of a sports drama, but once you watch its movements more carefully you pick out its real passions and concerns: masculinity, identity, legacy and one of the most insightful looks into post-war American politics you’re likely to see in a film about greased-up beefcakes grappling at one another sensually.

Foxcatcher is based on a shocking true story. It concerns Olympic gold medalist in wrestling Mark Schultz who is promised fame and glory by millionaire John Du Pont if Schultz will join and champion Du Pont’s private wrestling team, based at his home on Foxcatcher farm, which he hopes will become the base for the sport of wrestling in the United States. Their relationship ends in violence, brought on by du Pont’s simmering schizophrenia.

As we meet Mark, he is a young man whose bright determination is forever dimmed by the shadow of his brother’s greater success. He is mistaken for his brother as he plods through a motivational speech to a group of bored looking children and his frustration is evident later, his annoyance painted in vibrant streaks of blood across his brother’s face.

In many ways Du Pont faces a similar dilemma. He is the heir to the du Pont millions, mountains of cash built with munitions and artillery. He deifies his forefathers, while still evidently feeling frustrated by the comfortable, lavish existence their work has given to him. He disdains the snobbishness and notions of class that come with it. This conflict is epitomised by Du Pont’s mother, an “old money” type who regards only the elegant equestrian sports as befitting the pedigree of her great family, regarding her son’s enthusiasm for wrestling as a sort of brutish, filthy, animal occupation.

And so, after a phone call, Mark journeys to meet Mr Du Pont who seems to have everything Mark has ever looked for. As the pampered rich boy talks of regaining America’s glory and masculine, pioneer toughness, Schultz eats it right up. Du Pont will employ him to make America a “shining city on the hill” again, and perhaps in the process some of that shining light might thrust him from his brother’s long shadow.

Foxcatcher is, in so many ways, a restrained film. Given the true story’s violent conclusion, the cinematic adaptation could have been a vicious and lurid thing, depicting Du Pont as a man overflowing with entertaining insanity, a vision of mental illness like a clown at a circus.

But the way the film handles it is so much more compelling. Its cinematography is tight and controlled. Its performances are, for the most part, quiet and deliberate and all the more menacing for those qualities. Du Pont’s troubled psyche, as he strolls into his gym with a pistol and requests that his athletes refer to him as “Golden Eagle”, is not a grand, flashy fireworks display but a slow, corrosive burn. Steve Carrell, an actor who I ordinarily have little time for, is truly excellent as the nasal, slight yet sinister Du Pont.

The film is really an opportunity for its actors to flash their talent. Tatum proves once more he is far more than just something for the ladies of the audience to stare at, with a performance that perfectly captures all the arrogance and anger that testosterone pumping through your blood tends to inspire and especially in a field as machismo-dominated as professional wrestling. If Du Pont and Schultz represent unbridled American Machismo, then Ruffalo’s Dave turns the spotlight on its Latin American counterpart: Caballerismo. He is tough and yet at the same time warm-hearted and responsible, powerful without needing to exercise that power to harm others. Ultimately the film is a collision of these two visions of masculinity, a restrained compassion endorsed by a gentle giant and a violent glory expounded on by a weak, anemic rich kid.

The film’s music seems to emphasise the conflict in du Pont’s psyche between his refined upbringing and his vision of traditional strength. The score alternates between delicate stringed instruments and the rich, pounding heartbeats of drums that seem to signal war.

In much the same way that Rocky VI was the Cold War writ large in a boxing ring, Foxcatcher paints a much grimmer portrait of American domestic politics of the age, daubing its red, white and blue shades on the wrestling mat. So many of du Pont’s inspiring soundbites about “National Glory” and “Honour” and “Strength” could be ripped word for word from the speeches of Ronald Regan and other American Neoconservatives of his day, who wanted to see a new dawn of a tough, brave and essentially macho America. This grim vision of the ’80s is only completed by a scene where du Pont instructs Schultz in the right way to praise the millionaire as the two snort cocaine on their way to a formal dinner.

Foxcatcher is about wrestling with the past, about wrestling with our legacies and where we come from, about wrestling with who we used to be or who people perceive us as, and about wrestling with an old political and cultural world we think we can throw away. Foxcatcher is a film about manning up and stepping out of the shadows. But it’s also about what happens when the only part of yourself you can reach out of those shadows is a fist.

 

David O’Donoghue

15A (See IFCO for details)
134 minutes.
Foxcatcher
is released 9th January 2015.

Foxcatcher  – Official Website

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The Book of Life

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DIR: Jorge Gutierrez  WRI: Jorge Gutierrez, Doug Langdale  PRO: Aaron Berger, Brad Booker, Guillermo del Toro, Carina Schulze  ED: Ahren Shaw  MUS: Gustavo Santaolalla, Paul Williams  CAST: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate

 

An eye-popping digitally animated piñata inspired by Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, The Book of Life bears the unmistakable mark of producer Guillermo Del Toro in its combination of the supernatural and the sentimental.  The story – a mishmash of Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice, and about a dozen other sources – involves a love triangle between gentle Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), lovely Maria (Zoe Saldana) and vainglorious but good-natured Joachin (Channing Tatum).  The trio become the subject of a wager between the supernatural figures Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), with the eventual result that Manolo must travel through multiple levels of the afterlife in order to prove his devotion to Maria.  Also involved are a magical medal, marauding bandits, and some discomfiting business about bullfighting.

 

In fact, the plot is so busy that more than half the running time has elapsed before Manolo even gets to the afterlife.  When he does so, the parallel Lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten are visual marvels, the former bursting with vibrant colours, the latter near monochrome.  Innumerable flower petals and flickering candles are captured with exquisite detail, the immersive environments enhanced by excellent 3D rendering.  In fact, so spectacular are the supernatural planes that it’s a shame the film has to rush through them in double-quick time, only to return to the Land of the Living for the resolution of the rather rote central love story.  The subplot, involving the villainous bandit Chakal, feels shoehorned in to provide a villain and an action climax, eating up time that would have been better spent luxuriating in the film’s richly imagined visuals.

 

The characters are rendered as minutely detailed wooden puppets, and are prettily designed, if occasionally blocky and inexpressive in motion.  The central trio’s appeal is almost entirely visual, as bland voice work from most of the cast – particularly Saldana and Tatum – does little to bring them to life.  In smaller roles, Perlman and Del Castillo chew the digitised scenery with relish, though Christina Applegate’s Nickelodeon-ready voice brings little mystique to the quasi-supernatural museum guide whose narration frames the action and is used to provide reassurance in potentially upsetting moments.  While the visuals are pleasingly distinctive, the songs don’t do much with Mexico’s rich musical culture, with gimmicky mariachi renditions of played-out numbers by Radiohead and Mumford and Sons working against the folkloric quality for which the story is aiming.

 

Despite the Day of the Dead theme, and consequent frankness about death itself, The Book of Life is geared primarily to young children.  Its riot of colour and activity is likely to go down a storm with that audience, although adults drawn in by Del Toro’s prominently billed involvement may be left hankering for a richer exploration of the material’s gothic potential.  Nevertheless, the film represents a quantum leap from animation studio Reel FX’s last feature, the convoluted and unappealing Free Birds (2013).

 

Consistently delightful to look at, even when it flounders as storytelling, The Book of Life is certainly the most vivacious film about death since Beetlejuice (1986).  With a little more of that film’s antic invention, and a little less focus-grouped proselytizing about the virtues of heroism, it might have been a classic.

 

David Turpin

G (See IFCO for details)
95 minutes

The Book of Life is released 24th October 2014

The Book of Life – Official Website

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22 Jump Street

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DIR: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller • WRI: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman • PRO: Jonah Hill, Neal H. Moritz, Channing Tatum  • ED: Keith Brachmann, David Rennie  • DOP: Barry Peterson • DES: Steve Saklad • MUS: Mark Mothersbaugh • CAST: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

Just how self-aware is too self-aware?

Take any old film review as an example – perhaps that of 22 Jump Street, the sequel to 2012’s surprise critical success 21 Jump Street, which saw inept police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) go undercover as teenagers in order to infiltrate a high-school drug ring with genuinely hilarious results.

In writing such a review, anyone might throw their hands up in despair, reasoning that each and every serious journalistic word-play concerning the film’s premise (see: Jonah “Over-The” Hill and Channing “Age-um” Tatum) has surely already been played out to their natural conclusion the first time around, and as such cannot be recycled into a new review. Unless, of course, said reviewer was enterprising enough to package those same old jokes as a form of meta-humour, and slip them past audiences with a wink, a nudge and an overwrought introductory paragraph such as, why, this one. The same reviewer might indeed ask you to bear with him, as this awkward metaphor pays off later.

In a continuation of the same self-satire championed by the likes of Arrested Development and Community but rather fumbled by this reviewer above, 22 Jump Street isn’t long in establishing that it is well aware of its status as a sequel. “Just do the same thing,” the duo’s police commissioner reasons. “Do the same thing, and everybody’s happy.”

Indeed, Jump Street’s latest case sees the two faced with a carbon copy task of last time, simply bigger – to infiltrate a group of college drug dealers and identify their supplier, with much of the same shenanigans ensuing along the way. With an inflated budget, their resources are greater, the guns bigger, the cars faster, Ice Cube’s angry police captain even angrier.

Hill and Tatum are on form again with a screen chemistry that is one part brotherly machismo to nine parts desperate co-dependence; Tatum, in particular, stretching comic muscles that leave those of his petty mortal flesh in the dust. The script, by turns, thumbs its nose and rolls its eyes at all the typical conventions expected of blockbuster sequels and, while it often works, therein also lies the rub. To hark back to our reviewer’s awkward opening paragraphs, while fun, Jump Street’s pointed awareness of the failure to deliver anything fresh does little to enliven reheated gags and plot points, and the constant navel-gazing ultimately speaks of a desire to play it safe as much as poke fun.

As a sequel, 22 Jump Street has developed along much the same lines as its aging undercover protagonists – though once lean the writing inclines to flab and quick wits begin to wander, a dose of boyish charm and bountiful goodwill is still enough to save it – if not quite enough to recapture the good old days.

Fans of the first will love it, and sticking it through to the end is recommended for all.

Ruairí Moore

 

16 (See IFCO for details)
111 mins

22 Jump Street is released on 6th June 2014

22 Jump Street – Official Website

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Cinema Review: White House Down

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DIR: Roland Emmerich WRI: James Vanderbilt PRO: Roland Emmerich, Brad Fischer, Larry J. Franco, Laeta Kalogridis, Harald Kloser, James Vanderbilt. DOP: Anna Foerster ED: Adam Wolfe DES: Kirk M. Petruccelli CAST: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke

It is one of the terrible beauties of Hollywood genre filmmaking that it remains committed to the cause of ideological equivocation, even while seeming to attempt to confront the Realities of Globalization, Extremism, and Socio-Political Anxiety in the Post-9/11 World: it is consistency amidst chaos, perpetuating chaos.

White House Down, the latest from disaster film director par excellence Roland Emmerich, performs such a dance of prevarication with all the outwardly liberal leanings of the 18-34 millennial demographic. The baddies (and this could not possibly spoil anything) are inside-job conservatives in the pocket of military armament providers; the president (Jamie Foxx) is Backbone Obama with a penchant for Air Jordans and a natural affinity for the rocket launcher; the hero (Channing Tatum) is tough on terrorists and gentle on squirrels.

…He is, of course, also white because of course he is. Tatum, who has been lauded for the past year and a bit as Hollywood’s next superstar leading man (always the “next”, never the “now”) takes top billing despite Foxx’s having won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and despite the film’s multiple protagonist scope that could just as easily have seen President Sawyer’s role listed first on cast and credits. It’s not Channing Tatum’s fault he’s white, male, and conventionally attractive; it is Hollywood’s fault that so is every other marketable male action star today (with the recent, ageing exception of Will Smith).

That said, Tatum is just Sylvester Stallone-vapid enough to function as the all-American hero who just wants to impress his daughter by landing a job with the Secret Service and gets caught up instead in a terrorist attack at the White House. Handy that he learned to fight and defend – for politically sanctioned reasons – while serving in Afghanistan. And handy that as a foil for the ex-servicemen-gone-rogue responsible for blowing up Capitol Hill, he offsets anxieties about the essential moral corruptibility of the individual soldier trained to kill for money. The noble one – in Emmerich, in Hollywood – excuses (or eliminates where he cannot redeem) the several corrupt. That’s how capitalism saves the day every evening from the problems it posed in the morning.

Ideological dissonances notwithstanding, Channing Tatum’s Bankability Down boasts an excellently devised car chase across the White House lawn and the requisite number of explosions. Its narrative economy is remarkable – Die Hard-esque even – despite running over two hours long: there is nothing superfluous, nothing wanting in its plot. And yet, as the film’s recent tanking at the American box office would suggest, there is something fundamentally lacking in its design.

Perhaps it’s because Antoine Fuqua already made the same movie earlier in the year with Olympus Has Fallen. Perhaps it’s because Roland Emmerich actually blew up the White House way back in 1996, when the scariest enemies were from outer space, and techie nerds like Jeff Goldblum were more sexy-exotic, less Julian Assange-anarchist. Maybe the myth of the Hollywood disaster-action flick has been exploded one too many times in real life on tv, YouTube and the video phone to function as cathartic of our repressed fears and internalized anxieties. Whatever the case may be, what worked twenty years ago doesn’t work today, even with massively improved CGI and cynically-politically correct casting.

Ciara Máirín Barrett

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details) 

131 mins

White House Down is released on 13th September 2013

White House Down  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

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DIR: Jon M. Chu • WRI: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick • PRO: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Brian Goldner • DOP: Stephen F. Windon • ED: Roger Barton, Jim May •  DES: Andrew Menzies • CAST: Dwayne Johnson, D.J. Cotrona, Channing Tatum

 

A sequel that surely not too many people asked for, G.I. Joe: Retaliation belatedly follows 2009’s summer blip G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, arriving in cinemas almost nine months after it was originally due. The party line is that this delay was entirely to convert the film to 3D, although rumours circled on the internet of rewrites and reshoots. But there’s no evidence of any post-shoot tightening in this sluggish, unambitious schlockbuster. And the 3D’s not even that great either.

Following the events of Rise of Cobra, the evil Cobra Commander remains imprisoned in an impenetrable high-tech facility and the Joes are still the world’s No.1 defence force. Channing Tatum’s Duke now runs the show, backed up by Dwayne Johnson’s human sandbag Roadblock. But, as none of you will remember from the first film, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) remains a hostage of Cobra, and their evil stand-in Zartan has his finger on all the triggers. Soon Cobra Commander is unleashed and the Joes are being wiped out in an impossibly well-planned attack that kills off (off-screen) all the characters whose actors refused to return to the franchise. Only a handful of the elite soldiers remain to try and defeat the plans of Cobra Commander and his evil POTUS. You can imagine how it goes.

G.I. Joe 2 corrects many of the mistakes of the first film, reducing the degree of sci-fi chicanery in favour of fists-and-bullets action. However, where the first film had some very basically sketched characters (backstories, flashbacks and everything!) and an infantile but to-the-point narrative momentum, Retaliation has almost no character development and its second act is a disaster of storytelling. As Roadblock and his team try to build a guerrilla unit in the US with retired general Bruce Willis and his band of G.I. Joeriatrics, martial arts expert Snake Eyes (the boundlessly athletic Ray Park, still silent and fully masked) must journey to somewhere in Asia to fight all the ninjas that ever were. Remember that bit in Iron Man 2 where Agent Coulson leaves to go to New Mexico and deal with the events of Thor? Now imagine if those two films were intercut with one another. That’s how jarring the mismatch of quests in this film is.

Character-wise this film is bankrupt. A bit of bromantic banter between Tatum and The Rock in the first act adds up to nothing. Willis manages to be just slightly less spaced out than he was in A Good Day to Die Hard. The female Joe (Adrianne Palicki) has daddy issues and looks good in tight clothes. The white male Joe (D.J. Cotrona) may actually not have any lines for all you can tell. Snake Eyes can’t even speak, let alone demonstrate facial expressions, yet he still out-acts his sidekick girl ninja (Elodie Yung). In some bizarre casting, RZA shows up as blind martial arts master Blind Master (the G.I. Joe series was never very subtle with its character names), bringing the rapper’s charisma-less movie career to a new low by drudgingly rattling off exposition like a screen between video game levels.

The villains have far more fun. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been replaced as Cobra Commander by It Doesn’t Matter You Can’t See His Face, Lee Byung-hun and Ray Stevenson have plenty of fun as evil ninja Storm Shadow and Southern-fried pyromaniac Firefly, respectively. But when it comes to delivering Cobra’s (actually inspired) end game, it is Jonathan Pryce who delivers, hamming it up beautifully as President Zartan in an epic game of nuclear chicken. Twice as over-the-top as he was in Tomorrow Never Dies, Pryce is undoubtedly the film’s highlight.

But with the exception of the big bad plan, the story is a mess, and much of the dialogue is cringe-worthy to the point of spasm-inducing. The Joes have gone from an international fighting team to a deadly serious Team America, while no one seems to bat an eyelid when the President hires Cobra as his elite bodyguard unit, despite the world’s most dangerous terrorist being called “Cobra Commander”.

Not even The Rock, who is finally being taken seriously as a charismatic action lead thanks to Fast Five, cannot save this film from floundering. Somehow, in spite of its near-$200m budget, director Jon M. Chu (most known for some of the Step Up dance movies and a Justin Bieber concert film) has managed to make a cheap-looking action movie. The effects look flimsy. The rapid cutting and dim lighting seem to be hiding uncompleted sets, while also causing the 3D to blur frantically. The final skirmish is not on a scale anywhere near as huge as the first film’s climax, while the images of Roland Emmerich-scale city destruction are so brief there’s hardly a frame of it in the film not featured in the trailer. Compare to the ridiculous but amusing Eiffel Tower sequence from Rise of Cobra and you realise big money clearly does not go as far as it used to.

A brainless popcorn movie for a cold night in with a DVD if ever there was one, G.I. Joe: Retaliation cannot live up to its promise of mayhem and The Rock and ninjas. And surely that was an easy one to get right.

David Neary

12A (see IFCO website for details)

110mins
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is released on 29th March 2013

 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2YMu52MfqA

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