Sunday, June 10, 2012

Film Reviews: 21 Jump Street and Vicky Cristina Barcelona

21 Jump Street

As time goes on, story ideas that were once relatively serious can seem increasingly comical. This is a trend that Hollywood has increasingly noticed; starting with 2004’s adaptation of Starsky and Hutch, it has become increasingly common to repurpose old properties into the new millennium with a fresh coat of irony. Just this year we’ve seen two, Dark Shadows and new Jonah Hill comedy, 21 Jump Street. The new film takes place in the same universe as the 80s TV show, and indeed several of the original cast members have brief cameos. Unlike the original show, however, this installment does not hesitate even slightly going for laughs above all else.

We begin with a brief prologue showing out two main characters, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), in high school. Schmidt is the smart dweeb who gets picked on by dumb jock Jenko, but when the two later attend the police academy together, both realize it is in their best interest to work together and they quickly become friends. However, neither is particularly good at the job—Schmidt is not assertive or confidant enough to be much of an intimidating presence to criminals, and Jenko too dumb to master the finer delicacies of the job*. The police chief (played in one hilarious scene by Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman) decides that the two nitwits would be better used in the newly restarted Jumpstreat program to infiltrate a local high school undercover and find the source of potent new drug that has found its way to the market. Unsurprisingly, things do not go smoothly.

*He has quite a bit of trouble with the Miranda rights, for example. Of course, the film itself gets them wrong—a fairly major plot point is that Jenko/Schmidt’s first arrest is bungled because they fail to correctly Mirandize the suspect upon arrest. You don’t actually have to read Miranda rights upon arrest, only before an interrogation.

21 Jump Street has a very tongue-in-cheek approach, which is probably the way to go with subject matter as inherently ridiculous as this. One character mentions that Tatum looks like he’s “like, 40”,  and the police chief has an almost uncomfortably fourth-wall breaking moment where he mentions that the people in charge these days are just recycling ideas from the 80s and not coming up with anything fresh and new. The approach works, and the movie is pretty consistently funny.

Jonah Hill is good as a character that is superficially similar but actually quite different than his star-making role in Superbad. Schmidt is dorky, but much more intelligent and less crass than Seth, which makes the film’s plot work. Once the two cops get to school, they find things have changed since their own days in high school. The cool kids are the smart, environmentally conscious gang—the coolest kid on campus, and the main drug seller (played by James Franco’s younger brother Dave), is on his way to Berkeley. Despite Jenko’s best efforts, it is Schmidt who falls in with the popular kids, while Jenko befriends the nerds. It’s a role reversal that actually works quite well, and is a well of humor the film taps consistently throughout the film. Channing Tatum too sells it; the knock on him as an actor in the past was a certain discomfort on the screen, but he seems to be getting over that for the most part. Tatum is legitimately funny here.

The movie tries to be something of an action-comedy, but the attempts at action (especially in the film’s climax) seem halfhearted. They don’t really work on their own terms, but usually the film manages to slip in some sort of ironic observation about them, and these are usually pretty good. During a car chase, for example, both Schmidt and Jenko are continuously baffled by the lack of things exploding. Indeed, the movie is fairly Meta, and one gets the feeling that some of the self-referential humor was perhaps slipped past the studio.

Whatever the case, this is not a movie that is funny enough for me to ever feel a need to revisit, but its likeable leads and entertainingly meta humor are certainly good enough to be worth a watch.

6.5 Decent/Good. B-.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

There are few directors more prolific than Woody Allen, and it’s a rare year that he doesn’t have a film coming out*. It’s just too bad that I don’t like them better—Allen, as a writer more so than a director, is not someone whose voice and sensibility I really connect with (though I do respect his individuality). Admittedly I haven’t seen a ton of Woody films, but of what I’ve seen I only particularly liked Midnight in Paris. Still, I thought it would be worth my time to check out one of his more critically well-received films in recent years, 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

*Allen is like the anti-Terrence Malick, goes both to their respective schedules as well as film styles, which couldn’t be more different.

Vicky and Cristina are two girlfriends on vacation in Barcelona, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) so she can do some research for her Master’s on Catalonian art, and Cristina (Scarlet Johansson) because she wants to have fun. The two are quite dissimilar—Cristina is broad-minded, free-spirited, and directionless, while Vicky is more grounded and WASP-y. Not long into their journey the two encounter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites the girls for a weekend with him in Oviedo to see the sights, drink wine, and “make love”. Vicky is offended by his boldness but Cristina is intrigued, and she persuades Vicky to come along. Things soon become complicated though as both girls develop feelings for Juan Antonio, and it doesn’t help when his unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role) reenters the picture.

VCB is a relaxed, unambitious (not meant as an insult) film. I suppose it would probably be labeled as a romantic comedy, but it isn’t really funny, because it doesn’t really try to be. It’s more of a romantic drama/travelogue for Catalonia*, and it mostly works on a low-key sort of level.  There is little plot to speak of, but it doesn’t really need one, as we spend some time exploring Barcelona and Oviedo with these characters.

*The tone and feel is not dissimilar to what Midnight in Paris did with Paris, though what the film is doing thematically is not related.

For the most part, the Woody-isms are dialed down, though they are still present—Vicky’s fiancĂ©e Doug (Chris Messina) makes reference to “pseudo-intellectuals”, a weirdly frequent punching bag for Allen.  This is an actor’s movie, and the cast is great. Bardem and Cruz are both in their element, and seem very comfortable working in their native country. Cruz in particular is great as the simultaneously dangerous and sensual Maria Elena, and her Oscar win is not undeserved. Bardem is charming as Juan Antonio, and plays him with a sort of gentle charm that is world’s away from his turn in No Country for Old Men the year before. Rebecca Hall is good as the lead, though as the Woody mouthpiece (there’s one in each of his movies) she occasionally struggles with his more Woody-is dialogue. Patricia Clarkson is good in a small role as Vicky’s aunt Judy, and the only weak link is Scarlett Johansson, though even she is merely mediocre.

The core of the movie is the various romantic entanglements surrounding Juan Antonio, and while it is all well-handled enough, there is an awful lot of strange subtext that is lurking in this film. Woody Allen is known as a director who works out his own psychological issues in his films, and there’s a lot to unpack here—a psychosexual therapist could have a field day. Allen seems to have very particular ideas about gender and love and lust that he is trying to express here, though I’m not entirely sure what exactly they are. His portrayal of women here is…odd. The four main female characters are all depicted as flighty and unsure of themselves romantically and sexually, to one degree or another—Cristina is a serial monogamist (and later polyamorist) who can’t figure out what she’s looking for, and Maria Elena is jealous, combustible, and probably not totally sane. Vicky and Judy are both involved in much more traditional relationships, but both are unhappy in them and unwilling to do anything about it. The men (Juan Antonio, Doug, and Judy’s husband Mark) on the other hand are all pretty content with their chosen path, though the movie doesn’t necessarily condone those paths, especially for materialistic career-man Doug. It means something, but I’m honestly not sure exactly what Woody is trying to say here, or even if it is intentional.

Unsurprisingly, the camerawork and cinematography are beautiful, and it’s never an unpleasant experience spending time with the characters in Catalonia. Of course, it would be even more pleasant if the exceedingly annoying voiceover was ditched. The narrator (Christopher Welch) alternates between stating the obvious (“Cristina loved the church”, as we see Cristina admiring the church) and saying things that should have been left for the movie to show us—the maxim of “show, don’t tell” is a hard and fast clichĂ© for a reason in the movie business.

Strange psychosexual feminist subtext aside, this is a pleasant little movie with interesting and exceptionally well-acted characters. The Woody-isms are present but not as annoying as in some of his movies, though the addition of a completely redundant and bland narrator doesn’t help things. It’s a fine movie.

6.5 Decent/Good. C+.

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