Review: This Must Be The Place (2011)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

***

This Must Be The Place is blessed and cursed by a dichotomy; it features sights and sounds that must be seen and heard to be believed, but the film as a whole is not an essential view. It’s a portmanteau of tones and quirks that threatens to be derailed by its own self-awareness, yet is held together by Sean Penn’s taste for eyeliner.

Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging rock star based heavily on The Cure’s Robert Smith (right down to the fear of flying) and sounding like Bill Murray in Ed Wood. Slow of walk and slower of speech, Cheyenne seems burnt out by excess gigging and narcotics. There’s a melancholy surrounding him that belies his wealth, his happy marriage to firefighter Jane (Frances McDormand, kookily lovable as always) and his penchant for lipstick. This eccentric sadness is also clear in Paolo Sorrentino’s direction. The acclaimed director of The Consequences of Love and Il Divo makes his English langage debut with a film that is so bafflingly and self-consciously bizarre that its impossible to forget, yet just as impossible to define. Picture, if you can, Cheyenne traipsing around Dublin, childlike, depressed and looking for definition. Where can this story go?

It’s unlikely you’d guess ‘Nazi hunting’. Cheyenne returns to the US for his estranged father’s funeral, and ends up finding the opportunity he’s been looking for: to hunt the Nazi commandant (Heinz Lieven) who humiliated his father in Auschwitz. This unexpected turn takes Cheyenne across the US in a beautiful but episodic trip that plays like The Straight Story as directed by Terry Gilliam. Along the way, Cheyenne befriends a fellow Nazi-hunter (Judd Hirsch), a diner waitress (Kerry Condon), plays ping-pong in the desert and gets under the nose of suspicious old ladies (“Would you like to kill me, dear?”). It’s Sorrentino’s outside view that makes this dive into the depths of Americana a decidedly different trip. Played straight, it’d fall apart; This Must Be The Place’s aspirations to curio status may not bind Sorrentino’s vision together fully, but you’ll rarely be bored. Stare agog as giant bottles of whiskey and men dressed as Batman flit across the screen. What does it all mean? Damned if we ever find out, but hey, at least we got a laugh! Once we do, however, the Nazi hunt continues and we’re left unsure what to think.

Right from the start, This Must Be The Place is doomed to be cinematic Marmite. On the one hand, it’s pleasantly weird and flirts with deep ideas. On the other, it’s tonally awkward and uneven, reverting constantly back to the self-conscious efforts at artiness. The story begins in Ireland and hints at tragedy in Cheyenne’s past, but is then dropped like a hot potato as Cheyenne hits the road. At least Penn is an excellent constant. Appearing in practically every scene, his performance is understated but full of off-kilter presence and likability. Supports are underused but well-acted (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson is of note as Cheyenne’s daughter), and the whole affair looks great (DP Luca Bigazzi keeps things crisp and clear). Best of all is the soundtrack; the film’s title comes from the Talking Heads’ classic song, and David Byrne’s performance of the song is a high point of the film. Byrne and Will Oldham also contribute several songs to the soundtrack under the guise of a band named The Pieces of Shit. Admit it: you’d buy the CD just for that band name.

Flitting back and forth between plots and tones, TMBTP is too distant to be embraced, yet too interesting to be ignored. Cheyenne observes that “Life is full of beautiful things”. This Must Be The Place is also full of beautiful things, but this beauty is in dire need of a stronger context.

Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

Director: Gary Ross

****

Early on in The Hunger Games, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is told by her close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) “You’re stronger than they are. They just want a good show, that’s all they want […] Show them how good you are.” He may as well be talking about the film he’s in. The Hunger Games has been pitched as the next big teen franchise after Harry Potter and Twilight. Compared to most of the movies in either franchise, The Hunger Games is stronger. It delivers the good show the audience demands, and it isn’t afraid to show off its superior credentials.

As heroines go, they don’t come much more aspirational than Katniss. A born survivor, Katniss resides in the 12th district of Panem, a futuristic North American terrain that exists after the collapse of the USA. Living in poor conditions and forced to hunt, Katniss’ skills with a bow and arrow, coupled with a grit borne out of desperation, make her a formidable presence. One could imagine this capable and gutsy young woman being descended from Lawrence’s character Ree in Winter’s Bone; in a role that plays to her strengths, Lawrence is perfect casting. The first hour sees the districts select their teenage nominees to travel to the Capitol for the death match tournament called the Hunger Games, an eerie blend of reality TV show and method of subjugation for the rebellious districts. Katniss volunteers to represent district 12 to save her sister (Willow Shields) from being chosen. Along with her goes Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and they venture to their likely deaths. Of twenty-four selected competitors, only one can survive. It’s a grim idea, and The Hunger Games doesn’t shy away from the darkness. We’re essentially watching teens kill each other for glory and our entertainment, which is exactly the point. The Hunger Games is an intelligent little flick, touching on ideas of racism, poverty, exploitation of young people and violence in the media. With all those ideas and the strong heroine at its heart, The Hunger Games blows other teen fantasy franchises out of the water on smarts alone.

The Hunger Games is a thrilling and brutal affair, and director Gary Ross embraces the brutality with handheld cameras and sudden bursts of violence. The future world is well-realized but it’s the forest setting of the actual ‘Games’ where most of the action takes place and where our focus lies. The second and third acts up the pace and the ante and Ross, with co-writers Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins (adapting her novel), rarely lets us relax. When we’re not on edge or on the run, there’s a lot of compelling character-work here; the young competitors are fleshed out enough for them to be distinct, mostly thanks to some good young actors. Much of the supporting roles allow some big names to enjoy themselves in ridiculous costumes. Of note are Stanley Tucci’s blue-rinsed TV host Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks as camp-as-Christmas escort Effie Trinkett and Woody Harrelson as former Hunger Games champ and trainer Abernathy. If nothing else, The Hunger Games reminds us that Donald Sutherland (as the President of Panem) is awesome and that Wes Bentley (as TV producer Crane) still exists.

Niggles about the so-so CGI or chopped plots from the book are minimal. In an age where teen heroes are either whiny and needy or have magic powers at their disposal, The Hunger Games is admirably down and dirty, with an ability to appeal to all demographics (John Carter, take note). Before the neurologial vacuum of summer season threatens our theatres, it might be a good idea to feast on the Hunger.

Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)

Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller

***

Who in their right mind would want to go back to their teenage years, and the misery of those school days? As 21 Jump Street makes quite clear, it’d be a painful experience for anyone, be they nerd or jock. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was the fat Eminem-lookalike nerd, whilst Jenko (Channing Tatum) was the long-haired jock. The latter ruled the roost in 2005, but the two befriend each other in police academy. The parameters of the buddy comedy are put in place as their young looks and idiotic behavior lands them in undercover operations in a high school. The problem is that sensitivity is in, the use of the term ‘gay’ as a general pejorative is out, and jocks and nerds roam side by side in the locker’d hallways. These guys aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The original 21 Jump Street TV show was kitschy fun, and it’s this spirit of fun that the movie adaptation tries to capture. For the most part, thankfully, it succeeds. A drug nicknamed ‘Holy Shit’ is doing the rounds in a high school, and Schmidt and Jenko are charged with uprooting the supplier before it spreads to other schools. It’s a perfunctory set-up to get these guys out of their depth and into some ridiculous situations. For one, Jenko’s math teacher (Ellie Kemper) is getting all hot and bothered by her new students surprisingly-developed muscles. Meanwhile, Schmidt’s trying to blag the lead in the school production of ‘Peter Pan’. The only reason this happens is so we can see Hill in a ridiculous Peter Pan costume and, when it happens, it is glorious. Meanwhile, they’re trying to get the druggies (led by Dave Franco’s Eric) on side. How best to do that? Throw a party! Cops giving teens booze ain’t clever, but it does bring the funny. Around Jenko and Schmidt are found some brilliant supports, including Ice Cube’s wonderfully foul-mouthed police captain and Rob Riggle’s weirdo chemistry teacher. Whilst 21 Jump Street does poke some fun at the changes in high school cliquery, its humour is mostly quite broad. Still, this doesn’t matter when your two leads are just so utterly clueless that you can’t help but like ‘em. Hill’s shouty-sweary-awkward-face thing is just the opposite of what got him an Oscar nod in Moneyball, but Tatum proves himself the most here. He has been accused of coasting on his looks in the past, but here he proves himself to be in possession of some uncanny comic timing. His chemistry with Hill makes 21 Jump Street more than the dick and shit jokes, frequent as they are, and for the most part it goes along at quite a click with ease and confidence.

Animation directors don’t always make smooth transitions to live action (for example, see
John Carter
. Or don’t.). However, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs) seem quite comfortable with the practical demands of a real shoot. It’s a pity that the easy-going comedy of the first two-thirds of the film gives way to an OTT final act, as screenwriter Michael Bacall throws guns, cars and explosions into the mix to make sure every box is ticked off for the target audience. A few more yuk-yuks and a few less YUCK!s could have made 21 Jump Street stand out. Still, it’s prime drunken Friday night fodder, demanding only that you submit to its teenaged charm. Be assured, high school has changed a great deal since last you were there.

Review: John Carter (2012)

Director: Andrew Stanton

*

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’ series of novels, which were published between 1912 and 1964, have been a tremendous and almost immeasurable influence on the development of science fiction. Without them, there would be no Star Wars, no Star Trek and no Avatar, to name but a few. This influence is worthy of respect, but it also makes the inevitable first adaptation of the Barsoom series seem like an afterthought. There’s not a lot new to see in John Carter, and what you do see has been done before and done better.

Right from the opening scene, John Carter’s problems are clear. A ship belonging to the red Martians (led by Dominic West’s Sab Than) attacks a ship belonging to the blue Martians. The two have fought for dominion of Mars, but Sab Than has help in the form of power bestowed upon him by Matai Shang (Mark Strong, looking like the world’s most evil adherent of the Hare Krishna). We can tell these are the bad guys because they speak with stiff-upper-lip English accents. Do we ever learn Matai Shang’s motives? Only vaguely. Do we ever care? Not a chance. We then cut to Earth of 1881, where John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an explorer who has suddenly died. His nephew Edgar (Daryl Sabara) is given his journal, in which is detailed Carter’s journey (via out-of-body-telekinetic-jumpy-thing) to Mars. On his arrival he’s captured by the Thark tribe, 12-foot high green-skinned aliens with four arms led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Whilst the broody and sullen Carter inevitably wins them over, the blue Martian city of Helium (yes, it’s called Helium!) is under threat from the red Martians. It can only be saved by Sab Than marrying the blue princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Once again, do we care? That’d be a ‘no’.

John Carter never stops to tell us why we should be invested in these creatures, or to answer some niggling questions. How can Carter breathe in the Martian atmosphere? Since when do rivers flow on Mars? And why is Ciarán Hinds in that ridiculous costume?! Hinds, in the role of the blue Martian leader, is one of several actors (Strong, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston) wasted here as supports. Kitsch is a fairly blank slate; he can flex his abs and grunt on cue but why we should be interested in him remains a mystery. Flashbacks to his past in the middle of battle scenes arouse confusion rather than sympathy. Meanwhile, Collins does her best Helen Mirren impression before falling for Carter like a good little post-feminist princess! This is a Disney film, so the romance has to be included, as does a CG dog-alien sidekick, who is probably the most expressive and interesting character in the film.

John Carter is based on the first Barsoom book ‘A Princess Of Mars’, and was directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton, the man that made us weep for fish (Finding Nemo) and robots (Wall-E). His first foray into live action filmmaking can only dream of the elegant pathos of his animated triumphs. The direction is expansive but unremarkable; unmemorable action scenes come and go with few thrills. Co-writers Stanton, Mark Andrews and Pulitzer-Prize winner Michael Chabon emphasize babble over battle; strange names and concepts are thrown at the audience in the hopes of confusing them enough to distract from the lack of interesting characters. Like its title character, John Carter jumps all over the place, unsure of where to land. The landscapes are as blank as the actor’s faces, and they jump about massive sets and fight ridiculous creatures that look like Phantom Menace offcuts. A rousing adventure could be made of Burroughs’ novels, but their wide influence suggests that this may be moot. John Carter is just too late to the party; there’s nothing here of note beyond the huge budget and the failed ambition of a studio struggling in the post-Pirates, post-Twilight haze. To judge from this uninterested mess, less is truly more.