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Apr 6/12

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: 21 Jump Street (Movie); Wanderlust (Movie); The Transition (Article); Transfiguration (Article); A Prairie Girl (Short Fiction); Ever Since (Short Fiction); Scars (Article)

21 Jump Street (Movie) written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill; based on the TV series by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell; directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller; starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Dax Flame, Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle, Caroline Aaron, Joe Chrest, Charles Ferrara, Johnny Depp (uncredited)

From the little I’d heard of it, this didn’t sound like my kind of movie: something about a couple of cops working undercover in a highschool to bust a drug ring. But then I noticed – without reading the full review – that The New Yorker’s Richard Brody seemed to like the movie. That was enough to get me to the theatre, given that this was the only plausible choice of the movies playing nearby. But things didn’t look so good on arrival. The place was populated mostly by noisy teens who were yukking it up at every fart, puke and boob joke in the shlocky previews. And we all know that previews are aimed at people that the feature’s expected to appeal to.

Once this movie got going, however, it had lots to offer us non-teenagers.

Granted, putting undercover cops in odd situations isn’t an original comic premise. (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop and Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality.) But this movie does good things with the shtick. These two young cops – Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum – are so incompetent that they haven’t ever made an arrest, mainly because they can’t do the Miranda Rights thing. They’re now being sent undercover to this highschool because that’s where they were students in 2005. As students, the Tatum character was the cool, hunky one and the Hill character was the nerdy one. But now, the cool guy’s got the ethos all wrong. He doesn’t know that these days you're supposed to care about the environment and be gay friendly. He can’t even get the protocol for carrying backpacks right – one strap or two? A female student is surprised when the Hill character phones rather than texting her:"I only get phone calls from, like, random old relatives." This is the kind of social commentary that’s timely and pointed, unlike the lame attempts at satire in Wanderlust. (See review below.)

Because these cops are posing as brothers, they’re sent to live with the nerdy guy’s parents. The mom (Caroline Aaron) is thrilled to have her baby home again. When the guys piss her off, though, she assigns them household chores at times when they should be out taking care of important cop business. At school, one of the big pressures on these dorks is that, if they screw up and get expelled, they’re going to be in big trouble with their psychotic police supervisor (Ice Cube). Their chances of getting through school unscathed take a tumble when the high school principal, while interviewing these two new students, asks them which is "Brad" and which is "Doug." Because they haven’t studied their files carefully, they can’t remember who’s who – with the result that they get assigned the wrong student profiles in terms of who’s interested in drama, sports, chemistry, etc.

On top of these ingenious comic touches, there’s some neat dialogue. Their boss back at the cop shop is telling these two guys that a kid overdosed on a lethal new drug that has infiltrated the school – and the kid was white, "so that means that people give a shit." The dorky Hill character replies: "I still would have given a shit if he was black, sir." (These quotes are as I remember them; not exact, but close.) The boss notes that the Hill character had belonged to the "Juggling group" when he was in high school. The anal-retentive nerd corrects him: "Actually, it was the Juggling Society." A female student (Brie Larson) tells the nerd what a nice man he is. He returns the compliment, saying: "Except that you’re a girl." And she says: "Yes, that’s why I’m wearing this dress – to remind you." At the peak of one of the action sequences, a woman is trying to seduce the Tatum character and he tells her: "You’re hot, but I’ve got to shoot people now."

But the movie’s not all about those fine touches. To appreciate the total package, you have to be able to stand a lot of gross-out humour. Every possible use of genital organs gets mentioned. The two most frequently recurring words are "bitch" and "dick." Then there are the adrenalin-pumping car chases and explosions, backed by driving rock music – all pretty boring to endure. Slapstick – which we get loads of here – doesn’t usually entertain me much but some inventive physical comedy involving a school production of Peter Pan actually did make me laugh.

The movie, as a whole, doesn’t quite measure up to its best moments but it does strike some sweet notes, especially between the Hill and Tatum characters. Jonah Hill may have the better lines, the more complex character, but there’s something really appealing in the way Channing Tatum manages to convey a vulnerability underlying the role of the manly hunk. Two notable members of the school staff are the flashy sports coach (Rob Riggle) and the ingenuous science teacher (Ellie Kemper) who goes all weak-kneed around the Tatum character. The movie ends with a lovely flourish involving the Miranda rights and you come away savouring little bonbons like the surprise appearance (uncredited) of Johnny Depp. Not to mention the gag about gagging in the school washroom, with a mute but marvellous appearance by a janitor (Charles Ferrera) who has one of the most baleful countenances you’ve ever seen.

Capsule Comment: Almost as good as it promises to be.

 

Wanderlust (Movie) written by David Wain and Ken Marino; directed by David Wain; Starring Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Alan Alda, Malin Ackerman, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Kathryn Hahn, Michaela Watkins, Patricia French

Sometimes, all you want from an afternoon at the movies is a chance to watch beautiful people being romantic and funny. It helps, though, if what they’re doing has some connection with real life. That sorta gives you a hook to hang onto.

But this movie seems to have no grip on reality. Through a series of mishaps that we won’t go into here – because they’re too elaborate and preposterous – Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, a Manhattan couple, find themselves stranded in a rural commune somewhere in Georgia. Guess what? They like the commune – at first. With the aid of some good weed, they fall for all the touchy-feely stuff. You know the scene: veganism, communal sharing of all property, no privacy (even on the toilet), and a Jesus-look-alike guru (Justin Theroux). The inevitable nudity gives producer Judd Apatow a chance to follow through on a famous promise of his. 

It’s all so 1970s. The time warp aspect is emphasized by the presence of Alan Alda as a grizzled geezer who keeps harping back to the glorious 1970s when the commune was founded. How did such a group of dipsticks last this long? They seem to lead a pretty cushy life but there’s no hint of any financial basis for the commune's existence, unless its their vegetable market that seems to sell an apple now and then. None of which would matter if we were supposed to see them just as objects of fun. But they’re such easy targets and the scenario’s so dated that the satire doesn’t have much point today. Granted, there’s some originality in the writing of the fatuous remarks made by members of the community. For example, a white woman says that she and her black partner love each other "almost as much as if we were the same colour." There’s some threat to the commune’s future but, as plots go, it’s about as grabby as the toy at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks.

Then maybe the movie’s about Paul’s and Jennifer’s relationship. Do they run into problems? Does the commune expose the weaknesses of their marriage? Do they fight? Do they reconcile? Do they come to understand each other better? I bet that you, being pretty darn smart, can hazard a good guess as to the answers.

The more important question: is there anything in all of this to engage your attention? I’ll give you the answer to that one: only Paul Rudd’s acting. It’s interesting to watch him trying to handle, in a polite, congenial way, the ditzy stuff the group throws at him. (This portrayal of the conflicted persona is similar to his work in I Love You Man. See the review on DD page dated March 24/09.) Given his nice-guy image, the outstanding scene is the one where he’s looking in a mirror, trying to talk dirty in order to work himself into a studly mood for a free love session. There’s no motivation to the scene, no reason why he should feel compelled to work up this phoney shtick, but it’s very funny. (I’m imagining it was mostly improvised.)

A couple of other bits of acting might be worth mentioning. At the beginning of the movie, the Rudd-Aniston couple has dealings with a real estate agent, a mature woman who has, to put it diplomatically, not the typical beauty of a movie star (Patricia French, I think). Her very lived-in face gives you the feeling that you’re in the presence of a real person with genuine character. It’s nice to see her return briefly at the end of the movie with one of the best jokes. And you’ve got to hand it to co-scriptwriter Ken Marino, who plays the Rudd character’s brother, for giving himself the role of one of the most objectionable dorks ever seen on screen.

Capsule Comment: Who digs these hippie has-bins?

 

New Yorker Nuggets

The recent "labour disruption" at the Toronto libraries offered an opportunity for catching up on some New Yorkers. Herewith, brief notes on some highlights.

The Transition (Article) by Robert A. Caro, Issue of April 2, 2012

Who would have thought that anything new could be said about the assassination of JFK? Mind you, what’s reported here may not be new, exactly. It looks like a lot of the material has been culled from various published memoirs and interviews. But Mr. Caro has done a fantastic job of putting together the details of that fateful morning, minute-by-minute, from various points of view. Mostly, the focus is on how Lyndon Johnson changed, in a matter of a couple of hours, from something of a doofus Vice-President to a dignified and commanding leader. I found the look at the security services especially interesting. My vague memory of the word on them was that they were seen to be a bunch of bunglers, almost Keystone Cops. But here they come across as professional, brave, smart people. While reading about all the confusion, though, about how hard it was for a group of officials in one place to find out what was going on in another place, I kept thinking: why didn’t they use their cell phones?

 

Transfiguration (Article) by Raffi Khatchadourian, Feb 13 & 20, 2012

A gripping account of the ordeal of Dallas Wiens, an American man who has had a complete face transplant. His own face had been burned off in an accidental electrocution. The article’s chock full of medical-thriller details about the dangers and risks of the transplant procedure. For instance, the surgeons who were removing the face that was going to be transplanted from the body of the recently deceased donor kept being hurried along by surgeons who wanted to harvest the organs that were considered more important because they were deemed to be life saving. What makes the article especially moving is the character of the transplant recipient. After the electrical accident, he changed from being something of a trouble-maker to, not quite a saint, but a person who became very much oriented towards the good in all aspects of life.

 

A Prairie Girl (Short Fiction) by Thomas McGuane, Feb 27, 2012

What intrigues me about this piece is that I can’t quite figure out whether or not it’s supposed to be taken as a parody. It starts off sounding like a send-up of one of those Alice Munro stories about small, forsaken towns where oddballs loom and Gothic things tend to happen. The local brothel, the "Butt Hut", has had to close down because of the death of the madam. Her girls scatter, except for one who stays in town and becomes intricately involved in the affairs of the richest local family, the owners of the town’s bank. Some of the amazing deals that this woman pulls off seem so far-fetched as to be almost ludicrous. And yet, there’s an underlying sobriety to the telling that seems to say: this is what happened; take it or leave it. Quite convincing.

 

Ever Since (Short Fiction) by Donald Antrim, March 12, 2012

A young New Yorker attends a party with his new girlfriend. But he’s thinking a lot about his old girlfriend. It all seems rather superficial and ho-hum – who cares about these party-goers? – until you realize that, lurking under the mundane details, there’s a deep emotional truth that the guy’s having trouble facing.

 

Scars (Article) by David Owen, March 19, 2012

In this piece of memoir, Mr. Owen tells us about the many injuries he brought on himself as a kid by means of various pranks and dare-devil stunts: things like throwing firecrackers around and putting huge snowballs on the road in dangerous spots. I hate to go all Mrs. Grundy and judgemental about such carry-on, but the article puzzles me. What are we supposed to make of it? Are we supposed to find the youngster’s mischief endearing? I don’t. But the writing is fine, so maybe I’m missing a certain tone of voice that would make me more sympathetic to the author's message. There’s a hint of a redeeming quality in the flashes forward that tell of the adult fates of some friends involved with the author in his childhood misdemeanours. You get a sense that maybe he wisened up eventually and got tuned into the important things. Still, he doesn’t seem to care much about all the trouble he and his pals caused other people.

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