Monthly Archives: March 2012

Review – In Darkness (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 4.5/5

In Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad VaShem, there is a section honouring the Righteous Gentiles/the Righteous Among The Nations. During World War II (WWII), it is known that almost twenty-four thousand non-Jewish people risked their lives in Nazi-occupied Europe to hide and save Jews from Hitler’s murderous Final Solution. Leopold/Poldek Socha was one such courageous individual. In a powerful but unflattering portrayal of Poldek, the Jews he saved, and the era, In Darkness commemorates the bravery of this unconventional hero.

Poldek Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) leads thirteen Jews through the caverns of the stinking sewers to find them a safe haven from their Nazi persecutors.

In Darkness is a low-budget Polish film that centres round Poldek Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz – The Dark House, Zero, Lech Walesa), a Polish sewer worker in Lvov. Using his extensive knowledge of the town’s sewer system, he hides thirteen Jews in the sewers just before the Lvov Ghetto is liquidated by the Nazis. For fourteen months, Poldek cares for his Jews. He brings them food and other essentials, until the Soviets liberate Lvov in July 1943, when he leads them to safety.

The storyline for In Darkness is straightforward and well put together. At 145 minutes, the film might seem a little long and repetitive, but the distressing nature of the movie ensures that it is not tedious at all.

The intensity of the Jew-hatred, the noise of rapid firing machine-guns and the sight of brutality against innocent people creates an intimidating atmosphere. Like tension in a string, one can feel the Jews’ fear of the Nazis and the local Polish population. The darkness of the sewers and the shaking of the camera enhance the film’s edginess by making the movie seem claustrophobic. At times, notably when Poldek moves the Jews from one excrement-running tunnel to another, the movie becomes almost unbearable to watch.

Poldek's friend, Bortnik (Michal Zurawski). Bortnik is the feared leader of the Ukrainian Nazis in Lvov.

Yet, the ending is probably the most awful and poignant part of the film. As the euphoria of saving the thirteen Jews is at its height, one learns how Poldek died and what was said at his funeral. It should leave anyone with decency sickened! Alas, it’s as unsurprising as it is shocking; a reflection of the profound levels of antisemitism in pre- and post-WWII Poland.

But was Poldek not part of the same society? In Darkness sheds light on his personality and shows him to be a very different kind of hero to Oscar Schindler (played superbly by Liam Neeson in the brilliant 1993 film, Schindler’s List). Whilst Schindler was the dashing businessman who became horrified by the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, Poldek was not handsome and was quite indifferent to the cruelty dished out by the Nazis. Indeed, director Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden, The Wire) reveals on numerous occasions during the film that Poldek was just an ordinary man doing his mundane job and held deep-rooted antisemitic views.

It is not even clear why Poldek ends up hiding and saving the thirteen Jews. Is it because they pay him nicely, so he can afford jewellery for his wife, Wanda (Kinga Preis – The Dark House)? Is it because Poldek knows the unspeakable fate that awaits him and his family if he informs the authorities of the Jews? Or is it out of a sense of moral righteousness? Perhaps not even Poldek, himself, knew. Robert Wieckiewicz vividly captures Poldek’s constant vacillations, as well as his fear of being found out by the local Poles and the Nazis, both of which are always eager to turn in more Jews and their collaborators.

They may be holed up in the dank sewers, but the Jews still manage to celebrate the festival of Hannukkah right under the noses of the Nazis.

Although the cast play very well, Poldek, the people of Lvov and the Nazis are all given critical depictions throughout the movie. But what is more interesting is that Holland has not left the terrified Jews off the hook either. She shows them to be people who are grateful and ungrateful to Poldek; treacherous and edgy among themselves; plus lustful, amongst other things. Hence, In Darkness portrays the thirteen Jews as real people, feeling the pressures of their situation. Again, this is a stark contrast to the Jews in Schindler’s List and other Holocaust movies, like The Pianist or The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas, which depicts them as models of immaculate behaviour.

Over-all, In Darkness is an exceptional but harrowing film. It not only enables us to understand the period, it forces us to experience the torment that the thirteen Jews in the sewers endured for fourteen months. Above-all, In Darkness points out why Poldek Socha should be immortalised among the Righteous Gentiles in Yad VaShem. Despite his antisemitic sentiments and morally dubious reasons for initially hiding the Jews, he showed himself to be a hero. Not a fashionable hero like Oscar Schindler, but one who was willing to stand up to evil and put his, and his family’s, life on the line to save innocent people. Amen!

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Review – 21 Jump Street (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 2/5

Last year’s The Inbetweeners Movie was a genuinely funny comedy. Whilst lacking in subtlety, it had a fine mix of intelligent and dim-witted humour, as well as realistic characters and a (semi-)plausible storyline. But in recent years many ‘comedies,’ like Due Date and The Hangover: Part II, have lacked much of what made The Inbetweeners Movie so enjoyable. 21 Jump Street, despite a few instances of amusement, very much goes into the latter category of ‘comedies.’

Jenko (Channing Tatum) bullying Schmidt (Jonah Hill) in their high school days. They did not get on at all whilst they were in the same class.

21 Jump Street is loosely based on the 1987-91 TV series with the same title, which starred a young and then-little known Johnny Depp. 21 Jump Street is about two very dissimilar 1980s former high school classmates. Jenko (Channing Tatum – The Eagle, The Vow, Side Effects) was the well-liked, yet brainless jock, whilst Schmidt (Jonah Hill – Superbad, Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street) was the smart, but unpopular nerd.

Despite their differences, Jenko and Schmidt quickly become friends after enrolling in the police academy. Once they finish their course, they become partners on patrol.

However, Jenko and Schmidt are hopeless at their jobs. Subsequently, they are sent to an undercover unit, located on 21 Jump Street. It is there that they’re ordered by their new superior, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube – Ghosts of Mars, XXX2, Rampart), to discover who is behind a drug network that is allegedly based in their former high school. So Jenko and Schmidt go back to their old stomping plain (to find, to their shock, that what was popular in the late-1980s is not anymore), posing as students, to bust the drug dealership before it spreads to other schools.

The plot for 21 Jump Street is simple as well as amusing on a couple of occasions. In addition, the friendship between Jenko and Schmidt keeps viewers interested, due to the chemistry that the two actors share; and the shoot-out scenes are a good laugh and surprisingly gory as well.

Schmidt and Jenko, now friends and cops, apparently dressed as teenagers before going undercover into their old high school. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) ordering them not to get with any school-girls or teachers.

Yet, there are fewer action scenes than one would have predicted; and, alas, the overwhelming majority of the humour revolves round repetitive, mindless jokes between the two main characters; swearing; and vulgarity. Of course all of this can be tolerable and hilarious in moderation. But the directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs), have taken it all (shamefully) to the point when even the crude Steven Stifler (played by Sean William Scott in the American Pie series) might call a halt.

Combined with such coarseness in 21 Jump Street are the performances of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as Jenko and Schmidt,  respectively. The pathetic and overly immature nature of their attempts to behave in a ‘high school manner’ is embarrassingly terrible. Compared to them, Jay Cartwright (played by James Buckley in The Inbetweeners TV series and movie) is a relative grown up! Both Tatum and Hill can do better than this, as the former demonstrated in Coach Carter, and the latter in Superbad and Moneyball.

The poverty of the acting in 21 Jump Street is not Tatum’s and Hill’s alone. Ice Cube; Dave Franco (Superbad, Fright Night, Warm Bodies), playing as Eric, the ‘cool-guy’ of the school; and Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Rampart, Relanxious), playing as Schmidt’s love interest, are all insipid and far from funny. The only noteworthy performer is Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean I-IV, The Tourist, Transcendence), who makes a surprise cameo appearance as his old character, DEA Tom Hanson. That was a clever move by the directors to bring him in. With the film dragging on for a hundred and ten minutes, Depp gives the movie some much needed unpredictability and impetus.

Likewise, it was intelligent of Lord and Miller to alter the dynamics of Jenko’s and Schmidt’s former high school. This entailed that the two main characters had to adapt to virtually new surroundings, which could have given Jenko and Schmidt another dimension to their, otherwise, shallow personalities.

Schmidt sitting with Molly (Brie Larson), the object of his fascination, as he tries to find a breakthrough and unearth who the drug suppliers are.

Yet, the directors badly under-developed these because they give little feel for how the school has changed. Worse, viewers are likely to ascertain almost no appreciation for this particular school or the American high school environment in general; especially, if one compares 21 Jump Street to the excellent Saved By The Bell series, or even the ‘chick flicks’ Mean Girls and John Tucker Must Die. All of those illustrated the different (albeit stereotypical) cliques, and the types of personalities within those cliques, that tend to exist in American high schools. But 21 Jump Street has almost none of it to the detriment of the movie.

Over-all, 21 Jump Street is a light-hearted film with two likeable main actors, who play daftly below their capabilities. The movie has a handful of laughable moments, but they’re overshadowed by the incessant obscene crudity that ruined ‘comedies’ like Due Date and The Hangover: Part II. Neither of those films made audiences cry with laughter as much, or as often as The Inbetweeners Movie. The same can be said for 21 Jump Street.

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Review – This Means War (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 3/5

Films like Fantastic Four I & II, Salt and Immortals take themselves preposterously seriously. Whilst watching such movies, one is entitled to think that the films would have been better if the actors had not taken their roles with such (laughable) sincerity. Thankfully, This Means War does not take itself remotely seriously. As a corollary, and for other reasons, the film is highly enjoyable and amusing.

Tuck (Tom Hardy) doing his bit to make sure that Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) chooses him as her man.

This Means War is about two CIA agents, FDR Foster (Chris Pine – Star Trek I & II, Unstoppable, Rise of the Guardians) and Tuck (Tom Hardy – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises). They are the best of friends, work opposite one another, and have fought alongside each other in dangerous operations for America’s secret services.

But then they discover that they’re both dating the same girl, Lauren (Reese Witherspoon – Cruel Intentions, Walk The Line, Mud), who cannot make up her mind on who she likes more. Neither FDR nor Tuck are willing to pass and let the other have Lauren, so they decide to compete against one another to see who will woo her, using all kinds of equipment and tricks to achieve their objective.

Meanwhile, a Russian agent, called Heinrich (Til Schweiger – Inglorious Basterds, New Year’s Eve, The Courier), is on his way to America. Heinrich wants revenge against FDR and Tuck for killing his brother in a mission in Hong Kong.

FDR (Chris Pine) on a date with Lauren to win over her heart and triumph over Tuck, his friend and colleague.

The plot for This Means War is entertaining and easy to follow. There might be fewer action scenes than one might think, and certainly in contrast to the Die Hard series, Black Hawk Down, and Iron Man I & II. But This Means War compensates for this with the hysterically absurd lengths that FDR and Tuck go to so as to win over Lauren’s heart.

Just like with The Expendables, Knight And Day and Mission: Impossible IV, none of the cast take themselves seriously in the slightest. The main difference between those films and This Means War is that the latter movie has much better dialogue; almost every other line is a joke, and the banter between the actors is extremely humorous.

In a similar vein, the acting is ideal for this type of film. It is most unlikely that any member of the cast will get prestigious award nominations come January-February 2013, but all of the actors revel in their disingenuous roles, from the cocky, smooth-talking and good-looking Chris Pine; to the confident, yet level-headed (English CIA agent) Tom Hardy; to the indecisive and cute (noticeably revamped) Reese Witherspoon; to Lauren’s know-it-all, contradictory-advice giving sister, Trish (Chelsea Handler – Cattle Call, Hop, Fun Size).

Trish (Chelsea Handler) advising Lauren, as ever, to make up her mind and choose one of the two men she is simultaneously dating.

Despite the heavy focus on the dialogue and the acting, director McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation, Guilty) adopts conspicuously little by way of special effects. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many action films, like Wanted, Captain America and Season of the Witch could have done with less CGIs and better dialogue and acting. The only problem for McG is that the few instances of special effects in his movie are done quite poorly; especially, when compared to the quality of those in Mission: Impossible IV.

Over-all, This Means War is a light, amusing and entertaining film. It has a cast that acts well for this type of film; that has great chemistry on screen; and that are easy on the eye. Perhaps directors in the future will learn a lesson from This Means War and inform their casts not to take their roles overly seriously when it is not necessary. Otherwise, audiences are destined to watch more movies where the actors appear unconvincing and hollow, like in Fantastic Four I & II, Salt and Immortals.

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