Friday, August 28, 2009

Movie Review: The Final Destination (3D)

When did audiences stop caring about life and start cheering on merciless, unnecessary death? I didn't realize this was the case until I sat through "The Final Destination." In 3D. And felt myself cheering too.
Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that we were all cheering. After all, what sympathy could be felt for the characters? Not one felt the least bit developed. Well, maybe a little bit. The most I could say is that Nick (Bobby Campo) goes to a race car event with his friends. There, he has premonitions of a disaster in the stadium causing brutal death. Him and his friends, along with a few others, narrowly escape the carnage. They have cheated death. This sets off a chain of events that leads to each of them being killed off in the most unpleasant ways imaginable. Oh, and Nick also has a friend named Hunt (Nick Zano) who's kind of a tool. I don't remember any other of the characters' names. And I don't really care. 
The actors certainly don't help bring sympathy to the characters. Their dull and lifeless delivery bring nothing to the script; not that there's anything good to the script. The dialogue is nothing but a series of platitudes and cliches. At one point, one character actually says "you only live once" and tries to pass it off as original, moving, and insightful. Of course, it is none of these things. 
The film's director, David R. Ellis, has a strange resume that includes "Final Destination II," "Snakes on a Plane," and "Homeward Bound II." In directing "The Final Destination" he breaks the rule that makes a horror film great: waiting. Don't try to hit your audience with so much in so little time, you have to let the characters grow. You have to let the fear grow. That's what makes horror films like "Psycho," "The Silence of the Lambs," and "Carrie" so effective: they grow on you. And then, suddenly, they give you and incredible jolt out of the dark.
The debate "The Final Destination" covers is one that has been argued for centuries on and off the screen: fate vs. freewill. Can you cheat death? And if so, will death find you again? "The Final Destination" obviously leans towards the latter. However, it seems to believe that spilling blood and guts is an effective way to prove a point. Believe me, it's not. If you'd like to see this topic discussed much more eloquently, watch an episode of "Lost" or read "Man's Search for Meaning."
Now, most of you wanting to see this movie aren't looking for a sophisticated debate; you're looking for escapism. Well, you won't find it here. Escapism is enjoying a film that provides a sort of world you know can't exist, but for a limited amount of time, you'll believe it does anyway. The kind of escapism "The Final Destination" provides is the kind where you can laugh at the ridiculousness of the film. But this is not enjoyment. For real escapism, go see "Inglourious Basterds" instead.
I will admit, this is only the first "Final Destination" movie I've seen. I felt confused at first, so my friend explained the premise of the other three to me. The premise was the exact same for each movie, and he seemed to have a good feeling that this installment would go the same way. I doubted him for a second, thinking nobody could possibly carry out the same idea and get away with it three times. He was right.
Note: Don't let the title fool you. Even though it's called "The Final Destination," the film is truly "Final Destination 4." This just marks a weird trend where studios try to wipe out a franchise history by leaving out the number of the film (ex: Fast & Furious, Rambo). Sorry guys, it isn't working.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Movie Review: Adventureland

I never had the pleasure of growing up in the 1980s. However, after watching "Adventureland," I almost feel like I did. 
The best period pieces must be made years after the year they are set in, especially if they're a teen angst dramedy. "Dazed & Confused" was set in 1976, but came out in 1993. "Adventureland" takes place in the summer of 1987. It's a few months before the "Black Monday" stock market crash, but already the family of James (Jesse Eisenberg) is facing financial trouble. James recently graduated from college. Before going to grad school in New York, he plans on spending the summer in Europe. However, his father's recent demotion brings an end to his plans, and instead James must work the summer for grad school money.
The job market of '87 looked just about as bad as the job market of '09, as James can barely get a job. However, there is one place in the Pittsburgh area that will take him: Adventureland Amusement Park. Taking this job becomes both the best and worst mistake of his entire life.
While working there, James associates with philosophical Joel (Martin Starr), an immature friend (Matt Bush), a failed rockstar (Ryan Reynolds), two awkward bosses (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), and of course, Emma (Kristen Stewart). In Emma, James finds what he could never find in any other girl.
Besides the relationship between James and Em, "Adventureland" has no strict plot to follow. It would make sense that writer-director Greg Mottola, who also directed Judd Apatow produced "Superbad," would use this Apatow plot device. However, credit for this goes way back to directors like Hal Ashby. Ashby never attended to make plots; but rather, people. In movies like "Harold and Maude," Ashby just tried to let the growing relationship between Harold and Maude but on its own. Mottola attempts to do the same with James and Em.
Mottola is not known as much for film as he is for television. He's directed episodes of two of the best shows ever: "Undeclared" and "Arrested Development." However, he's started to become a formidable comedy movie director. While "Superbad" was certainly well made, "Adventureland" truly shows his talents for he both wrote and directed it. Therefore, "Adventureland" feels like a much more personal film, as he is bringing to life his own story and not somebody else's. That is probably why every shot is filmed with both giant and pain and an ounce of joy, a sort of uplifting light of love seems to shine from above throughout.
"Adventureland" is to the '80s what "Dazed & Confused" was to the '70s: an extremely stylish, extremely accurate piece of nostalgia. Like any good director making a period piece, Mottola focuses on the little details to make the movie feel exactly like the '80s. And it does. He emphasizes everything from the cars, to the outfits, to the way people dance. He especially emphasizes the music. He uses many bands popular in the '80s; mainly the soothing sounds of Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground. The soundtrack, while great to listen to, is there for a reason. It's not only there to remind us of the decade we're watching, but to also reveal little minor things about the characters. For example, Mike's (Reynolds) inability to name the song "Satellite of Love" correctly reveals his underlying phoniness.
The characters for the most part, are well cast. Eisenberg broke out in 2005 with "The Squid and the Whale." While he played Walt in "Squid" with much more hidden sadness and an outer layer of betrayal, all of James's emotions are on his sleeves. Eisenberg plays him with flawless awkward vulnerability. He is no doubt one of the best young actors out there today.
 Perhaps the film's biggest mistake is Reynolds. He is a decent actor, but he really doesn't bring much to the character. While it would've been nice to see Mike played with much more vulnerability, Reynolds just makes him seem like too much of an invincible human being. Maybe that's because Mike is a little smug, but he obviously has some marriage problems. 
Another small mistake made by Motolla is the criminal underuse of Hader and Wiig. The pair is only in a few scenes. However, Hader steals every moment he's in, bringing that same zaniness to the film that has made him one of the funniest people in comedy. Wiig manages to be funny by just standing there and making creepy faces. I don't think it would've killed them to give her a few more lines, but maybe she's just one of those comedians like John Belushi whose funnier when they aren't saying anything.
Perhaps "Adventureland" is such a convincing nostalgia film because not only does it feel like your looking at the 1980s, but it also feels like a movie that could've been made in the '80s. The influences of such '80s icons as John Hughes and films such as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" feels tangible. While I enjoyed pretty much every minute of this hilarious and moving dramedy, some references did escape me. Oh well, I guess you just, kind of had to be there.
Recommended for Fans of: Dazed & Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Graduate, Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

Who said history has to be accurate? Don't tell that to Quentin Tarantino, who pulled off his newest masterpiece in a brilliant revisionist style. "Inglourious Basterds" is the work of a world-class auteur at the top of his game.
When I first heard years ago that Tarantino was developing a war film, I was hesitant, unsure of whether Tarantino's directing style could fit into a war movie. But then I realized, it is the perfect genre for him. 
Of all of Tarantino's films, "Inglourious Basterds" has the most traditional narrative structure. While all of his other films hop through time in no particular order, this one moves through time in order with only a few brief flashbacks. What's extremely unconventional about it though, are it's multiple different stories that only loosely connect. 
The first story starts in the early days of World War II, in Nazi occupied France. Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), is a French Jew who narrowly escapes death at the hands of brutal Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Four years later, Dreyfus is still living in France under a pseudonym, operating a movie theater and hoping to one day get revenge on the Nazis.
The second story focuses on a group of Jewish American soldiers also in France. This troop, nicknamed the Basterds, also plans to get revenge on the Nazis and their reign of terror. The troop is led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Raine commands his soldiers to attack the Nazis with absolutely no sympathy. He also demands that each man bring him 100 Nazi scalps (and he gets his scalps).
Now, where do these two stories connect? Well, both are revenge missions, and both seek their revenge in the exact same place. Shosanna and the Basterds never meet face to face, but all I can say is that if they ever were to meet, they'd all be pretty good friends.
In almost every way, "Inglourious Basterds" shouldn't be a good movie. It has long expanses of meaningless dialogue, little action, and major historical inaccuracies and politically incorrect stereotypes. It's kind of like "Lawrence of Arabia." But these things don't serve to make the movie worse; they end up making it even better. Only a mind like Tarantino can take flaws and turn them into idiosyncrasies. Only Tarantino could capture people talking and turn it into amazing, real conversations about the meaning of life. The dialogue is harder to quote because most of the film is spoken in either German or French, However, Raine and Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz (Eli Roth) give more than enough catchphrases to go around. 
Oh, and that dialogue. No matter what language, Tarantino's dialogue is always so pleasant to listen to; not a single word out of a character's mouth ever seems corny or contrived. 
And yes, the movie is violent. Very violent. On the Tarantino violence scale, it would rank slightly higher than "Pulp Fiction" but slightly less in "Kill Bill." The violence is often ridiculous, but is also somehow the most realistically violent of all of his films.

Tarantino has a habit of reviving the careers of many once great actors (John Travolta, Michael Parks, Pam Grier, David Carradine). The careeer revived in "Inglourious Basterds" is that of Christoph Waltz. Much has been said about Waltz's performance, and every accolade is well deserved. He plays Landa as both friendly and creepy at the same time. He can seem friendly by making small talk and then intimidating by doing something like ordering someone to get him milk. He is never a villain who seems psychotic, he just seems scary because of his overstated friendliness. It is without a doubt that Landa's Cannes winning performance will also get nominated for an Oscar.
The true villains of World War II, Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, are played here with perfect inaccuracy. Martin Wuttke plays Hitler as  a whiny baby and Sylvester Groth plays Goebbels as a soulless zombie and something of a suck up. While Waltz has gotten the majority of praise, a large amount of it belongs to Groth. Through Groth's eyes, Goebbels doesn't seem like a zombie just from the things he says, but also from the things he does. In one scene, he shakes Shosanna's hand but he doesn't quite give it a tight grip. In fact, he barely grabs it with his cold, white hand. It looks almost like a skeleton who can walk and talk. 
Also scoring points are the Basterds. I always knew Pitt was talented, but not even his performance in "Fight Club" can top this. His Aldo Raine comes from Tennessee, and he talks in a perfect Southern droll. Roth is also a scene stealer. Roth is known for directing torture porn like "Hostel." However, he should stick to acting. His overly hammy Boston accent becomes one of the funniest parts of the movie. And yes, the movie is funny. Tarantino's sense of humor is one of the darkest in cinema; many of the jokes here are dark as ever. However, many are as light and hilarious as Raine's horrible grip on the Italian language. A scene like that almost feels like something out of a Sacha Baron Cohen movie.
Tarantino is known for referencing hundreds and hundreds of movies in everyone of his films. In this one, he often draws references to his own films. The opening scene reminded me something of the Royale with Cheese scene in "Pulp Fiction." Like Jackson, Waltz first disarms the character through light banter before suddenly unloading on him. The revenge mission feels almost like The Bride's in "Kill Bill." 
Tarantino also references many of his favorite movies. You can see a shot that looks like "Scarface" or a camera movement that feels Hitchcockian. What's referenced most here though is Spaghetti Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns were Italian westerns that were made in the late 1960s popularized mainly by Sergio Leone. As I watched "Inglourious Basterds" I realized what it truly was: a Spaghetti Western presented as a war film. There are Mexican standoffs and a score that often resembles the brilliant music of Ennio Morricone. 
The plot of "Inglourious Basterds" is almost directly based off of the plot of "Once Upon a Time in the West." Like "Once Upon a Time in the West," "Inglourious Basterds" is about two different people getting revenge on the same person for different reasons. Both reasons however, have something to do with the loss of family or brotherhood. "Inglourious Basterds" also contains long stretches without much action. However, while Leone reveled in long silences, Tarantino revels in lots and lots of talking.
"Once Upon a Time in the West" is also the best western ever made. "Inglourious Basterds" is one of the best war movies ever made. Not only that, but it is also the most audacious for daring to change the face of history. It really makes sense as to why "Inglourious Basterds" is so revisionist: every Tarantino movie exists in its world with its own interconnecting characters and its own brands. Even though "Inglourious Basterds" doesn't take place during modern times, it feels as if it could've taken place in the same world as any other Tarantino film.
"Inglourious Basterds" was one of few movies I've seen recently where I left feeling reinvigorated, feeling as if all my faith in cinema had been restored. Only someone like Quentin Tarantino can do this. He reinvented the crime drama, the kung fu film, and now, the war film. Being a great director doesn't involve any film school, just a great imagination and a love for movies. And not to mention, a strange and interesting view of the world.
One more thing: we never find out why the title is misspelled. Tarantino says he'll never explain why, and in a way it's better like that. The spelling is a part of Tarantino's world, and we're lucky that we even got this good of a glimpse of it.
If you liked this movie, you'll also like: Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Dollars Trilogy, Carrie, Scarface, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Grindhouse, The Wild Bunch, No Country for Old Men

Thursday, August 20, 2009

That One Scene: (500) Days of Summer

"That One Scene" is a new (and hopefully recurring) series on The Reel Deal where I examine that one scene in a certain movie that sets it apart from all others.
I hate having to answer the question "what do you think is the most important part of a movie" because it is simply impossible to answer. Every part of a film contributes to how good the final product is. Without good actors, the character's don't seem real; without good writing, the situations don't seem real, and without a good director the whole project falls apart.
However, there is always one part of a film that always stands out to me. One thing that in my eyes that can make or break a film: dialogue. Whether or not the characters have believable banter is what contributes to an entire film feeling realistic or not. That is the particular reason why Judd Apatow and Quentin Tarantino are the best scribes currently working in Hollywood.
I would like to bring up a very recent example of great dialogue. It is a very short scene from "(500) Days of Summer." This snippet of dialogue might not seem like much when read aloud, but when put in the context of the film, it is incredible:
Summer: Is that true?
Tom: Yeah, yeah. He drinks and he sings...
Summer: No, no not Mackenzie. The other thing.
Tom: What thing?
Summer: Do me?
Tom: (Pause) Yeah, yeah of course I like you.
Summer:...As friends?
Tom: Right. As friends.
Summer: Just as friends?
Nothing remarkable sounding here. But yet, there is. Even when not hearing this in the context of the film, there is something beautiful about this dialogue's simplicity. In it's simplicity, it feels so real. In it, Summer isn't really asking for an answer she doesn't know, she is just asking for confirmation for something she believes has to be true.
But that's not the point. When you see this scene in the movie, you will realize everything about it is perfect. The surroundings of the scene seem totally irrelevant; everything is focused on Tom and Summer because it is all about them. This is their moment; their first moment where they see that something other than friendship may be possible in the near future.
Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel deliver the dialogue flawlessly. Every emotion they convey is perfectly entwined with every word they speak. They add a level of friendly awkwardness that no script can convey on it's own. It is the true essence of onscreen chemistry: two people (typically a man and a woman) being able to communicate with each other at a realistic level, whether for positive or negative reasons.
I recall a line from Roger Ebert's "Pulp Fiction" review in which he says "this movie would work as an audio book." What he's saying that when dialogue is good, sometimes listening can defeat watching.
Good dialogue is like good music, you can listen to it over and over again. That is the case for this scene of "(500) Days of Summer." It is no complex, witty conversation about hamburgers or foot massages but simply an intimate moment between two strange souls. It is not just the words you want to listen to over and over again, but the delivery.
If "(500) Days of Summer" gets nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars this year (which I 100% guarantee you, it will), this will be the clip shown when its title is announced.
The next installment of "That One Scene" will discuss the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in "Apocalypse Now."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movie Review: District 9

For decades, Hollywood has been fascinated with the concept of life on other planets. The first films about extraterrestrial life began as ones where the aliens were portrayed as villainous, inhumane creatures looking to enslave the human race. Then, in the late 1970s, things turned around when Steven Spielberg proposed the idea that maybe the invading aliens were nothing but friendly, curious creatures. Stemming from that idea is "District 9," one of the biggest surprises of the summer.
"District 9" takes us to Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city. One day, a giant alien space ship stops and hovers over the city. The ships stands hovering over the city for 20 years. Eventually, the government opens the ship up to find an entire alien colony inside. With the ship immobile and the aliens stuck on Earth, the humans decide to segregate them into an area called District 9. We are never told what their race is called or what planet they are from, but simply that humans give them the derogatory name of "Prawn."
While in Johannesburg, the Prawns are mistreated and District 9 turns into a slum. The government plans a giant relocation project for the alien community. This mission is led by Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). At first, Wikus finds him self battling Prawns. Soon however, he finds himself all to close to them.
A lot has been written in recent weeks about the many feats pulled of by "District 9." Most articles have focused on the film's extremely low budget ($30 million) and it's starless cast and first time director. They act like these are impediments, but in fact they are benefits. These elements just serve to make "District 9" more original and more refreshing. The blockbuster and the sci-fi thriller seem to be dying thanks to uninspired ideas and adaptations of toys and video games. Here is the first sci-fi thriller I've seen in a long time that is totally inspired and totally new. 
The first time director at the helm of "District 9" is Neill Blomkamp. Although it's only his feature debut, he directs like a pro. Much of "District 9" is shot in documentary style. A majority of the movie is taken from security camera shots and news footage. However, the whole film isn't shot in documentary style. It transitions at times to a typical filmmaking style. The film always transitions smoothly between these two styles. Often when a film attempts to balance out these two styles, it usually turns out poorly (for example, "Public Enemies"). "District 9" does the rare thing that most experienced filmmakers rarely achieves and makes a successful film that is part mockumentary, part narrative.
The typical blockbuster has needed a big makeover in recent years. Films like "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" have nearly destroyed the idea that entertaining action films can also have a brain. "District 9" brings the brain back to sci-fi. 
Part of "District 9"'s big brain comes from the fact that it's an allegory on apartheid. This makes sense as to why exactly the film is set in South Africa; it's a country that was once torn apart by bitter racial apartheid. This time, the apartheid is against the aliens. The message here isn't just that apartheid is bad, it's that the forced segregation of any being ends up de-humanizing further those who aren't being segregated. It's not the aliens that look like monsters here, it's the people.
While most have talked about the film's connection to apartheid, it also mirrors several other current events. District 9 resembles the slums of Mumbai, and the way that South Africans talk about the visiting Prawns sounds a little bit like the way some people talk about illegal immigrants in this country.
The aliens of "District 9" look like giant grasshoppers who talk like Jabba the Hut. But it's not so much the appearance that is groundbreaking but rather the personalities of the aliens. Even though they are aliens, they behave like people. They raise families, they buy food, and they live in houses. The alien Christopher's troubles makes him seem basically like a human being.
"District 9" is not the best sci-fi film ever made, but it's the best one that's come out in years. It contains some incredible action sequences involving a vaporizer gun. The film also has an ongoing, very dark sense of humor and the emotional finale in a sci-fi film since "Blade Runner."
Already a huge success, there has already been talk of a sequel for "District 9." I usually am not a huge fan of sequels, but this is one the few films that I actually would want a sequel for. That is just how much I liked the characters, and just how much I liked the movie. "District 9" proves that in an unoriginal world, a little bit of unique ideas can go a long way.
Recommended for Fans of: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Blade Runner, Alien, Cloverfield 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

If You Want Quality TV: Mad Men

In case you haven't caught up with the incessant (but well deserved) media coverage in the past few weeks, television's best drama, "Mad Men," will be making it's triumphant return tomorrow. The season three premiere will be airing Sunday, August 16 at 10 PM on AMC.
"Mad Men" is the best drama currently on TV (sorry, "Lost"). It does so by being multi-layered, well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and visually stunning. 
For those procrastinators out there who want to catch up on the first two seasons, you still have 23 hours to do so. For those of you who want to watch but don't feel like watching that much television (note: I wouldn't recommend against this; It would be time well spent), the recap attached below is very helpful:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movie Review: (500) Days of Summer

Ad campaigns can often be misleading. They can make a bad movie look good, and a good movie look bad. Other times, they can make a totally original, breath of fresh air seem like a cliche drag. That was just about the case for "(500) Days of Summer." All I can say is, the final product totally proved me wrong.
The first surprise (unless you've heard anything about this movie prior to seeing it) is that "(500) Days of Summer" is not about a season, but rather about a girl. The film gives us another surprise at the very beginning: this is not a love story. After telling us this, the film begins around day 400 and something. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is beyond heartbroken.
Why is he heartbroken? 400 something days earlier, Tom, a failed architect who now works as a greeting card creator, meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The minute Tom lays eyes on her, he believes he's found the one and only love of his life. Tom and Summer have very different views on love: Tom believes there's one true love for everyone; while Summer is too free spirited to believe that relationships can even exist.
From there, the film tracks the relationship between Tom and Summer. It tracks the very highs, and the very lows. It tracks the moments of real love, the moments of fake love, and the moments of utter resentment. And it does all of this in no particular order.
The structure of the film feels more Tarantinoesque than romantic comedyesque. At one point, we'll be at day 3. Then suddenly, day 188. Day 1. Day 422. Day 57. Day 12. It'll then go back and repeat certain events over and over, but from different perspectives. Maybe a smirk was actually a frown. That's something most films don't do nowadays: stop, look around, and observe.
The film feels like one of those gangster films where a group of failed criminals get together after a botched crime and look back at everything that went wrong; except this time, it's not a botched heist, but a botched love. But was there even love in the first place? Decide for yourself.
The romance part of "(500) Days of Summer" is debatable, but the comedy part certainly is not. While the film has some hilarious dialogue, it doesn't rely on throwaway one-liners to get laughs. It relies on small things, such as tiny edits or little facial expressions to arouse laughter. It might get a laugh out of the deadpan way Summer describes her college nickname, or the order in which it places a certain scene.
Every shot of "(500) Days of Summer" is brimming with energy and life. That's not surprising considering the film is directed by Marc Webb. Before directing this film, Webb was a music video director. Much of the film has the energy and surreal feeling of a music video, as certain scenes will suddenly turn into elaborate drawings while characters churn out giant musical numbers. Many of these creative touches might seem out of place, but they all serve a greater purpose. I can't reveal that purpose hear; you'll just have to see it for yourself.
Every step the film took, I kept waiting for it to mess up. I didn't want it to mess up, but I just couldn't believe a movie could be this perfect. It was hard to believe that the director and the writers could take the right step at the right time during every single moment of the film. Even though it doesn't flow in any sort of chronological order, the film still flows like water. And it's aided at every moment by the anti-chemistry Deschanel and Levitt display. I'm not saying the two actors go poorly together, I'm just saying that this is no ordinary love story. "(500) Days of Summer" is anti a lot of things. Although it is an indie comedy, it plays like the anti-"Garden State."* That is, it challenges all conventional thoughts on love. Love doesn't form because the girl you like also likes The Smiths. But, I can't go into it in much more detail; I'll just let the film speak for itself because sometimes, the best films need to speak for themselves: "Just because some girl likes the same bizarro crap you do, that doesn't make her your soul mate."
Recommended for Fans of: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Graduate, Annie Hall, Garden State, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction
*Note: This comment is not meant to insult "Garden State" in anyway. "Garden State" is a different, but equally good film.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What the Success of G.I. Joe Says About America

Like him or not, comedian Bill Maher often makes some interesting (and very true) observations. On his show last Friday, he remarked how stupid and misinformed Americans have become (I can't find the video, but the transcript is here).
I feel myself starting to agree. But I'm not talking about stupidity when it comes to politics, I'm talking about stupidity when it comes to entertainment. For example, "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" grossed an astonishing $56.2 million on its opening weekend. I haven't seen "G.I. Joe" yet; I haven't even seen "Transformers 2" yet and nor do I ever plan on viewing either of them. Why don't I want to see them? Simply because they're based on toys. If I wanted to see a story about toys, I would take the G.I Joe and Transformers action figures I have out of my cabinet and hit them up against each other, while making up dialogue.
Now, it might be unfair of me to judge either of these movies without actually seeing them. But as critical consensus shows, I'm not missing much. On Rotten Tomatoes, "G.I. Joe" recieved  39% approval rating while "Transformer 2" received an abysmal 20%.  So, why is it that "Transformers 2" is on its way to making $400 million while "G.I. Joe" is starting to make what looks like a big final fortune? Simply put: stupidity. Why can't anyone think of an original idea anymore? Why must movies be made for the simple purpose of merchandising?
Maybe the reason isn't so much that studios don't want to create original ideas as much as they've forgotten how to. It kind of reminds of "Fahrenheit 451;" the reason books were banned wasn't so much that the government didn't want people to read them as much as people had stopped reading them and there was really no use for them anymore. Likewise, when you stop thinking of original screenplays, the ideas never come back.
But our popular culture hasn't fallen that low yet, and we certainly aren't in a dark age as Roger Ebert suggests. There are still some great movies out there now that nobody is seeing. Take for example, "The Hurt Locker." It's by far the best film this summer (and maybe even this year, if you don't count unreleased Sundance entries). It's currently tracking an amazing 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So why then, is it still playing in just 535 theaters? Like "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe," "The Hurt Locker" is filled with actions and explosions. I believe there is an audience for this film, you just can't ignore the fact that some people look for a more meaningful experience when they go to the movies. And even those who don't might find something to like in this movie, if only they are given the chance.
Before I sum up all of my points and reach a conclusion, there are still two films I'd like to mention that are perceived by most as the biggest disappointments of the summer: "Bruno" and "Funny People." I'll admit that both were not as masterful as I had hoped, but that didn't stop me from being entertained and even fascinated by both. For all their faults, both tried to do something new and original. They strived to break new ground rather than be part of existing trends. Now, the message their poor box office receipts will send to studios is never to make a daring comedy ever again.
But there is one glimmer of hope: the wide release of the upcoming "District 9." Yes, it's a blockbuster. But it's not based on a toy, a video game, or even a comic book; it's a purely inspired, purely original idea. It's a film about aliens, but it's also an allegory on apartheid. So as long as studios find ways to provide smart movies to a wide audience, there is a chance for the survival of intelligence in Hollywood. But as long as movies like "G-Force" are raking in big bucks and movies like "Twilight" are dominating awards*, it's survival will remain on life support.
In conclusion, maybe it's not the people that are dumb, it's the movies. And once Hollywood figures that out, this supposed "Dark Age" will finally come tumbling down.

*I meant the MTV Movie Awards/Teen Choice Awards; nothing major like the Oscars or Golden Globes. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

John Hughes: The Man Who Made High School a Little Less Miserable Dies at 59

It's been a strange summer. Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Karl Malden, and Walter Cronkite all succumbed to long, terminal illnesses. Meanwhile, Michael Jackson and Billy Mays both died unexpectedly. Today, another great was lost unexpectedly. John Hughes, the renowned director of such 80s classics as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "The Breakfast Club," "Weird Science," and "Sixteen Candles," died today of a heart attack. He was 59.
Nearly every major comedy director today looking to make a high school film will tell you that they're inspiration is John Hughes. Others might tell you otherwise, but what they're really trying to do is recreate what John Hughes did to comedy in the 1980s. 
I'm sad to say I've only seen two Hughes films; both however, are nothing short of classics. I first watched "Ferris Bueller" in fifth grade. Ferris was always someone I wish I could be. With that movie, Hughes managed to obtain great screwball comedy as well as one of the greatest lines in movie history: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Years later, and that's still the one quote most people are putting into their senior high school yearbooks.
I watched "The Breakfast Club" in health class. Yes, "The Breakfast Club" captures high school so well that even teachers seem to think it's good enough to be shown in school. Hughes did a mastery job with "The Breakfast Club" by making it a film that doesn't focus on one clique, but rather on all of them. And in that, Hughes captured what it meant to be a teenager.

Hughes was known as being rather reclusive; he hadn't directed a movie since 1991.  He was almost like the J.D. Salinger of directors, rarely doing interviews or even showing his face in public. But he didn't have to, the movies spoke for themselves. They speak as the ultimate testament to teen angst.
The song at the finale of "The Breakfast Club" might be called "Don't You Forget About Me." John, we won't be forgetting about you anytime soon.

TV Review: How I Met Your Mother

The traditional sitcom is not dead yet. No, it has been reborn--maybe only for a brief moment, but it certainly is npt yet dead. What the traditional sitcom needed was a shot of unconventionality, a shot "How I Met Your Mother" was able to deliver.
If I wanted, I could just give you a simple premise of "How I Met Your Mother." I could tell you that it's about a group of twenty-something New Yorkers who spend most of their free time talking about nothing while sorting out relationships in a bar. However, that premise would not give this show justice.
Here is the show's true premise. It does center around a group of twenty-something New Yorkers. The most important of them is Ted (Josh Radnor), an ambitious architect looking for love. His friends include Marshall (Jason Segel), who is currently making his way through law school and is engaged to Lily (Alyson Hannigan), a teacher whom he has been with since college. In our eyes, Marshall and Lily seem like the greatest couple ever. Finally, there's Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). Barney is the most confident member of the group. He seems more focused on getting women and getting drunk than actually making something of himself.
Here is where the show gets really original. The story is told from the perspective of Ted in the year 2030 as he explains to his kids how he met their mother. He begins his story the day he meets Robin (Cobie Smulders), the girl who would change his life. He explains how he falls in love with her, how she then becomes part of the gang, and then how they fall in and out of love all over again. Then hopefully one day, we'll find out how he met their mother.
Before we talk about what makes this show so unconventional, lets talk about what makes it so funny. The show often uses typical comic devices such as self-contradictions. Other times, it uses the scenery to make us laugh. In one episode, the gang goes to a very noisy club. Rather than do the cliche thing and be able to hear everything they say while everything else is muted, the creators instead decide to add in subtitles.
Mainly though, the show manages to make us laugh by just having funny characters. Segel is a TV veteran and also a pro at bringing lovable awkwardness to a new level. Segel and Hannigan are perfectly cast in their roles and have a chemistry that most A-list stars can barely hold on film. Hannigan, meanwhile, will make you forget that the only thing you know her by was a certain incident at band camp involving a flute.
Despite whatever chemistry Segel and Hannigan may hold, the real show-stealer here is Harris. Maybe it's because creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas gave Barney the best zingers (can you say "legendary"?), or maybe it's because Harris is so good at delivering his lines. Every time Harris opens his mouth, you're bound to get a laugh out of it. With all luck, Harris will snag the Best Supporting Actor statue this year at the Emmys.
Now, lets get to the unconventionality of the show. "How I Met Your Mother" is not simply about a group of friends, but it has a larger purpose behind it. You feel like the creators knew exactly where they wanted the show to go with the show from the very beginning yet they don't want you to know. In a way, each episode always seems to contain some mystery to it.
There will almost always be a shocking twist at the end, and each episode is formatted almost like a movie. For instance, one episode contains Ted trying to piece together all the clues from a very drunken night, a very likely inspiration for "The Hangover." After some twists are revealed, you'll feel dumb for not seeing it coming. Other times, the twist is so sneaky and so complex that even the smartest person would never see it coming (as much as I would like to give the example I really don't want to ruin it for you).
"How I Met Your Mother," like any traditional sitcom, has a laugh track. However, this isn't the annoying kind of laugh track that "oohs" and "aahs" at every kiss and cheers loudly every time their favorite character enters a room. No, all it does, is laugh. And it doesn't feel like the show is telling you when you're supposed to laugh, but rather it laughs with you at all the right moments.
While the sitcoms of the 90s were simply about a group of friends ("Seinfeld," "Friends"), the shows of the 2000s that want to use that format must strive for something further. "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" had to add a father figure. "How I Met Your Mother" had to make itself a show about the past, the future, and massive time warps all while enjoying a few drunken nights and chats about nothing. And not only that, it's a total breath of fresh air in television market clogged with uninspired ideas and reality shows.

Monday, August 3, 2009

More Thoughts on Funny People

This is an unofficial second review of Funny People. Some movies are just so big, they need to be reviewed twice.
Usually, once I review a film, it's done. But sometimes, I am so conflicted over a film that I can't help but go back to it. This happened with "Funny People." Critical consensus is telling me not to like this movie, but something inside me is telling me not to listen.
I finished my review of "Funny People" still partially undecided. I am still mixed on my opinion, but if I had to choose one end of the spectrum, "Funny People" would fall towards the "good" end.
The reason I have decided to revisit "Funny People" is because so much happens in this long movie, and I feel like I barely got to cover everything I wanted to in one review. One thing I really would like to talk more about is the film's massive supporting cast. I talked plenty about Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, but not enough about Jason Schwartzman. Schwartzman is one of my favorite comic actors today, and his performance in "Funny People" as an actor who caught a lucky break on a horrible sitcom was a highlight of the film. His performance reminded of his performance in "Rushmore;" like Max Fisher, his "Funny People" character always casts off an air of superiority for minor achievements. He was born to play smug.
Also worth mentioning is the always great Leslie Mann and the breakout performance by Aubrey Plaza. On that note, a post on PopWatch today made a fascinating observation about the portrayal of women in "Funny People." While some wrongly accused Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" of being sexist (*cough* Katherine Heigl *cough*), the women in this film are portrayed as being no different then the men. Plaza's Daisy is just a struggling comedian like the rest of the guys. Meanwhile, Mann's Laura seems much less reactionary than Debbie in "Knocked Up," despite hiding much more sadness.
There are so many great characters in "Funny People." The real problem with the film was that even with its long running time, you still feel like you want more from the characters. Maybe the problem with the film wasn't that it was too long, but that it wasn't long enough. I'm not much of a sequel person but I would not at all mind seeing more of these characters' lives (luckily, a Randy movie is reportedly in the works).
Overall, it seems impossible not to recommend this movie because overall, it is a well made movie. It's a comedy that's not like most comedies coming out nowadays: it's not formulaic, it's not predictable, and it's real. Each of these characters feel like real people with conflicting emotions and even the power to change. But then again, it is an Apatow film.
"Funny People" is definitely different from the rest of Apatow's oeuvre. Most of his film's endings are decided from the beginning, but it's the path to the end that is unpredictable. "Funny People" takes the opposite approach. In "Knocked Up," you know from the beginning that one way or another Alison will have the baby, and Ben will one way or another be there. In "Funny People," we know that George will try and win Laura back. Whether or not he'll succeed at it, remains unclear. I don't know which approach is better but in the end, both work. I am excited to see whether Apatow continues this new approach to comedy. If he does, then "Funny People" was just an experiment, something that wasn't meant to be perfect. His next film then, should be comic gold.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Movie Review: Funny People

Judd Apatow is the comedy legend of our day. It seems that just about everything he touches turns to gold. After a few years of small producing and writing efforts, Apatow returns with his first directorial effort in two years with "Funny People." At first, it might not seem like comic gold. But under its scratched surface, lies a diamond in the rough.
"Funny People" is probably Apatow's most personal project to date. He incorporates real life experiences into every movie he does, but never so much as in "Funny People." In fact, "Funny People" starts off with real footage of Apatow and Adam Sandler making prank calls when they were just starting off in the comedy business.
But forget reality, lets head off to movieland. "Funny People" is a dramedy about George Simmons (Adam Sandler). Simmons is based partly off the life and career of Sandler; he's a comic legend who's become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He may have a big, beautiful home, but like Charles Foster Kane, that home is completely empty.
Now, Simmons has discovered that he has come down with a terminal disease. In his near-death experience, Simmons decides to seize the moment and reevaluate his life. First, he decides to return to his standup career. Then, he hires struggling young comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to be his writer and something of an assistant. Next, he decides to win back an old flame (Leslie Mann) who is currently married to an Australian man (Eric Bana).
"Funny People" isn't just a personal project for Apatow--it's just as personal for Sandler. And because of that, he gives the best performance he's given since "Punch Drunk Love." However, "Funny People" isn't as much of a flat-out drama as "Punch Drunk Love" was. Maybe it's not seriousness that makes Sandler's performance so good, perhaps it's maturity. In "Funny People," he's just as funny as in classics "Billy Madison" and "Happy Gilmore." However, here, there is a degree of self-awareness. The style of humor of George Simmons is something like the style of humor that made Sandler famous in the 90s. Those bothered by Sandler's sense of humor won't be bothered here.
A performance less acknowledged by critics is Rogen's. He projects a high level of awkwardness, especially when Ira is struggling through stand up routines. It's funny, but we're not laughing at him; in a way, we're cheering for him. Rogen also brings probably the most emotion he's ever brought to a role when expressing his feelings towards George in their very rocky friendship.
The film contains a fine ensemble of comedians both old and very new. Apatow regular Jonah Hill is a scene stealer in his portrayal of a comedian who realizes the key to comic gold is YouTube videos of cats. Meanwhile, newcomers like Aubrey Plaza ("Parks & Recreation") pull their own weight as well. Most surprisingly is how hilarious Eric Bana is. Then again, I shouldn't be too surprised. Before becoming a serious actor, Bana was a standup comic Down Under, and even had his own comedy show.
Along with being a dramedy, "Funny People" is also a self-reflexive show business satire. It contains fictional movies and TV shows within a fictional movie. There are actors playing actors, and actors playing themselves. Many are celebrities you would never expect to be funny, yet it turns out a certain rapper who I won't name happens to have a very good sense of humor about himself. Meanwhile, the movie within a movie "Re Do" and the show within a movie "Yo Teach!" show the somewhat dismal state of mainstream comedy.
Although all of these aspects of the movie--the actors, the satire, the drama--are all great, they all serve as part of the film's bigger problems. The first real flaw with the film is that it's too long. "Funny People" is around 145 minutes long, and you can feel every minute of it. Some scenes drag on too long. The film also tries to tackle way too much. It's central focus should be the relationship between George and Ira, and George's quest to win back Laura's affection. However, the film also goes off trying to tackle Ira's girl troubles, as well as the careers of a few other rising comics.
The only problem is, I don't think I would want to remove a single scene from the movie because every scene is so good, every character is so fascinating, and every joke is so funny. The editors must have had a more difficult time than they could ever have imagined with this film.
But there is also another reason it would be impossible to cut a single scene out. The film isn't meant to focus solely on George and Ira. "Funny People" is an ensemble film, and as an ensemble film, it must cover a wide amount of people rather than a small amount. Apatow decided with "Funny People" to make both a personal relationship film and a collage of the lives of assorted comedians.
So now I sit here, wondering whether to tell you to see or not to see this movie. Instead, I'm going to do what a good critic does best: give you my opinion, and then let you decide for yourself whether or not you should see it. This is a movie made for people who don't just like comedy, but are diehard fans of it. Even if you're not, you'll still laugh at the brilliant stand up routines and be wowed at the human connections that Apatow's career has become defined by. To put it in short, this is the first comedy epic I've ever seen.
On the Apatow Scale: 1. The 40 Year Old Virgin 2. Knocked Up 3. Funny People