Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny People-A comedy?

Judd Apatow has made a name for himself the past few years as the creative force in cinematic comedy, despite only actually directing two movies. His work as producer and writer has given us some of the best comedies in recent memory, and he's now back with his third directorial effort, which he also wrote and produced, the semi-autobiographical Funny People.

Apatow cast his protege Seth Rogen in the role of Ira (obviously based on himself), a struggling stand-up comic who lucks into writing jokes for lowbrow comedy superstar George Simmons, Ira's comedic hero, and a character obviously based on the career of Adam Sandler. Not coincidental then perhaps, that George is played by Adam Sandler. But away from the big screen, George is a verbally abusive, depressed guy who kinda keeps Ira around as his de-facto friend, seemingly his only friend. George has found out that he has a serious blood disorder that he has a very small chance of living through. Undoubtedly inspired by his near death situation, he tries to get in touch with "the girl that got away", Laura, played by Apatow regular Leslie Mann (aka Mrs. Apatow). One problem is that "the girl that got away" really did get away, most obviously in the fact that she has a husband and two kids (hilariously played by Eric Bana, and the adorable Maude and Iris Apatow).

The movie isn't really a leap for Sandler, since he's already done his really serious movie Punch-Drunk Love, as well as another dramedy, Spanglish. But I think he continues to show a lot of depth and talent as an actual actor. His increasingly lined face tells us a lot about George's internal struggle with his disease, and his occasionally awkward relationship to Ira. George isn't an easily likable guy, and Sandler doesn't really seem to try to make him such. He plays him as a complicated man that occasionally makes us laugh, can make us uncomfortable, and actually felt like a character and not like Sandler acting a role. There are some funny supporting roles from Apatow regular Jonah Hill, semi-regular Jason Schwartzman, and hopefully future regular Aubrey Plaza as the token female comic of the group. Seth Rogen has really grown since his days on Apatow's ridiculously brilliant TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and he has quite a few nice moments here, as does Leslie Mann, but for me this was all Sandlers show, and I was left greatly impressed.

One thing I would say though is that I wouldn't really classify Funny People as comedy. Apatow has accurately described it as a dramedy, and he doesn't shy away from the drama. He's said that he had had an idea for a movie about a guy dealing with a disease and how that affected his life, and realized he should mesh it with the other idea he'd long had, a movie about stand-up comics like the ones he idolized and occasionally wrote for before he was famous. He and Sandler had been roommates while trying to make it big, and had stayed friends over the years, so it was a natural fit that Sandler star in the movie.

Overall, I think just as highly of it as I do of his previous movies The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but it's in a different mold, he's dealing with different issues here, more adult issues. It looks terrific, and I would like to see Apatow work with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski again. But Kaminski should know how to shoot a movie, as Steven Spielberg's go to director of photography, Kaminski has so far picked up 2 Oscars, and has another 2 nominations under his belt. Apatow is a master of surrounding himself with talented people, and I'll be very interested to see where he goes next as a writer/director.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Roger Ebert, a critic I admire a great deal, has received a lot of flack over his 4-star review of the movie Knowing. Review aggregating website shows that only 32% of published critical reviews were positive, with the general consensus stating "Knowing has some interesting ideas and a couple good scenes, but it's weighted down by its absurd plot and over-seriousness." Well, the movie is about a man finding a sheet of paper that predicts the end of the world. It's a sort of disaster movie, of course it's ridiculous. And since it deals with the apocalypse, I would hope it would be over-serious. Do we really want apocalyptic movies any other way?

The movie kicks off with an elementary school class in 1959 creating a time capsule full of their drawings of what they think the future will be like, to be opened 50 years later. We see little Lucinda (an effectively creepy Lara Robinson), whose contribution to the time capsule is a page covered in numbers. Cut to 2009, where Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) is part of the elementary school class that gets to open up the time capsule, and he is the one that receives Lucinda's paper. His father John (Nicolas Cage) starts looking at the paper one night and notices the group of numbers 91101, or 9-11-01, with a number beside it that happens to be the number of lives lost on that day. He begins going through the paper, front and back, and finding dates and lives lost of many tragedies that've happened over the last 50 years, including 3 that will happen over the next few days. John also gets in contact with the now deceased Lucinda's daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and her daughter Abby (also played by Lara Robinson, though less creepy this time).

The movie was directed by Australian visual virtuoso Alex Proyas, who directed one of my favorite movies, Dark City. The visuals here are less impressive than they were there, but there is a tremendous plane crash that was obviously influenced by Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, as it's a single take of the crash and its destructive aftermath, with Nic Cage wandering through the chaos. I think Proyas keeps the first two acts of the movie believable enough that we're invested enough in what is happening to go along with the "ridiculousness" of the final act. It's a bit difficult to review the ending of the movie, since it really requires a back and forth discussion, but I'll just say that it worked for me. There are a lot of religious evocations happening that I think turned some people off, but all of it was well done, and I thought very effective.

I feel like many people didn't give this movie a fair shot due to the presence of Nicolas Cage. He's done such a vast amount of shit over the last few years that I think most people had a pre-existing prejudice against this movie just because of his recent track record. Because of my previous love of Alex Proyas's movies (not just Dark City, but also The Crow, and I even enjoyed I, Robot despite its many flaws) I looked at Knowing as an Alex Proyas project that happened to star Nic Cage, which is what it was. I'm saddened that many people didn't give the movie a chance, Cage isn't as great as he's been in the past (Adaptation., Bringing Out the Dead, Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, the man's given us a lot of great performances), but he's good enough to not ruin the story, and the other actors are at about the same level. No one is great, other than young Lara Robinson, but nobody ruins anything either. This movie is more about the story, no matter how ridiculous, and how well it works. I thought it worked tremendously.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Sam Bell is a lonely man. He is the solitary employee at a mining base on the Moon, with only the base's computer, Gerty, to keep him company. He's nearing the end of his 3 year contract, and can't wait to get back home to his wife and young daughter. The communications are such that he has to record video messages to his family and send them out, because there's no live feed off of the Moon. Sam keeps an eye on all of the mining outposts, and sends containers of Helium-3 energy back to Earth when enough has been mined. But after nearly 3 years alone, Sam is starting to crack up. He begins having hallucinations, and accidentally crashes his vehicle into one of the mining units. He wakes up in the infirmary with no recollection of the crash, other than Gerty telling him that he's had an accident and must go through some tests before he can return to work. He gets even more confused when he is able to sneak away from base and check out the crash site, and finds in the cab of the vehicle, the body of Sam Bell. Has he gone completely crazy, or is there something happening that he doesn't know about?

Sam is brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell, one of the best and most underappreciated actors working today. It's the best performance I've seen so far this year. Although we have Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) also around, Rockwell is the only human that we don't see simply through video messages. The entire film rests on his shoulders, and he's fascinating in the role. We believe that Sam is going a little nutty, but even he doesn't know what to believe at first. He's flabbergasted to find himself in the cab of the vehicle, and I never doubted once that these two Sam's were occupying the same space when they're both onscreen. Rockwell will hopefully not be forgotten once award season rolls around, because both he and the movie deserve the attention.

Moon is the first feature film by director Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie. He shows a remarkably sure hand, not afraid to let us be just as confused as Sam is as to what's going on, and why. He also doesn't let the movie get boring, which is always nice. Although it is certainly slow paced, something interesting, either on the surface or below it, is always happening, we're always engaged. The look of the movie is obviously greatly inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Jones just takes inspiration from there, I never felt like he was copying Kubrick either in the visuals or in the atmosphere of the movie. He took inspiration, but Jones has created a masterpiece that is his own.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince evokes J.K. Rowling's books better than any of the previous 5 movies, and is unsurprisingly the best of the series because of it. David Yates returns to the director's chair and he seems to really understand how to make these movies. The first two in the series were too slavish to the novels, afraid to make any changes to Rowling's material, even though some changes are always necessary when switching between formats. The third film saw visual mastermind Alfonso Cuaron taking over the directing duties and adding a certain flair that was missing from the flatness of the first two. But it was frustratingly clipped in its running time, making it feel rushed and having none of Rowling's small character moments that make her books such a joy to read again and again. The fourth film was less visually pleasing, but benefitted from a far better story. The fifth in the series, and the first from Yates, showed much of the darkness that runs through the novels, without forgetting the humor, and added many of the smaller moments that I love so much. Half-Blood Prince takes that same approach to another level, and becomes both a great adaptation, and a great movie.

The kids that play our three heroes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, have grown up right in front of our eyes over the past 8 years. There have been a number of the awkward moments that you expect from young actors, but I found none of those in this movie. Daniel Radcliffe has really embodied Harry, not simply resting on his resemblance to the character description in the books (which has always been almost exactly as Rowling described Harry). Rupert Grint has an ease on screen as Ron, this time around getting the chance to be more than just the comic relief. Emma Watson has not only grown into a stunning young woman, but proven that she's probably the most talented of the group, imbuing Hermione with intelligence, grace, and a heartbreaking vulnerability that you don't often expect to get from an actress her age. Half-Blood Prince is her best chance yet to prove her skills.

The teachers and other adults have often felt, to me, simply like cameos from some of Britain's greatest talents. They mostly still do here, but there is less of them. Michael Gambon could never have pulled off a Dumbledore as he was created in the books, I don't think any actor ever could. He is still immensely effective in this movie though, bringing the humor that he'd brought in the past, while also bringing some of the gravitas he'd been missing from the character. Alan Rickman thankfully enjoys more screentime in this outing, and the movie is much better off for it. His Professor Snape is one of the great joys of the series, and Rickman is better here than he's been in any of the previous films. I'm afraid that I'm not quite happy with Jim Broadbent's Professor Slughorn, who got turned into little more than a bumbling fool in transition from page to screen. Helena Bonham Carter, on the other hand, perfectly cast as Bellatrix Lestrange, is a bit more reined in in her performance, in a good way. She makes the absence of Voldemort himself a little less noticeable.

Visually, I think that Yates has created the best of the series. His framing of shots and scenes, as well as his seemless transitions add both a visual and storytelling flow that I don't think the series has yet had. Also, along with writer Steve Kloves, Yates isn't scared of not being plot driven, and adds in moments that build the relationships between the characters. The budding romances between Ron and Hermione, and Harry and Ron's sister Ginny are both handled beautifully. A scene in the Room of Requirement between Harry and Ginny is completely nonexistent in the novel, but is perfection in dealing with the development of their relationship, as well as just being a wonderful moment all on its own, one which could've easily been written by Rowling herself.

It's not flawless, but most of the complaints I had were extremely minor. I would've loved to have had more of Evanna Lynch's pitch-perfect Luna Lovegood, but that's just wishful thinking. I think many fans of the books might be disappointed in the staging of the climax of the story (and the omittance of a legendary fight in the series), but I am not one of those people. All the changes made are understandable, and they all work just fine in the context of the movie. The Inferi aren't quite what I pictured them as, but Gambon's acting in the sequence, and Yates' conscious evoking of The Ten Commandments work terrifically to make the impact that the scene needs to make.

Overall, as a giant (and longtime) Harry Potter nerd, I was thrilled with this movie. It's by far the best in the series, and gets me even more excited to see how David Yates handles the final chapter of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is going to be split into two movies. I'm just sad I'll have to wait until next fall to see part 1.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Enemies

Director Michael Mann has already made one of the great crime movies, 1995's Heat, and I was really hoping that his Public Enemies would be able to ride alongside it in greatness. It doesn't, but it's still a damn fine movie. It stars Johnny Depp as infamous 1930's bank robber John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his girl Billie, and Christian Bale as FBI man Melvin Purvis. Purvis had previously taken down Pretty Boy Floyd, and would also take out Baby Face Nelson in the process of hunting "Public Enemy #1" Dillinger.

Although he's now 15 years older than Dillinger was when he died, Johnny Depp is completely believable as the charismatic bank robber. When he tells Billie "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else you need to know?", it's spouted off in such a way that we can't help but think this vicious bank robber is a cool guy. Mann and Depp don't sugar coat Dillinger either, during a robbery a bank manager tries to stall by fumbling with the keys to open the vault, likely in hopes that the cops would be there shortly. Dillinger whips him with his pistol and says "You can either be a dead hero, or a live coward. Open it up." Mann also doesn't make Purvis into a saint, showing he and his guys beating people, and withholding medicine from a man who's been shot in the head because he can give them information about Dillinger's whereabouts.

One of my biggest complaints in the past few years about action movies, or in this case movies with action scenes, is the proliferation of the "shaky cam". It's not a new technique or anything, it's simply badly done hand-held camera work, but it seems to be everywhere now. Mann doesn't use it a lot, but there were more than a couple of times that I was wishing someone knew how to work a camera so that I could visually understand what the hell was happening on screen. It's nowhere near Paul Greengrass's movie ruining use of it in the last two Bourne movies, but when I can't even focus on an actors face because the camera is jostling so much, it becomes a problem for me as a viewer.

Depp, as I mentioned, is terrific here. Not that that should surprise anyone, he's one of the best actors in the world. Depp lets us into Dillinger's mind as he initially doesn't think about anything beyond today (or maybe tomorrow), but slowly starts to think about a "final score" and a retirement as he finds something he cares about so deeply, Billie. Christian Bale is solid, if unremarkable, as Purvis. We get that he's determined to take Dillinger down, but I didn't feel Bale hinting at anything deeper than the surface the way Depp did. Marion Cotillard, who gave us one of the great performances of all time with her Oscar-winning role in La Vie en Rose, is a little disappointing here. She's not bad, but she isn't special and doesn't make Billie anything more than the standard gangster's girl type.

It seems like I did a lot of complaining in this review, but I really do like the movie a lot. There are certainly some below-par things in it (and I didn't even mention the often misplaced score), but I certainly would recommend it to anyone who asked. Mann fills the screen with such wonderful period details that the movie has a great sort of lived-in feel that is crucial to period pieces. It just feels like maybe it could've been more, like it could've been a truly great movie but just didn't quite make it. Still, you could do a lot worse than a movie that's only "really good".