Saturday, January 30, 2010

Albert Brooks and Ricky Gervais - comedians taking control

A few months ago, I had my first viewing of the brilliant Albert Brooks romantic/comedy Defending Your Life, which he wrote and directed in 1991. Just recently, I had another viewing of the brilliant Ricky Gervais romantic/comedy The Invention of Lying, (which was on my top ten of '09, but I now see at much too low of a spot). Gervais had previously written and directed his television shows The Office and Extras (with comedic partner Stephen Merchant), but this was his first foray into feature writing and directing (although he again shares both credits, this time with friend Matthew Robinson). These two movies might not initially seem connected, but I felt that they were sort of spiritual siblings. The Invention of Lying is set in a world where everyone tells the truth, whether you want to hear it or not, and Gervais' character tells the first lie. He falls in love with a woman played by Jennifer Garner, who has no qualms telling him that she can't be with him, since they "would have chubby little fat kids with stub noses". Brooks' movie concerns a man dying, showing up in a sort of Purgatory called Judgement City, and finding out that he is going to have to defend the way he lived his life on Earth before he can move on to Heaven. While there, he meets and falls in love with a character played by Meryl Streep. The central ideas in these two movies aren't the most Earth shattering ideas ever, or anything like that. But they're outside the box of the type of movies we generally see, it I think it proves that when brilliant comedians take control of their fate on the big screen, we in the audience can really reap the rewards.

The Brooks picture is really a fascinating one. He's told that he will have to defend 9 (I think it was) days of his life while in Judgement City. "Is that a lot?" he asks. It's not a lot or a little, he's told, it just is. But to a neurotic guy like Brooks, that sure seems like a lot, and when he tells people how many he has to defend, people always give him a "Ooh, sorry" kind of response. But the city is nice, they can eat all they want without gaining any weight, and stay at hotels while they're there. Streep's character is booked at a Four Seasons type hotel, while Brooks is relegated to the local Holiday Inn type, only reinforcing his fears that he will be sent back to Earth instead of "progressing on". Streep's character is only defending 4 days, and when Brooks sneaks into her trial he sees things like her saving her family from their burning house and her prosecuting attorney crying and saying "I just wanted to see that again" after Brooks' prosecutor has been relentless in saying he doesn't deserve to move on. As a writer/director, Brooks had previously been criticized for being able to come up with great ideas, but never a satisfying ending for his movies. That is certainly not the case here, as you'll find out if you ever get a chance to check it out.

Gervais also sets his movie in a world different than one we typically see. Even the love interest, the Jennifer Garner character, could seem like kind of a bitch when you take into account everything she says to Gervais, but the more you look, you see that she's actually a very sweet person. She's as nice and warm as anyone can really be in a world where a nursing home is called "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People" and the Pepsi signs read "For when they don't have Coke". But Gervais' character introduces lying into the equation, so that whenever Gervais and his friend get pulled over for drunk driving, Gervais simply says "He's not drunk", and the officer immediately apologizes for assuming that he was drunk when he wasn't. But during an emotional scene trying to comfort his mother (surprisingly powerfully acted by Gervais), he accidentally creates religion and heaven, which brings all kinds of complications to this strange world.

At their hearts, both movies are really just these comedians taking on the usually stale genre of romantic comedies. Taking control of their careers and starring in their own films, they go to something as simple as romanticism, but with their own unique twist on how they see the world, bringing delightful twists to our movie watching enjoyment. After seeing Defending Your Life, it makes me wish that Brooks didn't take so long between directorial efforts (especially since I've always loved his next movie, Mother, with the brilliant Debbie Reynolds). Thankfully, Gervais seems to be in the middle of a great creative run, since I see that he has a project supposedly due out this April. I look forward to it, and wish more great comedic minds stepped behind the camera (and into the writers room) of the projects that they work on. We would probably have a lot more interesting landscape of big screen comedies out there. Woody Allen can't be the only one to make a career of doing it that way.

J.D. Salinger - 1919-2010

Ok, that's weird. I swear the I didn't go kill J.D. Salinger just because I didn't like his book. Just a coincidence that I wrote a negative review two days before he died. I mean, he was 91, right?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger's seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most famous and most taught books in the American school system, and also one of its most widely challenged, for its consistent usage of foul language and less desirable encounters that parents would rather not expose their children to. I'm not really sure I agree with the challengers, since I wouldn't want my kids to read the book simply because it's 200-plus pages with its decidedly unpleasant 16-ish narrator Holden Caulfield taking us through his few days between getting kicked out of school, and returning to home for the holidays and facing his parents with the news of yet another expulsion. On the way he berates people for being "phony" (in his head mostly, through the extensive narration), drinks and smokes too much, curses like he's just discovered swearing and wants to break the words in, is depressed about random things, and gets excited and happy about equally random things. Honestly, the book could've been called The Spoiled Little Rich Bastard Who Bitches About Shit for 200 Pages, and described its contents pretty accurately.

Maybe it's because I wasn't an angst filled teen like Holden is, but I found him monotonous and supremely boring as a character. He's the perfectly written embodiment of said type of teen, but that doesn't make him any more interesting as our guide through this story. It's a painfully repetitive take on a character, even if it is an accurate representation of many kids of that age. Holden, and therefor the novel, gets a bit more poetic as the story comes to a close and he's forced to face life a little bit more, which is nice. But ultimately it's too little too late. I understand that there are many interpretations of what Holden says and the situations he gets himself into, but I find myself glad to be rid of him and his dourness. I don't want to delve more into what I read, because that would mean spending more time with the book, and I don't want to.

On a bit of a positive note, I like the talent Salinger has with dialog (he's not Elmore Leonard or anything, but he's got something good going), even if every character but Holden's sister Phoebe and former teacher Mr. Antolini all sound the same. Holden certainly is memorable, and I can see how the interpretability of the novel appeals to teachers (as well as letting them show their students something that they might like, you know, themselves) but I'm not sure I ever feel the need to take this journey with him again.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Last night while I went to see James Cameron's long awaited new movie Avatar, the movie itself was busy winning Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director. Of course, it's been out for a month or more now, but I'm just getting around to seeing it. Cameron spent years (and many hundreds of millions of dollars) crafting the script, the supposedly revolutionary 3-D technology, and then the final product of the movie. I have to say, I wasn't that impressed.

The story concerns a crippled former Marine named Jake Sully (played with spotty accent by Australian newcomer Sam Worthington) who goes to the tropical world of Pandora and interacts with the native people, the Na'vi, through an organically grown copy of the natives (the avatar of the title), which he can control from a pod on the human base. As he interacts with the Na'vi, he begins to learn more about them, fall in love with one of them, and eventually fight against the human invasion of the planet. If you're thinking you've seen this storyline before, it's because you have. You saw it just a few years ago in the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai, and about 20 years ago in Kevin Costner's Oscar-winning epic Dances with Wolves. So since originality of story is not going to be Cameron's forte, which I knew going into it, he'd need to wow me with the technology.

The movie is beautiful to look at, with many wonderful sights that I'd not technically seen before, but which didn't smack of an amazing newness. All the same, it's gorgeously made. The special effects that Cameron also spent so much time developing are flawless and the best I've ever seen in a movie. I was never once questioning that the human actors and the CGI were occupying the same space and came to view the Na'vi as I would a human actor. With the majority of the movie taking place in this new world of Pandora with all its new sights and sounds, I had hoped for something to wow me, to really give me a sense of awe the way Spielberg did in Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Cameron himself had done in the sinking of the Titanic. Sadly, this was not the case for me. I wasn't wowed once, not when Jake is flying on a dragon-like creature through the air, nor when he's taken to an ancient tree that connects the Na'vi to their ancestors, nor during any of the movie's many action sequences. The closest I came to feeling anything like that was during the collapsing of a giant tree, but even that failed to achieve the level of awe I'd hoped for.

Sadly, I think part of the problem is that the 3-D adds absolutely nothing to the experience, and likely took away that special something that I was missing. Cameron's "revolutionary" work didn't make me see anything differently on screen. As far as 3-D goes, it was terrifically done, but wholly unnecessary and distracting from the movie, as 3-D always is and always will be. I had to wear these stupid glasses (which admittedly are light years better than the old cardboard ones) which gave me a physical barrier to see through in addition to the distracting and occasionally headache inducing effect that 3-D has anyway.

I had hoped, even with my pre-existing aversion to 3-D, that Cameron would be able to make an extraordinary movie to thrill me despite having seen this type of story before. The most negative side to recycling a standard story is that I couldn't help think about when it was done better. What came off as thoughtful curiosity in Dances with Wolves, while learning from the natives and becoming one of them, here comes off as monotonous exposition. There is the wonderful sequence when the handicapped Jake first uses his avatar and wonders at being able to move his toes and stand on his feet and even run. With that sequence, I thought I was in the right hands with Cameron, but I'm not sure why so much else felt so uninspired.

Now sure, that's a lot of complaining (without even mentioning that it's at least 45 minutes to an hour too long), but I did enjoy the movie overall. Although it felt like nothing too much new, it was done in an enjoyable way, and without much of the pretentiousness that you get from hearing Cameron talk about it in interviews. Although none of the actors do anything special, none really do anything to ruin it either. So it doesn't reach the highs that I had hoped it would, and that judging by its record breaking box office that many others think it does, it's still an enjoyable if overlong experience. It's a good action movie, it does succeed there. I guess I was hoping for more than that.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

I now miss Heath Ledger more than ever. I previously wrote, after seeing his Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, that I mourned for the great performances that he could've given us had he lived to further realize his potential. That was his final completed performance, but not technically his final role. He died midway through re-teaming with his The Brothers Grimm director (and former Monty Python) Terry Gilliam in the dark comic fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The role he left behind was that of a mysterious stranger who joins up with the supremely odd theatre troupe of title doctor. Thanks to the story, one involving a magic mirror that allows people to enter into a world of imagination partially controlled by Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam was able to recast Ledger's role during the sequences inside the imagination. He recast it with three great actors who wanted to honor Ledger's memory, and took on the roles without payment (all three deferring their money to Ledger's daughter Matilda). Gilliam has said that many actors (including Tom Cruise) offered their services, but he wanted to "keep it family" with actors whom Ledger had befriended, therefore the casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to complete the role.

Dr. Parnassus is 1,000 years old, keeping secret from his 15-year-old daughter Valentina that long ago he made a deal with the Devil to give up any child born to he and the woman he was trying to woo, if the Devil would make him a younger man again. The catch being that the child wouldn't belong to the Devil until its 16th birthday, which for Valentina is quickly approaching. The doctor drinks away the days, while the Devil keeps popping in to remind him of their deal. Parnassus travels throughout England with his troupe, comprising of sleight-of-hand expert Anton, Valentina, and the dwarf Percy, who knows of the deal with the Devil, and is a kind of conscience to the doctor. One night they save the life of a young man who's been hanged from below a bridge, and the man turns out to be Tony (Ledger) who begins to act as almost a pied piper, leading more people to the Imaginarium than have ever come before. Parnassus believes Tony could be a kind of saviour, and looks to make a new deal with the Devil to try and save Valentina's life.

This story, from Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown, doesn't short for invention. Although "a deal with the Devil" stories are as old as the Devil himself, it's given a bit of a spin here in a way that stops it from ever feeling cliche. Gilliam has always been known for his distinct imagery (often in a fantasy setting), but is usually short on story. Here, he is not. I've not typically been a fan of Gilliams, even his visuals, but this movie makes me think I may need to reevaluate my feelings. Although the CGI isn't perfect, we're not always convinced that the actors and the effects are occupying the same space, the overall feel and impact of the images works the way I assume Gilliam wants it to. There's also the case of his actors seeming more believable this time around. The actors play things for real, making the fantasy (as well as the comedy) that much more effective.

That brings me to the actors as a whole. Christopher Plummer is as good as he's ever been as the ancient Dr. Parnassus, perpetually drunk and gambling. Doll faced English model Lily Cole brings a youthful energy and wonderful vulnerability to the young Valentina. And as the jealous and squirrelly, but possibly goodhearted Anton, Andrew Garfield is flawless. I wouldn't have suspected it, but one of the most interesting characters is that of the dwarf Percy, played to hilarious and heartfelt superiority by "Mini-Me" himself Verne Troyer, actually showing off that he can act. Who knew? And Tom Waits as the Devil? Couldn't be more perfect.

But, of course, no discussion of a movie with the sad circumstances surrounding it that this one had would be complete without talking about Heath Ledger and the actors charged with replacing him. Depp, Law, and Farrell all ably fill in, with their performances and casting feeling much more organic than I would've expected going into it. Ledger, though, is again the show stealer, getting us to like Tony without knowing what possibly dark secrets lie in his past. His energy and charisma lend the movie an innate watchability. He truly had come into his own as an actor, and would've, no doubt, gone on to become one of the better actors around had he not met his tragic end. Thankfully, not just The Dark Knight will remain as a tremendous, if elegiac, final testament to his talent.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My tentative top 10 of 2009

Now that the new year is officially upon us, and I have my top ten of the decade put together, I've compiled my tentative listing of the best movies if 2009. A basic listing of the '09 movies I've seen would look like this:

1. Adventureland
2. 500 Days of Summer
3. The Hurt Locker
4. The Princess and the Frog
5. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
6. Moon
7. Up
8. Whip It
9. Paranormal Activity
10. The Invention of Lying

Honorable mention for Star Trek

Granted, like last year I haven't seen all of the "big" movies from the year, but this is my list for now.