Friday, July 31, 2009

A Man Dying Of Laughter

Funny People

Although his name has been associated with many other great and not-so-great comedies, "Funny People" is the third film to be written and directed by Judd Apatow. Keep in mind, though, that this latest feature of his is certainly no "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up." He has departed from that adolescent raunchiness and has delved into the realm of something more dramatic. This is Apatow's most mature work yet, a very personal movie for him where he presents his own perspective on mortality, fame, life choices, and how comedy intersperses with it all. The real kicker is that underneath the surface of the ones who are meant to make us laugh there is anguish and bitterness, which is exactly what Apatow sets out to explore in this movie.

Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a struggling comedian who writes some good material for his stand-up act, and one night gets noticed by George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a comedian superstar. The star insists that Ira become his personal assistant and start writing material for him. And then George starts confiding in Ira, letting him on the inside, having him talk him to sleep, and then reveals to him that he only has a short time left to live. Seth Rogen, although Apatow won't openly admit it, is basically playing a young version of the director in the early days of his career. He plays Ira with sincere subtlety, and with a newly slimmed-down look (which the movie cleverly pokes fun at), he presents new dimensions we've yet to see him display.

And yet under the prowess of Adam Sandler, Rogen seems like a lost puppy. It is Sandler who steals the show proving yet again there's more to his acting with nuanced work that ranks among his oddball persona from "Punch-Drunk Love." As George, he taps into the anger and resentment that lies within him and brings it to the forefront with great results. George represents the burdens of the celebrity world as he accepts why he had to remove himself from other people. He has private jets, all the women he can get, a massive house, and an exuberant amount of material possessions, and yet he's isolated from everyone; the friends he has don't treat him like a real person. He's not only forced to struggle with his illness but also with the hermetically-sealed world of fame along with the illness. This is Sandler's best performance to date.

The movie provides an insider glimpse into the world of comedians and how they think and work. When they pitch ideas to one another, they never laugh at the jokes but rather just respond with, "That's funny." The stand-up sequences are really the core of the movie as Apatow shows us what's bad, what works, and what kind of material has potential. The unique thing about the humor in this movie is that we're laughing at things funny people are saying who already know that it's funny, and in that respect, the movie is overtly self-aware. It also slyly satirizes TV shows and formula comedies as Ira's roommates, Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman, who also did the music), are both in a painfully bad sitcom called "Yo, Teach." Hill and Schwartzman play the competitive friends role perfectly. George's house is also filled with posters of his past movies such as "Mer-Man" and "My Best Friend is a Robot," in which George supposedly co-starred with Elizabeth Banks and Owen Wilson, respectively. There's also a moment where George discusses his shallow relationship with fellow celebrities, which leads to a hilarious sequence with Eminem and Ray Romano. As is the trademark with Apatow, the humor remains refreshingly current, and this time around, there are an impressive number of cameos, too.

But then comes the film's biggest drawback, and that's the girl who got away from George, Laura (Leslie Mann, as sweet as ever). An unnecessarily large portion of the second half of the movie spends time focusing on George's attempts at getting her back into his life. The problem is that she has a brute of an Aussie husband (Eric Bana showing some comedic flair) and a family of two daughters (adorably played by Apatow's real-life children). Here the movie drags and feels overlong, which emphasizes other portions of the movie that could've been trimmed. 146 minutes is a lot, especially for a comedy, and it gives the feel of something that is unfinished and unpolished. Although the length prevents things from ever getting formulaic, it also tends to ramble. As Apatow takes the risk of sending his work into a new direction, it definitely gets shaky and uneven at times. As much as the movie is about the maturation of Ira and George, it really is, at the heart of it all, about the maturation of Apatow as an affirmed talent.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Live Wires Strapped To Nerve-Endings

The Hurt Locker

You want explosive, adrenaline-pumped action this summer? Forget all those big blockbusters, and look no further than "The Hurt Locker." Director Kathryn Bigelow has come up with a revelation of a film, one that not only conveys the surface rush of an action sequence but also gets into the minds of the people amidst the trauma of the action. Here's a female director who doesn't feel at all disadvantaged dealing with such masculine material. It's war she's dealing with, and not just any war; this is the war in Iraq, a topic that Hollywood efforts for the most part have failed in properly engaging. While there have been some exceptions, such as "In the Valley of Elah," the key to "The Hurt Locker" being a stand-out feature is the action-driven focus that makes this an Iraq war movie that people actually want to see. There is no biased preaching, and no political ideologies or agendas. The war is presented as it is, blunt and forceful. It's the first movie on the subject to feel like it has an objective postwar perspective. It's simply about what it was like, and most importantly, what it did to those within the chaos.

Bigelow uses handheld cameras not to disorient viewers, but rather to set viewers right alongside the characters in the heat of Baghdad. While the camera work is subtle, it ultimately creates a great effect in getting viewers immediately into a state of uninterrupted attention and total absorption right from the opening sequence. Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) must neutralize a bomb, and we feel right there with him and his fellow squad members who stand guard. There's also a sense of humanity set up in this sequence that flows through the rest of the film. Defusing bombs is simply a job, and they treat it as such, as something that just has to be done. And in doing so, Thompson has a charm to him as he goes about his work, even though this is work that could easily kill him with one false move. This humanity roots itself in the screenplay by Mark Boal who derived it from his reports during the time he was embedded with an Army bomb squad in Baghdad.

The hero of the film is Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner). And yet he's no action hero and just a man doing his job just like Thompson was, except that man got killed. He's like a surgeon, a professional when it comes to dismantling bombs as he knows his way inside and out of one and could even tell you something about the person who put the bomb together. He is an average man, one of no superior strength or knowledge; he just discovered he was really good at something thanks to the war in Iraq. He's a man who thrives on the rush of fear and gets more comfortable and content the more dangerous things get. In a scene where he must diffuse a car bomb, he's like an artist at work losing track of all else around him until his task at hand is done to perfection. Some soldiers are astounded by James while others are appalled because he loves taking risks for the sake of taking them. Played flawlessly by Jeremy Renner, this is an unforgettable performance that is worthy of Oscar nomination. He shows James as a man who has been taken in by the drug of war, and he uses his character as the film's vehicle in stating that war is an addiction. This is a prime example of how men find themselves never able to give it up not because they have to but because it what makes them feel alive. The film opens with a quote from Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for the New York Times, which states "war is a drug."

Contrasting against James' impulsive behavior are Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Sanborn is a safe professional who is practical and goes by the book. He only wants to be careful, and therefore James gets on his nerves with his reckless tendencies. Eldridge is a good guy who holds fears and just wants to make it home in one piece. These three men have their differences, and they clash and grow together throughout their increasingly dangerous missions. Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty give equally powerful performances, and they exemplify James as unclassifiable. In one of the film's best sequences, the group comes across another team stranded with a flat tire led by a man played by Ralph Fiennes. The tension rises as dead bodies start to pile up, the sand becomes nauseatingly hot, dehydration starts to kick in, and blood needs to be cleaned off the ammo. A different side to James comes through here, a touch of tenderness as he coaches Eldridge through his fit of panic.

This is an exhausting 130 minutes that is essentially a string of about seven almost unbearably suspenseful sequences with only small pauses in between each. It gets inside you and catches you in a vice grip that refuses to let go, and there are moments where you'll have to remind yourself to stop clutching your armrest and to continue breathing. In the end, however, it really is about the human aspect of war. This is suspense that matters, suspense that feels real and has weight and consequence to it, which makes it all the more monstrously nerve-racking. The title of the movie comes from the box of bomb pieces James keeps under his bed, pieces of the things that nearly took his life. "The Hurt Locker" has the feel of a classic, a film that deserves to be remembered and studied later, and it better be because we're looking at the front-runner contender for the Academy Awards.

Friday, July 24, 2009

She Doesn't Love You

(500) Days of Summer

"(500) Days of Summer" insists on it being not your typical love story. In fact, it's not a love story at all. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl doesn't. First-time director Marc Webb provides a strong debut feature with this charming look at failed romance. It's a romantic comedy that sees relationships for what they really are. It's a fresh outlook that grasps at certain subtleties that other movies of the genre would gloss right over. What lies in between the initial meeting and the bitter breakup? Well, a slew of indescribably messy emotions that this inventive film manages to capture wonderfully. Sometimes in a romance we only believe what we want to believe, and then we get blindsided by what really is. Here is exactly what that looks like.

Enter Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wanted to be an architect but ends up spending his time in L.A. working as a greeting card writer in an office. Enter the new assistant in the office, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who Tom falls in love with upon a first glance. And so begins the 500 days that are presented in a non-sequential fashion jumping back and forth between the high and low points of their relationship. Each scene of the movie opens up with a time card presenting labels such as "Day 3" and "Day 260." While it may seem gimmicky at first, this storytelling strategy actually works to the movie's advantage. By beginning the movie on Day 488, we see how it ends and have to backtrack from there. This style works like a scrapbook of memories, the only way a relationship such as the one Tom finds himself in could possibly be remembered.

The movie is greatly assisted by its two main leads who strike a perfect balance and never overshadow each other. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is utterly charming as Tom, a guy who can just as easily be cool and casual as he can be devastatingly disappointed and crushed. He's a likable hero to the romance story gone awry and a believable hero, too. Zooey Deschanel plays Summer as a mysterious figure, a girl who is maddening with her alluring qualities while never letting anyone fully into her world. She plays the part perfectly, and while we never fully understand Summer, there's something about her that allows viewers to agree with Tom's attraction to her. These two gifted actors share chemistry with each other even when they have their angry breakup.

Alongside a self-consciously hip soundtrack are some clever and quirky visuals, especially during the morning after Tom and Summer spend their first night together. Tom saunters around town suddenly engulfed in a musical number scored to "You Make My Dreams" complete with choreographed dancing and an animated blue bird. Other creatively original moments include when the scenery fades into a blurred sketch around a depressed Tom and a sequence of split-screen where the dream of expectations clashes with the harshness of reality. Along with being witty and laugh-out-loud funny, the movie boasts several insightful moments, specifically when Summer provides her dissertation on the frivolity of love and when Tom bashes the foundation of greeting cards.

The title of "(500) Days of Summer" sounds like it's referring to the season until you find out the girl's name is Summer. For Tom, she is not only a love but also a season, one of changing colors and moods and one full of moments of bliss and moments of suffering. And so it's only fitting that his next infatuation would be named Autumn.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Magical Series Nears Its Finish

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I think Harry Potter himself put it best when he said, "I never realized how beautiful this place was." In talking about Hogwarts, he couldn't be any more right. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" brings the enchanting school of wizardry to life like never before and makes it an altogether awe-inspiring spectacle to behold. From a wand duel in a bathroom to a thrilling match of Quidditch, it all looks better than ever. And it's in no small part thanks to the introduction of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel whose other work includes "Amélie" and "Across the Universe." With this Potter newcomer in the mix, the scenery is filled with dazzling set pieces and wondrous art direction that makes the world of Hogwarts feel like something fresh and exciting all over again. This latest installment in the beloved and wildly popular franchise is the most gorgeous yet, and not only that, it is arguably the best yet, the strongest since Cuarón's "Prisoner of Azkaban." Director David Yates returns for his second outing assisted this time by screenwriter Steve Kloves who wrote all of the other films aside from "Order of the Phoenix," the other of which Yates directed. Now that they've been brought together, they make the perfect marriage and bring to life J.K. Rowling's masterful seven-book saga the way it was truly meant to be.

We last left off with the acknowledgment that the Dark Lord is indeed back in power, and this entry solemnly picks up right from there. The Death Eaters are ravaging the Muggles and making their way closer into the corridors of Hogwarts where they can cause their most destruction. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been stamped with the seal of evil and gets assigned to carry out an awful deed, and he is followed by fellow Death Eaters such as the maniacal vixen Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). And it would appear that Severus Snape (the always excellent Alan Rickman) has Draco's back, but he shows over and over again the complex moral puzzle that he weaves. And he's still smacking students and enunciating each of his words individually with a sneer.

Meanwhile, headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has recruited Harry to remain by his side and before heading back to Hogwarts for a sixth year, he takes him to visit an old friend. It's a man by the name of Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) who is a retired Potions professor that Dumbledore needs back to find out more information on a former star pupil, Tom Riddle, now commonly known as Lord Voldemort. The key to Harry's quest lies within a very important memory of Slughorn's, and a great deal of the movie focuses on the task of obtaining this memory. This loopy and absent-minded professor is a funny, charming, and welcome addition to the wide cast of characters. Certain familiar faces fall in and out of importance with each installment, but we're always given the obligatory viewing, so Hagrid, Wormtail, Filch, Lupin, Tonks, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, the Weasleys, the ever so lovely Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, and many more all make their appearances.

There are two storylines to follow, one of which is the tale of tackling teenage love. Ron (Rupert Grint) finds himself enraptured with the bouncy Lavendar Brown (Jessie Cave), and their "snogging" causes poor Hermoine (Emma Watson) to excuse herself to go vomit. Then there's Ginny (Bonnie Wright), Ron's little sister who is not so little anymore and is capturing the attention of Harry. The romantic foundations are being set, and they play out in a humorously cheeky fashion as if battling one's own raging hormones is as daunting a task as the actually life-threatening task that faces Harry. And that's the second storyline as the personal connection between Dumbledore and Harry continues to deepen and mature. They embark on a journey together to find what is introduced to viewers as horcruxes, seven artifacts that have pieces of Voldemort's soul residing within them. In the movie's most emotionally potent scene, the duo travel to an eerie lake where terrifying creatures of the undead lurk beneath the water's surface.

Through the intermingling of these two storylines, the movie strikes an ideal balance between the whimsical and the dark. It's much less fanciful this time out, even more so than the fifth installment. This could very well be a deliberate move on Yates' part due to the increasingly heightened sense of human drama that his characters are being placed amongst. This time they face truly dangerous situations where the horror is real. When a moment of devastating tragedy arrives, it has an astounding effect, which goes to certify the spell that the movie has been casting all along. By the end of this chapter, we honestly care about the well-being of these characters we've come to know so well.

"Half-Blood Prince" is extraordinarily well-made, a rush of moviemaking bliss, and I loved it. The ever-approaching battle of good versus evil is accompanied by a very well-equipped director for the job. David Yates has put special emphasis on the gathering storm clouds that are on the approach, and he has claimed the Harry Potter universe as his own superbly setting up the highly-awaited finale, "The Deathly Hallows," which he will also direct. It has been split into two parts scheduled for release in 2010 and 2011. Something huge is on the horizon, and "Half-Blood Prince" is yet another excellent step along the way, another momentary pause to anxiously wait for what's in store next.

A History Of Potter

With the release of the latest in the "Harry Potter" franchise, I thought it would be only appropriate to take a look back. Here's how I rank the six of the films that have been released:

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Directed by Mike Newell, this installment was certainly a worthy addition but also felt the most bloated and inconsequential. And why was everyone's hair so shaggy?

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
As the first installment under the helm of David Yates, it was another transition to something even more darker than before. Excellent, yes, but the shift to something much leaner and meaner was startling at first.

4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The franchise was first undertaken by Chris Columbus who started with a much cheerier tone. This installment proved to be a very promising and faithful beginning to the ever-evolving world of Harry Potter.

3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Yet again under Chris Columbus, this sequel took what the first one had started and simply made it bigger and better.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Director Alfonso Cuarón was the first to take the series in a much darker direction, and he made what would seem to be a shaky transition work splendidly and set the standard for what was to come.

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The best yet. David Yates' second outing was exuberantly emotional storytelling and glorious cinematic wonder at its finest. As he heads toward the franchise's highly-anticipated conclusion, he has perfectly set the stage for the two-part finale to come in "The Deathly Hallows."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Full-Frontal Fashionista


I'm going to start with mentioning that during the screening I went to of "Bruno," somebody threw up directly after the title character presented the creative ways he and his partner entertain each other in the bedroom. This scene on its own had to be edited to prevent the movie from getting an NC-17 rating. This is the hardest R-rating we've come to see in a very long time. While you might have thought Sacha Baron Cohen set his limits with 2006's "Borat," his latest feature, yet again directed by Larry Charles, pushes the boundaries far beyond the edge of all that is even questionable. From miming an entire blow job to receiving anal bleaching, Bruno cannot even be labeled as flamboyant as that wouldn't be doing him justice. Baron Cohen is a phenomenal character actor, and he has created a foreigner that he uses to comment on America's own hypocritical, judgmental, and fake-accepting social culture. Sound familiar? Well, that's because it is. While "Borat" was a landmark comedy sensation, the novelty is inevitably lost during a second run.

As a gay fashionista, Bruno gets outed from his native Austria after an incident involving a Velcro outfit that he wears to a fashion show, which ends in disaster. This forces him to journey over to America with his assistant's assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), where he hopes to become, as he likes to say, the biggest gay celebrity since Arnold Swarchenegger. He tries falling into stardom through many different outlets, including attempting to meet celebrities, making his own show, adopting a black baby from Africa and taking him on "The Richard Bey Show," and trying to contribute to a worthy cause in the Middle East. If George Clooney's already got Darfur, then Bruno wants to know how he can tackle Darfive. And the best part? The supposedly charitable bimbos to whom Bruno talks aren't any more knowledgeable. Moments when Cohen's unsuspecting victims are revealed at their lowest are when the movie strikes genius. Consider the moment where starving parents will do anything to get their child to be a star. Have them strung up on a crucifix or have them dress up as a Nazi? No problem.

While some of the aim is on celebrity materialism, most of the ammunition is saved to address intolerance. There's a scene where Bruno decides he could get famous by making a sex tape. The entirely innocent politician Ron Paul does an interview with Bruno that turns into an act of attempted seduction. It's understandable that Ron Paul becomes outraged and storms out, but it's no reason for him to go shout the word "queer" before the cameras are turned off. Bruno later decides that the only way he's going to become famous is to become straight. He visits two ministers in Alabama who are there to "cure" homosexuality, he attends a bizarre swingers' party where misogyny is fine but gays aren't, he has an accidental run-in with a "God Hates Fags" protest while strapped naked to Lutz with kinky bondage, and he even goes as far as to host an allegedly straight wrestling bash that turns just the opposite and gets the previously pumped-up audience angry with tears.

Even more so than with "Borat," this time the laughs are mixed in with many other reactions that shift between astonishment, repulsion, disgust, and pure shock. It's still very funny, yes, but the awkward situations between Bruno and his victims hold an uncomfortable tone that begs the question, "Is this for real?" For the most part, you may end up laughing simply because you cannot believe what you're witnessing. And it's because the targets are being aimed at with a crueler and more biting tone than last time. While the scenes described above succeed, others fall flat and ultimately feel unnecessary and forced. "Bruno" is also a better-looking movie than "Borat" with higher production values, but this also suggests that more setups this time were perhaps staged, over which there could be endless debate. And the music video at the end with A-list celebrities all being in on the joke feels tacked on because even though the likes of Snoop Dogg, Bono, and Elton John are in on it, they don't seem to be enjoying it.

If you take the offensive, in-your-face vulgarities at face value, and if you take the gay stereotype of Bruno at face value, then you miss the scalding point. Even with its flaws, even with the fact that the balancing act between sophisticated and stupid sometimes tips too far to the latter, even though the outrageous gags sometimes go too far, even though the good bad taste sometimes spills over into just bad taste, and even though it's much more scattershot than "Borat," there is something at work behind this latest creation from Sacha Baron Cohen. With "Bruno," he turns a mirror back on our own prejudices through outlandish humor.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Story Of A Gangster

Public Enemies

John Dillinger did one thing, and he did it well. He robbed banks. And for a long while, he got away with it. In 1933 when the Great Depression was booming, so was Dillinger's wave of crime and robbery. The one thing director Michael Mann ("Collateral," "Miami Vice") does with "Public Enemies" is keep it from cliché. As Dillinger, Johnny Depp could've played him as the famed outlaw, a vigilante hero that soaks up the glory of his own legend with an epic retelling of his story, but he doesn't. He doesn't play it like that because Mann doesn't allow it. Rather than creating an entire history and making the story bigger than it is, Mann settles into a great American story and simply tells it like it is. There are no Hollywood frills, no larger statement at hand, no bigger meaning, and like Dillinger's own demise, it just comes at you all of a sudden.

Depp gives many shadings to the character of Dillinger. As a master of social interaction and pleasing others, he is impossible to capture and has an easy time capturing the admiration of those who aren't chasing after him. He's charismatic and sly but also holds darkness within, an unsatiated desire for something that isn't even appeased by the thrill of robberies. And yet this longing is what further accelerates and prolongs his criminal career. Depp does an outstanding job in presenting us this multifaceted man even in the opening sequence as he breaks out of a prison after just one day of being locked up. One night while dining out, Dillinger eyes a gorgeous woman from afar, Billie Frechette ("La Vie en Rose" Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard), who he immediately takes as his own to cherish and protect. Had that been for what he was longing? He projects a startling seriousness to her in stating that she essentially has no choice in being with him. She dutifully complies, and they become lovers. The movie isn't so much interested in their love than it is in their unique connection to one another. He wants to protect her out of the obligation that her being with him puts her at great risk, and that's it. She becomes satisfied in coming along for his ride.

The movie is based off the book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934" by Bryan Burrough, and Mann's research and attention to detail from the source material is impeccable. He made sure Depp looked like Dillinger and even had his speaking style, both of which he pulled off marvelously. Mann shot on location for many of the scenes, including the film's final moment at the Biograph Theater. This is the film's one poetic moment where, on the last night of his life, Dillinger watched Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama." The man Gable plays is just like Dillinger, both who evaded the law for so long but didn't learn much. The law was waiting right aside for Dillinger after the movie. An astonishing moment, really, considering all that had happened previous. One sequence involves Dillinger strolling right into the Dillinger Bureau of the Chicago Police Department without anyone noticing who he was. He was literally untouchable.

Throughout the movie, Dillinger is pursued by Melvin Purvis. He is played by Christian Bale, whose performance is just as straightforward as Depp's. He is cold and angry, and all he cares about is ending crime and catching Dillinger. The film's most exciting moment comes when Purvis and his FBI team raid Dillinger at his hideout at Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. It's a thrilling, forested shootout that is realistic and gritty like the rest of the film. There is a subdued sense of style that Mann upholds throughout even in the tommy-gun action, and it shows not only in the cinematography but also in the screenplay.

In taking "Public Enemies" as a whole, the sum of its parts never really end up offering anything more than a sincere look at the final year in the life of John Dillinger. That's all there is to it, which could take some audiences aback. It's good but not great as it's curiously devoid of something more aside from that stunning performance from Depp who only seems to be getting better and better. And pay attention to Cotillard on his side, especially during the scene where the FBI interrogator beats her up. She has the emotional potency of a true rising star.