Category Archives: Film

Scott Picks Five: Things Hollywood Believes About Romance

Scott Picks Five: Things Hollywood Believes About Romance

I’m not really a regular viewer of romantic movies as a genre (for arguments sake, a movie that sells itself as a love story, be it dramatic or comic); I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in theatres alone (which is typically how I see movies) and I don’t think I’ve seen more than maybe four or five in theatres in my life.  I do, however, somehow wind up seeing a lot of them at home.  Draw your own conclusions about why that is, but I generally find that they do have a certain escapist appeal.  When they’re done right, you’ll witness clever dialogue and exceptional on-screen chemistry.  When done wrong, however, you’ll realize how little Hollywood appears to know about romance.  And when you spend a good amount of time mulling it over, it becomes clear that these tropes seem to be sending out some rather bizarre (and maybe even alarming) messages about true love.

1. Not being killed by bad guys gets you chicks
One thing about action movies that’s always bugged me is the way they try to tack on a love story.  I’m not really an expert on counter-terrorism, and while I’m sure it’s impressive to a lot of women, but it seems like most people involved in fighting off bad guys of any stripe should really only be concerned with the task at hand.  Logistically and realistically, there’s a lot about “save the day, get the girl” that doesn’t really work, make sense or even seem practical.  But in the world of action movies, suspension of disbelief is key.  What annoys me about this one is that it’s usually just bad writing; sometimes distractingly bad.  In Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock fall in love by facing and surviving danger and little else.  It’s a fairly ridiculous (but enjoyable) action movie that probably deserves some credit for both making Reeves and Bullock’s eventual romance somewhat believable (when not talking about how awful it is to be on a bus with a bomb, they do banter and flirt a fair bit), but for addressing this issue head-on by declaring that “relationships based on intense experiences never work” many times.

So this has been a known ridiculous plot device for over 15 years, yet it persists.  In Transformers (sort of my go-to example for most types of silliness in film), by virtue of not being killed by giant fighting robots (from outer space!), Shia LeBeouf is transformed from the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox tolerates to the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox loves without much happening in between aside from the aforementioned averted death-by-robot.  My understanding of the fairer sex is by no means encyclopedic, but if not dying from explosions was all it took to have women fall in love with you, I would have had a very different social life in college.

2. Men never have to settle
Actors and actresses are, at least as far as Hollywood cares, a pretty good-looking bunch.  So naturally, complaints about “only pretty people fall in love in the movies!” are a little misguided.  However, there’s a fairly high number of “everyman” actors, such as Tom Hanks, Jack Black, Seth Rogen and Vince Vaughn.  While these men are by no means “ugly”, they aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, sex symbols.  And when they appear in romantic roles, they’re generally romancing women who could be considered as such.  An obvious example of this is Knocked Up, where Rogen romances the statuesque Katherine Heigl despite it being against the odds.  Couples Retreat features this in spades; Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Faizon Love and Jon Favreau are all married or attached to women significantly younger and more attractive than they are.

Since most filmmakers are male and not conventionally attractive, I suppose there’s a certain degree of wish fulfillment going on, but there’s virtually no female equivalent to this.  I had difficulty naming unconventionally attractive actresses who appear in romantic roles, and I honestly can’t think of any movie where a woman romances a man who is clearly out of her league.  I suppose Bridget Jones would qualify (thanks to the normally attractive Renee Zelwegger gaining weight for the part), but that’s one example against the countless examples of chubby guys with inexplicably attractive spouses.  So with those numbers in mind, and if Hollywood is to be believed, men can always land the perfect ten if they’re lucky and play their cards right, but women really only have the option of slumming it.

3. Lonely people need extraordinary partners to make them believe in love again
Nathan Rabin of the AV Club famously coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe the sort of woman who appears as the leading lady in romantic films with a male protagonist.  She’s impulsive, quirky, probably a little unstable, quirky, intellectual, quirky, and just what the lovelorn male lead needs to believe in love (or anything at all) again.  While it seems like only yesterday that Natalie Portman stole our hearts with her vintage motorcycles and Shins mixtapes in Garden State, in film, this is almost as old as technicolor.  Remember when an impulsive Austrian nun stole the heart of a widowed father with assorted types of song and dance?  The problem called Maria would later be diagnosed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

I feel that there’s a male equivalent, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on a name.  The Sensitive Cowboy Dream Boy?  The Heartfelt Rebel Dream Boy?  The Matthew McConaughey?  In any case, if your protagonist is a woman, odds are, it’s not a sensible man with sterling character and a nice wardrobe who wins the day.  It’s an unshaven rogue with abs of steel who consistently rubs you the wrong way but is inexplicably charming and worth falling in love with.  He’s usually played by Matthew McConaughey, but he showed up in The Ugly Truth, Leap Year, and countless others just in the last year played by someone else.  Since again most writers and filmmakers are male (and probably look more like me than Gerard Butler), this might not be wish fulfillment and might just be lazy writing (or a complete misunderstanding of the opposite sex).  But I digress…

In both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and (until a better name comes to me) the Matthew McConaughey archetype, the message is clear: you don’t need someone who shares your views and values or provides mutual support and affection, you need someone who is unpredictable and zany to show you how to feel again by driving you crazy by virtue of being obnoxious (though oddly charming) or acting out domestic fantasies in Ikea because life is too short not to, gosh darn it.

It seems like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at least is now ripe for deconstruction, however.  (500) Days of Summer took a perverse pleasure in pinpointing both the potential downfalls of romance with the charmingly impulsive and the lack of emotional maturity that plagues the men who stop thinking rationally once they realize that Zooey Deschanel loves The Smiths as much as they do.

4. Fate excuses anything
A common theme in romantic movies is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle.  Be it a career, an ocean or two between them, a language barrier, or most commonly, a pre-existing relationship, there’s always something stopping our hero and heroine from living happily ever after.  Sometimes this is portrayed as a test of the strength of their bond.  Sometimes it’s a means of proving how truly in love they are.  And sometimes it’s a test of character that they fail miserably.  And when it is, the movie won’t recognize that.

This is most common when the obstacle is a pre-existing relationship.  In the world of the romantic comedy, true love is true love and following your heart means you’re always right.  It’s a little odd that nobody in romantic comedies ever thinks that someone willing to drop everything, cancel a wedding or two, break the heart of their current partner and potentially alienate friends and family might not be entirely trustworthy.  Sure, these films might show characters agonizing over the decisions, but they always choose the path of most destruction and it never raises a red flag.

Perhaps someday there will be a film following Bill Pullman, Dermott Mulroney, Dylan McDermott and all the other straw-fiances from the last 20 years of romantic comedies as they commiserate about being left with the burden of telling 300+ wedding guests that their brides to be left them for Matthew McConaughey at the last minute, slowly pay off the non-refundable deposits made at those exclusive reception halls, and play wingman to each other, slowly rebuilding their collective self confidence one desperate hook-up at a time.  But until then, it seems as though true love means never having to say you’re sorry.

5. Opposites attract.  Always.
They don’t.  I’ve looked into it, done my share of field research and they don’t.  See you next column!

Okay, fine.  I will concede that a certain degree of tension and spark can be healthy in a relationship, but the usual song and dance is that the protagonists in a romantic comedy are often adversaries who treat the other with ambivalence more than affection.  This is not the behaviour of adults who seek companionship, it’s the behaviour of an eight-year old boy who thinks Sally has cute pigtails but doesn’t quite understand why.

At worst, this cliche is dumb but harmless.  And honestly, with the right pairing of actors, it can be a lot of fun to watch.  But all the same, I keep hoping a background character will call them out on this and tell them that if they have to cover their feelings this way, they’re probably not ready for a relationship with smooching and other grown-up things.

Or better yet, the recognition that sometimes people act like they don’t like each other because they actually don’t like each other.

Review: The Hurt Locker

My godfather is a chaplain with the Army. A few years ago, he visited my family after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He said two things that stuck with me: sand will get in places you didn’t think sand could get, and daily life for soldiers is like Groundhog Day meets Black Hawk Down.

So several years later, I’m finding that this is perhaps the best way to describe Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It seems like an unlikely marriage between concepts, but it’s apt; the film gives the impression that time in a war zone is frustratingly cyclical and incredibly dangerous. But the film also goes deeper than this. The Hurt Locker opens with the words “War is a drug”. From there, it unpacks what that might mean.

The film centres around Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) and his two EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teammates. Essentially, they’re the US Army’s bomb squad. The film follows them from mission to mission on Renner’s final month of duty in Iraq, documentary style. Though the film’s subject lends itself more towards a gung-ho action film, it winds up using mood as it’s primary method of storytelling. While Bigelow is known for her action films like Point Break, The Hurt Locker is a suspense film that actually lives up to that title.

Much has been said about how intense the film is. It’s justified. Because the film is shot in a hand-held documentary style, the “you are here” effect is amplified, but even so, the level of tension in The Hurt Locker is remarkable. It’s a film that, in it’s most intense scenes, draws you in like no other war film I’ve seen. In particular, there’s an intense showdown between Renner’s squad and (mostly) unseen snipers that draws on for roughly ten minutes, but there’s a sense of unpredictability present that keeps a scene where very little happens intense. It’s an action film without action; the film has suspense scenes in place of action scenes, and it’s difficult to overstate how legitimate the suspense actually is.

It’s almost a deconstruction of the modern action film. The cocky, rule-breaking hero has no place here, and attempts to become one don’t last. Even when Renner is at his most reckless, it’s hardly heroic in the traditional sense. He acts more like an addict than a cowboy. It takes a toll on his sanity and on his team.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, it needs to be said, is phenomenal. The film’s intensity is coming from more than just the pacing and performances (Jeremy Renner absolutely earns his Best Actor nomination), but nearly every aspect. The film’s score ups the tension with less music than noises, and the way it uses silence in particular is effective. Bigelow sought realism, shooting in Jordan (sometimes within sight of the Iraq border) and with the cast living in close quarters, and it feels very real as a result. The frayed nerves of Renner and his teammates never appear forced, and they’re never overplayed.

So with all that said, the question that needs to be answered is this: Is it truly the best film of 2009? I will say this: I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it’s incredibly effective. It’s certainly among the best films I’ve seen, and well worth seeing. This is one example where a film is capable of backing up it’s hype.

Review: Up In The Air

Originally printed in Mayday Magazine, February 2010
Jason Reitman’s third effort, Up in the Air is a deceptively complex film. And that’s really no mean feat, all things considered. The film’s declared subject matter is fairly weighty on it’s own; it touches on themes of isolation, rebirth and change, while providing timely insight on the current economic state of North America.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a professional downsizer who spends over 300 days of the year on the road essentially firing people from companies that lacked the courage to do it themselves. He quite literally lives out of his suitcase, in hotels and on airplanes. And he likes it this way; it means he can sidestep the burdens of adulthood like car payments, home ownership, a committed relationship and most social obligations.

As he approaches his goal of 10 million miles with American Airlines, his company throws him a curve; new recruit Natalie (Anna Kendrick, who I’m told was in Twilight) has a plan that would allow the company to save the company nearly all of their (presumably astronomical) travel expenses. Ryan’s personal life has also thrown him a curve in the form of Alex, a woman who appears to be his perfect match (played by Vera Farmiga). When Ryan takes Natalie under his wing, he’s forced to re-examine his philosophy.

The story, as Reitman tells it, is character-centric. This is one of Reitman’s greatest strengths as a director, and he’s cast the film accordingly. Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga all deliver terrific performances. Much has already been said about how strong the chemistry between the three leads is, and I’m not sure enough can be. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from the theatre world where cast chemistry is really all you have to work with, but I really was impressed with the performances in the film.

Reitman’s two previous works — 2006’s Thank You For Smoking and 2007’s Juno — are both solid and character-driven. However, both these films tended to treat their characters as punchlines, whereas Up in the Air takes its characters more seriously.

The economical production design and script keeps the focus on the characters. Reitman never oversells a big moment, but never undersells the small ones, balancing darker themes with lighter comic elements quite well. All in all, it’s a solid, performance-driven movie.

But what about this deceptive complexity? While the film is very much straight-forward in terms of how it’s shot, paced and written, it’s underlying themes run deep. Ryan is forced to reassess his entire identity when his lifestyle is challenged. He’s forced to examine his philosophy of relationships. The film even goes as far as to suggest that he might be a lost cause; a victim of his chosen comforts. The film presents itself as the “George Clooney being charming yet vulnerable show”, but it’s at it’s best when it takes that form and steers it away from it’s assumed course.

It’s probably not a perfect movie, but I’m not sure that’s all that important. I suppose it’s not necessarily a risky or ambitious movie; Reitman doesn’t use the film as a basis for experimentation. But it is entertaining, engaging and perhaps most importantly, one that I wanted to talk about after I saw. And in our world of movies about giant fighting robots (from outer space!), it’s hard to not give a strong recommendation to an imperfect movie that’s still worth talking about.


Scott Picks Ten: My Favourite Films of the 00s

I have enormous difficulty ranking movies.  Partly because I love as many of them as I do, but partly because I just can’t compartmentalize them like I want to.  I also seldom see ten that I really love because I’m lucky if I see ten total in any given year.

That said, I’m pretty quick to be able to name a movie that sticks with me from any given year.  Here’s ten of those, plus some honorable mentions

2000 – Memento (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Memento, in my opinion, will long be considered the strongest debut film of any filmmaker in the 21st century.  It’s a hyperbolic claim, sure, but it’s kind of hard to overstate how good Memento is.  It’s ambitious premise and plotting are more than just gimmicks; the power of the film is essentially embedded in them.  It speaks volumes about Nolan’s chosen form that nobody has really tried to replicate it; Charlie Kaufman even considered abandoning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once he saw Memento because he felt it could never measure up.
But that aside, it’s still an incredibly strong film in nearly all regards; the performances are excellent, and there’s no significant missteps in pacing or tone.  It’s a very dark film to be sure, but the ending knocked me flat on my ass when I first saw it.  I’m not sure any twist ending since comes close, and neither does any movie released in 2000.
Honorable mentions? Almost Famous, Gladiator, Amelie

2001 – Monsters Inc. (dirs. Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, David Silverman)
Monsters Inc. is a movie that will probably forever make me smile.  The voice cast is perfect, comic timing flawless, and it’s sense of imagination never falls back on taking the easy way out like too many animated movies do today.  Monsters Inc. sticks out because I’ll never miss a chance to watch it, which isn’t something I can really say for other movies released in 2001.  And thanks to Pixar’s refusal to rely on soon-to-be-dated pop-culture jokes, it’s still as fresh now as it was back then.  It’s not a big “prestige” movie by any means, but it’s entertaining from start to finish and it was my constant choice for Pixar’s best until recently.
Honorable mentions?
Moulin Rouge!, AI: Artificial Intelligence, The Royal Tennenbaums

2002 – Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)

Adaptation is something of a kindred spirit with Memento; both work against the traditional filmmaking formula, and both have their story strengthened by breaking with tradition.  But Adaptation has a lighter side and when one breaks through the meta-film elements, it has a lot of heart.  Nicolas Cage’s performance is especially noteworthy, as it defies his oft-mocked over-the-top hamming reputation by being simultaneously understated and ridiculous; he even manages to get a few heartbreaking scenes in there.  By being equal parts.. well, equal parts nearly everything, but never abandoning the idea that the characters make or break the story, it works.
Honorable mentions?
28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Catch Me If You Can.

2003 – American Splendor (dirs. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Finding an entry from 2003 was a tricky one until I saw this one on my DVD shelf.  It’s actually not my copy, but it’s been there so long it may as well be.  A trend I’m noticing is that my favourites of this decade seem to play with traditional cinematic structure, or at least work against genre conventions.  American Splendor is part documentary, part biopic, and part comic book adaptation.  And it’s a hidden gem.  I originally planned on going with Kill Bill as my 2003 pick, but while Kill Bill celebrates genre films, American Splendor occupies a fairly unique place.  Paul Giamatti’s performance is terrific, and it balances the documentary and dramatic better than any film I’ve seen before by drawing attention to a character – and I mean that in every sense of the word – with stories worth telling.
Honorable mentions? Kill Bill, Finding Nemo

2004 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
A lot has already been said about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it’s a complex movie that can be examined from philosophical, aesthetic, and even scholarly perspectives, but what keeps it from just being an intellectual exercise is how grounded it is in it’s characters.  Yes, the screenplay goes into places that folks like Terry Gilliam or Philip K. Dick would be familiar in, and Michel Gondry offers some fairly bizarre images to match.  But then you also have an incredibly understated performance from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in her best work to date.  It also has some pleasant surprises in Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst.  And like Memento, it’s never content to just be an exercise in non-traditional filmmaking; Gondry and the cast deliver when it really counts.
Honorable mentions? Collateral, The Aviator, Sideways, Shaun of the Dead

2005 – Match Point (dir. Woody Allen)
Match Point is one of those movies that has managed to stick with me despite only seeing it once.  It’s economical, tense, and relies a lot on mood and music.  And to my great surprise, it’s a Woody Allen movie.  I’m someone who hasn’t seen a great deal of Allen’s films or even feel compelled to, but probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a world where Woody Allen never decided to make a movie.   Woody Allen’s best-loved films generally aren’t thrillers, and they’re also generally not about upper-class Brits and the terrible things they’ll do in the name of reputation, but Match Point is.  I still find that Scarlett Johannson is a fairly inconsistent actress, but she’s excellent in this one, and the film looks fantastic.  Is it one of Woody Allen’s best?  That’s a matter of debate to be sure, but it manages to be an incredibly involving film in it’s own right, even if it’s not a kindred spirit with Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters.
Honorable mentions? Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The 40-Year-Old Virgin

2006 – Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
2006 was a hard year to narrow down to just one.  Even just within my own tastes, I found that there was a great heist flick (Inside Man), one of Scorsese’s best mob movies (The Departed), and a terrific Christopher Nolan character study/thriller (The Prestige).  So why Children of Men?  A few reasons.  The first is the overarching story: the film drops you into a devastated world with no real explanation as far as how that happened; the hook (women are inexplicably infertile and mankind is at most 50 years from extinction) is strong enough alone to be intriguing, but by asking questions and giving no answers, it becomes captivating.  There’s an enormous problem facing the world, but they’re damned if they can solve it.  Second is how effectively it narrows a plot that’s on a global scale down to just one character.  And the third is how well it tells his story.  The film’s guerilla-style handheld shots and long takes make it hard to not get involved, and the performances keep the film grounded in human drama, ensuring the film’s plot never veers too far into science fiction to keep from being taken seriously.  It’s fundamentally rooted in it’s characters and performances rather than the sheer volume of despair in it’s world, and that makes it great rather than simply bleak and technically impressive.
Honorable mentions? Inside Man, The Departed, The Prestige

2007 – Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
I feel as though all David Fincher’s award nominations and Oscar buzz for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were essentially consolation prizes for how little buzz and recognition Zodiac received.  Because Zodiac is easily a better movie in nearly all regards.  It has help; the Zodiac killer story is among the most fascinating true crime stories in American history.  But even with some assistance from reality, it takes a special talent to make scenes about handwriting analysis interesting and engaging.  But the real treat is when the film shifts into thriller territory.  While the scenes of the murders are often tense, the most intense scenes are the ones where the tension and fear felt by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character are dictated not by onscreen violence, but by careful editing and well-chosen camera angles.  It sounds boring, but the results speak for themselves; the film is incredibly tense, even if you can’t figure out why until after the fact.  While Panic Room is the most purely entertaining film Fincher has made, Zodiac remains his best.
Honorable mentions? Once, Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Juno

2008 – The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Noticing another trend?  I like movies with strong characters and performances.  And why not?  Objectively complex special effects alone don’t make movies interesting beyond the initial viewing experience and the behind-the-scenes DVD features.  I love movies where the special effects are in the service of characters, but The Wrestler had no special effects to speak of.  Just a character.  It’s essentially the Mickey Rourke show, but his performance was justly rewarded.  Darren Aronofsky slips in some truly beautiful moments and some achingly broken ones.  It’s not the only performance-driven, low-fidelity movie of 2008 – it has a kindred spirit in Rachel Getting Married – but it resonates most.  It’s a movie that I can’t shake from memory and though it’s flawed, flawed movies are often the most memorable.
Honorable mentions? The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E

2009 – Up (dir. Pete Docter)
It speaks great volumes about Pixar that their biggest screw-up was Cars.  While Wall-E accomplished the unenviable task of making a love story about robots warm and resonant, Up takes the ambition and heart of Wall-E and applies it to a deeply human story.  As firmly planted in fantasy and adventure serials as Up is, it’s an incredibly smart movie in how it handles that.  It never overplays it’s emotional hand, despite having a stacked deck.  It’s the strongest argument against the “animation can’t compete with the real thing” made to date.  When I saw the movie, the film’s most heart-wrenching scene (a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together) was narrated by a loud woman sitting near me, and the scene still managed to be as powerful as every film critic had said.
Honorable Mentions? Adventureland, Coraline, Zombieland, District 9

Review: Zombieland

(note: this post is roughly a month overdue due to a misplaced password.  This has been rectified)

Can I really give an objective assessment of a movie that was targeted as clearly and pointedly to a demographic I so neatly fit into?  Zombieland is targeted very precisely towards the 20-something geek demographic, and rightly so: we’re the primary consumers of zombie-related media.  But for whatever reason, Zombieland‘s pandering to my particular tastes (if you can call it pandering) rise above just being just geek escapist fantasy.  I have a few theories, and they are as follows:

First, Zombieland has a strong sense of humour.  This may have been amplified by the trailers shown before Zombieland; I cannot fathom five consecutive trailers that took themselves more seriously than Saw VI, 2012, Michael Bay’s Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Legion, and Wolfman.  All presented ridiculous movies with straight faces.  Zombieland, on the other hand, opens with a giant smirk that never leaves.  It’s charming in how unabashedly it proclaims itself as escapist entertainment, not an exploration of the depth of human depravity or the power of the human spirit bla bla bla.. It’s about killin’ zombies with banjos.

And second, Zombieland is really, really well made.  Is it ambitious?  Definitely not.  It’s scope is narrow; only four characters appear for more than 5 minutes.  But the movie is tightly directed, well-acted, and boasts some great comic timing.  It’s occasional scenes of drama are well-executed and don’t feel out of place in a movie as funny as it is.

In short, I had a smile on my face the whole time.  In some ways, it’s a kindred spirit with Scream; lots of nods to classic zombie films, genre-savvy characters, a higher than average dose of self-awareness, but also being well-crafted genre films in their own right that never stray too far into pure parody at the expense of the film.  But Zombieland never devolves into a by-the-numbers zombie flick, whereas Scream (and especially it’s sequels) devolves into a fairly standard slasher flick as it winds down.  It never decides that it’s been clever enough and can just coast through the rest of the movie with zombie gore.  In a lot of ways, it’s a love letter to zombie fans; Columbus’ list consists largely of things we all shout at the screen during other zombie films.  The geek gets the girl.  The badass anti-hero is ridiculously over the top… It’s geek wish fulfillment on the big screen.

But maybe most impressively is how confidently it balances being entertaining for both the core zombie movie audience (said 20-something geeks) and the secondary zombie movie audiences (the girlfriends/boyfriends they drag along).  It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do well, and Zombieland winds up being on par with Shaun of the Dead as being both excellent comedies and worthy entries in the Zombie movie canon.

So is that objective?  Probably not.  Maybe when I’m 40 I’ll pull this little movie off my DVD shelf and hate it for this that and the other reason.  But for now?  I’m still smiling thinking about this movie.


Review: District 9

Sometimes great things can come from failure.  After the success of the Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson set his sights on adapting the Halo videogame series to the big screen with an unknown director by the name of Neill Blomkamp at the helm.  After a few years in development hell, the project officially fell apart.  Jackson, however, was determined to let the world see what this Blomkamp fellow was capable of.  Given a relatively minor budget of $30 million (compared to the intended $185 million for the Halo adaptation and the usual $150-200 million for your typical sci-fi flick these days), Blomkamp put together District 9 in his native South Africa.

By now, you know the story.  A private Military contracting company is tasked with relocating a slum full of aliens who were abandoned on earth when their mothership parked over metropolitan Johannesburg.  A low-level bureaucrat (played by first-timer Sharlto Copley) finds himself in the heat of the action.  Beyond that, it’s better for you to see it unfold for yourself.

District 9 plays out like a distillation of the best sci-fi elements into a complex and ambitious story.  The characters are painted in shades of gray, and it explores some heavy philosophical and political subtexts (inescapable when you set a film in South Africa, it seems), and boasts one of the best performances by a non-actor that I can remember.  And most importantly, it looks a lot like Blomkamp really genuinely wanted to tell this story and make this film.  Creativity flourishes under limitation, and having a modest budget seems to have paid off in a stronger focus on characters and story than gee-whiz special effects (though District 9 boasts some very impressive effects) and bombastic action scenes.  As a result, it’s incredibly difficult to not get emotionally invested in the (still pretty bombastic) action scenes that follow.  It just makes for more effective storytelling.  Using an inexperienced actor as a character who is wholly out of his depth aids in this immensely, and frankly couldn’t be faked.  It also helps that Copley is said to have improvised all of his dialogue, which if true, means that Copley is an impressive talent to keep an eye on over the next few years.

It’s still a flawed film.  There’s some old action/sci-fi movie tropes that stick out; the sadistic villain earns a particularly messy end (we’ve seen this countless times before), the final act plays out like the vast majority of action movies always do, and while some of the film’s gore is presented as squirm-inducingly realistic, other elements of it look fairly unrealistic and cartoonish in comparison.  To the credit of all involved, however, I couldn’t find any fault in the technical areas of the film; it was shot exclusively on digital video for a small sum, but it looks fantastic.  And any creative or conceptual flaws can be overlooked by the steady execution of probably the best sci-fi film to come along in far too long.


Review: Funny People

Funny People is a movie I wanted to love, but just couldn’t.  Judd Apatow I have a lot of affection for as a filmmaker (Knocked Up is my least favourite of his, but Freaks and Geeks is easily one of my favourite TV shows), and I generally agree with the critics who laud his ability to balance juvenile comedy with legitimate drama, though I find myself much more drawn to the drama.  And his approach to Directing is one I take myself; maximum collaboration with an emphasis on improvisation.

Funny People is about Adam Sandler playing a darker version of himself, ostensibly.  He lives alone and has a fundamentally meaningless existence.  Anonymous sex, making mindless high-concept comedies (such as Mer-man and My Best Friend, The Robot), and famous “friends”.  When he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness, he returns to his stand-up roots.  When his alarmingly dark routine falls flat, up-and-coming comic Seth Rogen essentially follows his act by riffing on how dark Sandler’s routine was.  Then Sandler decides to take Rogen under his wing/employ as a writer and personal assistant as he tries to figure out what the end of his life is going to look like.  It’s a comedy, to be sure, but Apatow takes an intentional turn towards drama this time, and there’s some fairly dark scenes in an otherwise lighthearted look at death and fame.

There’s essentially three major plotlines that make up Funny People.  There’s Sandler’s dealing with his impending mortality and his relationship with Rogen, Rogen and his comedian roommates and friends, and Sandler trying to win back his long lost love (Leslie Mann, now married with children to Eric Bana).  And frankly, there’s close to enough material in all three for their own movie; I’d certainly say that Apatow could have done a full-length tale of Rogen balancing his life at home and with Sandler and a fairly economical, but separate, film about Sandler’s character at Leslie Mann and Eric Bana’s house.  And that’s really the problem with Funny People.

All three plotlines are well executed, and it’s to Judd Apatow’s credit is that the world he establishes is one that I wanted to keep watching.  But the movie is two and a half hours long, and as a result, it’s just… excessive.  The best parts of the movie are among Apatow’s best overall, and while there’s no fluff here, per se, the final product feels like it could use a less loving edit.  Maybe that’s the danger in writing such a personal project; you don’t want to leave anything out.

That’s really my only beef with the movie, but it goes without saying that a movie that’s too long is a big problem to have.  The movie, however, does have it’s share of praiseworthy elements.  Apatow’s shift towards a more mature tone, by and large, works.  There’s no serious gross-out moments, and while it has a lot of dirty jokes, the bulk of them are in stand-up footage.  Rogen and his roommates bear few resemblances to, say, Rogen and his roommates in Knocked Up (save Jonah Hill being in both).  Rogen’s performance shows a lot of growth as well.  As with most Apatow films, the heavy improvisation makes the performances feel more natural, and that definitely works in favour of the film this time; where the improvisations are and where scripted dialogue made the final cut only Apatow knows for sure, but the dialogue never sounds forced or “written”.

There’s a lot to like in Funny People.  Subtle “moments” pop up here and there, performances are solid, and Apatow has largely jettisoned the sorts of things that would have put his career at a standstill had he just made another Knocked Up clone with the same affable manchild characters (the most childish character is also the least likable this time around) and gross-out humour.  But it feels like what could have been here is better than the final product.


Weekend Rentals: February 20th

Millions – Dir. Danny Boyle (2004)
It’s so incredibly rare that I see a “family film”.  I suppose if you qualify Pixar’s animated features as family films, I see maybe one per year.  Part of this is because I’m neither a child nor a parent, but partly is because family movies are so rarely made to appeal beyond the youngest audience members.  When asked if he was being too harsh on a kids movie after giving Star Wars – The Clone Wars a particularly bad review, Roger Ebert said that if anything, kids movies should be better than mainstream movies.  And he’s absolutely right.  And that’s why I was so impressed with Millions.  It fits into the “family film” genre fairly easily, and even could be classified as a Christian movie (which are, by reputation, notorious for being creatively and even spiritually lacking), but it has the same level of creative intensity as anything else Danny Boyle has done.  It occasionally does flirt with cliche, but it never relies on it and the cast never overplays their hand.  It’s similar to what he did with Slumdog Millionaire in allowing the scene to inspire emotions rather than just present emotions.  The result is always stronger than a heavy-handed emotional scene, and even with some flaws, Millions is a very strong film.  B+

Waking Life – Dir. Richard Linklater (2001)
I enjoyed A Scanner Darkly quite a bit, and like countless others, really enjoyed Dazed and Confused.  So naturally, I was interested in Waking Life.  It has the same sort of visual hook as A Scanner Darkly.  What it lacks, however, is a narrative structure.  It’s essentially a collection of dialogues about heavy philosophical concetps, and for what it is, it’s about as interesting as it can be.  However, some of the scenes play a little awkward, or aren’t quite as effective as others.  The whole film fully disregards realism, and I can appreciate that, but by the same token, I still find it a little unusual to see an academically-sourced conversation about reincarnation between a couple in bed, especially when the dialogue feels stiff.  When the movie works, it’s very interesting.  The visuals certainly make it more watchable than it would have been if it was filmed traditionally, but it’s not quite as consistent as it could be.  Granted, just due to how outside the norm Waking Life is, it could very well grow on me after multiple viewings, but the first go around left me a little cold.  But it’s certainly more interesting than your average Philosophy textbook.  B-

Five Movies I Like: Valentines Day Edition

Disclaimer: this entry contains some minor spoilers of somewhat recent movies.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There’s a very good reason that the vast majority of men (and to be fair, a good number of women) cringe at the mention of date movies.  And there’s always a deluge of them either released on video or in theatres around Valentine’s Day.  And they’re generally intellectually insulting, overwhelmingly sentimental, and almost always pandering to what (predominantly male) writers and directors think women want to see onscreen, almost always at the expense of realism and truth.  And they make copius amounts of money and have even proven to have altered the psychological makeup of North America.

But they’re not all unwatchable.  I’d consider myself something of a recovering Romantic.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a cynic when it comes to love, but the pie-in-the-sky ideal of romance as a panacea simply doesn’t ring true to me anymore, and I’ve come to resent the traditional Hollywood Romance myth.  At the age of 24, my view is now as such: Relationships can’t solve problems by virtue of simply existing.  They offer the advantage of solidarity when facing them, which can be an enormous feat, but they don’t have magical powers that can move mountains or make ordinary people break into song.  Romance is wonderful, don’t get me wrong; it’s just not a panacea.

But if you, faithful reader, identify as a romantic, here’s some onscreen love stories that’ll appeal to both head and heart, cynic and romantic.

Once – 2007, dir. John Carney
Once is one of those movies that’s hard to look at and scoff.  It subverts so very many conventions of both musicals and romance movies, but it’s a beautiful little movie about two people who come to something bigger and better than just jumping off into bed together after falling for eachother.  Starring musicians Glen Handard (of The Frames and Swell Season) and Marketa Inglova (also of Swell Season), this little Irish flick doesn’t offer the sort of big romantic end you expect, but it doesn’t disappoint either.  It’s incredibly refreshing as a whole, the performances feel spontaneous and natural, and the music is top-notch.  It’s a far cry from a chick flick, but it’s legitimately romantic by freeing itself of Hollywood conventions and fully embracing the relationship it portrays.

Garden State – 2004, dir. Zach Braff
Garden State juggles genres a fair bit.  It’s a meditation on post-modern malaise, it’s a buddy movie, it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, and it’s (ostensibly) about falling in love.  Zach Braff (he of Scrubs fame) and Natalie Portman (she of Star Wars fame) spend much of the movie learning about eachother and shaking loose their neuroses during a week in New Jersey.  Most coming-of-age movies add a little romance to the mix, and Garden State is no exception, but for whatever reason, it feels a bit more fresh here.  Maybe it’s the music, or maybe it’s how slowly it sneaks towards it’s final act, or maybe it’s how gosh-darned adorable those two crazy kids are, but the movie resonates emotionally, and stronger than you might expect.  It’s not free of convention like Once, but it knows how to use convention to tell a story right.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – 2008, dir. Nicholas Stoller
Judd Apatow used to be known for his much loved but little known TV series Freaks and Geeks, but then came a little movie called The 40-Year-Old Virgin that made Steve Carrell a star and mixed raunchy comedy with legitimately sweet romance.  The mixture doesn’t sit well with everyone, but Apatow’s second directorial effort Knocked Up proved that it’s effective.  Apatow has also produced a number of similar movies, such as Superbad.  In 2008, however, actor Jason Segel (from Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother) bared his soul (and other parts) in his debut screenplay, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  It leans much more towards the cynical end of things, and very much earns it’s R rating, but it still provides enough of a heart to keep from turning into the most depressing breakup comedy you’re likely to see; and it’s pretty funny any way you slice it.  If you’re feeling bold and don’t mind a little splash of romance in your schadenfreude, it’s worth a look.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004, dir. Michel Gondry
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet nearly completely deconstruct the romantic comedy in this one, and it’s the sort of movie that could easily be just plain depressing.  But between Andy Kaufman’s script and the flashes of beauty thrown in, it manages to be a strong romantic film in it’s own right.  It’s by far the most ambitious and challenging movie on this list, and it’s central thesis is effectively “relationships can be so horrible that you’ll want to wipe them from your memory”, but there’s a beating heart to be found here and it’s got an enormous amount of depth and truth.

Shaun of the Dead – 2004, dir. Edgar Wright
I’ve said a few times that the key relationship in Shaun of the Dead isn’t between Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Liz, but between Shaun and his bumbling best friend Ed (Nick Frost).  And I maintain that this is the case, but I also can’t deny that there’s a strong love story to be found in here.  After all, take away the zombies, and you have a movie about a man who finds out the hard way that he needs to shape up to win back the woman of his dreams.  Keep the zombies in, and you have a movie about a man who’s willing to take on an army of the undead armed only with a cricket bat to win back the woman of his dreams.  And seriously ladies… what could possibly be more romantic than that?

Review: Rachel Getting Married

Film is all about appearances.  While it does rely heavily on sound, no matter how a movie sounds, it still needs to resemble something coherent and consistent to matter.  While there’s a great deal of movies that are flawed from the conception stage onward, a strong, unwavering visual concept can go a long way.  Take, for example, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.  The story is dead simple:  Recovering drug addict Kym (Anne Hathaway) leaves rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding.  The visual hook?  The whole thing is presented as though it’s someone’s home movies.  It’s a far cry from a glossy epic with sweeping crane shots; it even looks rough compared to The Wrestler.  But it absolutely draws the audience in.

The strength of the movie is that it seldom looks scripted.  And even when it does, it’s not performed that way.  The performances are far and away the best thing Rachel Getting Married has going for it.  Nar-Anon meetings look almost as though they just sent a cameraman and a handful of actors to the real deal, rehearsal dinner speeches look very much off-the-cuff, and the most raw emotional scenes look painfully legitimate.

The sense of handycam realism is assisted by the fact that a handful of characters are actually videotaping the whole thing.  Whether those cameras are props or actually shooting isn’t always easy to tell, but that’s not really important.  It makes the setting absolutely real.  Unfortunately, the DIY presentation is the film’s biggest weakness.  While it does capture some amazing performances by nearly anyone with more than a paragraph of dialogue, it too frequently lacks the sort of cohesion one would expect from a movie; even one edited on someone’s laptop.  While I can forgive the handheld shaky-cam as much as it typically bothers me, the movie is at least 10-15 minutes too long and loses it’s focus towards the end.

The appearance of spontaneity, however, does propel the story, and to say it turns the typical wedding movie on it’s head is an understatement.  It’s by no means a comedy, there’s no predictable plot turns, and it denies the audience full closure just as much as it denies the characters the same thing.

Anne Hathaway deserves an Academy Award for her performance, and it earns major points for making zero concessions in terms of realism.  And perhaps most importantly, even the most intense scenes don’t result in overacting or hamming.  But the final half-hour really should have been a final 15 minutes.  It’s a flawed film that can be afforded a lot of grace by virtue of it’s cast, but it’s still not quite what it could have been.

Verdict: B