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Rental reviews Run Fatboy Run Where in the World is Osama bin Laden

Run Fatboy Run – 2007 (dir. David Schwimmer) I greatly enjoy stories of actors who willfully drop way off the public radar to pursue something they really enjoy.  For example:  Michael Palin of the Monty Python troupe has done a handful of acting gigs since the group disbanded for good some decades back, but his main passion seems to be travel.  Obviously having the BBC bankroll and film your global escapades helps a lot, but he obviously had no intent to cash in on his fame by just taking on whatever projects come his way.  The same is true of Friends star David Schwimmer.

Save a particularly memorable role in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s World War 2 miniseries Band of Brothers, Schwimmer has been keeping a very low profile since the show ended in 2004 by working primarily in the theatre and taking some stabs at directing.  Run Fatboy Run is his first Directorial effort for the screen, however.

The premise of the film is that Dennis Doyle (Simon Pegg) is a hapless mallcop who made the mistake of leaving his pregnant fiance Libby (Thandie Newton) at the altar five years ago.  He’s spent those five years doting on his son (though certainly an atypical father) and running the wrong way in life.  See what I just did there?  The movie does it, too.  After meeting Libby’s new boyfriend, the impossibly perfect Whit (Hank Azaria), Dennis decides that he needs to run a marathon to not just win Libby back, but get his life back on track.  Another running metahpor, I know.  But the movie’s about running, both literal and metaphorical.

David Schwimmer spent ten years intimately involved on Friends, and it shows.  It’s a very economical comedy in a number of ways.  Impressively, it never gets too self-involved with it’s own jokes.  A good example of this is the lockerroom scene between Pegg and Azaria.  A lesser director (and lesser actors) would have made every possible penis joke, but Pegg wisely gives a few choice reactions and Azaria never overplays it.  The blister scene seemed out of place at best (especially since it’s a far cry from a gross-out comedy), but it had a number of charming comic moments all the same, as well as one of the funniest fight scenes I’ve seen in a while.

But what really makes a comedy work are the moments that aren’t funny.  And the last act of Run Fatboy Run is comprised mainly of these.  And it works.  Scwimmer tries some clever scenes, and while they’re not flawless, they’re fun to watch, and they keep things interesting.  And it shows a lot of promise.

But it’s still a little bit short of being as good as it could have been.  I can forgive the Nike product placement, as Schwimmer told the AV Club that it was the only way to finance the marathon, and I don’t really care that Simon Pegg isn’t technically fat.  But it wasn’t a total wash, and there’s some good laughs to be had.

B-

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? – 2008 (dir. Morgan Spurlock) It’s so easy to call Morgan Spurlock the heir apparent to Michael Moore.  Too easy.  Both started their documentary careers from an underdog perspective (Moore went after General Motors, and Spurlock went after McDonalds as relative amateurs).  And both have worked on the small screen, as well as the big screen (Moore’s The Awful Truth and Spurlock’s 30 Days).  And both have political views best described as liberal (Moore’s been incredibly outspoken in his criticism of American conservatism, and Spurlock’s a card-carrying member of the ACLU).

The differences between them are, on paper, minimal.  But while Michael Moore is effectively a pundit with a multi-picture deal, Spurlock seems genuinely interested in generating dialogue about the subjects he explores.  But perhaps more importantly, Moore’s opinion dictates his films, but with Spurlock, it seems more like his experience is what runs the show.  Sure, he doesn’t shy away from presenting opinions, but that’s not his endgame.  On 30 days, he tackles heavy political issues head on, but he lets the dialogue between the two groups tell the story.  While he’s been accused of picking people who will come to his understanding of the issues, at least he’s presenting the view that most political issues are nowhere near as black and white as the media and politicians present.  It’s activist entertainment for moderates, if anything.

And that’s generally what he proposes with Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden.  As he attempts to explore the causes and consequences of Osama Bin Laden in Egypt, Morrocco, Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it becomes very clear that it’s an immensely complex problem.  It’s a bold choice for a follow-up to eating McDonalds for a month to dive right into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and radical Islam, but the results speak for themselves.  Two scenes in particular were disturbing; Spurlock’s appallingly harsh welcome to a Jewish settlement in Israel, and a chilling interview with two Saudi teenagers (under the direct supervision of their teachers).  Obviously, those who prefer a black and white view of foreign policy will have difficulty with Spurlock’s conclusion, and American foreign policy takes a lashing, but it’s still an entertaining, if somewhat troubling documentary.

A-

Review Michael Clayton

As promised a week ago, my review:

Like I said earlier, I’ve now seen all but one Best Picture nominee from 2007.  I remember being a little surprised by it’s nomination (although really shouldn’t have been, given that this would be George Clooney’s third dramatic picture to get significant awards attention, along with Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana).  Mainly because it looked like something that’s been done before.  And technically it has.  The plot reads like something out of a Grisham novel – Attourney uncovers conspiracy/cover-up, does something about it.  It’s familiar territory of the last two decades or so, particularly in the earlier 1990′s when six John Grisham legal thrillers were released within four years.

So yes, the story’s been done before.  But the way it was told in Michael Clayton is what makes it what it is.  In general, I find most movies entertaining.  This is probably why you’ll never see a grade lower than a C+ on this site.  It needs to really miss the mark and actually bore me for that to happen.  But when a movie surprises me; catches me off-guard with even something as small as the framing of a shot or a small scene with perfect chemistry, that’s when I really perk up.

Michael Clayton starts off strong by beginning near the end of the plot and then going back and showing the events that lead up to it.  It’s a device that can very easily backfire, but when it works, it can result in some of the best moments (if not movies) in recent memory.  While it doesn’t lead to a devastating reveal like in Memento, but it makes the linear story more powerful as a result.  The scenes that start the film are great as is, but Writer/Director Tony Gilroy’s choice is one that makes the story, when told in full, that much more gripping.

As for specific scenes that grabbed me, Tilda Swinton’s Oscar-winning performance consists almost exclusively of the best scenes in the movie.  Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy deserve a good deal of credit for her best scenes.  The film as a whole is equally well-directed and paced.  While it feels like a long movie, it’s two hour runtime seldom drags.  Clooney’s performance is up to his established standard, but the supporting cast is what makes it work as well as it does.  While it is fundamentally about the title character, the supporting cast is in general just more impressive.  Tom Wilkinson’s performance is very powerful, and in the hands (well, voice) of a lesser actor, the monologue that opens the film would sound foolish, but Wilkinson nails it.

Other standout elements include James Newton Howard’s score and the overall look of the film.  The subject matter is harsh, and the film itself has a cold tone to it.  While it’s not overbearing, it keeps the tone consistent, and when paired with Gilroy’s direction, it makes for a very consistent visual result.  But it’s by no means a flawless film.  While repeat viewings (and I intend to have a few) may reveal more to it, I found that the subplot concerning Michael’s family were a little superfluous, and somewhat confusing given how things wind up ending.  It tallies up to about five minutes of the whole film, but it felt a little out of place.  Any sort of character depth given to Clooney by them is ultimately overshadowed by the journey that the main plot takes him through.  They’re not bad scenes, but their function in the overall narrative is unclear.

But all the same, it’s a compelling story that’s told incredibly well.  And really, what else can I ask for in a movie?  It’s easy to dismiss it as just another legal thriller on paper, but on screen, it’s hard to ignore.

A-

Burn after reading

I’ve always been sort of an admirer of the Coen Brothers.  Not a full-fledged fan, as I’ve only seen a handful of their movies, but I’ve had a healthy respect for their technique and ability to forge a unique style of their own.

Out with the old, and in with the new, I say.  After seeing Burn After Reading, I’m a big fan.  In fact, they’re now firmly in my top five filmmakers (among Martin Scorsese, Kevin Smith, PT Anderson, and Wes Anderson).  The thing that struck me with Burn After Reading is that, while it’s not as ambitious or mood-driven as No Country for Old Men, it’s effectively everyone involved playing to their strengths.  Word on the street is that each role was written with a specific actor in mind (all of whom played that character in the final product), and it definitely shows.

The film is about adultery, blackmail, depression, and online dating.  And probably the funniest movie about those subjects I’ve seen.  Brad Pitt’s performance as dull-witted personal trainer Chad is probably the standout, with a ridiculous hairdo and severely limited vocabulary, but there’s really no weak link in the cast.  George Clooney playing a womanizer isn’t much of a stretch, but when the stakes start rising (and rise they do), he’s more than up to the task.  Same for John Malkovich, always on the edge of going medieval on the nearest object.  JK Simmons, however, comes closest to stealing the show as a deadpan CIA higher-up forced to make sense of the madness that ensues from some stolen memoirs and an internet hook-up.

But cast, direction, and editing aside, what really makes this movie work is the music.  No Country for Old Men had no score to speak of (granted, it was able to rely on Javier Bardem to set the mood), but Burn After Reading is made all the more enjoyable by the animated score by Carter Burwell, a frequent Coens collaborator.  It’s not a subtle score, but it’s the perfect match for the slapstick violence and larger than life tone of the movie.

It’s ridiculously funny, and incredibly well executed.  But what’s really impressive is knowing that had the Coens decided to make it a tense, mood-driven drama, it would have been just as good. Burn After Reading is absolutely night and day compared to No Country for Old Men, but they’re both fantastic movies.  While some have called Burn After Reading a spiritual sequel to The Big Lebowski, I’d compare it to an earlier work:  Raising Arizona.  Simpletons getting in way over their heads + consequences they didn’t expect = comedy.  A basic premise, to be sure, but for whatever reason, the Coens seem to do it better than everyone else.  The Coens aren’t infallaible to be sure.  They’ve had their share of flops.  But when they get it right, they really nail it.  And they wind up making some of my favourite movies when they do.

A