Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Movie Review: "District 9"

Originally published in the August 16, 2009 edition of The Source.

Bitingly satirical, surprisingly insightful and unrelentingly entertaining, “District 9” finds new uses for the pseudo-documentary format while spinning an exciting and action-packed extraterrestrial thriller.

The first feature from Neill Blokamp, “District 9” takes place in Johannesburg, 20 years after a flying saucer settled over the metropolis and its inhabitants were made to live in the South African slums. The faux-documentary follows meek and nerdy bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) as he and his staff force eviction notices on the aliens, preparing them for a move away from humans and into the internment camp-like District 10.

As most audiences (possibly excluding “Transformers” fans) will pick up, the documentary is fake - aliens, of course, never did land in South Africa. Blokamp isn’t attempting a Christopher Guest-style fake-out; he uses the documentary style to create the world in which the film takes place, letting the actions and words of Van De Merwe’s team work as exposition. The attention to detail is remarkable, from the aliens’ salvaged clothes, the acknowledgement that humans and Prawns have known each other long enough to learn each other’s languages, and the black market that rises up, founded on a surprising source of revenue.

The opening sequences are astonishing; the aliens, derisively named “Prawns” because of their multiple tentacles, occupy the screen in a way I wasn’t used to. Most special-effects shots look clean and airbrushed, carefully fit into a painstakingly crafted frame. Due to “District 9’s” documentary format, the camera bobs and zooms, switching from film stock to video, while the computer-generated creations simply fill the space realistically. Quickly and without sacrificing narrative flow or entertainment value, Blokamp creates this world and sets the film’s rules. It’s as confident a debut as I’ve ever seen for a filmmaker.

Exposition out of the way, Blokamp quickly abandons the documentary technique to focus on the fallout of Van De Merwe’s exposure to alien fluids. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll just say that the film takes on elements of sci-fi horror and social commentary before its final, gleefully violent, action finale, never losing its wit, charm or heart.

Much of this is owing to Copley who, in his acting debut, creates one of the most bizarre action heroes ever put to film. Van De Merwe starts the film as a bumbling, comical exaggeration of a government worker. As his situation grows direr, Copley drops the shtick and shows a hero deeply in love with his wife, desperate to get back to the way things were and, finally, outraged at injustice. It’s a fantastic performance and I’m amazed at just how skillfully Copley handles the physical and emotional requirements of the role.

The film seems to effortlessly flow from a social commentary, using the South African setting as shorthand for its tale of a new kind of apartheid, to gross-out horror film and finally to guns-blazing, blood-splattering action extravaganza. It does so without the inflated sense of ego that weighs down Michael Bay’s films or the “check your brain at the door” mentality of far too many summer films. It’s the rare movie that ably delivers laughs and thrills without sacrificing style or intelligence.

There’s a growing belief that critics hate anything with explosions, special effects or aliens. That’s not true; we simply ask that they be used at the service of telling coherent and involving stories. Coming at the tail end of a summer filled with mediocre popcorn films, “District 9” is one that this critic welcomes with open arms.

Movie Review: "Ocean of Pearls"

“Ocean of Pearls,” opening this week at the AMC Forum 30, may have been directed by a local doctor, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the work of an amateur.

A tender, thought-provoking story of faith, tradition and compromise, the film is the assured debut from Sterling Heights gastroenterologist Sarab Neelam. It’s the story of Amrit Singh (Omid Abtahi), a young surgeon who finds himself wrestling with his Sikh heritage when he takes a job at a Detroit hospital.

Neelam has stated that he originally envisioned the film with a Caucasian hero, but I cannot imagine the film without the cultural thread that runs through it. Not simply a niche film, “Ocean of Pearls” is not simply about being a Sikh, but about how that heritage and tradition affect Amrit’s thoughts and actions. Neelam explains pertinent information about the Sikh faith, but never in a way that feels condescending or stops the plot cold. He illustrates critical components of the faith - such as the cutting of one’s hair - by placing them in a plausible context and having Amrit wrestle with the implications of his decisions. The cultural context is refreshing, but Neelam also grounds the story in universal questions about tradition, chance and compromise, mixing in a story of medical ethics that resonates in a time when health care is being debated in every medium.

Neelam gets a solid performance from Abtahi, who captures the questions and struggles Amrit has while still giving him a natural joy and likability. The key to the film, never feeling preachy or false, rests on Abtahi’s shoulders; to his credit, he creates a character whose traditions are so much a part of his life and background that his dilemma is instantly relatable and sympathetic, not forced in over heavy-handed.

Neelam shows a strong eye for composition and I especially enjoyed his use of color. The hospital scenes, depicting Amrit’s compromise, take place in sterile, white environments. Scenes of faith, family and romance are more lushly lit and filled with warm colors. It’s a detail that many first-time directors wouldn’t think of, and yet it gives the film emotional resonance and depth.

There are some hiccups; a flirtation with a coworker comes off as awkward and I would have appreciated one additional scene with Amrit’s father before his big reveal in the third act. The dialogue in some places feels a tad stilted and I would have appreciated more fleshing out of a subplot involving an incompetent surgeon (Dennis Haskins, “Saved by the Bell”). But these are beginner’s stumbles; at least I hope they are - it would be a shame if Neelam didn’t take another turn behind the camera. “Ocean of Pearls” hints at a unique and skilled cinematic voice waiting to be discovered. “Ocean of Pearls” is currently showing at the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights.
Originally published in the Aug 16, 2009 edition of The Source.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Medical Drama

Originally published in the 8/9/09 edition of The Source

by Chris Williams

In the summer of 2006, Sarab Neelam headed to the set of his debut film “Ocean of Pearls,” ready to roll cameras for the first time.

Investors had put down money, actors had been flown in from Los Angeles and equipment had been rented.

Then came the first twist.

“It was the first day of shooting and it was supposed to be a nice, outdoor summer scene and it was pouring rain,” Neelam, 48, recalled in a recent phone conversation. “Our generator truck got stuck in mud. It was really a rough way to start.”

Neelam and his crew persevered and, three years later, the finished version of “Ocean of Pearls” is ready for release. After an exclusive engagement at the Landmark Maple Art Theater in West Bloomfield, the film will expand to two others in metro-Detroit on Aug. 14, including the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights.

It’s a hometown premiere of sorts for Neelam, a gastroenterologist who has worked out of Troy, Macomb Township and Sterling Heights for several years. While his practice is his full-time job, what Neelam has always really wanted to do is direct. Ever since his childhood in India, Neelam has been drawn to the big screen.

“I loved going to the movies. I loved the colors and I felt really happy watching them; it was connecting with something larger,” Neelam said. “I said, ‘I really want to do that when I grow up.”

Years later, as a medical student in Toronto, the movie bug still had its teeth in the young man, who lobbied hard to work as a production assistant on an Indian film shot in the city. Upon moving to Michigan and starting his residency Neelam formed a connection with Kurt Luedtke, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Out of Africa,” and Jim Burnstein, a screenwriting professor at the University of Michigan and the writer of films such as “Renaissance Man.”

Encouraged by his mentors, Neelam decided to get serious about pursuing his life-long passion. Like many budding filmmakers, he was bursting with ideas and readily admits that some were too daunting for a first-time director.

“We started talking and I started telling him some of the ideas I had. And some of them were just really grandiose, $100 million ideas,” Neelam said. “Jim stopped me and said, ‘why don’t you write about what you know?’”

What Neelam knew was medicine and he decided to tackle an ethical dilemma he had faced upon starting his residency.

“When I first started practicing medicine in the States my administrator told me that if I ordered tests on certain patients I would get a bonus, and if I ordered tests on certain other patients, he would subtract from my bonus,” Neelam said. “That was really the seed for the story.”

Neelam initially wrote the script with his hero written as a Caucasian doctor. It was Burnstein who suggested that Neelam incorporate his Sikh faith into the story, giving the medical drama a layer of cultural and religious conflict.

Neelam admits he was initially hesitant to bring his cultural background into the film. However, as events in the worldbegan to foster misunderstanding about the Sikh religion he found that the addition brought a fresh perspective on a heritage that few people know much about.

“I really began to think that Jim was right because then we could show people who Sikhs really are; we’re a really peaceful group of people, but there was such a misunderstanding. The first person killed in a hate crime after the Sept. 11 attacks was not a Muslim, but a Sikh. People didn’t know the difference,” Neelam said. “There have been so many attacks on Sikhs just because we wear turbans.”

“At times I questioned myself as to why I was born a Sikh and why I couldn’t just be like everyone else,” Neelam said in the film’s production notes. “It is only with time and experience that you realize that just because you wear a turban doesn’t make you a Sikh and just because you wear a white coat doesn’t make you a doctor.”

Although his hero’s cultural background adds an extra dimension to the story, Neelam said his intent was to make sure the drama was not lost amidst political statements or messages.

“We didn’t want to make it a preachy movie. We wanted to make it a medical drama that entertained people and people could relate to,” he said. “We wanted to make it about anyone; you forget after awhile that the hero is a Sikh because anyone can relate to his problem. Most of us compromise in life; most of us don’t always think about the things we do. That’s what we wanted to address.”

The script finished, Neelam began to put himself through film school, taking classes in California and Michigan. He then began assembling a crew and a cast that includes Omid Abtahi (“24”), Heather McComb (“Party of Five”), Ron Canada (“Boston Legal”), Navi Rawat (“Numb3rs”), Dennis Haskins (“Saved by the Bell”) and Brenda Strong (“Desperate Housewives”). Abtahi, in the lead role of Amrit, was the most crucial casting choice; Neelam said he was pleased to find a man who reminded him of himself. Neelam’s contacts in the medical community allowed him access to portions of hospitals and medical centers off-limits to most people and, although his film was shot before tax incentives made Michigan one of the most affordable places to make movies, he said it was important to film in Detroit to give the film a certain look and character.

A self-described perfectionist, Neelam admits to going over budget and chipping his own money in to get scenes just right. That dedication came in handy on the final day of shooting when, incredibly, the crew found themselves waterlogged once more; a pipe had broken in the basement of the hospital where a pivotal scene was to be shot. No one was allowed into the hospital and there was talk of evacuating all of the patients.

“I was going, ‘we’re done. We’re cooked,’” Neelam said. “We were going to have to bring all these people back to film, which we couldn’t afford to do.”

Neelam and his crew decided to hang around the set awhile longer and ultimately fought water with water to get drinks to the hospital’s patience; the administration then allowed the crew in for one final, long night of shooting.

“We didn’t finish until 5 a.m. and some of the extras were getting really tired; some of them even joked and said ‘forget the money, just send us home,” he laughed. “I was exhausted, but it was really fun.”

The film has made the rounds at film festivals throughout the world and collected several prizes. In addition to opening in Detroit, it will also s open in selected cities around the country this month. Neelam said many have remarked that the film presents a rare positive message in a sea of loud blockbusters and nihilistic thrillers.

“We don’t see a lot of movies out there that don’t abuse or debase people,” he said. “This is one movie where you can make something clean that says something positive about life. I think sometimes the movies go so far in the opposite direction sometimes.”

Currently back to practicing medicine, Neelam said he has a few ideas for future films in his head—including a comedy, musical and children’s adventure. Even if he doesn’t get the chance to pursue those films, he said he is grateful for the time he spent diving into “Ocean.”

“I think it turned out really well. I’m very thankful that I was given this opportunity and support,” he said. “It’s like you’re creating something that’s going to be around forever.”

"Julie and Julia" Author Relives Year of Cooking Dangerously

Originally published in the 8/2/09 edition of The Source

By Chris Williams
In August 2002, Julie Powell was working at a job she hated and facing the prospect of turning 30 with her hopes of being a writer fading quickly into obscurity.

Rather than give up her dreams of literary stardom, Powell turned to the then-new fad of blogging and gave herself an assignment: over the course of one year she would cook her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The result was the online sensation “The Julie-Julia Project,” which then became the best-selling book “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.”

Nearly seven years after typing her first entry, Powell’s work is the basis for “Julie and Julia,” the new film by director Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”). The film stars Amy Adams (“Enchanted”) as Powell and parallels her year-long adventure with the story of Child (Meryl Streep) coming into her own as a culinary genius.
It’s that parallel, Powell said in a recent phone interview, that gets to the heart of why she undertook the challenge.
“What the movie is about is these two women who come to a moment in their lives where they’re in their thirties and they decide they have to change their lives and figure out who they are,” Powell said. “The way that Nora portrays them side-by-side is, I think, very smart and an important part of what makes the movie work.”
When the project began, Powell was working a government job that required late hours and often left her emotionally drained. Her routine was to come home, take off her shoes, order in pizza and get drunk on the couch; not the way aspiring writer had planned her life. She began the project as a means of transformation. As she cooked her way through the book her routine changed to include trips to three grocery stores on the way home from work followed by three hours of cooking before finally sitting down to eat, only to clean up and go straight to bed.
“I completely went crazy. I was frantic all the time,” Powell recalled. “But in a strange way, the new routine was so much less soul-sucking and it felt like I had a goal and that gave me a lot of energy.”
Ephron’s film captures the hectic nature that such an enterprise brought upon Powell and her husband. Adams runs ragged from work to grocery stores, cooking late in into the night, falling asleep on the couch waiting for food to finish and collapsing on the floor in tears after one dinner turns into a disaster.
“I think it got the hysteria right on my end,” Powell said. “ Amy Adams does a great job of showing that sort of drive that comes out of not really planning anything or knowing where you’re going but just (having) a need to keep going with this irrational passion and the hysterical situations that sometimes ensue because of that. The moments with her on the floor crying and beating her head against the floor are quite authentic.”
A cornerstone of both Powell and Child’s stories centers on the support both women found in their husbands, Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) and Eric Powell (Chris Messina). While Ephron is best known as the director of light romantic comedies, “Julie and Julia” begins with both women happily married and shows the effect those strong relationships had on each woman.
“The depiction of marriages that work and strong men who love that their women are strong and are willing to support them in their goals is something that you don’t see in the movies too often,” Powell said. “It’s something that I was proud of in the book and that I’m proud comes through in the movie. Yes, to some degree it’s a chick flick. But instead of it being a woman who’s desperate to get married, who’s desperate to find a man, it’s about women who have men and are trying to find themselves. Their relationships and partnerships are part of the support systems for their individual journeys.”
The film also tracks the surprising fallout of Powell’s experiment. As she was gaining popularity in newspapers and magazines across the country, news came in that Child herself was not exactly pleased with the undertaking. While Powell never did have a chance to speak with Child before her death in 2004, she said she did receive a “cordial and kind reply” from the famous chef after sending her a letter thanking her for the lessons Powell learned during her year-long adventure.
“I think there’s no way to know, in the end, exactly how she felt. But I’m almost perfectly okay with that because I know what it meant. I realized that this year long project was a tribute to her confidence and spirit and I’m extraordinarily grateful to her for teaching me the lessons she had,” Powell said. “I do believe that Julia Child touched so many people and was such a profound influence on so many people that we who have been touched tend to have our little inner Julia, this particular presence to us. And I’ve just contended myself with the idea that my Julia thinks I’m okay, she thinks I’m pretty cool.”
While the film spends much of its time on the comedic complications that arise from the experiment, Powell stresses that it’s her personal journey toward transformation that was most important and rewarding. While she still takes pride in knowing that she can bone a duck, Powell said it’s the opportunities that arose from following through with her task that she is most pleased of.
“The challenge was a good thing because that’s exactly what I needed to pull myself out of this drudgery my life had become. So when I was doing what would technically be the biggest culinary challenge, that was the great stuff. That was the Indiana Jones stuff,” she said. “What I find especially rewarding now is that I really did sit down at a very personal point at a need for transformation and took kind of a blind stab in the dark as to what would affect change. And that echoed with people in the blogosphere enough that people wanted to read the book and that Nora picked it up and found that same sort of story to be appealing is extraordinarily moving to me and exciting.”
Powell is currently preparing for the release of her second book, “Cleaving,” which follows her six-month apprenticeship at a butcher’s shop in upstate New York. As “Julie and Julia” prepares to hit theaters on Aug. 7, Powell said she thinks audiences will find much to devour on the screen.
“I think it’s a lovely, very sweet movie. I think the four leads are wonderful and it’s a lovely, beautiful-looking film and I’m very pleased with it,” she said. “The food in this movie is amazing and I think Nora does a great job filming it; I think people will come out of this movie hungry.”

Movie Review: "Julie and Julia"

This article originally appeared in the 8/9/09 edition of The Source.

Julie Powell believes that any meal can be improved with butter. Nora Ephron believes any movie can be improved with sugar.

It was probably a given then that when Ephron, the director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” decided to adapt Powell’s bestselling book “Julie and Julia”, the result would be an enjoyable treat that risks overdosing on sweetness.

The film chronicles Powell’s (Amy Adams) attempts at transformation in 2001. Trapped at a dull government job and watching her dreams of writing fame evaporate she decides to try her hand at cooking through all of the recipes in Julia Child’s famous cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Cheered on by her husband (Chris Messina), Powell finds herself hitting grocery stores after work, staying up late to bone ducks and prepare aspics and collapsing in frustration on the floor when the recipes go up in flames at the last minute.

The film parallels Powell’s story with Child’s (Meryl Streep) own transformation story set 60 years earlier. Recently relocated to Paris with her bureaucrat husband (Stanley Tucci), Child finds herself looking for something to do during the days. After hat-making doesn’t pan out, she enrolls in the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school, the lone woman in her class, her strapping height and cheerful demeanor winning her over with the teachers. Like Powell, Child also attempts literary success, as she prepares the first French cookbook for “servantless Americans.”

Adams is quickly becoming the go-to actress for quirky, sweet heroines. With her chipper demeanor and short haircut, she is a perfect replacement for Ephron’s previous muse, Meg Ryan. Despite being an Oscar nominee (“Junebug”), princess (“Enchanted”) and having proven just last year that she can hold her own In a drama (“Doubt,” which also starred Streep), Adams is still believable as the spunky girl-next door who is fed up with her job and itching for more than just an evening of pizza on the couch. True, the real Powell admits that Adams’ character has a cleaner mouth and Adams turns temper tantrums into quirky character tics rather than anything resembling real-life frustration; but the film is a comedy and Adams has a charisma about her that makes her instantly likable, even when her character is descending into culinary obsession with a woman she’s never met.

Ephron’s wit has always been best utilized in her observance of modern culture and there’s a funny scene near the beginning where Powell goes to lunch with her girlfriends, all of whom are pursuing lucrative business deals. While establishing Powell’s dilemma, the scene also provides a funny commentary on the self-absorption of city life and the pervasiveness of cell phones. Adams’ narration of Powell’s blog entries is also enjoyable, even as the constant positive messages and wordplay begins to get a bit too cute for the film’s good.

While Powell is ostensibly the film’s subject, the scenes following Child are by far more skillfully done. I was initially afraid that Streep would offer nothing more than an impression of the famous chef, but her body language, demeanor, quick wit and subtle moments of humanity create the rare three-dimensional picture of a well-known celebrity. Yes, it’s very funny to watch Child navigate her cooking classes and city life with her boundless optimism, but there’s a surprising tenderness in unexpected moments, mostly involving her marriage.

Here is where the film’s greatest strength lies. Ephron nearly singlehandedly created the “chick flick” genre. Yet while “Julie and Julia” is a film geared toward women, it is not a romance in the traditional sense. Both Powell and Child are already in strong, loving marriages when the film begins and the story’s great success is in seeing how those partners offered support, strength and encouragement to women struggling to find their purpose. Tucci especially is phenomenal as Paul Child, a deadpan and funny man who absolutely adores his wife; Tucci’s sense of humor and quiet dignity provide the movie’s strongest scenes. Messina is given far less to do than indulge Adams’ tantrums and partake in an awkward and contrived moment of conflict between Powell and her husband.

The film is much better when it leaves the drama at the door and allows Powell and Child’s stories the room to grow and breathe. Streep is so wonderful as Child, with her lilting voice and surprisingly risqué sense of humor that I would easily have sat through an entire biopic with her as the cook. The Powell storyline is interesting but becomes a tad too glossy and cute, a strong story of transformation buried under mounds of sugar. Ephron’s visual eye is as good as ever; I strongly suspect that if “Dinner and a Movie” wasn’t an option before the film, many audience members will make it one afterward.

And while the film does sometimes come across as too fluffy for its own good at times, it is a return to feel-good form for Ephron, who dabbled in cynicism with “Numbers” and with utter failure in “Hanging Up.” She gets a likeable performance from Adams, a strong one from Streep and a surprising one from Tucci, all wrapped up in a story of transformation and success that should appeal to Ephron’s audience. “Julie and Julia” may be fattening and oversweet, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Movie Review: "Funny People"

My thoughts on Judd Apatow's third film are coming later than I had originally anticipated. The reason for this is not because I'm lazy or feel that the film is unworthy of commentary. It's just that I've had to spend a good week trying to understand exactly what I think of Apatow's latest.

"Funny People" is not a movie with a funny premise. It's about highly-successful comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) who, in the film's opening moments, is diagnosed with a rare, probably-fatal blood disorder. After bombing at a nightclub one night, George meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up-and-coming comic who toils by day at a deli and at night shares an apartment with two upstart comics (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill) for whom success seems to come easy. Simmons asks Ira to be his assistant, writing jokes for him and tending to his needs in what could be the last days of his life.

The film's"Funny People" are not always likable people. Simmons is a man who's been catered to for so long that he doesn't understand that life doesn't revolve around him. Although his dire prognosis shakes him, he pursues life as a man who has gained the whole world and already lost his soul. He makes perfunctory attempts at reconciling with his family and gives pat apologies to his sister, but never tries to make things right or understand why giving his nephew DVDs of his movie is not really equal to time spent with the family. Haunted by the love that got away (Leslie Mann), he uses his sickness to try and reconnect with her, even though she's married and has two kids.

Ira, meanwhile, is on the road to becoming just like George. He understands the cut-throat world of comedy. It doesn't bother him to keep George's offer to write comedy hidden from his roommates. It bothers him even less to appropriate their jokes. Ira wants to succeed at all costs and why shouldn't he? Everyone else is. Schwartzman's character, the star of the hilariously awful faux sitcom "Yo Teach" not only leaves his $25,000 checks out, but also threatens to sleep with Ira's crush if he doesn't' close the deal in 10 days. Hill's character is a bit nicer but seems to succeed without trying; he lucks into opening for Simmons and gains a cult following on Youtube for editing video of himself playing with cats.

This is far removed from the pothead slackers and frat boys that populated "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." These are the comedians those guys would have idolized, never knowing how dark and sad their lives actually were. Apatow, drawing on his experience in the bitter world of comedy, paints a picture of what funny people are like when they're not being funny. And the result is a group of people who were pushed into the business to cope with shortcomings or emotional turmoil---is it any surprise they're screwed up?

Not that the film is a dire affair. It is, after all, a comedy. The banter between Ira and his roommates is right up there with the riffing in Apatow's previous films. There's a great conversation Schwartzman's character has about his grandfather's death; Hill's punchline is one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

For once in a movie, performance comedy is actually funny. Very few movies are made about stand up comedy and with good reason--the truth is that it's usually funnier to go out and see a professional comic with his own voice than to watch an actor try and interpret dialogue that a screenwriter thought was funny. Apatow put his actors up on stage in actual nightclubs to prepare for their roles and I like the way each actor's stage persona is different and fits each actor uniquely. I also appreciated the digs at Rogen's recent weight loss, acknowledging why audiences are taken aback when portly comedians get fit. ("No one wants to hear Lance Armstrong tell jokes").

But the film's funniest moments are on stage or involving actual comedians (a scene at a nightclub involving several famous cameos is fantastic, especially when it ends with Eminem picking a fight with Ray Romano). When the characters are off-stage, Apatow seems to be eager to put the comedy aside in favor of exploring these characters and the choices they make, even when his flawed creations make wrong choices. It's rare to see a filmmaker let his characters breathe and make decisions that the cast and crew consciously know are going to upset the audience, and I think that's going to be what surprises and ultimately disappoints several people.

Not that we should be surprised to find that Apatow has more on his mind than sexual and scatological humor (although it's prevalent here). For all its raunch, "40-Year-Old Virgin" still stands as the rare R-rated film to take a somewhat old-fashioned stance, poking fun at our culture's sexual obsession and, in the end, championing its characters ultimate choice to wait until marriage to have sex. "Knocked Up" was about a one-night stand between a successful woman and a pothead; while I don't take the position that many do that the film is a pro-life message, I do think it makes a strong point about the need to put away childish things, grow up and take responsibility. Apatow's films, and many of his productions, have always been founded on emotional honest and characters who are relatable and flawed; it's why they're so funny.

But Apatow seems more intent on showcasing his character's flaws and weaknesses here than he did in the past and he does so with more brutality than before, not allowing his characters the option of escaping with a funny joke or gag. His two main characters are both flawed individuals forced to come to a point of realization. Ira's given a chance to see that he has what it takes to be like George Simmons--he starts getting better gigs and actually begins to get paid. But he also sees the way George has squandered his life and mistreated those around him, a pattern Ira is already beginning to show in his own life. During his time with George, we watch Ira develop not only as a comedian but as a man, and Ira is ultimately the film's moral compass. There's a point near the end where Ira has to decide whether to act on his conscience, even though it could cost him his job and a friendship. But is it friendship if you're being used? And is it friendship to withhold painful truths that could make the other person improve?

Rogen has impressed me as a comedian since he stole every one of his scenes in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." While I wasn't the biggest fan of this year's "Observe and Report," it was the first time I noticed that Rogen has more to offer than just being the fat slacker. Losing his weight seems to have pushed Rogen to prove himself and taken away a crutch and I was impressed at the dark psychological depths he took his character to in that film.

His character in "Funny People" is far more normal and Rogen continues to impress me. He moves from being the slacker to being the witty Everyman, with a self-deprecating wit and a sweet side that makes him instantly likable. "Funny People" has been compared to a James L. Brooks movie by several critics and, if that's the case, Rogen is Apatow's Albert Brooks. Here Rogen is funny but also conflicted, confused and, in the final stretches, convicted. I have a feeling people will overlook the work Rogen does here but he's really the film's beating heart and I could definitely see him in roles are reminiscent of Brooks, Dan Aykroyd or pre-"Philadelphia" Tom Hanks.

But Ira's dilemmas are nothing compared to the situation George finds himself in. Sandler almost parodies himself in this film--a one-time stand-up comic who has sold out to make a string of formulaic mainstream hits. George is not surrounded by friends, but by yes-men and fans. He's never had a friend to tell him to wise up or advise him when he's screwing up. He's never had to think much about other people because, to the people around him, he's the center of the universe. It's no surprise that when he learns he's dying that he does things that brought him success before, no matter if it hurts other people.

For as many awful movies as Sandler appears in, I have to admit that he's one of those actors I always root for, simply because he's so likable (yes, that was me who gave a positive review to "You Don't Mess with the Zohan"). To be honest, much of my disdain for films like "Little Nicky," "Big Daddy" or "The Waterboy" comes not because they're horrible movies--although some are--but rather because I know Sandler's better than this. His comedy cds were models of crass hilarity. And when under the tutelage of a capable director, Sandler has proven himself to be one heck of an actor--I'm still upset more people didn't champion his work in "Reign Over Me" and he absolutely should have been recognized by Oscar for his work in the brilliant "Punch Drunk Love."

Those roles were often a bit dark and quirky, but saved by Sandler's inherent likability. Here, he seems to be playing a more normal character, but gone is the warmth and humor of the previous characters--Simmons may be funny and have a popular stage persona, but he's been isolated for so long that he seems to have lost any sense of altruism or warmth. Everything about him is an for show; surrounded by yes men all his life, he sees it as an attack when someone tries to tell him he's screwing up...they're wrong and they can't be trusted. He may be quick with a joke, but he's got nothing inside. And when he learns he's dying, he finally begins to discover that truth and tries to fix his messed-up life; but if you've been taught that the wrong things will bring you happiness and self is the end of all joy, how right are you actually going to make things?

It's brave work from Sandler, a comedian who has always been the very definition of likability. To strip away the very essence of the things that make him popular and still have a character who commands the screen takes a remarkable skill. Sandler is also perfectly cast as the veteran comedian surrounded by costars who are the up-and-comers in the genre; it makes the entire atmosphere that much more believable. I also liked how Apatow (Sandler's former roommate) incorporates old footage of the comedian to show his legacy; and the clips from Simmons' films are hilarious in their badness. I could easily see a Sandler/Robin Williams or Tim Allen film like "Merman" being made; I shudder at the thought.

And so yes, for 90 minutes I was taken a bit aback by the film's more dramatic tone but admit that there's some great stuff going on there.

The problem is that "Funny People" is not an hour and a half. It's 2 1/2 hours.

Apatow decides to send George and Ira on a road trip in the film's final hour, part of George's plan to woo back his lost love. And it's not that there's anything wrong with this--although the characters make decisions that make me cringe, that's kind of the point--except that it gets repetitive. Yes, I like Leslie Mann and she does some funny and heartfelt work here. And Eric Bana, as her Australian husband, is surprisingly funny. But that last hour meanders and winds, ultimately turning into an excuse to showcase Mann (Apatow's wife) and the director's children in several repetitive scenes. By the time the film gets to the third shot of Ira playing with the kids, I was ready to scream.

I can understand Apatow wanting to keep this material in, and I doubt that it has anything to do with making his family a major part of the movie. The stuff isn't pointless--it's letting the characters breathe and develop before making their final decisions. But the writer-director, whose previous films have also shown a tendency towards overlength, should have been aware that he could have easily condensed and cut about 30 minutes from this material. It's one thing to be "a little long" but another thing for a film just to stop cold for an entire half hour. And while the problems I had before were with my expectations vs. Apatow's delivery, the problem I have here is with good film making vs. bad film making. It keeps the movie from being the masterpiece I believe Apatow thought he was making.

Still, there's plenty to like in "Funny People." Sandler and Rogen are fantastic and I'm always clamoring for more Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill. Any scene involving comedians or stand up comedy is pure gold and the emotional undercurrent of the film is surprisingly strong and resonant. But that extra half hour just grinds things to a halt--I doubt we'll see a DVD Director's cut that advertises "30 Fewer Minutes!" but that would be the one I'd want to see.

"Funny People" is a very good movie kept from greatness by a director struggling to make a transition from flat-out humor to drama. I hope it's a growing pain for Apatow because I think that, more than anything, it hints at what he's capable at in the future.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Movie Review: "500 Days of Summer"

This is a story of boy meets girl. It is not a love story--Narrator, "500 Days of Summer"

Don't buy into that quote. Although the marketing for the new comedy has been centered around this tag, it's not exactly true.

Yes, "500 Days of Summer" is about a young man reminiscing over a failed relationship. Yes, it's quite possible that only one half of the couple ever felt anything resembling love. And yes, audience members who've ever fallen for someone who doesn't feel "that way" will probably find the film to be as painful as it is funny.

But make no mistake: "500 Days of Summer" is a love story. It's just not one of the love stories that ends the way audiences are used to. It tells the whole story, from "meet cute" to breakup and through closure.

When we meet Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he has just been broken up with by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). His friends and little sister find him in anguish in the kitchen. Although they remind him that girls have broken up with him before, Tom is adamant that this one is different. This is Summer. "Tell us what happened," his sister says. "Tell us from the beginning."

But anyone who's ever reminisced about an old flame knows that memory knows no chronology. We may start with the first time we met that person but emotion drags us through it's own order, from the first date to the first kiss. To the red flags that should have been warning signs but then back to the things that made us throw caution to the wind anyway. This is the order the film moves in, jumping around to different points in the relationship to give us an emotional chronology, showing us just why this affair was not meant to last.

We learn, for instance, that Tom may have been doomed to relationship failure from the start; his visions of love have been formed by pop songs, a misreading of "The Graduate's" ending and a stubborn belief in fate and destiny. No matter that Summer seems slightly aloof and that she has mentioned that she's not interested in a serious relationship and, in fact, doesn't believe in love--Tom is sure that their mutual love for The Smiths and her ability to rekindle his passion in architecture (he works as a greeting card writer) is proof that they are meant to be. He just has to break down those walls and win her over.

Not that Summer is always clear on her intentions--she's the one who advances on him in the copy room at work. She is happy to hold his hand, kiss him and sleep with him...but if things make her a bit too uncomfortable she can always say "but we're just friends." She's stated her case...but is she rethinking her rules? Just playing with his heart? Just stumbling around?

We never quite know because Deschanel plays Summer not as a fully-fleshed out character but as someone who changes based on Tom's expectations and interpretations. Tom thinks he's fallen in love with Summer because she meets all the criteria that Tom believes "The One" will possess--they have the same interests, he can teach her about architecture and everything about Summer is so enigmatic and magical that it just must be destiny. But then again, if you've set about on life with faulty interpretations, you might just only head toward heartache.

But what about Summer? She's also had interpreters--the rising divorce rates, bad relationship baggage--that have told her there's no such thing as magic and romance. Who's to say her interpreters are right? Maybe Tom just has to prove her wrong and win her over. Maybe one day she'll wake up and "just know." Then again, we've already seen how this turns maybe Summer's right. Maybe Tom's wrong. . . or maybe he's right, just not about Summer.

"500 Days of Summer" is very funny and fresh--the dialogue is clever and Webb keeps the film from growing stale by throwing every cinematic device at the screen based on Tom's emotions at the moment--there's the post-coital dance through the streets, followed by the post-breakup French New Wave homage. There's a bit of faux documentary, some animation and just about every technique that could be used...thankfully, because Webb tunes each new "trick" to Tom's emotions, it never feels gimmicky or pretentious but brings to life the feelings of a man who thinks he's in love but may just be being jerked around.

Everyone has their Summer. It's the person you fall for that never quite makes their intentions clear. And although they sometimes state that they don't want things to get serious or that you're "just friends," there's that hint of a spark, of some kind of connection, that really makes you think twice. Maybe they're just scared. Maybe they're playing hard to get. Maybe you just have to break through to them and win them over.

That, unfortunately, usually only ends one way, and that's what "500 Days of Summer" seeks to recreate. While it's not a love story in the conventional mode, it's definitely a film that explores the story of a man in love. There are moments of sweetness and bliss but they are often followed by sharp heartache and pain. Levitt and Deschanel have such a great chemistry together that every mode swing and twist feels genuine, part of a relationship between two people who have a strong bond but disagree on what, exactly, that bond is.

Deschanel is likely going to get the majority of credit for her work here. And she is fantastic. She has a mixture of quirk, intelligence and whimsy that turns every character she creates--but here, especially--into someone that every male audience member would fall for. But she never soft-pedals the harder, meaner edges of Summer, the way she toys with Tom's heart and, in the film's very tough final act, leaves out a very crucial piece of information upon seeing him again.

Levitt, playing the romantic lead, will likely be overlooked by many but he shouldn't. Tom's a nice guy and Levitt plays him as a normal man who probably listens to his heart too intently. When things are good between Tom and Summer, Levitt perfectly captures the goofiness and bliss of a man in love...but when the scenes call for him to suffer, the actor brings a sharp humor to the character that keeps him sympathetic and not overly morose.

And yet I near the end of this review feeling like I haven't said much at all...because "500 Days of Summer" is one of those wonderful little surprises that gives you something new in each scene. It's a rare film that can capture the bliss and frustration of love, the pleasure and anguish. And rare still is the film that can drag you through so many emotions--joy, frustration, humor and heartbreak--and still feel light as a feather. "500 Days of Summer" may not be a traditional love story but it is an ode to love in all its pleasure and pain.

But maybe that's just my interpretation.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.