Sunday, October 11, 2009

DVD Review: "Trick 'R Treat"

What kind of trick was Warner Brothers playing on audiences by hiding such a fun film for so long?

I had first heard about Michael Dougherty's horror anthology "Trick 'R Treat" when I saw the trailer for it attached to the DVD of "300." It looked like a sure fire hit--a creepy, funny/scary collection of scary stories centered around the traditions of Halloween. Dougherty had a nice track record with Warner Brothers--he was the screenwriter of "X2" and "Superman Returns"--and it looked like he had crafted an atmospheric and fun little horror flick. I quickly noted that I wanted to see it when it hit theaters that next Halloween.

Except it was never released. For two years, Warner Brothers kept it hidden away and the only noise I heard about it was when a screening would be covered by Aint-It-Cool-News. It didn't make enough noise to get a release and yet it would always pop up as a topic of discussion at Comic Con or throughout the geek sites, with Warner Brothers promising we would see it "soon."

Unfortunately, "soon" meant 2009 instead of 2007. And instead of a big screen roll out just in time for Halloween, it was dumped with little fan fare to DVD.

The move baffles me. "Trick 'R Treat" is not a great movie, mind you, but it is vastly more entertaining than most of what passes for horror out there. A clever mix of horror and humor, it's an atmospheric and fun homage to everything we love about Halloween.

Four stories interweave throughout the movie, all taking place on Halloween night in a small town in Ohio. There's the school principal (Dylan Baker) hiding his identity as a serial killer, a young woman (Anna Paquin) worried about finding the right boy for her "first time," a group of kids conspiring to play a mean prank on a local girl and a mean old man (Brian Cox) who is tormented by a demonic Trick-or-Treater. Each of these stories twists and turns out of each other and each has a little twist, ever ghoulishly funny or horrifying and each is centered around various traditions--don't go off alone, don't blow out the lights in jack-o-lanterns, don't go to strangers' houses. And if ever a movie prompted kids to check their candy, it would be this.

I find myself baffled that the perennial Halloween movie lately is the latest arrival in the bleak and sadistic "Saw" franchise. For me, the great thing about Halloween was the over-the-top mixture of funny and scary. People dress up as demons, vampires, monsters and werewolves and we spend a good chunk of the month of October going to elaborate haunted houses jumping out of our skin and letting people try to scare us; the fun is the extravagant nature, when the macabre and grotesque can get us laughing at how easily we're scared. "Saw" is too realistic, too hopeless and too dark to capture the fun of Halloween; the type of scared we want on that holiday is a fun house scare that makes us jump, makes us a bit sick but ultimately makes us laugh at how easily we get scared.

Dougherty gets that and utilizes Halloween tropes effectively to re-create the atmosphere of that night--the jack-o-lanterns, parades of bizarre creatures going down the street, the sing-song refrain of "trick-or-treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat." He also knows that we want our scares to be big and larger-than-life...the supernatural has to be darker than we could imagine so that we can laugh at the preposterousness of it all. And he makes sure that when each story takes its dark and devilish turns, there's always a wicked smile at the back of it. Baker's story, particular, has a morbidly funny little twist and the film's final scene includes a creepy/funny little call back.

The cinematography here is beautiful...the dark, rich colors, the use of jack-o-lanterns in the dark night. One particular sequence is wonderfully creepy, as the pumpkins in the fog are extinguished to hint of an oncoming menace. The film draws its inspirations from horror comics and anthologies like "Creepshow," and each shot could easily be a panel of a richly-drawn graphic novel.

The stories are fun in and of themselves; Baker's, as I've said, is the strongest, with its mix of humor and horror. Paquin's tale meanders for a bit before revealing its little twist and Cox's is a bit too standard for my taste. The story of the prank, with its flashback to a bizarre urban legend and its wonderful use of atmosphere, is also effective and best captures the mixture of childlike imagination and terror that makes Halloween so fun.

And if I had a complaint, it would be that I wish Dougherty had toned down the film's gore and adult sequences and made this a film that all ages...including kids...could enjoy. Halloween is, at its core, a child's holiday and there aren't enough scary movies out for children. If this was released 20 years ago I know that I would be trying to find a copy to watch with my friends.

It's a shame that WB sat on this for so long and I hope it finds its audience on DVD. I'd love to see this be a film watched every Halloween and I would even love to see a follow up, a string of new anthologies every few Halloweens as a way to mark the holiday.

That would be quite a treat.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Movie Review: "Where the Wild Things Are"

Originally published in the Oct. 18 edition of The Source.
Anyone who was ever 9 years old will find something to love in the film adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are."

Max (Max Records) is the product of a broken home; he watches his mother fret over finances and does what he can to cheer her up - it's painful to watch Mom worry. His active imagination comes to life in snow forts and rampages through the house with the dog; sometimes, such as when his older sister ignores him to go with her new, cooler friends, it forces him to lash out in anger. He loves snowball fights, but can break out in tears when the playing gets too intense.

The details are different for us all, but I'm sure every adult can identify at some point with the hero of Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book. Jonze adds heart and insight to Sendak's nine-sentence story and refuses to pander to kids by inserting fart jokes, pop culture references and slapstick humor. He has created one of the most beautiful and sincere films about what it is like to be a child that I have ever seen.

The basic storyline of the film follows Sendak's short story, with Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers fleshing out Max's home life to include the distant sister and the mother (Catherine Keener), who has also just begun dating a new man (Mark Ruffalo). Jonze doesn't beat us over the head with these story points but presents them from Max's point of view; it's easy to see where his anger, loneliness and fear come from, particularly when Max encounters a school teacher who informs him that one day the sun will burn out. Max's hyper outbursts seem less the work of a precocious movie kid and more the genuine outworking of a confused, scared child. Who never retreated to a fantasy world as a child or lashed out at their parents when they felt ignored?

Max runs away from home one night and finds himself en route to a mysterious island where giant beasts live, who quickly make Max their king. These aren't friendly, cuddly creatures, at first. One, Carol (James Gandolfini) has thrown himself into and is destroying the village. The others are a mess of psychological issues, fearful, insecure and ready to run away. Jonze treats Sendak's creations not as marketing, Happy Meal-ready characters but as manifestations of Max's personality, personifying the emotions every child feels at one time or another.

For those who think those are deep waters for a kids' movie, you're right, but it's not much different than "The Wizard of Oz."Jonze, the director of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," might at first seem to be a bizarre choice for this material. Consider, however, that his previous films have dealt with the workings of the human mind, mixed with a dash of whimsy, and it might be easier to see what attracted him to this material.

Jonze is interested in recreating what it felt like to be 9 years old: the playfulness that easily turns into violence, the emotions that run out of control and can be soothed by adults, the fear of finding out for the first time that the world is dangerous and not everyone is on your side. I predict many kids will be caught up in the story and many other adults will be jarred by how closely it hits to home.Very little computer imagery is used in the film; it was shot on location in forests, deserts and around lakes; this is one of the most beautiful films to look at this year. The Wild Things themselves are actors in costumes supplied by the Jim Henson Company; only the faces are digitally altered. Jonze shoots most things with a handheld camera, tumbling alongside Max and the Wild Things as they careen through the woods or attack each other with dirt clods.

The result is a surprisingly intense and primal film that feels genuine from start to finish; Jonze's involvement in the television show "Jackass" may have actually been of benefit to the rough and tumble play between Max and the Wild Things. Some may feel the film gets too intense for smaller children, but I'd argue that children are tougher than we think. The greatest children's work has always had an edge to it, a sense of being scary and nearly out of control. Jonze's greatest feat is that he never once condescends to his audience, and instead shows a keen knowledge of what kids think and feel, and what their play is like.

All of this depends on the work of Records, who turns in one of the most genuine and nuanced child performances I've seen. Never once does the young actor seem to be saying things that are too smart or precious for a child to say; his emotions are genuine, his reactions just what we would expect. It's a confident and surprisingly layered performance for a child to give and Records provides the film with a beating heart.

There's not really a plot to speak of - Max is made king, he rules as best he can while keeping the secret that he's just a boy. But then again, childhood play had no real plot; we made up the stories each day as we went along and in retrospect, probably wrote in our own fears, insecurities, dreams and hopes. Jonze wisely casts actors, not stars, as the voices of the Wild Things, including Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker and Paul Dano. The result is believable characters, without the distractions that would be provided by stars like Seth Rogen or Jim Carrey, who would turn it into a joke fest and not the heartfelt work that Jonze has created, balancing joy and energy with sadness and fear - just like childhood.

As I write this review, it's been less than 24 hours since I saw the film and the one drawback of working on deadline is that I don't know that the film has had time to digest properly. I've told you what works and why, but I find myself affected by the film in ways I cannot yet articulate. And perhaps that's the biggest success of "Where the Wild Things Are." In a genre that is often home to junk food and studio trash, Spike Jonze has created a profound, primal reminder of what it is to be a child - fun, scary, lonely, sad and confusing. It's a beautiful and poetic reminder of that time in our lives when adventure was around the corner, the world was beginning to expand and life was wild.

Movie Review: "Paranormal Activity"

When I got up and left the theater after "Paranormal Activity," my initial reaction was that I had seen a skillfully crafted and effectively creepy little scary movie that may be a victim of its own hype.

It wasn't until I laid in bed and started hearing the creaks and taps in my own bedroom that I realized just how far under my skin the movie had gotten.

The latest in a long line of "found footage"movies, "Paranormal Activity" has been selling out midnight shows across the country for a few weeks. Rumor going around Hollywood is that Steven Spielberg, upon seeing it, brought the disc back and threw it away because he had experienced his own strange happenings after watching it. Several people walked out of early screenings because they were allegedly too terrified to stay to the end. Bloggers who saw the film in 2007 (it's waited for a release date while Dreamworks and Paramount sorted out their internal messes) raved that it was the scariest film ever made.

That's quite a burden to put on any horror film, particularly one made for $11,000 that relies solely on sound design and old-fashion trickery to scare audiences. Certainly there will be those who see the movie and leave proclaiming "it's not that scary" and many will feel the film was overhyped--it's the same that happened with "Blair Witch" 10 years ago, even though this film's hype is centered less on convincing us that it really happened and more on convincing us that if we go we will be scarred for life.

Right out of the gate, let me acknowledge that Paramount has been clever in its roll-out of this movie, staging midnight screenings and urging fans to demand the film to go wide. I do fear, however, that all the buzz may ultimately cripple a movie that, at its core, works because it's so low key and old-fashioned.

Hype aside, "Paranormal Activity" deserves a nationwide roll-out. Director Olin Peli's debut is taut, creepy and terrifying at the right moments and every goosebump it puts on your forearms is rightfully earned.

The premise is beautiful in its simplicity. A young couple buys a camera to document strange occurrences in their home. The young woman has a history of paranormal experiences, dating back to when she was eight. The boyfriend reacts just like any man would--at first scoffing and then, when things get bad, refusing to ask for help and trying to solve the problem on his own. A psychic drops by to warn the couple of the seriousness of the events and clarifies that it may be a demon, and not a ghost, that is terrorizing the home.

The film is staged much like "Blair Witch" in that the daylight allows for exposition and discussion and the nighttime--when the camera is stationary--is when all the freaky stuff happens. I won't spoil any of the surprises in the film, but let's just say that whatever is haunting the young couple starts off cordial enough and then, towards the end, gets really, really nasty.

Placing the camera on the tripod seems like a simple stylistic device but it's unrelenting focus--a stationary camera can't turn away--becomes unnerving when things get truly terrifying. There are no clever edits to pull us away from the scene and the audience's eyes are drawn to every shadow and slight movement. Aside from some rudimentary practical effects, Peli doesn't engage in much flash...the suspense of waiting for something to happen, the jolt when it does and the fear of the unknown, the dark corners of the screen, are enough to unnerve audiences. When the film unfurls its most terrifying scenes they are sudden and matter-of-fact that it's easy to forget that none of this is real.

It's a wonderful piece of crafstmanship and Peli has a wonderful time playing the audience like a piano. The daytime scenes lull us into a sense of complacency and then, in the evening, Peli shows a great knack for drawing out the suspense and digging into deep fears of the unknown and the vulnerability of sleep, when we're unable to see what's happening around us. He gets natural reactions from his actors, both of whom create likable characters and sell the reality of the situation.

For the most part, the film is disciplined and intelligently crafted--there's even a clever reason why leaving the home would do no good. The suspense is thick and the terror erupts so suddenly that screaming is virtually guaranteed. Only in its final moments does the movie succumb to Hollywood pressure, leaving behind subtlety for one last shock, a splash of violence and an ill-advised CGI shot.

But by that point I was pretty willing to be reminded that "it's only a movie."

Movie Review: "Couples Retreat"

Originally written for the Source, 10/11/09 edition

"Couples Retreat” is the type of comedy that, two years from now, will be played every Saturday afternoon on TBS, left on as background noise while doing laundry.

Predictable, cliché and just plain lazy, the film often feels like an excuse for its cast to play on the beach while we’re stranded on the audience with them.

The film involves four couples who head to an island paradise in search of rest and relaxation when, in reality, they are in for a week of intensive couples therapy led by a mysterious French guru (Jean Reno). One couple (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) have tricked their friends into the getaway in hopes of mending their own fractured marriage at a discount price. Would it surprise you to learn that their friends--which include happily married parents (Vince Vaughn and Malin Ackerman), a couple on the verge of divorce (Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis) and a divorcee (Faison Love) slumming with a 20-year-old--also have a few life lessons to learn?

Rather than give his couples actual personalities and funny dilemmas, director Peter Billingsley (yes, Ralphie from “A Christmas Story”) has Vaughn, Bateman and Love do their usual shtick, creating personalities out of types rather than allow his gifted comedians to create actual characters. Only Favreau appears to create anything resembling an actual individual, although his individual is the stereotypical jerk who winds up having a heart of gold. The women are simply along out of necessity; they have no distinct personalities of their own, save for bouncing jokes of their male counterparts.

I could see the premise being funny in theory and, truthfully, Billingsley has a talented cast assembled. Bateman can get laughs with his ability to be both snide and sincere at the same time; Vaughn relies on his ability to talk in circles to bring chuckles. The best moments in the film are the fleeting passages between Vaughn and Favreau, who still have a healthy banter all these years after “Swingers”--I have to imagine their original script for this was much funnier before studio meddling.

The problem is that all of the actors have been funnier before, be it Bateman’s work on “Arrested Development” or Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers.” Rather than create anything new or bring a new twist to their personas, Billingsley lets the actors rehash the same old jokes, which have long gone stale. Even Favreau was better in his tiny role in this year’s “I Love You Man.” Love deserves points for the effort he puts into pulling his character away from the stereotype the script so obviously wants him to play; he has a few minutes of true heart near the film’s ending.

Not content to trust his actors, Billingsley throws in jokes about Speedo-clad yoga instructors, misunderstandings at a massage parlor and children going to the bathroom in hardware store toilets (we get this chestnut twice). He also resorts to throwing Kim Jeong (“The Hangover”) in as a therapist…a move that would have been original, had Jeong not appeared in nearly every comedy this year, including on television in “Community.) By the time the couples try to break into the singles’ resort on the other side of the beach and Vaughn has an honest-to-goodness “Guitar Hero” throw down, I was hoping for a little therapy of my own.

It’s not that “Couples Retreat” is a horrible movie; indeed, the audience I saw it with laughed quite hard. It’s just lazy comedy, depending on jokes and characters we’ve seen be much funnier in better, more enjoyable films. You’re not missing much if you stay home and save your $10; but if it’s on TBS, maybe you’ll want to give it a try.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Movie Review: "Zombieland"

I love zombies.

George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" is still one of the scariest films I've ever seen, followed closely by his original "Dawn of the Dead." The British "Rom-Zom-Com" "Shaun of the Dead" is a perennial fixture at my place around Halloween. Max Brooks' "World War Z" is one of my absolute favorite works of fiction over the past few years.

But, as I stepped into the new comedy "Zombieland," I began to wonder if the undead genre was on its last rotting legs.

After all, what else could be added? While Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" remake is some good, scary fun, it lacked the social commentary of Romero's original; it's only contribution to the genre was the creation of fast-moving corpses. We all know the rules of the genre--shoot them in the head, don't get bitten, board up the windows. Even zombie comedies have gone from being a novelty to being a legitimate subgenre. "Shaun" is, of course, the gold standard. But we've also seen "Fido," starring Billy Connolly as a domesticated zombie-pet.

Yet, "Zombieland" has a few surprises up its sleeves, even as it follows in the tradition of much better zombie epics. A fast-paced mix of road trip shenanigans and gut-munching carnage, director Ruben Fleischer's comedy is a bloody, fun guilty pleasure.

Unlike most zombie films, which deal with the initial outbreak and downfall of society, "Zombieland" opens on a world already devastated by the undead menace. We're well beyond the days where one man ate a tainted cheeseburger and most humans have become the American variety of zombie--that is to say, fast and angry, as opposed to the traditional lurchers.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenburg, "Adventureland") has managed to survive due to his complete lack of a social life (he admits that he treated everyone like zombies before the outbreak) and a strict adherence to his growing list of rules, which are helpfully illustrated for our benefit--these rules emphasize the importance of cardio, a wariness of restrooms and a reminder that even in a world plagued by the undead, seat belts are still a must.

While attempting to find his way home to Ohio and to parents who may be alive, Columbus crosses paths with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a one-liner spouting zombie killer who seems to have found his life's calling when the dead started walking. Tallahassee wields an arsenal of zombie killing garden tools and fire arms and is scouring the world's supermarkets and gas stations in search of one last Twinkie--he quickly adds a new rule to Columbus's list: "Enjoy the Little Things," which is kind of cute to hear in such a blood-drenched flick.

Columbus and Tallahassee quickly meet the acquaintance of Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two con-artists who soon let the boys team up on a road trip to a California amusement park, believed to be the last place on Earth untouched by the undead. It's "National Lampoon's Vacation" by way of "Resident Evil."

Fleischer doesn't skimp on the gore, which should delight horror fans. There's a ghoulishly funny credits sequence--told in slow motion and reminiscent of "Watchmen's" opening--where we watch the undead menace overtake the world and the zombies here are fast, furious and hungry for blood. Gorehounds may be upset that Fleischer steers clear of Romero-esque zombie carnage (very little over-the-top killing here), instead filming the zombie films more like a traditional action film, but they'll still giggle when Columbus runs from the hot chick next door who's turned into a zombie or when Tallahassee grabs his tools for a little zombie slaying action. There's a nice balance of traditional scares and laughs, sometimes within the same scene.

But the humor is not all jet-black and morbid. At its core, "Zombieland" is a simple story of a young man encountering a makeshift family. As such, there's a lot of sweet character based humor, such as when Little Rock learns to drive or Columbus's bumblings trying to woo Wichita. Eisenberg seems at first to be aping the social awkwardness that Michael Cera does so well but he has an intelligence and self-awareness that he makes his own; he's less George Michael Bluth and more Woody Allen.

Harrelson, a fine actor in search of a superstar role, has a glint in his eye throughout the whole movie, the smirk on his face showing just how much he loves playing the one-liner spouting, uzi-toting zombie slayer. He's funny in the role, even if Tallahassee's search for a Twinkie grows a tad too precious. Having a serious actor in the role gives the film a credibility it wouldn't have with, say, Bruce Campbell in the lead and there's a revelation about Tallahassee halfway through that a weaker actor may not be able to make work in an otherwise frivolous movie.

The movie will be compared over and again to "Shaun of the Dead," and "Zombieland" does lack the skill and wit with which Edgar Wright mixed up genres in that classic. Columbus and Tallahasee are fun characters, but they lack the believability of Shaun and Ed and, to be honest, the scary moments are much scarier in the British film. "Zombieland" goes for every available joke, making sure to skewer everything from Facebook to Dale Earnhart as it darts across country and not every gag works. Where "Shaun" is a bona fide great movie--a perfect mix of horror and comedy--"Zombieland" flirts with guilty pleasure territory, saved by the exuberance of its cast and Fleischer's desire to simply give audiences a good time.

And for the majority of its brief 82-minute run time, the film delivers on that promise. It's fast, funny and original and manages to successfully blend horror and comedy--something that is harder to do than most people realize. Also...don't let anyone spoil the film's big'll know it when you see it, and it's easily the best use of a cameo I've seen in ages.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Movie Review: "The Invention of Lying"

One of the things that baffles me is that there are still people who have not heard of Ricky Gervais.

The pudgy British comedian was the brains behind the original "Office" television series and serves as executive producer on NBC's hit adaptation. He earned an Emmy award for his work as boss-from-hell David Brent on the original series, although I've met many who are surprised to find that there even was a BBC version - even though it is, in many cases, far superior to its American counterpart. Fewer have seen his equally funny work on HBO's "Extras," familiar with Gervais only for his supporting roles in the "Night at the Museum" films.

Gervais may finally get the recognition he deserves with "The Invention of Lying," a new comedy co-written and directed by himself and Matthew Robinson. Following his work in the sweet-but-toothless romantic comedy "Ghost Town," Gervais has finally found a script that caters to his particular brand of wit, satire and self-deprecation.

The comedy takes place in an alternative universe where human beings have not evolved the gene for lying. There are no white lies, exaggerations, false modesty or omission of facts in favor of tact. It's perfectly normal to remark how ugly someone's baby is, tell that ugly blind date that there is no hope for the evening or let your boss no how much you loathe him. If you're smart, attractive and likable, the world's pretty easy for you because everyone wants to hire you, date you and tell you how great you are.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) is none of those things. He's a screenwriter at Lecture Films (in this world, movies are historical lectures); Mark's subject is the 1300s, particularly the Black Plague. In the course of one day, Mark is fired from his job, brushed off by a woman (Jennifer Garner) who likes him but doesn't want "fat, snub-nosed kids," and evicted from his apartment. Heading to the bank to take out enough money to satiate his landlord, Mark suddenly has the idea to say something that isn't true. Because this is a world where lying is completely unheard of, no one suspects anything is amiss and Mark suddenly finds the opportunity to shape his world the way he wants to.

This set-up could easily lead to a one-joke film in which Mark tells lie after lie until they spiral out of control, leading to a predictable confession and comeuppance in the end. Refreshingly, Gervais and Robinson aren't interested in a morality play, but rather a look at the way humans have ingrained lies in every area of behavior and how susceptible people are to the power of suggestion.

What's interesting is how the film suggests that some forms of lying are actually necessary to a functioning and sane society. There's a surprisingly touching scene between Gervais and a suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill) in which Mark's false empathy possibly saves a life. Much of the movie's dark humor comes from the very brutal truth that reinforces Mark's belief that he's a loser doomed to die alone and poor. A rigid adherence to facts is also what prohibits Anna (Garner) from falling in love with Mark, as she has always been told about the importance of finding a good genetic match, while love involves so much more than just mere facts and surface belief - it demands a sense of mystery and faith.

And I haven't even mentioned what occurs when Mark begins to talk about mansions awaiting people after death and The Man Who Lives In the Sky.

It's not surprising that Gervais, an atheist, would seek to incorporate religion into a story about lying. And I assume that many will be offended with the film's worldview, in which religion is only invented to make people feel good and stop being afraid of death. What is surprising is that Gervais manages to handle this major plot point - in which Mark basically invents religion - without ever becoming mean-spirited or snide, instead suggesting that religion is a good thing that gives people hope while still leaving enough teeth in the satire to take a dig at those who would use faith for their own selfish motives.

The film is sharp and deftly-written but never feels condescending, mainly because Gervais so skillfully builds an empathy with his character. In a world of no lies, a financially unstable man with poor genetics is not going to go many places. Gervais creates such a likable loser that the audience quickly forgives his lies because they want to see him succeed; even when he's taking a dig at religion, there's always a playful smile on his face that disarms most of the offense.

Comedy is the perfect venue for dealing with the subjects presented in this movie, as humor quickly removes any pretension or sense of superiority.Gervais has made a career out of playing bumbling liars ("The Office") and pudgy losers who can't catch a break ("Extras"), so it's not much a stretch for him to play Mark. Still, Gervais manages to surprise the audience by creating what may be his most-likable character yet and showing a new range during a tender deathbed scene between Mark and his mother.

It seems nearly every comedic actor in Hollywood wanted to help Gervais succeed with this film, as several minor characters are played by recognizable faces. Louis CK is particularly funny as Mark's best friend and Rob Lowe continues to cement his role as the go-to creep as Mark's screenwriter nemesis. Serious thespians Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton even contribute funny cameos. The supporting characters deserve a lot of credit here for helping to make this world believable; in a world with no lies, there's no room for subtlety, masking emotions or false sincerity. The deliveries, always a bit too matter-of-fact and naive for comfort, go a long way in selling the film's premise. Of particular note is Garner, who displays a clever comedic timing as Anna; the film's first scene, when she and Mark meet for a date, is a hilariously awkward tone setter.

The intelligent script and skilled comedic actors go a long way to making this film succeed, although it begins to fall apart in the third act when the original premise is almost completely forgotten in favor of following standard romantic comedy formulas; there's no real conclusion to the film's big idea. Gervais and Thompson are skilled writers - and Gervais, equally, as an actor - but their visual style still needs to be honed a bit more before their next outing. But those are small blemishes on a film that is otherwise a breath of fresh air. I wouldn't even bring them up ... except I don't want to lie to you.


About Me

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