Sunday, August 30, 2009

10 Fall Must-See Movies

It's that time again. With Labor Day just a week away and my Fall Movie Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly having arrived weeks ago, it's time to figure out which movies coming out in the next four months are worth our excitement. As always, things change. Some movies get pushed back, some disappoint. But here's what I'm looking forward to now:

Jennifer's Body (September 18th)
First off, yes, this made it on because Shutter Island was shipped off to February. I feel like this one could go either way - it could be a fun and campy and Heathersish like the online trailer suggests, or it could just be lame as...well, the theatrical trailer suggests. We'll find out which soon enough.

A Serious Man (October 2nd)
I have no idea what this is actually about, but I do know two very important things: 1. It's a new Coen Brothers movie, so I'll be seeing it no matter what, and 2. It has the best trailer I've seen in a long time. Seriously, take a look:

An Education (October 9th)
People at festivals earlier this year went CRAZY over this. But more importantly, this marks the first screenplay by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite authors. Even more interesting - it looks completely different from all of his books.

The Road (October 16th)
This has already been pushed back once, and could very likely be pushed off again. But having read the book, I'm curious how the movie will play out, given it's extremely bleak and most of the story only features two characters. Good thing Viggo Mortenson is one of them.

Broken Embraces (November 20th)
There's few directors I can say that I've seen every movie they've made, and Pedro Almodovar is one of them, so yes, I will certainly be seeing this. It's been too long a wait since Volver.

Nine (November 25th)
While it may be hard to top the fantastic Antonio Banderas-led revival some years back, this impressive assembly of international talent stands as good a chance as any. Two years after Sweeney Todd, it's good to see Hollywood again dipping into a less conventional theatrical source. Maybe that Into the Woods movie can happen someday after all...

The Princess and the Frog (November 25th)
This may seem like an unusual pick for my list, but come on, the first traditionally animated Disney musical since Mulan? Who doesn't want to see that?! You know I love Pixar, but I'd also like to see the successor to that Disney golden age of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

The Lovely Bones (December 11th)
If you haven't read the book yet, get to it. It's super addictive. But Peter Jackson seemed like kind of a strange fit. Then I saw the trailer, and realized the afterlife scenes will look amazing while the earthly stuff is extra tense. Regardless of whether it shoots for entertainment or Oscar, it will be worth seeing.

Avatar (December 18th)
If you read my post last week, you know that 15-minute glimpse on screens left me hungry for more. Will it be the second coming of Titanic, selling out every theater for months to come? Unlikely. But will it be the most talked about movie of the Christmas season, to the point where you have to see it just to keep up? Almost certainly.

Sherlock Holmes (December 25th)
All my friends who are hardcore Sherlock Holmes fans (yes, they still exist, and yes, I know multiple people that fit that category) are super pissed about all the modern stylings and very un-19th century feel of this, but everyone else recognizes it looks pretty awesome. Could be Guy Ritchie's first good movie since Snatch. And welcome back Rachel McAdams. We missed you.

And for when any of those prove to be less than must-see, let's have 5 back-ups:

The Informant - The ads are making it look like a Burn After Reading style farce, which is fine by me. But Soderbergh can be hit-or-miss, so we may want to wait and see. (9/18)

Capitalism: A Love Story - Somewhere around Fahrenheit 911 it stopped being cool to like Michael Moore, but that doesn't mean you aren't curious to see what outrageous stunts the financial crisis will inspire him to pursue. (9/23)

Where the Wild Things Are - Children's book loved by all, Spike Jonze's first movie since Adaptation, and a trailer featuring the Arcade Fire. I'm in. (10/16)

New York, I Love You - Well, I loved Paris, Je T'aime, and this time it's actually set in a city I know. (10/16)

Up in the Air - Another one people who have seen it are really, really excited about, and I guess I was listening. (Dec TBA)

So which ones are you most excited about? What did I leave off? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Project Lifetime

I know I'm a little late in getting to the much-delayed and (to some) highly-anticipated Project Runway season premiere, but I guess it wasn't high on my to watch list (still haven't seen the All-Stars special). I was one of those people who said I wouldn't watch it on Lifetime, cause clearly the move signified a desire to lose all straight male viewers (yes, there are some of us), yet somehow, here I am. All I can say is I'm glad I have a DVR. I don't know what kind of commercials they were showing, but I never intend to find out.

The main thing everyone wanted to know going into the season is: would we notice the changes? What changes am I talking about? 3 biggies: 1. LA instead of New York. 2. Lifetime instead of Bravo. And the most worrisome of all: the team behind Real World producing instead of Magical Elves (who also do Top Chef). As for the answer: mixed bag. It still definitely felt like Project Runway. The same format, the same music, the same Tim Gunn. This was no Fashion Show level wannabe.

Yet I can't say it was quite the same. The LA switch didn't cause any major differences, but the whole thing felt just a little....brighter. And seeing that different Mood store was a little jarring. As for the producers, they've said they have no intention of fixing what isn't broken, and that we won't be seeing any hot tub confessionals. Yet I can't help but noting that half the cast seems to be 23, and the general level of attractiveness is higher than in the average season. So did they mix up audition tapes between PR and Real World? Hard to say.

Getting past all the changes, the premiere still did what all reality show premieres do: give us a first look at who the players are this season and let us start guessing who's going to come up on top. So far...I got nothing. I wasn't particularly impressed by anyone from the premiere. I doubt this week's winner will go the distance. Maybe the neurosurgeon will. I can't in any way tell apart the multiple anonymously attractive 23-year-old blond girls. And the third guy in the top 3 was the one who started crying 10 minutes into the show, so I'm already rooting for him to leave.

So...not a great start, but I was prepared for it to be much, much worse. And hey, at least there's no Blaynes this season. I got less of a vibe that everyone was just imitating people from seasons past than season 5 gave me, so maybe all the changes will give the show the fresh start it needs. I just wish they concentrated more on talent than looks when they were casting. Wow, I guess it really did go LA.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Master Food Porn

The Top Chef Masters finale did a good job showing some of the major differences between the spin-off and the original. On the one hand, there wasn't too much suspense over who would win. Not that by any means Rick Bayless' victory was a given. But since everyone is already an established chef, it's not like there was going to be another Hosea situation. Sure, I was disappointed Hubert Keller got third, but I can't argue with a 27-ingredient mole sauce. There weren't any strong feelings over the outcome.

On the other hand, the finale provided possibly some of the best food porn the show has seen. Seriously, getting some of the best chefs in the country to go all-out made me really jealous of everyone at that meal. Unlike Top Chef finales where you look out for the mistakes, here it was just a series of escalating gushes from the judges. If I ever make it to Chicago, I may need to seek out Frontera Grill.

People felt kind of mixed about Masters, between the tournament-style format, the different judges, and the minimal drama of having established chefs duke it out just for charity and bragging rights. But as the end showed, even if it wasn't ever must-see TV, it certainly made you hungry.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Don Draper: Problem Solver

Fall TV season may still be a month away, but it sure doesn't feel like it with Top Chef, Project Runway, and most importantly Mad Men all premiering within the same week. And unlike last season, Mad Men's showing no signs of waiting until the fall to really get going.

That's right, no episodes centered around a new copy machine this season. Last week's premiere got the season off to quite the start, having a number of those "this won't happen for years" things happen all at once. Pete got his big promotion (sort of)! Sal got together with a guy! Don knows his secret!

But first, let's talk about what they didn't address, namely a lot of the cliffhangers from last season. Duck Phillips? Gone without a trace. We even got to see his replacement (or replacement's replacement?) following him out the door. Hard to think of a better exit for him than his season-ending meltdown. Continued tension between Peggy and Pete after she told him about the baby? Don't expect that for awhile. At least in episode 2 we found out about Roger and Jane's status (married!)

We've also gotten a taste of life under British rule. Impressively, episode 2 already showed some colonial tension, with Don questioning new boss Pryce after Home Office pulled the plug on the Madison Square Garden account (which was a nice bit of New York City history right there). Figured it would take more than two episodes before they'd start getting into it. My favorite new character though is Moneypenny (sadly missing from episode 2), a Pete Campbell lookalike male secretary who thinks of himself as more powerful. So essentially a British Pete Campbell. Awesome.

As for the original, Pete had one of his best episodes when he finally got the promotion he tried to blackmail Don for in season 1....only to lose all the joy from his goofy victory dance when he found out he had to share the honor with Ken. For Ken (and most rational human beings), it was a cause of celebration. But as Pete whined in his best little girl voice, "Why can't I get everything all at once? Why do I have to wait?" Personally, I'm happiest when Pete's at his most slimy and ambitious, so his competition with Ken is my favorite new storyline this season.

Though the bigger shocker last week was Sal, taking action where he couldn't just two seasons ago, and having to now share his secret with Don. That scene on the plane afterwards, where Don asks him to be completely honest before going into a new pitch for London Fog...amazing. Between that scene and the one with Pete and Ken in the elevator, it's clear that Mad Men's at its best when everything's said in the subtext.

Now, admittedly, this week wasn't quite as jaw-dropping as the premiere, but it still had a fair amount of forward motion. We got a nice return to the Don/Peggy relationship, as each of them set to problem solving in their own way. Don wooed a client (who he would later have to drop) and ended a feud between Betty and her brother by dictating what would happen. Must be scary to have Don Draper as a brother-in-law. While Peggy decided to follow Joan's lead (or more accurately Don's) by picking up a guy in a bar and slipping out in the middle of the night. Bye bye birdie indeed.

As great as the season's started out, I was satisfied as soon as I heard that opening theme music. It feels good to be back in the '60s.

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's Here: Avatar Day

More like Avatar week. Images have been popping up online all week, and yesterday we got the first trailer. Take a look:

Now I've got a confession: I've actually already seen 20 minutes of footage from Avatar, and I've got to say: believe the hype. It's pretty incredible. But while most of the footage in this trailer are from scenes I saw, it still doesn't do justice to what the movie is. That's because more than any other movie in recent memory, you really need to see this one on the big screen.

Biggest reason? Best use of 3-D ever. So far 3-D has either been just stuff jumping out at you like you're at an amusement park (the only purpose for Final Destination 3-D) or some pretty texturing that doesn't really justify the extra $4 you spend (I'm talking about you, Up). But Avatar goes so, so much further. It's actually taken 3-D to the point where it makes you feel like you're in the scene.

I'm not just talking about the obviously animated scenes, when it's all blue aliens in the jungle. I mean even in a normal training scene in a room full of humans. When there's an over the shoulder shot, you feel like that guy is right in front of you, and the guy behind him is right behind you. Once it does get to be all aliens, the 3-D even better immerses you into this new world.

The other issue with the trailer is that while it does show how great the digital animation is on all of these characters, there's a danger that it comes off looking like a video game with excellent graphics. I admit, when they first entered the jungle I had that reaction even onscreen at first. But once you've spent some time with them, you see the detail given to all the characters and realize what they've done has far surpassed any video game to date. Once you get used to the blue guys, they do start to seem real.

Beyond special effects, I'm most excited for Avatar because it still cares about telling a good story. It's been 12 years since Titanic, and watching the footage made me realize that the world needs another James Cameron movie. Avatar has this old-fashioned, epic-movie feel that even the biggest of blockbusters of recent years hasn't been able to accomplish. I'm talking like the feeling you had when you first saw Jurassic Park. You just know this is a big movie and one to savor.

So yes, I know what it's about, but I won't spoil all that yet. Those of you going to the free screenings today, you're in for a treat. For everyone else, start the countdown to Christmas for the full thing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Vice? Top Chef

Haven't seen the Top Chef Masters finale yet, so I'll comment on that later. For now, time to judge the new crew of the original flavor.

The first few episodes of any reality competition are tough. Lots of new people (17!), lots of names to learn, personality types to connect to those names, which is why it's often easier not to bother until some get weeded out. Still, it's usually a pretty good bet that if you didn't realize they were on the show by episode three, they're probably not going to be winning (exception that proves the rule: Hosea. I really don't think he joined til like episode 5).

Even more so than Project Runway, Top Chef's premiere is important for its uncanny ability to forecast the eventual winner. In three out of five seasons, the first challenge winner went on to become Top Chef. In the other two cases, the winners were the frontrunners all the way til their eliminations. So automatically Kevin's one to watch.

Who else do I remember come episode's end? There's Jennifer, the in-it-to-win-it go-getter that won the quick fire and seemed like she was getting the big win as well. There's the brothers, whose generally good marks make them likely to go further than the first-ever competing couple a few years back. And there's Mike, who seems determined to be the asshole of the season (or, rather, the producers seem determined to cast him as the asshole of the season. Wait, they didn't make him say that women can't compete with men. Back to what I first said).

As for the Vegas setting, it so far hasn't made its mark quite the way that past locations have (though what's the Vegas equivalent of Chicago deep dish pizza and New York hot dogs?), and strippers and gambling can only go so far. But it did allow Wolfgang Puck to show up as one of the more entertaining guest judges in recent memory. I've definitely been missing the celebrity chef judges on Masters (as much as I love Zooey and NPH).

So while it may have served the show better to eliminate two upfront like last season than to keep the giant cast going, tonight's premiere still made for a promising start. Enough of the cheftestants seem talented that we should end up with a better group of finalists than last season, when nobody quite knew who to root for. And regardless of how much bad seitan they showed, I'm still gonna need a snack after watching all that food.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dollhouse is My Safe Haven

Last time I wrote about Dollhouse was after the pilot, at a time where it had promise but wasn't there yet. It took me the summer to come back to it, but having marathoned the first season in just a few days, I can say that it had a hell of a lot more than promise by the time the season ended. Dollhouse is not only completely different than anything else I've seen on TV (just try explaining it to someone who doesn't watch), but it's also easily the best first season for any Joss Whedon show (Firefly included). And as with many great shows, each episode is better than the one before it.

Although I just said how difficult it is to explain the show, the premise goes something like this: in LA, there's a facility where this secret organization imprints personalities into hot young people for whatever their clients wish. One day, any given hot young person (known as "actives" or "dolls") may be designed to give a guy a perfect date. Another day, a hostage negotiator. Or a master thief. Or a bodyguard/back-up singer.

That concept right there supplies some good procedural fun for the first 5 episodes (and as far as "mission of the week" shows go, it does legitimately do it well), but things quickly get a lot, lot better. Cause there's a number of other different things going on. First off, there's an FBI agent (BSG's Helo) out to expose the Dollhouse. For another, there's an ex-active named Alpha with a sociopathic streak who's got his eye on our girl Echo (Eliza Dushku), who, by the way, is starting to remember things between engagements. Toss in a loyal handler for Echo, a tech geek I hated at first but gradually grew to sort of like, and a sympathetic doctor (Amy Acker, better known as Angel's Fred), and you've got an ensemble worthy of a Joss Whedon show.

For awhile I've been wanting to write about Dollhouse to highly, highly recommend you watch it, but I'm also writing now having just seen the famous unaired episode, "Epitaph One," available only on the DVD set (thanks netflix!) In many ways, my feelings about the episode mirrored my feelings towards the whole first season: at first I wasn't all that into it, and by the end I couldn't be more pumped for season 2 and thankful the show got renewed.

See, "Epitaph One" is anything but a typical episode of Dollhouse. Designed as a series finale in case the show was canceled, it takes place ten years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic world where the imprinting technology has gone berserk in ways the show barely started to hint at. The episode follows a group of survivors not featured on the show (including Dr. Horrible's Penny!) as they find the Dollhouse and figure out how to find a Safe Haven (hence the title of this post) from all the craziness.

Watching a bunch of people I didn't know wandering around what seemed like the set of the new Terminator movie wasn't super fun, but once they get inside they hook up the machine and start bringing on "memories" - scenes with the real cast showing the future of Dollhouse. Some of what we see is kind of spoilery for where the show will actually get to go. But for the most part the episode does a great job teasing what's ahead - showing the barebones of the story without giving away any specifics. By the end of the episode, all major characters' fates are still unknown, and there's a sense that even Penny's story doesn't end there.

Even with only one major character featured in the non-"flashback" sections (and Echo only in a few scenes at all), it manages to blow your mind while still being a wonderfully dramatic and self-contained episode. And Dollhouse is now officially one of my most anticipated season premieres this fall. Seriously, you gotta check it out.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hugging it Out with Entourage

If you click on that Entourage tag below, you'll see I haven't been shy about my dissatisfaction with the last, oh, three seasons of Entourage. What was once a fun and frothy way to vicariously live through some rich people with insignificant problems lost all that fun once Vince's career slide began. Somewhere between Medillin and Smoke Jumpers, I realized I didn't like anyone on the show anymore and certainly didn't care about their failure to land a movie.

So when I say that I've been thoroughly enjoying this season so far, I'm as surprised as you are. Entourage has been sucking for so long now that nobody else seems to have noticed, but these five episodes have shown a correction to a number of the show's biggest recent problems. At best, it was never anything more than something fun and light to enjoy over the summer, but for the first time in years it's meeting that low benchmark.

So what's going right? First up, Vince's career is back on track. We learned last season from Smoke Jumpers once and for all that Vince can't actually act, but that's not what the show is about! The show is about super rich and successful people enjoying their money and fame! When those things disappear, so does the reason to watch. Vince is not a real enough character for me to care when he's unhappy (and he's never realy that unhappy anyway), so he only fulfills his purpose when things are going well.

Better yet, the successful career means a lot less of the focus is on him. Even back in the good days it got repetitive watching project after project fall apart just to make the season last. Instead we're back with Eric, who was the show's original heart as the normal guy making his way in Hollywood. I know - he got really annoying the past few seasons. But he's looking to grow up this year, and Sloane's back in the picture, who always made his stories better.

I'll admit - Turtle and Drama still mostly annoy me. And they've had some of the worst storylines, like Drama's desire to cast Turtle's girlfriend as "Girl Drama Makes Out With" on his show. But again - at least they're trying to grow up a little, between Turtle going to school and holding down a girlfriend, and Drama having had a steady job for awhile now. Ari as well has gone in some nice directions this season. One moment he's acting like Papa Bear, dispensing advice to Turtle and Eric in this season's third episode. And just when you think he's going soft, he's back to yelling at Lloyd. Some things don't change.

Entourage has always aspired to be a male Sex and the City. In not trying to hide from that description, it's become something worth watching again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back to the Future Again

Grade: B

Off the long list of movies I've seen in the past few months and haven't gotten around to writing about, 17 Again is making it on here because it releases on dvd today. So all of you Zac Efron fans, Matthew Perry fans, and fans of movies like Big that didn't get a chance to see this in theaters, now's the time to contemplate: to netflix or not to netflix?

As for those of you wondering why I saw this movie at all, much less in theaters, here's the thing: I'm in that third category (no, not the Zac Efron one). When I saw the trailer for 13 Going on 30 I was all like "Big rip-off, lame," but you know what? It was a total rip-off of Big and still awesome. Everytime I see the "Thriller" dance scene on TV I get hooked.

Much in the same way, 17 Again is a complete and unapologetic rip-off of Back to the Future. Not only does it crib plot points, but it makes direct allusions. Except it's Back to the Future in reverse, as this time Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry --> Zac Efron) is in high school with his kids, not his parents. Remember that scene where Marty McFly wakes up in bed pantless thinking it's all a dream til Lea Thompson wakes him? Same thing happens here, except it's Mike's daughter. Creepier? Probably.

But much in the way that 13 Going on 30 is a rip-off that reminds you what you like about the original, 17 Again still manages to capture enough of Back to the Future's fun to be a perfectly watchable and even enjoyable movie. Other perks: Zac Efron proves he can be charismatic without singing, Leslie Mann is better served than in Funny People, and Weeds's Shane plays a bully. Also, a subplot involving Mike's rich but dorky best friend (Reno 911's Thomas Lennon) and his quest to woo the school principal (Jan from The Office) scores most of the biggest laughs.

I'm aware that 13 Going on 30 went well beyond its Big premise to be a good movie in its own right, and 17 Again certainly can't compare. But still, don't be too quick to write this one off as a non-musical version of High School Musical. And remember - sometimes unoriginal can still be fun.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Another Win for Pixar

Grade: A

It may seem silly to write about Up now, when it's been in theaters for over two months and probably all of you have already seen it. I saw it a month and a half ago by now, so it's not even fresh in my mind. But now that we're in to summer's final month, I realized I had to say something about the summer's best movie.

Why #1? I have to say, it's largely due to a single sequence at the very beginning of the movie. You know the one I'm talking about. That five minute, largely silent sequence that shows the entire relationship between Carl and Ellie, from first meeting to Ellie's death. Not only is it beautifully done and leaves everyone a bit teary, but by the end of it you know everything you need to know about Carl. Before the plot begins and with only a few words spoken, we know Carl better than we know most movie characters after 2 and a half hours.

Which is why Up proves Pixar's crazy success and universal lovability is not due only to its impressive animation or even its choice of stories. Whether rat, fish, toy, or talking dog, Pixar is incredible in its ability to develop its characters, making you care very deeply for that hunk of metal with a thing for Barbara Streisand or, here, the old man who takes his house with him on an adventure to South America.

Carl's hardly the only standout character from Up. After launching his house in the air via a few thousand balloons, Carl soon finds a co-pilot in Russell, a Boy Scout who inadvertently tagged along for the ride. Russell could easily have been the typical annoying little kid, so the fact that he remains likable is to the movie's credit. But the best is Dug, a talking dog they encounter upon landing. With a collar that lets him speak everything he thinks, including every squirrel-shaped distraction, Dug provides the movie's best humor.

If talking dogs seems like the stuff of kids movies, it is. Even with all of its adult themes, Up is a big step back towards pleasing the young ones after the far more adult Wall-E. Also, I'm not sure the extra $4 for 3-D was quite worthwhile, since it was there more for texture than to really give a 3-D experience. I still wouldn't say Up is Pixar's best film (that would be Wall-E or The Incredibles for me), but certainly top echelon. By combining fun, Lost World-style adventure with effective emotion and solid humor, Up ranks top for the summer.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Space Anatomy

Just watched the pilot (only the first of last week's two hour premiere) to ABC's new "space opera" Defying Gravity, and if you heard it was Grey's Anatomy in space, you heard right. The problem is it's not a great fit. With one foot still in sci-fi mode, all the jokey sex talk, ponderous narration, and cheesy pop music feels like it's been forced in to get the show a slot on ABC's schedule (even if it is just over the summer). If you're waiting for a sci-fi show to take BSG's place, this isn't it.

The show centers on a six-year space mission to seven planets staffed by a crew of young, attractive, and international astronauts all with their own emotional baggage. The twist? "Something" is on board they're not supposed to know about, that presumably explains why two crew members suddenly get heart murmurs, the blonde one hears babies crying, and the Indian one feels the need to float off into space.

At least in the first hour though, that "something" isn't anything too important. Not when we've got flashbacks to Blondie's one night stand with Ron Livingston's lead five years earlier, who, by the way, seems to be trying to make us forget Sex and the City and Office Space with his best impression of what he thinks someone on Grey's Anatomy would act like. And a lot of talk about how he's "fated" to be on the mission after those heart murmurs get him added to the crew at the last minute. And a geek's quest for porn. And floating tomatoes.

It's actually a fairly watchable show, and I totally could have finished the two hours. But as with anything living off of something else's success, there's not anything too special about it either. So if you've got nothing better to watch this summer than Dance Your Ass Off, this might be a pleasant alternative. Just don't expect them to make it to the end of that 6 year mission.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Enemies to My Patience

Grade: C+

How would you choose to make a period piece feel exciting today? Would you: a. find ways to connect your period's themes to today's issues, b. give your story an exciting, modern feel without going into full anachronism, or c. use a lot of shaky cam-style modern filmmaking techniques that have nothing to do with your subject matter and are frankly kind of distracting? If you chose c, then guess what? Public Enemies is for you.

Set way back in the 1930s, Public Enemies is about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a badass bank robber who got himself listed as the FBI's Public Enemy Number 1. Unlike some of those nicer bank robbers in movies, Dillinger and his band of merry men had no qualms about shooting a few people along the way, making Bonnie and Clyde look like a couple on a picnic. Meanwhile, FBI superagent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), first seen gunning down another notorious gangster, is sent to hunt him down. So to recap, we've got Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, two of the most exciting actors today, plus Michael Mann (of Heat and Manhunter fame) directing. How could this be boring?

Hard to believe I know, but Public Enemies still somehow made its 2 hour 20 minute running time feel around twice as long. So what went wrong? Let me count the ways. First off, the movie repeatedly tells us of other gangsters like Baby Face Nelson, yet at no point in the movie could I tell you who anyone was. I don't even mean I didn't catch names - I mean I had absolutely no idea who anyone was outside of the three main characters (and J. Edgar Hoover, I guess). How can I care about the half the movie spent catching or killing these gangsters if I didn't remember seeing them onscreen ten minutes earlier?

It's possible I just wasn't paying enough attention, but I'll give you two other reasons for why this happened. The first - cinematography. This movie is really, really dark. Not dark tonally. I mean like I legitimately couldn't see their faces a lot of the time. What purpose this served, I couldn't tell you. But the second is a general lack of concern for character. As with any historic recreation, this movie seems so imprisoned by all the fancy costumes and historical accuracies that it loses the reason it was made - to tell a good story.

That lack of focus on character affects those three main characters I could recognize as well. I'd never say anything against Johnny Depp's performance as Dillinger, since he makes the part come alive as he does all of his roles. But if you saw the trailer thinking this would be a fun part for him, think again. Most of the time his Dillinger is a quieter, lonelier gangster, the opposite of his public persona. May be true, but that doesn't make it exciting.

He's a giant barrel of laughs compared to Bale's Purvis, who's the Company Man through and through, never letting you latch onto the hope of a Javert-like personal vendetta. He's got no stake in his case, so I had no stake in him. The best of the three is Marion Cotillard as Dillinger's girl Billie, who brings so much life into her part that the movie gets ten times more interesting whenever she's onscreen. Sadly, that's for far too little time.

Which brings me back to my original point, of what is given emphasis if not character, and that's style. There's handheld camera, jarring close-ups, and fast cutting that all serve to put you on edge while watching. But why? This isn't a Bourne movie where the cutting matches the car crashes. The only real accomplishment of all that is to take you out of the world presented onscreen. It doesn't match the movie, and it often makes it more confusing to figure out what's going on. So if you like awkward shots of nameless men being killed, enjoy. For everyone else, it's a long two and a half hours.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Funny People: Actually Funny

Grade: B+

Funny People had one of those trailers that just kind of made you go "huh?" Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? How is this the guy who did Knocked Up? I for one wasn't any more relieved to see a lot of mixed early word, focusing on the 2 and a half hour running time and uneven tone. But I'm here to tell you: don't believe what you hear.

That strange first trailer gives away most of the movie, so I won't worry about giving away too much plot. Funny People is the story of two comedians - one successful but dying and lonely (Adam Sandler's George Simmons) and one unsuccessful and awkward with women but, well, not dying (Seth Rogen's Ira Wright). After the diagnosis, George decides to go back to his stand-up roots, hiring Ira to write jokes and be his assistant.

Sure, the illness thing is more serious than either of Judd Apatow's other movies, but in this section of the movie there's still plenty of typical Apatow humor to go around. Say what you will about all the penis jokes or the overabundance of movies marked with his name these days, but he knows how to write characters you like watching and hanging out with. The best moments here are still in those plot-free moments when the actors get to just riff off each other.

He's also got a knack for getting lots of legitimately funny people together. As Ira's roommates, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman give two of the most enjoyable performances, and I didn't like either of them much before this movie. Hill's youtube-video-within-the-movie may be one of the funniest things he's done. I've said it before and will say it again: Aziz Ansari is always hilarious. But one of my faves this time around was Aubrey Plaza as Ira's comedian crush, who made the typical awkward flirting scenes all much much funnier. Do I actually now have a reason to watch Parks and Recreation? Still probably not gonna happen.

As many scene stealers as there are though, the two leads do command the movie. Showing off (and frequently mentioning) his newly slimmer figure, Seth Rogen again goes beyond his typical 40 Year Old Virgin/Knocked Up role (and to much better results than in Observe & Report). But most surprising is Adam Sandler, who seriously gives one of his best performances. In many ways, the movie can best be seen as a chronicle of the life of a celebrity, and you can easily see George Simmons being who Adam Sandler would have become had his life taken some different turns. He's probably the least "funny" part of the movie, but he makes the serious parts work.

Now, as you may remember from the trailer, all of that ends when George is told he beat the cancer, and he drives up to Northern California with Ira to win back his ex-girlfriend (Leslie Mann). This lengthy final section feels like an entirely different movie, and is definitely the most problematic section. Largely my biggest problem with it is that Ira - who had up to then been basically the protagonist - is left with nothing to do but act really nervous. But does this section ruin the movie as some critics have suggested? No.

The laughs-per-minute ratio may not quite be as high here, but there's still plenty of funny to go around. Eric Bana, as the husband, gives an impressive comic performance you wouldn't have guessed he had in him after movies like Munich and Troy. And Judd Apatow's family is always fun to watch. I actually found the part perfectly enjoyable in its own right, just less so in conjunction with the movie that preceded it.

If you come in expecting The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, you're going to be disappointed. After two such well-received comedies, the expectations for Funny People were way too high. But if you can take it for what it is, in all of its messy, oddly toned glory, you may find yourself having a good time. If nothing else, I'll say this - compared to Transformers 2 and Public Enemies, it's the fastest-moving 2 and a half hour long movie this summer.