Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9

District 9 employs documentary-style talking heads, irritating shaky newscam footage, and standard point of view to depict what happens twenty years after an incapacitated spaceship stalls over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the aliens aboard the ship are saved from starvation but are eventually subjected to cruel prejudice and relegated to squalid shanties outside the city, an ironic allusion to South Africa’s apartheid, and a universal allegory paralleling a long history of human intolerance. The talking heads quickly recap twenty years of poor treatment of the alien “prawns,” as they are called derogatorily because of their resemblance to some cross between a shrimp and a grasshopper – similar to the Selenites in The First Men in the Moon (1964).

Newscam footage proceeds to document what happens when the government initiates a plan to evict the 1.8 million prawns from their shanties and relocate them to a regimented but more restrictive concentration camp. In charge of this massive operation is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an enthusiastic but inept bureaucrat whose bigotry and ignorance help turn the undertaking into a disaster, and whose ineptitude exposes him to a mysterious black fluid that begins to transform him into an alien. Thus, ironically, Wikus, the xenophobic administrator who came to relocate the aliens with clipboard and documents of dubious legality, will learn firsthand, somewhat as in Black Like Me, what it’s like to be a bottom-feeding prawn.

In the first main chapter of the film, this inhumane human undertaking is juxtaposed with everything noisome: vomit both human and alien; a gushing flood of alien urine; black ooze; rotten garbage; bloody meat; hacked up alien corpses; and severed limbs both alien and human. Besides being cruelly intolerant of the aliens, the humans also want to take advantage of alien weapons technology, and this leads to the merciless exploitation of Wickus as his alien DNA melds with alien blasters capable of horrid destruction.

Along with these noisome visuals, the first chapter is filled with absurdities. Like a South African version of Borat, Wickus stands out as an obtuse and bigoted clown who aggravates the antagonistic aliens and causes some sticky situations. Clearly, Wickus’s method of eviction is ridiculous. How can he and his colleagues expect to knock on the shanty doors of 1.8 million aliens and get them to sign themselves into eviction?

When Wikus’s transformation forces him to flee his fellow humans, the film deals less with ironies and absurdities and more with elements of conventional action and science fiction films: E.T.’s endeavors to go home; the raid on the experimentation lab; the alien shuttle craft; the alien robot armor and weaponry that Wickus uses to make a valiant stand. Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying the more conventional situations and action of this latter half of the film than the more disjointed first half.

I’m not convinced District 9 is the entirely original sci-fi experience it has been touted to be. The 1988 film Alien Nation dealt with the segregation and discrimination suffered by alien “immigrants” to earth as a human cop learns to tolerate his alien buddy cop. The first third of the film is certainly interesting with the oddball Wickus as an unlikely central protagonist and the weird behavior of the catfood-eating prawns. But the potential for an epic sequence is lost when the relocation operation meant to evict 1.8 million aliens from their shanties seems like a small-scale door-to-door bust. The vast alien spacecraft hovering over Joburg is an impressive image, but we get no panoramic view of a shantytown teeming with over a million insect-like aliens reluctant to leave their digs. The historical commentary is thought-provoking yet obvious, and the film covers twenty years of alien presence on earth with a few comments from talking heads. I could have used a couple of vignettes showing intolerant treatment of aliens over those two decades. Also, what happened to the scene in the preview in which faceless humans coldly interrogate the alien about his people’s intentions on Earth?

Thus, I was glad when the pace picked up. I enjoyed Wickus’s collaboration with Christopher Johnson and his resourceful son, and Wickus’s sacrificial standoff against the cops. Also interesting is the whole process of Wickus’s transformation and the horror he endures because of it. The final image of his full transformation, as he stands in a garbage heap fashioning a tin flower for his wife, is a memorably poignant one. Unfortunately, his wishy-washy wife, who, in an interview in the beginning of the film, seems to suggest that Wickus is kind of a weirdo, doesn’t deserve his love. Perhaps Wickus is holding onto the illusion of her love as a last connection with his humanity. All in all, there are elements to enjoy in this mostly enjoyable science-fiction film, but potential for a more powerful, more engrossing experience is lost to the film’s limited imagination.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Day at Fenway

Early this month I had taken my avid moviegoing daughter, Jane, and her best friend, Katie, to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For Jane it was her fourth time. Then I took them out to dinner at Olive Garden. During the summer vacation, I always try to do the things Jane has put on her list of fun things to do, and seeing Harry Potter with Katie and going to Olive Garden were big goals on her list. As we drove home, Jane said, “Now I only have one sadness in my life.” My heart sank. What deeply grave revelation was my daughter going to divulge? With a painful gulp, I said, “Uh, what’s that?” And she said, “I’ve never been to a Red Sox game.” Phew! Is that all!? (Let me say now that I am not a baseball fan.) Anyway, I assuaged Jane by saying that she could rely on her Uncle Ron (sports editor for the Eugene Register Guard) when it came to baseball, and that I would try to arrange for us to coincide our visit to my hometown near San Francisco next summer and get him to take us to see the Giants at PacBell Park. “Your Uncle Ron will take you.” She was content. “I have the Giants hat,” she said. Good!

You know, good things do happen to good people. The next day we got a call from her Cape Challengers coach, Kelvin Ing, a wonderfully generous and high-spirited man who leads a softball program for special needs individuals on Cape Cod, and he told us he had a special opportunity for us. To make a long story short, Jane, with her Cape Challengers teammates, including her friend Katie, with me as Jane's guardian, would be going to Fenway Park to have batting practice on the field, have a tour, watch the team’s batting practice, and then watch the Sox play the Detroit Tigers that night. I had feared the day would fall while we were away in California, but us luck would have it, we would be able to fit the long day into our schedule. We would get home late that night, get up at 3 a.m. for a ride to Logan for our flight at 6 a.m.. Little sleep but, hey, it's the Red Sox!

I am not a fan of baseball at all – but let it be known that I have had a lot of experience with baseball. I know the fine points of the game, and if I am forced to go to a spectator sport, I’ll take baseball over football or basketball any day of the week! And what a great experience it is watching a baseball game at PacBell in San Francisco – a sublime experience if you love the sport. Granted, it’s a noble game. I grew up in San Mateo, California, with an avid sports fan of a father and that older brother who dreamed of being a professional baseball player and ended up being a sports writer. My dad took my two brothers and me to games at Candlestick Park and I saw Willie Mays hit home runs and slap his mitt three times before catching a high fly ball. Willie McCovey. Orlando Cepeda. I saw them too. And as for movies about American sports – I’ll go for the baseball movies over all the rest. My favorite is The Natural. I love Field of Dreams maybe just as much as you sports fans out there because, you know, I had a baseball mitt and I played catch with my dad, too – even though while I was catching, mostly dropping, those balls, my mind was on the latest John Wayne movie I had seen.

Nope, baseball's not my thing, and I'm not a Sox fan like most residents of Massachusetts, and I have no idea how the Sox are doing. I know that the Red Sox recently won the World Series twice! I’m reminded of that every time I go to pick up the pizza at Papa Ginos! The Double Play Meal Deal! But when the games were on TV and all the students and teachers at my school on Cape Cod neglected their work and lost sleep, I, uh, watched a movie or read a book; I never watched one single game! When I made the mistake of saying that to colleagues, I got vile looks! And when the students dress up for the big Hallowe’en contest, and many of them dress up as a specific Sox players, and it’s my job as perennial MC of this function to introduce who everybody is dressed up as, I have no idea what specific player some 7th grader has dressed as, and I’m forced to say, “Uh, a Red Sox player,” or “Uh, who are you?” and the kid looks like he’s going to cry.

But I didn't need to worry about being found out as a non-fan as I escorted Jane to her CVS Pharmacy-sponsored program at Fenway Park on Wednesday, August 12. At 11:30 we were escorted through Gate D to the indoor batting cage where the Cape Challengers kids and young adults engaged in batting practice under the direction of Dave Magadan, veteran of quite a number of Major League teams.

After the Challengers teammates were warmed up, they got to go out on the field and bat from home plate, knocking balls onto the finely manicured grass of the infield. (We had to be careful not to put a foot on the sacred grass.) Jane and Katie really caught Mr. Magadan's eye. Katie did the whole bit of knocking dirt off her cleats before batting; and Jane had brought her batting glove - which really tickled Magadan. Jane managed to hit a ground ball past second base. Once everyone got to have a turn slugging four or five balls, Magadan could have called it quits, but then he let each batter have another turn.

Coach Magadan could not have been nicer to those handicapped young people. When he looked at each of them, he saw their potential for success. He didn't see their disablities. He saw them as individuals who understood the privilege and excitement of slugging balls at Fenway Park. Each Challenger came out of that batting cage glowing with pride.

After lunch in the Red Sox dugout and a tour of the park, we had to leave for a while, but we were allowed to return at 4:30 when we were led onto the sidelines to watch the Red Sox batting practice. I had to solicit the aid of the young baseball-fan son of one of Jane's coaches to identify J. D. Drew, Jason Bay (he would hit a two-run homer during the game that night), and David Ortiz as they slammed balls into the outfield.

It was turning into a long day, but after batting practice, Jane and her friend Katie waited patiently in their seats for the game to start at 7:10. Our seats, by the way, were the best I've ever had at Fenway Park (of the four times I've been there) - to the left of left field near the left-hand limit of the Green Monster. Between two girders we enjoyed a widescreen view that perfectly framed the entire infield. The left-hand girder and the Green Monster framed the outfield and an ominous purple blotch of storm clouds that never broke. A fine mist cooled the evening.

There was something epic about these side-by-side views. It was like watching two movies - nature's turmoil on one side; the contest of players on the other side. But how different the baseball game-watching experience is from the ideal movie-watching experience! The constant noise. The normal-volume conversations and commentary going on during the game. The vendors - including the famous Fenway water vendor who balances a crate of water bottles on her head as she negotiates the steep steps - barking their wares. Bags of peanuts flying across sections of spectators. Peanut shells scattered on the floor. The traveling undulation of thousands of bodies performing the wave. Singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" during the 7th inning stretch - "bom, bom, bom!"

Despite two homers for the Sox and one for the Tigers, the first four innings of the game were slow. By the bottom of the 5th, there had been the three homers but a total of only six hits. Things changed when the Sox got their turn to bat. They loaded the bases, courtesy of a number of Detroit errors, and then the Sox proceeded to bat in five runs, one after the other. In baseball, that's a classic setup, I think.

When Red Sox-fan colleagues of mine look at me like I'm weird when I reveal that I didn't watch any of the series games, I often reflect upon how different we humans are from one another - and from group to group. It's as hard for someone to understand that I would rather watch a movie than a baseball game as it is for me to understand that someone would rather watch a baseball game than a movie.

Jane and Katie had a classic time! They cheered for the Sox! They ate peanuts and popcorn. They sang "Take Me out to the Ball Game" and "Sweet Caroline." They were part of the undulating wave. Nothing disabled their participation. You could see no differences.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Perfect Getaway

I’ll be away from the blog somewhat (I'll respond to comments) during my last trip West before school begins. Ah, the inevitable approach of the end! I always feel like Jack Faustus nearing the time when he has to pay up big-time for his twenty-five years of ultimate power and earthly pleasures, pleading for yet another year, or day, or hour, or minute. Anyway, I can’t complain. This time it’s off to California with the family, first to San Mateo where I grew up, with visits to San Francisco to see sights and friends. Hopefully, I can see District 9 in San Mateo and post a quick review. Then it’s down to Carmel for a week for a reunion with my wife’s family in a rented villa near Point Lobos (above). After that we head on down 101 to Santa Monica, one of my favorite drives. We will spend some days in Anaheim for our traditional jaunt to Disneyland. Then I hope to cap the trip by seeing Inglourious Basterds at the Arclight in Hollywood.

As for A Perfect Getaway the movie, directed by David Twohy (Pitch Black), what we have here is a very tricky little suspense film about a newlyweds-murdering couple on the loose in the tropical backcountry of Kauai (evoked by means of beautiful cinematography and surrealistic CGI) that’s full of backpacking couples. Which is the murderous couple? That’s the nagging question as the film develops slowly toward a suspenseful conclusion.

One couple is made up of Cliff (Steve Zahn), a mild-mannered screenwriter who wants an adventure for his honeymoon but is uncomfortable outdoors, and his newlywed wife, Cydney (Milla Jovovich), who dreams of just being a mother and raising a beautiful family with five kids; but when things get crucial, she morphs into that gorgeously fierce slow-mo fighting machine from Resident Evil (one of the best movies ever made).

Another couple consists of Nick (Timothy Olyphant), a wacko ex-special-ops fighter who fought in Iraq where he got a head injury that was repaired with a steel plate. “He’s real hard to kill,” comments his significant other, Gina (Kiele Sanchez), a cheerfully gauche but sexy white-trash girl from South Carolina who has no trouble gutting a wild goat for supper and is devoted to her oddball soldier boy. As Nick fiddles with his knife and hunting bow and talks about the importance of survival instincts, Gina declares, “He’s a man’s man.” (See poster. Sanchez is in the upper left-hand corner. I love her! She looks like a younger Hilary Swank but without the severe overbite. Also, she plays the type of character Swank is good at playing.)

These two couples form a shaky, incompatible foursome during a rainstorm, while wandering on the periphery you have a third couple: Kale (Chris Hemsworth) and Cleo (Marley Shelton). Cleo is a blissful, zoned-out hippie girl, but her boyfriend, Kale, is a tattooed, muscle-bound asshole with a fuck-you attitude in his cold eyes.

One of these couples is the murderous pair who killed two newlyweds in Honolulu. Either you figure it out in the beginning, or you let yourself go and enjoy a big surprise. I love most any story of survival that takes place in the jungle. Jungle adventure – makes me think of Tarzan; I love it! Also, Jovovich is awesome. And I love the poster.

If I were doing B-Movie Awards or something, I would definitely award Olyphant Best Supporting Actor and, enthusiastically, Sanchez for Best Supporting Actress. She is amazingly invested in her part, and her golly-gee white trash talk and her allegiance to her Man are endearing, and as memorable as the shot of her lounging in the nude at the picturesque waterfall.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Julie & Julia

Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia is a cheerful look at the success of two women: Julia Child, the famous cook who brought French cuisine to America, and Julie Powell, the aspiring writer who wrote a blog about cooking the 500-plus recipes in Julia Child’s first cookbook in 365 days.

As Julia Child, Meryl Streep is initially entertaining but ultimately irritating. At first I rather enjoyed Streep’s imitation of the cook famous for her breathy, high-pitched voice and her casual approach to cooking. As the film went on, I just saw Streep overacting and I couldn’t wait for the story to get back to Julie Powell. The parts about Child in Paris, with sets that look too much like period fabrications, as though they’ve never seen any wear, play like a PBS show for kids called Child in Fantasyland – with Streep, and most of the other performers, all exaggerated intonations and gestures, the kind of hyperbolic presentation kids need to get the point. The cooking classes have the same tone as Ratatouille - and I don’t mean to cast aspersions upon that wonderful film; Ratatouille is supposed to be a cartoon fantasy.

Streep fairs best in the parts in which she enacts episodes from her cooking show. I especially liked her commenting about how delicate a maneuver flipping an omelette is and how you can always put it back together if you mess up. That’s the element of Child’s cooking that I appreciated most; she was realistic and never snobby. These TV bits are done more subtly, and that’s when Streep is at her best. In addition, in some silent moments, Streep succeeds in making Julia Child appear before you on screen.

As Julie Powell, Amy Adams is more delightful throughout. Of course, she’s got the advantage because she doesn’t have to impersonate a famous person with distinctive voice and mannerisms. Nevertheless, she comes across as a real person, striving to be a recognized writer. Her struggles with her recipes that lead to meltdowns, sprawled on the kitchen floor, inject more moments of realism into the film. In addition, Adams has a natural style that comes across as more convincing than Streep’s impersonation. Adams keeps you on Powell’s side throughout her challenge, whereas there were times when I just wanted Streep to shut up.

A fun aspect of the film is the presentation of Powell’s blogging experience shown in contrast with Child’s toils with old-fashioned publishing: typing pages on onion skin with carbon paper, stacking them in a manuscript box, and shipping them off to the publisher. Perhaps accurate, unfortunately not representative of the norm, both writers are shown attaining instant success with their ventures, without much adversity in the publishing world. Child thinks it’s a tragedy when she gets turned down by Houghton Mifflin, but she gets quickly snapped up by Knopf. One rejection letter! I wish! Meanwhile, Powell is interviewed by the New York Times and then comes home to 65 phone messages from editors, agents, and produces offering her opportunities. Meanwhile, the film is positive about blogging, suggesting that a blog is a satisfying pursuit for a writer that achieves a real connection with readers. As Powell says, “Like if I didn’t write, they would really be upset.”

The parallel stories are both so rosy and upbeat that minor setbacks are thrown into each so that Streep and Adams have chances to perform a little range. For Streep, it’s having to move from Paris to Marseilles. Tough! For Powell, it’s the contrived hubbie tirade: something to the effect of “You’re so self-centered and all you think about is your cooking and blog! I’m leaving!” Of course, hubbie comes back. Who wouldn’t come back to Amy Adams and all that good food?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed a lot of this film. I enjoyed Amy Adams, the cooking scenes, and Streep/Child’s cooking show slots, but a lot of Streep’s overacting and her too-perfect relationship with her husband (Stanley Tucci) made me cringe. Despite how easily Child and Powell find success in the publishing world, I still feel the film is well-intended in its presentation of the frustrating pursuit of writing. In regards to the blogging world, it convinced me that blog readers care. Thinking of my friends who write movie blogs, I concluded, “Like if you don’t write, they would really be upset.”

Lord Jim (1965)

We all have our favorite forgotten screen gems, films unanointed by the critics’ stamp of approval. For me, one of those movies is Richard Brooks’s Lord Jim (1965), based on one of my favorite novels: Joseph Conrad’s thrilling tale of cowardice and honor, sin and redemption.

Only three years after Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole stars as the idealistic young British seaman who performs an act of cowardice that sets him on an exacting quest for redemption. Unaffected as yet by drinking and stomach cancer, still the lithe, handsome man with those sparkling blue eyes, O’Toole is tremendous in the role of Jim, the tortured outcast who strives for honor and admiration.

In a role that is a favorite of mine, James Mason plays Gentleman Brown, the soulless pirate dressed in bowler hat and suit coat; he carries a Bible and delivers merciless commands with rich, precise intonation and gentlemanly diction. The talented cast includes Paul Lukas as Mr. Stein, Jim’s father figure; Daliah Lavi as the Girl, Jim’s lover in the remote village of Patusan; Akim Tamiroff as Schomberg, a scurvy opportunist; Curt Jurgens somewhat miscast as the cowardly trader Cornelius; and Jack Hawkins as Captain Marlow, Conrad’s faithful narrator. Notably, Eli Wallach plays the General, the nihilistic warlord who enslaves the villagers of Patusan. Wallach taps into his signature persona: the outlaw leader Calveras in The Magnificent Seven), but he pumps up the evil here. The General is a philosophical but heartless outlaw who would never give Jim his guns and allow him to ride on.

All these fine performers carry a tale that is divided into three visually different chapters: Jim’s training at sea and the mighty storm that tests him; Jim’s journey up the river into the jungle and the battle against the warlord; Jim’s glory days that are soon interrupted when Gentlemen Brown and his cutthroats steam up the dark, foggy river to steal anything they can get their hands on. Notably, the attack for the General’s fort dominates the middle third of the film with suspenseful preparations of villagers and lance-propelled bombs, under the direction of Jim; the initial bombardment and assault, which leads to a setback that brings Jim dangerously close to his old fears; and the final, gripping shootout and destruction of the fort. Though perhaps too long for the overall structure of the film, this wonderfully visual sequence always ties in the themes and conflicts that pervade the story.

As in Lawrence of Arabia, cinematographer Freddie Young, under the direction of Richard Brooks, frames a tale of violence and conflict and memorably establishes the atmosphere of foreign locations: in this case, the seas, islands, and jungles of the Malay archipelago. Once again, he visualizes the story of an Englishman who is a tormented outcast in a very alien place. The vivid jungle images evoke an atmosphere of dank remoteness, a place for outcasts. Young’s camera dramatically captures this adventure’s thrills: the storm that threatens to sink the Patna, a leaky scow full of Muslim pilgrims that provides the stage for Jim’s act of cowardice; the exciting escape from the General’s jungle fortress; the thrilling, violent attack of the General’s fort that turns Jim into a venerated hero; and the final dark and violent encounters with Gentleman Brown, the fateful threat that brings back the fear he faced on board the Patna and the choice he made. But more than just an adventure, Lord Jim is a thoughtful examination of fate, fear, and the cowardice and heroism that all humans are capable of displaying. The film’s most obvious strengths are visual – the cinematography and the action – but the film also takes time to delve thoughtfully into the story’s main themes – perhaps sometimes a little too extensively to the detriment of the film’s pace.

We acknowledge the greatness of films because of structure, artistry, ideas, and performances, but sometimes more than the appreciation of these qualities, it is a particular scene – or a line of dialogue we borrow for use in an everyday context – that beckons us to repeat viewings and makes that film one of our favorites.

In Lord Jim the specific scene that always compels me to the viewing is the confrontation between Jim and Gentleman Brown on a ferry in the middle of a foggy river, a featureless limbo that symbolically separates Jim from his present – where he is called Lord Jim, has the love of a beautiful woman, and is revered by the villagers – and his shameful past – when he was torn between cowardice and bravery – a dilemma he fears he must face again. For me, there is a thrill to this dramatic confrontation – two dynamic characters played out by two dynamic actors – that is similar to the thrill of the Neil McCauley (De Niro)/Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) scene in Heat.

The specific quandary Jim faces now is whether or not to let Gentleman Brown and his gang leave peacefully in order to avoid bloodshed. We see these fears in O’Toole’s distracted blue eyes as Mason’s rich intonations seem to emanate from Jim’s brooding conscience or from the insidious heart of the devil. When Jim disarms Brown, he sees the gun as a warning and premonition of violence. When he tosses it in the river, Brown gives a look of shock and umbrage, superbly expressed by James Mason. His look reveals that now he has come face to face with a sanctimonious but formidable force for good; perhaps he sees his end in the fall of the pistol. What’s brilliant about this meeting is that Brown draws the kinship between the two of them. They are both outcasts. They are both hiding from something. “No white man hides himself in a wilderness like this without a reason.”

Back with his thugs, Brown comments that Jim carries “the self-righteous stench of a converted sinner.” In response, the greasy Schomberg takes off his hat, wipes the sweat off his bald head, and gasps, “What's he done?” For Schomberg, Brown’s observation holds a whole world of sordid meaning. It’s a line I often utter when my wife says that our dear son has yet another “Current Concern” comment from a teacher at school. “What's he done?”

Of course, Jim’s decision to let Brown go is thematically fitting and fatefully tragic, and his final act of honor and bravery is eminently Conradian, and perhaps the film’s themes seem a bit too remote to modern audience members who might not distinguish such fine points of honor. But I love Lord Jim as a memorable cinematic rendering of a favorite novel, a tale of high adventure and enigmatic ideals.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Naughty, Naughty Orphan

(Any specific analysis of major plot points in this film can only lead to spoilers, and the less you know about what happens, the closer you might get to my enjoyment of the film, so I’m going to be very brief.)

It’s an oft-depicted tale: parents give birth to or adopt the child from hell. I suppose many parents can identify with that scenario since they suffer the anxiety of wondering whether or not Junior is going turn out all right – or turn out to be “a child of spleen,” as Shakespeare refers to daughter Goneril in King Lear. As for this version of the old story, it’s a gruesome one, and it’s a silly one in many ways, and elements of it are bad, but it’s ultimately a horrifying movie - so that means it's good. Let’s take a look at how good and how bad.

It’s as bad as all the horror movie clichés piled one on top of the other: the dark and stormy night; the sudden blasts of soundtrack that are more startling than what you actually see; the Internet search for information (I love how you can Google the answers to any sinister mystery); the dark-eyed girl with the mysterious past.

It’s as good as Vera Farmiga convincingly portraying Kate Coleman’s inner torment: her grief over losing a baby; her struggle with alcoholism; her guilt regarding her daughter’s near drowning; her suspicions of her adopted daughter; her frustration when no one will believe her.

It’s as bad as Kate grieving over a dead baby, struggling with alcoholism, carrying guilt regarding the near drowning of her daughter, and she wants to adopt a child!?

It’s as good as the wonderful performance of five-year-old Aryana Engineer (hearing impaired in real life) playing Max Coleman, Kate’s hearing impaired daughter who observes the rapidly developing treachery from within her silent world and suffers in silence as she comes under the sinister control of the creepy Esther.

It’s as bad as Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther giving classmates the evil eye and sidling up affectionately to her “Daddy” and mouthing affections in a stilted Russian accent while Peter Sarsgaard as John Coleman whines drunkenly in one of his worst performances.

It’s as good as Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther saying to Max in that Russian accent, “Grab a foot and help me drag the body out of the road.”

It’s as bad as Margo Martindale as a clueless psychiatrist who can’t see through Esther’s obviously false façade and who too easily jumps to the conclusion that Kate has lost her marbles.

It’s as good as the film’s nondescript location with its atmosphere of slushy gray snow and leafless trees. Moreover, it’s as good as its unrelentingly suspenseful and horrifying ending.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Some Funny People

Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls.

There! That might give you some idea of the tedium of the countless references to balls throughout Funny People, “the third film of Judd Apatow.” Are testicles that funny?

That’s the first thing you have to get through in order to reach the core of this story. Then you have to hang in there through the bland opening scenes that introduce three aspiring comedians/actors who live together in an apartment in L.A. – Ira (Seth Rogen), Leo (Jonah Hill), and Mark (Jason Schwartzman). These scenes seem to exist solely to showcase Apatow’s typical crude humor regarding balls, penis size, banging chicks, and anal sex. Pretty much all of this humor, which seems tiredly and routinely delivered, falls flat. Things don’t start working here until the film develops its central, serious story: George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a famous comedian and actor at the height of his popularity, learns that he is dying of leukemia. This launches him into a soul-searching re-assessment of his life and a drive to use his time well by returning to stand-up comedy, which involves hiring Ira as a joke writer and general assistant. What follows is a grave, touching, witty central story that explores themes of death and the preciousness of life; the allure of fame; mentorship; friendship; and redemption for past wrongs.

As Ira, Seth Rogen sensitively develops a believable character, an innocent individual in search of identity as he pursues his passion for comedy. It is within the parameters of George and Ira’s relationship and the world through which they move that the film achieves a sense of humor and a heart. Regarding Adam Sandler as George Simmons, I pretended I didn’t know anything about Sandler or his career, which is mirrored by Simmons’s career. What I saw, then, was an interesting story about the gains and losses of fame and the pursuit of creativity, a storyline that always fascinates me. The film effectively portrays how hard it must be to get up on stage in front of a demanding audience. Your goal is to elicit laughter, but you need the strength to endure the silence if the jokes fizzle. As for this Adam Sandler: he’s not a great actor, but he does a commendable job in this middle portion of film. We feel his cynicism about life and his doubts about past decisions.

Then Apatow’s epic comedy turns from a serious analysis of fame and fortune into a more standard comic romp about the importance of family as George, having learned that he may not die, tries to undo the worst mistake of his life by winning back Laura (Leslie Mann), his former lover who is a married woman with two daughters. This turns into a lengthy contest over Laura between George and Clarke, Laura’s philandering Aussie husband, (Eric Bana), and it feels like we’re watching an entirely different film. When Clarke returns home unexpectedly from a business trip, I cringed, hoping he wouldn’t invite George and Ira to stay the night – thus prolonging this digression – but he does, and they stay, and it goes on.

This film-within-the-film includes some nice jokes, many of them involving the kids: Mable and Ingrid , played by Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris. There’s a fun reference to The Deer Hunter and good-natured humor about kids and parenting. This portion also contains the source of the best laughs in the whole film: watching dogs licking peanut butter off the kids’ faces. Eric Bana is also rather entertaining playing a parody of the cocky Aussie who loves violent Aussie football but also his kids. But this long final chapter gets somewhat slapstick and obvious in its message, and it detracts from the poignancy and thematic development of the film’s graver central story.

I’m not a big Adam Sandler fan, and I’m not a big Judd Apatow fan, but I enjoyed watching most of this movie. I wish the film had kept its focus on George Simmons’s self-examination of his life and career, and his mentor relationship with Ira, but there was enough to take me through the long final chapter, and I left feeling fairly well entertained.