Monday, August 31, 2009

Minute with Abe: Quadruple Feature Part Four

My live reactions to the fourth film of my exciting quadruple feature, "Julie & Julia."

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Minute with Abe: Quadruple Feature Part Three

My live reactions to the third film of my exciting quadruple feature, "In the Loop."

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Minute with Abe: Quadruple Feature Part Two

My live reactions to the second film of my exciting quadruple feature, "Inglourious Basterds."

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Minute with Abe: Quadruple Feature Part One

My live reactions to the first film of my exciting quadruple feature, "District 9."

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Movie with Abe: Funny People

Funny People
Directed by Judd Apatow
Released July 31, 2009

A movie with a title like “Funny People” is bound to feature characters that specialize in making people laugh. Spotlighting stand-up comedians is a great setup for a film, especially because comedians, especially those in a Judd Apatow movie, are likely to lead humorous, interesting lives. “Funny People” has the right idea with the story of George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a comedian slash actor who discovers that he’s dying. Trailers for the film made it look like George was training Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to be his replacement, but that isn’t really the story. It’s actually quite unclear what George’s motives are, and it seems he’s only actually looking for companionship. The problem is that it’s not a very fulfilling experience for Ira, and it’s not a very fulfilling experience for the viewer either.

Every time I see a movie directed by Judd Apatow or starring one of his regular actors, I can’t help but think of his previous efforts. Even if the premises aren’t terribly similar, the dialogue is very much the same, no matter who’s penning the script, and avoiding comparison is impossible. The last film with Apatow players, “I Love You, Man,” bares a strong resemblance to “Funny People” in the way that it takes an idea that sounds smart but doesn’t actually have enough steam to run through a whole movie. Audiences and critics have always stated that even the best of the Apatow group films are about twenty minutes too long. “I Love You, Man” was an hour and forty-five minutes. This one runs two hours and fifteen minutes. It’s way too long, but it’s hard to discern what should be cut out and what should be left in.

It wouldn’t inherently be a problem for the film to focus solely on George’s life, but it’s titled “Funny People,” not “Funny Person.” The notion of a comedian’s story and the idea of the world of “funny people” could work, but Ira just feels unnecessary. George is pretty much just taking Ira along for the ride and showing him what a celebrity lifestyle is like. Ira doesn’t have much to offer – he’s not particularly funny and he lacks the goofyness that generally makes Seth Rogen’s characters appealing. Jokes are made about how Ira has lost weight, but it’s clear that the intended benefactor of the joke isn’t Ira, it’s Seth. Following a comedian through his celebrity comeback tour is just what Apatow’s disciples likely dreamed of when they were just starting out.

Rogen has done the dramatic comedy well before, but here he’s saddled with an unenthusiastic role and no real opportunity to play either comedy or drama strongly. Sandler’s never been much of a skilled dramatic actor, and while watching him get sad isn’t as cringe-worthy as Jack Black crying in “Margot at the Wedding,” it’s not much better. Leslie Mann adds some worthwhile sentimental charm, but the real highlight is Eric Bana, for once using his native Australian accent. Without putting all his effort into sounding American, he’s actually a pretty funny guy who out-acts all three aforementioned comedy veterans. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzmann contribute additionally to some of the movie’s funnier scenes.

It’s not a failure of a film, but there’s just not much of a hook. The movie runs one hundred and thirty-five minutes, but it’s not easy to decide where the movie gets derailed. It’s more likely that it was doomed from the start – it just isn’t a strong enough idea out of which to milk a movie. It’s never terribly interesting, and there’s never a sense of where it’s heading next or where it wants to end up. Unsurprisingly, the film’s conclusion isn’t very satisfying, and an occasionally enjoyable experience doesn’t seem overly worthwhile, especially compared to what audiences have come to expect from Judd Apatow when he’s behind the camera.

B-

Monday, August 24, 2009

Home Video: I Love You, Man

I Love You, Man
Directed by John Hamburg
Released March 20, 2009

The latest film from the actors most frequently seen in Judd Apatow’s movies follows the general pattern of the previous features. From the premise and even the trailer from this film, it wouldn’t seem that “I Love You, Man” would include sexually explicit conversations and a generally raunchy tone. Part of the reason for that is that it doesn’t quite fit – this film would work just as well if it wasn’t rated R. The premise itself is entirely simplistic, and so is the movie.

The notion that a man with a wonderful fiancée and pleasant enough life but lacking in male friends would embark on a quest to find a best bud sounds like just the kind of story actors Paul Rudd and Jason Segel would want to tell. Writers John Hamburg and Larry Levin are new to the group, but it makes sense that someone well-versed in the world of “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” would want to make this movie. Apatow didn’t produce this one, but he left it in the hands of the writers behind “Along Came Polly” and “Meet the Parents.” With slightly tamer films on their resumes, it might have made sense to tone this one down accordingly. No such luck, and the awkward middle ground between family-friendly and “40-Year-Old Virgin” doesn’t really work.

All of the previous films like this have starred likeable enough lead characters and relied on a flurry of supporting funnymen to make inappropriate quips and move the story along. The main problem here is Segel, who’s usually the one playing the nice guy (see “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) is saddled with the entire burden of representing all of those supporting stalwarts, and it’s too much for him. He’s certainly funny, but he almost doesn’t seem unlikable in any way, and he really should. Attempts to make him seem crude by outfitting him with gross-out characteristics don’t really work, and when they are effective, they’re not very funny. Along those lines, Paul Rudd isn’t as able a lead as is necessary to carry this film. He’s portrayed as a dorky, fumbling real estate agent – two descriptors that don’t really fit that career bill.

Mainly, the first presents an intriguing story, but there’s not much mystery to it. It’s pretty obvious that Rudd’s character will find a friend, and the other men he meets along the way aren’t very memorable – in fact, only one really remains in the film, and another man-date, which is completely lacking for laughs, ended up on the cutting room floor and can be found on the DVD with other deleted scenes. Basically, it was a fun idea, but there’s really not a whole movie behind it. The main complaint of many who liked but didn’t love movies like “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” was that they were about 20 minutes too long. In this case, it’s about an hour too much. I paused 45 minutes into it, and couldn’t imagine what would possibly be coming next. It’s decently entertaining and not overly off-putting, but there’s not much motivation to keep watching. Nothing to see here, keep moving along to the next feature from these guys.

B-

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Movie with Abe: 500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
Released July 17, 2009

The first theatrical feature film from director Marc Webb is determined not to be a love story. The necessity to avoid a cliché chain of events and stray from the norm could have really damaged the impact of the film and resulted in a sub-par experience. Fortunately, the film has a style all its own which more than allows for creative storytelling and an atypical tale of a love that just wasn’t meant to be.

Many will compare “500 Days of Summer” to Woody Allen’s first major critical hit, the classic “Annie Hall.” It involves a similar plot, to be sure, highlighting ups and downs over an extended period of time in the relationship of two people simply infatuated with each other. This couple, Tom and Summer, is young but their story isn’t any less timeless. Tom and Summer go many places together, and their conversations are about architecture and art and literature, all subjects that don’t lend themselves to a particular time period or setting. It’s a wonderful way of keeping the characters afloat and purposely neglecting to ground them in any kind of temporal reality, and that’s exactly how the movie operates.

Five hundred days of summer is on the menu, but it’s not served in any logical order. Snippets are taken from good and bad times, and the way in which it’s presented is absolutely compelling and gives a satisfyingly complete picture of their courtship, honeymoon period, and breakup stage perfectly. It’s hard to get too attached to the couple because, after each positive memory, an unfortunate downturn in their relationship comes up on screen, with Tom’s goofy smile turning into an angry frown. The relationships’ over before it started, in a sense, but the movie’s still enormously worthwhile while it lasts.

The two leads are perhaps the most significant successful aspect of the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has grown up a great deal since his time on NBC’s “3rd Rock from the Sun,” and his maturity is wonderfully refreshing. As greeting-card writer Tom, he’s unflappably positive and sports a smile that’s incredibly contagious. Zooey Deschanel has possessed an undeniable charm since she appeared briefly in the road movie “Almost Famous” back in 2000. As secretary Summer, she displays the same level of joy and exuberance with a completely different way of looking at things. The two leads are extremely likeable and they light up the screen both separately and together. Supporting actors Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler, Chloe Moretz, and Clark Gregg enhance their scenes as well.

Most importantly, the movie champions both Tom and Summer’s views on love without taking a definitive side. Tom believes true love is possible, and Summer thinks things will always find a part. The film finds a brilliant middle ground between their viewpoints, and it’s all a part of the clever way in which the expiration-date tale is told. Even though things aren’t fated to work out, it’s still nice to see an entertaining and often moving snippet of the intersection of their lives. It’s occasionally funny and altogether enjoyable.

B+

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Home Video: Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious
Directed by Justin Lin
Released April 3, 2009

This is a movie that shouldn’t really exist at all, but somehow it came to be, and that’s a marvelous thing. The first film in the franchise, the similarly-titled “The Fast and the Furious,” spawned two less-than-stellar sequels, “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Despite diminishing box office takes, a fourth film was green-lit and the unexpected, probably unprecedented reunion of the original cast occurred, pretending that number two and three never even existed. The way of looking at this movie is that it’s a completely unnecessary, absolutely supplementary film which no one was really clamoring for, but serves as a great piece of (you guessed it) fast and furious entertainment. And, wouldn’t you know it, this fourth film managed to out-gross the first one!

Like many supplemental film franchise installments, “Fast & Furious” doesn’t bother recapping the events of the first film and jumps right into the current lives of the characters. The film opens with a spectacular heist in the Dominican Republic which immediately ups the adrenaline and sets up the film’s speed-laced pace. The story isn’t really terribly important; it’s all about the cars and the racing. Bringing back the original cast is a lot of fun. No one can match the distinctive angry, arms-crossed stare of Vin Diesel, and though Paul Walker’s not very effective as an actor, it’s amusing to see him get all excited about driving a nice car. Again, the plot should be dismissed altogether since it doesn’t really make much sense, since the action and the thrills make up this ride.

Once suspension of disbelief is taken care of, the film is actually a pretty damn enjoyable trip. Getting on board at the start with the fact that the film doesn’t make a lick of sense ensures that the film will be an enjoyable, enthralling experience. A pitch-perfect epilogue humorously caps the film, and if this is your kind of thing, you’re likely to love it. It’s pretty much exactly like the first film, and if you’re eager to revisit that, see this film. Otherwise, stay far, far away; you’ll probably only like this movie if you’re expecting to like it.

B+

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movie with Abe: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Released June 26, 2009

There haven’t been many movies made yet about the war in Iraq. Films like “The Lucky Ones” have probed the effects of time in Iraq on soldiers returning home or set action films in the Middle East, like “The Kingdom.” Many, including Michael Moore, have dabbled in theories about false motives for going to war in the first place. Others, like “Taxi to the Dark Side,” have exposed the darker side of the United States’ response to terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks. “The Hurt Locker” is the first major release to really explore what life is actually like in on a daily basis for American soldiers serving in Iraq.

This is hardly a revolutionary concept – war movies set in the midst of the conflict. A slew of well-known Vietnam war movies were released in the 1970s, and more recent films like “Platoon” and 2007’s “Rescue Dawn” revisited that era. What’s significant about “The Hurt Locker” is its contemporary relevance. The war in Iraq is a very vivid memory for everyone in the United States, and making a film about it is just as meaningful and important as all of the 1970s Vietnam movies. The most crucial aspect is that “The Hurt Locker” is the first, and – good news – it’s great.

“The Hurt Locker” most resembles Sam Mendes’ 2005 film “Jarhead” in the way that its featured soldiers are rarely involved in traditional frontline combat with the enemy. Instead, they’re holding their ground, making sure that people stay safe. It’s hardly a tranquil environment, as dangerous, deadly bombs are found on a frequent basis and the team is sent in to clear the street and disarm the device. The certainty that the tour of duty won’t go quickly (the soldiers have 39 days left at the start of the movie) makes the experience all the more inescapable. They’re not going anywhere, and they’re determined to defend their territory, but that won’t stop insurgents from trying to kill them each and every day.

Most of the scenes in “The Hurt Locker” go on for an extended period of time, trapping the audience in the moment and driving home just how uncertain and unbearable waiting to outlast an enemy combatant can be. It’s an immensely real film, which doesn’t spare audiences the gritty moments, and its focus on a small unit of soldiers helps to create more emotional connections to the characters and for the viewer to become part of the terrifying experience. The film editing and cinematography are deliberate and sharp, highlighting the intensity of situations and stressing the emotions on the soldiers’ faces. It’s an extraordinarily well put-together film, and each of its 131 minutes takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the minds of these young soldiers thrust into an unknown enemy land.

The performances in this film are all top-notch. Lead actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty may not be overly familiar to audiences, but in this case that’s a tremendously good thing. The experience is heightened by the fact that famous actors aren’t popping up at every turn, and the deserted Iraq streets seem all the more horrific and unknown with less recognizable stars at every turn. Fortunately, more familiar faces like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, David Morse, and Christian Camargo (“Dexter’) fit in just fine, and their minor appearances are nothing short of terrific. Director Kathryn Bigelow, whose most recent major film release is the underrated 2002 thriller “K-19: The Widowmaker,” deserves enormous credit for guiding a fantastic cast and creating one hell of a war movie. It may not features big explosions and loud gunfire like battlefront films, but this is the most powerful film you’re like to see for a while.

A-

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Home Video: Watchmen

Watchmen
Directed by Zack Snyder
Released March 6, 2009

The combination of an alternate reality and superheroes sounds like a fascinating idea, but there are many ways it can go wrong. The new universe can be too far-fetched, the superheroes can be unoriginal, and the villains and conflict can be entirely unexciting. When the film is a highly anticipated adaptation of a popular graphic novel, there’s even more at risk. Incredibly, “Watchmen” manages to excel in all areas and present a fantastically compelling story with vivid imagery and sterling characters.

“Watchmen” isn’t a typical superhero story, and its gritty setup is far more reminiscent of “V for Vendetta” than the brightly-colored adventures of a friendly neighborhood spider in “Spider-Man.” The characters aren’t wholly heroic, and many even resort to physical and sexual violence without giving much thought to how it will impact the public’s perception of them. And that’s the key to “Watchmen” – society doesn’t fully embrace the Watchmen, but they’re nonetheless determined to better the world, even if that doesn’t initially appear to be the case.

In a stunningly impressive montage that begins after the opening catalyst scene, the history of the Watchmen is recounted to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” The opening credits sequence is a masterfully powerful introduction to a society where superheroes emerged in 1940 and were seen as emblems of patriotism. The group is very much akin to the spirit of Captain America, but it’s clear from the brief moments shown that not all of the heroes were destined for glory, and that the Watchmen program was gradually dismantled as its members were institutionalized or killed. That beginning parade of clips is so crucial to setting up the tone of “Watchmen,” and it does a marvelous job.

“Watchmen” has all the ingredients of a great film, and it mixes together all its elements in a wonderfully effective manner. There’s spooky voiceover narration, exciting action scenes, explicit realizations of unexpressed passion, and a level of violence that’s hard to match (except perhaps in Snyder’s previous film, the preposterously gory “300”). “Watchmen” is a dark tale of heroes far more conflicted than the Dark Knight, and an extensive focus on the characters’ histories and motivations doesn’t detract from the film being a thrilling action vehicle.

I haven’t read the “Watchmen” comic, but I was simply amazed by the visual proficiency of the film. The superheroes and their world are brought to life in a dazzling three-dimensional way, yet the haunted grayscale backdrop of the alternate 1985 remains intact. The bug-eyed space pod the superheroes travel in has a perfect retro feel to it, and all of the costumes hark back to the original outfits donned by pop culture icons like Superman and the X-Men. But the great thing about the Watchmen is that they don’t stand by and make sure civilians don’t get hurt. They’re not above charging down a hallway headfirst and letting heads roll, all in the service of, well, being heroic.

The special effects are simply magnificent, and I’m particularly awed by the depiction of the blue superhero Dr. Manhattan, and his expedition to the incredible vastness that’s supposed to represent Mars. It’s a tremendously well-filmed movie that draws out the starkest and most expressive qualities in each of its shots, and it’s impossible to look away from the screen. That dedication to powerful, intoxicating scenes also involves a refusal to cut away when most other films might, choosing to show a butcher knife slicing through someone’s head and the devastation it wreaks upon the previously peaceful murderer instead of cutting to his hardened face twenty years later.

“Watchmen” is extraordinarily well-cast, pairing actors who play off each other perfectly. Billy Crudup brings a shocking sedated and quiet tone to the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (his delivery of the line “I wasn’t told” is particularly stellar). Jackie Earle Haley is unbelievably creepy in the role of mad hatter Rorschach, and the sight of him and his cold eyes is even more haunting than when the character wears his blotted mask. Matthew Goode captures the true image of a hero catapulted to elitism by his celebrity. Patrick Wilson channels the geek in him to portray the “Watchmen” version of Cyclops – a do-gooder who seems like he’s entirely impotent but ultimately comes through. Jeffrey Dean Morgan ditches his nice-guy-dying typecasting to portray a decidedly not nice guy. And (relatively) fresh face Malin Akerman brngs a certain optimistic ingénue quality to her leading female role. It’s an extremely strong cast with no weak links.

The final element of “Watchmen” that really sows it up as a fantastic film is its soundtrack. Classic songs like “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole, “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen all contribute to the very definitive feel of this film, and that introductory sequence accompanied by “The Times They Are A-Changing” completely got me into the mood of the film. The most impressive music selection, however, comes courtesy of Philip Glass’ score for the dialogue-free film "Koyaanisqatsi", and is hauntingly paired with images of Dr. Manhattan’s disassociation from humankind. It’s simply brilliant and highly intoxicating. This superhero film, which wasn’t terribly well-received by critics, is far better than it ever needed to be and it’s a fully terrific experience.

B+

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Movie mit Abe: Bruno

Bruno
Directed by Larry Charles
Release July 10, 2009

Any viewer who willingly goes to see “Bruno” should know exactly what to expect. Based mostly off of the success of “Borat” in 2006, “Bruno” stars impersonator Sacha Baron Cohen as the flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion expert and television host Bruno. Anyone going in to see the film knows to prepare for lewd jokes throughout, plenty of embarrassing situations, and a whole lot of Cohen making random people on the street feel uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. The first facet is absolutely true – “Bruno” lives for shots of naked penises and gross-out depictions of sexual scenarios no one need ever consider. The truth is that “Bruno” takes it too far; while Borat’s ten-minute naked fight was uproaringly hilarious, the extended graphic and explicit scenes just aren’t funny, and they go one for far too long. The main problem, particularly with those scenes, is that they’re not included because of their ability to shock people on the street. Instead, it’s all for the benefit of the audience, and that’s just not as fun.

Perhaps it’s because “Borat” was too popular for its own good (Cohen did have to retire the personality after the film became a hit and his con was too well known to fool many anymore), but “Bruno” hardly showcases any interactions with random people who have no idea they’re being interviewed. Those precious few that are included seem remarkably and painstakingly staged, such as Bruno’s service in the army or a test audience’s reaction to his extensive penis-dancing pilot. Bruno is an entertaining character, but he would be infinitely funnier if Cohen and director Larry Charles weren’t trying to appeal directly to their audiences. Targeting random people who make fools of themselves with their ignorance is what “Borat” was all about, and “Bruno” would have been so much better had it taken the same route. On only two occasions does Bruno seem to be really conversing with unknowing individuals, when he speaks to two airheaded blondes on a TV program, which isn’t overly amusing, and when he tries to convince a homophobic religious minister that he’s actually gay, which is far too reminiscent of Bill Maher’s recent documentary “Religulous.”

It may be unfair to constantly compare Cohen’s latest character effort to “Borat,” but the reason it’s so easy is that “Bruno” fails over and over again in all the ways that “Borat” succeeded. “Borat” told a surprisingly coherent story of a man in search of the American dream. To be honest, Bruno is a much less entertaining character than Borat, and making Bruno’s story would require some finessing. Whereas the plot of “Borat” appears to have come out of the footage that was shot and pieced together, the story of “Bruno” feels like it came straight out of Cohen and his writers’ team’s minds, and footage was shot afterward in order to fit this preset bill. While actual events may not have transpired that way, the film suffers from an overly focused premise and the continuous need to fulfill that premise while inserting shots of unnecessary nudity at every possible moment.

The question is, is “Bruno” funny? A little. The fact that it’s trying way too hard is a real kick in the balls to the film (an analogy Bruno would be sure to appreciate). The reality that the initial success of “Bruno” was based almost entirely on the popularity of “Borat” is even more of a shame. It’s as if Cohen and Charles saw how well “Borat” was received by much of the public in 2006, and set out to recreate an even more ridiculous adventure featuring the last remaining Cohen character (an Ali G film was released in the U.K. prior to “Borat” but failed to stir up much buzz). The disappointing result is this is the best they could come up with – everything’s riding on good memories of “Borat.” The tagline for “Bruno” even reads “Borat was so 2006.” Is it 2009 already? It took them three years to come up with this? It’s like a bad sequel that just doesn’t live up to the hype of the original film(s), only the bar was so much higher here. Of course it’s going to consist of immature humor, but “Borat” was far more intelligent than it should have been. Maybe “Bruno” is simply proof that some things, once drawn out, really are just are idiotic as they initially seemed.

F