Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Hurt Locker"

The Hurt Locker - Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty - Rated R

Who better to represent a tense movie than Anton Chigurh?

The Hurt Locker finally came out relatively close to Cannelton (about an hour and a half away) so here's a review for a movie that's been released theatrically for over two months now.

The Hurt Locker, simply put, is a great film. Based in Iraq in 2004 (though I've read that the year is only listed on some prints, not all, I'll get into why that's important later), The Hurt Locker follows a bomb disposal unit during it's last forty days in rotation. Armed with that knowledge, one might assume that the movie is one typical bomb disposal scene to another featuring lines like, "Which wire do I cut?" and "It's gonna blow!!!" But this movie turns those Hollywood staples on their head and creates countless nerve wracking, realistic scenes.

The film starts with the unit following protocol, using a robot to get close to an IED (improvised explosive device) and take care of it via remote control. It's a tense scene and it sets the tone and style for the entire movie, but I don't want to watch a movie about bomb disposing robots. Enter Jeremy Renner as new team leader Staff Sgt. James. When out on his first call with Sgt. Sanborn (Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Geraghty), James tells them to leave the robot and help him put on the blast suit. He then strolls off at a leisurely pace, stops to back off a brave cabbie at gunpoint, then finds the bomb and disarms it without seeming to give a second thought about it. Sgt. James never looks like he is unsure which wire to cut, he only seems to be looking for the right wire. From the get go, you can tell he either has a death wish or an addiction to adrenaline...or both. Either way, Sanborn and Eldridge aren't too happy about it and that leads to some entertaining and tense interactions with them throughout.

The seeming ease of the first disposal doesn't mean that everything is a walk in the park. There are different circumstances and locales during the film and it always stays fresh. I don't want to give away details, but let's just say you won't be bored, you might be disgusted once or twice, but boredom won't factor in, trust me.

A movie in which any character could die at any minute is only as good as its characters and that's what makes this film stand out. The three main soldiers are not mindless, bland grunts. They are characters. I already mentioned James and his need for a rush or death. Tie that in with his interactions with the team and you have a realistic character on your hands. Sanborn tries to be the sane, balanced character of the group, constantly arguing with James about procedure and risking all their lives, but he has more going on than that. He has ambitions and he certainly want to survive. And then there's Eldridge, by far the most troubled of the group. He has "sessions" with a base doctor about how scared he is of death. So you know, since this is a war film, that he's going to have to deal with that fear quite regularly. Throw these three guys together and the film writes itself.

The other factor that raises this film from the good category into greatness is director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days). She creates tension as well as any director out there. I know I may sound like a broken record with all this tension and nerve talk since that was a focus of my review of Inglourious Basterds, but I cannot help it. It just so happens that the last two films I've seen are filled with amazingly tense moments. With The Hurt Locker, it's more than just the possibility of an instant explosion (don't get me wrong, that tension is obviously there), it's also the setting. IEDs can be hidden under any pile of trash so when Sgt. James is walking in a garbage strewn street, it might as well be a minefield, and Bigelow frames to shot to show it as such. The director also knows when to cut to the many bystanders during each disposal scene. In the Iraq setting, who can tell the difference between an innocent onlooker and a terrorist, especially when normal devices like cell phones can be used to detonate the bomb? Bigelow uses all of these elements to eat at the nerves of the viewer. She also films explosions quite well, showing the gritty details without making it seem gratuitous.

I want to mention a few minor details regarding the year of the film before I wrap up. As I wrote above, the version I saw set the movie in 2004. But I have read on message boards that the version people saw in Canada and New York did not have the year at the beginning. Some have claimed that setting the movie five years in the past somehow lessens the political aspect of the film. If it's about the past, then it's not a comment on the war right now or something. If that's the case I don't think it works, especially since the movie ignores political views. There are no questions about whether or not the war is justified, there's only the theme (mentioned in the opening line) that war is like a drug. Apply whatever political meaning you want out of that idea; the point is the film itself doesn't make any decisions for you. Political or not, the year is an issue and I do believe was added by the studio because it creates a few mistakes. First off, a soldier mentions youtube, which wasn't around until 2005 (I know, I know, I thought it had been around longer myself, but I looked it up: February 2005). Secondly, a soldier is seen playing the Xbox 360 game "Gears of War" which wasn't released until 2006. To be honest, none of this occurred to me while I was watching the film, but I know that stuff like that bothers some people, so just know that the year may have been a late addition by the studio.

All of that political/what year crap aside, this is a film worth watching and if it does get some nominations (hopefully for director, actor, and picture) it certainly deserves them. I want to point out, though, that depressing and tense though the film may be, it is also quite entertaining. There is plenty of action aside from bomb disposal (I thought the sniper scene was great) and the cameos from David Morse and Ralph Fiennes are a lot of fun. If The Hurt Locker makes its way to a theater near you, check it out. If not, at least check it out on DVD, you won't be sorry.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds"

Inglourious Basterds - Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, and Melanie Laurent - Rated R

Tarantino is in top form with this one.

Inglourious Basterds, the latest from Quentin Tarantino, is exactly what you would expect from the director of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. The stylish World War II Nazi hunting movie is tense, violent, slow burning, hilarious, and jaw dropping. While this might be what a Tarantino fan would always expect, it's not necessarily the film that the previews promised. I've noticed more and more lately that ads for movies either give everything away, or are cut in such a way that they seem to be showcasing completely different films. The latter is the case with Basterds. If you saw the preview, you would expect that this is a Brad Pitt film. If you have to name a star of the film, I suppose you would say it was Pitt, but he's actually in less than half of the film.

The film starts in Nazi-occupied France. Col. Hans Landa, aka "Jew Hunter," played with equal parts menace and civility by Christoph Waltz, shows up at a dairy farmer's house to see if he is harboring Jews. It is set up by a reference to spaghetti westerns ("Once upon a Nazi-occupied France") and that sets the tone for the entire film. Ennio Morricone music blares as Landa approaches. An extremely tense conversation goes on for nearly fifteen minutes before Landa shows his true intention. That is what is so great about his character and the Oscar-worthy performance. Even though he's pleasant and polite, there's an unsettling undertone in every line of dialogue. This man is good at his job, which is where the Basterds come in.

As Lt. Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt gets to have a blast. His southern drawl is perfect as he talks about "killing NATzees." Some people might be put off by the over the top performance, but I enjoyed it. It's a great counterbalance to Waltz's understated portrayal. The other aspect that keeps the performance from becoming silly is the fact that the film doesn't stay with Aldo and the Basterds. As I said, that opening scene is lengthy as are the other tense scenes in the film that set up new characters and lay out the ground work for plans to take out the top ranks of the Third Reich. It's almost as if Tarantino wanted to lighten things up by going from insanely tense with Landa, to insanely funny with Raine. This might seem uneven to some, but it worked for me.

Viewers might be expecting more of an action film from the previews as well. This is a movie about killing Nazis, after all. But Tarantino has never been an all out action filmmaker and this film, despite the previews loaded with gunshots, is relatively light on the action. That's not to say it's boring, it's just that this film is two and a half hours long and the focus is on the tense buildup that leads to a shootout rather than the shootout itself. Remember, Tarantino's first film (Reservoir Dogs), was about the aftermath of a bank robbery and the robbery itself was never shown. He's interested in what happens before and after, and it makes the action memorable and powerful. In one scene there is a twenty minute set up to a shootout that is less than a minute long. When Tarantino does show violence, though, it is brutal and sometimes shocking. The "Nazi scalps" that Pitt requests in the trailer are provided and Eli Roth, as the "Bear Jew," gets to swing away at a Nazi's head with a baseball bat. Tarantino doesn't cut away for that one. We get to see a crazy-eyed Roth bludgeon the Nazi in sickening detail.

It's all part of Tarantino's style and this is not a typical World War II movie and should certainly not be viewed as such. In fact, looking at this movie in relation to other, more serious, WWII films would make it downright offensive and far too tongue in cheek. For instance, Hitler is a character in the film and I do mean character. To trivialize one of the most evil men in the history of the world is quite tricky, but it has happened before. Chaplin poked fun at Hitler in The Great Dictator and comic books from that era featured the likes of Captain America fighting the tyrant. If viewed in that light, this film is pitch perfect and you can ignore historical accuracy and have some fun with it (and I mean completely ignore historical accuracy). People want to see real life evil icons faced with violence and pleasing conclusions, not war trials and deaths in bunkers. Consider Inglourious Basterds as a World War II fantasy film and you probably won't come away offended or angry.

If there is one thing about the film that I took issue with, it wasn't the comical treatment of a serious time period, it was the lack of info given for the Basterds. You get hints at the history of the characters, like Hugo Stiglitz's amusing mini bio, but I wanted each soldier to get his own little story. A few of them don't have any lines, even. I suppose I was expecting more of a Dirty Dozen approach to the Basterds. I'm usually all for ambiguity, like the unexplained intentional misspelling of the group, but I wanted more background from Tarantino on this one. This is only a minor issue I had with this otherwise amazing film.

I'm a strong believer in having the proper expectations for a movie. It can make or break your enjoyment of the film. If you can ignore the previews and go in expecting a Quentin Tarantino film rather than a Brad Pitt movie, then you'll come away very pleased.

I have quite a few more things to get into in no particular order, so here's my addendum to this review:

This is a heavily subtitled movie, so be prepared to read rather than hear most of Tarantino's great dialogue. There is one amusing reference to foreign language early on, though. Landa and the dairy farmer speak French at the start of their conversation, then Landa suggests that they switch to English since they both speak it and his French isn't very good. I always think about the use of English in films that take place in situations where English is not the native tongue. Don't get me wrong, I would much rather hear a movie than read it, but I liked that this movie acknowledged that fact and switched to English. It's also very cool that the use of English in the scene added to the tension.

There are a few amusing references to Tarantino's other work as well. The film is divided into chapters a la Kill Bill, Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel make voice cameos, and he adds text in scenes to point out who some characters are. He throws in little asides as well, my favorite being Hugo Stiglitz's mini bio. I also liked Tarantino factoring in film in the plot as the climax takes place in a movie theater and there are a few conversations about film. Maybe it's him exaggerating the importance of film in society or something, I don't know, but I liked it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"District 9"

District 9 - Directed by Neill Blomkamp, starring Sharlto Copley - Rated R

I'm giving this a Vader. I'm a sucker for great sci-fi.

District 9, the part faux documentary, part straight up sci-fi film, is one of the most enjoyable, compelling, thought provoking films of the year. This is what great science fiction films are all about. There are amazing visuals, the action is brutal and impressive, and there are mirrors held up to humanity.

There's another aspect of sci-fi that is vital, though: the story. District 9 is set in an alternate reality where a giant alien mothership has basically broken down above Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982. The aliens are extracted and put into "temporary" refugee camps. After years of rioting and corporate experiments, it's finally time to move the aliens, or prawns, as they are called in the film, to a new, secluded area. (Note: in the film it is stated that “prawn” is a derogatory term, but they never give an accepted name for the aliens, so I’m sticking with “prawn.”) Enter Wikus (newcomer Sharlto Copley), an overly polite field operative placed in charge of serving the prawns eviction notices. There's no reason to go into much more detail of the plot, suffice it to say that things obviously do not go smoothly during the eviction process. I knew very little about the film before I watched and I think I enjoyed it more because of it, so I don't want to ruin anyone else's time with this film, so I'll get into the world of prawn refugee camps.

This is something quite different for an alien film. The prawns are discovered in their mother ship malnourished and without clear leadership. They don't declare war on the world or anything like that, they just stay in the camps, sifting through garbage. The image of what would normally be a frightening alien chewing on a tire (apparently the prawn love chewing rubber) or crunching into a can of cat food (the prawns' favorite food) is both hilarious and original. Taking the scare factor out of the aliens, but leaving the mystery of how they came to be here is a brilliant move.

The idea of a helpless alien race is interesting enough, but the idea alone won't work on film. It has to look real, and this film looks great. The aliens, who are complete CG, look like they are actually in the environment. Part of that is helped by the documentary style, but the whole film isn't shot like that and the aliens look just as real in a steady shot as they do in a handheld shot. I also want to point out that while this him has documentary style, it is by no means as shaky as Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project.

Back to the aliens; the design of the alien is a great counterbalance that creates disgust/fear and sympathy. The prawn's mouth of tentacles and spindly body give a creepy quality, but the eyes show feelings and give the alien's, dare I say, humanity.

The humanity of the aliens is what sets this film apart from your typical "when aliens attack" movie. Believe it or not, by the end of this film, you will probably be rooting for the aliens. That's not to say that humans are shown to be hatemongers and evil profiteers of another race's misery. Well, some are, like the weapon manufacturing corporation MNU (Multi-National United), who are only dealing with the refugee camps in an attempt to master alien weapon technology (which can only be used by the prawns). But I didn't sympathize with the aliens just because some of the human characters were evil. I was rooting for the prawns because the movie makes actual characters out of a few of them and their goal was more compelling to me than MNU's. It also helps that the prawns are given human names, like Christopher Johnson, even though they are incapable of speaking human languages. Little touches like that make me love this film.

The humanity and character qualities of the aliens are great, but this film still has a human as the main character. Wikus represents the middleground of prawns and humans. Early on, he's nice and all, but there's a kind of evil quality in the way that he treats the aliens. He seems to enjoy killing prawn fetuses far too much, laughing as they burn, and giving an unplugged feeding tube to a soldier as a souvenir of his "first abortion." So he's nice, but creepy. He changes a bit after experiencing life with the aliens (once again, I don't want to get specific) and he starts to see the humanity, or human-like qualities, of the prawns. Wikus basically represents the viewer's progression while watching the movie. At first, the prawns are kind of funny and pathetic and you don't really care if one of them gets shot during the evictions because it's an alien. But somewhere in the middle, you realize that the prawns are not nameless masses who live only to dig through garbage. They have personalities, they have children, and they have feelings.

This is where we get to the mirror held up to society. Obviously, this film offers a viewpoint on how refugees are treated in our world. At one point, a person being interviewed says, "We don't want them here. They must go. I don't know where. Just go." This is the mentality many people have when foreigners enter their land en masse. If people would witness the conditions that most refugees live in, they might think twice about hating them. But that's not the point of the film, so don't think that this sci-fi action movie is trying to preach to you. District 9 just has elements that make you think. It doesn't try to tell you what to think. That's the marking of a great film to me; a film that gives you something to discuss after it's over other than how cool it was when that guy got disintegrated. Although it is pretty cool when people get disintegrated in this movie.

District 9 attempts to be many things: creepy (an experiment/autopsy lab scene is chilling), funny (cat food), shocking (alien abortion and interspecies prostitution), thrilling (when the alien weapons first get used), heart breaking (Wikus' relationship with his wife), and thought provoking (the treatment of refugees). It succeeds on all accounts. But if you want a simple, succinct review of the movie, here goes. District 9 is just plain awesome.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"World's Greatest Dad"

World's Greatest Dad - Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, starring Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, and Alexie Gilmore - Rated R

Dark, messed up, and quite funny, just like Chigurh

I feel like a real critic; I was able to watch this movie before it comes out in theaters. Granted, I watched through Amazon On Demand and it doesn't look like it's going to get a very wide release, but I still feel special. I will say this, though, this movie deserves a wide audience because it is funny and it has dramatic elements that feel real...dark, but real.

I can't say exactly what makes World's Greatest Dad dark because that would truly spoil quite a shocking element a half hour or so in and I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of that. So I'm going to be very vague for the first part of this review, then I'll get into spoilers so I can say what I really felt about it.

I'm usually not a fan of Robin Williams. I've never found his normal comedic performances to be very funny. I like a few of his movies, don't get me wrong, but lately he's come off as more annoying than funny. That said, I have enjoyed his dark turns here and there (Death to Smoochy and Insomnia). This role requires both darkness and comedy.

Williams plays Lance Clayton, a failed author who has settled for a career teaching an extremely unpopular high school poetry class. To top it off, his son, Kyle (Sabara, aka the kid from Spy Kids), is an extreme pervert who seems to hate everyone, especially his dad. That's about as far as I can get into the plot without ruining it, so I'll just keep on with my mysterious review for now.

Without getting into it, this movie is hilarious at times. Williams always works best (in my opinion) when his vocabulary is free and he is able to play a role in which he says hateful things to a family member. My favorite interaction (from the trailer) involves a neighbor saying Kyle is like a zombie, to which Williams replies, "I wish. I like zombies." His delivery is perfect in that line and throughout. He truly conveys a defeated man who has given up playing the "happy" dad character. But he still tries at times, which makes him a sympathetic character. Kyle is so hateful and spoiled, but Williams still tries to win his love, all to no avail.

Adding to the misery is his secret girlfriend Claire (Gilmore), a fellow teacher who wants to keep out of the public eye, who starts to take a liking to the more popular creative writing teacher at school (she even goes out in public with him. The most heartbreaking moment occurs when Lance is eating lunch at the mall with his son. He looks at the escalator and sees Claire laughing it up with the other teacher. Then his son ditches him to go try out a new computer with his only friend rather than going to the movies with Lance. Kyle's friend asks Lance what he's going to do when they leave. He sighs and tells him that he'll probably just go to the movies by himself. At this point, my heart is going out to Williams. I've always felt bad for the people I see in the theater sitting by themselves. I start to wonder if they have no friends, and if they do, why wouldn't their friends take the time to check out a movie with them? It's depressing. That's probably not the case with all lone theatergoers, but it's certainly the case with Williams in this situation and it really struck me as realistic and sad. But that's all I can say about that without getting into spoilers. So, from here on out...SPOILERS.

Things change for Lance shortly after the low point at the movies. His son, who he had caught masturbating while choking himself earlier in the film, accidentally kills himself during the act. Lance, not wanting his son to be remembered for such an act (and probably not wanting the embarrassment for himself), gets ride of the evidence, hangs his son's corpse in the closet, and writes a touching suicide note. This turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to him (hence the darkness I mentioned earlier). The note gets published, along with "Kyle's" journal, and Lance is suddenly riding high. His class is now popular, publishers are talking to him, and all the kids at school, who used to shun and downright hate Kyle, embrace Kyle's legacy and talk about how close they were to him.

This is what makes this film really interesting. Not only is the death and subsequent good fortune quite an original shock, it also makes you genuinely question whether or not Lance has made an immoral choice. Students are telling him how their lives have changed, a school psychiatrist thinks the writing has saved other students, and things are going great for everyone in general. Is a lie evil when so much good comes of it? That is the question that the bulk of the movie deals with, and it's a thought provoking one at that. After watching the film, I still cannot say which way I lean regarding Lance's lie. I can tell you one thing, though: the movie isn't afraid of staying with the humor after this questionable choice is made, and I applaud Bobcat Goldthwait for that.

Goldthwait's recent directorial effort, Stay (or Sleeping Dogs Lie) was certainly edgy, but it didn't strike me as funny or dramatic. He seems to have found his mark with this one. Goldthwait's writing is great, and he's showing promise as a filmmaker as well. There are a few interesting shots here and there, and the man knows how to pick a good song to set a montage to. Sure, he might enjoy the montages a bit too much (I think there are about four of them), but they weren't really unnecessary, they just bordered on redundancy. Hopefully this film will keep him in business as a director, because I think he's capable of getting better.

World's Greatest Dad probably isn't for everyone (some may become disgusted early on and simply turn it off), but if you're into original films and you're willing to laugh when you should be shocked and disgusted, you should have a great time with this. I know I did.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"G.I. JOE: The Rise of Cobra"

G.I. JOE: The Rise of Cobra - Directed by Stephen Sommers, starring Channing Tatum, Dennis Quaid, Marlon Wayans, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sienna Miller, and Christopher Eccleston - Rated PG-13

The Evil Kurgan only wants violence and action...and this movie has both in droves.

G.I. JOE: The Rise of the Cobra is one of the last big budget action movies of the summer and, if not taken seriously, can be quite enjoyable. The biggest part of the movie you should not take seriously is the plot. This is a movie based on a toy, after all. I don't want to go into pointless detail about the plot, so I'll keep it short. A new weapon technology ("nanomites," or little metal bugs that can destroy anything, much like in the recent The Day the Earth Stood Still remake) have been introduced to the world and two rival groups start to fight over their possession. Now add about $170 million in real and CG explosions and you have G.I. JOE.

I tried to keep my head out of this movie as much as possible because I went to see it just for the action. But I couldn't help but notice a few times that the future that this film takes place in is quite miserable and maybe not worth saving, even though all the characters seem oblivious to this. War is constant (which is true today), but it's less distinguishable who is fighting who. The soldiers of G.I. JOE certainly have an American swagger, but many of them are from different countries, making them more of a United Nations strike force. The war may be everlasting and ambiguous, but that hasn't stopped these future scientists from working hard on holograms. In the first twenty minutes of the film, it seems like every other character is being projected by hologram, a gimmick that grew pointless very quickly. I suppose that describes the world of this film the best: misery and death overshadowed by ambitious technology. I stopped thinking like this early on, though, because ninjas were fighting onscreen.

This brings me to the action. Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, Van Helsing) has found the best formula for the summer action movie: when the story becomes complicated or ridiculous, amp up the action. It worked for me. Anytime I was wondering why McCullen (aka Destro) had such a byzantine plan, there would be a fight scene between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (two ninjas who have been fighting each other since childhood). That was all I needed to forget about the problems with the story. The action is pretty good, for the most part. It's hectic, but it's not so fast that you can't tell what's going on. The CG (which I was worried about based on the previews) turned out to be decent, though some of the underwater battles and accelerator suit stuff looked goofy at times. I feel the need to point out that even though this movie is based on a series of toys, that doesn't mean it's aimed at small children. I thought a lot of the violence was pushing the rated R level; people getting stabbed in the face, heads exploding, and a huge body count.

The action is the main aspect of this film, but the filmmakers explored two other elements that helped this film out immensely. First, they made this a true ensemble film. No one character really stands out as the star. Sure, you have the notable characters of Duke, General Hawk, Cobra Commander, Ripcord, Baroness, etc. But I wouldn't say that any of them get much more screen time than the other. That is a blessing, since these characters would probably become annoying if in large doses. They are all one-note, but since they are all different notes, it balances out. The second element that makes this movie stand out is that they actually focused on character development. It's not profound or anything, but it was interesting to see a movie like this go to flashbacks from multiple perspectives to explain why some of these characters are holding grudges against each other. This makes the action mean something for a change. The ninja showdown is still cool even if I have no idea why they hate each other, but it's much better and I actually care who wins when I get information about each fighter through flashbacks.

I mentioned the ensemble aspect, so I should mention the actors as well. Actors in a movie like this really only need to make sure that they do not end up as jokes. I wasn't blown away by any of them, but none of the actors did a particularly bad job, either. The brightest point of the cast is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who gets to ham it up with a great evil voice as Cobra Commander (I'm willing to bet that behind that oxygen mask, he had a huge smile on his face the whole time). The low point is Christopher Eccleston as Destro, but that's only because I found him annoying as the villain in the Gone in 60 Seconds remake, and he's playing pretty much the same character in this.

I haven't made any comparisons to the toys themselves or the cartoon series throughout this review because I didn't want to turn this into a fanboy comparison/rant and I was never a fan of the cartoon or toys anyway (I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan). But I did notice a few references for the fans that even I understood, like the mention of a "kung fu grip" and the line, "knowing is half the battle." I did watch this with someone who grew up with the toys and the cartoon and he seemed okay with the movie, though I'm sure there are some fanboys and "purists" out there who are busy denouncing this movie as a travesty on the internet message boards as you read this.

All in all, G.I. JOE is a fast paced action film that doesn't try to make a statement about war (if anything it glorifies it) and certainly tries to stay away from commentary on America, since the soldiers do not necessarily represent the USA in the film. In fact, if they had been completely American, this would have seemed like the live action version of Team America: World Police. It still kind of is, but that's not really a bad thing if you're in the mood for an action movie. And that's what G.I. JOE is: an unapologetic futuristic war movie that never lets you catch your breath, and that's fine by me.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: The Anti-Shia LaBeouf

It occurred to me recently that former child actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Third Rock from the Sun") and Shia LaBeouf ("Even Stevens") have chosen career paths that are polar opposites. Gordon-Levitt has gone the respectable route with the recent 500 Days of Summer (which I look forward to watching, but has not out in theaters near me), and the critically acclaimed Brick and The Lookout. I found his performance in Killshot to be quite impressive as well. He seems to be searching for quality roles in low budget films and it has worked. His appearance in G.I.Joe is questionable, but I'll wait to see it before I cast judgment on him. Regardless of his upcoming big budget film, Gordon-Levitt has become a solid actor who adds prestige to any picture he is involved in.

LeBeouf, on the other hand, has starred in one big budget movie after another, usually playing clich├ęd or completely bland characters that require him to react to a green screen. But this has led to massive success. I must admit, I wanted to hate this guy from the get-go, but his unoffensive, plain characters are almost impossible to hate. The worst I can say is that I feel indifferent about each character he plays. Can anyone honestly say they cared about what happened to Sam Witwicky or Mutt Williams. To me, those two characters just got in the way of the action. This is not to say that I haven't enjoyed LaBeouf's movies. I enjoyed both Transformers movies for what they were (loud, hectic action movies) and I am even one of the few people out there that really enjoyed the latest Indiana Jones. Labeouf was amusing in his comedic side roles in other big budget films as well (Constantine and I, Robot), but there is really nothing to this guy. There are plenty of lesser known actors who could play the goofy, dorky high school kid. That might be the one thing that is keeping him going. He can play a high school kid (like in the unlikely hit movie Disturbia) and he seems sincere when freaks out about his lack of iTunes access and cell phone privileges.

So the younger crowd might be able to identify with him on a technological level, but he won't stay young forever, and that is obviously becoming a problem. LaBeouf went with a more adult type role in Eagle Eye (though he was a childish, scared adult) and that didn't turn out nearly as well as Transformers. He is about to hit a major brick wall: adulthood. Joseph Gordon-Levitt saw this coming a mile away and has been working on it for the past few years.

Take Brick, for instance. This is a film noir set in a high school. Gordon-Levitt takes the high school role, but he gets to play it like he's Bogart as Sam Spade. He acknowledges that he's not an adult, but he can act like one at least. Gordon-Levitt knows that he looks young, but that doesn't mean his characters have to act like it. The Lookout is another prime example of this. He plays a brain damaged (memory loss) former high school star athlete who gets caught up in a bank robbery scheme. This was his major step out into film adulthood. He followed this with a quality performance in Stop Loss, followed by a great turn as a redneck stick up man in the under seen Killshot. In Killshot, there is certainly an immature side to his character, but I would hardly consider him a high school kid. If anything, Gordon-Levitt played a kid who probably dropped out of school by the time he was sixteen. Now he is Cobra Commander and even if G.I.Joe turns out to be garbage, I doubt that people will claim that Gordon-Levitt is the problem.

I am not just comparing these two actors side by side because they both started out as child actors, though. I feel that these two actors represent two sides of American youth. The popular kids in school and the trendy people who don't follow movies too closely probably identify with LaBeouf because it's easy. The dorks and movie buffs out there shrug off LaBeouf (or downright hate him) and side with Gordon-Levitt because of his acting ability and his character decisions. I'm willing to bet that the people who identify with LaBeouf don't even know who Joseph Gordon-Levitt is. Me, I'm proud to be part of the dorks and geeks. I'm just a bit worried that Gordon-Levitt is entering LaBeouf land with Cobra Commander. But I'm sure it's just a bump in the road on his way to continued and more prominent critical success.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Funny People"

Funny People - Directed by Judd Apatow, starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Leslie Mann - Rated R

The evil Kurgan would've rather watched a comedy, but he'll settle for this dramedy.

Funny People, marketed as an Adam Sandler comedy "from the same director that brought you Knocked Up and The Forty-Year Old Virgin, is more of a drama than knee slapping comedy. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie. It just means that if you are going into this film expecting to laugh throughout the 146-minute runtime, then you are going to be very disappointed (as a few audience members at the showing I went to were). I can't really fault the movie for taking a serious tone, but I can fault the movie studio for trying to sell this as a complete comedy. Once I got past the idea that I was not supposed to laughing, I started to enjoy this heartfelt film.

The movie is about George Simmons (Sandler), a lonely comedian/movie star who finds out he is dying. George decides to start doing stand up comedy before he dies and he comes across a young talent, Ira (Seth Rogen), who he hires to write jokes, fetch Diet Cokes, drive him around, and talk him to sleep. Usually dying people does not equal comedy, and that doesn't change with this film. There are some depressing moments in this film as we see George undergo treatments and tests while trying to keep his disease a secret.

It's not all misery and death, though. This is still a movie about comedians. I'm particular about stand up comedy and I usually don't enjoy it, but some of the routines are quite funny in this. But fair warning: this film is rated R for a reason and all of the stand up jokes and pretty much every comedic element in the film is extremely dirty stuff. This is what makes the film a bit strange. One second you have a touching moment between George and his long lost love (Leslie Mann), the next there's a comedic bit about male reproductive organs (which is the movie's go to subject for comedy). I suppose this combination of R-rated comedy and straight forward drama worked for me, but I think it works only because of the characters and the actors.

Every character in this film is surprisingly realistic. George is not exactly a likable guy, but he's not over the top in his selfishness. Sandler does an excellent job of conveying misery in this film and he really proves that he's capable of being a dramatic actor (which I completely support, if Zohan is his idea of being funny). Seth Rogen continues to impress and it's great to see him play a character like Ira, who is gullible, friendly, and easily impressed, which is much different than Rogen's usually sarcastic and cynical characters. The supporting cast provides plenty of laughs. Jonah Hill is on familiar ground, but he's still funny. Jason Schwartzman is funny as a slightly famous sitcom star. Eric Bana has a few moments as an excitable Australian. And the celebrity cameos provide plenty of laughs from the likes of Andy Dick, Eminem, Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman, etc.

The laughs provided from the supporting cast are few and far between. But I think that the interactions between Sandler and Rogen make up for it. I was interested in how things would end up for everyone involved. If that interest isn't there, however, then you're going to find yourself yawning. This is quite a lengthy movie and even though it held my interest, I still felt that it was about twenty minutes too long. I've had this problem with other Apatow films as well. The man needs to learn how to trim the fat in the editing room.

Funny People isn't always funny (which is the ironic joke of the title), but it has realistic characters in serious, dramatic situations. That might not sound like what's expected in an Apatow movie, but if you can get past your expectations, and have a bit of patience, then you should enjoy this.

*I want to get into a SPOILER element that has been bothering me ever since I saw the first full trailer for this film. The trailer reveals that Adam Sandler's character gets better. At the time, I read that that wasn't exactly a spoiler and it happens relatively early in the film. While it's certainly not something that happens at the end of the film, I still think it was a bit ridiculous that they would put that plot element in the previews. I didn't check my watch or anything, but it seemed like Sandler's character didn't get better until the second half of the movie. But I watched for an hour or so just waiting for him to get better. I think that the dying plot element would have worked much better if I had gone into the movie thinking the entire film was about his struggle, then be surprised when he gets better and the movie keeps going. Maybe it's not a big deal, but I thought it was a mistake to give so much away in the preview for this.

I wanted to write a bit more about Sandler's character, well, his character's career, anyway. George makes idiotic movies like Merman, Re-do, My Best Friend Is a Robot, etc. I thought the posters were kind of funny, but I expected the clips they show in the movie to be funnier, but they all fell a little flat. Maybe it's because they all look like films that Sandler might actually make. I expected bigger laughs from the fake movies, though.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the other supporting stars of this film: T-shirts. It seems like every character in this film has an extensive collection of T-shirts referencing comedy, music, film, etc. and each shirt is featured prominently. Not a complaint or anything, it's just something that stuck out to me. Maybe it was because each T-shirt looked brand new. I don't know.