Friday, August 28, 2009

A Weekend Wasting...

No movies this weekend. The big releases today are Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock which seems mildly amusing (by that I mean, I can wait until a DVD release), and two torture porn horror flicks: Rob Zombie's diabolical redress of Halloween 2, and the 3-D film The Final Destination. I don't really forecast much box office success for Woodstock--did anybody really want to see a historical fiction about Woodstock starring Demitri Martin? That said, it's obvious that the only true contenders for winning the weekend will be one of the two sadistic bloodbaths.

We love to watch beautiful people suffer horrific deaths...

I don't fault Rob Zombie for wanting to make his own kind of film, I'll just say that I don't care to see it. I do, on the other hand, have a huge problem with the latest Final Destination which is a rather lazy recycling of plot. It is literally point-for-point the same film as the previous film with added 3-D technology, less-famous actors, and a "The" slapped on the front of it. Seriously, studio heads are laughing at the fact that all they have to do is place a useless word in front of the old title, and people will think they've created a completely different film. It's hard not to argue that the film is only a guise to gouge more money out of audiences for 3-D glasses. Instead of feeding the shitty-movie-machine, I think I'll rather stay home.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Great Films: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

The political thriller genre has become stumped in a field of mediocrity recently, never able to escape the disease of recycled plot points and predictability. To be fair, it’s hard to be exceptional within that specific category of films without being a bit foggy and convoluted, since most audience members don’t possess the political savvy to truly understand all of the concepts within the story. The Manchurian Candidate pulls off the perfect balance between intelligence and exuberance, while containing one of the smartest screenplays ever written, and because of that, it is the beacon of political thrillers, unmatched by any movie before or since.

The film tells the story of a captured platoon of American GIs during The Korean War. Upon return to the United States, one member of the platoon, Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) receives the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic escape and rescue of his fellow soldiers. Raymond comes home to cheers, and is greeted by his meddling mother (Angela Lansbury) and his dim-witted step-father Sen. Johnny Iselin (James Gregory). Possessing an icy personality, and a strong disdain for both his mother and her husband, Raymond quickly decides to work for the newspaper for Johnny's biggest journalistic rival.

Maj. Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), also a member of Raymond's platoon, is able to find a job within the military upon his return, but he is plagued by terrible nightmares, where he's sitting with his fellow soldiers (and Raymond) amongst a group of older women discussing horticulture. As the dream continues, though, the older women turn into Korean political scientists, discussing how they have successfully brainwashed the entire platoon. The dream always end the same way: Raymond Shaw gets out of his seat, and murders two of his fellow soldiers--mysteriously enough, the only two soldiers who did not survive capture. Marco details his dreams to the military, but after little investigation, they conclude simply that he is suffering from a delayed Post-Traumatic Stress disorder, and send him to work in the Public Relations department, so he can relax.

Around the same time, Raymond Shaw begins to be greeted by sinister phone calls, asking him to play Solitaire. Raymond plays until he encounters a red Queen, and after that, he has become activated to enforce the murders of a number of inconspicuous puppet-masters with obvious political agendas. Of course, Raymond is never consciously aware of his violent deeds, and because of that, his brain-washers see him as the perfect weapon. Still tormented by dreams, Marco sees Raymond Shaw, and as he slowly begins to befriend Raymond, he begins to discover what Raymond is programmed to do. The climax of the plan is unknown to Marco, though, and working against the clock, he attempts to save Raymond from his discreet controllers before Raymond executes something horrible.

Today, it seems almost impossible that the film's original audiences in the early 1960's were not too fond of it. All sorts of things are thrown at the viewers: hypnosis, intrigue, tension, and one of the very first choreographed fight scenes in a non-martial arts film. It's sufficient to mention that many of the things that director John Frankenheimer displays on the screen were unlike anything ever seen in American cinemas. Sure, The Manchurian Candidate was not the first movie to address McCarthy-era paranoia, but it's the manner in which the film deals with this particularly mistrustful moment in our country's history; the film throws it themes around almost playfully, to the point that many film enthusiasts at the time (like, for example, The New Yorker's Pauline Kael) to consider the movie a farce or a satire.

Is The Manchurian Candidate a farce or satire? I don't think so, but I also don't think that it does a wonderful film any good to box it into any particular corner of genre or classification. It's pretty obvious that the political aspects of the film generate the most disinterest, because it is only used to set up the curious plot points of brainwashing and corruption. It's the characters, of which there are many, that really make this film fascinating. Amongst Shaw, Marco, and Shaw's Mother, there is Josie, Raymond's lover; Rosie, Marco's newly-acquainted girlfriend; and also Thomas Jordan, a senator, Josie's father, and Johnny Iselin's main political rival.

All of them, in their own particular way, enrich this monumental film. They best represent the film's moral ambiguity, which is another reason why the film has only become popular within recent decades. No character, no matter how delicate or ferocious is assumed innocent or fragile, and not till the film's rising climax (which, despite the film's age, I won't reveal here, since it is still one of cinema's most under-viewed classics) do any of them become clear in their motives. You could say that the film goes out of its way to trick you, but I give George Axelrod's script a lot more credit than that.

As two anguished military officers, both Harvey and Sinatra are spectacular. Lawrence Harvey's Raymond Shaw is parts unfeeling bastard, and parts socially-awkward, sympathetic figure. Sinatra, though never the best-formed actor throughout his work in films, uses his blue-eyed charm to its fullest potential to plug life into the otherwise weary Maj. Marco. Of course, the most infamous performance in the film belongs to the great Angela Lansbury, who invests such conniving schemes and foul play into Mrs. Iselin that in her intermittent moments, she grasps the screen absolutely. Nominated for an Academy Award, Lansbury's memorable performance creates of the best, most layered movie villains of all time.

I believe The Manchurian Candidate gets its proper due these days, though its exclusion from AFI's most recent 100 American Films list was quite troubling (seeing as they were able to make room for Titanic, after all). What's not a debate, though, is The Manchurian Candidate's unbelievable influence on cinema afterward. Unfortunately, most contemporary moviegoers will think of the unparalleled remake in 2004, by the usually superb director Jonathon Demme. The 2004 film was uninteresting in all of the ways the original was special, and hope is that despite the remake's atrociousness, it compelled many to see the original.

What unfolds in the film's complex and clever conclusion is the work of a first-rate political strategist, and it does what few movie endings are able to do: it actually surprises you. Not all of the characters get what they deserve, but some do. That said, a resolution involving anything different from the film's consistent murky themes would have been a disappointment, indeed. Even today, The Manchurian Candidate stands as one of the more brilliantly executed suspense films of all time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

25 Great Actors

A response to Nathaniel (from The Film Experience), who asked all web film fanatics to create a sporadic, subjective list of their twenty-five favorite actors. Here are mine:

Woody Allen
Alec Baldwin
Humphrey Bogart
Steve Buscemi
Joseph Cotten

Tom Cruise
John Cusack
Matt Damon
Jeff Daniels
Daniel Day-Lewis

Robert DeNiro
Ralph Fiennes
Morgan Freeman
Paul Giamatti
Cary Grant

Dustin Hoffman
Phillip Seymour Hoffman
William Holden
Jack Lemmon
William H. Macy

Jack Nicholson
Al Pacino
Sean Penn
James Stewart
Orson Welles

**Note to readers: Don't try to create collages if you don't have Photoshop. The result is not nearly as satisfying as you'd expect. Sigh...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Tarantino Divide

With the release of Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds, he has received a flood of divisive responses with some seeing the film as an invigorating piece of tour-de-force filmmaking (like me), and others dismissing it as an interminable film with barbarous violence and a confusing focus: "Are we watching farce or a serious attempt to re-imagine the Second World War?". Do I feel that I have to defend Tarantino and his new movie? Not at all, but I think it's important to state that Inglourious Basterds--like almost all of his movies--is made to create a division between fanboys and haters, but overall, Tarantino still created an exceptional film.

**Spoilers Will Most Likely Await Further Down**

One of the main complaints that people have of Basterds is that it simply cannot make up its own mind as to whether or not it takes itself seriously. Quite frankly, I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that it's quite obvious that Tarantino was not attempting to create a World War II film with true gravitas, but a spaghetti western that happens to take place in Nazi-occupied France. If you're having trouble deciding whether or not Basterds is farce (a film, mind you, which supposes that World War II ended in a French cinema by eight suicide bombers, and has Hitler being murdered via machine gun), then perhaps you're simply not watching the correct movie.

I will agree with some critics that the desensitized nature American audiences have toward brutal violence is a bit disturbing. I did cringe when audiences hooted and cheered when the character Sgt. Donny Donowitz (played by Eli Roth), beats a Nazi with a baseball bat to the point that his face is nothing but pulp, but there are many moments when Tarantino reflects our own sadism against us.

The bat-wielding Donny Donowitz.

In the film's climax, important members of the Nazi party sit in a cinema, laughing and cheering as they watch a film where Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (played by Daniel Brühl) eagerly snipes away at three-hundred American soldiers, one by one. Then, in a plan set up by the Jewish cinema owner Shosanna (played by Mélanie Laurent), a mountain of flammable 35mm film is lit, incinerating the entire theater, while the Nazis are locked in. As they desperately attempt to escape, Shosanna presents her own face on the screen and laughs at their terror.

I won't presume to know what Tarantino was trying to say in that scene, but I will state what I obviously saw: when the audience was sentenced into watching Nazis laugh at the countless murders of American soldiers, they sat with tense, stone faces. Only when the Basterds came in, and the fire was set did the audience release their animosity, and re-enter the energy of the movie. The film mirrored our own sadism, and for me, created an unforgettably ironic theater atmosphere in which people, perhaps unknowingly, were forced to face their own demented views of violence.

The face of this reflection is Col. Hans Landa (the f
antastic Christoph Waltz), who is easily the film's most delightful character, even though he is a Nazi detective better known as the Jew Hunter. Some may remember that I discarded last year's The Reader because it asked us to feel sympathy for a Nazi, which is all but impossible. Tarantino doesn't ask us to feel sympathy for Landa, but he does dare us to be swayed by his charm, and many find this to be a bad thing. Nazis will always be the bad guys, some think; and even though Landa is the de-facto "bad guy", he is probably the most likable person to watch in the movie.

Hans Landa: A Misunderstood Man

Audiences aren't usually entertained by moral ambiguity, but Quentin Tarantino has always been successful despite this. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is filled with the same paradox in which the protagonists are murderers, gangsters, drug-addicts, etc. He's been accused at various times of glorifying violence, even though I feel he has always glorified the characters, and not their actions. It's been a rather grand debate ever since Tarantino has appeared on the scene, but no matter how you feel about the films themselves and their content, it's rather difficult to make the case that they aren't some of the more innovative films of the last two decades. It's probably better to be divisive than to be mediocre.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Trailer Watch: Avatar

Is it fair that I would probably have no interest in this movie whatsoever if James Cameron wasn't involved? Seriously, stick any other director onto this project, and I would say that this looks rather silly, and quite frankly, like a video game commercial. That said, it's widely known that Cameron's talent for creating alternate worlds is unmatched, and with Avatar, it seems like he is undertaking one of his most ambitious projects. It is supposedly about an epic battle between humans and a mutant semi-human avatars, though the preview doesn't seem to document any of this. No matter how much the trailer makes me squirm (those blue avatar people are spectacularly under-created, no?), I will still be going to see this film come Christmas time.

Inglourious Basterds (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino


As evidenced by the title of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds, not even the strict confinements of grammar and spelling can contain the eccentric filmmaker. Harbored lately, Basterds is Tarantino's first full film since 2004's Kill Bill Vol. 2 (you'll remember he co-directed the Grindhouse film with Robert Rodriguez in 2007). Always hip to conquer any genre he wishes, Tarantino now turns his eye toward World War II, though it probably isn't the World War II you learned about in high school. Instead, Tarantino shows us the war through the eyes of three distinctly charismatic and idiosyncratic characters.

The first is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz--Best Actor winner at the Cannes Film Festival), a Nazi detective who's better known by his nickname: the Jew Hunter. Known for his charm, Landa has a talent for searching out Jews, and tasteful liking for killing them. The film opens with a wondrously-wordy scene in which Landa enters into the home of a French farmer whom he believes is hiding Jews. Never once does he udder a threatening word, but there is always the look of menace hiding deep within his eyes. With swift efficiency, Landa breaks down the farmer and finds the Jews where they are promptly executed.

That is, except for one: Shosanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent). She is able to out-run Landa after her entire family is massacred, and years later she has been able to make a living in Paris running a small cinema. Free from the Nazis, and now under the gentile pseudonym of Emmanuelle, Shosanna has found a respectable and safe living, that is until she captures the eye and heart of a Third Reich war hero, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller insists that she accompany him to various Nazi gatherings, where she is once again face-to-face with Landa.

The other imp
ortant character is American Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who is the head of a special military battalion named "The Basterds". Consisting of eight men, all Jewish, their missions comprise of finding Nazis and murdering them cruelly. Raine himself has his own sadistic requirement: he insists that all encountered dead Nazis shall be scalped, and all living Nazis will have a swastika carved into their forehead. When the Basterds hear that a film premiere will be held harboring numerous key members of the Third Reich, they hope to blow it up.

Christoph Waltz as the wonderfully evil Col. Hans Landa

Many connections are made: the premiere is being held at Shosanna's theater, the film itself is based on Zoller's life, etc., but Tarantino is working something crafty here. Many Americans have made better WWII films, but none of them have been anything like this. It's not that Tarantino doesn't care about the real history of this country's most idealized war, it's just that it's more convenient for his characters if things happen in a fairly different way. Authenticity be damned, Tarantino's version makes for a much more entertaining movie.

Not that any of this is surprising, Tarantino has never made conventional films, and with each consecutive film, there seems to be an even bolder, more ambitious turn. There are the usual aspects of the Tarantino model: fantastic dialogue, unbelievably memorable characters, but most importantly, there is always space saved to tip its cap toward cinema itself. It's not an accident that Shosanna runs a cinema; it gives Tarantino the chance to flex his film-dweeb muscles and drop names like Louis B. Mayer and Max Linder. Can anybody else get away with adding a seemingly arbitrary sequence describing how 35mm film is incredibly flammable? There may be a few, but not many.

Oh, but those wonderful words, of which Tarantino seems to have an infinite artillery. When most people think of his films, they ponder sadistic violence, which is fair--his films have always indulged in intense bloodiness and extreme violence. What separates him from the torture porn exploitation artists like Eli Roth (who I only mention because he happens to have a major role in this film as one of the Basterds)? What makes Tarantino exceptional is his unmatched gift for words, and how they are able to create characters so wonderfully mannered, that they never fully divulge into caricature--though they come close.

Always known to have a gift with actors, Inglourious Basterds generates a handful of wonderful performances. Pitt's Aldo Raine is a comical farce of American arrogance and brutish macho-ness. Not to mention, it's a perfect example of how Pitt is at his best when he is at his silliest. French actress
Mélanie Laurent displays all kinds of fear, attraction, and vengeance-fueled anger, and underplays it all perfectly. The film's most exciting performance comes from Christoph Waltz, whose cruel, but calculated Col. Landa is beautiful rendering of exasperating personality veiling overwhelming sadism. Waltz should be looking at an Oscar nomination in late January.

Can a film be great when it's best moments all come within the first twenty-five minutes? Well, Inglourious Basterds seems to prove that it can. Sure the rowdiness occasionally seems campy, and the references to spaghetti westerns and 1940's Film Noir will not be caught by most audience members, but despite it all, Tarantino is able to craft a wonderfully rich screenplay which recreates the phrase "historical fiction". Possessing some of the best dialogue he's ever written, Basterds is a brilliant return to filmmaking from one our most neurotic, but rarest movie directors.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife (***)

Directed by Robert Schwentke


It's hard to have a plot as preposterous as The Time Traveler's Wife and continue to be sincere. Films have tried and failed to make romantic tear-jerkers involving robots, space, and whatnot, but the overall craziness makes it hard for any audience not to giggle in unintentional hilarity. I feel The Time Traveler's Wife manages to succeed where those other films didn't simply because its actors took the story seriously, and through genuine performances, created an effective film about love and what it means to be truly "in the moment".

Based on the best-selling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, the story is about Henry TeDamble (Eric Bana). At the age of six, moments before a car accident took his mother's life, he became unstuck within the time-space continuum, and realized he could travel through time. As he grew older, he learns to accept his impairment, though he never becomes any less unnerved when he randomly disappears to view moments from his past and his future. Other than his father (Arliss Howard), there is no one who he can talk to about his affliction.

That is, until he meets Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams) while working at the library. She gleams a smile at him and asks him to dinner, even though he doesn't even know her. Sitting with her, she tells him that she has known him since she was a little girl, and he came to visit her various times when he was much older. With her, Henry feels safe for one of the few times in his incredibly hectic life, and with little hesitation asks her to marry him--she accepts.

As Clare attempts to endure Henry's peculiar gene deformity, Henry begins to travel back and visit Clare when she's younger, as she said he had. Problems persist when the two try to have children, and a number of miscarriages occur when the fetus begins to time travel out of her uterus (yeah, you read that right). Of course, when they finally do have a daughter, she's a little time traveler as well. It creates a pleasantly poignant scene where Henry meets his daughter (Hailey McCann) before she has even been born.

Rather early in the film, the plot's erratic plausibility pushes the audience into a tight corner where they will either choose to accept the film or not. I don't know whether or not most people will walk away from this film, but I assume they won't. German filmmaker Robert Schwentke deals with the film's rather rapid plot points so delicately, that even the most ludicrous elements stand with feasibility. Perhaps it's strange that most of Henry's friends and loved ones seem so casual about his time traveling, but what would you do?

In a very difficult role, Eric Bana is able to create Henry from something deep inside. There are times when the Australian's American accent sounds a bit like a voice-over talent, but it's Bana that makes The Time Traveler's Wife so compelling. He seems to put a lot of trust in the film's story and the filmmakers behind it, and it adds to his performance which powers what may have otherwise been a very weak motion picture. *Interesting piece of trivia: Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston bought the movie rights to the book before it was even released. I would've been interesting to see that combination in this film.

Rachel McAdams, a young actress who I have great admiration for, was disappointingly stale in her role as the woman who tames the time traveler. She's been much better in lesser films. Other than the obvious, there are few things in the film that make The Time Traveler's Wife anything less than a potent romance with genuine tragedy. It will be discarded quickly by many as nothing more than a sappy, chick flick, and in a way, it is pandering toward an audience which would enjoy that kind of film. I can't help but think, though, about how difficult it is to tell this kind of story, and the fact that it is anything other than mediocre is an accomplishment onto itself.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ponyo (***)

Written and Directed by Hayao Mayazaki


I will admit that I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to Japanese Anime films. Mamoru Oshii's ultra-violent Ghost In The Shell always seemed slow and uninteresting, and even though there is a strong American following for these films, they always seemed strangely archaic to me. Of course, the Japanese take their animated works much more seriously than us Americans do, and they aren't afraid to draw something up specifically for adults. The biggest conundrum for me when it comes to Japanese Anime is the level of animation compared to the added maturity within the storylines. How can the films be more sophisticated than American animation, when the animation itself is so much more unsophisticated?

That said, Hayao Mayazaki is not just any Japanese Anime filmmaker. Many consider him to be the ultimate genius within the genre, and his film Howl's Moving Castle is considered a masterpiece, while 2001's Spirited Away won the Animated Feature Oscar, the only foreign film to ever win that young award. So it makes sense that Mayazaki's newest film, Ponyo, would get the Hollywood treatment. As the film's status grew in Japan, Disney bought the film, and dubbed it over with superstar voices including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, and Liam Neeson. Now, it is in American theaters for many to see.

The film is about a young goldfish who travels up to the land and ends up in the hands of a small boy named Sosuke. Despite the obvious emotional limitations of being a fish, Ponyo begins to openly state her love for Sosuke, and her desire to be a human. This comes as a shock to her father, Fujimoto, who watches her from under and above the water. He hates humans, and sees them only as beings who make waste to the sea. Having tasted human blood, Ponyo's powers become stronger and she is able to grow feet and hands, and transform into a little girl.

Fujimoto's worst fear is realized when Ponyo's transformation disrupts the balance of nature, and causes a dangerous tsunami to blow through Sosuke's small town. Sosuke and his open-minded mother Risa allow Ponyo to stay in their home while the storm rages outside. Ponyo endears the two of them as she is able to use her special powers to start the generator, and turn Sosuke's toy boat into a big enough boat to get around in after the tsunami has settled. As she continues to meld with Risa and Sosuke, Fujimoto tries desperately to get Ponyo back to make the world right.

You can't state enough how impressive it is that Mayazaki continues to do hand-drawn animation. It's particularly impressive when you consider that almost all animation in America has shifted toward the computer-animations of Pixar and Dreamworks, and there hasn't really been a successful hand-drawn cartoon film since Aladdin. Not that Mayazaki is interested in what is successful in the states, his films have been enormously successful in numerous countries, but it's important not to underscore how breathtaking Mayazaki's animation is.

Mayazaki's eye for the fantastical is another thing which may stunt the attention of American audiences. I assume that walking out of this film, I shouldn't ask why Ponyo looks nothing like a goldfish, but actually like a toddler in a nightgown. I also shouldn't ask why Ponyo's sorcerer father looks absolutely nothing like a fish, but instead like a 1970's glam rocker, equipped with hair spray and sanguine suits. Perhaps Japanese audiences don't even bat an eye at this, but for many (including me), it produces a quizzical eyebrow raise.

What makes Ponyo such a wonderful experience, though, is not it's majestic characters, but it's heart. It has an unbelievable affection for its characters, and even the evil ones get their opportunities to show all of their dimensions. The characters of Fujimoto and Risa, particularly, are a perfect showcase of the varying worries and responsibilities of parenthood, and even when they aren't showing the best judgment, there is never a moment of doubt of their true feelings for their children.

The reason most people will love Ponyo, though, is because of the adorable love story between Ponyo and Sosuke. It was, in fact, adorable though the idea of a story about true love involving two toddlers is a little unnerving. Surely, Mayazaki does not take this underage affection into Todd Solondz, Welcome To The Dollhouse atmosphere, and is able to produce a constant feel of innocence underneath everything. With the addition of Joe Hisaishi's wondrous score, the film's startling beauty does overtake you, even if some of its moments involve great suspension of disbelief.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

500 Days of Summer (****)

Directed by Marc Webb


Within Marc Webb's film, 500 Days of Summer, I experienced a mixture of emotions--but none of them were negative. Traveling through the highs and lows of two twenty-somethings treading through what may or may not be love, the film always teeters on that ledge that balances between earnest emotion and hipster, goofball convolution. Luckily for all of us, Summer pulls of its high-wire act superbly.

The story follows Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a loyal employee at a greeting card company, who has strong belief in romantic love and "the one". He's convinced that he's met "the one" when he sees Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), his boss' new assistant. She has a perky style, beautiful blue eyes, and (most importantly) she's a fan of the Smiths. As they discuss their comparative tastes in all things pop culture, Tom is more and more enraptured with Summer, and eventually admits his infatuation drunkenly at a karaoke party.

What follows is not something Tom expects, but something he finds exciting. Summer admits early in their relationship that she is not searching for anything long-term or serious, and very bluntly states that there is no such thing as love. At their young, fruitful age, she feels, they should be trying to have as much fun as they can, and tying yourself down to one specific person is actually stunting your progression. Tom immediately thinks this idea is sophomoric, but he could care less as long as he gets to be around Summer.

Their relationship grows steadily, but even as they get closer and closer, Summer is always aware to keep a safe distance, maintaining that what they have is no more than a friendship. Tom gets frustrated, and as the months go by, the relationship trudges along, emotions begin to boil, and the romance starts to stale. Before long, Summer decides to leave Tom, and all Tom can think of is how to win her back. Using his friend and co-worker McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend), and his wiser-than-her-years little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz), he plots on the best way to win her over once again.

I realize now, that I've done the movie a disservice by explaining the plot chronologically, because part of the charm of this film is its defiant middle-finger in the direction of linear storytelling. It jumps back, it jumps forward. We see them giggling during blooming romance, and then we cut to see them preoccupied with the frustration of waning love moments later. Like a modern day Annie Hall, the film utilizes flashbacks and flashforwards to best show how the relationship between Tom and Summer both succeeded and failed.

I make the comparison to Annie Hall because both films possessed a similar theme: love is relative, and love lost is not always love tarnished. 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was another film which showcased this beautifully. Unlike Eternal Sunshine and Annie Hall, though, 500 Days possesses a invigorating and sublime attitude, and contains such unbelievable sunniness, it's almost impossible to not keep a smile on your face. Few films can mix an entire sequence devoted to Belle & Sebastian's "The Boy with the Arab Strap" with a choreographed dance number with Hall & Oats' "You Make My Dreams Come True" and live to tell about it.

At twenty-eight years old, it seems like Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been around forever, with success as a child actor in Angels In The Outfield and television's 3rd Rock From The Sun. He has recently begun to establish himself as a serious actor, like in 2004's Mysterious Skin and 2007's brilliantly underrated The Lookout. In 500 Days, he no longer has to mope, and is given the opportunity to be wistful and charming, and his exuberance holds the soul of the entire film. He never overstates his big moments, and always delivers the brilliant dialogue (by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber) with ease.

One of the main criticisms of the film has been the screenplay's inability to draw out the character of Summer into anything more than a Smiths-loving hipster who adores Ringo Starr. Sure, I can understand how some can see Summer as a cipher who floats in a strange place above the film's otherwise sophisticated character development, but I believe Deschanel plays Summer perfectly. She creates Summer as a blank canvas on which Tom hopes to paint his masterpiece (in fact, there is a scene where Tom actually draws on her, literally). We sometimes try to push our own ideals about romance onto someone, in hope that they will become the person from our dreams. Note to readers: this never works.

The film is directed by Marc Webb, and it is his first film. It's quite a good one. I know 500 Days of Summer will surely become lumped into the "offbeat" category, in the fashion of other films like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. It's rather convenient analysis, and much easier than saying exactly what it is: an exceptional and intelligent romantic comedy. In other words, it's something Hollywood studios think audiences hate. The film has built strongly over the last few weeks with word-of-mouth, further proving that audiences are not nearly as stupid as the studio heads seem to think we are. Then again, G.I. Joe was the #1 movie this weekend, but I'll try and put that in the back of my mind.

Zac Efron and Me and Orson Welles (and Richard Linklater)

It was several months ago when I first heard of Richard Linklater's newest film: Me and Orson Welles, about a young man (Zac Efron) working on the 1930's Broadway production of 'Julius Caeser', which was directed by a precocious, narcissistic Orson Welles (Christian McKay). When I heard about it, there was a clip small clip circling the internet which showcased McKay doing a rather impressive Welles impression while Efron performed as a street drummer. Now, the first teaser trailer of the film has appeared. Here you go:

Now, without any history leason, there is only one thing that really comes across in this trailer: Zac Efron! He plays drums! He's in a period piece about Theater!! He's in a movie that's getting startlingly good reviews!!! Christian McKay's rendering of Welles gets one word in within the entire piece, and I'm sure those who don't know anything about Orson Welles will ponder at the meaning of the title.

Now, I say this with perspective knowing that in a film like this (which has been having trouble trying to find distribution) you need to maximize the popularity of its biggest star in order to get more people to see it. I'm sure Zac Efron is good in this, and I'm sure he's desperate to break that High School Musical tag that is attached to him, but it has been McKay which has gotten all of the great notices. He can't even get a billing above Claire Danes, who I've heard has a relatively small role in proportion to Efron and McKay. It's the sad state of movie marketing, and I don't blame the producers of Me and Orson Welles for going in that direction.

He's so dreamy...

On another note, does Orson Welles seem like a film which can rise during festival season to become a sleeper during awards season? I'm sure it's profile is raised because of Efron's involvement (and if he's good, there will be even more attention), but Linklater has never made films with awards in mind, and that's part of why he is so good. The costumes and the aspect of the biopic (not to mention, the hat tip toward 1930's Broadway) may seem to be more awards-baiting than many seem to think.

Here's the clip mentioned earlier, featuring a little more of McKay's performance which the trailer quite restricted:



Saturday, August 8, 2009

John Hughes (1950-2009)

*Work and sickness has made this post a couple of days late, but better late than never.

I was born toward the end of John Hughes reign in the film industry. I was only a year old when Macaulay Culkin was hitting Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in the head with paint cans in Home Alone, which was arguably Hughes last hit film. That said, I find it hard to think that any teenager in the last thirty years has not in some way been effected by Hughes' work. Surely, the 80's were a beacon for high school films, but no one found the heart or the insecurity of growing up better than Hughes did when he had that amazing six-film run between 1984 and 1987.


The film that started it all. It introduced us all to Hughes, but was probably more memorable for introducing us to Hughes' main muse Molly Ringwald. A young, supple actress with pouty lips and winning smile, Ringwald became a movie star overnight after the release of this film. She plays Samantha, an angsty teen who hates her clueless parents who have forgotten her sixteenth birthday. She has a horny foreign-exchanged student (Gedde Watanabe) living in her house, and though she wants desperately to get the attention of the Mustang-driving hottie (Michael Schoeffling), all she can get is the embarrasing flirtations from the school's biggest dweeb (Anthony Michael Hall). Certainly the lightest of Hughes' work, Sixteen Candles focuses on the awkwardness of being in high school and anger which comes with being ignored.


Usually credited as the "greatest high school film ever made", The Breakfast Club is probably the movie that Hughes' will be remembered most by. Following five inexplicably different teens on a Saturday detention, Hughes gives us a looking glass into youthful rebellion as all five work implicitly toward deconstructing their micromanaging dictator of a teacher (played with unforgettable bravura by Paul Gleason). Among the five of them, there is a jock (Emilio Estevez), a geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a psycho (Ally Sheedy), and a criminal (Judd Nelson). To say that they learn that they're not so different after all is to shortchange the effect of the film. They do learn their similarities, yes, but the most effective part of this film is how it truly showcased the rage and seriousness that comes from attending high school.


For most fans of this movie, a controversy still circles around its story and its ending. Molly Ringwald (once again) plays a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who finds herself having to choose between the popular, rich, and good-looking guy (Andrew McCarthy), and her devoted, dorky best friend who worships her (Jon Cryer). Probably the most dated of Hughes films, it still possesses an incandescence which escapes its canned sentimentality and foolish ending (WHY DOESN'T SHE CHOOSE DUCKIE!?!?!). Did I forget to mention James Spader's role as McCarthy's evil friend, sporting impeccable hair and wardrobe? *note: This film was only 'written by' John Hughes, and not directed. Not that it matters, his fingerprints are all over it.


Ferris Bueller brought new insight into the phrase "Senior-itis". As a twelfth-grader, gradually but begrudgingly pulling into the finish line of his high school career, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Borderick) decides to go out in style, and have the greatest day of hookie ever planned by man. He convinces the entire city that he's near-terminal with illness, and in the meantime, grabs his girlfriend (Mia Sara) and his nebbish best friend Cameron (a memorable Alan Ruck), and they have a fabulous day off which includes: stealing Cameron's Dad's Ferari, sneaking into a high class restaurant, and performing "Twist and Shout" on a parade float. Ferris does all of this while being stalked by a jealous sister (Jennifer Grey), and a meddling principal (Jeffrey Jones), both trying to expose Ferris' irresponsibility. Endearing for it's fantastical (and sometimes implausible) story, and unforgettable because of the great performances from a young Borderick and Ruck.


Another film which was only scribed by Hughes and not directed, Some Kind of Wonderful is yet another in a string of films which perfectly described the unpredictability and pain behind young love. Eric Stoltz is a young man from the wrong side of the tracks (no, seriously, the beginning of the movie is him walking toward a steam train on train tracks), who blows all of the money he saved up for his college tuition on some diamond earrings and a chance to go on a date with the most popular girl in school (Lea Thompson). All the while, his best friend, a drumming tomboy named Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) realizes that her feelings for him runner deeper than originally intended. If this sounds like an inverted version of Pretty In Pink, it's because, well, it is--only this time the ending is a whole lot more satisfying.


Now, this film gets an asterisk because it is easily the most un-Hughes film of Hughes' filmography, and does not deal with teenage angst at all. In fact, I didn't even know that it was a John Hughes movie until I'd discovered he'd died, and did some research. All that said, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is John Hughes' very best film, for a multitude of reasons. For one, it possesses two unbelievably tender performances from it's two lead actors Steve Martin and John Candy, and also it contains the greatest balance of laughs, sentiment, gravitas, and effectiveness of any John Hughes film before or after. The film follows a bothered businessman played by Martin who's having a difficult time getting home for Thanksgiving, especially since he keeps running into an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman played by Candy. In a decade ruled by buddy comedies, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles may stand above them all. If those familiar with Hughes haven't gotten around to it, they should.

After 1987, Hughes had some disappointments with She's Having a Baby and Curly Sue, but wrote the screenplays for the uber-successful Home Alone films. By 1993, he had vanished, occasionally getting a story credit when others revamped his original screenplays (these include Maid In Manhattan and Drillbit Taylor--whew!). Was John Hughes a great filmmaker? Probably not. Some of his movies have trouble holding up these days, and I don't think any one considered him to be another Scorsese or Woody Allen. What made Hughes special, though, was his intrinsic view into a world many never seemed to understand: youth. Other good teenage films (Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie, for example), settled for using raunch to display the awkwardness of teenage sexuality, while Hughes always kept a Victorian distance, instead relying on the thematic to tell the story. Maybe his innocence was his greatest accomplishment of all.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pre-Fall Oscar Predix

We're in the final stage of the summer, which means that we're one step closer to the fall movie season. There are many films that I'm looking forward to, even though I'm impressed by the amount of quality films that have already come out this year. If the fall films live up to their hype, 2009 may end up the best movie of the decade (kind of like how 1999 rounded out an underrated 90's movie decade). All that said, the smoke has cleared a tiny bit when it comes to who will be legitimate Oscar contenders and who have already fallen out of the race (Public Enemies sank with an underwhelming release, and Green Zone is pushed to next year--just to name a few). Here's my undefined, non specific Oscar predictions in August. Only the major categories, still too early to do the techs.

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, BIUTIFUL
Morgan Freeman, INVICTUS
Viggo Mortenson, THE ROAD
Jeremy Renner, THE HURT LOCKER

I don't think Johnny Depp is a real contender for Public Enemies this year anymore (though you never know, the Academy voters are weird with him). The trailer for The Informant! boggled a few with its surprisingly broad humor, but I think people are starting to feel like this is Damon's year (though I don't see it). Bardem teaming with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu for Biutiful seems like a perfect combination, while Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela for Invictus (in a Clint Eastwood movie, no less) seems like a sure nomination lock. As for the last spot, I'd hoped that Sam Rockwell's stupendous work in Moon would get recognized, but it seems like another non-star in another indie is gaining more steam: Jeremy Renner's great work in The Hurt Locker. *Almost forgot to mention Viggo, who I will always be picking to be nominated, since I'm anticipating The Road so much.

Best Actress

Charlotte Gainsbourg, ANTICHRIST
Helen Mirren, LOVE RANCH
Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION
Gabourey Sidibe, PRECIOUS

This category is a little more unclear. I think Carey Mulligan performance in The Education seems safe, as she's had non-stop buzz for almost the entire year. The film Precious is building great steam since its premiere in Sundance this January, and Gabourey Sidibe has a good chance to ride that wave to a nomination. Helen Mirren has gained, I believe, Streep-esque status, by which I mean any buzz-worthy performance has a good shot, and Love Ranch seems just edgy and funny enough to stir up audiences. Those who have seen Coco avant Chanel have said good things, and the Academy loves seeing young, attractive actresses like Tautou play real people (remember Marion Cotillard?). A wild card: Descriptions of Charlotte Gainsbourg's work in Antichrist seems excruciating and brave, and the win at Cannes doesn't hurt either.

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon, INVICTUS
Alfred Molina, AN EDUCATION
Kodi Smit-McPhee, THE ROAD

I think Damon may be a little safer in this category than in the lead, because they may honor him here if they feel The Informant! is too goofy. Molina and Tucci seem a little bit like locks already, don't they? They both have that "great actor who's seldom recognized, now in a perfect, nominate-able performance to get him his breakthrough" feeling, right? I think so. As for Smit-McPhee, if The Road is anything like the book, then it's a very juicy role, and the Academy is always open to nominating children if the role is right. I end with Cannes Best Actor winner Christoph Waltz, because even though Inglourious Basterds isn't Oscar material at all, this is the little space where it could get recognized if it becomes as popular as Quentin Tarantino's other films.

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Clarkson, WHATEVER WORKS
Marion Cotillard, NINE
Emily Mortimer, SHUTTER ISLAND
Susan Surandon, THE LOVELY BONES

I don't know how automatic supporting female performances are nominated for Woody Allen films, but it seems pretty secure that Clarkson will get recognized for Whatever Works even though most people did not take to the movie itself particularly. Mo'Nique has had half a year of buzz for her surprisingly deep portrayal of an abusive mother in Precious. Surandon and Mortimer are both in very bait-y roles (crazy maniac for Mortimer and grieving grandmother for Surandon), and seem like odds for nominations. The film Nine has a slew of high-profile actresses in supporting roles, but I'm going to say that Cotillard will stand out, if only because she's also very impressive in Michael Mann's quickly forgotten Public Enemies.

Anything more ironic than Mo'Nique being a leading candidate for an Oscar, and Sam Rockwell being looked over once again?

Best Original Screenplay

Pedro Almodóvar, BROKEN EMBRACES
Bo Giocobe & Nicolas Giocobe, BIUTIFUL
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
Bob Peterson, UP

Best Adapted Screenplay

Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, THE LOVELY BONES
Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Damien Paul, PRECIOUS
Joe Penhall, THE ROAD

The screenplay awards will be interesting, since the split between original and adapted always gave certain films a moment that they wouldn't get elsewhere. Now, though, with ten Best Picture nominees, I'm not really sure if they won't just take the ten nominated films and split them in half. For now, I'm going to say that is what will mostly happen, though I think films like 500 Days of Summer and Precious will sneak in there with their small, but strong following. Meanwhile, I'm not sure about Broken Embraces' overall Oscar potential, but Pedro Almodóvar will probably break the mold and get another nomination for writing, because he still has a hold over the voters.

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER
James Cameron, AVATAR
John Hillcoat, THE ROAD
Lone Scherfig, AN EDUCATION

This is probably a long shot, since the chances of two women being nominated in one year seems unlikely. Despite the growing number of female filmmakers and their brewing influence, the film industry is still very much an old boys' club, and the Academy is no exception. That said, I'd be very disappointed if Kathryn Bigelow isn't even in the discussion for her superb work on The Hurt Locker, and Lone Scherfig is a well-respected filmmaker doing one of the most talked-about films this year, so I think they're both good bets. I pick Peter Jackson and John Hillcoat because they are both given the responsibility of creating wondrously, and sometimes harrowing worlds, and if they both live up to expectation, the result will be spectacular. Lastly, I see Avatar being a hit-or-miss Oscar prospect, but its strongest chances are in the Best Director category since James Cameron is still a much-respected, and very ambitious filmmaker (where has he been? Swimming in Titanic money, I presume).

I love this movie and have essentially picked this to be a bit of a sleeper-pick for every major category.

Best Picture

An Education
The Hurt Locker
The Lovely Bones
The Road
Shutter Island
Where The Wild Things Are

It seems weird that I'm predicting ten films, so there are surely a number of films on this list that most likely won't be there when I'm doing my final predictions in December. Movies like An Education, The Lovely Bones, and Invictus seem like they would be safe even in a five-movie set, while The Road, Shutter Island, and Biutiful seem like coin-flips reduced to safe choices because the list is expanded. With the remaining nominations, I'm going with some wild cards like the Rob Marshall musical Nine, Spike Jonze's dreamy recreation of the children's book Where The Wild Things Are, the astonishing and beautiful Pixar film Up, and my personal favorite 2009 film so far, the taut Iraq film The Hurt Locker. What's the point of predicting this early if you're not going to have irrationally idealistic hope?

Broken Bones

This was meant to be another 'Trailer Watch' post with the newly-released trailer for The Lovely Bones, but supposedly the trailer was only meant to be seen on, and it has been taken down across all trailer and video websites that allow you to embed. Oh well, you can go ahead and click here to go to the website where you can see it. Having seen it myself, it looks about as beautiful, well-made, and melodramatic as most people expected. Everyone in the cast looks exceptional, though I'm surprised how they made it seem like a taut thriller toward the end. I've never read the novel (and don't plan to--I don't read), but the story seems incredibly interesting, and it's exciting to see Peter Jackson return to the darker, more personal films that he made before he became swallowed by Lord of the Rings mania. Heavenly Creatures, anyone?

P.S. How super-creepy is Stanley Tucci in this trailer?
Balding + Mustache = Child molester/murderer... That always seems like a perfect combination in a visual medium.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Autuers (For Kids!)

As comic-lovers rejoiced at the latest Comic-Con Festival with the slew of celebrities that came through for a visit (Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, and Rachel McAdams, just to name a few), movie-lovers were paying attention to the release of two new movie trailers. First, there was the preview for Wes Anderson's new movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated film based on the story by Roald Dahl. The other was a teaser for Tim Burton's elaborate, much-anticipated version of Alice in Wonderland. These two trailers are big deals for two reasons. For one, they're new films by two exceptionally talented, and very popular filmmakers. Also, these new trailers showcase a trend that has arisen in the movies: non-commercial autuers making offbeat children's films.

Along with Burton and Anderson, Spike Jonze is mining the well also, with his film version of the children's book Where The Wild Things Are coming out later this year. Do three directors making kids fare mean there's a trend? Probably not, but it is an interesting coincidence that these three guys, known mostly for their darker material, have decided to market their latest projects toward the same audience who would go to see The Lizzie Maguire Movie.

The all-important question is this: is the young movie-going audience going to beg their parents to take them to Burton's bizarre, almost scary version of Alice? Or Anderson's pithy, dry version of Fantastic Mr. Fox? Or perhaps, Jonze's brooding version of Wild Things? I'm not sure. It's true that each of these guys have their own built-in audiences, Burton especially, but I wonder who could possibly prosper from these puzzling combinations between the wholesome world of family entertainment and the morally-ambiguous territory of the art film.

Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter: one of the most horrifying things that I've ever seen...

Personally, I have varying levels of excitement for all three of these films. I'm anticipating Where The Wild Things Are more than most films that are coming out this fall, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film which has peaked my interest, if only because I will get excited about anything that Wes Anderson does. I'm especially pleased to see that even in animation, Anderson still holds onto his personal visual style and dry sense of humor. As for Alice In Wonderland, the film will probably be a visual wonder, but will be nothing more than cotton candy thematically, because no matter how great his films usually are, they almost always shrivel quickly when it comes to subtext (the two exceptions in his filmography, Big Fish and Ed Wood, are easily his greatest films).

I'm not sure that the concept of the "edgy children's film" is so new. A Christmas Story was taking advantage of this concept over twenty-five years ago. We don't usually see some of the more respected filmmakers of "adult-oriented films", though, plough the wondrous fields world of kiddie movies. Nobody has even seen these films yet, and if they're all terrible then the conversation will be over. I don't think they'll all be terrible, but if they're all great, then it will be interesting to see if this inspires other, more serious filmmakers to tackle the subject matter as well. Who knows? Lars von Trier doing a version of Dumbo? Maybe Paul Thomas Anderson giving a feature-length The Giving Tree a shot? My personal favorite: Darren Aronofsky doing a cataclysmic rendering of Fantasia!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Trailer Watch: A Serious Man

This trailer is so unbelievably... "Coen-y", isn't it? Not that any of the sound motifs used in the trailer (the use of sound effects to create an effective, if alarming, rhythm) are something familiar with the Coens, but it seems so much like something they would do. Everything that the two of them do is an event, and A Serious Man is no exception. This looks rather Barton Fink-y if you ask me, and that's okay by me. Not familiar with any of the actors, but when the Coens are involved, it's not really a big issue. Looking forward to this one.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Funny People (***)

Written and Directed by Judd Apatow


There's a rather interesting dynamic within Funny People, Judd Apatow's latest comedy. The film delivers on its promise, and it is choc-filled with many, many funny people whether they're playing themselves or not. But the film's themes, by themselves, are not very funny. This has been said to have been Apatow's stab at serious film, and surely this movie does take itself more seriously than say Superbad or Knocked Up, but the usual shtick of dick and fart jokes prone to most Apatow films are still floating around everywhere. The mix is quite an eye-fill, if not uneven.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a comedian and a movie star. He's had many hit films including "Merman!" which he plays a half-man, half-fish, and "Re-Do" where he gets himself turned into a baby. His films are mindless cotton candy, but they've made him ridiculously famous and wealthy, and he resides in a large Los Angeles mansion where numerous servants and workers keep the place in perfect shape. With everything he has, George is lonely, and his life is thrown upside-down when he finds out that he has a form of Leukemia which will likely kill him.

Depressed and helpless, Simmons goes to the Improv to do some surprise stand-up, but bombs. The comic which follows him is the young, nervous Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira's set is not perfect, but George becomes taken with him, and offers Ira the chance to be his assistant. What does that job entail? Driving George around, going with him to the doctor, and following James Taylor at a gig when George rather not. Ira appreciates the job, and getting to spend time with a celebrity, but soon finds that George is nothing more than a petty, pathetic shell of himself who resents his fame while still relishing in it.

Among the adventures George undertakes with Ira is trying to win back his ex-fiance Laura (Leslie Mann). She, as George describes, was "the one who got away", and when he finds her trapped in a loveless marriage with a rollicking Australian named Clarke (Eric Bana), he sees his shot to take her away. Between watching videos of Laura's daughter in "Cats" and watching soccer games with Clarke, George becomes more and more intertwined within this family while George looks on, horrified.

It's shocking to think that this is only Judd Apatow's third film as director (after Knocked Up and 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin), seeing as he's had his hands on so many other projects over the last decade. Funny People is said to have been a very personal film for Apatow, and the movie does a wonderful job of giving the audience a peephole into the cut-throat world of stand-up comedy. This movie's biggest missed opportunity, I feel, is that we don't get more about the struggles of trying to hit big as a comedian. What the film does give us plenty of meandering subplots that come in and out of the story so sporadically that we feel like we're listening to a group of guys telling inside jokes that we're not in on.

It's not that any of these side-steps in the plot are not funny (if they weren't, the film would be ultimately unbearable), but with Apatow refusing to tighten the storyline, the themes become unclear, and the focus becomes blurred. There are Ira's roommates: a fat, funny writer played by Jonah Hill, and a pompous sit-com actor played by Jason Schwartzman. Both take full advantage of their opportunities, but why do they have so many? Also, there is a sequence of scenes involving a female comedian played by Aubrey Plaza who Ira is attracted to, but afraid to approach. The film's first half builds this conflict well, only to be settled in one rather meaningless scene in the film's last ten minutes.

All that said, the film's bloated 146 minutes always entertains. The film's jokes are clever and sharp, and it's more serious moments perform effectively, as well. All fans of Apatow will enjoy this movie very much, as it has just enough pop culture references to hold back the unbelievable overflow of tears some of the characters have. Whenever there is a sense of lagging, there is a surprising cameo (hey! Eminem!) or a scene so well-executed that you automatically get sucked back in (Sandler has a key, early scene in which his frustrations manifest themselves against a television which is some of the best work he's ever done).

Speaking of Sandler, his work in this film as a whole is rather interesting. I was of the generation which grew up with Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer, and always enjoyed him, even if in his sophomoric sensibilities. When he's had the chance to tackle more serious material, though, I begin to vary. His role in Reign Over Me always seemed rather silly and contrived. On the other hand, in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, he gives one of the greatest performances that I've ever seen. Because of that, I always put my faith in him, and in Funny People he takes a stab at himself and all the juvenile films he's made while still creating such a self-loathing personality. Despite it all, you still find yourself sewn to George's journey, and that's quite an accomplishment.

Both Mann and Rogen give wonderful supporting performances, but most of their stories get eaten up by the one about George (throughout the film, I constantly wondered if a 146-minute movie about Ira would've been more interesting). It's a long-winded testament to life and love and telling jokes, and it works because Apatow tells it with true sincerity and actually cares for these people. Do the wheels come off from time to time? Unfortunately, but car wrecks have rarely been this amusing.