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[500] Days of Summer (2009) Dir. Marc Webb 3 September 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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Romantic comedies can be the bane of a young man’s cinema going existence. For every Star Trek the Mrs politely watches by your side there’s a debt that can only be re-paid with soul-crushing fare such as The Proposal or The Ugly Truth. It’s been a heck of a long time since When Harry Met Sally and even longer since the 50s “rom-com” hey day but the current yoof generation has finally got its own love story that doesn’t stick to the formula; doesn’t simplify relationships into good times, bad times and last minute dashes to the airport; and leaves you with a tangible sense of love ripped open and dissected onscreen.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel (last seen together in the underrated Manic) are Tom and Summer, the couple at the heart of [500] Days of Summer, but completely unlike any other onscreen couple. Summer doesn’t believe love exists and, despite her looks and good nature, doesn’t even want a boyfriend. Rather predictably perhaps Tom falls in love with her, but what makes [500] Days of Summer different is it’s smart fractured timeline (which contrasts moments of soaring emotion and heartache to great effect) and it’s realistic portrayal of a couple that was never meant to be.

The film’s unique structure is never confusing due to a clear and simple framing device telling viewers exactly which of the 500 days we are on at the beginning of each new scene. Starting with the break-up immediately lets viewers know that they’re in for something different and [500] Days of Summer is like nothing you have ever experienced before. There’s a genuine sense that everything these characters are going through feels true to life, from awkward first encounters to transcendental highs, soured by looking back at them when the relationship is little more than a bitter memory. The film is also devilishly funny with Gordon-Levitt proving a fine comedic presence, more often than not the laughs stemming from his embarrassing attempts to impress the girl in ways we’ve all tried in the past.

The film also brilliantly plays with Tom’s perception of his relationship with Summer in contrast with the bleak reality. Most overtly in one split-screen party scene we watch Tom’s expectations of the night down one side and the devastating reality on the other as Tom’s life comes crashing down around him. There are also some wonderfully staged fantasy sequences that perfectly capture the unique top-of-the-world feeling only love can achieve.

Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel prove to be a perfect fit for the odd-ball couple with the kind of spark between them most rom-coms only dream of, and they’re well supported by a suitably quirky supporting cast, in particular the brash, if somewhat clichéd best friend McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend).

My problems with [500] Days of Summer are few but important. Firstly a Pushing Daisies-esque narrator is introduced at the start of the film and largely abandoned until the final scene, annoyingly inconsistent which is strange considering the rest of the film is so perfectly balanced. Secondly in making this Tom’s story writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber fall into the “female enigma” trap that too many other romantic comedies have fallen into over the years, never satisfactorily explaining Summer’s motivations or feelings. And finally some of the film’s more whimsical elements fall flat – not least of which is the world wise younger sister of Tom who manages to be a step too far for believability, even in a film with spontaneous choreographed dance numbers.

But these minor criticisms should in no way deter you from seeing easily the best romantic comedy of this generation and probably the first since When Harry Met Sally that the blokes will enjoy just as much as the ladies. At once devastating and achingly beautiful [500] Days of Summer proves there’s still life in a tired genre.


Ripe for Reappraisal: The Mist 1 September 2009

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Lauded by critics but generally ignored by audiences upon its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical flash last year (or two years ago if you’re in the States), Frank Darabont’s The Mist has found a new lease of life on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with the director preferred black and white version which demands to be seen by even casual horror fans.

Based on a novel by Stephen King (who Darabont also adapted for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), the set-up for The Mist is deceptively simple horror fare that belies hidden depths and makes it clear even with otherworldly killing machines running loose humanity’s greatest enemy is, and always has been, ourselves. Thomas Jane (who really should be in more movies) plays David Drayton who, along with a large number of the inhabitants of a small town in Maine, becomes trapped in a supermarket when a bizarre mist descends upon the whole town in an instant. It soon becomes clear that there’s something nasty lurking in the mist and to venture out means certain death. Initially David intends to wait out the storm in the supermarket, stocked with enough supplies to keep them going for years, but as tempers fray, minds snap and factions form (the most dangerous of which is a religious cult led by Marcia Gay Harden’s wicked Mrs Carmody) it soon becomes clear David’s best chance for survival lies outside.

A crucial element to horror movies that many people overlook is the environment you first watch them in. See a film like The Shining on a sunny day, in a room full of friends and you’re more likely to laugh than get goosebumps at Kubrick’s classic chiller, and the same could be said for The Mist. Taken out of context viewers not paying enough attention could see it as little more than a slow creature feature with a needlessly bleak ending and some hammy character acting, however The Mist is so much more. I first saw the film while stuck in Manchester one evening on my own, a city far from home and in a late night screening with just four young lads, no doubt set to annoy me. To say it left me devastated is an understatement, even the young men in the cinema with me who started out making a ruckus were deafly silent by the end. We even let out a little cheer in unison at the fate of Mrs Carmody, the first time I’ve ever shouted at the screen, totally incapable of controlling the emotional outburst. The walk to the hotel that night was not a pleasant one.

But it seems to be an experience very few people I know have had with The Mist. Inevitable talk always revolves around the creatures and the ending, most dismissing both as silly and unrealistic. The Mist however makes the most of its minimalist setting to craft a believable group of characters and a completely believable series of events as the master plan comes cascading down around them. Sure people act very stupidly at times (this is a horror movie after all) but for the most part this is the best acted, best written and best realised ensemble cast for a horror film in a long time.

The creatures themselves are also a vision of genuine horror. The story hints that they are creatures from another dimension, but they’re so efficient at killing humans in the most disturbing ways imaginable it makes you wonder if they’ve been genetically engineered for that purpose. The special effects are for the most part excellent. It’s clear some of the actors have had little experience working with special effects with some dodgy physical performances but the various grotesque bugs, tentacles, spiders, and giant predators are truly terrifying, their skull faces making them the very personification of death.

I’d also put it up there as one of the bleakest films ever made. Frank Darabont allegedly forefeit a huge amount of his budget (and no doubt the marketing clout of the studio based on its theatrical bow) to keep the devastating ending intact, but it’s so perfect it would be a travesty to see it end any other way. It seems a little out of character that David would give up so quickly, but after living through what he did I doubt many others would act differently. A special mention also has to go to Darabont’s choice of song for the concluding moments of, for my money, his third truly great King adaptation which will henceforth always be associated with that feeling of wanting to make me kill myself.

It’s rare that I see a film and can’t stop thinking about it for days after. After seeing The Mist I had the uncontrollable urge to tell everyone I know that they should drop everything and see it at the cinema while they can. Few did but now DVD and Blu-ray have given us the chance to revel in The Mist’s depressing glory time and time again, just make sure you check out the black and white version first.

Funny People (2009) Dir. Judd Apatow 31 August 2009

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One of the most satisfying aspects of being a fan, whether you’re the fan of an artist, a singer an actor or a director, is that once in a while someone comes along who fulfils every aspect of the potential you saw in those rough-around-the-edges early days. Starting out on TV with under-seen but much loved coming-of-age comedy shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared before graduating to the big screen – directing two of the most well balanced comedies of the past decade and acting as leading light of the frat pack production line – Judd Apatow has blossomed from the prank phone call origins witnessed in Funny People’s opening scene to a much more thoughtful and reflective film-maker, albeit one with a mouth foul enough to make a sailor blush.

The plot is a loose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with added dick jokes. When comedy mega-star George Simmons (Adam Sandler) finds out he has a terminal illness he befriends wannabe stand-up performer Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), employing him to write jokes and act as his personal assistant while George fumbles about trying to make amends for a wasted life. The real problem for George is “the one that got away” Laura (Apatow’s real life wife Leslie Mann) who now has her own family, but an unhappy marriage to Australian alpha male Clarke (Eric Bana). George takes it upon himself to save Laura from Clarke, with Ira reluctantly in tow, but has staring death in the face really taught George to change his debauched ways?

Sentiment is a hard thing to stomach on film. Getting the balance right can be a problem even for film-makers like Steven Spielberg, whose tooth-decaying syrup injections are usually what let his flawed efforts down (see the last 20 minutes of AI for the best example). But Apatow just about pulls it off, with a genuinely heartfelt story of pathos and regret that refuses to fall into rom-com genre trappings (at least until its contrived ending). Funny People is first and foremost the product of a film-maker who is also a family man. Spielberg once famously said that if he was to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind today he wouldn’t have Roy abandon his family and run off with ET at the end, and the same could be said for Apatow. Had he made Funny People ten years ago no doubt things would have turned out differently for Sandler’s repulsive George, but Apatow has matured as a film-maker to the point that he’s not afraid to show us the film where the guy doesn’t get the girl.

Despite all this talk of maturing as a film-maker Apatow certainly hasn’t abandoned what made him popular in the first place – a razor sharp sardonic wit and some of the foulest verbal exchanges committed to film. In a film all about stand-up comedians you would expect the laughs to come thick and fast, however they’re spread a little too thinly over Funny People’s mammoth two and a half hour running time to justify going to see the film just for its laugh quotient, though overall you won’t be disappointed. Where the film really works is its wonderfully realised central relationships between George, Ira and Laura covering friendship, love, regret and forgiveness at levels unheard of for most modern, puerile rom-coms.

Sandler gives a performance at least equal, if not better than his game changing turn in Punch Drunk Love, where the world finally realised there was more to Sandler than the class clown (a stage in Sandler’s career hilariously mocked in Funny People through a series of spoof films George has appeared in over the years). Rogen puts in a fine turn as Ira, playing a slightly more child-like and gentle version of Ben from Knocked Up and going through a similar character arc, from puppy dog loyalty to George, to making the difficult moral choice. While Mann is instantly likeable as the conflicted wife and mother who has never reconciled her decision to leave George all those years ago. Bana excels in his first out and out comedy since his early days of sketch shows in his native Australia, nailing every one-liner like a game of whack-a-mole and delivering some of the film’s biggest laughs. Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill provide able support as Ira’s successful, albeit sleazy, room-mates while Apatow has managed to populate the rest of his world with enough memorable faces to keep you smiling throughout.

Not necessarily his best film but his most mature and thoughtful to date, Funny People marks Apatow still riding high on the crest of his A-game. While it could have done with half an hour being exorcised, it’s refreshing to watch a mainstream comedy that dares to offer a more rewarding experience to viewers raised on a diet of last minute embraces and improbable reconciliations. The only problem is after covering sex, birth and death what does Judd Apatow have left? I’d put money on a ghost buddy comedy with Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, natch.

Adapting The Hobbit 27 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Film.
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As in the run up to the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the trickle of information flowing through on Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit in recent months has inspired me to revisit J.R.R Tolkein’s source text, a novel which I last read almost fifteen years ago and one which still managed to inspire that child-like sense of wonder in me all these years later.

This particular post isn’t going to be a review of The Hobbit, however, as anyone who hasn’t read it by now clearly has no intention to and anyone who has doesn’t need me to tell them how wonderful it is. Instead I will dedicate this space to a few thoughts on how Del Toro and his writing partners – Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens – might realise Tolkein’s most focused yarn on the big screen.

For starters it’s important to note that Del Toro’s Hobbit will be split into two parts (and possibly and third film bridging the gap between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, though this is a rumour that seems to pop up every so often and then quickly gets quashed). This presents a problem as the logical place to end the first film on a high, the battle with the goblins/wargs after Bilbo, Gandlaf, Thorin and the rest escape from the Misty Mountains, probably occurs too early for there to be an even split. They may also choose to leave the first installment on a cliffhanger, ending in the Forest of Mirkwood when things look bleakest for our intrepid adventurers – either after the dwarves are captured by the giant spiders or the Wood-Elves.

The other major problem with the two film structure of course is that you are building to a confrontation with Smaug the Dragon throughout the first film with no payoff until the second. It seems unlikely Del Toro, Jackson, Boyens and Walsh will play around with the timeline much after their faithful adaptation of the Rings trilogy but a Battle of Dagorlad-esque flashback isn’t out of the question.

On the surface The Hobbit feels like it should be a relatively straightforward adaptation as it’s linear, focused, set-piece driven plot leaves little room to wander, but there are a couple of problem areas. Dialogue heavy sections are always an issue in adapting from book to film, but with them so few and far between in The Hobbit I expect this will be much less of an issue than with the Rings trilogy. Only the Beorn section could pose a particular problem – not least of which is how to realise this mythical creature visually.

Another major problem (and a slight issue I have with the book) is that the ending contains not one but two anti-climaxes. Firstly the slaying of Smaug by Bard the Bowman – a man we are introduced to mere moments before – not Bilbo or the Dwarves, and secondly the Battle of the Five Armies – which readers hear next to nothing about after Bilbo is knocked unconscious early on. I’ve always wondered why Tolkein chose to end his tale in this way and it will be interesting to see if Del Toro et al. are willing to make such a radical change to the story to satisfy modern audiences.

The rest of the book however just got me excited. It’s full of electric moments that I can’t wait to see realised through Del Toro’s twisted fantasy filter. Encountering Gollum in the Misty Mountains, Bilbo proving his worth against the giant spiders in Mirkwood Forest, escaping from the dungeons of the Wood-Elves and of course the confrontation with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain. Quite how they’ll handle a talking dragon and fourteen central characters you’re supposed to empathise with I’m not sure, but with two films they’ve got the luxury of space many adaptations don’t.

TV to get excited about – new season preview 26 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in TV news.
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Traditionally the autumn/winter months sees a break in the American football season in the States, and with it a whole raft of new and returning sci-fi shows premiering their new series on the goggle box. In terms of high quality genre TV, the 2000s has seen its fair share of hits and misses with some cancelled in their prime (Firefly) and others drawn out way beyond their expected lifespan (Smallville), but one thing’s for sure – with production values that outstrip many Hollywood efforts and intelligent, gripping storytelling, viewers have rarely had it better.

Unfortunately to make room for all these new shows those which are seen to be underperforming or (as in the case of Battlestar Gallactica) which reach the end of their planned arcs are cancelled. As well as Battlestar Gallactica this year saw the planned conclusion to Stargate Atlantis (to make room for Stargate Universe – more later) and the premature deaths of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pushing Daises, Reaper, Eleventh Hour, Eli Stone, the ill-advised Knight Rider re-boot, Kyle XY, the US Life on Mars and Primeval in the UK. While most were understandable and welcome cancellations The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Pushing Daisies were a particular blow to genre fans as, despite ‘low’ ratings, both were critically well received and ended on mesmerizing cliffhangers that begged for another series.

But what have we got to look forward to over the coming year? In terms of returning shows there was the surprise renewal of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse despite having the lowest viewing figures ever for a renewed programme, Fox perhaps showing faith in Whedon after the Firefly debacle and a noticeable improvement in quality from season one’s mid-point. There’s also big hitters Lost and Heroes (the former reaching the end of its planned six season arc and the latter presumably on its last legs), A Town Called Eureka, Fringe, Chuck making a surprise return, Smallville looking darker than ever, Supernatural bringing the plight of the Winchester brothers to a dramatic conclusion, True Blood which is enjoying considerable success in the States and of course new episodes of Doctor Who.

New properties on the cards however look to be a mixed bag. Ronald D. Moore’s promising looking spaceship drama Virtuality looks like it won’t make it past the pilot, but Battlestar Gallactica prequel Caprica has been given a full season to expand after its feature-length backdoor pilot debuted to critical acclaim earlier this year. It’s good to see at least one intelligent sci-fi show left on the box in a season of largely consisting of gimmick driven action shows. The small screen re-make of 80s classic V is one to look out for, however, starring Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell and Firefly’s Morena Baccarin in the tale of alien visitors whose friendly exteriors mask a terrible secret. The remake machine isn’t limited to old TV shows either with Eastwick being an adaptation of the Jack Nicholson film from the 80s, but with a worrying whiff of Charmed about it.

I’ll be surprised if Day One makes it to day two as yet another post-apocalypse set series so soon after Jericho’s failure to pick up viewers looks unlikely to become a sleeper hit. Human Target is probably the most low key of the new season’s shows with nary a dollar spent on publicity despite starring Rorscach and Freddy Kruger himself Jackie Earle Haley. The premise also sounds disappointingly flat – body guard assumes the identity of his clients to protect them – to arouse much interest.

Most promising looking new properties have to go to Warehouse 13, Flash Forward and Stargate Universe. Warehouse 13 is enjoying record breaking viewing figures on the Syfy channel in the states, but time will tell if this blend of the X Files and Supernatural will live beyond its Raiders of the Lost Arc inspired premise. Flash Forward has a high concept starting point (everyone in the world simultaneously sees six months into their own future for two and a half minutes) that gives little indication of what the series has in store, but with a cast including Brit Joseph Fiennes and co-created by Blade scribe David S. Goyer I have high hopes. Stargate Universe on the other hand looks like the dark, character driven re-boot the series was crying out for, abandoning the shiny military bases for a bleak space ship setting and throwing Begbie into the mix for good measure (hopefully with random acts of psychopatic violence).

Not a bad line up I’m sure you’ll agree but with networks more ruthless than ever when it comes to renewals is it worth investing your time in so many new shows? It can be devastating to have a programme you have an emotional investment in cut-off prematurely but I’m sure you’ll agree even 14 episodes of Firefly were better than none.