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

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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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

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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.

A Perfect Getaway (2009) Dir. David Twohy 25 August 2009

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Debuting at the arse-end of a disappointing summer you might expect this paradise set murder mystery from Pitch Black creator David Twohy to be a waste of everyone’s considerable talents; however A Perfect Getaway proves that, for Twohy at least, bigger budget isn’t necessarily better and that he may just have another good Riddick film in him yet.

Milla Jovovich and Steve Zahn star as Cliff and Cydney, a honeymooning couple on a Hawaiian vacation when they discover that another couple of newlyweds have been murdered by a man and a woman on a nearby island. Deciding to push on with their dream holiday they come across two pairs of ‘unhinged’ lovers – Nick and Gina (Hitman’s Timothy Olyphant and Lost’s Kiele Sanchez) and Kale and Cleo (George Kirk himself Chris Hemsworth and Planet Terror’s Marley Shelton) leading Cliff and Cydney to question whether they could be the killers’ next targets.

A Perfect Getaway is David Twohy’s  first non-genre film as a director (though he did script The Fugitive and G.I.Jane) and he does an impressive job of making a lacklustre, slow build script based around one blindingly obvious twist into a taut and exciting piece of work. He clearly hasn’t lost any of the visual flair he demonstrated so effectively in Pitch Black (used expertly to create an otherworldly feel) but which was entirely absent from its over-reaching follow up. Creative set-pieces, a nice split screen chase and no-nonsense choices in the editing room are let down slightly by a bewilderingly long and pointless flashback just over an hour in that hammers the twist over the audience’s head enough times it’s a wonder there aren’t more walking out of the cinema with concussion.

The slow-build/climactic chase structure of the script works well within the confines of the film’s 95 minutes. The problem however is some decidedly dodgy dialogue and a Scream-esque attempt to be postmodern that falls flat on its face, giving any viewer that pays attention to choice hints like ‘act two twist’ and ‘red herring’ no problem in working out exactly where the film is heading. There are very few ‘twist’ films that live up to their attempts to wrong foot the audience (The Usual Suspects and The Crying Game being the best modern examples) and A Perfect Getaway completely disappoints in this respect with canyon sized plot holes and early conversations between characters that make no sense once the twist is revealed, however there’s enough good going on around the centrepiece to forgive its rotten core.

The leads are perfectly watchable, Timothy Olyphant in particular steals every scene he’s in as the former special ops soldier/shark fisherman/screenwriter Nick whose tall tales seem too extravagant to believe, but Hemsworth and Shelton are little more than arbitrary caricatures, with surprisingly little screentime, who serve no purpose other than to throw the viewer off the scent. Zahn and Jovovich seem like an odd pairing initially but do well throughout as the on-edge couple, coming into their own when the film switches gears.

Although it might not be the best advert for Hawaii the film is shot beautifully by Mark Plummer, perfectly capturing the feel of paradise even after the descent into hell but the score is forgettable, default Hollywood thriller fare. Despite a disappointing centrepiece twist; good performances and impressive direction from genre veteran Twohy raise A Perfect Getaway to the level of an unexpected treat and prove there’s still something to look forward to from a promised return to Riddick’s small-scale roots.

Avatar Preview Impressions 24 August 2009

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Avatar - Jake

Friday 21 August, 24 hours after the trailer for James Cameron’s long awaited return to sci-fi feature film-making debuted to a mixed response online, viewers around the globe were treated to approximately 16 minutes of footage in glorious 3D from the mysterious Avatar. But after years of lofty promises and barely a glimpse of what the film might look like, did last week’s information overload propel expectations into another galaxy, or sink them in the swampy marsh of Pandora?

Well, it’s hard to say. While the trailer certainly didn’t seem to be evidence of the game-changing motion picture we were all expecting; as an original SF story, set on an entirely alien world which isn’t a sequel, remake or adaptation Avatar is, at the very least, a refreshing change of pace in modern Hollywood. It’s even arguable that Cameron has already instigated his Avatar revolution without even finishing the film as the ubiquitous 3D bandwagon picks up passengers as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and horror hack David R. Ellis whose 3D Final Destination flick hits screens this Friday.

But what about those 16 minutes? For the most part the footage consisted of extended scenes merely glimpsed at in the trailer but there were a few welcome additions. After a brief introduction from a shaggy looking Cameron our first glimpse is of Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch as he delivers a speech (no doubt delivered dozens of times before) to a batch of fresh-faced recruits to be sent down to Pandora. It’s standard boot camp stuff but Col. Quaritch is no Apone. What impresses most about the scene is that Cameron is clearly not treating 3D like a gimmick, hurling objects out of the screen like almost every 3D animated/horror film thus far. The 3D is used to give a palpable sense of depth and for my money is much more immersive in scenes like this than high octane action sequences where the problem of motion blur acts to instantly distance you from proceedings (more on this later).

The next sequence gives us our first look at Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Drag Me to Hell’s Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel putting Sam Worthington’s disabled war veteran Jake Sully into the Apple version of a PET scanner, which will link his mind with his Na’vi Avatar. Weaver looks to be on fine form as the tough talking doctor, bitter at the fact Jake has been chosen to join her on a mission to Pandora despite having no experience of its hostile environment. The scene also makes it clear Avatar’s got a sense of humour, it’s not just going to be environmental messages, strange worlds and aerial dogfights.

The next scene was an extended look at the moment from the trailer where Jake in his avatar’s body wakes up in a lab for the first time. You’ll be happy to know that a combination of the 3D and being able to watch this short scene in full will remove almost all worries you may have from the brief glimpse in the trailer. Movement looks much more natural and the effects work much more convincing than the trailer seemed to imply. Abandon the hope that the Na’vi are going to look photoreal and it’s unlikely you are going to be disappointed by what Digital Domain have achieved with this alien race come December.

The remainder of the footage took place on Pandora. If you hadn’t noticed from the trailer because the Na’vi avatars are genetically engineered with the DNA of their human hosts they take on certain characteristics, in particular facial features. The next scene gave us a brief glimpse of Weaver’s Na’vi avatar for the first time, which looked uncannily like a young, smooth skinned version of herself. In the scene Jake’s avatar has to stand his ground in the face of one of Pandora’s many hostile creatures, an exotic hammerhead rhinoceros with colourful peacock-esque feathers protruding from its skull – it’s a promising hint of what to expect from the world Cameron and his team have been building for the last four years.

The scene concludes with Jake’s avatar being chased by the Thanator glimpsed in the trailer, but unfortunately the scene in full isn’t much of an improvement on the questionable effects work seen there and the rapid, destructive pursuit suffers from wicked motion blur, making a large portion of proceedings near incomprehensible. It’s a common problem with rapid camera movements in 3D films and one that Cameron doesn’t seem to have solved. On the plus side the effects work on Jake’s avatar in this scene is stunning with naturalistic movement and convincing skin textures creating an entirely believable CG creation.

The two remaining scenes both featured Zoe Saldana’s indigenous tribal Na’vi Neytiri, first fighting off a pack of wolf-like creatures who attack Jake and then berating him for making her do so. Saldana’s Neytiri looks suitably elegant and otherworldly but the broken English and hostile relationship which will inevitably turn into affection is something we’ve seen far too many times before.

Thankfully Cameron saved the best for last in a scene where Jake’s avatar, now seemingly an accepted member of the indigenous Na’vi tribe, must bond with a banshee (the flying creatures seen in the trailer) organically, but not after a tense fight on a perilous cliff edge. Again the effects work impresses and the 3D does a great job of making that inevitable ‘hanging off the edge’ moment look even more terrifying. As the banshee takes off there are a few motion blur problems, but it’s not as big an issue as in the earlier scene and once the camera settles further back the remaining moments are electric.

Together with the trailer this 16 minute peek at Cameron’s baby has reassured me somewhat that come December we won’t just be watching Fern Gully meets the Star Wars prequels. There are a few things to worry about, in particular motion blur from the 3D technology and the CG slipping into ‘uncanny valley’ more often than not, but overall there is much more to be excited about than dismayed, and of course even after these 16 minutes it’s impossible to tell if Cameron’s script will deliver on the potential. Come December 18 we’ll all know if Cameron is still the ‘King of the World’.