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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.

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.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) Dir. Quentin Tarantino 17 August 2009

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Everyone’s favourite film geek Quentin Tarantino is back this week with the sixth (or is that seventh?) film in his increasingly self indulgent body of work, but while Inglourious Basterds never reaches the lofty heights of his earlier masterpieces Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (for my money Tarantino’s most mature, confident and best work to date) there’s a bloodbath full of things to like in this World War Two escapist fantasy.

The film follows a five-act structure similar to Kill Bill. The first (and best) introduces Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed the “Jew Hunter” as he has been tasked with tracking down any unaccounted Jewish families in occupied France; and Shosanna Dreyfus a young girl who manages to escape from Landa after he massacres her family. Cut to some years later and young Shosanna has now become the proprietor of a cinema in France where Joseph Goebbels (the Reich Minister for Propaganda history buffs) wants to hold the premiere of his latest masterwork “Nation’s Pride”. Goebbels holds the film in such high regard that he invites not only all the high ranking members of the Nazi Party to the premier, but Hitler himself – a perfect opportunity for Shosanna to carry out her brutal vengeance. Also in Germany at this time are the Basterds, a rag tag group of American Jews and a Nazi defector led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who are operating a behind-enemy-lines apache resistance, scalping and defiling the bodies of any Nazi they find. They too see the premiere as the perfect opportunity to end the war in one fell swoop as the two plans come together in a final flame-fuelled reckoning.

As far as World War Two films go Tarantino’s version is much more fairy tale than revisionist history. At no point will you take proceedings seriously and at no point should you. The film is filled with tense and brutal stand out moments but what surprises most is just how funny it all is, more black comedy than the gung-ho action fare the title seems to promise. Take Landa, the film’s finest creation, played straight he would have been the caricature evil Nazi we’ve seen a hundred times before, but his slimy charm and the joy he seems to take in understanding exactly what people are planning at any given moment make him almost endearing and his brutal acts almost unexpected, but no less chilling.

The Basterds themselves are fun to watch during their brief time onscreen, with Brad Pitt revelling in the chance to play Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen in a world where subtlety and internal conflict are tossed out the window with reckless abandon. Nazi hunting is kept to a minimum; instead what we get is a lot of build up to a conclusion which Tarantino just about manages to pull off. Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands in Hunger) is a delight to watch in his  chapter where he meets up with an actress (Diane Kruger) who is able to get the Basterds into the premiere, unfortunately Tarantino relies on the undercover-agents-almost-getting-caught-by-Nazis scenario one too many times and the scene fails to elicit the kind of response it should have.

The major problem with the film (as with Kill Bill) is that the five act structure works against it as a cohesive whole. While each chapter would no doubt make an excellent short film with a few tweaks, when they’re tied together with a loose narrative thread as they are here it all feels like a bit of a mess. Tarantino abandons the disjointed temporal narrative he is best known for in favour of a linear tale which never spends enough time with any one character to create the kind of connection you felt with the characters in his early works. It doesn’t help that they’re all one dimensional either – sketches of people with one single purpose for existing in this world. In fact the only character that doesn’t suffer from this debilitating weakness is Landa who proves to be a fiercely complex enigma throughout, self-interest is his ultimate motivation but it’s impossible to know from what angle he’ll strike next.

Like all Tarantino films you should go into Inglourious Basterds expecting to hear a lot of long-winded conversations between people who look different but all speak just like the video store film geek in the director’s chair. While this didn’t feel like a problem in the likes of Jackie Brown, where he created some of the most well rounded characters of his career, and although its nowhere near as indulgent as Death Proof clearly what Tarantino needs is a producer who is able to curb some of his most self indulgent tendencies, not the least of which is his increasingly annoying decision to create a hodgepodge soundtrack out of his record collection. Recycling Morricone et al just doesn’t have the same impact it used to and now serves only to pull you out of proceedings.

The cast do the best with what they’ve got and for the most part are quite successful, even Eli Roth (whose screen time is cut down to a minimum thankfully) manages to be quite entertaining in the farcical finale. Melanie Laurent as Shosanna shares the bulk of the screen time (along with Waltz) and pulls off the role flawlessly with her tortured past plain to see beneath the tough exterior. Pitt is entertaining but little more, and the rest of the cast (including Kruger, Fassbender and a bizarre Mike Myers cameo) appear all too briefly to have much of an impact.

Tarantino clearly still has talent as a film-maker, unfortunately after the box office failure of Jackie Brown he seems to be stuck in a rut, creating juvenile genre pastiches of the kinds of films he used to watch in his youth and that he presumes we will all love as a result. While I confess to enjoying Inglourious Basterds as much as all his post Jackie Brown work, like that body of work Basterds has a number of serious flaws which threaten to derail proceedings, not least of which is the fact that Tarantino unchained is a very messy fellow.