Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and Other Aggregates

On Roger Ebert’s website recently, a debate started up about the usefulness of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Essentially, both of these websites are aggregates, which take a bunch of opinions from film critics and turn them into a numerical score, and then use that to give the film a rating out of 100. This is easy for critics like Roger Ebert, who use a star system that can be easily converted. Not so easy for people like Manhola Dargis, who doesn’t (and sometimes, these sites seem to woefully misunderstand a review and assign it a score that makes no sense). But HOW they calculate the rating isn’t really what I’m going to talk about. Rather, I’ll talk about what these ratings actually mean, and whether they are being used in place of actual film criticism.

I’ll admit that I frequent both sites with some regularity – at least once a week on Fridays to see what the score on a particular movie is. This is not a fool proof system to tell what is a great movie and what is a terrible movie, but it’s a pretty good one. Last year for example, I didn’t give a negative review to any film that got over 90% on the Tomatometer, or a positive review that scored less than 20% on the same meter. Normally, I find, when the critics is that unanimous, they are usually right to at least a certain degree. I may not have loved every film with a high rating (hello Man on Wire which scored 100%) or hated every film below 20% (Jumper wasn’t that bad), but yeah, for the most part, I went with the flow on those films.

What is more interesting to me is to see where the Tomatometer ranked my top ten films of last year. They were, in order, Synecdoche New York (61%), The Dark Knight (94%), Wall-E (97%), The Wreslter (96%), Revolutionary Road (76%), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (78%), Rachel Getting Married (79%), Milk (93%), Burn After Reading (77%), W (55%).

Now let’s look at those percentages – according to Rotten Tomatoes, there are 220 films “better” than my favorite film of last year, Synecdoche, New York (among them, by the way, is High School Musical 3 – are you kidding me!) Does that mean that I’m on crack for loving that film so much (shut up Jen!) No, what it means is that Synecdoche, New York was a divisive film. Some loved it, some hated it, and so simply looking at a Tomatometer score doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the film.

What I’m essentially saying is that Rotten Tomatoes and other sites like it are useful as tool, and only that. You want to know if you should go see Knowing or I Love You Man this weekend – check the Tomato rating. Knowing has a 24, I Love You Man has a 77, so you’re probably safer to take I Love You Man. I use it sometimes to either raise or dampen my enthusiasm before seeing a film. If there is a film that I’m really looking forward to, and it scores a 30, I lower my expectations. If there is a film I wasn’t looking forward to, and it scores an 80, then I raise them. It works out fine.

The problem comes when people use the Tomatometer and ONLY the Tomatometer to try and figure out what movie to see. These are the same people who will click on Roger Ebert’s website and see that he gave Knowing 4 stars and Monsters vs. Aliens 2.5, and go with Knowing, simply because the number was higher. These ratings are poor substitute for ACTUAL film criticism.

I have often felt that a critics “rating” on a film is the most useless part of their review. I still give out ratings, because I’ve gotten used to it, but from the most part, you can take my rating off, and it wouldn’t change anything in the review itself. The important part of what a critic feels about a movie is not WHAT he feels, but rather WHY.

In the coming weeks, I plan on devoting one of these columns in full to Roger Ebert, but let’s use him as an example. Recently, people have started to question whether Ebert has gone “soft” as he seems to hand out 4 star reviews to practically every film. Two of his most inexplicable recent examples were for the aforementioned Knowing and for Lakeview Terrace last year. If you were to look at the numbers on Rotten Tomatoes and see that only 24% of critics liked Knowing, and only 33% liked Lakeview Terrace, you may start thinking that Ebert has lost his mind. How could he possibly love these movies that much, when everyone else hated them. For that, you need to go and read his reviews. While I disagree with Ebert on both of these films, you cannot say that he didn’t arrive at his opinions honestly. He quite clearly explains in both reviews why he loved the movie as much as he did, and he does cite reasons why. We could argue that Ebert simply gave great reviews to two filmmakers that he has admired in the past (Alex Proyas, who made Dark City, also made Knowing, and Neil Labute, who made In the Company of Men, made Lakeview Terrace). But then again, Ebert wasn’t very kind to Proyas’ I, Robot and I like to think had Ebert been healthy, he would have trashed LaBute’s The Wicker Man along with everyone else. Ebert isn’t wrong in his opinion on either film, any more than I am right. We both engaged with the films in question, and came away with different impressions. In short, what worked for him, didn’t work for me. Reading the reviews, I was left with the sense that we’d have to agree to disagree. He argues his case so well, that you know you won’t convince him he’s wrong.

The problem comes when people use only these sites, and nothing else, to determine what is a good movie and what isn’t. There is a connection, however casual, between the rise in these sites, and the decline in the number of films critics out there. The number of distinct voices is gradually shrinking, and that’s a bad thing. I may not always like Armond White, but I like the fact that every week he gets a venue to decry the death of movies and the idiocy of film critics. Ebert is, truth be told, not what he once was, but he is still invaluable. In short, while these sites are a useful tool, that’s all they are. They more we rely on them, the less we rely on actual critics, which of course, makes sites like Rotten Tomatoes all the more useless. When there are only 10 movie critics left, who the hell will care about an aggregate result?

Capsule Movie Review: Gigantic

Gigantic **
Directed by:
Matt Aselton
Written By: Matt Aselton & Adam Nagata.
Starring: Paul Dano (Brian), Zooey Deschanel (Happy), John Goodman (Happy’s Dad), Edward Asner (Brian’s Dad), Jane Alexander (Brian’s Mom).

Gigantic is a strange romantic comedy. It doesn’t quite follow the formula that Hollywood sets out for the genre, but it doesn’t stray too far either. It stars Paul Dano in an interesting performance as Brian young man who works in a mattress salesman in Manhattan. It’s there that he meets a strange young woman named Happy (Zooey Deschanell) and her boisterous father (John Goodman). Brian and Happy are both lost souls of a sort, and in each other they find someone who understands them. Brian’s goal has always been to adopt a Chinese baby, and while most people deride his ambition, Happy somehow understands it. For her part, Happy has spent her life drifting from one dead end career to another, never really having to worry about it since her father is extremely rich. The performances by Dano, Deschanel and Goodman are all quite good, as are Edward Asner and Jane Alexander as Brian’s parents (who obviously had him later in life). Deschanel in particular is quite lovely and fun in the film, but then again, I believe I may be in love with her, so I'm hardly objective. But the movie has a terminal case of the “quirks”. Every character, from the smallest to the largest roles, all have to have some sort of weird personality trait. Then there is the distractingly bad subplot about a homeless man who keeps showing up to attack Brian for no reason at all (at least not one that the filmmakers feel the need to tell us about). The movie is interesting and entertaining in parts, but it doesn’t add up to anything. The movie never really figures out what it wants to be. In short, it’s a mildly entertaining mess.

Note: I saw this film at the Toronto Film Festival last September, and this is the mini-review I wrote at the time. I don't think it's one of my best reviews, as it was dashed off rather quickly, as I never actually thought the film would see the light of day again. I do think it probably captures the movie pretty well. In those inevitable conversations you have with people in lines during the festival - the film came up again and again. Normally in answer to the question "What's the worst film you saw this year?" The film isn't that bad, but as I noted in my review it isn't that good either. The film is being released on a few screens in the USA, so I decided to post my review. It may never actually make it up here until Home Video. In any format though, you can feel safe in skipping it.

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part III: Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha (1972) ** ½
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Joyce Hooper Corrington & John William Corrington based on the book by Ben L. Reitman.
Starring: Barbara Hershey ('Boxcar' Bertha Thompson), David Carradine ('Big' Bill Shelly), Barry Primus (Rake Brown), Bernie Casey (Von Morton), John Carradine (H. Buckram Sartoris), Victor Argo (McIver #1), David Osterhout (McIver #2), Grahame Pratt (Emeric Pressburger), 'Chicken' Holleman (M. Powell), Harry Northup (Deputy Sheriff Harvey Hall), Ann Morell (Tillie Parr), Marianne Dole (Mrs. Mailler), Joe Reynolds (Joe Cox), Martin Scorsese (Brothel Client).

Boxcar Bertha is probably the least interesting feature that Martin Scorsese ever directed. There is a reason for that – all the other films he made, he had more of a choice in the material. He either wrote the screenplay, co-wrote it, or had it shaped to meet his vision. Boxcar Bertha was a film that was handed to him by Roger Corman, and Scorsese simply made it. You cannot blame him for doing so. It had been 5 years since he completed Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, and aside from his little seen documentary Street Scenes (which is, regrettably, one of the films I cannot find for this series), Scorsese had not directed another film. When Roger Corman came calling, Scorsese jumped at the opportunity to direct again, even if it was a story that didn’t really suit him.

But to call Scorsese simply a director for hire for Boxcar Bertha would be, I think, rather unfair. The film has all the trappings of a typical Corman exploitation film – lots of sex, nudity and violence – but it has a tone that is different from most of them. Many exploitation films of the 1970s are fun, as long as you do not allow yourself to actually think of the misogyny on display in most of them. Scorsese’s film is a little bit different in that there is a sense of sadness that hangs over the entire proceedings. This isn’t a very fun film to watch, although it probably sounds like one.

The story takes place during the depression, and follows Box Car Thompson (Barbara Hershey), who watches her father die in plane crash, and then hits the road, eventually falling in love with Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine), a Union Man, who makes a nuisance of himself everywhere he goes. The film follows them, and their gang which includes cowardly card shark Rake Brown (Barry Primus), and a colorful African American Von Morton (Bernie Casey). The men go in and out of jail, and Bertha breaks them out, then doesn’t, and finally finds herself working at a brothel. The scene that the film is probably most remembered for is one of the final ones, where the big, bad guys finally catch up to Shelly, and Crucify him on a train (it’s interesting to watch this crucifixion and compare it to the crucifixation in Scorsese’ The Last Temptation of Christ, as they are very similar).

I think the problem with the film is the same problem Scorsese has often had in some of his less successful films – that is, he tries to marry a genre film to a film that expresses his own personal obsessions, and ends up with a film that is half baked on both accounts. If my memory serves me correctly (and we’ll find out in the coming months), this was a problem not only in this film but with New York, New York and Cape Fear. Scorsese is too much of a film artist to get out of the film’s way, and just let it be what it was meant to be. Played for fun, Boxcar Bertha could have been a nice little exploitation film. But that’s not how’s it's played. The performances by Barbara Hershey and David Carradine are quite good in the film, but they seem to have followed Scosese’s lead, and are taking the material a little too seriously. While the sex in the film – and there is quite a lot of it – is much more guilt free than we see in most Scorsese movies, dare I say even more pleasurable than in his other films – it still isn’t just the fun scenes Corman probably imagined. I think it’s telling that Scorsese cast himself as a brothel client who asks Bertha if he pays extra, can he stay the night, because he doesn’t want to sleep alone. Sex, as always, isn’t just sex to Scorsese.

So, Boxcar Bertha as a film unto itself is not completely successful. What it is though, is well made, and entertaining in fits and starts. The film is never boring that’s for sure. But for Scorsese, it represents probably the worst film he made in his career. It gave him some valuable experience, and probably taught him a lesson – he isn’t good as a director for hire. He needs to be able to shape his material to suit himself. The only other times in his career where he’d work as a director for hire are probably After Hours, The Color of Money and Cape Fear. With the exception of After Hours, which he somehow turned into a masterpiece, these are among the more disappointing films of Scorsese’s career. But if Boxcar Bertha represents the worst film I have to sit through while doing this series, I’ll be happy. It is, after all, not a bad little film. It’s just not a film that anyone who isn’t a Scorsese die hard has any real reason to see.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part II: Who's That Knocking at My Door?

Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1968) *** ½
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Harvey Keitel (J.R.), Zina Bethune (Girl), Leonard Kuras (Joey), Michael Scala (Sally Gaga), Harry Northup (Harry), Ann Collette (Young girl in dream), Martin Scorsese (Gangster).

The first shot in Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door is of a stature of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus. It is a statue that Scorsese will come back to time and again throughout the movie. It belongs to the mother of the film’s main character, J.R. (Harvey Keitel), and it is her most prized possession. The scene expands and we see that mother cooking, and feeding her family. Then we cut to a scene outside where J.R. and his friends are hanging around, and there is a sudden burst of violence, and we see them beat up some guy on the street as rock music blares on the soundtrack. I can hardly think of a sequence that more defines the films of Martin Scorsese.

Who’s That Knocking At My Door was Scorsese’s first feature film, and while the film is certainly rough around the edges, and has a few scenes that don’t seem to be completely in sync with the rest of the movie, it is a remarkably assured debut film. From that opening sequence right through the rest of the movie, you know you are in the hands of a talented director who has got something to say.

The film follows J.R. in two distinct relationships. When we first meet him, he seems happy to hang out with his friends not doing too much. They waste time, argue, bicker, try to pick up “broads”, and basically act like typical young men. They have no drive, no ambition, but they don’t really care. The second relationship is with his relationship with The Girl (Zina Bethune). In perhaps the film’s best scene, J.R. meets the Girl on the ferry, and starts to talk to her when he notices a picture of John Wayne from The Searchers in the French magazine she is reading. It is a long scene – perhaps as long as 10 minutes – and yet it never gets boring. Not only are the actors at the top of their considerable skills, but Scorsese’s camera keeps moving back and forth, avoiding the usual static two shot we would most normally get in a scene like this. From the beginning of his career, Scorsese’s camera seems restless – it wants to be a part of the action, and it has a way of involving the audience with his films on a more intimate level. He isn’t just using camera moves to show off, as many directors do, but with a real sense of purpose.

The film is basically about J.R. and his attitude towards women, which he explains thusly to The Girl after they watch Rio Bravo. The girl in that movie (Angie Dickinson) is a broad someone who is “not exactly a virgin”– you can mess around with a broad, but you never marry her. A girl is someone more innocent and pure – she is the type of girl you marry. J.R. thinks The Girl is that type of girl – and he fully intends to marry her. But then she tells him a secret – a few years ago, she went out on a date with a guy, who drove them to a secluded spot, and proceeded to rape her. J.R. doesn’t understand how she could let that happen. Why didn’t she stop him from driving her out there? Didn’t she see what was coming? Didn’t she lead him on, and do something to perhaps even bring it on herself?

The two most important scenes in the film directly follow this revelation by the girl, who J.R. has stormed out on. First, he and his friends have a party, and get a couple of “broads” to come over. In a scary scene, they men debate you will get to go “first” (hence the original title of the movie I Call First) with the women. To them, they aren’t human beings, but objects meant for their sexual pleasure. The second scene involves J.R. going over drunkenly to The Girl’s apartment the morning after that scary scene. Things seem to be okay, until he tells her that he forgives her for what she did, and he is willing to marry her anyway. She, unlike he, realizes that he will never be able to get past his sexual hang-ups he has about her. Things turn ugly, and he calls her a “whore”, in a scene so painful it is difficult to watch.

Who’s That Knocking At My Door is not one of Scorsese’s masterpieces. It is too rough, and the compromises he had to make to get the film released (notably an ill advised dream sequence in which J.R. has sex with a prostitute to up the nudity level of the film) show. It is not as polished, or as confident in itself as future Scorsese films would be. And yet, it remains a fascinating film, one that draws you in much more than perhaps it should. The acting is superb, particularly by Keitel, who is perfect as the Scorsese surrogate in the film. It also introduces Scorsese’s main themes in a single film. If the Scorsese hadn’t gone on to become “Scorsese” the film most likely would have been forgotten, much like many strong films, independent films do. But the film still works remarkably well as a film unto itself. The fact that we are able to watch it through a prism where we can tell what Scorsese was going to do in the future, makes it even more rewarding.

Movie Reviews: Two Lovers

Two Lovers *** ½
Directed By:
James Gray.
Written By: James Grey & Ric Menello.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Leonard Kraditor), Gwyneth Paltrow (Michelle Rausch), Vinessa Shaw (Sandra Cohen), Moni Moshonov (Reuben Kraditor), Isabella Rossellini (Ruth Kraditor), John Ortiz (Jose Cordero), Bob Ari (Michael Cohen), Julie Budd (Carol Cohen), Elias Koteas (Ronald Blatt).

Two Lovers is about damaged people. People who have essentially been hurt by life, and yet somehow continue living each day, even when it’s a struggle to get through them. At its core, is one of the oldest stories in the movies – that of a young man torn between two women – the nice one that his family wants him to be with, and the crazier one that he is inexplicably drawn to. But the film is not a cookie cutter exercise in melodrama, but rather it closely examines these characters, particularly poor Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), who is at the center of the triangle.

When we meet Leonard, he is so depressed, he has just jumped off a bridge into the water in a half hearted suicide attempt (the bridge, after all, isn’t that high). He has done this before – in fact he just got out of a facility four months ago after trying to kill himself. He was at one point engaged to marry a friend that he loved, until they got genetic testing done, and found out that they are both carriers of the Tay-sachs gene, meaning that if they had children, they would most likely die within a year of their birth. Her parents called off the wedding, and whisked her away, leaving Leonard hurt, alone and confused. We get the sense that there was always something not quite right about Leonard. He is bi-polar, but seems functional to a certain extent. Now, living at home with his parents and working at his dad’s dry cleaning business, Leonard isn’t all that happy.

But then within 24 hours, he meets two different women. The first is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaner who wants to buy Leonard’s father’s business. This is not a hostile takeover, but rather a decision based on mutual interests. Sandra is drawn to Leonard, and is somehow able to see past his flaws to the person he is inside. There is a connection between them, and we sense that they could in fact be happy together. But then, Leonard is blown over by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). She is pretty, blonde, non-Jewish and seemingly much more fun than Sandra. She goes out clubbing with her friends, and invites Leonard along, only to leave him standing outside by himself. She does drugs, is involved with a married lawyer at the firm she works at. She too is drawn to Leonard, but not in the way he wants her to be. She is one of those people who is so wrapped up in her own problems, she doesn’t really understand the pain she inflicts on others. Poor Leonard doesn’t stand a chance.

As I mentioned at the top of the review, Two Lovers avoids the trappings of a regular romantic melodrama that the movie could have easily devolved into. It also avoids the clichés we have grown so accustomed to in most movies (both comedies and dramas) about Jewish parents. Leonard’s mother (Isabella Rossellini), doesn’t try to guilt Leonard into anything, doesn’t wonder aloud why he cannot find a “nice, Jewish” girl to settle down with. His father (Moni Moshonov), doesn’t try either. They worry about their son, but at the end of the day, just want him to be happy. Sandra’s father (Bob Ari), likes Leonard, likes the fact that he seems to make his daughter happy, but is worried he’ll hurt her. There is no guilt, just a lot of worry and heartache here.

The film doesn’t even devolve to the level of cliché is regards to Michelle’s married lover (Elias Koteas). Yes, he is certainly older than she is, and at times can be controlling, but he truly does care about Michelle. He may be an adulterer, but he isn’t the horrible older man just keeping Michelle around for sex that we often see in the movies. In his two scenes, Koteas is somehow able to make this man a complete person. He confides in Leonard when they first meet, when Michelle goes to the bathroom, that he’s worried about her, and wants him to keep an eye on her for him. Later, when he cannot make it to the hospital and Leonard takes Michelle instead, he arrives at the apartment he pays for her to live in, and is almost kind and caring towards her – and filled with genuine regret that he could not be there for her when she needed him. Michelle talks a lot about his temper, and how he yells and screams, but we don’t see that in him. Given Michelle’s reliability, and her flair for saying things with the express purpose of getting Leonard’s sympathy, we wonder if it happens at all.

At the heart of the movie is a wonderful performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It is a sensitive, nuanced, subtle performance, in which we never catch Phoenix acting. He gets under Leonard’s skin, and makes him into a man who is not comfortable in his own skin. He has a deep rooted pain inside that he tries, unsuccessfully, to hide from the world around him. He is never quite able to express himself in the way in which he wants to. Phoenix is matched by Paltrow, who is equally damaged but much more selfish. She strings Leonard along, using him to fulfill her needs, while never really considering his. It is the best performance either actor has given in a long time.

The last scene in the movie plays like an inevitability. Like his previous film, We Own the Night, James Gray gives us a sense that this is the only place the movie could end and that the main character in the movie never really had a choice – this is where he belongs. Both films end in a note of sadness about this inevitability. This is a wonderful, little film – one the early highlights of this year.

Movie Review: Monsters vs. Aliens

Monsters vs. Aliens *** ½
Directed By:
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon
Written By: Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Susan Murphy/Ginormica), Seth Rogen (B.O.B.), Hugh Laurie (Dr. Cockroach Ph.D.), Will Arnett (The Missing Link), Kiefer Sutherland (General W.R. Monger), Rainn Wilson (Gallaxhar), Stephen Colbert (President Hathaway), Paul Rudd (Derek Dietl), Julie White (Wendy Murphy), Jeffrey Tambor (Carl Murphy), Amy Poehler (Computer), Ed Helms (News Reporter), Renée Zellweger (Katie), John Krasinski (Cuthbert).

Monsters vs. Aliens is good old fashioned fun. It is a colorful, funny fast moving animated film, loaded with nods to science fiction films in the past – everything from cheesy old 1950s space invaders movies to Spielberg and Kubrick – that is both action packed enough to appeal to kids, and clever enough to appeal to adults, without slipping into the constant nudging and winking that marred the Shrek films. In short, it’s entertaining as hell.

The story opens with Susan (with the voice of Reese Witherspoon), as a normal Modesto woman on the day of her wedding to local TV weatherman Derek Dietel (Paul Rudd). A meteor strikes earth, landing directly on top of her. Instead of being crushed to death, the meteor gives Susan special powers. She grows into a giant, and has pure energy coursing through her veins. Of course, she is immediately brought down by the government, and put into a holding cell with other “monsters”. There is Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist, who turned himself into a life sized bug, The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a sea monster that is millions of years old, and Bob (Seth Rogen), a talking pile of blue sludge with no brain. Oh and there’s Insectasaurous, a giant caterpillar, who doesn’t talk, and gets easily distracted by bright lights. When an evil alien warlord, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) discovers that the meteor that crashed on earth has the energy source he needs to clone a race of other Gallaxhar, he sends his giant robot underling to get it back, before heading to earth himself. Earth’s only chance to save itself, is to rely on these monsters to stop him.

And that’s the story in a nutshell – but then you probably figured that out based on the title. But the story isn’t really what holds our interest. It’s the characters, and the thrilling animation. 3-D is perhaps the perfect way to see a film like this. It’s a nod to the old 3-D movies that were popular in this genre in the 1950s, but done with expertise. True, I could have done without some of the more overt effects (a man playing with a paddle ball for example), which just reeks of showing off, but like Coraline earlier this year, the filmmakers use the 3-D not simply to create awe inspiring effects, but also to deepen the field. The effect is jaw dropping. The animation beyond that is also wonderful. The characters have a unique design to them, and the colors pop consistently throughout. In short, it’s a joy to simply watch the great animation.

The voice actors also do a terrific job. Witherspoon has a wholesome innocence in her voice that makes her perfect for Susan. Will Arnett has a cocksure arrogance about his voice as the Missing Link. Hugh Laurie Cackles manically as Dr. Cockroach. And best of all is Seth Rogen, who seems to be a natural playing a monster with no brain. They are supported by an excellent, evil Rainn Wilson, Kiefer Sutherland, going all George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove as General W.R. Monger, the monsters jailer, and of course the great Stephen Colbert as the arrogant, asshole President, who seems just about as delusional as Colbert plays on his TV show nightly. That the screenplay is also constantly funny (apparently with some ad-libbing done by the cast), helps to keep the movie constantly entertaining.

Monsters vs. Aliens does not approach the level of genius on display in many of the Pixar movies (Wall-E for example), but then I’m not really sure the filmmakers are trying to do that. They are looking at making a loving homage to the science fiction films they love, and in that they succeed wonderfully. The score, by Henry Jackman, does a wonderful job at paying tribute to John Williams. The monsters themselves are, of course, based on the B-films Attack of the 50 Foot Women, The Fly, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Blob, and Galaxhar looks like he stepped off the pages of some 1950’s Amazing Stories book. The nods to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind work wonderfully. But even if you aren’t interested in what the films that this movie pays homage to, Monsters vs. Aliens works wonderfully well as a film by itself. It is one of the most entertaining movies I have seen so far this year.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

God and the Cinema Part III: Kevin Smith

It may seem odd that I chose Kevin Smith for the third part of this series, after dealing with Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg in the first two installments, but I actually believe that Smith’s film represent a certain modern take on religion, particularly in the Western world. It is clear that almost no one waits until marriage anymore before having sex, and yet a lot of people are still consider themselves religious. Lots of Catholics use birth control, even inside of a marriage, even though the Church tells them not to. In short, things have changed. What used to be considered “sinful” is now almost accepted practice. When I went in with my future wife to meet the priest who was going to marry us, he didn’t bat an eye when he found out we were already living together. No lecture, no tsk tsk, nothing. Kevin Smith, in a very real way, represents this idea of still having religious beliefs in the modern world, even as we seem to reject some of the basic tenets of the Church and it's teachings.

For this article, I am going to concentrate of two of Smith’s films – Chasing Amy and Dogma, as I believe they are most overt about religion of any of his films. They also have the added advantage of being far and away his best two films.

I’ve always thought that Chasing Amy was essentially Smith’s version of Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door? In Scorsese’s film, J.R. (Harvey Keitel), dumps the girl he is in love with (even calls her a “whore”), because she was raped. In his mind, she must have done something to ask for it. She is not a virgin, so she is no longer “pure”, and he cannot possibly marry her. He has two ideas about women – they are either “broads” or “girls”. A broad is a woman you can fuck, but not marry, a girl is a woman you can marry but not fuck (at least, presumably, until you are married).

Something similar happens to Holden (Ben Affleck) in Chasing Amy. Now, the movie is set 30 years later, so the definition of what makes a girl a “whore” has changed, but what hasn’t changed is the reaction of the man. When Holden meets Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), she is a lesbian. Yet, the two of them hookup anyway, and it doesn’t really bother him. She was a lesbian, now she isn’t; it’s not a big deal. But what drives Holden over the edge is when he finds out that Alyssa has had sex with men before. Even still, he’d be okay with that, but the story he hears is that in high school, she was involved in a three way with two other guys. This throws him over the edge. He yells at her, tells her they were using her, and essentially calls her a whore. He tries to explain that it was high school, she was experimenting, and it doesn’t mean anything now. It’s not like she’s still fucking two guys at once on a regular basis. She’s with him now, and the past doesn’t matter. Holden doesn’t see it that way.

Instead, Holden comes up with a “brilliant” idea. In his mind, he cannot get past the fact that she has done something in her past that he hasn’t. So he wants to level the playing field. His idea is that he and his friend Banky (Jason Lee) will have a three way with her. This way, he’ll have done something similar to her so they can get past it and Banky may finally be able to admit that he’s gay. It shouldn’t matter to Alyssa, because she has already done the same thing in the past anyway, so what’s the difference?

What Holden doesn’t understand, because he’s an idiot, is that while Alyssa never felt like a whore for what she did in high school, that is precisely what she would feel like if she did this for him. She determined a long time ago that this was not what she wanted. What she wants is Holden, and if he cannot accept her, then it’s over.

Chasing Amy isn’t an overtly religious movie (I think the only time the world Catholic is spoken is when Jason Lee says “I should have dated more Catholic girls in high school. As it is, I have no ‘And then she removed her jumper stories’”.), but I do think it speaks to something that at least some Catholics still go through. The idea that the girl you’re going to marry has to be “pure” has probably gone out the window for most Catholic men these days, but there is still a line somewhere. Holden draws his line, and it costs him the woman he’s in love with. The same basic thing happens in Scorsese’s films from 30 years before. The line may have moved, but it’s still there. In his own way, Smith is exploring the same issue that the greatest director in history has explored for much of his career.

Dogma is a much more “religious” movie, and it makes no effort to hide that. The film is about the last descendent of Jesus (Linda Fiorentino), who works at an abortion clinic, who is sent on a mission from God to prevent two angels who have been banished from heaven (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) from walking through an archway that would forgive their sins, and let them back into heaven. Since God has promised to honor whatever is Holy on Earth being Holy in Heaven, this would prove that God is Fallible; it would mean the end of the world.

While I think that Chasing Amy shows Smith struggling with his own sexual morality – which has at least in part been shaped by the Church – Dogma is more concerned with looking for answers to the bigger questions about God. How do you reconcile a book that is 2,000 years old with the modern world? That is essentially what every character in the movie is trying to do.

Affleck’s angel is angry with God that he gave humans so much more than he ever gave them. They are free to do what they please – they can piss away their lives, and choose not even to believe if they want to. He knows that what he’s doing will destroy humanity, and he’s okay with that. Damon plays an Old Testament angel in a New Testament world. He doesn’t know why God doesn’t bring down his wrath more often, so he takes it upon himself. Yet, he still loves God, and his creation. He just believes that some people need to be punished.

The Church itself is represented by Cardinal Ignatius Glick (played, in a genius stroke of casting by George Carlin). They are trying to “modernize” the Church, to make it less scary. In addition to the arch, that will instantly forgive your sins, they have decided to replace the crucifix, which is “too violent”, with a Buddy Jesus – who is smiling and giving a big Thumb’s Up. The Church is losing relevance, and they need to do something, right?

And Fiorentino is much like Jesus himself. Allow me to compare her to a Scorsese character again; in saying that by working in an abortion clinic, although she is Catholic, is similar to the idea suggested in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, where as a carpenter, Jesus makes crosses for people to be crucified on. They both know that God would be unhappy with their decision, but they do it anyway. By the end of both films though, the character has accepted their destiny.

All of these characters are struggling with their own relationship with God, and what that means in their lives. I think the basic message in the film that everyone needs to find their own path. Everyone's relationship with God is different. It doesn't so much matter WHAT you believe, but instead, it matters that you DO believe.


In a way, I have been disappointed with every Kevin Smith film he has done subsequent to Dogma. True, I have enjoyed them all (even Jersey Girl – deal with it), and yet, like I sometimes feel about Quentin Tarantino, there has been a regression in his films. With Chasing Amy and Dogma, Smith explored some rather complex moral issues. The fact that he did so in an entertaining and comedic way in no way lessens the fact that he was dealing with his own personal issues in each film.

But truly, has he done that since? I can watch Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks II, Zack and Miri Make a Porno at any time, and enjoy them. Yet to me, this represents Smith regressing into that kid on the playground who gets a kick out of saying “naughty” words. There is nothing really wrong with that, and yet I do think it ultimately lessens the value of his subsequent films. At one time, even Martin Scorsese saw Smith as a worthy successor to himself. I wonder if anyone still feels that way.

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part I: The Early Shorts

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) **
Written & Directed by:
Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Zeph Michelis (Harry), Sarah Braveman (Analyst), Fred Sica (Friend), Mimi Stark (Wife), Robert Uricola (Singer).

It’s Not Just You Murray! (1964) ** ½
Written & Directed by:
Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Ira Rubin (Murray), San De Fazio (Joe), Andrea Martin (Wife), Catherine Scorsese (Mother), Robert Uricola (Singer).

The Big Shave (1967) ****
Written & Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Peter Bernuth (Young Man).

As a student at NYU film school, Martin Scorsese directed three short films – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? In 1963, It’s Not Just You, Murray in 1964 and The Big Shave in 1967. Thanks to the miracle of Youtube, fans of the director, like me, can now go back and watch these shorts in their entirety, and get a sense of what Martin Scorsese was like before he started to direct features. While all three features are at least interesting, and show some surprisingly good editing and shot selection for student films, only one of them, The Big Shave, is ultimately very successful. The first two are interesting only for fans.

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? tells the story of a young writer, Harry, who moves to New York, and buys a photograph to hang in his apartment. The photograph itself is not very interesting, but Harry finds himself inexplicably drawn to it. It affects everything in his life. He tries to distract himself by doing other things – watching old movies on TV, throwing a party, getting married, but ultimately, he just gives up, and ends up being sucked into the picture. The film, which runs about 9 minutes, is interesting because of its rather distinct look and feel. You can tell, based on the surreal aspects of the film, that Scorsese was hugely interested in Fellini at the time, and this is probably his attempt to do something akin to 8 ½. What I also noticed was how it started something that Scorsese would continue throughout his career – that is looking at women only through the prism of how the main character sees them. The wife isn’t even given a name, let alone any dialogue. She exists solely because the protagonist wants her to. The film is interesting, but ultimately not very successful. It’s a student film after all, but still at only nine minutes, it felt longer than it needed to be.

It’s Not Just You, Murray! was more successful than the first film. It exists as an homage to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s, with nods to Fellini and Godard as well. What I enjoyed about the movie is how what we are seeing on the screen contradicts the voiceover narration of Murray himself. He flashes back to his humble beginnings as a bootlegger, and in an hilarious sequence, we see him being busted by the cops, as he tells us “Because of a misunderstanding, about which I was misunderstood, I was unavailable to do anything, or see anywhere, for a while”, as we see him in jail. Murray goes on about what a great friend of his Joe is, but on screen, it becomes clear that Joe isn’t that great of a friend. He’s abandons Murray, screws him over, and is clearly sleeping with Murray’s wife, and may in fact be the father of her child. The film contains a few interesting things I noticed about the movie that would reappear in Scorsese’s features were. One is the look at the low level mobsters, not the guys on the top that Scorsese would do later in Mean Streets and GoodFellas, among others. Another was the presence of the protagonists mother, played for the first time but not the last by Scorsese’s own mother, who of course, tries to stuff her son full of food, even while he’s in jail (remember the scene in GoodFellas, where on the way to dispose of a body, they stop at Joe Pesci’s mother’s house, also played by Catherine Scorsese, and she insists on feeding them). Another is how your friends will stab you in the back, and about the sexual purity of the wife, who like in What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? is seen solely through the eyes of the Murray. I certainly enjoyed It’s Not Just You, Murray! more than the first film, but once again, it felt a little too long (this one is about 15 minutes) for what Scorsese was trying to do.

Unquestionably the best of the trio of films, and the most well known, is The Big Shave from 1967. Perhaps the most political film of Scorsese’s entire career, The Big Shave is a short (under 6 minutes) film about a man who just keeps shaving himself over and over again. He seems oblivious to the fact that each time he shaves, he’s cutting himself more and more, and blood starts to pour down his face, splattering all over the sink and the floor, but he just keeps on going. Eventually, he will cut his own throat. The film is Scorsese’s allegory for America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (the alternate title of the film is Viet ‘67) with the young man being America, oblivious to the damage and bloodshed he is causing himself. It’s a powerful, disturbing film, and in my mind is probably just about the ultimate student film. Many student filmmakers try and shock their audience, with their edgy, violent, political fare, but most are unsuccessful. In a few brief minutes, with a few shocking images, Scorsese does a brilliant job of capturing just what he wants to. It is a brilliant little film.

For the sake of consistency of the series, I assigned star ratings to each of these three films, although I didn’t really want to. I mean, I don’t really think it’s fair to hold Scorsese’s student films up to any professional standard. Ultimately, while I found all three movies fascinating, I don’t think I’ll be returning to What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in Place Like This? or It’s Not Just You Murray! anytime again soon. I have already watched The Big Shave numerous times, and the film’s impact never diminishes. For fans of the director, I would recommend all three. For casual viewers, I think you should check out The Big Shave, as it proves just what you can do in the short form. It’s great. The other two, not so much.

The Films of Martin Scorsese: An Introduction

I was going to write a new piece for my God and the Cinema series on the films of Martin Scorsese, but realized that it was too big a topic for one post. Scorsese’s films have always been obsessed with spirituality and religion – particularly, but not exclusively Catholicism – and looking over what I wanted to write, I realized that it would have to be a multiple posting and I didn’t really want to do that. There are so many films and filmmakers that can go into that series that I didn’t want to put them all on hold for weeks, if not months, as I made my way through Scorsese. So, I decided to create a new series about the films of Martin Scorsese. This may mean that my God and Cinema series may not be able to be a weekly one, but I hope that at least it can be bi-weekly.

My reasoning for starting The Films of Martin Scorsese series has another reason. Scorsese is far and away my favorite filmmaker. Throughout his long career, he has never made a bad film. True, some are better than others, and some are merely average, but there has not been one that I would describe as bad.

I have watched many of his films so many times, I practically have them memorized, but I realized that it has been years since I sat down and watch some of his films – sometimes even films that are among his best. After reading Roger Ebert’s book on Scorsese, I hungered to go back and watch them all over again. So that’s what I am going to do.

According the IMDB, Scorsese has 41 directing credits. I have tracked down nearly all of the films listed there – with the following exceptions - Vesuvius VI (1959), Scorsese’s first short, which I’m not sure exists anymore as most sites don’t even include it, Streets Scenes (1970) a documentary about the Vietnam War protests, Made in Milan (1990) a short documentary about Armani and Lady by the Sea: The Statute of Liberty (2004), none of which I can find in any form. If by some miracle I do find these films, I will do posts on them as well.

The other 37 credits, as well as two American Express commercials he directed which were not listed, I have found. The plan is to go through each film, starting at the beginning, and giving a post about each one. The first part which actually go into Scorsese’s first three short films – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, It’s Not Just You Murray! and The Big Shave. Apart from that, and the two American Express commercials, each film, even if it’s a short, will get its own post. So that means even lesser known documentaries, Italiamerican and American Boy, his music video for Michael Jackson’s Bad, his episode of Amazing Stories, Mirror Mirror, his segment for The Concert of America, The Neighborhood, and his Hitchcock homage The Key to Reserva even his production footage from The Last Temptation of Christ, will each get their own posting. They may not be as long or as in depth, but I didn’t really see a more logical way to group his other shorts. It will be a 36 part series with (hopefully) two colums per week, depending on how much time I have to watch the films themselves that I hope to wrap up by October 2, which is when Scorsese’s new film, Shutter Island, opens.

I am looking forward to this series. Not only does it give me an excuse to go back and watch some of my very favorite films of all time, but it also may allow me to see all of his films in a new light. I remember being disappointed in films like Boxcar Bertha, New York New York, The Color of Money, Cape Fear and Kundun – not because they were not good, but because they were not great, but perhaps freed from those expectations, I can watch these films, which I have never seen more than once, and see them for what they are, not what I wanted them to be. My memory on other films – Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence and Bringing Out the Dead for example, has grown hazy in the years since I watched them, so this will be a good refresher. It also gave me an excuse to track down some of his lesser known videos, shorts, documentaries, TV episodes, many of which I have never seen at all before. I hope some of you enjoy the new series. I know I will.

DVD Reviews: Watchmen Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter ***
Directed By:
Mike Smith & Daniel DelPurgatorio.
Written By: Alex Tse & Zack Snyder based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Gibbons.
With the Voices of: Gerald Butler (The Mariner), Jared Harris (Ridley).

Watchmen: Under the Hood ** ½
Directed By:
Eric Matthies.
Written By: Hans Robinoff based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Gibbons.
Starring: Stephen McHattie (Hollis Mason/Nite Owl), Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre), Ted Friend (Larry Culpeper), Jay Brazeau (Bernard/News Vendor), Rob LaBelle (Wally Weaver), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Edward Blake/The Comedian).

Alan Moore’s Watchmen is one of the densest graphic novels in history, and one that filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese to Terry Gilliam struggled to make into a movie before giving up. Director Zack Snyder finally figured out how to make the film, and earlier this month we got the result. While the reviews have been mixed, and the box office far from spectacular, I love the movie. But as when adapting any long, dense book for the screen, things had to be cut –two of those things were the books within the book Watchmen – the comic book Tales of the Black Freighter that he constantly see a young man reading on the streets, and the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason’s, autobiography, Under the Hood. So in love with the these books was Snyder, that he convinced Warner Brothers to fund two separate short films, in two radically different styles, based on these books for release on DVD a few weeks after the movie came out. Having loved the graphic novel, and the movie, I rented the DVD to see what they did with the two stories.

Tales of the Black Freighter, appropriately enough, was made as a grisly cartoon. It tells the story of a captain of a ship who gets attacked by the cursed Black Freighter, who slaughters his entire crew and leaves him for dead in the ocean, before heading to his hometown of Davidstown. The Mariner (voiced by Gerald Butler), is determined to beat them back to Davidstown, but because he has no raft, he is forced to tied together the rotting, bloated, stinking corpses of his crew, to make his journey home. He is attacked by seagulls and then sharks, hallucinates that the head of his friend Ridley is talking to him, but does indeed make it back to Davidstown. Convinced that the Black Freighter is already there, The Mariner goes on an ill advised killing spree. Once he realizes what he has done, he has no choice but to join the crew of the Black Freighter, who was never intending on attacking the town anyway.

The parallel of the story of The Mariner and that of Ozymanidas in Watchmen is clear. The Mariner tries to do good, and ends up committing great evil, and essentially becomes everything he tried to stop on the first place. I think Tales of the Black Freighter goes too far in trying to draw those parallels – underlines it all a little much, taking away any subtlety there was there. And divorced from the main thrust of the plot of Watchmen, we see just how shallow the story by itself really is. Still, I must say that the film is amazingly well animated, and actually quite entertaining. It is incredibly, almost stomach churningly violent and disgusting, but animation is the right choice here – in live action it wouldn’t be as effective. And does anyone else think that they modeled the animation of the Mariner on Alan Moore, who of course has famously trashed the adaptation of his book from day one?

The other movie, Under the Hood, takes the form of a television news magazine report from 1975, when Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood, was released. In the segment, we see Mason (Stephen McHattie), being interviewed, and giving us an in depth look at the history of super heroing – the generation before the “watchmen” we see in the movie. He also gets an interview with Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), who contradicts Mason at some points, but basically agrees with him. The movie is fascinating for fans of the graphic novel, and it’s always a pleasure to see McHattie (who was great in the recent Pontypool which I reviewed last week) and Gugino (why she never became a bigger star, I’ll never know). But it’s also somewhat shallow. The director, Eric Matthies, seems to be going for more style than substance – he has way too much fun recreating 1980s like TV commercials, and like Tales of the Black Freighter, the movie underlines too heavily – takes away the subtlety that was there in the storyline before. This isn’t even to mention the fact that the brilliant opening titles sequence of Watchmen tells essentially the same story as Under the Hood does, much more effectively, and in about 30 minutes left. Under the Hood is essentially, a must for diehard fans, but of little interest to anyone else.

In short, while I enjoyed Tales of the Black Freighter quite a bit, and Under the Hood a little bit less, I must admit that I am glad that they were released separately, and not part of the original film. The make for fascinating, well done DVD bonus features, but I’m not sure they are necessary as part of the film itself. Apparently for the DVD addition of Watchmen, Snyder will edit back in Tales of the Black Freighter into the narrative of the film. I’ll be interested in seeing if that adds to the movie, or distracts from it. By themselves, both films are worth watching if you want to kind of fill in the world created by the movie. As individual films onto themselves, they are merely okay.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Judd Apatow and the Romantic Comedy for Guys

Judd Apatow’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits of the new movie, I Love You, Man, but it might as well have. Even though he didn’t have anything to do with making the movie, it does star two of his frequent collaborators – Paul Rudd and Jason Segel – and the comic sensibility of the film is very much the same as the films Apatow has directed and produced in the last few years.

The films he has been involved with – in particular The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – all share something in common with I Love You, Man, in that they are all in their own ways, romantic comedies directed at the male audience, instead of typical female audience. With the exception of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the most important relationships in all the films are not between the “boy” and the “girl” in the movie, but rather are all about male camaraderie. And they fulfill the function for men, what most romantic comedies do for women – wish fulfillment. The typical romantic comedy goes something like this: A career centric woman with no time for men, meets a rich, handsome rebel type – who is really quite sensitive underneath his rough exterior, and at the start hates them, then falls madly in love with them, then encounters some sort of temporarily road block, only to get back together in the final scene because of a grand romantic gesture, and as the end credits role, we either see the two lovers kissing happily, or at the altar getting married. This is essentially the plot of EVERY romantic comedy every made, and women still lap it up. Why? Because it provides mindless escapism and fulfills their hopes and dreams. What woman doesn’t want to be swept off their feet by a George Clooney, Matthew McConaghey or John Cusack type? Women are smart enough to know that these romantic comedies are as much fantasy as The Lord of the Rings, but when you’re single, or in a relationship with someone who looks more like Seth Rogen then Patrick Dempsey, it’s nice to fantasize about romance once in a while, isn’t it ladies?

What the Apatow movies do is switch the focus from the ladies to the men, and instead of indulging women’s fantasies, they indulge men’s. I have always felt that in most romantic comedies, the men are WAY too idealized to be truly believable. They all have such chiseled good looks, are tremendously wealthy, have glamorous jobs, loads of free time, are somehow both a rebel and sensitive, and of course, are amazing in bed. I mean, how is a real guy ever going to compare to the guys in most romantic comedies? The short answer, they’re not.

The Apatow movies basically take this dynamic and flip it. Instead of Matthew McConaghey, we get Seth Rogen. Instead of George Clooney, we get Jason Segel. Most guys look more like the second guys in those comparisons then the first, don’t they? And the women they somehow still manage to get are all gorgeous, smart, sexy and fun. Elizabeth Banks, Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Katherine Heigel, Martha MacIssac, Emma Stone. Each one of them are better looking than their male counterparts in the movie. Not only that, they are also infinitely kind and patient with the overgrown man child at the center of the movie. Why would Katherine Heigel’s character in Knocked Up, want Seth Rogen? She is a gorgeous, sexy successful TV personality; he’s an overweight, unemployed guy trying to get a porn site operational. How does Jason Segel end up having both Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell fighting over him by the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall?

To the credit of the movies – and the reason why they work as well as they do- they do look seriously at the man children at the core of their stories, and eventually conclude that what they really need to do to get these women is grow the hell up. Steve Carell’s friends in The 40 Year Old Virgin are much like he is – in that their development was arrested sometime in high school. While Carell has never grown out of that stage that most guys go through of being nervous talking to girls and never saying the right thing, they have never gotten over the idea that what you should try to do is bang every hot chick that you can. Paul Rudd’s character clings pathetically to a past relationship that he has overinflated in his own mind into the great love of his life. This isn’t what adults do, it’s what teenagers do. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen realizes that in order to become a responsible adult, he actually needs to get off his ass and do something. Kristen Bell has a great scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall that changes the way we see her character, when she lectures Jason Segel on just what being with him was like. It is a fairly harsh scene, but one he needs to hear if he’s ever going to grow up and have a real relationship. In a way, the two most mature characters in the Apatow movies are the teenagers in Superbad (Michael Cera and Jonah Hill), not because they really are actually more mature then their older counterparts, but in that they learn they have to grow up a good decade earlier than the characters in the other movies do. At least they have an excuse for acting like teenagers – they are teenagers.

The basic flaw in each of these films – what keeps them from being truly great instead of just near great – is that the women are never as complex as the men are. Few films understand men as well as these ones do, but the women in the movies are too highly idealized. They are gorgeous, sexy, funny, smart, patient and willing to forgive the men in the movie for pretty much every mistake they make. I mean, really, why would Katherine Heigel want Seth Rogen in Knocked Up? What is it about Jason Segel that Mila Kunis finds so irresistible in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? In short, the movies provide the same sort of unrealistic ideal for women as most romantic comedies do of men.


I do hope that sooner or later, one of these movies will get the male-female dynamic as right as all of these films get the male-male dynamic. Because a romantic comedy that saw both men and women as clearly as these movies see their male characters would be a revelation. I would even settle for a movie by a female writer-director that looked at the other side more clearly then these films, or for that matter the more generic romantic comedies. I imagine Forgetting Sarah Marshall told from her point of view, and wonder what that film would be like. For now, though, I’ll settle for more films as good as these ones. Yes, I know they are flawed, and that they are essentially male wish fulfillment. But then again, I am a male, and I don’t mind seeing my wishes fulfilled sometimes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Movie Review: I Love You, Man

I Love You, Man *** ½
Directed By:
John Hamburg.
Written By: John Hamburg & Larry Levin.
Starring: Paul Rudd (Peter Klaven), Jason Segel (Sydney Fife), Rashida Jones (Zooey), Sarah Burns (Hailey), Jaime Pressly (Denise), J.K. Simmons (Oswald Klaven), Andy Samberg (Robbie Klaven), Jane Curtin (Joyce Klaven), Jon Favreau (Barry), Thomas Lennon (Doug), Rob Huebel (Tevin Downey), Mather Zickel (Gil), Lou Ferrigno (Himself).

There are some movies that when you watch them, you feel that they are made just for you. I Love You, Man is a movie like that for me. The main character Peter (Paul Rudd) is a guy who never quite seems to fit in with the group. He is awkward in his attempts to make friends, and to just share the same space as other people. His body language makes him always seem a little too tense. You can tell he’s always on the verge of saying something, but holds back. When he gets the words out, you can tell it took a considerable effort on his part. He tries hard – too hard – to fit in, and his attempts at sounding cool or funny always seem to go horribly wrong. What this has ended up meaning is that Peter doesn’t really have any friends. He is a kind, sensitive guy, and has always gotten along well with women – even women he is not dating – but with men, there is something just kind of off about him. In short, Peter is me.

None of this has ever really seemed like a problem for Peter. He is relatively happy. He has a gorgeous woman in his life, Zooey (Rashida Jones), who he is in love with and is going to marry soon. His best friend is his mother, and for the most part he is relatively happy. But one day he arrives home early to find his wife and her girlfriends sitting around talking. Oblivious to the fact that he is there, they talk about him, and everyone says he’s a great guy – but isn’t it weird that he has no guy friends? I mean, what is wrong with him?

So Peter sets himself a goal of trying to find at least one guy friend. The film shows us a series of his attempted “man dates”, that go horribly wrong. Then, almost by accident, he meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segal). Sydney is at the open house that Peter is throwing to try and sell Lou Ferrigno’s house. He’s not there to actually buy a house, but there because these classy open houses always have nice food, and it’s a good way to meet divorcees. Sydney is everything that Peter is not – comfortable in his own skin. The two become friends, and Sydney teaches Peter how to loosen up, relax and just have fun.

These two characters are so well observed, and so well acted by Rudd and Segal, that it elevates the movie beyond just another comedy. Yes, there are a few gross out gags (including one unnecessary scene involving projectile vomit – it’s a real thing), but most of the comedy springs for these two characters. They never seem to be delivering punch lines – although almost every other line of dialogue is funny – but rather they are acting like these characters should act. The dynamic of their relationship is perfect. Every Peter needs a Sydney – that friend who is willing to do whatever stupid thing pops into his head, so that you do not have to. And every Sydney needs a Peter – someone to keep him more grounded and real. These two belong together.

If I have made this sound like a romantic comedy between two guys, that’s because that is essentially what this movie is. Poor Rashida Jones, a very talented comedic actress herself, is stuck playing the straight man for most of the movie. Her character isn’t as well developed as either Peter’s or Sydney’s, but she is so lovable that she sells it anyway. The rest of the supporting cast – J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtain, Andy Samburg, Sarah Burns and Lou Ferrigno himself – are all just about pitch perfect in their small roles. I particularly loved Jamie Pressly and Jon Favreau as one of those married couples who seem to downright hate each other, but you can tell, underneath the surface, they are somehow perfect together.

I Love You, Man is one of the best comedies of the year. It is funnier than pretty much everything Hollywood puts out, and that’s because the movie takes the time the set up the characters and their relationships, and build real people out of them. While to a certain extent, these people are guinea pigs jumping through the typical hoops of the screenwriters notebook, we don’t care, because they feel real.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Movie Review: Knowing

Knowing ** ½
Directed By:
Alex Proyas.
Written By: Ryne Douglas Pearson and Juliet Snowden & Stiles White and Stuart Hazeldine.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (John Koestler), Chandler Canterbury (Caleb Koestler), Rose Byrne (Diana Wayland), D.G. Maloney (The Stranger), Lara Robinson (Lucinda Embry / Abby Wayland), Nadia Townsend (Grace Koestler), Alan Hopgood (Rev. Koestler), Adrienne Pickering (Allison).

Knowing is an interested, yet deeply flawed film. It starts out as a typical science fiction thriller, then gradually becomes deeper and more philosophical. I was surprised by how far the movie follows its basic premise, and reaches what maybe the only obvious conclusion for the story. But so much of what happens in the movie requires too great of a leap of faith for me to really get into the movie. It asks too much of the viewer for what it eventually delivers.

The movie stars Nicolas Cage as John Koestler, a recent widower, raising his young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) by himself. He is an astrophysicist at MIT, who teaches his students the difference between determinism and randomness. His own pet theory – “Shit Happens”. But then Caleb gets a sheet of paper from his school’s time capsule that was buried in the ground 50 years before. Every other kid got a picture, but all Caleb got was a sequence of numbers. Being a puzzle geek, John drunkenly sits down one night (he gets drunk nearly every night) and tries to find a pattern in the numbers. Shockingly he does. It seems like the number represent certain dates, longitude and latitudes and the number of people who are killed. What’s shocking is that apparently they all match up perfectly to specific incidents – 9/11 and the Tsunami being the most recent examples- and even more shocking is that there are two dates left. John decides it is up to him to stop the remaining events.

From this rather basic sci-fi premise, director Alex Proyas and his writers spin a rather elaborate story that ends up being quite spiritual journey. We can guess this is the direction the film will take from the opening scenes, where it is revealed that Koestler is an atheist. There are no atheists in the movies, unless the movie is about their spiritual awakening. Who, for instance, is the weird stranger that always seems to be lurking around their house, and following them around. Koestler never really gets a good look at him, but Caleb not only does that, but he also hears them speak. And who was the little girl, who wrote the numbers in the first place? And, now that she’s dead, could possibly her daughter, Diana (Rose Bryne) or granddaughter (Lara Robinson) help Koestler solve the mystery? How could she be so scarily accurate?

I have to admit, I was fairly absorbed by the story, more so as it moved along. In fact, the film has a rather brilliant second act, fully of interesting spiritual conundrums, as well as great special effects. The plane crash sequence in this movie is one of the most intense, and horrifying, moments we are likely to see this year. After the fairly rote and mundane opening act, I got really into the movie, and couldn’t wait to see how it all played out. I am sorry to say that the final act of the movie did not deliver on that promise. We get a series of chase sequences, and car crashes, and a lot of shots of Nicolas Cage running after his son. We then get to the end of the movie, which is in its own way fascinating, but somehow pulls off the trick of simultaneously telling us too much and telling us too little. A little less information, and you could have been free to draw your own interpretation of the movie – no matter what your religious beliefs may be (even, if like Koestler, you are an atheist). But, the film doesn’t really live that option open, as it gives away too much. Yet at the same time, the movie doesn’t quite go as far as it needs to fully explain its mysteries. Instead, we are stuck in this strange middle ground where we think we know what it all means, but are not really sure. While ambiguity can be an admirable quality in a movie – especially one marketed as a blockbuster – here it plays more like the filmmakers had a hole in their plot and didn’t know how to fill it.

The director of the movie is Alex Proyas. Few directors who emerged out of the 1990s can boast a debut film and a follow-up as strong as Proyas’ The Crow and Dark City (which is one of the best modern day science fiction movies that truly does deserve comparisons to Blade Runner and Metropolis). Since then, his output has been erratic at best, and nothing to compare to his previous work. Knowing is no exception. While the film is certainly well made, it is too erratic, and ill thought out, to be a truly rewarding movie going experience. Nicolas Cage is fine in the lead role – he doesn’t go nearly as over the top as normal (which, can be either a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it) and the rest of the cast is fine, but they aren’t playing real characters – just instruments to be used by the plot for its own amusement. Knowing poses some interesting questions, and certainly it is a film I find myself thinking about a couple of days later, so perhaps I am being too hard on it. But the experience of actually watching the film is not nearly as involving as talking about it – and that isn’t a good sign. It is too earnest (seriously, only M. Night Shyamalan movies are usual both this ridiculous and self serious) to be truly a good movie. There are good things in here – and it’s nice to see Proyas at least being this ambitious again. But ambition and achievement are two very different things, and this time Proyas’ reach exceeded his grasp.

Movie Review: Duplicity

Duplicity ***
Directed By:
Tony Gilroy.
Written By: Tony Gilroy.
Starring: Clive Owen (Ray Koval), Julia Roberts (Claire Stenwick), Tom Wilkinson (Howard Tully), Paul Giamatti (Richard Garsik), David Shumbris (Turtleneck), Rick Worthy (Dale Raimes), Oleg Shtefanko (Boris Fetyov), Denis O'Hare (Duke Monahan), Kathleen Chalfant (Pam Frailes), Khan Baykal (Dinesh Patel), Thomas McCarthy (Jeff Bauer), Wayne Duvall (Ned Guston).

Duplicity is one of those movies where you cannot trust for a second what you see on the screen. The movie is an intricate puzzle, only gradually doling out all the pieces of information needed to fill in the gaps. These types of movies often infuriate me – as I do not feel that they really play fair with the audience – but this one gets by on the talent and charm of its stars, and the skill of the screenplay and direction by Tony Gilroy. This isn’t going to win any awards, like Gilroy’s debut film Michael Clayton did, but it is a solid entertainer. Sometimes, that’s enough.

The movie is about two spies with a history. When we first meet Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), he is a MI-6 agent, and she is a CIA-agent who both happen to be in Dubai. They meet, they flirt, they have sex, she drugs him and steals the information he is carrying. We then flash forward several years. They are employed by rival mega-corporations in their internal intelligence division. She is a mole inside one of them, and he is assigned to be her handler. Sparks fly. It seems like the company headed by CEO Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) has just made a major breakthrough of some kind on a product that will revolution something. The company headed by Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), wants to know what this product is. This is where Claire and Ray come in. She’s on the insider of Tully’s corporation, and he on Garsik’s. If she can feed the correct information to him, they can all get rich. Of course, there are twists and turns in the plot, and we are never 100% sure on who we can trust. We suspect that half of the people could be double agents, or triple agents, and everything we see and hear may just be all part of a game. Then again, that’s half the fun.

Duplicity takes place in a similar world as Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, although the two films couldn’t be more different in terms of style and tone. Whereas Michael Clayton looked at the rotting cesspool of corporate greed, and created a central character that may come to represent the feelings of many Americans as the financial crisis worsens, Duplicity plays it all as a game. Perhaps the film would be a little more fun without the current crisis – where we have come to realize that many corporations really do play it all as a game, and the losers are always us.

But you can’t really fault the movie for that. It is looking to be an escapist caper film, and at that it works wonderfully well – mainly because of the charm and skill of the two leads. It’s nice to see Clive Owen loosen up again, and allow himself to be more cheerful and charming. This is the first time in I don’t know how long I have seen the man genuinely smile in a movie – and he’s got a killer smile. If the character was an American, George Clooney would undoubtedly play him, and I can think of no higher complement than to say Owen matches Clooney’s immense charm and presence. He fits into this world effortlessly. This is also the exact type of role that Roberts excels at. She struggles when she has to play a “realistic” character, but few are as skilled as she is at the “movie star” type role she has here. Everything about her screams movie star, and she plays this role to pretty much perfection. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who could have done it better. They are backed by a skilled supporting cast – especially both Wilkinson and Giamatti who are not afraid to go wildly over the top and do so with great flourish here. True, nothing in this movie comes remotely close to reality, but you hardly care when you are having so much fun.

The movie would have been better had its third act been better structured. Once we realize what the new product is, we are inevitably disappointed. The product itself should have been kept as a classic McGuffian (the term Hitchcock used to describe something that was vitally important to the plot, that didn’t really matter. Essentially, it doesn’t matter what the product is, it just matters that everyone in the movie wanted it). The film regains a little bit of its magic in the final scene, which is expertly handled, but by then the movie has run out of a little steam. The movie is only 125 minutes long, but it feels longer. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about a movie that gives you as much fun as this one does. No, it’s not a modern classic like Michael Clayton. But it’s still better than most of the other movies out there right now.