Saturday, August 29, 2009

Taking Woodstock: 40 Years Later

It's been 40 years since the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair in the summer of '69, an event ingrained so deeply in our culture's subconscious that sometimes it's easy to forget how much of a miracle it really was. An event like Woodstock taking place today is almost unfathomable, but in '69, despite the war and madness of the time, it seemed anything was possible, and an unlikely series of events lead to the defining moment of a generation, proving to the world for a few short days that peace and love were still possible in a world gone crazy.
It is fitting that Ang Lee's new film Taking Woodstock is being released now as we pause to look back at those "3 days of peace & music." It tells the story of how the greatest music festival of all time came to be and shows the impact it had on the local families, their community and the world. It was called "Woodstock" because it was supposed to take place in Woodstock, NY as a much smaller event. As the project grew the location was changed to the town of Wallkill, NY, but when the local government of Wallkill banned the festival the promoters began to look for yet another location. Elliot Teichberg, the central character of the film, saw a newspaper article about the festival being banned in Wallkill, and, having already acquired a permit for an outdoor music festival, contacted Woodstock Ventures and offered to host the event in Bethel, NY.
Having been originally designed as a for-profit investment, Elliot's family motel is granted exclusive rights to distribute passes to the event, and a few people begin to straggle in looking to score the "magic tickets" while construction crews begin to build the stage and prepare for the concert. But soon the town is overwhelmed by a flood of hippies after word accidentally gets out that it was a free concert featuring Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others. Having little time to prepare, the organizers cut the fence and acknowledged they would take a huge financial hit as they had no way to sell or collect tickets for the mass of humanity that was arriving in greater numbers by the day. The result, while unlikely, was magical.

In the end over 500,000 people would show up, causing traffic jams over 100 miles long. The music, while amazing in its own right, almost become secondary to the true meaning of what transpired there. People came together in celebration of peace and formed a massive makeshift community of love. They survived in the mud on barely any food, and no one cared or complained. Some set up tents to help people on bad acid trips and others gave out food for free. While some people in the town were looking to cash in, the people who came didn't care about money, they only cared about the experience and the community. They wanted to make a statement to the world, and merely by their peaceful presence, they did.

Taking Woodstock picked up on this, and that's really what the film is about. The concert itself is never shown and exists only as the backdrop for the story of the Teichberg family and their property that became a temporary home for many of the people there for the festival. Elliot, played by Demetri Martin, is the person through which the audience sees the Woodstock experience. He runs around, trying to help where he can, forced into situations over his head, and deals not only with the hippie invasion but also with his own parents, played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, both of whom deserve Oscar nominations for their roles. They are elderly immigrants and don't fully understand what is going on around them, and they rely on their son to hold everything together.

Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber also turn in outstanding supporting performances. Hirsch is a young Vet back from Vietnam, struggling to readjust to life without war and Schreiber plays a former Marine turned transvestite who provides "security" for the Teichberg family. Taking Woodstock is a very brave film, never shying away from showing things exactly as they were, full frontal nudity, sex in the bushes, and acid trips in vans included. When Director Ang Lee used split-screen sequences in his film Hulk (2003), based on the comic book series, it came off as cheesy, but here the technique comes off as homage to the documentary Woodstock (1970), and it effectively demonstrates the massive scale of the event depicted. The film manages to be more than simply a feature film version of the famous documentary, which may disappoint some, but ultimately it was a wise choice to focus on the back story rather than the musical performances.

The most striking thing that the film illuminates, indirectly, is that something like this would be impossible to achieve today. Promoters and organizers would plan it better, make sure to charge a ton of money up front, and there wouldn't be a groundswell of cultural support. The youth today is fragmented, isolated by the internet and on-demand television, and there are no overriding, unifying ideologies that drive movements in the same way there was in '69. Even just a few months after Woodstock they tried to replicate the magic by holding a free concert in California called Altamont which was a complete disaster, as was Woodstock '99. It just shows that you can't force magic to happen, it has to be a natural outcome from the right set of circumstances.

Taking Woodstock (2009) 9/10

Friday, August 28, 2009

(500) Ways to Change the "Rom-Com"

After seeing the new film (500) Days of Summer my first thought was how terrible and cliched most Romantic Comedies are compared to this fantastic new film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. It's about the entire romantic history between two people that meet in the workplace, which is not an entirely atypical scenario in the modern Romantic Comedy genre, but it's the way the story is told that makes this the most refreshing film of the year.

We've all seen plenty of "Rom-Coms" and by now we all know the formula by heart. Boy meets girl, they hit it off at first, then there's a big misunderstanding and the relationship goes in the tank, each principal character hangs out with their friends to go over what went wrong and figure out how to move on with the rest of their lives, and then the rest of the film is a big build up to the couple getting back together in the end. It's been done countless times, and yet, for some reason, people keep paying to see the same movie played out with different actors in different settings over and over again. Why?

Subconsciously people seem to like knowing that everything will work out in the end. It's comforting during the "big misunderstanding" phase of the Rom-Com formula to already know that Girl will forgive Boy and they will live happily ever after. It's predictable, easy, and keeps the stress level down. Afterall, we work hard enough and think hard enough all day long, right? Why subject ourselves to something that might have an actual impact on our emotions?

Hopefully, (500) Days of Summer will help show some people what they've been missing. It only makes sense because love is emotional. It's not always neat and pretty and, in fact, often relationships are downright messy and difficult. Perhaps that's why the opening narration of (500) Days warns the audience that "this is not a love story." In fact, it's the story of a young man named Tom (Gordon-Levitt) who works as a writer for a greeting card company. He's grown up believing that he will never be fulfilled as a person until he meets "the one" special girl he's destined to spend his life with. Enter Summer (Deschanel), the new girl in the office. Tom falls for her at first sight and believes his destiny has finally found him.

Summer, however, isn't so smitten. She doesn't believe in True Love and doesn't want to have a serious relationship. Her parents were divorced while she was a young girl and she, unlike Tom, grew up believing that happiness through romantic love is impossible to achieve. However, over time the two forge a relationship, despite the fact that Summer tells Tom up front that she's not looking for anything serious. Tom of course pays no attention, convinced that in time she will fall for him. It's destiny afterall, and that's exactly what would happen in any Romantic Comedy he watched throughout his life. But while Tom believes he's laying the foundation for his dream life with his soul-mate, Summer just finds Tom "interesting" and just wants to have a good time.

The film, directed by newcomer Marc Webb and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, jumps back and forth through time, showing us various days in the relationship from Tom's point of view. Because it is revealed within the first few minutes of the film, it's no spoiler to tell you that the relationship between Tom and Summer does not end in a "happily ever after" fairy-tale, and the film then goes on to tell the story of why it didn't work. Fragmenting the narrative in this way adds a level of emotional connection to the characters that we otherwise might not have. Every time we see a day from the beginning of the relationship when everything is going so well, in the back of our minds, we know that he's heading for heartbreak.

Gordon-Levitt turns in another great performance and has proven himself to be one of the best young actors working today, able to portray gleeful joy and dismal depression with ease. Deschanel is also perfectly cast as the alluringly beautiful, yet not obviously "hot," object of Tom's desires. This truly is a special film that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. It finds a way to break the standard conventions of the genre, making a real, meaningful movie in the Rom-Com format. Fractured narratives that jump around through time are nothing new (see 21 Grams for a real heavy hitter) but the technique is not at all common in the Romantic Comedy genre. While in some cases it can be a gimmick, here it illuminates the emotional content and heightens awareness of smaller details. As you experience Tom and Summer's relationship, one day at a time, you may find yourself struggling with whether or not you believe in Destiny and True Love. If you're paying attention, the film reveals its position on the matter, and that I won't spoil.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Quentin Tarantino is a 'Basterd'

This weekend Quentin Tarantino released his long awaited film Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, and Christoph Waltz. Tarantino has been working on this film, in one form or another, for a decade. The script has gone through multiple incarnations, at one point so long it could have been filmed as a trilogy. Tarantino admittedly struggled with finding a way to end the story, set in Nazi occupied France during World War II, but he kept working on the script between doing other projects and vowed to one day release what he hoped would be his epic masterpiece.
The final product, after all the anticipation, certainly is epic, clocking in at 149 minutes, but whether or not it's a masterpiece isn't quite as certain. The film is about a group of Jewish-American soldiers who are dropped into occupied France in order to wreak havoc behind enemy lines before the rest of the Allied military makes its main assualt inland. Tarantino is a difficult director to evaluate objectively. His films are uniquely his own, despite the fact that he borrows so much from his various inspirations. This is the contradiction that is Quentin Tarantino. He is a well known lover of "genre cinema" which is a way of saying that he has spent a lot of time watching B-movies designed purposely to fit within the conventions of a specific genre, and these films directly influence his work. Some would say he outright steals from them.

However, there really isn't anyone out there quite like him, which says a lot in an industry that often stifles creativity and individuality. Tarantino writes and directs his own material and his films are just popular enough to get his budgets approved (Basterds cost $70 million), so he's in the rare position to do literally whatever he wants. And he does, even if that means purposely misspelling both words in the title.

Inglourious Basterds is vintage Tarantino, most distinctively showcased through his habit of utilizing split narratives, chapters, and extended sequences of dialogue that slowly build tension, punctuated by quick bursts of action. From the very beginning, he has formatted his films as if they were novels, presenting something familiar from an unfamiliar angle, and he sticks firmly to that here. Back in 1992 he broke onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs, a heist film that never shows the heist, and now Tarantino has directed a War film without the war. The first time the audience meets "the basterds" in action they have already killed an entire squad of Nazi soldiers and are now trying to get information from one of the three left alive.

But Tarantino's narrative sensibilities are as much a curse as they are a blessing. While it's refreshing to see material from an atypical point of view, sometimes the film gets bogged down in upholding some of his cheesier conventions. Things like putting text on screen to introduce characters and quick flashbacks to give background information, often in a humorous context, might be crowd pleasers, but they keep the film from becoming truly great because it takes credibility away from the otherwise serious nature of the story. Tarantino has created a film that perfectly highlights his personal contradiction. Is it serious or is it a joke?

Inglourious Basterds has some truly brilliant moments. The opening sequence at the dairy farm and the rendezvous at the tavern are two of the best scenes in any film so far this year, and the acting is excellent all around, especially from Christoph Waltz as "The Jew Hunter," the personification of Nazi evil. Brad Pitt also turned in a performance that is sure to become iconic over time and Diane Kruger has proven herself to be more than just a pretty face. French actress Melanie Laurent also turned in a strong performance holding together the emotional center of the film.
In the end, the audience has to make a simple choice. You can be continually disappointed that Tarantino will probably never make an entirely serious film without incorporating some element of parody or homage to genre cinema, or you can choose to accept him for who he is and appreciate his rare skill as a writer and his ability to show us a side of storytelling otherwise unavailable in the mainstream. It's up to you.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) 9/10

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Avatar: Perfecting the Art of Hype

Today, August 20, James Cameron released the teaser trailer for his new film Avatar, and unless you've been living under a rock for the past 5 years, you've probably heard something about this film already. If you haven't, you will soon, and this is no accident. Cameron, who has not made a feature film since Titanic (1997), has perfected the art of how to build hype around his projects before their release.

Titanic, 12 years after its release, is still the most financially successful film ever made, and considering the inflation of ticket prices since '97 this is most impressive. To put it in perspective, the most successful film worldwide since Titanic is Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and in order to match Titanic's $1.8 billion gross it would have needed to make an additional $700 million. That's the entire amount the hugely successful film Transformers made worldwide in 2007.

James Cameron is no dummy, and he learned a lot from his Titanic experience. A lot of factors went into making Titanic the massive phenomenon it became. Everyone knew the story behind the making of Titanic before they ever saw a single frame. It was the most expensive film ever made, had one of the most complicated productions of all time, and featured two of the biggest rising stars on the planet. It was also the subject of rumor and speculation long before principal photography had completed. There had been talk in Hollywood that the film wouldn't get finished due to massive problems on set, and the fact that it took so long to produce added credibility to the rumors. The release date was pushed from July to December 1997, and by the time the film came out there was such anticipation that everyone just had to see what all the fuss was about. Now Cameron is recreating some of the same factors that helped make Titanic a success.

He's learned that the story behind the story is just as important, and he's been writing the tale behind Avatar for a long time. Cameron first envisioned Avatar 15 years ago as a sweeping Sci-Fi epic filled with adventure, romance (sound familiar), and mind blowing special effects that blend reality seamlessly with fantasy in 3-D. He realized that the technology required to fulfill his vision did not yet exist, so he waited. He made Titanic, worked on TV documentaries and did screen tests until he felt conditions were right to begin. And while it may be true that technology has come a long way in the last 15 years, the length of time between Cameron's major projects has helped feed the hype narrative. This is not to suggest that he delayed purposely just to build a backstory. Conventional wisdom would have been to complete another film quickly in order to capitalize on the success of Titanic, but he knew that waiting would only help in the long term.

Cameron is a legendary perfectionist, a larger than life figure who gets exactly what he wants, and nothing less, no matter what. For the last 5 years he's been working night and day to make Avatar exactly the way he envisioned it almost 2 decades ago. Unlike Titanic, this time Cameron has taken a page from Star Wars and hired a cast of virtual unknowns, led by Sam Worthington. Cameron was the visionary behind the Terminator franchise in the early 80s, so perhaps it's fitting Worthington just broke out as the surprise star of Terminator Salvation, overshadowing Christian Bale. Worthington shot his Avatar performance before Terminator, which is yet another indication of how long it's taken to finalize the film.

Controversy is one of hype's closest allies, and to no surprise Avatar has had some. There was a bit of a dispute between studios over the rights to the name "Avatar." M. Night Shyamalan directed an adaptation of the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, but when they attempted to register the name "Avatar" with the MPAA they discovered Cameron had beaten them to the punch. Shyamalan's film was renamed The Last Airbender and it's due out Summer 2010.
The biggest piece of hype, however, is the film itself. Cameron is a master at making his films a can't miss event. Tomorrow, August 21, is officially "Avatar Day." The trailer released today on will be released in theaters around the world, along with special limited screenings of a 15 minute preview, and the unveiling of the video game and toys to coincide with the film. If all goes according to plan, by the time December 18 rolls around just about everyone will feel compelled to see the film. Today the public got their first glimpse of the rumored mind-blowing effects, but you can bet that Cameron is keeping the most amazing footage under tight wraps so that the audience leaves the theater feeling like they've just witnessed something they've never seen before. The key to Titanic's success was word of mouth recommendations and repeat viewers after the first wave of people came away captivated. You can bet Cameron is banking on the same thing happening for Avatar.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9: The Rebirth of Smart Sci-Fi

Good Science Fiction almost always has something of value to say about society. Because Sci-Fi's subject matter is often fanciful and other-worldly it's the perfect vehicle to showcase very real social issues through metaphor. Recently, mainstream Sci-Fi has largely abandoned this practice, opting instead to wow audiences with special effects rather than with social commentary, and we're left with worthless garbage like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Fortunately, District 9 is here to save the day, providing both jaw dropping action AND the social commentary that makes Sci-Fi important and worthwhile.

Written and Directed by newcomer Niell Blomkamp and Produced by Peter Jackson, District 9 might be the most politically charged and socially significant film of the year. Blomkamp was slated to direct a Jackson produced live-action adaptation of the video game Halo, but when the studios killed the project Jackson helped him develop his own original idea. And things couldn't have worked out better. Halo would have been exactly the type of empty Sci-Fi/Action film that's been all too prevalent of late, and instead District 9 is just what the doctor ordered.

The film opens at a brisk pace and never slows down for a second. Shot mostly in a documentary style, complete with interviews and grainy news footage, the 20 year back story is quickly explained before seamlessly blending into the present day action. An alien spacecraft practically the size of a city, reminiscent of Independence Day, arrives over Johannesburg, South Africa. Eventually humans fly up to it and take a look inside only to find the creatures inside weak, unorganized, and starving to death. Seemingly with good intentions, the aliens are taken from their mothership and placed in a camp called District 9 where they can be brought back to health. However, problems begin to mount as alien-human relations begin to go South and the rehabilitation camp becomes a locked down slum designed to keep the creatures separated from the rest of the city.

The setting of the story, South Africa, is significant in that the story seems to be an allegory of Apartheid. The aliens are given shacks for shelter and the means to survive, but they are segregated, discriminated against and exploited out of fear. But after all, they are, well... alien, and naturally don't interact well with humans. What they perceive as playful fun humans see as disruptive violence, and instead of making an effort to integrate them into society they are locked away and despised by the human majority. Under the guise of trying to help the creatures, an agency called MNU, sort for Multi-National United (whose trucks look more than a little bit like UN vehicles), are secretly trying to discover how to use alien weapon technology for their own gain, and all other ethical considerations are of no importance.

It is not an easy film to watch by any means. The violence is graphic, at times almost literally in your face, and there are several medically related scenes that make even the most jaded movie-goer a bit squeamish. Plus, it's actually about something. Unlike Transformers or Independence Day the political, moral, and ethical questions posed in the film make the experience all the more harrowing because the themes relate back to the real human experience. When the humans casually "abort" the eggs of the aliens it's almost impossible not to conjure images of ethnic cleansing. Violence is meaningless and ineffectual when there's no substance, message, or character development behind it, but here we truly feel empathy for the characters, both human and alien, when they are beaten, experimented on, or blown to bits.

Produced for only $30 million, District 9 will surely make a huge profit due to the buzz generated by its underground style marketing campaign, but audiences might not be prepared for what they're getting themselves into. More than a few people got up and left the theater within the first 30 minutes during the screening I attended. This film is unflinchingly brutal and is almost guaranteed to make you think and question your own set of moral values. Some people want to go the the theater only to be entertained, and while this movie doesn't lack spectacle and action, it's far from the mindless eye candy many have become accustomed to, which is a much needed change for the modern Sci-Fi genre.

District 9
(2009) 9/10

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Year of the 9

This is the year 2009 and maybe it's no coincidence that three films with the number "9" in the title will be gracing the silver screen in the coming months. The first of these, District 9, will be released today (August 14). Next out will be 9, to be released cleverly on 9-9-09, followed by Nine, due out November 25. What may be even more amazing than three "9" films coming out in short succession is that they all actually look quite interesting.

District 9 is a film about aliens being held captive on Earth in a locked down slum. It's produced by Peter Jackson, shot in a documentary style and appears to be loaded with social commentary. Based on the trailer it appears the humans won't allow the aliens to leave Earth until the secrets behind their weapon technology is discovered. All good Sci-Fi finds a way to reflect society's social issues, and hopefully District 9 will not disappoint and live up to that tradition. Trailer

Next up, 9, is set at some point in a post-apocalyptic future in which seemingly all humanity has been destroyed. Small creatures with numbers for names seem to be the only remaining life and they battle giant machines for their survival. It's a computer animated film produced by Tim Burton, and at least appears to be worth a look. Trailer

Finally, Nine, will be released just in time for awards season. It's a remake of possibly the greatest film ever made, Fellini's Italian classic 8 1/2 (1963), but this time it's being done as a musical. It's directed by Rob Marshall, who brought the Oscar winning Chicago (2002) to the big screen. It seems to star everyone in Hollywood including the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie, and Sophia Loren. Personally, considering the source material, I will be most critical of this film out of the three, and from the trailer it's difficult to determine how good it will be. Trailer

Only time will tell how good these three films will be, and really, other than their titles they seem to have almost nothing in common. But I felt it was worth previewing them for my loyal readers. Stay tuned for my thoughts once I see the films.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Julie/Julia Project

Julie & Julia (2009) is a chick flick "based on two true stories" about women from different eras linked by their common interest in food and the men who stood behind them on their journeys to fame. The film takes the slightly unconventional choice of telling two stories that never directly intersect. While not common in mainstream cinema, this technique has been tried before, most notably in The Hours (2002), which also starred Meryl Streep.

Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, is a young woman living in New York in 2002. She has a stressful and heart wrenching job dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 from a cubicle. She comes home every day and cooks for herself and her husband as a way of dealing with the stress. Her friends are upwardly mobile social elites moving up the ranks of the business world while she remains professionally stagnant. Julie envisions herself as a writer but she gave up on her novel, unable to maintain interest in a long term goal. What she needed was some inspiration.

This is where the "Julia" half of the story comes in. The film also tells the story of how Julia Child, the famous chef, author, and TV personality rose to prominence in the late '50s. She arrives in Paris with her husband and while she loves the city she quickly becomes bored and begins looking for things to do. After realizing hat making wasn't her true passion she decides to take cooking classes. She starts out in a beginner's a class with other women but complains to the school's administrator that she was looking for something more challenging and enrolls in an advanced, all male class. She soon outshines her classmates with her fearless mentality and bubbly charm. Eventually she meets two other female chefs Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and the trio begins work on a book designed to teach french cooking techniques to American housewives.

Back in New York, Julie, like Julia, realizes her true passion is food, and with the help of her husband she decides to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book Julia Child is struggling to get published in the other half of the film, and write a blog about it as she goes. She gives herself one year to cook 524 recipes and along the way she has a series of "meltdowns" as she struggles with the enormity of the task she has assigned herself. However, as she labors day after day her blog begins to take off, becoming one of the most popular on the internet, giving her mission a purpose.

Both stories could have been adapted into feature length films in their own right, but when put together they become stronger. As the film shifts between stories, each getting about and hour of screen time, we can see parallels forming between the two women. The most important of these is how their husbands played such an important role in helping them accomplish their missions.

Paul Child, played by Stanly Tucci, quietly supports Julia in everything she does, no matter how crazy it sounds to anyone else. He obviously and openly loves her and encourages and inspires her to continue to follow her passion. Eric Powell, Julie's husband played by Chris Messina, is the one who originally helped her get the idea to blog about cooking, but as tension builds and meltdowns begin to pile up he gets through the frustration and continues to support her. Without both of these men standing behind their wives the female lead characters would have likely been unable to accomplish their goals. Julia might have given up on her book without Paul's encouragement and Julie might not even have started, let alone finish without Eric. The film deserves a lot of credit for clearly expressing this point since it would have been much less risky, considering the intended audience, to make it a film all about "girl power" overcoming all obstacles.

Streep and Adams both do very well with their respective co-lead roles, especially with the cooking scenes, which must have been very difficult to train for and shoot from a technical perspective. Overall it's a good film, but maybe not quite as emotional or inspiring as it could have been. The plot flattens out a bit in the middle and you may catch yourself checking your watch once or twice, but for the most part it's a quality story and production about the determination to reach goals and the support support structures that help along the way.

Julie & Julia (2009) 7/10

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Dark Side of Comedy

Comedy, to the outside world, is all smiles. Famous comedians seem to have it all. They get paid an enormous amount of money to travel the country, and all they have to do for work is get up on stage for a few minutes every night and try to make people laugh. The lucky ones make even more money starring in movies and TV shows, usually playing a slight variation of themselves.

Funny People (2009) is about one of the really lucky ones, the fictional actor and comedian George Simmons, played by real life famous actor and comedian Adam Sandler. Early in the film he learns he is dying from a rare form of cancer, and he beings to reflect on his life. He wanders through his massive house, watches his old movies on several flat panel TVs at once, and realizes that he is friendless and his life is devoid of any real meaning. He recruits a struggling stand-up comedian named Ira, played by the ubiquitous Seth Rogan, to help him write jokes and be his personal assistant. What he's really done is bought himself a friend in the same way he would have bought a new car or an expensive rug.

It's not long before it becomes apparent that this is not a simple laugh-out-loud comedy. What director Judd Apatow is doing here is exploring the dark side of comedy, the side the public doesn't get to see. Comedians, despite the humorous face they show to the world, often live very lonely lives and use their ability to make others laugh to cover deep seeded pain. Their only "friends" are often other actors and comedians, all fighting over the same laughs every night. This point is emphasized by the film's huge number of celebrity cameos. Like Sandler's George Simmons, comedians can become very rich and famous, and yet, due to the nature of their working lifestyle, have literally nothing of real value, like friends and family, to fill their houses.

Sandler does a good job with this aspect of the character. Through most of the film he wears a slight expression of contempt when interacting with other people, as if it's a chore he has to put up with. Ira, his new assistant, is treated more like a piece of property or a pet than a human being. Simmons is so lonely he can't fall asleep without someone there to talk to him at his bedside. But as he's dying, he begins to understand the empty shell of a person he's become and he seeks to reclaim his humanity by getting back the girl he lost long ago, now married with two children, even if it means breaking up her family.

The idea that Apatow is trying to express here is that our laughter comes at a price: the souls of comedians. Simmons, after becoming so famous for making mediocre movies, like Sandler himself, has been isolated in the center of his own world for so long that he no longer understands basic morality. When he wants something, he just gets it, no matter the cost or the damage it may cause to others.

Ira seems to represent the conscience of this film. He is riding Simmons' coat tails to fame, opening for him every night, but hasn't yet reached a point where he can't determine right from wrong. But already, even so early in his career, his friends aren't really his friends, but rather his rivals, both personally and professionally. We can see that one day, possibly, he could end up a casualty of the comedian lifestyle, just like Simmons.

Overall, Funny People mostly hits the right notes. Like all Apatow movies, it doesn't follow a conventional comedic formula, which is refreshing, but the third act does drag slightly. Despite this minor pacing flaw, it's possible it could go down as a classic in the vein of The Graduate. It's likely time will be favorable to this film because of the way it speaks to the psychological effects of fame and explores themes of isolation and mortality.

Funny People (2009) 9/10

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Messages From the Coffin

At this point, it's no secret vampires have again recaptured the imagination of the public. The phenomenal success two book series, the Twilight Saga and the Southern Vampire Mysteries have planted vampires firmly back into our collective consciousness. I was planning on writing an article about the recent revival of vampires in popular culture at some point down the road, but Entertainment Weekly beat me to the punch and did a cover feature on the subject for their August 7 issue.
Twilight was adapted into a feature film last year, and it's soon be followed by the first of three sequels, New Moon, in November. Southern Vampire Mysteries, also known as the Sookie Stackhouse novels, was turned into an HBO series by Alan Ball called True Blood. The stars of the Twilight films have been all over the tabloids for months and True Blood has been gradually winning over an audience since its inception.

But while the Twilight and True Blood phenomenon has raised popular vampire mythology to new heights, it had never really disappeared. What the screaming Twilight fans might not realize is that vampires, even sexy vampires, are nothing new. Before Twilight's Edward Cullen and Sookie's Bill Compton, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles spawned the feature films Interview With The Vampire and Queen of the Damned. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a feature film that was later adapted into the campy TV series and its spin-off Angel. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez brought us From Dusk Till Dawn and Kate Beckinsale in a tight leather outfit starred in the Underworld films. And let's not forget Wesley Snipes in the Blade trilogy, which also crossed over into a TV series.

Vampires have long been a strangely alluring subject, and have always appealed to a strong female audience. It could be because vampires are such a good narrative device through which to explore so many themes. They are outsiders, dark, mysterious, immortal, and have an ancient history and acquired wisdom. Forbidden vampire-human sexual desire far pre-dates Edward and Bella, going back to the days of Dracula in 1897. But vampires are capable of more than playing off your deepest fantasies.

Take True Blood for example. In my mind, the most compelling aspect of the show is how vampires are used to illuminate society's social issues, such as gay rights. It's no accident that the church is in that story to point out how dangerous narrow-minded bigotry can be. Sometimes it's more effective to get a message across when you're expressing it through parallels and symbolism, and since vampires aren't exactly human the possibilities for social satire are endless.

It's in this area that Twilight seems to fall short, as it doesn't seem to have much social conscience or underlying message beyond love overcoming obstacles. Many believe that perhaps Bella is a bad role model for women because her entire existence becomes defined by Edward. I don't know if I completely agree with that sentiment, but it would have been nice, considering how popular the story is among the youth, if Stephenie Meyer had more fully realized the potential vampire stories have for social relevance.

History has proven that vampires are here to stay. Right now they just happen to be en vogue with a teenage audience, which has heightened the hysteria which has long existed. Let's just hope that while vampires have the collective attention of the youth, as they swoon over Edward and Bella or Bill and Sookie, they also happen to notice a few of the deeper themes just below the surface, or learn to see when the story is lacking in that area.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do Your Homework on 'Film General'

Movies are entertainment, or, I should say, movies are entertaining, but we should also think of them as cultural homework. Every year approximately 150 major films are released, and over time keeping up becomes an insurmountable task. Deciding what to see and what not to see becomes an important decision considering how many choices you have. Luckily there's a place you can go where someone has seen virtually every movie ever made: Film General.It's the general discussion message board about movies on, the best film information resource on the Web. It can easily be found by clicking on the 'Message Boards' tab on the IMDB homepage, but be warned! Enter at your own peril. Once you step in the door and take a look around you'll find an endless stream of debates about film by people who seem to have known each other for years, because they have, and this can be slightly intimidating if you're not prepared.

First, you have to register a username (I bet you can't guess mine), and once you have your alter-ego in place you can post until the cows come home on any of IMDB's 130 message boards. The topics range from specific, like the Harry Potter board, to the general, like the Oscar Buzz board, but the best and most interesting board on IMDB is Film General.

It's the kind of place where you get everything from serious, in-depth discussion on films to random, off-topic non-sense, but it all comes together to form a unique community of "like-minded" individuals. I use the term like-minded loosely because the debates are fierce, and at times, I'll admit, not always the most productive. However, it's still the best place on the Net to learn about film and to measure your own knowledge against others.

My friends (in real life) will sometimes say that I'm the biggest film snob they know and my response is always the same: Just go to Film General and hang out for a while, and you'll meet some REAL film snobs that make me look like nothing. I've seen 1,335 movies so far in my 25 years, which some might think is a lot; but compared to many FGers I'm still a rookie.

The amazing thing about FG is the diversity. All the regulars there share a love for film, but we all love it for different reasons, and we all enjoy it in our own individual ways. You can always find people who love (or hate) almost every film imaginable and give impeccable arguments to defend their positions. Spending time on this web forum allows you to really get to know film on a deeper level. After a while you'll find yourself seeking out older films and foreign films so you can take part in those conversations in addition to the always raging debate about the state of modern cinema.

I encourage everyone who has even a mild interest in movies to drop by FG and read some of the threads. Even if you don't agree with the opinions expressed you'll quickly see how far down the rabbit hole you really can go if you choose to. Most people don't ever look beyond the surface when they go to the movies, but the regulars of FG are looking for a higher meaning and an artistic value in the films they see, and they can help you to discover that side of movies too.

IMDB's Film General