Archive for the ‘Films I Love.’ Category

Things get complicated for “Funny People”, too

August 3, 2009

Funny570

Rated R : 2 hours 26 minutes : Universal/Columbia Pictures

There’s really nothing left for Judd Apatow to prove to us as far as the world of comedy is concerned. He owns it. Most all of us know by now that he has produced some of the elite films of the genre over the last five years, including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Walk Hard, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express. As a producer he has brought together a group of actors and crew who are now labeled “The Apatow Family”. They are the assembled, rotating team of familiar faces that we have come to count on in our times of need for consistent laughter. It took him a while to break into the mainstream, but Apatow has cemented himself to become the busiest comedy producer in the world, delivering several projects a year. What I find most intriguing about the mastermind, though, is the writer/director side of him. In 2005 he had to prove to Universal that he could direct just as well as he writes and produces, so he started out by teaming with the popular Steve Carrell for the laugh fest, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which became such an immediate hit that he quickly found the freedom to take on whatever kind of film he wanted to next. It would be with his second feature at the helm, Knocked Up, that we would come to find the major difference between Apatow-produced films and Apatow-produced/written/directed films: the attention to serious undertones and endearing, realistic situations life puts us in….all the while mixing in a boatload of his trademark comedy, of course. He had showed major improvement with his direction in just his second full-length, and ever since the June 2007 released of Knocked Up, I considered that the finest achievement of his career. That was until he decided to continue the trend of one-upping himself with the next directing effort, this time with the seriously affecting Funny People.

It’s been an extremely long wait for Apatow to finally work with old college roommate Adam Sandler on such a major project like this. They did a bit of collaborating in the past, like in the excellent but sadly cut-short television series, Undeclared, where Sandler played himself in one of the shows most memorable episodes. Apatow also co-wrote the script for the uneven You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, but the old friends hadn’t done anything with this much weight to it yet. I’m glad they saved Funny People for the first time they were to do something substantial together, because it gives Sandler his most challenging role since Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed him in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. Like the actor did in Anderson’s film, Sandler brings out a side of him we rarely get to see, playing George Simmons, one of the world’s most popular comedic actors who in his middle-aged days finds out that he has been diagnosed with a form of leukemia and has limited time left on earth. George lives in a California mansion that is occupied only by himself and the hired help, for he has driven all of the family and friends out of his life over the years. When he learns of his illness, Simmons notifies no one, he just heads back to the stand-up clubs that he started out in when he was young, surprising the audience-hungry promoters with his presence and the request to perform. It is at The Improv that he will first come into contact with Ira Wright, a dime-a-dozen aspiring comic who writes with promise but has a bumbling stage presence. Wright saves his set from failing by taking a stab as Simmons’ complete failure to generate laughs just a few minutes before, and with the audience opening up he goes on to have what must be the comfortable set he’s ever done. Simmons take a liking to Wright’s sense of humor and hires him to write jokes for him as he plots a stand-up tour, which he assumes will be his last. He is a complicated individual, one who we come to find has buried emotions deep inside for many years, and the relationship that unfolds between he and Ira, no matter how much he would consider it to be of the “hired help” kind, will prove to be just the kind of real friendship that he has always needed and, really, desired.

Of course there is far more to be told in this truly epic comedy, where Apatow once again puts on display the necessity of a strong supporting cast of characters who all get their dose of depth in the sharply written screenplay. The ensemble of actors is as stacked as any Apatow production to date, including Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Bana, Aubrey Plaza,and a long list of other familiar faces showing up for minor roles. The most impressive thing (among countless impressive things) about Funny People, is the daring, unconventional approach that Apatow took with the structure of the screenplay. He knew that he could take any sort of risks he wanted to this time around, because having Adam Sandler on board is going to guarantee that the box-office numbers will be high at the very least. Knowing this, he takes his characters on an emotional journey that is unpredictable and always veering off the standard “three act” path of a normal screen story. By doing this, Apatow challenges his three main actors, and especially Sandler, to tag along with him as he attempts to mature in his storytelling. He also gets the two most human performances of both Rogen and Mann’s careers to date. Funny People was the most anticipated film in over a year for me personally. It had a lot to live up to, what with me talking about wanting to see it and all of its potential greatness for nearly an entire year after hearing of the talented involved and the premise. What Apatow has accomplished with this film is incredible and really too brilliant to put into words. I saw it twice on its opening day last Friday, and it only got better with the second viewing. Like all of the great comedies he is involved in, I suspect this will continue to endear with each passing watch, but because it was made with such a sense of personal involvement and an obvious long history of understanding the people working alongside him, it will become not only a favorite, but an essential piece of work out of everything I will see. This is where Apatow goes from making one of the funniest films of the year, to one of the best. It’s a masterpiece.

star_ratings_image

Cast
Adam Sandler
Seth Rogen
Leslie Mann
Eric Bana
Jonah Hill
Jason Schwartzman
Aubrey Plaza
Maude Apatow
Iris Apatow

Written & Directed by
Judd Apatow

Katz’s “Quiet City” A Quiet Triumph.

June 2, 2008

Official Theatrical Poster
Not Rated, 78 minutes, Benten Films

A sophomore full-length effort that truly lives up to the promise of its maker’s debut, Aaron Katz’s Quiet City is a simple and gorgeous little film filled with the small moments of everyday life that are often put aside in mainstream American cinema. The overall premise that Katz put in place for the movie is a perfect and most realistic one to make, considering the budget of nothing that he had going for him. In his first film, a project with bits of brilliance called Dance Party, USA, Katz mildly expressed interest calm, almost meditative shots of certain vacant portions of the city, both inner and outer, and the vast differences between day and night. In Dance Party he was working with the surroundings of Portland, Oregon, and for Quiet City he shifts across the entire country, to Brooklyn, New York where we are treated to a wonderful marriage of both patient nature shots and handheld conversation photography as Katz and cinematographer Andrew Reed share a mutual eye for what was trying to be accomplished. The film begins and ends with Keegan DeWitt’s subtle keyboard scoring wonderful subway photography. Erin Fisher plays Jamie, a twentysomething from Atlanta who has just arrived to see her good friend for the first time in a long while. Trouble is, her friend is not answering her phone and all Jamie has is the name of a cafe where they were supposed to meet. It is so late at night that the subway area is as bare as it could be, with only one other person roaming its tunnels. Jamie asks this person, named Charlie (played by Cris Lankaneau), if he could give her directions to the cafe. This is where the first of countlessly realistic, awkward, and just easy to relate to dialogs begin between the two. Charlie is stuttering in his explanation of the location of the cafe, so he decides to just walk her there.

Jamie’s friend never shows up to the cafe, but Charlie stays with her in case she were to be without a place to go. There is an uneasy manner to the way Charlie approaches the inevitable proposal of her spending the night at his apartment, but it’s not the sort of awkwardness that is uncomfortable, not for the characters nor for us the viewer, it’s exactly the opposite. In an interview with the cast and crew at the New York premier, it is told that although the script reached well over 100 pages it was still essentially an outline that served as a jumping point for the actor’s to improvise with, which is why both Fisher and Lankeneau are credited along with Katz as co-writers. Choosing not to work strictly by the script was the major reason why Quiet City resonated with me long after it was over. There is never anything but a sense of real-life to every inch of the movie, because that’s exactly what it is and it understands that it shouldn’t step away from it. We are treated to tiny vignettes of Jamie and Charlie’s 24-hour excursion through various areas of Brooklyn, conversations that are arguably about random nothingness but mean absolutely everything to the moment, the time, the people, and ultimately the world of the film. Katz and the aforementioned Andrew Reed do more with the streets, sunsets, parks and subways of Brooklyn than they did with Dance Party‘s green Oregon, and coupled with a perfectly fitting DeWitt score, they manage to successfully cast the landscapes as a co-lead itself.

I had heard a lot of good things about Katz over the last year, and getting the Cassavetes Award nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards sort of automatically put his name up there with the “bigs of the small”, often hearing his name alongside Joe Swanberg’s (Hannah Takes the Stairs), who happens to appear in the movie in a small but memorable performance, as an odd fellow who thinks cole slaw is vastly under appreciated. I am happy that I have finally gotten around to seeing both of Katz’s films, and although I can’t say I liked Dance Party, USA, I knew this guy was on the brink of creating something special. That something special came very quick. It’s called Quiet City, and it’s beautiful.

Jarring, Thought-Provoking “4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS”

April 13, 2008

Not Rated, 113 minutes, IFC Films

I have not seen all the films that exist in the world – of course not – and who has? It is simply an impossible feat to be accomplished by any one human being in their lifetime, but this still does not stop us from uttering exclamations like “the greatest in the history of cinema” or “the best ever made” about certain things that strike us so powerfully. I find myself saying these sort of things all the time about some of the films, or specific aspects of the creation of a film that I see. It might be a premature statement to some people, but if only they knew that by “best ever made” I mean only from everything I’ve viewed in my lifetime to this point. Anyway, before I make the mistake of getting lost in an even deeper rambling, I must note that the new film from Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is certainly the most realistic experience I have ever witnessed inside a movie theater and arguably the most realistic I’ve ever seen, period. Mungiu, along with his cinematographer Oleg Mutu, unconventionally choose to take on this project with a scope that is uninterrupted and without any kind of technical, flashy tidbits that would even remind us that we’re watching a film. The actors always seem like they are touchable and not on a screen, the surroundings create an atmosphere that draw us in before we can even think about being drawn in, and the reality of the film’s themes and its uncanny ability to make us feel for what’s happening and contemplate about what these characters are contemplating, is a rarity. This is a tough film to get through, but one of the most rewarding if you’re a serious moviegoer.

Anamaria Marinca gave one of the truly brilliant performances of last year as Otilia, a young college student in 1987 Communist Romania with many things going on in her life, certainly with her share of personal problems, at the top of the list being the stress of trying to set up a then illegal abortion for her roomate, Gabita. We follow the two women, with the true focus on Otilia on the day that all of this is to finally go down, and it all unfolds as if this were a true full day, no stylistic editing retreats that cross out what the normal audience member would consider “boring”. There are wide takes, never accompanied by any sort of musical score, and the performances, particularly when they are forced to go long stretches with no dialogue at all, to express grief and guilt, are phenomenal. We are along for the unpredictable, dangerous ride that Otilia and Gabita have trapped themselves in, through the less-than-inviting streets, back alleys, hotels, and lobbies of this area of Romania. For whatever the surroundings make us feel, and they made this person here very on edge from beginning to end, the people that these women come across are twice as nerve-racking…especially the “doctor” who they managed to find at the last minute. The amount of pressure that Otilia is put under, and it constantly builds to more and more with the irresponsible choices of Gabita showing rampant by the minute, is enough to make a weaker person age ten years in the span of 24 hours. Watching her try to make the best and right decisions that will be the least painful for everyone involved, watching her try to be as unselfish and faithful as she can without crumbling into bits, is devastating, true to life, and harrowing. Marinca is simply a revelation.

To reveal anything in specifics of what is unfolded in the film would be not only a waste of time, but a travesty if you’re still reading this and consider yourself interested and a cinema lover. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is one of the best films I have ever seen. It’s one I admire more than almost every single film I’ve watched to this point in my life because it achieves what it was setting out to achieve, and by never straying away from its goal of giving not just a sense of realism, but becoming wholly real. 2007 was a marvelous year for cinema, and Mungiu’s film is one of the top highlights of the time, which brings me to the point where I must express my pure hatred for the Academy voters. To not even have this film as a nomination, let alone a win, is undoubtedly one of the biggest mishaps in all of the event’s 80 years of life. That is something I can guarantee without even seeing most of the foreign entries that were chosen for nods. It’s just that good. No, great. No, mesmerizing. No, perfect. As I was watching the film I knew I was experiencing something completely unique and special, but it wasn’t until hours, days, and even weeks later, after realizing that it was still entirely in my thoughts, that it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

* * * *

Fashionably Late New Year’s Resolution

January 17, 2008

I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions, but as 2008 stormed in just over two weeks ago, I felt that I had a good enough reason to make one for the first time in many a moon. I recalled just how many times (and especially in the last two years) that I had been angry at myself for not watching enough films created outside of this country. Nearly every time I watched a foreign film, (which was all too spread apart and rare) I was enchanted and floored far beyond most of the American stuff I see on a daily basis. So my new year’s resolution, which has been in effect since the turn of the year but is only now officially being announced, will be to dedicate myself to watching at least 50 foreign language films in 2008…and hopefully I will write about each one.

I feel good about this and am very optimistic that I can stay true to this promise to myself. Of course, that’s what everyone says about their resolutions in January, I’m sure. However, I do have proof that I’m off to a decent start. I have already viewed two of the foreign films, one Italian and the other Chinese, that I’ve been meaning to see for the longest time. Here they are…

2008
FOREIGN FILM PROJECT

VIEWING #1

VIEWING #2
Ang Lee's brilliant masterwork.