31 August 2009

Tops of the Millennium: Influencers and Typifiers

Hello! It's getting be that time of the decade again, and as the year comes to a close, it's time for some Countdown Lists. Now, I generally dislike List-Making on Film websites, I think it's very subjective, gimmicky and at times, corny and useless. Nevertheless, over the next few months I plan to present a few "Tops of the Millennium" lists, presenting Countdowns of various aspects of the greatest films so far this Millennium.

I'm doing this because really, this kind of thing is so subjective. The "greatest" films of the past decade in terms of Academy Award wins or positive critical reception will be solely absent from the following list, but that doesn't mean we should ignore some of the biggest popular influences of our decade. I got to thinking that some of the most significant films that shaped how tastes and markets worked will not be found on most website's decade-end lists.

So, to begin, I've separated our past ten years into three different sub-eras. At the start, you will find the year span, along with a movie that best typifies that time span and why. Between that, I'm counting down the TOP 10 MOVIES THAT INFLUENCED THE DECADE. Needless to say, I care little to nothing over non-mass pop culture topics, so deal with it. Without further ado...

2000 - 2003...

...is Best Typified by: The Fast and the Furious (2001) - This is a crazy, stupid action movie that to me really feels like every action film made in the early 2000s. From the utter reveling in its own zeitgeist to its with grueling anti-hero stars, everything about this screams fast, edgy and cocky. A perfect crust for the "extreme" skater-ish fad of the late 90s (think XFL, Jackass, X-Games, lots of X's) that spilled over into the early part of this decade.

1. X-Men (2000) - This is the grandaddy of all current superhero movies, which have nearly replaced the entire Action genre by gum. This has also been a huge cash cow, with franchise upon franchise, even ones that do relatively shitty in theaters like "Hulk" (2003) to have sequel upon needless, needless sequel. This all started with "X-Men." (See "Spider-Man" [2002], "Hellboy" [2004], "Ghost Rider" [2007])
2. Moulin Rouge (2001) - The Musical Genre was all but buried and decomposed until this dandy little flick hit the screens. A great musical revival followed, and if last summer or this fall's "Nine" (2009) is any indication, is still very strong. Hell, they even got a Best Picture Winner in there. (See "Chicago" [2003], "Across the Universe" [2007], "Mamma Mia!" [2008])
3. Shrek (2001) - There were a scarce amount of Computer Animated Features before Shrek, but none with the style or wit. Also barely none outside of Disney besides "Antz" (1998). After the green man cometh, there was a huge surplus of celebrity voiced shit from a wide variety of studios, which is of course due in part to some handy technological leaps. The style of pop culture-grabbing, grubby, enormous cash-flow Animation all came from Shrek though. For clarification, think of it as the rise of the Anti-Pixar, heartless animated franchises. (See "Shark Tale" [2004], "Hoodwinked" [2005], "Over the Hedge" [2006])
4. Zoolander (2001) - I despise the term "Frat Pack," I feel it's inaccurate, too broad-ranging, and unoriginal. Unfortunately, there's no better term to call the sort of Comedies that ran amuck in the early part of the decade. They were a different kind of Comedian, providing a transition that helped move away from what I'd call the "trying-to-be-controversial-but-limited-to-PG-13-rated" Adam Sandler-type movie, eventually leading to full-blown Apatow-Level Comedy (See "Old School" [2003], "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" [2004], "Wedding Crashers" [2005])
5. The Bourne Identity (2002) - This movie presented a shift in action films as well as spy protagonists and how we treat our government, perhaps the first reaction to an untrustworthy, scandal-ridden Bush White House. Whereas Bond is always loyal to country as a strict code, immensely exemplified by the best 90s bond ("Goldeneye" [1995]), audiences in the 2000s wanted their spies to be rebellious and hardcore. Compare the Bourne alternative with the loyalist Bond film that came out in 2002 ("Die Another Day" [2002]). Bourne founded its own franchise while "Die Another Day" shut Bond down for four years. On a side note, Bourne also heavily popularized the "shaky cam" style, which ran a muck the Bonds to follow. (See "Casino Royale" [2006], "Body of Lies" [2008], "Quantum of Solace [2008]. Also note Batman's fighting style in "Batman Begins" [2005] and "The Dark Knight" [2008]. It's so Bourne-ish)
6. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) - I have this wonderful little gem on here representing a sometimes-terrible/sometimes-good trend of the 2000s, which I can only categorize as the "completely-unnecessary-sequel-with-a-dude-who-is-way-too-fucking-old-to-play-that-role. T3 with Arnie was the first, but assuredly not the last hero of the 80s to pull his pants up and give his once-awesome character some wooden teeth for another go-round. (See "Rocky Balboa" [2006], "Live Free or Die Hard" [2007], "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Dick" [2008]. On the side, notice the propensity for films like these to avoid numbering. This spills over to some other franchises as well, think "Fast and Furious" [2009], "The Final Destination" [2009]. Honestly, why is it more popular to add or subtract definite articles instead of sequential numerals? Fuck this is stupid.)

2004 - 2006...

...is Best Typified by: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005) - I was watching this the other day, and I knew I had to mention it because it gives me the same feeling "The Fast and the Furious" did. It's such a mid-2000s movie. I mean the completely needless big-budget sequel or "reboot" that generally misses the point was pretty much the norm here (think "Superman Returns" [2006], "The Pink Panther" [2006], etc). Not only that, it has really excessive, shitty CGI that runs rampant, presenting an overall commercialisation and soulless blockbuster that feels like it was made for pure moneymaking and entertainment rather than art. It's like how Woodstock '99 compares to the original. Not nearly as meaningful, original or frankly, even that fun. It's the kind of regurgitation and franchisation that totally typifies the mid-2000s.

7. Batman Begins (2005)
- Whereas "X-Men" got the ball rolling, "Batman Begins" shifted superheros to these dark, tragic figures, adding depth to the relatively bubble-gum world that had been set with things like "Spider-Man" (2002) and "Fantastic Four" (2005). Extending into the general action realm, "Batman Begins" also started a trend of giving this shitty pulp material to gifted directors who started to skew everything "dark." We're still not out of this one. (See "The Incredible Hulk" [2008], "The Dark Knight" [2008], "Watchmen" [2009], "Thor" [2011])
8. Crank (2006) - There was this other weird fad of the super-intense, uber-action flick that started after "Crank" premiered in the mid-2000s. Out of this came a slew of hack movies, really, but with some merit that tried a radically different method of film making that eschewed any semblance or attempt at plot or coherence and instead favoured pure adrenaline and action. Frankly, I really like these kinds of movies. Everyone should. They're made to be liked. If you're full of testosterone, that is. (see "300" [2007], "Shoot 'Em up" [2007], "Smokin' Aces" [2006])
9. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) - As the complete and utter opposite of the non-stop action movie, "Little Miss Sunshine," mostly through its Best Picture Nom and Supporting Actor win for Alan Arkin. I'd call this "kind" of movie the cheeky indie quasi-comedy, which we've seen a shitload of the past few years. I feel like a heavy part of its appeal is to the College Hipster, seeking to quote something pretentious in an effort to feel like they know something about film, but hey, that's just my personal bitterness. And I liked "Juno" (2007). (see "Juno," "Away We Go" [2009], "500 Days of Summer" [2009])


...is Best Typified by: Spider-Man 3 (2007) - An overcomplicated, over-thought out, overbudgeted extreme extravaganza. The blockbuster of the late 2000s tries desperately to see all sides of every character and issue, pouring in way way way too much thought and effort to make every character sympathetic and as "real" as possible. It makes me think of how much more "real" the purely evil Noah Cross (John Huston) was in "Chinatown" (1974) compared to say, the over-attempts at humanizing devil Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (2007). And yes, I just willingly compared Davy Jones to John Huston. I don't think it's unreasonable. Maybe.

10. Knocked Up (2007) - Being the later part of the decade here, there hasn't been too much to influence, but needless to say, "Knocked Up" has done its part, in part because it's far easier to get some comedies in production rather than the action franchises. Anyway, as I describe a ton here, "Knocked Up" formulated and popularized the R-Rated, no-name actors, group/buddy comedy that we've been blessed with these past few years. (see "Superbad" [2007], "Role Models" [2008], "The Hangover" [2009])

So there you have it lads. The first of many askew lists chronologuing this wonderful past decade. Over the next couple months I'll be posting more of this same sort of thing, until we get to my official TOP 15 FILMS OF THE MILLENIUM. Stay tuned, eager viewers. Stay tuned.

27 August 2009

Profiles: Steve Coogan and the Optimistic Failure

Welcome to the first of what could be many such Profiles of Film, Television, Radio, and Street Corner Performers. Today, using the one-year anniversary of the wide release of "Hamlet 2" (2008) as an excuse, I will be examining British actor Steve Coogan, five roles in particular that all exhibit a certain trait, which I call the hard-working, bright-eyed Optimistic Failure.

Being the blissfully ignorant American Dog that I am, I was introduced to Coogan as "that-small-dude-who-wasn't-Owen Wilson" from "Night at the Museum" (2006), but since then I've tried to catch up and he's become one of my favourite actors. What strikes me most is his ability to be completely unflappable and confident amidst shear failure. In every role I'll describe here he portrays a member of the entertainment industry in some aspect, and thus he is able to parody the image of celebrity, or the image someone of his stature "should" have. Let's go through this chronologically:

#1. Alan Partridge

Appears in: 50-60 BBC shows, including "The Day Today" (1994), "Knowing Me, Knowing You...with Alan Partridge" (1994), "I'm Alan Partridge" (1997 and 2002)
Fails at: Sportscaster, Chat Show Host, Radio Host
Alan Partridge is a great creation that I admittedly have only ever seen on YouTube. He is bizarrely extremely awful at every profession he tries, failing at describing both sports and music accurately in any way while professionally talking about them. However, he's so unflinchingly optimistic about his situation and his career, even when his shows take an abysmal turn. A turn as bad as say, Partridge accidentally shooting and killing one of his guests mid-air.

Look at him trying to keep his show going immediately after he kills the guest, then is fired by his boss. He has such a commitment to his craft, but he is so insanely bad at it. He displays such unwavering professionalism getting in his last plugs amidst a pending police investigation. It seems to be but a foreshadow of Coogan's career.

#2. Tony Wilson

Appears in: "24 Hour Party People" (2002)
Fails at: News Reporter, then Music Producer
Now, this is a semi-fictionalized account of Tony Wilson's life in the 1970s-80s Manchester music scene, but it becomes definitively Cooganized.

The opening hang-gliding scene, somewhat ironically, does serve to symbolize his character. He has a consistent determinism to succeed in a new venture and when he blatantly fails, Wilson remains unflustered, commenting instead
"You're going to be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film, although that actually did happen, obviously it's symbolic, it works on both levels. I don't want to tell you too much, I don't want to spoil the film, uh, but I'll just say: Icarus. Kay? If you know what I mean, great, if you don't, it doesn't matter but you should probably read more."
There's a lot to this quote here. Wilson breaks the fourth wall and explains the symbolism of his own first scene, attempts intertextuality with some Greek myth and then instantly becomes apathetic towards the ignorance that perceives lies within his own audience. Both the hang-gliding act and the lines of the quote itself involve someone reaching for the sun, coming up to high and then being thrown down in dirt and shame. Such is Icarus, Tony Wilson throughout the rest of the movie, and in many ways, the metanarrative of Coogan's characters. There's a bit more to this film, but let's move on:

#3. Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan)

Appears in: "A Cock and Bull Story" (2005)
Fails at: Himself
Here's an interesting turn, wherein Coogan played a semi-fictionalized version of Tony Wilson in "24 Hour Party People," he now goes for another layer in playing a semi-fictionalized version of himself playing Tristram Shandy in a fictional adaptation of "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" (1759). In thus, Steve Coogan as an actor is an arrogant, jealous, and in general a lazy and womanizing, if not well-intentioned human being. There is one scene in particular I will point out, that I think is one of the funniest I've seen in the past five years of cinema:

Check out the layers here: Coogan the actual human has to act out a scene faking what it might feel like having hot chestnuts down his pants, and then acts out much more humourously actually having hot chestnuts in his pants. While this scene is intact in "A Cock and Bull Story," it is rejected from the fictional in-movie "Tristram Shandy." Also of note is how much funnier the "A Cock and Bull Story" chestnut pants reaction is to how fake Coogan planned to act out in "Tristram Shandy." The way the other characters in-world see this hilarious scene as not funny or useful reminds me for a second of how much I laughed at the humour coach "Borat" (2006) saying what Sacha Baron Cohen said wouldn't be funny. This may of course be because in-world Coogan really isn't that funny, but real Coogan, through his character's incompetence at an attempted a bit of method acting becomes hysterical! If you were able to follow any of this actually, awesome, explain it to me later.

#4. Damien Cockburn

Appears in: "Tropic Thunder" (2008)
Fails at: Movie Director
Building more on its own metatextuality, Coogan's role in Tropic Thunder is essentially minimal, but excellent expresses his failure at the job. He is not entirely optimistic, at least until he gets some spicy ideas from fake vet John "Four-Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte). His ego is clearly out of control, as he says, concerning his radio amidst the jungle dangers,
"This goes to the chopper, and the chopper only, the chopper is God, and I am Jesus Christ; his son."
Cockburn tries desperately hard, but ultimately he fails supremely in his vision, although the finished "Tropic Blunder: The True Story Behind the Making of the Most Expensive Fake True War Story Ever," garners eight Oscars, $400 million and saves Tugg Speedman's career. Did Cockburn get partial directing credit for this? Who knows. I couldn't find a vid of Coogan in character, but this interview highlights some of the acting irony that mirrors life that Coogan seemed to build on following "A Cock and Bull Story:"

#5. Dana Marschz

Appears in: "Hamlet 2"
Fails at: Tucson High School Drama Teacher
This is perhaps Coogan's most epic failure yet. Marschz is virulently inept at his job and not on par with his personal dreams (liken to Ronnie Barnhardt [Seth Rogen] in "Observe and Report" [2009] anyone? eh? eh? meh.). His ego is massive, believing his plays and scriptwriting to be pristine and brilliant, when they fail quite massively, his biggest enemy and critic being high school paper columnist Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe). Marschz is delusional, he practically even fails at pronouncing his own name.

Clearly, Marschz has no grasp of metaphors and his horrible writing is on display. What his scripts lack, however, he makes up for in drive, enthusiasm, and gung ho-manship. Eventually, he actually does find some success, moving out of Hell's Asshole Tucson and putting the play "Hamlet 2" on Broadway. Nevertheless, his incompetence as a mentor, teacher and writer are on full display throughout the entire film while his unfaltering ego and positivity keep him going.

So that's that. As you can see, man of Coogan's roles embody the spectacular drive of the unrelenting failure, most often in the realm of media and entertainment, spanning the mental disembowelment of newscasters, movies, radio, television and theater. His movies also commonly have rich layers of intertextuality and meta-recognition, which is simply a great way to beef up stupid jokes and irony. To this day, though, Coogan hasn't had any real great American mainstream success, but like George Costanza, if he had great success, his characters wouldn't be who they are. Maybe.

24 August 2009

First Impressions: Inglourious Basterds

Well, the summer movie season is ostensibly over, and Tarantino assured us to go out with a nice hard bang. This flick was a freakin' trip, decently bodacious and worth the decade-long gestation period. It wasn't without flaws, however, but I would say remains one of Tarantino's best outings of recent memory. Without adieu, spoilers to come:

First and foremost, this flick does not align well with its advertising. I was expecting a gung-ho shoot 'em up constant barrage of Nazi Skinnins and Killins, but instead was treated to something much different. I very much liked what I saw, but launching the quintessential Quentin with a twenty-minute discussion of milk and pipes was humbling. The direction, acting, editing, sets, and plot design are all extremely crisp and wonderful. This is great and somehow rare these days, which lets an overanalyst like myself really dig into the story. Needless to say, I did enjoy this film very much, although it is far from perfect. There were some small incongruities that left me puzzled. Let's plow through them here.

Tarantino is well known for his use of flashbacks or backstories to advance his narrative and establish characters (See "Reservoir Dogs" [1992] or "Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2" [2003 & 2004 respectively]) and "Inglourious Basterds" is no exception to this style, although in a more limited fashion. We are only afforded the backstory for one of the Basterds - Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). This backstory is really cool and I wish we could have seen it for some of the other cats as well (about the feeling I got with the Ass-Blood Prince's pensieve, really cool scenes, why not more?). My only guess is that aside from horribly extending the 153-minute run time much further (I wouldn't edit or take out any other scene, and that'd be rough for Ten Basterds), establishing Stiglitz' character that way sets him up for a pivotal later scene, and his was the only character that really needed that done. It still creates this disjointing feeling, maybe a little splooge for Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) or The Bear Jew (Eli Roth) or another one of the 4-5 main, speaking role'd Basterds would have rounded out that part of the film for me.

This wasn't the only gap in the film's consistency, however. The Sammy J narrative over the aforementioned Stiglitz flashback as well as describing film nitrate is neat, but again, limited in its use. The fabulous, primarily Morricone score that should fit the time period and shy away from Tarantino trademark pop culture songs is also briefly interrupted by some nice Bowie. In these two instances I'm not entirely disappointed, but pad it out. If you're going to use Sammy J, use him more than twice, if you're going to use some rad pop songs, use them more than once. Also, what the hell was up with the four font changes during the opening credits? This flick needs its consistency streamlined. If anyone can come up with a likely rationale for these executive decisions, please, let me know down there in the comments section, I'd gladly kowtow my abuse here.

Now for the real meat of this flick, and dammit, there's a shitload of depth to pry from every scene. For the purposes of these First Impressions however, I will mostly stick with the crucial ending sequence. The film is incredibly meta concerning its final theater scene, highlighting among other things, the subjectivity of horrible cinema and the voyeur nature of watching a very film like Tarantino often presents. Let's back up.

It's clear early on that Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joey Gerbils is seeking both to reconstitute favour towards the German War Machine and establish fine art in itself. This contrasts with the love of superb Cinema and classic German Directors felt by Theater Owner / Secret Jew, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) as well as to a lesser extent the intentions and tastes of British Spy / Film Critic Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender). Gerbils totes a film about a young Nazi Soldier, Frederick Zoller (Danny Bruhl) who single-handedly killed 300 American soldiers in Italy. Hitler, upon viewing the movie "A Nation's Pride" finds it an absolute delight and commends Gerbils for his effort.

Thus, Gerbils has attained what he sought, his film recognized as one of the all-time greats of German Cinema. The kicker, of course, is that he only had to impress one deranged man to do so. Thus demonstrates the subjectivity of the artistic medium. The film itself consists of nothing but Zoller, playing himself, mercilessly slaughtering all of his enemies while perched atop a bell tower. All it is is death upon death after death, to which Hitler cheers and laughs endlessly.

Here's where Tarantino brilliantly blurs the lines between subject and audience. Interrupting "A Nation's Pride," the Basterds emerge onto Hitler's Balcony, slaughter all the German High Command, and then proceed to gun down the helpless trapped Nazis while they try to escape. Watching all this, I found myself cheering and laughing at the Nazi's demise until I caught myself enjoying the same kind of scenes as Hitler. A sobering thought. In terms of actual action, there is hardly a difference between the pleasure Hitler receives from watching Zoller massacre hundreds of his enemies, and ourselves watching the Basterds massacre hundreds of our own enemies. Sure there's the minute difference between killing armed soldiers and you know...Hitler, but the voyeurism Tarantino displays is still intact, which could duly apply to any other of his films, or indeed the "Torture Porn" genre that Eli Roth (The Bear Jew) founded with "Hostel" (2005). There are many layers to this scene that reflect on what the artists have created and what we enjoy, to compare our own tastes with Hitler here is something to mull over.

Expanding on this as well as the lack of any other Basterd's character development, the movie serves well to completely dehumanize its Jewish heroes. Aside from three or four occasions, the worst of their atrocities are never shown on film, leaving both the audience's and the Nazi High Command's minds to wander. Their actions are without regret or waver. The mission of the Basterds is absolute, and that is to exterminate an absolute evil. This actually highly contrasts with last summer's "The Dark Knight" (2008) which featured a vigilante full of guilt and shame over what "he would have to become" to stop an indeterminable evil. The Basterds, when treated cruelly, enact greater brutality over their foes. There is no guilt here, The Bear Jew gloats and mocks his fallen Nazi Colonel after slugging him with a baseball bat. There is little to no internal reflection for their deeds. As explicitly stated, they take no prisoners, only letting small numbers go to spread the fear of their deeds. Against an unstoppable evil, the mission of the Basterds is infallible, beyond any treaty, bargaining, pleading or higher authority. This is true even to the end when Aldo Raine brands Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and shoots his aide without thought or question, even though they had made a "deal." To the Basterds there is no deals or agreements to be had with evil. Again, this differs highly from "The Dark Knight" which takes a much more subjective stance with where evil can come from (Thinking Dent, not Joker here). Of course, this is not to say that a team of Jewish-American soldiers in World War II should feel any differently for any reason.

The last impression I want to tackle here deals with the previously mentioned Hans Landa. Christoph Waltz does a fantastic acting job here, and may have one of the longest screen times of any character, which is impressive for a movie that has Brad Pitt with star billing. He's already won the Best Actor Award at Cannes and is sure to pick up a few more. What's most interesting to me, however, is how polite and gracious Landa seems, even when performing the most vile deeds. His true monster comes out when he chokes to death German Actress / British Spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, so sexy). Suddenly Landa transforms from this well-groomed, refined Officer to a monster, strangling a famous beautiful actress with his bare hands. It shows that inside every Nazi, no matter how gentlemanly or eloquent they may seem (speaking four languages, smoking pipes, etc) lurks a truely hideous creature. In essence, this gives justification for the Basterd's ruthlessness. No Nazi can be trusted and when pushed they reveal their true horrible natures, an underlying nature necessarily horrible enough to commit such atrocities without heart or soul. Thus with irony, the most defined character in Tarantino's odois has no soul, marked and defeated by the least thought out characters. Nazi bastard.

23 August 2009

Trends: Apatow and the R-Rated Comedy; Part Two: 2008-2009

Welcome to Part Two of my series on the resurgence and dominance of the R-Rated Comedy in the past few years. Now, we saw how PG-13 was very strong in 2004, but began to falter in 2005, leading to its continued teeterance in 2007 among both commercially and very critically successful films such as "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." In 2008 you could literally see the changing of the guard week by week. Let's start with the Box Office combined with Rotten Tomatoes score:

#9. Get Smart - $130,000,000 / 53%
#11. Four Christmases - $120,000,000 / 24%
#14. You Don't Mess With the Zohan - $100,000,000 / 35%
#15. Yes Man - $97,000,000 / 43%
#19. What Happens in Vegas - $80,000,000 / 28%

2008 is really interesting, because all the major single-centered comedy stars took their crack at regaining their spotlight, but just couldn't win against the Apatow-style R-Comedy. In addition to the Sandler and Jim Carrey (relative) failures here, I'd like to add the abysmal bombs of Eddie Murphy's "Meet Dave" (2008) ($11,000,000 / 19%) and Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" (2008) ($32,000,000 / 14%). That era of comedy died in 2008. So, let's break out the winning side!

#1. Sex and the City - %153,000,000 / 49%
#5. Tropic Thunder - $110,000,000 / 82%
#6. Step Brothers - $100,000,000 / 55%
#7. Pineapple Express - $87,000,000 / 68%
#8. Role Models - $67,000,000 / 76%
#10. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - $63,000,000 / 84%
#11. Burn After Reading - $60,000,000 / 78%
#17. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay - $38,000,000 / 54%

Take out of this what you will. Outside of "Sex and the City," the numbers aren't staggeringly higher, but there's a shitload more of 'em. Especially if you compare it to 2004, or even 2007. Also, as you can see, the overall quality is vastly improved, if not scoring above 90% like "Knocked Up." The average score for Top 20 2008 PG-13 movies is 36.6%. For those rated R, 68.25%. This is a tremendous leap in quality, keep in mind I did not factor in "The Love Guru" and "Meet Dave" into these calculations.

Also of note is the career of Will Ferrell. From the modest 2007 "Blades of Glory" to "Step Brothers" and "Semi-Pro" (haha at $33,000,000 / 21% does not help my case, but the mere fact that Ferrell made this R instead of PG-13 helps me a lot), he's clearly making a transition into more R-Rated territory. The sheer failure of PG-13 "Land of the Lost" (2009) might cement this.

So here we are in 2009, a few months to go, but so far, this is how we're stacking up. Keep in mind some of these are on-going:

#4. The Proposal - $157,000,000 / 44%
#10. He's Just Not That Into You - $94,000,000 / 43%
#14. 17 Again - $64,000,000 / 58%
#16. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past - $55,000,000 / 28%
#17. Land of the Lost - $49,000,000 / 26%
#20. Year One - $43,000,000 / 16%

Now, let's go through a few things here. First of all, clearly, the Top 4 on this list are ridiculous romantic comedies and weird Zac Efron vehicles, which will always straggle around and be here forever. "Land of the Lost" and "Year One," however, were very much 90s or early 2000s-style comedies that have failed. Also considering that the 2008 list bottomed out at $80,000,000, and 2007 at $71,000,000, it's hardly likely come the end of the year that the last four on this list will even be counted. Which all leaves you with basically..."He's Just Not That Into You" rounding out the PG-13 list. Shit.

#1. The Hangover - $266,000,000 / 78%
#5. I Love You, Man - $71,000,000 / 82%
#8. Bruno - $60,000,000 / 68%
#10. Funny People - $48,000,000 / 65%
#17. Observe and Report - $24,000,000 / 51%
#18. Adventureland - $16,000,000 / 88%

Now, if you look at this, it's pretty clear to me that "Observe and Report" and "Adventureland" may not still be on this list come the end of the year, but R and PG-13 are tied 6 for 6. Let's see who really has the edge. PG-13 is averaging $77,000,000 with a median of $64,000,000. R, on the other hand, has averaged $81,000,000 with a median of $60,000,000. The draw is pretty fucking close, so let's go with critical analysis. PG-13 on the Tomatometer gets a paltry 35.83% mean and 43% median. R charges ahead at this point, garnering a 72% average and 78% median. While the commercial success of either rating at this point in the year may be up for grabs, clearly R is producing a higher standard of film, and in general, a much higher number of films as long as 2009 is anything like 2008.

Here is a nice list of a shitload of R-Rated Youth films that have come out in the past 30 years. I've done you a service and counted them up, 18/96 have come out since 2005. Further, looking at the top 25, 10 of which have come out in that same timespan, compared with 8 from 2000-04, 3 from 1995-99, 0 from 1990-94, 0 from 1985-89, 3 from 1980-1984, and 1 from before that. Clearly this is a growing trend.

20 August 2009

Posts about Nothing: The Life and Death of George Costanza

Welcome, young readers to Part Three of our Posts about Nothing dealing with the main characters of Seinfeld. Here we have now one of the greatest and most complex characters ever put on television, George Costanza. I dare not get into the deepest realms of George's mind (I believe I would emerge paralyzed and catatonic with fear), but there are just a few particular points I want to highlight for the purposes of this post, namely the harsh darkness and death that accompanies this bald, stocky, slow-witted man's life. Let's begin our journey.

George is known as the biggest liar, ("The Beard," [S6;E16], "It's not a lie if you believe it"), the biggest cheapskate ("The Truth," [S3;E2]) and the whole, one of the most worrysome, neurotic characters ("the Heart Attack" [S2;E8], "The Hamptons" [S5;E21], "The Postponement" [S7;E2], about any other episode you can find). On a few major occasions the true depth of George's dark and disturbing psychosis is demonstrated. These are mainly "The Gum" (S7;E10), "The Andrea Doria" (S8;E10) and "The Serenity Now" (S9;E3).

"The Gum" is very notably for having a (somewhat) non-partisan witness to basically, a typical week or two in George's life. The funny thing about this episode is that it is a pretty typical Seinfieldian George story, full of paranoia and coincidence, but it is witnessed by a neighborhood friend, Deena. Deena, through witnessing normal George events and reactions, believes that George is absolutely crazy and on the verge of a full mental breakdown. Thus, to others, the daily life and actions of George Costanza appears absolutely insane.

In "The Andrea Doria," George's life story (anecdotes from "The Subway" [S3;E13], "The Limo" [S3;E19], "The Hamptons," "The Rye" [S7;E11] and "The Invitations" [S7;E24]) stacks up not only against a shipwreck survivor, but in his words, "...could go bumper to bumper with any one else on this planet!" Indeed, the tenant board is in tears upon hearing the completion of George's pitiful life story, in essence, more pathetic, heart wrenching and tragic than a survivor of the Andrea Doria. Truly a sick man.

Finally, in "The Serenity Now," George is continually probed by Jerry to open up as Jerry has done with new found feelings. The suppression and superciliousness of Jerry's emotional state is a discussion for a future post and a great highlight of this episode. Once George opens up his own dark secrets and past, however, it absolutely horrifies Jerry, his best friend for decades. The emotional spectrum of all the characters in this episode is incredible really, from Kramer, Elaine, and George's suppression and subsequent release at inopportune moments, to Jerry's constant openness and scarring from George's story. George is a deeply dark and disturbed character. The key to Jason Alexander's portrayal is to let the darkness peak out from time to time while maintaining a well-to-do, charming, stocky facade.

The final test for George's character I will divulge into here is basically all of Season 7. There has been no truer test to George like the implacable Susan and looming wedding date. For the best insight into his character examine "The Engagement" (E1), "The Postponement" (E2), "The Pool Guy" (E8), "The Sponge" (E9), "The Gum," "The Rye," "The Seven" (E13), both parts of "The Cadillac" (E13-14), "The Friar's Club" (E18) and finally of course, "The Invitations" (E24). I will spare you the effort of digging into all these episodes, but let me wrap up my ideas about Susan Ross in general.

If the preceding of this post may be seen as the Life of George Costanza, the following must be the Death. It really is a brilliant way for George to get out of the relationship, really the only way he would ever be able to escape. A death that is sort of his fault, but certainly not intentional by any means. Let's talk a second about Susan, however.

She comes from an absolutely dreadful family, perhaps one even worse than George's (contrast "The Cheever Letters" [S4;E8] to most of Season 5 that has George living with his parents, for insights into his childhood, home movies in both "The Merv Griffin Show" [S9;E6] and "The Fire" [S5;E20]). Susan, though, turns out generally alright and tends to be on the most level-headed of George's or Jerry's girlfriends (hell even of Kramer or Elaine's relationships). She has a good job, formerly as and NBC executive, later explicitly stating that she makes more money than George ("The Invitations"). She's generally an attractive, cute woman, with no major flaws or neuroticisms. This is partly why she ends up disagreeing with hanging out with Jerry and Elaine ("The Pool Guy"), and doesn't want Elaine or Kramer at the wedding ("The Invitations").

So after her insanely troublematic parents somehow raise her to be a successful level-headed, attractive woman, she meets the entity known as George Costanza. Who knows if George really loved Susan, I think that's totally up for grabs. Moreover I believe he was momentarily dissatisfied with his life and craved a drastic change, but when it came he realised that he belongs in a muldry pathetic existence, but could not curtail the change he enacted despite his best efforts. Indeed it seems that George is most unhappy when he fails at failing ("The Millenium" [S8;E21]). George can never get married, nor can he have a happy life. To do so would render him an Un-George. The very trials that he endures make him who he is. If his life were not pathetic then his character would not be George, thus he would cease to exist. It's a very profound ideology that Larry David and Jason Alexander nailed precisely.

Thus we come to the conclusion that when a happy, successful women who tries to get close to George, and possibly really actually does love him very much, the only single possible outcome is her Death. That's right, there was absolutely no other alternative other than her demise from the world of the living to keep George's miserable character, and thus his miserable life woefully intact. This is why Fate afforded Jerry the mutual breakup. Jerry is a happy, congenial person. His engagement was allowed to be broken off through amicable means. George's darkness and desperation lead only to the death of the closest human to him.

Maybe not ("The Cartoon" [S9;E13]).

18 August 2009

Trends: Apatow and the R-Rated Comedy; Part One: 2005-2007

I wanted this to coincide with the release of "Funny People" (2009) last month, although its failure at the box office tends to be counter-productive to my argument here. This of course just means that I will just have to rely that much heavier on "The Hangover" (2009).

In the past few years there has been an explosion of R-Rated Comedy Films, and the slow decline, if not utter death of the PG-13 variety. Now, let me be specific with my genres here. I will include some Romantic Comedies under this umbrella (mostly because they support my argument), but I'm tending to shy away from overt Family Comedies such as "G-Force" (2009) or "Aliens in the Attic" (2009), because there has always been broad Family Comedies and there always will be. In the past couple years we have seen an immense decline in the kind of Comedy Movie, moving away from the single funny man PG-13 dirty romp (think "The Mask" (1994), "Happy Gilmore" (1996), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (1997)) and into a more ensemble-type, or rather either a no-name or buddy R-Rated fest (think "Knocked Up" (2007), "Role Models" (2008), "The Hangover" (2009).

Let's start with the beginning of this trend, which really was "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" (2004). Single-handedly launching the major film careers of Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay, and Judd Apatow, this flick would have a huge impact on the creative comedic talent to work in Hollywood for the next five years. In many ways I consider it our transition movie to the unbankable star, buddy-heavy films to follow. It's a weird mix of the group dynamic centered around the premise of a "Will Ferrell" movie. I'd say "Bruce Almighty" (2003) was the last great solo-super star film, with "Anchorman" the next year solidifying the transition.

2004 was a great year for comedies, but let's examine the number of PG-13 vs. R-Rated comedies in the Top 20 Box Office Returns (ranking is out of total PG-13 and R movies, figures rounded to nearest million):

#2. Meet the Fockers: $279,000,000
#6. Ocean's Twelve: $125,000,000
#7. 50 First Dates: $121,000,000
#9. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story: $114,000,000
#14. Starsky and Hutch: $88,000,000
#15. Along Came Polly: $88,000,000
#16. Mean Girls: $86,000,000
#17. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: $85,000,000

#6. Sideways: $71,000,000
#15. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: $40,000,000
#16. The Ladykillers: $40,000,000
#17. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: $34,000,000

These numbers seem to speak for themselves. Not only are there a far greater amount of PG-13 comedies here, but the lowest PG-13 movie's box office draw is far higher than the highest R-Rated. Let's move on.

2005 is our true transition year now, and it happens for a very specific reason. As far as PG-13 films go, Comedy claims 6 out of the Top 20, with the highest being the genre-straddling "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (2005) the Top Dog (#6 overall) with $186,000,000. Not too shabby, but clearly a decline from "Meet the Fockers" (2004). On the R-Rated side only two Comedies broke into the Top 20, but hell, they're numbers 1 and 2 ("Wedding Crashers" the lead at $209,000,000, followed by 40-Year Old Virgin at $109,000,000).

Flash forward a few career-making steps forward for the Apatow wunderkind and we're in 2007. "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" get #2 and #4 for all R-Rated movies, while the highest comedy peaks on the other side is "The Simpsons Movie" at #7. Now, at this point there is still a great deal of PG-13 comedies, most of them doing generally better than the Apatow schtick. However, there is some closer examination required in this case. The only PG-13 Comedy films to do better than "Superbad" are "The Simpsons Movie," "Wild Hogs," and "Juno." None of these are the centering, dumb goofy actor type movies of the 1990s. Now, the big stars of that decade, look where they ended up. Adam Sandler's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" comes in just under "Superbad's" mark with $120,000,000 (#12). "Blades of Glory" which I wound still consider one of Will Ferrell's transition movies (him and Steve Carrel would have been gods in the 90s) is #13, and finally, woefully, Eddie Murphy's "Norbit" is #16.

Another key here is to not only contrast the monetary draw of these films, but their critical draw as well. Rotten Tomatoes is a good enough service to arbitrarily give all these films and even grade, so let's go over the best PG-13 and R-Rated flicks of 2007 (which I almost made this trend 2007-09, it has that much of a knock-out effect).


The Simpsons Movie: 90% - not shabby at all, I imagine this should be an obvious exception to the trends here. This movie was going to come out sometime in the next 10 years, it happened to break in 2007.
Wild Hogs: 14% - Pitiful.
Juno: 93% - Nice swings for PG-13 so far and a great way to nuke my arguments, but Juno is clearly a different sort of movie all together than what is about to come down the pipe:
I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry: 13% - Yeah that's about right.
Blades of Glory: 69% - Decent, not great. But oooh I'm lovin' the next one:
Norbit: 9% - That's right baby.

Knocked Up: 90% - Equaling The Simpsons, effectively taking out their lead winner there.
Superbad: 87% - The one-two punch is complete. Unlike the jumpy PG-13 offerings, the Apatow R-flicks were solid critically and commercially and came in a great package. To see the effect first hand, we need only look to 2008.

Modal Nodes: The Last Runners for Summer Jam 2009

As many of you don't know, I have an intense obsession with incredibly stupid popular music. Most of this may be read here. I love staying on the Zeitgeist music scene, I feel like I can read a lot of our culture from it. Also Katy Perry's voice is just too damn sexy.

Anyway, I also mentioned in that earlier post an unending quest of mine (I guess it really ends on Labour Day, but what the hell) to find the ultimate Summer Jam each year. This basically boils down to the catchiest, most overplayed song of summer that everyone loves and hates (as they love and hate themselves.) I started this quest in 2008, where the clear winner was Leona Lewis, "Bleeding in Love." No question, this was a huge track from like, April to September, dominated. Oh Nine has been somewhat trickier. Here is a list I made in mid-June of possible contenders, attempting to cover a wide range of genres (both R&B AND Hip-Hop), artists, and popularity. Her we in my predicted rank order from June 10th, 2009:

1. Black Eyed Peas, "Boom Boom Pow"
2. Jamie Foxxx, "Blame It"
3. Lady GaGa, "Poker Face"/"Disco Stick" (At the time Poker Face was in clear transition to Disco Stick, openly acknowledging that both songs together could easily conquer summer)
4. Flo Rida ft. Kesha, "Right Round"
5. Green Day, "Know Your Enemy"
6. Kelly Clarkson, "I Do Not Hook Up"
7. Jeremih, "Birthday Sex"
8. Drake, "Best I Ever Had"

Take a hard look at this list. Clearly Green Day was probably never well into the running to begin with, they've dropped off hard. Jeremih surged well in early-to-mid July, but has slightly petered since then; the same could probably be said for Drake. "Right Round" creeps in here and there, being featured in a movie is always huge (End Credits for "The Hangover" (2009), not bad concluding a so far $265,790,452 box office) but overall has dropped pretty well. I still hear "Blame It" every once in a while, but it's not nearly overwhelming enough to be that true Summer Jam.

Now we see my early favourite, "Boom Boom Pow." This track was unstoppable from probably May to around mid-July when a big shift started happening (see Jeremih and Drake's surges and let downs, as well as "Blame It's" downturn). Suddenly I wasn't hearing my shitty annoying Black Eyed Peas song on the radio every 15 minutes. Something was definitely askew. Kelly Clarkson, starting off weak has been surprisingly resilient. Still weak, but still very present, which is more than can be said for current playings of Green Day or Flo Rida. In the meantime, however, there arose a few other contenders for the throne. I will list the stragglers here:

1. The Ting Tings, "That's Not My Name"
2. Pitbull, "I Know You Want Me"
3. Katy Perry, "Waking up in Vegas"
4. Keri Hilson ft. Kanye & Ne-yo, "Knock You Down"
5. Sean Kingston, "Fire Burning"
6. 3OH!3, "Don't Trust Me"
7. Kings of Leon, "Use Somebody"
8. Kid Cudi, "Day and Night"

Now let's look over this list real quick. 3OH!3 and Kid Cudi have been pretty long lasting, but not nearly overplayed enough to be true Summer Jams. Pitbull and The Ting Tings broke relatively late, "That's Not My Name" holding a dominant spot in that mid-July transition period, while "I Know You Want Me" has still been riding high as a legitimate contender, especially this past week. Kingston has been slow and steady, I heard one my 10-year old kids I coach singing it one day, a clear sign of its inception into our public hivemind. Kings of Leon and Katy Perry have been decent, but totally not jam-worthy enough to earn that Summer Crown.

So, if you've been paying attention, I'd say the major contenders to be the Champion of Summer 2009 are Pitbull, Keri Hilson, Black Eyed Peas, or Lady GaGa. It's hardest for Pitbull or the BEP to claim it really, because although they both experienced waves of massive overwhelming airtime, "Boom Boom Pow" is essentially a May to June song and "I Know You Want Me" has ruled July to August. To really earn the spot, you need that constant airplay. Keri Hilson could have it, she's been around a while, but only really spiking in the past month or so.

So then we have GaGa. If you consider her entire oeuvre of "Poker Face," "Disco Stick," a somehow resurgence of "Just Dance" as well as her smaller collaboration with Wale, "Chillin'," I think you've got the clear Queen of Summer right there baby. I actually probably love "Chillin'" the best out of all of them (you can probably find a better copy I had to embed a shitty one), that along with Flo Rida ft. Nelly Furtado's "Jump" I had been pulling for, but are clearly out of the running. And that was featured with "G-Force" (2009)! "Disco Stick," clearly her tentpole song to swear by the past few months has, lost some steam that may have to pick up the next couple of weeks, but all in all, I believe in GaGa.

Live it.

17 August 2009

First Impressions: District 9

Hey now! That was a fun post-less fortnight, wasn't it? Sorry about that one, folks, we'll get in the full swing of things shortly here.

If anyone has seen or read reviews of "District 9" he or she should know it is a superb movie. It's really unlike anything else being offered this summer and should stand out pretty well as Neill Blomkamp's stand-out freshman effort. There's a lot to think about and analyze here, so stay with me. Spoilers abound.

The first first impression I really had from this flick was the intensity. It holds nothing back really. Not only violence, but emotional peaks, anger, racism is tremendous. This is not the world of Transformers. This is a realistic world with real problems and brutal outcomes. It's read like a real news feed of a slummed-out Third World village instead of a glossed over "Star Trek" (2009)-like future, or even a nostalgia and atmosphere-obsessed "Terminator" (2009) ordeal. The most unnerving things to me were the subtle moments, like a sweaty Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) horrifically pulling out fingernails or teeth, or the reveal of his Martian arm. It's full of these unnerving moments that pull it apart from other more fluffy popcorn summer fests. I commend this.

The effects were also very subtle and not overblown and extravagant. There has to be some inevitable comparisons to "Moon" (2009) in this regard, but they were both well done on modest budgets. The only major complaint I had would be the final spaceship take off, which surprised me that they could nail the aliens so well and not the mechanical stuff. It's an incredible dirty, used style that I've never seen before. If "Star Wars" (1977) first introduced us to the idea of a "used" future, then "District 9" shows us that not all aliens will be benevolent, clean, or frankly even that intelligent. The aliens can also be impoverished, Third World style. It's a pretty rad thought, which the effects, from the giant mothership over the city to even one man's slow transmogrification, were splendid.

I'll admit I was starting to be annoyed with the Documentary-type footage at the start, although the movie kind of gave up the premise, if not the style in a very smooth fashion. It was cool how Blomkamp used some if it to his advantage in establishing some character very early on, from the gruff mercenary pushing the camera away, to Wikus concerned about his infection appearing on tape. The interviews were a pretty ingenious way of establishing a lot of the world as well. If the whole picture had turned into a weird Mockumentary-type affair, though, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it as much, and I'm glad the flick quit the majority of it when it did.

Alrighty, now for the real meat of this picture. I love the idea of aliens coming to Earth and landing in South Africa. What a warm, loving, accepting choice of nations. Apartheid is clearly the intent of the filmmakers, and from what I've been reading recently, the treatment of the Prawns is not dissimilar to the real treatment of blacks in the country, down to the forced relocation of many residents from District 6 in Cape Town in the late 1960s and 70s.

The trick is that throughout much of this movie the Prawns are seen as sub-human. They arrived impoverished and sickly, and instead of help, mankind kept them down. It's an interesting response as our conditioned excitement and adornment we should have felt towards the space visitors turned into disappointment and shame. It's like finding out your father who you thought was a pilot turns out to be a flight attendant. There's going to be some decades of mental anguish for that kind of thing.

So there's basically all these immigrant rejects that are mooching off the country, and really, the hatred and fear of scary monsters who kill people and eat cat food seems less like racism and more justified in the minds of a mild-mannered human. This had become so ingrained in the collective conscience of their human neighbors that Wikus has no qualms about treating them as lower-beings, tricking and forcing them to vacate their homes under the pretense of a better life. It's unfortunate then, that his punishment should be to lose his humanity, as there are clearly many many others who treat the Prawns much worse (ie, subjecting them to gruesome experimentation, vivisection, testing weapons on them).

The essence of the movie then, is that it is extremely hard, even sitting in my nice American suburban home here, to imagine what it could be like living in a slum like that, literally hungry enough to eat a pig face. It's that hurdle then, to get over my own pretensions to identify that that tortured Prawn (read: black South African [stand in for any oppressed Third Worlder]) is still a conscious, thinking, rational animal with feelings and dreams of its own. It's tough to have that sympathy for a violent, egg-laying, raw meat-eating monster with very very foreign concepts of land ownership, family, and living standards. It's the hurdle "District 9" challenges us with, and frankly, something I'm sure I wouldn't be able to handle if I was in Wikus' shoes or Bryan Christiansen's shoes.

So let's move on to Wikus himself then, who is a great character and the core of the movie. I've read a lot of criticism about his selfishness and supposedly unlikeablity as a character. This is bullshit. Why the hell must we completely identify with every fucking character that's put on screen these days. I read the same criticisms of "Observe and Report" (2009) and "Funny People" (2009). The world is messy and gross and mean, and all three protagonists in these movies do not deal with it well and make an incredible amount of selfish decisions and mistakes. Does that make for an insufficient story? I think of "Raging Bull" (1980) or "Goodfellas" (1990) which are incredible movies because they fully explore the deplorable facets of our human nature within the basic desire to do good (by their own reckoning) and follow their dreams (like America). Is Ronnie Barnhardt date raping his obsession any worse than Jake LaMotta beating his brother? I have no idea, but both show where humanity can go when tempted with power (or delusion) and the guilt (or shameful non-guilt) that can come from it. And yes, I just compared Seth Rogen to Robert De Niro, deal with it. "District 9" is no different in some regards to the personality defects of the main character.

Wikus is essentially forced to become what not only he, but the world most detests as a vermin, lower being, the Prawn. Naturally, he is a bit upset. One of the weird flaws I found with this movie is in this core premise, I have no idea how alien gasoline can turn humans into aliens. Whatever, but his plight is essentially that of a prominent middle-class white guy who has a bangin' wife and a new job promotion, suddenly turning black in the middle of Apartheid South Africa. Racism, personal selfishness aside, that should legitimately scare the shit out of anyone. His desperation throughout the transformation is very warranted, going to such lengths as cutting off his own fingers, seeking cures with shifty go-betweens, and finally, dealing directly with the Prawn who made him who he is. The finger-cutting scene in particular seems to show that Wikus cannot simply excise this thing from his body. Prawns are no longer foreign, they are him. Indefinitely.

The key moment comes when Christopher Johnson (great alien name that I made fun of until a friend of mine pointed out to me how much we changed immigrant names coming into this country) declines an immediate reversal cure for a three-year hiatus while he attempts to rescue his own people. At this Wikus completely turns on the Prawn, demanding a cure over the fate of 2 million oppressed people. To understand this, the average moviegoer must understand that a lifelong mentality of Prawns as a lower form of life allows Wikus to easily make this decision, even as he is turning into one. When you agree that something isn't human (or equal to human), it becomes much easier to hurt it. This is a major justification for slavery, Apartheid, imperialism, about any major injustice in history, really. It's no different here, especially coming from someone who so closely worked with the Prawns and knew how degrading their life was. This racism actually facilitates his decision further, knowing that for the next three years he would have to live in that status, forgoing his hot wife, job promotion, absolutely everything his life had been leading towards. Even Dudley Do-Right would have had some struggle with this news!

So when his ship is shot down and Chris is about to die, Wikus finally realises that there is no turning back. This is shown best as his eyes start to change. He's really at the transition point here when he's seeing the world as half human/half Prawn. Compared to the finger-cutting scene earlier as well, at this point, he can't cut out an eye. This is his redemption and acceptance of his horrid fate (stages of grief anyone?), it may have been late, but it's his only time in the film to be a hero, and it's pretty awesome. Lots of great death scenes here as he rages in the Mechano-Bot across District 9. The ending is pretty ambiguous towards whether Wikus is saved from Prawnhood, whether or not Chris ever returns, and if he does, as one of the interviewees states, he will return with help for his people or with destruction and revenge for humanity. It's tough to call Wikus' fate. I mean, sure it would be nice for him to receive his own human life back, but at the same time, becoming the Prawn is the key to learning the ultimate lesson in racism and judgment. Perhaps this wouldn't be undone with his transmogrification back to humanity, but again, this is pretty ambiguous.

So all in all I'm pretty pumped about a solid sci-fi that's not a sequel, doesn't have insane mindless explosions or ghost clones or a $200 million budget. It's been doing well so far so by critics and box office alike, so maybe there will be more of this type of film in the future. Or just Iron Man 2 next year to look forward to. Downey Decade baby...

Also the guns are real cool.

01 August 2009

First Impressions: Funny People

I'm considering Apatow 3 for 3 as a director. He's batting 1.000 right now, and I love it. Needless to say, these impressions will be dominated by comparison and contrast to his earlier work, for good and ill, as I also inevitably compared the earlier Bruno to Borat. Let's dig in to my Spoiler-rific impressions.

This movie is ridiculously long, but doesn't feel so until around the two-hour mark. Then it goes on for another twenty minutes. There are so many stories and characters to shift and wrap-up that I think you'd feel pretty cheated if it was a 90-minute throw-away comedy movie. Indeed there are a few streaks in this thing to make it more like an actual, meaningful movie instead of a flash-in-the pan goof-off like most of Adam Sandler's career, which they go on to heavily parody throughout.

Sandler, after all, has to be the highlight of this flick. I got a really weird feeling watching him, seemingly acting so non-Sandler like, yet clearly as a character inspired from his real-life persona. I think I tracked it down as Sandler not playing a "Sandler" type role (ie, goofball, angry dude, hyper-reality), but just being himself. Which is very honest in showing the depth of comedians behind their jokes. It's kind of surreal, really, to see when Sandler, as George Simmons, "turns-off" the outrageous parts of his comedy, because he is a real human. This is heavy contrast to something like "Happy Gilmore" (1996), for instance, where he is constantly acting out. There's a great scene early on, dealing with Simmons' pressure to be funny immediately after being diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia, meeting some fans outside of the doctor's office. They expect him to be funny all the time, which Simmons is trying to do, but he ends up realising the form of shallowness this embodies. I remember Chris Tucker talking about this in an interview once. Or maybe I saw it on Movie Trivia or something. For a comedian, there's always an anticipation to be funny. All the time. As an amateur asshole myself, I know it can be a hard line to expect people to give you depth, but also want them to laugh very desperately. This gives "Funny People" in itself a great meta-narrative, not unlike some of Apatow's other work, in that it is a decently raucous comedy that demands to be taken seriously at the same time. A breathtaking accomplishment, speaking as a wannabe comedian here.

Given the intense layers that this film presents itself, a large part of it degrades other "low" comedies, even some not so dissimilar from much of Adam Sandler's real-life works. Painful clips of two of George Simmons' films, "Merman" (1998) and "Re-Do" (2008) make it into Funny People, both are lauded in-world as tremendous successes, if not seen by intelligent people such as Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), and ultimately Simmons himself as tremendously stupid. There are numerous other instances of shitty, shitty comedy that has widespread appeal, hack comic Randy (Aziz Ansari) and the terrible family high school show, "Yo, Teach" starring Mark Jackson (Jason Schwartzman) as a pathetic high school teacher trying comically to reach trouble youth. All this corny, broad shit adds another layer to this film beacuse Funny People's core style of humour is extremely deep and self-reflexive. This even extends to Ira's character who the film introduces as having lost a ton of weight, not unlike his off-screen persona, Seth Rogen.

There are numerous other ways the film is self-reflexive, from the subtle Australian Eric Bana playing an Australian, to the actual stand-up used by Sandler, Rogen, and Jonah Hill for the film with real-life audience reactions, to the real-life footage of Sandler making prank phone calls as Apatow's roommate. There is a continuous blend of reality and fiction that make the film's impact that much stronger, as well as add to the depth of its own reality, which contrasts with some of the hyper-realities of comedies such as "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" (2004) or "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" (2007), which rely heavy on an askewed universe (But not an Askewniverse oh ho ho).

The movie loses some ground in its complexity, however. It is hard to distinguish a main character even, as both George and Ira have some significant character arcs and intense drama with both their personal relationships, not all of which work out nicely. I've read some reviews commenting on either an anti-climax, or an otherwise weak third act, but I tend to disagree. Understanding Ira is key to why George and former love Laura's (Leslie Mann) doomed relationship. It ultimately could not end any other way, which Ira sees, but George cannot. George reconciling with himself, not those around him proves to be the biggest change and climax of the movie. And how the hell is Apatow supposed to show this on screen? Well, he shows it by George treating Ira like a friend and co-comedian, not an underling. This is George's huge step, and forming this protege, he realises, is his means to attain happiness. It's a solid wrap up, completely unbiasedly, I have no complaints.

Alrighty then, now for the inevitable Knocked Up comparisons. By far I wasn't laughing as much as I did during Knocked Up, but I think I enjoyed Funny People a lot more. This is bizarre, really, as Knocked Up was all about overly optimistic slacker man-childs growing up in their 20s, while Funny People is all about jaded man-childs growing up in their 40s. Funny People's humour is much more subtle, its drama makes it a more compelling movie, and the richer subject matter and maturity make it a much better film by all standards. I know I'm pretty much sucking Apatow's dick throughout this whole article, but hey, if it's thick don't stop baby.

On that note, my last impression of this thing would probably be the sheer sheer amount of dick jokes in this movie. As James Taylor said when asked if he ever gets tired of playing the same songs over and over again, "Do you ever get tired of talking about your dick?" This may have just been abnormal of me, but the penis envy in this movie is incredible. I need to sit with this for a while and probably write an entire Freudian-themed post considering George's continual recognition of Ira's enormous penis, and Sandler's typical modesty concerning his own medium-sized penis. I didn't find it overwhelming, but definitely noticeable after a while about how much they talked about their penises. In fact, you can pretty much gauge Ira and George's relationship by how big they call each others' penis. George complementing Ira when he's in a good mood, degrading his tiny tiny penis when he gets upset. It's a strange dynamic.

Thus the film consistently has a keen eye for the mind of the comedian. They're all funny people, but the humour is always masking something, and they joke both to cover up things they are feeling and what they don't want to feel. George Simmons' life has become so hollow, you can tell why he has such an urge to get up on stage, not only to make his audience laugh, but perhaps to make him laugh too. That laughter is covering up all the wrongs and excesses he has had in his life. It's a rare comedy movie about comedy (ooo another layer!) that pulls off its routines incredibly. I'm tempted that it edges "The Hangover" as best comedy, if not best film of the Summer of 2009.

Real quick, if any reason to watch this movie, the cameos from all kinds of stand-ups are incredible, Eminem and Ray Romano are legendary here. Try to keep in mind, though, that this is not meant to be an extremely high comedy, which I'm afraid many people won't understand and not give this film a chance from the kinds of reviews I've read and the early Box Office numbers. Not unlike Walk Hard, which I thought was another incredible feat in meta-humour. The obvious tricky thing about meta-humour is of course, though, that when the audience isn't in on the joke or doesn't care then it falls flat. Frankly, I'd say that audience can go see Merman instead.
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