Friday, July 31, 2009

Great Bit from Fifty Dead Men Walking

A searing chase scene above from Fifty Dead Men Walking.

If you live in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton or Winnipeg there's a great little thriller you should make some time for. Set in Belfast as the height of "The Troubles" Fifty Dead Men Walking is a tale about a young man caught in the middle of a war. Based on a true story, Jim Sturgess plays Martin, a two-bit thief who becomes a British spy as he rises through the ranks of the IRA.

The movie is about the lies each side tells each other, about the men thrown on the funeral pyre for the greater good. Directed by Canadian Kari Skogland, it can be at times generic, although the street battles are riveting. The image of a young girl, her bright knee socks flashing as she picks up a brick to lob at the soldiers, still sticks in my mind. Shot on location in Belfast and it shows.

But the performances are what make this one. Sturgess does a great job of a young man who is slowly slipping into an inescapable situation. And leading him along the way as the British handler is our modern-day Olivier, Ben Freakin Kingsley. Say no more.

Standing Up for Funny People

I' m talking about Funny People on air today. All in all I'm recommending the film. It's not without some faults, mainly the length and a distracting subplot about a failed relationship.

I say distracting because the best stuff of Funny People comes from the comedy. The craft of comedy. A love letter to the dented souls that decide to get up on stage and make other people laugh. This is director Judd Apatow's most personal film because a lot was taken from his own path. He was the guy, trying to break into the biz. And it was another famous name, Roseanne Barr, who gave him a leg up.

For comedians there's a smorgasbord of stuff here. The cameos are endless. At times it feels like the movie The Artisocrats . Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, Ray Romano, Norm MacDonald, Paul Reiser (remember him?) and a even a blistering Eminem. No he's not a comedian, but he has one of the funniest moments in the film.

Now the movie is being advertised as an Adam Sandler film. There he is in the middle of the warm and fuzzy poster. But for me this was a Seth Rogen film. Yes, he's funny. There's a scene in a restaurant, where he tries to stop crying, scrunching up his face in a way that had me crying with laughter myself.

But it's also Rogen's mix of vulnerability and intelligence. He comes off as a smart but decent guy. Watching him slowly find his voice and grow as a performer is the best part of the film. Compared to that, Adam Sandler's bitter old rich guy falls a little flat.

One more thing, don't be fooled by the title or trailer, this is a movie with a serious side. With a soundtrack featuring Neil Diamond and James Taylor, you feel Judd Apatow is getting a little melancholy. With my preoccupation with trailers I find it interesting how the original trailer featured Sandler's character jamming with Wilco. The feeling is joyous and celebratory. In the movie we learn Sandler's character has actually paid Wilco, effectively renting them for a couple hours. It's small moment, but heartbreaking and a hint of the some of the darkness hiding under these Funny People. (By that way, the song Sandler's singing in the trailer is actually "Photograph" by Ringo Starr.)

Although it's lopsided, Funny People is worth seeing. For a big Hollywood release Judd Apatow has snuck in a lot of his own life on screen. Talking someone to sleep. A brush with death. The cruelness of crowds. All based on Judd Apatow's own experiences.

Hopefully the fans fall for Funny People the way I did.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Insert Bromance Joke Here

While I'm on air trashing the limp love story that is The Ugly Truth, I wanted to take a moment to recommend a very different kind of love story: Humpday.

Love might be a way of over-selling it, but it's certainly about a bond. It's a guy thing, two friends, still connected who through one night of drunken dares find themselves taking their relationship to another level.

Ben (on the left) is a regular guy whose a traffic systems analyst. He and his young wife are trying for a kid, their life is pretty stable, until Andrew (on the right) drops in. Andrew is an old friend from years back. Now he's a bit of a vagabond, trekking through South America, trying to refashion himself as an artist.

The two guys still have a connection, and the film, with it's relaxed mumblecore style catches the uncomfortable feeling of friends who are still linked, but have also grown separate ways. Ben doesn't want to be seen as a sellout, with his perfect house and coffee table books on the coffee table. Andrew is all-too-ready to taunt and tease, but also not as easy going as his comb-free look suggests.

After on night with bit of drink and bit of pot, the two guy back themselves in a corner. Somehow they propose to make a porn film for the alternative film festival Humpfest.

The catch, it will be a porn film featuring two straight guys, Andrew and Ben. The morning after each try to let the other back out of the project, but Ben in particular is tired of being boxed in. In a mix of bravado and bro-ness they stumble forward.

The quiet brilliance of this seemly unworkable concept is the final 20 minutes that takes place in a dingy hotel room. Part of you is rooting for boys, as this event becomes something bigger than the two of them. Another part really really doesn't want to see them do it. And that's where the comedy comes from. You know they don't want to do it, but giving up is a failure neither of are willing to face.

If you're a fan of small films, simple scripts and honest performances, take a gander at this one. Keep in mind director Lynn Shelton wrote the script but it was mainly an outline. So what happens in that hotel room? That's all the actors. Smart small stuff worth your time.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wild About Harry

Yup, it's Harry Potter week here at G.O.F. The poster to the left features the lovely Luna Lovegood. A sadly wasted character in the new film. I hope she gets a bigger part in the final two flicks. (Does she? Tell me, no wait, don't tell me.)

So the movie that's smashing box office records is Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. It's pretty good overall. This is a high quality series, as Nikki Fine put it, it's better than it has to be. Meaning that there's a quadrillion or so Potter fans out there, box office potency is pretty much guaranteed . But regardless, the HP crew go out and do their best to make solid, entertaining movies.

Set design? Lovely. Costumes? Enchanting. Does anybody not believe Hogwarts is a real place? Maybe if we found the right train we could be walking those hallowed halls.

The acting is top notch, someone give the casting director who found Daniel, Emma and Rupert a bonus will ya? My MVP for this movie is Rupert Grint, maybe it's because he was set up to be the odd fish, but seeing Ron Weasley coming into his own is very satisfying. Grint's a great comic actor, able to be goofy and ground the magic wunderkinds at the same time.

My only quibble with the new movie is that ... well it doesn't feel like a movie, more just an installment. Following the outline of the book, the entire film has the feel of an extended set up. The story lacks a true villain, instead of battles there are skirmishes. I can't help but feel the more satisfying way to enjoy this series would be as a mini series or waiting for the Hagrid-sized box set.

Still, for fans, this is a good film, filled with the type of craft we just don't get consistently in the film biz anymore. It'll do, as Farmer Hoggett once said.

Oh, and about that record breaking midnight screening? Well that's what happens when a generation of kids, grow up reading the series. They were 8 or 10 years old when they first cracked open the first book. Now they're certainly old enough to enjoy a late night screening. So it's not that surprising HP raked in 22 million in one night. How many Potter readers are there anyway?

The challenge going forward will be make the next two movies in a way that satisfies the maturing audience. The final two films will screen in late 2010 and 2011! It will be an audience of 20 year olds watching those. Chaste kisses in school hallways and scary spells wont cut it. But I'm looking forward to seeing how the filmmakers raise their game.


As I had to refresh my memory, it's been so long since the last Potter pic, so I've been thinking about what's my favourite film in the series.

In the end I'll have to go with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Alfonso CuarĂ³n only directed one film, but he was able to push the series to the limit. It was darker and stranger. Gorgeous, gloomy and truly gothic. Remember the triple decker bus? Remember the cast? David "Naked" Thewlis as Prof. Lupin. And Gary Oldman as Sirius Black. Oh, and I almost forgot Emma Thompson.


So what to do now that's you've seen the Half Dead Prince and it's over a year until the next film.
We'll here's a couple suggestions to tide you over.

If you like Rupert Grint. Look for lovely little film called Driving Lessons.

It's about a quiet boy who befriends a retired actress (Julie Waters channeling Katharine Hepburn)…quite charming.

If you like Alan Rickman, and come on, who doesn't? Look for Snow Cake. A Canadian/UK co-production starring Rickman and Sigourney Weaver. A small town story about loss and lust.
If you want to see Prof. Snape caught off guard, this is the one.


And finally, as always the Potter pics are a smorgasbord of talent. The newest recruit is the droll Jim Broadbent who plays Prof. Slughorn, an expert on potions. If you want to see more of him, in a less fidgety roles, try, Topsy-Turvy. There he plays Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan. Directed by British treasure Mike Leigh in one of Leigh's most accessible and colourful films. You can find that trailer HERE. "Laughter, tears, curtain." as one character says.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Divine Il Divo

A car falls silently into a gravel pit.
The only sound, the chirping of birds.

Cut to: The face of Giulio Andreotti, impassive, frozen, his eyes hidden behind his massive glasses, like two flatscreens tuned to a dead channel.

This is the glory of Il Divo, opening in Toronto today, rolling out across North America.

Il Divo is one of the best films I've seen this year, if not the best. An energetic mix of politics and crime, it has the nerve of a Guy Ritchie film, but the maturity of a mafia classic, such as, yes, The Godfather.

It's a fitting comparison because Il Divo is equally epic in scope. Spanning decades, it follows the life of Giulio Andreotti, who served as Italy's Prime Minister for seven terms. For about as long Andreotti has been dogged by claims of mafia connections, charges of corruption, political assassinations and worse.

The filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino digs into this, not in a linear fashion, but jumping about, bouncing from the streets where killers roam, to corridors of power. Much time is spent in Italy's parliament, where Andreotti's circle of friends, (who carry nicknames like The Shark and The Lemon) ensure the country runs they way they want it to.

It's a fascinating portrait of power, much of it a mystery because the lead actor Toni Servillo gives away so little. Andreotti is an enigma. A face like Henry Kissinger, all jowls and forehead, but behind the accountant's facade, is a monster. The man they call the Black Pope. At a party during one scene, one of the pretty young things asks Andreotti, "Have you ever danced Prime Minister?" "My Whole Life." is the answer.

This is a movie, where the filmmaker is bending the entire medium to his will. The music, motion, acting, even the title credits, all combine to create something thrilling. There are no easy answers. This is not a rant, it's a mystery. Only once does Sorrentino play his hand, allowing Il Divo a peel-the-paint-off-the-walls monologue with a bloody body count.

Winner of the 2008 Jury Prize at Cannes. Watch the trailer here if you need more convincing. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Transformers Hangover (movie industry madness)

Well for months now there's been a growing drumbeat in Hollywood. The death of the star system. The death of movies for grown ups. Hollywood in crisis.

Why? After a number of big-name movies failed to do well the mainstream movie biz, already nervous, is becoming even more conservative.

What could possibility be wrong with those movies? The A-list stars? Sophisticated content? Movies exploring corporate surveillance, journalism and gangsters...

All well and good (and I enjoyed everyone one of them, well Public Enemies, not so much but that's another post.) But the problem is for all their A-list content, the box office was a D minus. You see when you pony up the dough for Russell Crowe or Julia expect things.

And then there's the two breakout hits of the summer so far.
Transformers Revenge of the Fallen and The Hangover. The failure of the big name stars to bring big box office, compared against the success of popcorn fluff like Transformers is making the industry think twice.

This was covered nicely last week by the KCRW entertainment program The Business. But to save you the time, I thought I'd go over some of the main points (while giving myself a chance to let off some steam.)

The Land of the Lost was an expensive movie with a big name star.
Will Ferrell as a moron lost in time? How could it fail?
I lost it there, but again and again Land of the Lost is being held up as an example of how the Hollywood system is broken because A-list actors can't guarantee big box office.

But the machine isn't broken, someone just didn't vet the script of Ferrell's latest nonsense. I don't mind Ferrell. Elf is brilliant. But Land of the Lost? Sorry but jokes about dino pee and a horny monkey aren't going to cut it. Also keep in mind while your jokes might make a 16 year old giggle, who is the target audience? Presumably the people who watched Land of the Lost as kids and are now in their thirties. Congratulations you made a stupid spoof based on a TV show, half your audience never saw. Brilliant!

And yet this failure is ignored, instead executive are scratching their heads and lowing actor salaries. (By the way, guess who is the one bankable star left....Will Smith. The last movie star.)

Interestingly one of the contributors to The Business suggest the stars who will replace the actors will be the directors. JJ Abrams' actors may change, but as long as he proves he can deliver an audience, studios will keep paying his way.

So here we are, entering a world where the studio-made movies for grown ups could become an endangered species. What's left? On the one hand there's a handful of Oscar-worthy smart movies, and on the other hand there's the summer brand name blockbusters. Into the Void, go the middle ground, the big movies with a big Hollywood cast. Case in point, Sony just backed out of Moneyball. You'd think a movie about baseball starring Brad Pitt would be a lock. But after a couple semi-serious films floundered, everyone's getting cold feet.

Another thing that might be contributing to the pre-mature death of some films is the rise of twitter and more platforms to be your own critic. If a movie's a stinker, the smell spreads a lot faster these days. Facebook and Twitter are a great way to spread the world. (I know I do.) And all the marketing buzz in the world can't stop bad word of mouth. (Update: The Wrap has more on this.)

What does it all mean? Well for starters the summers are going to be a lot dumber for a while.
Until the economy picks up again studios are scared. Risk is out, safe is in. That means lots of big brandname movies, retreads, remakes and high-concept films. When a frat-boy fest like The Hangover is considered the pinnacle of creativity, you know the industry's in trouble.
Power is shifting out of the hands of artists and actors and back to studios again.

We could see this all come to head this winter. You might remember hearing that the Academy Awards have expanded the Best Picture Nominee category to 10. Well if things stay this way, the question wont be which ten films are picked... it will be are there enough Academy-Worthy to fill 10 slots?