Forgetting the Motif

May 8, 2008

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is the latest in Judd Apatow’s production of comedies, which almost spawned a post of its own. I’ve found that Apatow seems to be producing, for the huge part, a form of romantic comedies and biopic parodies. On one side, you have his friends from “Freaks and Geeks”: “Knocked Up”, “40 Year Old Virgin” (okay, that’s Carell, but Rogen is in it so I’m counting it as F+G territory) and now, Jason Segel’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”.

(On the other, if you have noticed, is his friends from Will Ferrell’s side of Hollywood: “Anchorman”, “Talladega Nights” and “Walk Hard”. I’m actually shocked he didn’t produce “Semi-Pro”, as Jackie Moon would have added to a conglomerate of strange American icons in Ron Burgandy, Ricky Bobby and Dewey Cox. Maybe he opted for “Drillbit Taylor” instead.)

It almost runs counter-intuitive that Apatow, a man that has become as revered as anyone in Hollywood, would achieve such power broker status as a romantic comedy producer. But I think just refining him down to that would be to undermine what he’s doing to a genre that has supported Matthew McConaughey’s entire career. Apatow’s romantic comedy productions are pushing forward a genre and making it more accessible to males. Going to see “Knocked Up” did not have the negative connotation of seeing a “chick flick”, leaving boyfriends across America to have to defend themselves for being whipped.

It’s a testament to these movies, I suppose, that Apatow produces romantic comedies but not chick flicks. And I suppose that’s what “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” really is. I mean, at its core, “FSM” is a story about a man that’s broken-hearted that falls for another woman (a beautiful, beautiful Mila Kunis). It’s a romantic comedy, and there’s no way around that. The coinciding plots are rather unimportant; everything at the beginning is centered around building up the heartbreak of our main character, Peter Bretter (played by screenwriter Segel), after he breaks up with TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). Everything in the back-end is to strengthen his budding love with Kunis’ character.

So, think about this for a moment. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has every bit the plot twists and turns of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”, but somehow, Segel has built a story that avoids Chick Flick status. And, amazingly, it’s a very simple formula that Segel has followed to do this, and to join the Apatow brand of romantic comedies:

Build strong supporting characters that make us laugh by pushing the limits of sexual humor.

It’s. That. Simple.

In “40 Year Old Virgin”, you had David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco) and Cal (Rogen) as Steve Carell’s sidekicks, pushing him not towards a relationship with Trish, but towards losing his virginity. The whole movie is sexualized humor, and Elizabeth Banks plays a supporting character that is only in the movie as a vehicle for sexual humor.

In “Knocked Up”, Ben Stone (Rogen) is supported by Segel, Rudd, as well as friends Jay (Jay Baruchel), Jonah (Jonah Hill) and Martin (Martin Starr). All, except for Rudd, are merely Stone’s sidekicks. Segel in the movie is highly sexualized, and Jonah Hill is fantastic. I think if we all remember the scene Stone is on the phone with Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), who has called him to set up a date to drop the bomb, we remember the sexual boundaries of this script.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is simply Segel’s learnings in this type of script. As has now been made famous, Segel has written a script in which he shows his own junk multiple times. That we briefly see Kunis’ boobs hasn’t been talked about at all, but Segel’s penis is the talk of the town. But the movie also has highly sexualized supporting characters. Jack McBrayer, of “30 Rock” fame, plays a newly married man that is terrified of sex. Russell Brand is new to American comedy, and he plays Sarah Marshall’s newest love interest, British rocker Aldous Snow. Brand is a sex pistol, literally, who ultimately teaches McBrayer how to fuck. Finally, Jonah Hill has a sort of cameo as a homosexual fan of Snow.

Throw in a scene that puts Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally” to shame, and Segel has done it — he has put in enough sex jokes to widen his audience.

People say men are simple beings. Never has it been proven more true in Judd Apatow’s success in widening the breadth of Romantic Comedies with one easy swoop.

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WHAP Reviews: 21

March 29, 2008

When I read Bringing Down the House years ago, long before I could think about placing a bet in Las Vegas, it was the type of book that you knew while reading was going to become a major motion picture. As difficult as crafting a movie around a blackjack table would be, this was the story about a group of kids — college students — beating casinos that thrive on vice by outsmarting them. Bringing Down the House is an amazing tale, with twists and turns that put the characters on the run as they attempt to make money at any casino they can before being blacklisted.

I promised myself though, when I saw a preview for “21”, that I wouldn’t compare the book to the movie. It isn’t fair. I tried to compare the movie “Kite Runner” to the book in December, and realized that the book is too juicy for a 2-hour film. The same problem exists here, so you have to give the screenwriters their opportunity to highlight, emphasize and embellish upon what they think the key aspects to the story are.

The story, simply, is that at MIT in the early 90s, a professor began using his position to recruit the most intelligent mathematicians on campus to join a blackjack team. Using a team format, the group would count cards, and the leader would sit down when the deck was most favorable, and bet larger amounts. Over time, if uncaught, the team technique is unbeatable by casinos — it gives the players a huge advantage. The team is comprised of spotters that sit at a table and play the minimum, not focusing much on winning or losing but merely playing to keep the count alive, and then calling in the leader when the table is hot. The leader needs to count cards, vary his bet amounts to win the most, play optimal strategy and attempt to stay unsuspicious. After all, casinos don’t like losing money.

At the center of both the book and the movie is the best of the MIT’s findings, a money-starved genius born to count cards. In real life, he’s Jeff Ma, founder of ProTrade Sports. In the book, he’s Kevin Lewis. In the movie, he’s Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”). Campbell is a Harvard Med dreamer, but with the cost of $300,000 seemingly impossible, his dream seems to be slipping through his fingers. That is until his favorite professor (Kevin Spacey) and dream girl (Kate Bosworth) recruit him into their team.

If having read the book gives me any advantage, it’s to see up close the decisions made by the screenwriters. Their focuses were, most notably: to establish Campbell as a legitimate boy genius, to focus on the double life that attending class and spending secret weekends in Las Vegas invokes, to trace the path of the relationship between Campbell and his dream girl, and to focus on the man/group of men trying to stop them. Focusing on these elements limits the twists and turns of the plot, giving us a singular struggle between Campbell’s team, their professor’s ego and the casino’s resilience.

For blackjack players, and most notably those familiar at all with the premise of counting cards, the movie seems to hyperbolize. The idea of a hot deck — when counting indicates the table is in favor of the players, rather than the casino — is used far too often, and no alternative is posed. In reality, a cold deck happens as often as a hot deck, and most of the time, the count hangs in the middle with the casino retaining their small percentile advantage. However, in the vein of keeping things interesting — a task when we’re talking about a card game — the movie doesn’t acknowledge that sometimes the Campbells of the world have to wait a long time for their proper shot.

However, I don’t think this is a movie for blackjack players. It’s a movie for people that don’t gamble, people that think gambling is stupid. It is designed to have that shock effect — wait, we’re supposed to say, blackjack is beatable? In that demographic, of course, is a lot of women, as any trip to a Las Vegas casino will find more men than women. It’s for that reason that the storyline between Campbell and Jill Taylor (Bosworth) is made very substantial. Campbell undergoes a personality change when the money starts rolling in — and who wouldn’t? — and suddenly approaching his dream girl (who has become his co-worker) is no problem.

I’ve read a few reviews that have notably attacked the chemistry between Sturgess and Bosworth. That didn’t really strike me here — and Bosworth said in an interview that they became really close friends, so much so that they couldn’t do their love scene without getting really drunk — but Sturgess does have some issues working with other actors on screen. A couple times, his reactions with his two nerdy friends at MIT wasn’t convincing, but most notably, his chemistry with the character that played his mother was very strange. At first, we see her in the local bar celebrating Ben’s birthday with a cake. But she seems far more like a favorite aunt than a mother until a selfless gesture in the middle of the movie reveals her character. However, at no point does their relationship feel authentic, and I might be picking up on the problems that many people had with Sturgess/Bosworth by identifying this potential weakness in his arsenal.

However, outside of Sturgess’ mediocre performance — not bad, but not great — are some solid supporting performances. Laurence Fishburne, the man in charge of finding card counters, and Kevin Spacey are predictably great. Josh Gad does his best Jonah Hill impression as the movie’s comedic talent, and does a nice job. Actually, “21” is a dramatic story wrapped in a comedic screenplay, and the interplay works better than, say, “The Kingdom” did in 2007. Las Vegas is supposed to be fun, after all.

We’re told, usually, that working with your friends is a bad idea. Mixing relationships with work is a quick way to end a friendship. “21” doesn’t say that. It says mixing work with people you don’t know leaves open the possibility of working with a person that shouldn’t be trusted. In the end, it’s a movie about the importance that trust and friendship plays in a work environment.

That’s not exactly what Bringing Down the House was about, and for that reason, thousands that read the book will be disappointed by “21”. It’s divergence, though, also makes this movie far more a success than I anticipated. And success on a mass appeal will make the investors — notably Spacey as co-producer — happy people.


WHAP at the Movies: Funny Games

March 24, 2008

The trailer is incredible.  But every critic everywhere is saying the same thing, “Whatever movies you choose to see in 2008, DO NOT SEE FUNNY GAMES.”  But then again, the film has a 7.2 rating on IMDB.  What’s our take?  Read on…

Funny Gamesis an American shot-for-shot remake of the 1997 Austrian film of the same name.  Michael Haneke, who is highly praised for his 2005 film Cache, is the writer and director of both the original Funny Games and its American counterpart. 

This film has been ripped apart by every critic who has seen it.  On Ebert and Roeper, Richard Roeper had this to say of the movie:

“The fact that it features fine performances, talented direction and some moments of genuine suspense only makes the end product that much more appalling.”

And to Richard I have to say:  Ummm….I think that was the point.

Funny Games is not just a movie; it is a critique of American culture.  It is a response to the violent movies that have become ever so popular as of late: the Hostels and the Saws.  But what is most impressive about this, is that the original film was made in 1997, long before American cinematic gore was in full force.

And Michael Haneke is not just a director; he is a manipulator.  All throughout Funny Games, a flick that depicts an upper class family (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart) taken hostage in their own vacation home by two young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet), Haneke knows exactly what the audience is yearning for.  He knows that we are going to cheer for the good guys.  He knows that after watching a family being tortured for over an hour, the viewer is dying to see them fightback, to see Michael Pitt or Brady Corbet’s guts smeared across the screen.  He knows this, and after what seems like forever, he gives it to us.  And I will say this without spoiling what happens, when the family finally is able to retaliate I was flooded with great relief.  I found myself my smiling at the violence of the moment captured on screen.  During this scene someone in the audience actually pumped his fist into the air and cried, “YEAH!”  But Haneke gives us this joy only to take it away moments later.  He wants us to be angry and reflect on how happy we had been during that moment.

Although the film is a violent one, most of the actual violence happens off screen.  Haneke lets the viewer hear the screams and moans of the victims, but he does not let us see them during the moments of injury.  Instead, he turns the camera somewhere else, often to an on-looker in the family, and let’s us watch in horror their expressions.  This places an incredible amount of importance on the movie’s three victims–Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart–and each of them deliver.  And Haneke does not just let us be spectators to the carnage, he invites us to be apart of it.  Four times in the movie Michael Pitt turns to the camera, each time making the audience no longer feel as an on-looker, but something that is closer in resemblence to an accomplice. 

Funny Games is a movie that toils with your insides and fucks with your head.  You will know the ending before it comes, but like the family it depicts, you will not want to believe it. 

And the critics are right to dislike the movie.  There is nothing to like about watching a family brutally tortured for the better part of two hours.  But they are wrong to pan it.  Haneke is making a point.  He is asking us why it is so wrong to show violence when deep down inside we are yearning for it.  He is asking us, as a culture, to look in the mirror and question our fascination with torture and gore.  His style is unique and distinct.  The violence in this movie is sudden and random and more often than not, it is not shown.  Instead we shown what is important: the everlasting effects of violence.  And for that Haneke, I admire you.           


Upon Second Viewing: Jon’s Top 5

March 23, 2008

Since Bryan posted earlier today on the irrelevance of seeing a movie a second time, I feel obligated to defend my stance on “the second view” — that it matters, just as much if not more so than the first viewing of a film. To me, watching a movie another time — usually at home, as opposed the first theatrical viewing — is absolutely intregral to my overall opinion of the film at hand. We’ve all walked out of a movie theatre completely overwhelmed, confused or speechless at something we’ve just seen; in those cases, as well as the cases where we think we’ve seen all there is to see from a film, a second viewing is necessary to elucidate details that might alter our impression of the film. It’s a second chance for the director, for the actors, even for the writers.

The reason for this, at least according to me, is that no one truly goes into a first filmic viewing without something in the back of his mind. (And I’m talking about Oscar-worthy pics here, not Tyler Perry movies-du-jour.) When I went into There Will Be Blood, for example, I was so enthused by the critical hype of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance that I ignored much of the brilliant directing, cinematography and plot just to focus on the nuances of his performance. Similarly, when I saw both No Country and Atonement, I had read so much about their endings that I spent the better part of two hours anxiously awaiting a finale — when it would come, where it would come, why it would come, and so on. It’s much easier to appreciate a film, I’ve learned, when you know from the getgo exactly where you’re going.

Looking back on November through January, the only film of the Oscar 5 that I had no expectations going into was Juno. For that reason, it didn’t budge in the second version of my year-end Top 5 — which I’m about to reveal after the jump. But first, to remind folks where I had the films after just one viewing, here is my original Top 5 from exactly one month ago:

(1) No Country for Old Men
(2) Michael Clayton
(3) Juno
(4) Away From Her
(5) Eastern Promises

That my new list incorporates each one of the Oscar 5 is somewhat of a minor miracle: by now, I’ve seen a slue of good-to-great films from 2007, including Gone Baby Gone, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James and even La Vie en Rose. To be fair, I’ve also rewatched Away From Her and Eastern Promises: as for the former, it fell off my year-end list just like Julie Christie fell off the Academy’s Best Actress radar, though I still stand by it as a phenomenal piece of art; as for the latter, including Eastern Promises in my original Top 5 was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. (And I paid $9.50 to see Semi-Pro.)

So click below for my new Top 5 — unless, of course, you haven’t seen the films.

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Upon Second Viewing: Atonement

March 23, 2008

One argument I have had with one of the writers on this blog — Jon — concerns the importance of the second viewing of a movie. For Jon, a movie has the responsibility to hold up upon second viewing. This season, I know “Michael Clayton” and “There Will Be Blood” rose up Jon’s rankings upon second viewing, and thankfully, “No Country for Old Men” suffered. To Jon, I believe, great movies have to resonate after they have already failed or succeeded in the Visceral Resonation Test.

I disagree. For me, the first viewing is quintessential in my review of the movie, and very rarely will my opinion change. I’ll give you an example: by this point, I’ve seen “Syriana” about 3-4 times. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know what was going on, or more importantly, what people saw in the movie. In my re-watches, the point of the movie has become a little more clear. But, to me, that doesn’t change that the movie is a convoluted piece of shit.

Generally speaking, people will watch a movie one time. A movie has one opportunity to strike the viewer with its message, to leave them talking and thinking about it after they’ve left the theater. However, despite railing the importance of second viewings, I do believe I owe my favorite movies the responsibility of supporting them. I absolutely loved four movies in 2007: Juno, There Will Be Blood, Into the Wild and Atonement. I will buy all of them, I will re-watch them once, twice, a dozen times, and I will write about my changed experience here.

However, don’t read below the fold if you haven’t seen the movie. I will be talking about the end of each movie I review in detail, and I’d hate to spoil the movie for anyone.

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When Examples Go Horribly Wrong

March 15, 2008

About once every seven years, I get bored enough while sitting in a doctor’s office or airplane to open Time Magazine. This week’s edition touted the “10 Ideas that are Changing the World.” It’s a hyperbolic headline if I’ve ever seen one, and more when I got to #3: “The Post-Movie-Star Era”. An interesting hypothesis to be sure, and I have to admit, a very readable article by Time’s Richard Corliss. Of course, interesting doesn’t mean true. I’ll get to Corliss’ nut graf, so we can see what he’s getting at:

“Over the years, almost everything else about movies changed, but one tenet held firm: the name above the title sold tickets. That’s why the top stars could earn $25 million a picture — because they were the surest guarantee of a return on investment.

Except now they’re not. Indeed, we may be in Hollywood’s first poststar era.”

In the story, Corliss quotes a few of 2007’s box office disasters: Lions for Lambs (Redford, Streep, Cruise), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Pitt, C. Affleck), The Good German (Clooney, Blanchett, Maguire) and Charlie Wilson’s War (Hanks, Roberts, Seymour-Hoffman).

It’s easy to point out box office flops, which every year has, but if the point out of the story is that the story is beginning to trump the star in terms of box office success, let’s re-evaluate. This time, let’s not pretend that Tobey Maguire and Daniel Radcliffe aren’t stars — because comic book geeks and children, respectively, have shown during each star’s series of movies that each is deserving of the ‘Star’ title.

Via a Google Search, here were the top 15 non-animated movies at the box office in 2007. Note that I’m not counting animated movies because most of them have stars, but no star is the reason we see an animated movie, as hard as Jim Carrey might try.

Spider-Man 3 (Tobey Maguire)
Transformers (Shia LaBeouf)
Pirates of the Caribbean (Johnny Depp)
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)
I am Legend (Will Smith)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Matt Damon)
National Treasure (Nicholas Cage)
300 (Gerard Butler)
Wild Hogs (John Travolta)
Knocked Up (Seth Rogen, Catherine Heigl)
Rush Hour 3 (Jackie Chan)
Juno (Ellen Page)
Live Free or Die Hard (Bruce Willis)
Fantastic Four (Jessica Alba)
American Gangster (Denzel Washington, Russel Crowe)

I’m going to be nice, and say that LaBeouf, Butler, Page, and Rogen/Heigl are not stars. Four. Let’s count superstars now: Depp, Smith, Damon, Cage, Travolta, Willis and Washington/Crowe. Seven. That leaves Maguire, Radcliffe, Chan and Alba as those in-between, all of whom were participants in franchises with prior movies.

So, yeah, that completely disproves Corliss’ theory. So does the fact that the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees, outside of Juno, were as disastrous at the box office in 2007 as any group of nominees in recent memory. The great story of There Will Be Blood didn’t mean big dollars, nor did the characters in No Country for Old Men.

It would be nice to live in a world where the best stories were celebrated with big dollars, but if you ask the few Hollywood executives most concerned with producing good movies more than profitable ones, I think they’d tell you: that’s now how the business works.

Juno is the exception to the rule; sadly enough, it’s not a sign of things to come. For now, money means two things: land a superstar, land a comic book, or both.


Answering the Big, Stupid Question

March 10, 2008

With Oscar season thankfully past us, and the landscape of upcoming movies looks bleak, I think this dead-zone of pop culture is a good time to bring up the age-old question: who is the best actor alive?

By itself, that is a silly question, because the answer is Daniel Day-Lewis.

But that’s not really what I’m asking, or what anyone’s asking when that question comes up. The real question: if you were in charge of casting a movie with a dominant male lead, who would you put in that role?

Now if you answered that question immediately, you’re an idiot. Kidding. But I think that question demands another: what kind of movie is it? Below the jump, I assume Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement and tackle which actors I would choose in a variety of different genres.
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