Friday, April 27, 2012

Movie Review: The Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel
The Five-Year Engagement
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Alison Brie, Chris Pratt and Rhys Ifans

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

The latest romantic comedy from the Judd Apatow laugh factory is more about falling out of love and the struggle in trying to find your way back into healthy-relationship territory. The older we get and the more set in our ways, the harder it can become to reach a happy medium. And, amidst penis jokes and casually tossed expletives, The Five-Year Engagement sets its sights on realistically dealing with "grown up" relationship issues -- and, for the most part, it succeeds.

Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) take "meet cute" to a whole new level, involving a New Year's Eve party, a pink bunny superhero and a Princess Diana costume. Sparks inevitably fly and, after a year-long courtship, Tom proposes to Violet in memorably awkward fashion. Tom is a successful sous-chef in a San Francisco restaurant while Violet works towards a social psychology degree from UC Berkeley. However, their plans change abruptly when Violet learns she's been turned down by Berkeley but accepted at the University of Michigan for a two year stint. Tom, being the supportive fiance, offers to move with her so she can pursue her passion. The two reach a mutual agreement to put their wedding on hold until further notice.

There's technically nothing preventing Tom and Violet from getting married -- people decide to wed while still attending post-secondary education all the time -- and they are clearly in love and financially secure. Yet, they choose to delay the inevitable. Are they both having second thoughts? In the meantime, other family members and friends get hitched and have babies. Grandparents begin to pass away. Tom and Violet start to drift apart as he struggles to find a decent job in their new hometown and she spends more and more time with her professor (Rhys Ifans) and fellow classmates. No longer in sync with one another, they start to drift apart -- Tom gets restless while Violet tries to understand his emotional struggles and enjoy her own success at the same time.
Scene-stealers Alison Brie and Chris Pratt
Like most Apatow flicks, the film balances raunchy humour with genuinely poignant moments. Unlike many characters within the romantic comedy genre, Tom and Violet feel lifted straight from real life. Their arguments are embedded in a degree of realism -- we've all had the same fights with a loved one at some point. What really stands out most is its lack of plot contrivances. The usual romcom tropes are ignored with the script instead favouring refreshingly unique (and often side-splittingly funny) situational comedic scenes. Watch for a particularly wonderful moment involving an entire conversation carried on in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster.

However, The Five-Year Engagement struggles to overcome its meandering plot, structural problems and jarring shifts in tone. Segel, who co-wrote the script with the film's director Nicholas Stoller, loses grasp of his character at the halfway mark where Tom becomes a depressed mountain man (literally) who grows a horrific beard, hunts for game and brews his own honey mead. This, combined with a weird seduction scene in a deli, feels out of place and brings the plot to a standstill. Tom randomly transforms into an irritating, emasculated man-child who resents and envies his fiancee's success and lack of his own. He becomes a bit of a drag and threatens to take the whole movie down with him. Luckily, he snaps out of his funk but the glacially paced middle portion of the film dampens the spirit of Engagement.

Segel needed a third pair of eyes to go over the script with a fine-tooth comb. At just slightly over two hours in length, The Five-Year Engagement could have benefited from a tightened narrative that would have resulted in some of the more extraneous scenes being left on the cutting room floor.

What ultimately saves the film is its clever situational comedy and talented cast -- and not only from the always-reliable Segel and the charming Blunt, but also Chris Pratt and Alison Brie as Tom's best bud Alex and Violet's neurotic sister, Suzie. Both Pratt and Brie quite nearly steal the entire film out from under Segel and Blunt.

Buried beneath its plodding middle and two hour-plus running time is a sharp commentary on grown up relationships and the sacrifices and compromises we sometimes have to make for those we love. So kudos to Segel and co. for setting out to make a romantic comedy that feels both refreshingly unique and, at certain points, brutally honest.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Gary Oldman as George Smiley
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt

Often, when we think of the word "spy" we associate it with the likes of James Bond. Or even Jason Bourne. Physically strong men with a knack for operating high-tech devices and bedding beautiful women. There's little sitting around because there's just too much that has to be done at various exotic locales from around the world.

But then there's George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a former intelligence agent, who is lured out of retirement by Control (John Hurt) to investigate the possibility of a Soviet double agent working within the Circus (the nickname given to the British Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6). Based on the 1974 John Le Carre novel and adapted for the screen by scribes Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy weaves through a labyrinthine plot that involves Soviet agents, double crossings and murder most foul. Smiley is essentially the anti-Bond. Where Bond has time to sip martinis and woo women while on the job, Smiley is meticulous and precise. He doesn't have time for fun and games. It's old-fashioned intrigue where most of the mystery is solved while sitting behind a desk and speaking in hushed tones.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman
The challenge of the film is that it asks its audience to watch for minute details and patiently wait for the slow reveals. With its deliberate pace, Tinker Tailor lets its narrative unravel naturally, without gun battles in the streets to keep our attention. It holds its secrets close to the chest, preferring to keep the audience in the dark for as long as it takes Smiley to reach his conclusions. The film is more grounded in realism than the majority of spy thrillers --- Tinker Tailor is your grandfather's type of espionage.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (who rose to fame in 2008 with his lyrical vampire drama Let the Right One In) pays close attention to period detail, from the tweed jackets to the tacky '70s office decor. Like last years Tree of Life, Alfredson's challenging film can be somewhat alienating to mainstream audiences. It purposely sets itself up as a game of chess and the plot moves about as fast as an actual game.

However, two aspects help elevate Tinker Tailor from just being brushed off: the performances and the clever script. The cast is impeccable; arguably one of the best ensembles of 2011. Led by a beautifully restrained performance from Oldman, who give a master class in subtle acting, there's also a whose-who of British talent on display. The three standouts include Colin Firth as potential suspect Bill Haydon, Benedict Cumberbatch as the young and eager spy Peter Guillam and Tom Hardy as reluctant informant Ricki Tarr. Each bring their own sizeable talent to the film, drawing the viewer into their tangled web.

While there are pacing issues with the narrative, the screenplay is an intelligent and challenging piece of work that follows through on its promise to reward the viewer who sticks with the story until the very end. Although you may be thrown off by the somewhat dry narrative, there are enough clues thrown your way to keep you intrigued by this intricate mystery.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Documentary Feature: Fightville

Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier
Fightville (2011)
Directed by: Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein
Featuring: Dustin Poirier, Albert Stainback and Tim Credeur

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

The ongoing controversy over violence and its place in the sporting world has left mixed marital arts with a stigma that will be hard to shake.

However, with the UFC rapidly expanding and growing in popularity, it's arguable that the debate surrounding it has, in some ways, been invaluable to its enduring popularity.

An oft-misunderstood sport that dates back centuries, mixed marital arts (MMA) takes a sort of pride in its focus on the primal urges we so often repress and refuse to acknowledge.

Coming off its Toronto premiere at the 2011 Hot Docs Film Festival, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Fightville focuses on the physical and psychological toll that MMA takes on everyone involved — from the promoters and trainers, right down to the fighters themselves.

At the heart of the narrative are the people at the Gladiators Academy — a tiny gym next to a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in a rundown strip mall in southern Louisiana. Fight promoter Gil Guillory and trainer Tim Credeur are part of MMA USA, a grassroots organization that ultimately prepares their fighters for the glare of the UFC spotlight. Some succeed, while others falter.

Credeur makes it his personal mission to weed out the weak among his group. He waxes philosophical about the sport — he's the films biggest MMA cheerleader, connecting lessons learned in life to those that can be taught in the cage. A brutally honest coach who won't hesitate to teach with his own fists, he's a force to be reckoned with and anyone who survives and thrives under his leadership will usually wind up on the larger-scale MMA circuits.

The Gladiators Academy provides fulfillment for the two young men at the centre of the story — twenty-something's Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier and Albert Stainback. MMA is more than just a way for these young men to make money and put food on the table; for them it's an outlet to indulge in what they see as their only talent — and it's the main source of their pride.

With its thundering soundtrack, rousing fight sequences and assured camerawork, Fightville ultimately rests on the shoulders of the affable Poirier. Although he remains largely tight-lipped on his violent past, his focused intensity still gives way to a good-natured spirit.

Despite revelations of multiple run-ins with law in his youth, his mom steps up to the plate to express the pride she has in her son's complete character transformation — despite the noticeable worry lines still etched on her face.
Albert Stainback

Yet, where Poirier emerges as a star pupil under Credeur's tutelage (he's now a UFC featherweight), there's also those who flag under the immense pressure — and that's where Stainback enters the picture. Where Poirier is composed and disciplined (at one point losing 20 pounds in one week to qualify for a competition), Stainback fails to balance the full-time training demands and his personal issues. What with a horrific childhood involving an alcoholic mother and an abusive father who later committed suicide, Stainback takes on the stage persona of Alex DeLarge, the brutal hooligan at the centre of A Clockwork Orange.

What point is Stainback trying to get across? Is it meant to be ironic or is there something deeper to his selection? Unfortunately, viewers are left in the dark as his decision to don Alex's black bowler cap and white pantsuit is never addressed in the doc.

What holds Fightville back from being a true knockout is its lack of backstory. Far too many questions are left unanswered — or go unasked. While it offers a glimpse into the complicated behind-the-scenes world of MMA, it only scratches the surface of the grueling routine the fighters endure and the interesting connection between MMA and their troubled upbringings.

With the exception of Poirier's mother, who fills in some of the narrative gaps when it comes to her son, there are few secondary sources to provide insight into these two young men. Both are personable and have interesting stories to tell, but there are noticeable holes where more could have been asked of them.

While often fascinating and enjoyable, Fightville ultimately suffers from a lack of in depth personal stories from its central figures.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Movie Review: Titanic 3D

Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio
This isn't really a review.

It would be hard to critique this film, 15 years after its initial 1997 release. As a 14-year-old, Titanic pretty much consumed my life -- for that entire year. It had everything I could have wanted: likeable characters, action, tragedy, a historical setting and a doomed romance. I was totally on the Jack and Rose bandwagon, 100 percent. Who didn't swoon over Titanic that year? (If you say you didn't, you're lying to me).

Therefore, I don't think the teenager in me would ever let me give my head a shake and review it seriously because -- although aspects of it haven't aged all that well -- it's just so damn epic.

How did it work so well and why does it still gain a new loyal fanbase? Because, as this blog post on Jezebel points out: James Cameron is a 15-year-old girl. He understands his target audience and knows how to put on a great spectacle.

But, while re-watching it recently, I realized that it isn't just for 15-year-olds. It's a full-blown cinematic spectacle that manages to make you forget you've been sitting in the same chair for three hours and 15 minutes. No easy task.

Watching it in theatres last weekend totally made my Sunday afternoon. While the 3D added nothing to the overall film (I often forgot I had those glasses on), Titanic was meant to be seen on the giant silver screen. The minute those opening credits started up, I was swept away and melted into a puddle of goopy nostalgia.

Why I love Titanic

  • Even if you've seen it a dozen times, it still manages to lull you into a false sense of security before disaster strikes -- the scene where it first hits the iceberg is one of my favourites.
  • It introduced me to Kate Winslet, one of my favourite actresses.
  • The sets and costumes were all kinds of perfect.
  • The soundtrack, while overly saccharine, still makes me weepy.
  • Billy Zane: So bad, he's good. He gives one of the most ridiculously over-the-top performances which, I've come to realize, is strangely appropriate considering he's playing an over-the-top stock villain character. You are meant to hate him, and embrace that hate.
  • Bill Paxton: Any movie that has Bill "express elevator to hell" Paxton earns extra brownie points in my fangirl book. Even if he does wear that awkward earring. 
  • Fabrizio's "Italian" accent. 
  • The second half of the film is still incredible in its impact and the spectacle of the sinking -- and damned if it doesn't make me teary-eyed every single time I watch it!
A part of my youth died when Avatar recently trounced Titanic as the biggest movie of all time at the box office. But, Titanic was there first and has, arguably, more staying power. 

So, did Titanic need to be 3D? No. Did it feel like a bit of a cash-grab to re-release it? Sure, but it had the 100th anniversary of the sinking to back the decision up.

But I won't begrudge even the uber-rich James Cameron for wanting to bring it back to the big screen because, if only for awhile, he reminded me of what it was like to be 14-years-old again and totally in love with a movie.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth
The Hunger Games (2012)
Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Liam Hemsworth and Donald Sutherland

Like Harry Potter and Twilight before it, The Hunger Games struck a raw nerve with teens around the world. Like its predecessors, it flew off bookshelves -- and all despite lacking a supernatural element like wizards or vampires as a selling point.

Author Suzanne Collins set her trilogy in a dystopian future where one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each of the 12 districts in the nation of Panem are forced into a fight to the death -- literally, with only one left standing. The purpose? To prevent future rebellions and uprisings against the government by keeping younger generations in line. It's Battle Royale and Stephen King's The Long Walk for the tween set. It's premise is arguably darker than the other two recent teen book series combined and, for the film adaptations to do justice to the world Collins created, they would have to translate that dark subject matter onto the screen.

Does the first installment succeed? Mostly.

Director Gary Ross opts for a documentary-style technique that gives the film a more naturalistic atmosphere. You feel as though you are right behind 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she embarks on her violent mission. Whether he's panning over the war-ravaged lands of District 12 or coming in for tight close-ups of frightened young faces, Ross succeeds in translating the atmosphere of fear and paranoia in a heavily policed state.

The first half of the film is especially gripping to watch -- whether you've read the novels or not, the slow revelation of life in Panem is thrillingly revealed. I found myself more intrigued by Katniss' rigid Games training and her life with her mother, younger sister and close friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) than with anything that happened in the latter half. Ross and his crew managed to convey their way of life with very little description.

It's unlikely that anyone could have filled to role of Katniss as capably as Lawrence. The Oscar-nominated actress gives a mature performance, perfectly balancing her character's head-strong resilience and resourcefulness in the face of danger while subtly revealing Katniss' inner vulnerabilities. It's a casting coup for Ross and his team and she more than capably carries the weight of the film on her shoulders.

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence
For the most part, the rest of the cast fares just as well as Lawrence, specifically Stanley Tucci as outlandish talk show host Caesar Flickerman and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss' trainer and a former survivour (winner?) of The Hunger Games.

A few of the other supporting characters fare less well in underwritten roles. There's little to be said of Seneca (Wes Bentley), the curiously bearded overseer of the Games, or the equally strange Effie (Elizabeth Banks). The rest of the ensemble cast is rounded out by Donald Sutherland as the ill-intentioned President Snow and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, Katniss' fellow District 12 tribute.

What holds the film back is Ross' apparent reluctance to take the premise all the way and truly run with the concept. Granted, film censorship would have slapped the film with a higher rating had there been more violence and mature themes; however, it's a gamble that likely would have still paid off due to the popularity of the series. Instead the second half of the film drags for stretches, slowly the action down to a near standstill at points.

The Hunger Games could have benefited more from being just as dark, dangerous and daring as Collins' novels. But, with the wonderful Lawrence in the lead role, this series has staying power.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Movie Review: American Reunion

(left to right) Nicholas, Biggs, Scott, Klein and Thomas
American Reunion (2012)
Directed by: Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Chris Klein, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Thomas Ian Nicholas and Eugene Levy

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

It’s unlikely that anyone was seriously asking for another slice of this pie.

After three theatrical installments and four direct-to-DVD spin-offs, Hollywood serves up yet another round of American Pie in the hopes that people will actually care about what happened to Jim, Stifler and Co. in the years following their high school graduation.

American Reunion tries to provide a heavy dose of nostalgia, albeit one cloaked in crude sex jokes and a relentlessly ‘90s soundtrack.

It’s been 13 years since the gang graduated from East Great Falls High School and they finally reunite to celebrate what should have been their 10-year reunion – only no one thought to actually put one together, hence the three-year delay.

So, where are they now? Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) married his longtime love, Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), and is the father to a toddler son. Oz (Chris Klein) is a successful sportscaster with a bombshell girlfriend (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden). The perpetually single Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is still his usual droll self, although he’s finally given an age-appropriate love interest. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) got married and grew a beard. And, finally, Stifler (Seann William Scott) became – well – an older version of Stifler.

They gather together, drink beer, chase after high school girls and mourn their lost youth – although a significant fraction of their youthful immaturity has certainly remained intact.

In a franchise of poorly drawn females – they are all either bland prudes, band nerds or over-sexed caricatures – the women merely make cameo appearances. Good girl Heather (Mena Suvari) may or may not still pine over Oz while former party girl Vicky (Tara Reid) isn’t even given enough screen time to let her friends in on what she’s been up to for the past decade.

Eugene Levy and Jason Biggs
Series star Biggs goes through the motions and continues to endure an endless string of painfully awkward humiliations, even going full frontal in a desperate attempt to garner a few laughs, but it all feels forced.

These one-note characters feel hollow and devoid of any charm. Their crude antics have grown more tiresome with each passing film and the fact that, this time around, Jim has to fend off the aggressive advances of an 18-year-old girl he used to babysit is as improbable as it is icky.

Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, creators of the Harold and Kumar series, take over the writer-director reins from franchise originals Chris and Paul Weitz. Unfortunately, this latest flick lacks the ability to seamlessly blend crude humour with a poignant sweetness – the recipe that made the 1999 original an instant teen classic.

It’s tough to match the current Judd Apatow mold of expertly mixing in laughs with the genuine sincerity of its characters. As a result, this latest American Pie venture, and its empty brand of gross-out humour, feels outdated.

The highlights are perennial favourites Eugene Levy as Jim’s lonely, widowed father and the always-glorious Jennifer Coolidge as Stifler’s mom.

With a two hour running time, the movie feels about 25 minutes too long. While there are fun moments, they are ultimately forgettable and you’d be hard-pressed to recall any of the jokes once the final credits roll.

American Reunion lacks that lethal combination of touching wistfulness and crude humour that made the first piece of Pie so memorable. This shtick has grown stale.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Celebrity Birthday: Marlon Brando

"To the end of his life, Marlon Brando insisted that he had done nothing special. In his view acting was a trade like plumbing or baking. The only difference was that he played characters instead of unclogging drains or kneading loaves of bread. This was not false modesty; he believed what he said. But what he believed was untrue."
~Stefan Kanfer (opening passage from Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando)

Today would have been Marlon Brando's 88th birthday. I thought I'd mark the occasion with a little post and video link because, really, the man was an artist -- and my favourite actor. Ever.

I became a fan of his eight years ago -- in 2004, the year of his death. Months before he passed away I saw The Godfather for the first time. Up until that point, Brando had been little else to me other than some strange, reclusive actor that was super-famous once. Not only did I wind up absolutely loving the film but I was struck by how Brando had an almost unnatural ability to command the screen and steal every scene. A couple weeks later I watched A Streetcar Named Desire. Then The Wild One. Then On the Waterfront. Followed by Last Tango in Paris. I have since seen the majority of his films (with the exception of the couple of his more obscure, hard-to-track-down titles).

After reading Stefan Kanfer's biography in 2008, I realized that Brando was so much more interesting than even his craziest character incarnations. He used the Method when performing, well before it was mainstream. He was an activist at heart, battling racial segregation in America in the 1960s and providing a public voice for struggling First Nations actors. He remained loyal to family and friends who stuck by him through thick and thin, including maintaining long-term friendships with neighbours Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson. He had plenty of Hollywood rivals, including an ongoing feud with Frank Sinatra. He had volatile relationships with women, marrying three times and fathering (at least) 10 children. He never abused drugs or alcohol, yet often fell prey to his weakness for food.

If you haven't read it already, I'd recommend Kanfer's biography or even Brando's own 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, although I've only read snippets of it online because it's out of print.

So, happy birthday to my favourite actor. As film historian Molly Haskell once wrote, "there is only one Brando."

The famous hour-long 1994 Larry King interview.