SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS SEPTEMBER 2009
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER
ALIENS IN THE ATTIC
FINAL DESTINATION 3D
I LOVE YOU BETH COOPER
PERFECT GETAWAY, A
RED BARON, The
TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE, The
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER
(US, 2009, Marc Webb)
Summer is the name of the young woman at the centre of the yearnings and love of greeting-card text writer, Tom. And not all of his days are summery. Sometimes autumn, sometimes some winter chill.
A voiceover introduces us to Tom and his 500 days of love for Summer. There is a wry tone in his voice. We see a split-screen collage of Tom and Summer each growing up. We see Day 1 where Tom first sees Summer while he is in a staff meeting and she comes in, the new secretary of the boss. For him, it is love at first sight, the absolute sureness that she is the perfect woman for him, forever. We move ahead quite a number of days and find Summer suggesting they not see each other for a while. What could have gone wrong?
This toing and froing between days (signalled on screen) is how the film works. We share the lyrical days with Tom (and the director uses some nifty screen devices to indicate this, including an imagined musicaldance number in the streets of LA, complete with an animate bluebird of happiness). We share the grim and depressed days with Tom, including some glum karaoke turns. We share the hopes that all will be well again as Tom is invited to a party by Summer and the screen splits again with 'expectations' subtitled on one side and 'reality' on the other – and never the twain do meet.
Zooey Deschanel glows as Summer. We see her through Tom's eyes and are charmed. We understand how he could fall in love with her, be so happy just being with her. But, we are probably doing the same thing as Tom all the time: expectations/reality. One of the reasons the film works well (especially for young adults who are idealistic about falling in love or who are sceptical that such a thing as love could exist) is the performance of Joseph Gordon Leavitt. He is more real and credible, even in his idealism, than so many of the young, good-looking types who pass through such films and pass out of our memories. He can act. He makes us see through his eyes and share his feelings. (Perhaps a female reviewer might not agree with this and might see everything through Summer's eyes: 'expectations/reality'.)
The film has a good-feeling screenplay that has its sharp moments and its crass moments but is far more forgiveable than most.
After the film is over and we have experienced Tom's life, we still need to check expectations/reality.
ALIENS IN THE ATTIC
(US, 2009, John Schultz)
Believe it or not, it is coming close to 30 years since ET was made. Here is a small, low-budget variation on the theme, designed for family audiences and for children who have not become too caught up in Transformers-like holiday shows.
After spending perhaps too much time establishing the Pearson family, with 15 year old Tom being bullied for beccaue he is intelligent and his trying to show that he is not, and 17 year old Bethany doting on dumb hunk, Rick, we go off on a fishing holiday with them where they are joined by their uncle and cousins who tend to dominate. So, the scene is set.
Noises upstairs reveal four aliens (tiny in size but large in aggressive attitudes, except for a cute little fellow who is the brains of the group). Plenty of comedy and slapstick as the kids pursue the aliens and the aliens attack the kids. The aliens can't take possession of kids but can robotise adults with a machine (which the kids find and use to their advantage, especially robotising Rick). The kids keep this all a secret from their parents and have to devise different ways of covering up, especially with the local sheriff intervening.
Nothing particularly startling but it is an undemanding holiday show that should keep undiscriminating children amused for an hour and a half. Parents who liked the TV series, Everybody Loves Raymond, should pop in later in the film to see Doris Roberts (Raymond's mother) play grandmother who is taken over and is able to do all kinds of martial arts techniques, leaps and kicks, in battling Rick. Robert Hoffman deserves an acknowledgement for his being a good sport in portraying Rick as a loathsome two-timing jock and allowing himself to spend a lot of time as absolutely inane because the kids have robotised him!
(US, 2009, d. Todd Graff)
A cheerful teen-aimed musical that parents might be glad of since it urges youngsters to have some aims in life, develop self-esteem (and get over themselves as much as they can). It is very PGish (and was co-produced by Walden Media which aims for wholesome entertainment) in its approach to relationships, to sexuality and language.
It is also just a variation on the 'putting on a show against all odds' musical. This time it is a band competition for high schools in the New York, New Jersey area.
To cheer up the parents who watch the film, the plot has the young central lead, Will (Gaenor Connell) continually composing letters of admiration and self-revelation to David Bowie – who then appears as himself at the end of the film.
Will's father is in jail for manslaughter while driving under the influence. His loving mother works and tries to compensate for his father. (She is played by Lisa Kudrow.)
Will is a walking encyclopedia on contemporary music, bands and groups and has an ear for how instruments can work to best effect in a band. When he moves with his mother from being bored and bullied in Cincinatti to New Jersey, he soon meets an eccentric fellow-student, Sa5m – the 5 is silent - (Vanessa Hudgens from the High School Musical movies) and is invited by a senior student (Aly Machika) to help her in a child care centre as well as give advice for her rag-tag band who are competing in the Bandslam competition against another group from the school, headed by the arrogant jock and Charlotte's former boyfriend.
Needless to say, Will changes with friendship, initiatives, doing a project in the Human Relationships course with Sa5m, and with the progress of the band with the help of classical musicians on piano and viola and a brass section. It is hard to anticipate how the obstacles will come up since most characters are so nice. But, they do in a momentary panicking way but because people are so nice, it all works out, especially with a grand finale performance.
The latest in the list of films about youngsters putting on a show.
(US, 2009, d. Damien Dante Wayans)
For years the Wayans brothers have led a way (not necessarily the way) for African-American? comedy. They pioneered satire on television in In Living Color. Then they began a series of spoofs of popular genres which appealed world wide with the Scary Movie series. The comedy was broad (very, very broad at times), corny jokes, vulgar language, bodily function and bodily parts peppered dialogue – and a general dismissal by critics while they entertained the immediate intended audience (the black communities in the US) and often amused audiences beyond.
It's the same with this one – though it has given rise to a whole lot of critical comment along the lines that, while the reviewers can detect and pronounce on the low tone and banal comedy, the masses who like the film – and even laugh at the jokes – indicate how society and standards are crashing around us. As if people did not laugh at this type of ribald and spoof comedy and jokes in every generation.
So, this is a mere 83 minute satire with hit and miss humour that demands very little mental effort and is meant to be a bit of a giggle. It takes as framework the plot outline of the 2000 Save the Last Dance (which raised issues of inter-racial romance and which Dance Flick continues) and follows it fairly closely. Added in are street contests like those in the Step Up films and Stomp the Yard and How She Move, and references to Hairspray. There is also a camp parody of the basketball hero of High School Musical which breaks out into the song and dance of Fame (from 1980) which has been re-made and is about to be released.
David Alan Grier, in a fat-suit, has some comic moments of threat and of break-dancing.
The Wayans Brothers include Keenen Ivory, Dwayne, Damon, Marlon and Shawn (who have five sisters) who have written this comedy. The director is a nephew and the star is Damon Wayans Jr introducing the next generation of Wayans – and he enters into the spirit of it all with Wayans gusto.
If you are not into this kind of limited humour and have not seen the films it is sending up, then try something else.
(South Africa/New Zealand, 2009, d. Neill Blomkamp)
Quite a show! And a box office hit in the US (despite the South African accents).
Filmed in and around Johannesburg and Soweto as well as in studios in Wellington (produced by Peter Jackson with effects by the Wellington company, Weta), this is the southern hemisphere challenging the northern and doing a good job at it.
It's a rattling action show (which fastidious audiences might find too loud, combatative and grisly at times) that competes with the northern hemisphere effects blockbuster. While there are lots of special effects, very effective effects, the context is a kind of documentary reporting, offering a sense of realism so that one accepts the plot, the characters and the situations as quite real. And most of the action takes place in broad daylight rather than in the dark.
Yet, it is not in too many films where a gigantic space ship rests over a city, let alone Johannesburg for twenty years. It is not too often either that the refugee aliens, unwell, are rounded up and herded into a settlement (not unlike the old Soweto) where they are ridiculed, isolated and exploited. But, it's all here – and becomes more credible as the film goes on.
As has been noted, the film opens with television reports about the situations, with lots of interview clips with experts, informing us about the arrival of the aliens (and their not choosing the US as movie aliens are prone to do), their segregation, the squalor, the need for an evacuation plan to a newly constructed ghetto town away from the hostile locals (both black and white). And, a documentary is being filmed live, focusing on the officer of the private company, MNU, Multi-National? United, which controls the settlement, who is in charge of the evacuation. MNU is a weapons dealer and wants to collect the caches of arms the Prawns (the derogatory name for the aliens because of their prawn-skeletal appearance) as well as get their DNA.
So far, so arresting. When the evacuation begins, the drama also becomes personal as Wikus van der Merwe (South African director, Sholto Carpley) becomes entangled with the aliens in alarming ways and becomes the object of military pursuit. This leads to chases, stand-offs, gun battles and exciting mayhem. Film buffs will be noticing all kinds of movie references from ET to Robocop.
This would be all serious matinee material were the film made outside of South Africa. But, of course, we are being invited to think of black South Africans, apartheid, segregation, prejudice, pre-truth and reconciliation experience. Which challenge us in our attitudes – especially as we get to know some of the aliens, experience them as 'human' despite their appearance and behaviour. Interestingly, the villains and exploiters are Nigerians (who are notorious these days for international financial scams and computer fraud).
Within its social context and alien vs humans genre, this is very effective film-making.
FINAL DESTINATION 3D
(US, 2009, d. David R. Ellis)
If it ain't broke... then re-make it.
We have had three Final Destination movies, each with virtually the same plot (sometimes with the same characters): one of the young adults has a dream with not only a premonition of a disaster but actually seeing what happens – which fills out the running time to show the same events twice – and knowing who escaped death. However, Death seems to have different ideas and spends the rest of the film dispatching the survivors as gorily as possible while the hapless premonition visionary and close friends try to break the chain of order in which people are supposed to die. They always make a wrong presumption about this which means that Death inexorably follows through.
Well, that's given away the plot – but most audiences venturing into this fourth episode (with a THE added for distinction just as two THEs were removed from the latest Fast and Furious to make it distinctive) will know exactly what to expect. The 'where' is different, a speedway track with devastation galore (and shown twice). But the distinctiveness about this film is the use of 3D. Not only are the destruction and deaths more vividly presented, they are literally almost in your face (severed heads, spiked faces, poundingly crushed bodies...).
One of the characters, a really obnoxious one, claims early in the film that he really goes to the track to see an accident which, if any of the fans notice, is a comment on why they are watching the film. (And he has quite a demise, being sucked through the draining system of an emptying swimming pool – buckets of blood and gore.)
Of course, technically it is all expertly done, vivid 3D effects. It provides some momentary gasps and jumps but it more than a little sadistic and pessimistic, everyone, likeable and unlikeable, being sacrificed to the special effects driven plot.
(US, 2009, d. Judd Apatow).
While watching Funny People, I remembered my reaction thirty years ago to seeing Bob Fosse's All that Jazz, a memoir of an egocentric choreographer facing terminal illness and coming to terms (with great difficulty) with his life. It was an uncomfortable experience, even alienating. But, the film was so well made that I needed to see it again – and realised that it was an excellent film. The reason for remembering the reaction to All that Jazz was that it recurred while watching Funny People. But, this time I was ready. The film was uncomfortable. It had quite some edge because of the terminal illness theme and the re-assessment of life as well as the careers of stand-up comedians and how their stage personality related to their real selves as well as the topics they chose for humour – so much of them put-down, so much self-assertion, so much self and bodily parts focused and an obsession with four letter words.
This is a very well-made film with a subtle performance from Adam Sandler (who has not always been subtle), a self-deprecatingly wry performance from Seth Rogen (who as writer and actor is far more accomplished in real life than the schmucks he plays) and an attempt by writer, Judd Apatow, to combine the surface stand-up comedy with an exploration by a middle-aged comic of the worth and worthlessness of his life. And, asking the question: if we have a life-threatening experience, does our response to it make us better people or are we always the same?
Judd Apatow has directed two raunchy comedies that began with leer and finished with some depth of feeling, especially about commitment: The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. He has produced quite a number of comedies with the same Apatow syndrome, the arc of raunch to respectable, including one with Sandler, You don't Mess with the Zohan.
At the beginning of their careers, Apatow and Sandler roomed together. Sandler went along the success path that his character, George Simmons, follows. Apatow, on the other hand, was not so effective on stage and went on to successful writing, producing and directing, the path that Ira Wright, Seth Rogen's character, will eventually pursue. Apatow had mentors in his younger days, so constructs his story with Sandler as the older man and Rogen as the eagerly hopeful would-be comic in his 20s.
It is easy to underestimate Sandler as an actor because of his goofy slapstick comedies. But, in films like Punch Drunk Love, Click and Reign Over Me, he has shown more versatility than expected and here he shows understated emotion (as in his scenes where he learns of his illness and, to the other extreme, where he mocks his ex-wife's daughter's rendition of Memories while everyone else is tearful).
Rogen is a strong comedian but also knows when to play second fiddle while still developing a strong character.
Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, is the ex-wife and their daughters portray her daughters. She is married to a gauche Australian (Eric Bana with his real accent – more or less). Apatow regular Jonah Hill is a room-mate (and as always demonstrates a strong sense of timing for jokes). Jason Schwartzman is another room-mate who is the star of a cable channel comedy which seems as bad as it sounds, Yo Teach!
Quite a number of stand-up comedians have cameo roles as themselves.
Interestingly, American audiences did not get the film. Probably expecting knockabout comedy, they found the combination of stand-up and illness experience not to their expectations or taste (not that a lot of the crass humour of stand-up will be to everyone's taste either). Yet, Funny People, because it is uncomfortable and has a lot of edge, is a challenging comic film about life and death and meanings.
I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER
(US, 2009, d. Chris Columbus)
Dear oh dear... (and that's putting it mildly).
It took only a few opening moments to experience dislike at first sight – and nothing came afterwards to dispel first impressions. A graduation day and night 'comedy' that touched on all the expected happenings for a geek and his nerd friend, acting gawkily and collapsing in lame pratfalls and frequently being beaten up, meeting the girl of his dreams as well as assorted misadventures, clunking one after the other. The tone is 15 certificate crass and any self-respecting Martian arriving in the US for its (his/hers) first day would gain a dismaying impression of teenagers. It all gives inanity a bad name.
The final credits had the film-makers' names with their teen or graduation photos. Director Chris Columbus must have regressed to long before he wrote the entertaining Young Sherlock Holmes and directed Adventures in Babysitting, before Home Alone let alone the first two Harry Potter films. Larry Doyle's screenplay (based on his novel) seems locked back in his pre-freshman days with no way out.
Then I began to hope that the film would not improve (any potentially humane moments were cut off with some more stupidity) so that I not be prevented from writing a review like this. At least it gave me a quest to pursue – and even the movie-mad friend who cites movie titles, directors and dates (who would do this kind of thing!) had two wrong: Casablanca, 1942, when it was released in January 1943 and won the Best Picture Oscar for that year; and Scarface, 1982 when it was 1983 – the IMDb is the nerd resource to confirm all this!!
I didn't love Beth Cooper or her fellow graduates but got to thinking about the 1981 gory thriller, Graduation Day, and realising that I wished a slasher maniacal masked killer would appear who would have got rid of all these disposable characters quickly and expeditiously with extreme prejudice and exploitative violent and gruesome special effects.
A PERFECT GETAWAY
(US, 2009, d. David Twohey)
Advertised like Turistas, The Ruins and other slasher horror films, A Perfect Getaway is a thriller designed more for an older audience than teenage horror fans.
The impact of A Perfect Getaway depends on some sleights of hand by the writer-director, David Twohey, making his audience look one way while they could have been looking another way. This provides a satisfyingly surprising twist, although movie buffs may well anticipate what it is. And that doesn't really matter all that much because they will be wanting to have the satisfaction of being proven right rather than wrong in what they are guessing.
The film opens with home video footage of a happy wedding reception and moves to Hawaii (looking quite spectacular) with Cliff and Cydney on a helicopter flight to remote cliffs and beaches on an outer island. They encounter two couples, one wanting to hitch-hike but surley in manner whom they leave behind. Then they meet Nick, who talks incessantly about his tough experiences in Iraq, and his girlfriend, Gina, who shows some efficient abattoir techniques when Nick kills a local mountain goat for their food.
Then they get news that a honeymoon couple has been murdered in Honolulu.
Suspicions become rampant. The rest of the film has the expected menace and pursuit by the murderers.
The film has the advantage of attractive location photography (Puerto Rico as well as Hawaii), some sharp dialogue (which is seen to be even cleverer by the end) and good performances by Steve Zahn (a bespectacled screenwriter) and Milla Jovovich (exuberant) as Cliff and Cydney. Timothy Olyphant has been in a lot of films as a sinister character and he does it well as Nick. Kiele Sanchez is Gina.
While there is blood at the end, the film is not a slasher show but rather a sometimes tingly and creepy thriller for adults.
THE RED BARON (DER ROTE BARON)
(Germany, 2008, d. Nikolai Muellerschoen)
The red baron was one of the nicknames for the most celebrated of German pilots of World War I when aerial combat was developed for the first time. His name was Baron Manfred Von Richthofen. He downed a record number of British planes but died just before his 26th birthday in April 1918.
There was a German film about him in 1929 – and he has appeared in a great number of World War I dramas including The Great Waldo Pepper, Darling Lili, The Blue Max and has been a character in programs as diverse as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Blackadder. John Philip Law portrayed him in Roger Corman's Von Richthofen and Brown.
Clearly, writer-director, LA-based German Nikolai Muellerschoen, has a great admiration for Von Richthohefen presenting him not only as an air ace but also as a German gentleman from the old school of honour. During the film, one has the impression that this is a well-mounted, often lavish, Readers Digest interpretation of the baron and tribute to him. The characterisation is competent but not deeply insightful. The screenplay is quite episodic (making us wonder whether it was cut down from a miniseries or the producers had spent their budget on the effects), the dogfights being a strong focus but then a love story stepping in to show the baron as human and allowing the nurse to open the baron's eyes to the horrors and injuries of trench warfare.
By the end of the film, the cumulative effect has produced a sketchy biography, a re-creation of warfare in the air, the gentlemen's club atmosphere of the pilot's comfortable base, then the horrors of the trenches, the grim realities of the crowded military hospitals and some critique of the brutalities of war (as well as some authoritarian statements and characters who anticipate the Third Reich).
The film was made in English and Joseph Fiennes turns up briefly as Harry Brown the pilot who is said to have brought down the Red Baron. Lena Headey, with charm but with broken Franglish accent, seems more like the baron's aunt than his girlfriend. Til Schweiger would be his gunner 'buddy' were this an American film. Matthias Schweighoeffer is a thoughtful and gallant baron who still believes in combat and uncritically fighting for his country until his eyes are opened.
Not a definitive biography – and there are always questions about accuracy in the storytelling and the authenticity of planes, décor etc - but engaging enough in an undemanding way.
(US, 2009, d. Robert Rodriguez)
Robert Rodriguez makes tough, often brutal, actioners, influenced by his friend, Quentin Tarantino (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City) and, when not doing that, makes films for family audiences (The Spy Kids series). Shorts is for the family.
Rodriguez, in both the serious and the family films, has shown that he has what might be called an extravagant imagination. He also directs, writes, photographs, edits, supervises the special effects, composes the score. A Rodriguez film is definitely his.
This time he enters into the imagination of a very young boy, Toe Thompson (played by Jimmy Bennett who has appeared in many films even though he is so young, Star Trek, The Orphan...). He lives in a town which is completely dominated by the Black Box manufacturing of a black box which is multi-multi-functional. It is all run by tycoon James Spader who has a bullying son and a Wednesday Addams (Jolie Vanier) look-alike daughter who is no mean bully herself.
When a multi-coloured stone hits Toe and begins a long series of adventures passing from one possessor to another – where they can wish for what they like. Children have some simple wishes which lead to crocodiles eating a boy's homework and giant boogers emerging from a sealed house where a scientist (William H. Macy) is preventing his son from breathing contaminated air and a brother and sister have days' long staring out competitions. Kids' stuff! You can see that it is unpredictable!
And what makes it even more unpredictable is that Toe tells his story in chapters that are not in chronological order – we just swoop into various episodes. And then the tycoon gets the stone and wishes for money, money, money. Fotunately, Toe's parents (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) come to their senses – and so does everyone else to have a nice ending. What else?
Entertaining for young children – and parents might be fascinated in their own way.
(Poland, 2007, d. Andzrej Jakimowski)
Poland's official entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 2007.
As with so many Eastern European dramas, we are stuck, like the characters, in a rather depressing country town and, effectively on the part of the director, we eventually feel that we have lived in the town and know it rather well. Not a cheery experience, rather a look at life.
We experience this life with a teenage girl and her little brother. Their mother runs a shop and has been abandoned by her husband. The daughter has her own theories about life and about how we can shape our own realities, with our own tricks. Her brother (who is both tough and cute) puts these tricks into practice, so we spend time with them, for instance watching the progress of a bag of tossed-away bun and burger as people put it into a bin and as a man scrounging takes it away to eat...
The principal trick is to persuade the man at the railway station who changes trains there and is identified as their father to go to meet his former wife. If this were a Hollywood ending film, that would be the end of the story. But life in Poland is not always easy, so the girl forfeits her opportunity to get a job with an Italian company even though she has been learning Italian and speaks it rather well. The boy encounters his father by chance rather than by his elaborate planning. The father makes an attempt to see his ex-wife.
So, a Polish slice of life that is strong on detail but not exactly engaging despite the performances of the son and daughter.
THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE
(US, 2009, d. Robert Schwenke)
Many years ago, there was a rather sweet romantic film with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, Somewhere in Time. More recently there was the romantic, The Lake House, with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. For All Time (2000) with Mark Harmon and Mary Mc Donnell was based on a Rod Serling Twilight Zone story.
One of the ways of exploring the realities of love and commitment, happiness and sorrow and loss, is to use the conventions of time travel fantasy. Based on a very popular novel by Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife is firmly in this genre – and many audiences have found that they can have more than a little weep as they watch it and remember it.
Time travel seems philosophically impossible as well as physically impossible, bodies moving through space and time – and even, as happens in this story, an older self being present with a younger self.
However, this film does not try to explain anything but takes it for granted that this is a genetic disorder (and can be passed on to the next generation). This means that there are no discussion scenes of how it works. The plot simply gets on with it, establishing it very well in the opening few minutes when the older Henry (Eric Bana) comforts his younger self when his mother is involved in a car accident.
What the film does not quite do for the sceptic's satisfaction is to explain why, in going backwards and forwards in time and space, the travellers know some things about the past and not others. The travellers do not seem to have any control about where they go and when, which leads to some confusion on the travellers' part (Henry's wife knows more about him than he of her because he visited her when she was a child and he was older than when she encounters him in real life; and some know the dates of death and others not).
But, here the review is spending more time on explanations than the film does. Which means that the comment should be more about the characters, how the time travel affects them, especially in their love and marriage, their family, loss and death. If you have surrendered to the basic fantasy and to the characters, then you won't have any difficulty feeling with them. Eric Bana is charming and often bewildered. Rachel Mc Adams is prettily smiling and sad as the wife. There are friends, helpful doctors and a daughter who also time travels.
For those who have not read the book, this is just another romantically happy and sad tale of love and loss. Apparently, many of those who have read the book have expressed satisfaction that the film captures the essence of the novel.