Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September's Film Round-Up

In this edition of The Film Round-Up: Is an alien movie one of the year's best? Damn straight. Is (500) Days of Summer the best romantic comedy since Annie Hall? Uh, no. Is Judd Apatow making progress as a mature director? You betcha. Will I ever stop complaining about The Time Traveler's Wife? Soon, child, soon.
Here's another complaint: The Aubrey Plaza worship. I wasn't impressed with her in Funny People, where she was another of these sardonic, sleepy, afraid-to-be-funny comedians that the younger generation keeps unloading. Is this what Michael Cera and Juno has wrought?

Sorry if this batch of movies is on the old side, but there's a reason. First, September is a notoriously crappy month for new releases, and screening invites (and my wallet) were slim. Second, I can't remember a late July/August that had a stronger slate of movies.

Why do I care? My birthday is in late August, so when I was younger my parents used to take me and my friends to dinner and a movie. Well, by the time my birthday hit, everyone had seen the blockbusters, so we were stuck watching gems like Delirious and My Blue Heaven. It was the only rough patch of an otherwise idyllic childhood.

Anyway, I'm hoping to get back to posting more stuff soon. But it's been busy. I have a local freelance writing/editing job that's pretty time consuming and a new column for BiblioBuffet coming up. I guess when it rains, it pours, huh?

These reviews previously appeared in the September issue of ICON, and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

October will have some kick-ass reviews of newer stuff, including some indie gems and maybe LeBron James's new documentary. Still ironing out the details...

Funny People (Dir: Judd Apatow). Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza, RZA. For his third feature, writer/director Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) gets serious. After being diagnosed with an almost incurable blood disease, self-absorbed comedy superstar George Simmons (Sandler) reevaluates his life and makes some changes, which include befriending an aspiring stand-up comedian (Rogen) and reconnecting with his lost love (Mann), who's now married with children. When George's health unexpectedly improves, he finds it hard to maintain his personal growth. Ambitious juggling of belly laughs and high drama works quite well, with Apatow showing how difficult it can be to shake our life roles, whether it's as a celebrity, regular joe, or mother. The cast is outstanding, especially Sandler, whose own mega-success gives the movie an undeniable vulnerability. Funny People is not perfect--it veers toward the sentimental too easily; the movie could lose two supporting characters and 15 minutes--but it's proof that Apatow's expanding creative vision hasn't diminished his talents. From here, his future still looks pretty damn good. [R] ***

(500) Days of Summer (Dir: Marc Webb). Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg. Los Angeles greeting card writer Tom (Gordon-Levitt) falls hopelessly in love with his long-lost romantic ideal, a charming, whip-smart co-worker named Summer (Deschanel). Despite his best efforts and romantic aspirations, she doesn't feel the same way, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent and awkward over the course of 500 days. Amazingly, director Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the same duo who wrote The Pink Panther 2; really, you can look it up) keep the movie clever and bright while exposing the dark side of romance, namely the self-denial we muster in trying to make our expectations align with reality. A huge help is that Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel deliver nuanced, winning performances, never making us wonder why we're following a doomed couple. Though it's a little too cute for its own good, offering us pre-teens spouting relationship advice and a soundtrack designed to isolate anyone over age 35, the movie is a salvation from the usual rom-com stupidity. [R] ***

District 9 (Director: Neill Blomkamp). Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, Louis Minnaar. Twenty years ago, a gigantic spaceship docked over Johannesburg, not stirring for three months. Growing impatient, we humans forcibly removed the aliens, putting them in a temporary camp. Things haven't gone well since. That camp, known as District 9, has devolved into a militarized slum of one million otherworldly residents, while the flesh-and-blood citizens of the South African city want them gone. Enter mega-corporation MNU, which sends a hapless company man (Copley, who's excellent) to lead the mass eviction. But when he's accidentally sprayed with an alien substance, the tables turn on him. Shot like a documentary (the interviews and news footage are a nice touch), the movie works as a sad commentary on human relations and the growing power of big business, as a special effects showcase, and as breakneck, armrest-gripping entertainment. A rare example of style and substance meshing perfectly, and one of the year's best. Peter Jackson served as a producer. [R] ****

The Time Traveler's Wife (Dir: Robert Schwentke). Starring: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston, Arliss Howard, Stephen Tobolowsky, Hailey McCann. A young man (Bana) spends his life uncontrollably traveling through time, but having an ability that most people dream of possessing has a heartbreaking, possibly destructive consequence: the man's wife (McAdams) can't join him. Clunky and lifeless adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel has such a nebulous, confusing premise that Bana and McAdams, two talented actors, become attractive afterthoughts. The movie's sweeping love story--she's known he's a time traveler since she was little--gets obliterated as Ghost scribe Bruce Joel Rubin uses his script to futilely set-up and explain the constant cosmic back and forth. There's no grace, no heat, no passion; it's like watching a big-screen adaptation of a groovy physics textbook starring pretty people. I can't recall a movie promoted so hard as a grand romance that failed so resoundingly in reaching its objective. [PG-13] *

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