This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.

Dredd by Pete Travis

Dredd by Pete Travis

In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) teams with new trainee Judge Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby) to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Dredd is correlated to The Raid: Redemption because they have similar setups (my short review of The Raid: Redemption here). Fortunately, I saw The Raid: Redemption earlier in the summer of 2012 and missed Dredd in theaters, as a result I have enough time in between the two films to mentally separate them. Being unfamiliar with the source material, what I actually ended up comparing Dredd was the 1996 Slyvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd. It’s a sci-fi movie that I grew up on and entertained me (however Demolition Man is the superior sci-fi Slvyester Stallone movie). It’s famously criticized because Sylvester Stallone, at the behest of the producers, plays the latter two-thirds of the film with his helmet off. Judge Dredd in the comics, never takes off his helmet. I never knew what the big deal was with the insistance that the Judge Dredd character must keep his helmet on… till I saw Dredd.

Judge Dredd is not a character as more a representation of pure black-and-white law taken to the extreme. That’s why he’s meant to be faceless. Taking off his mask and trying to find the human backstory behind that character completely shatters what he thematically represents. Yes, I know I sound stupid right now. However, a movie with Judge Dredd alone just shooting criminals would have been boring. The filmmakers understand this, so they have placed in a buddy cop dynamic into the film with the Judge Anderson character. She is more human and more dimensional as a character, and set as a juxtaposition to the stoic Dredd. It can even be argued that the movie is Judge Anderson’s story. Both characters had a good working chemistry and the film deeply benefits from their buddy dynamic as it provides something human enough for me to hang onto between the action scenes.

As Judge Dredd, Karl Urban manages to communicate a lot under a helmet and has a firm grasp of the material. Playing a character who is that extreme can easily fall into parody very quickly (there are many Youtube videos parodying Stallone’s delivery “I’m the lawwwwww!!!!!”) and Urban doesn’t fall into that. Lena Headey manages to be cold and scary without being cartoonish as the film’s villain Ma-Ma. The film is over-the-top but there’s no ‘wink wink’, everybody just “is” the character they’re playing.

Slow motion in films have been overdone and viewers have grown used to it now. The way to keep slow motion fresh is to incorporate it into the story. Having a drug that slows down your perception of time is arguably the most blatant way to do this. But you know what? It works! It seems fresh and they take the Slo-Mo drug as a story device and take it to creative places. The films has fun action set pieces. The next set piece tops the last and it moves fast enough for you to ever really ponder about the satirical tones.

Dredd  is fun and made by a team that understands and loves the material. Their goals with this movie were simple but they accomplish them. It makes me think, as proven by the 1995 film, that perhaps the Judge Dredd property is not meant to be adapted into a vehicle for a big name star. The dark humor combined with ultra-violent tone of it just registers as something kitschier that will fare better for a smaller audience. No one’s going to take their whole family to see this movie but more likely a group of guys will cackle over it with a case of beers in their apartment.

For the people that want to see Dredd, will get it and enjoy it. For the people who don’t care that much may just dismiss it as being a lesser version of The Raid: Redemption. I’m not going to get on that bandwagon, Dredd deserves better than simply writing it off like that.

Next Round of Reviews! Upcoming thoughts about Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

My next round of reviews:

Who takes 7 months to review a Batman movie? I do! It’s been a long struggle reviewing The Dark Knight Rises and Rust and Bone, realizing that the more you like something, the harder it is to articulate why it was personal to you. It was a repetitive cycle of opening up the post and geting lost in my own scrambled feelings that needed to be unknotted and structured for a reader. I encountered a similar problem with The Grandmaster review but thank goodness that only took me a week. My goal is to finish these two reviews by Chinese New Year.

Three titles that will likely be reviewed faster than the above two films.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

As of right now, I haven’t seen the new Stephen Chow film yet. Even though my interest in the film is halved by the fact that Stephen Chow is not acting in it. It’s been pretty funny seeing the trailers playing in Hong Kong theaters, as it shows a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Stephen Chow directing his actors. Which begs me to question, if they are flat out marketing the movie with footage of Stephen Chow acting out the scenes for his actors, what’s the point in seeing a Stephen Chow movie without Stephen Chow in it? I intend on finding the answer.

I have never been someone that feels my childhood is at stake when something I like is being rewritten upon, but it feels like that this time. Stephen Chow has given me some all-time highs throughout my childhood. It feels brutal. On one hand, its always fascinating to see how an artist evolves, for better or for worse. Maybe I have to accept its the end of an era. That there won’t be a Stephen Chow film with him acting in it ever again and I’m going to have to come to terms with that. Heck, I took it hard when I realized he probably wasn’t going to work with Ng Man Tat anymore.

So I’m both looking forward and dreading it at the same time.

Read my review here.

The Iron Lady by Phyllida Lloyd

Honestly, Meryl Streep can play a cockroach and win a Best Actress

Like I’ve said before in my entry for My Week with Marilyn, it is not possible to make a biopic about Marilyn Monroe without talking how beautiful she is and what a problem that was for her. Nor is it possible to make a Bruce Lee biopic without having any fighting in it. In that mentality, it is not possible to make a Margaret Thatcher biopic without it being about politics. This film attempts to defy that logic.

The story is structured from the mental state of the old Margaret Thatcher, who’s dealing with dementia over the lost of her late husband Denis. As things happen in the present, we flashback to the younger Margaret Thatcher, chronicling her journey from a young girl to being Prime Minister.

I do not understand what this framing device accomplishes. Is this about how Margaret Thatcher remembers her own life? No, she’s dealing with dementia. Is it her being senile the deal she had to do with the devil? No. She’s the first female British Prime Minister. Why is that not interesting enough in itself?

The parts with how she battled the work unions and the Falkland Island wars were really engaging me but there were only shown as excerpts in the film. Now I will have to revert to Wikipedia to learn more about that part of history.

Is there anything to say about Meryl Streep’s performance that has not been said? It’s a total physical transformation and she deserved the Best Actress award. That’s really all I have to say about it. Is the film worth watching solely for her performance alone? Only if you want to be part of the social discussion.

At it’s heart, The Iron Lady is a film about grief, loneliness and the loss of a loved one. I was moved by the relationship between Margaret and Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent). She found someone that truly loved her for who she was (he tells her this as he proposes, one of my favorite scenes in the movie) and it was heartbreaking to see her senile and alone without him. I felt sad for her when the film ended.

On that level, the film accomplished its goal. But why did that story about grief have to be Margaret Thatcher’s story? I still find there are many other more interesting goals to do with her life story. Personally, I would have liked to see the chronicle of her political career as the central story instead.

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

I’m a loyal Woody Allen fan. My favorite Woody Allen films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, and Stardust Memories. Even the so-called bad Woody Allen (I didn’t think Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else was terrible, I thought they were still funny) films manage to entertain me. I like that he’s disciplined and a no-nonsense writer and director.

I’m currently battling the cliche of whether I should make a Top Ten List of 2011. I wasn’t going to write a review for Midnight in Paris as I saw the film months ago. But watching Hugo and seeing it’s attempt at trying to enchant me reminded me of how Midnight in Paris did it so much better. Hugo did it with the use of space, but Midnight in Paris does it with space and character. This movie truly enchanted me. So I figure instead of writing a top ten list, I’ll just write reviews of the films that I liked in 2011 instead. So on with my thoughts…

If there’s anything Woody Allen does well, it’s casting (also to the credit of Allen’s longtime casting director Juliet Taylor). He find the right people to do the job through spotting the distinct characteristics in actors and susses out their aura to tell a story. This is the best use of Owen Wilson in a role that I have seen. I never knew what was unique about Owen Wilson till now. And here’s what it is: Owen Wilson embodies a sense of wonderment (“Wow, look at that.” “Gosh, that’s amazing!”) and he  acts as an avatar for the audience in experiencing Paris’ beauty. Yes, of course, we know Paris is beautiful and enchanting but it’s through his energy that the viewer can feel enraptured by everything around him.

That also said, I also think this was my favorite Adrian Brody performance as well. This was another actor that I never could tell what his strength was, but too like Owen Wilson, he shines in Midnight in Paris. I know of Salvador Dali and seen enough of his photographs to know his physicality and the specific way he stares at people. I do think Brody captures that precisely in this small role. It’s also refreshing to see Rachel McAdams play a bitchier character. If there’s an award for best ensemble cast, Midnight in Paris  should take the cake. Also noteworthy performances were Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway (who recites all his dialogue in Hemingway-like prose). Through the scope of Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender, who is currently writing a novel about nostalgia, every artist’s appearance is a delightful joy. It’s like crashing an old costume party and meeting all your idols.We see how he’s excited to be amongst these people and as the audience is seduced to wanting to hang out with the Lost Generation as well.

Paris is a major character in the story. The opening montage of Paris evokes a similar stroke Allen did in the opening montage in Manhattan. It captures the energy of the city and it embodies a personal love for the place. We see the streets, the restaurants, the book stores, the cafes and we imagine what we would do there if we were there. The film takes it to almost a jokey tongue-in-cheek level since you have the First Lady of France (Carla Bruni, whom I also like her music) as the local French tour guide.

The film charms you and you can’t help but fall into it and be whisked away to a fun joyful place. This is easily going onto my favorite movies of the year and now officially one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures.

What else can I say? Woody Allen, give me a hug!

Related Reviews
Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen
Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

The Grey by Joe Carnahan

The Grey

The Grey by Joe Carnahan

A man who has lost the will to live must save a group of men after a plane crash in the midst of Alaska. That is a compelling premise.

If you lost the will to live, is there any value in human life? How do you value someone else’s life? Is there even any point in running away when you are in the face of death?

The Grey asks these existential questions but doesn’t get bogged down by the weight of them. It externalizes these ideas into something entertaining: a survival film. And more importantly, the film doesn’t leave these questions unanswered. It manages to answer them from the point of view of Liam Nesson’s character, John Ottway. And if there’s one thing that Liam Nesson does really well, it is bringing gravitas to a role and a story, no matter how ridiculous the situation may be (i.e. in Taken where he singlehandedly takes on Paris. Or heck, even the scene in The A-Team where the team in a tank falling from the sky and he orders the team to maneuver the tank through firing out of its cannon).

The structure of the story is that of a philosophy thesis. These characters exist as viewpoints. Survival arguments between the characters are disguised existential arguments. One noteworthy scene is where all the men sit around in a campfire and share their personal stories, it works both as character development and on a thematic level establishes what they all have to live for as existential discussion. As for the wolves, I know nothing about wolves and their social behavior. I don’t know if they make sounds like a Tyrannosaur Rex or sneak up on people like ninjas as they’re portrayed in The Grey. And you know what? It does not matter one single bit. These are not real wolves. These are thematic existential wolves. Yes, they exist as an idea and they work like that of a movie monster metaphor.

As for the set pieces, they are brutal. They reportedly shot in -40 degree weather and it looks it. We feel the pain of these deaths. The balance between the philosophical and the survival film tropes make it a thrilling experience.

The A-Team and Smoking Aces was both fun fluff, but The Grey is levels higher and it shows maturity and improvement on the filmmaker’s behalf. This is the best Joe Carnahan film has made yet.

I’m all for not hurting animals, but there’s something really badass about watching Liam Nesson punching a wolf. The Grey is aware of its popcorn movie layer though despite of that has much higher ambitions than to simply entertain, it chooses to say something deep instead. And it succeeds. Or else they could have just named the movie – Liam Nesson: Wolf Puncher.

Hugo by Martin Scorsese

I went into Hugo without any prior knowledge. I didn’t see a trailer or read the synopsis and only heard one radio interview. I only knew it was the Martin Scorsese 3D children’s film.

Space in movies can act as a character, it can evoke not only a sense of place, but a looming sense of character and life that can really enrich a story. That’s something that this movie achieves, one example being in the opening long shot where Hugo Cabret is crawling through the inner body of the entire train station, through the pistons all the way to his hideout. If you closed your eyes, you can smell the steam from the train pistons and feel the vibrations of the click clanks of the gears spinning around. The train station in Hugo is characterized as both a fun place at times (when Hugo is crawling through it) and a dangerous place (there are way too many ways for a child to be killed). It’s been a while since I really been moved by a sense of place since I’ve watched Hugo and was truly marveled by itThe 3D did enhance the space.

The setup of the story was problematic. The film is called Hugo, but it’s not really about Hugo Cabret the orphan (played by Asa Butterfield). It’s about Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), a toy store owner at the train station. It started as a story about an orphan and ended up being about an old man’s legacy.

The beginning of the story used an unnecessarily long time to set up. If you took the film and shook it, 10-15 minutes would have fallen out. I started to feel bad that I wasn’t interested and invested in the Hugo Cabret character. As horrible as it sounds, him being an orphan and missing his father wasn’t enough for me to hang on after 30 minutes. The story must move forward. Honestly, the train station as a space was more of an interesting character than Hugo himself. Even the side characters (besides Inspector Gustave, played by Sacha Baron Cohen) that populate the train station and their little interactions do not add anything to the core story. It would have added to the story if they interacted more with Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès characters.

It’s really the latter half of the film where Hugo picks up and shows what it really is about – the love of cinema. The film’s latter half is energized by Martin Scorsese’s own personal passion for filmmaking. I like Martin Scorsese films and it’s nice to see him change up his tune. It’s not like anything he’s done before, but yet it feels dear and closer to his heart. The latter half of the film was charming and enchanting. There’s a sequence we see how a group of men are made to disappear on screen through the use of editing. And you watch it with a smile.

This all raises the question of, why wasn’t this film about the passion of film from the get go? Why a meandering storyline instead of a straight one? The path the story took to get to it’s final point seemed laborious. I walked out feeling like I missed something. That I needed to go back and see it again but I didn’t miss anything. There’s nothing wrong with a story being simple but Hugo didn’t enforce the discipline of taking out the unnecessary beats. That or it didn’t create enough intrigue in the initial story between Hugo and Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) snooping around to retrieve Hugo’s notebook from her godfather. I can’t be sure if kids would enjoy this movie because of the long drawn out story beats. There weren’t any children in my screening, so I can’t be sure of that.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to love about this film. I think the technical awards it won were well deserved. It did something interesting with 3D. But I only ended up liking it.

Goon by Michael Dowse

Goon by Michael Dowse

My friend and I used to have this one joke about how “jerseying” someone is the only Canadian martial art. For the layman, I will proceed to explain what “jerseying” is. To jersey someone is to grab the back of someone’s shirt and pull it over their arms into a knot, which immobilizes them, which frees you up to punch them. If you’re good enough, you can elbow and knee them as well! And it’s fun to watch how helpless they are when they can’t swing their arms while being pummeled.

Yes… that is funny to me. That is the tone of Goon.

Under the right context, it’s very funny to watch somebody being punched. Goon provides this context with a story with heart and a very likable central underdog character. Doug Glatt (played by Seann William Scott) is ostracized from his family, his father and older brother (played by Eugene Levy and David Paetkau) are doctors and he works as a bouncer at his local bar. He is aware he is not smart and there seems to be nothing else for him. But he’s good at one thing: beating the shit out of people. Everybody looks down and picks on him (even when his golden opportunity to play for the local hockey team). When Doug beats the shit out of them, you’re with him and it makes it okay to laugh at the brutal injuries he inflicts on his tormentors.

I’m a Seann William Scott fan, he’s a good comedic actor with a firm grasp for comedic rhythm. He’s played zany, nerdy, and obnoxious. In Goon, it’s different, he plays a straight man and is reacting to the ridiculousness around him. It’s a different comedic dynamic as you’re laughing at a character for not knowing the world better and more often you are touched by his purity (as he romances Eva, played by Alison pill) than him directly doing anything that is quote unquote funny.

The fights are pretty violent. It’s fun watching how these hockey fights build up in the game because there’s almost never a real reason for it. Why do the referees stand there and watch them fight? Why aren’t they permanently suspended from the game? It is a pure instinctual reaction physicalized and that’s what’s fun and funny about it.

There are no cheap gags, in fact there are serious moments in the film where there are no jokes and I appreciated that. Liev Schreiber’s handlebar moustache was very funny, and Liev Schreiber was too. But it’s mostly the handlebar moustache.

I’m a bad Canadian, I don’t watch hockey. However, I throughly enjoyed the hell out of Goon. I laughed pretty hard.

The Lady by Luc Besson

The Lady by Luc Besson movie poster

My first memories of Michelle Yeoh date back to Police Story 3: Supercop. To me, she will always be the Mainland Chinese undercover agent who drove a motorcycle up a ramp and landed onto a speeding train. And now that has completely been changed in my head, or perhaps another new image of Michelle Yeoh has now been spawned in my head.

Mark my words: this is the definitive Michelle Yeoh performance. Don’t get me wrong, she still plays a badass, but a totally different kind of badass. Yeoh physicalizes Aung San Suu Kyi, she has lost the weight and embodies her gentle grace and is believable as a mother. Yes, I bought this onscreen family. That’s something noteworthy.

There is an art to crying on film. It must be done with precision (so the audience stays rooting for the actor), a certain beauty (you are doing it on camera after all) and grace to it (so that it’s watchable). The Lady contains some of the best crying on film I have seen for a while. I was reminded of how David Mamet’s thoughts against Stanislavski’s school of method acting because the emotion drawn from the actor should come from the scene itself, not a side experience from the actor. I written that off as I doubted if that is even possible for an actor to do (and also because David Mamet wears a beret). The film have proven me wrong. I watched Aung San Suu Kyi cry from being away from her family, not Michelle Yeoh cry from a personal experience.

In screenwriting, they teach that it’s important to make your main character likable, so that the viewer can invest and root for their success. That alone can enhance (i.e. Rocky) and diminish (i.e. The Green Hornet) one’s experience of a story. The portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh, if it’s not obvious to you already) in The Lady is universally likeable and that alone had me on the edge of my seat.  I don’t recall ever rooting for two people to be together (On that level, this makes for a great date movie) more than Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis). Fuck, the stakes are high: a woman has to choose between helping her country or being with her family. There’s a heroine, she’s in love but can’t be with her lover,  she has supporters, there’s a villian, he has henchmen and set out to destroy her cause. The story structure is practically that of a superhero movie, but I digress. Like in Senna, the situation seems so dramatic I couldn’t believe that this all really happened. The film titters between working as a documentary and a dramatic fiction movie and it becomes an immersive experience.

I quite liked that touch with Michael Aris’ smoking habit. It’s how the character deals with his stress. Often smoking is used as a character trait in movies, and they really take that to it’s end in this one.

Lastly, the U2 song tonally doesn’t fit with the aftertaste of the film in the end credits sequence. I know U2 is a major supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom, but that particular song tonally doesn’t belong there, period. I would have preferred the score.

Welcome back, Luc Besson! Please continue to direct movies.