Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman headlines her very first new HBO comedy special in front of an intimate audience of 39.

Sarah Silverman is a comedian that’s always been around, but an artist I never directly got into by chance. I watched a few episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program, which was too obscure for my taste. But I always enjoyed her cameo in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Louie and thought she gave an effective supporting performance in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. I enjoyed clips of her standup onlinebut have not seen her perform a complete comedy hour till now.

The decision to shoot the special at the Largo Comedy Club in front of 39 people is a great one. Silverman never looks far off into the distance or above to a balcony booth. There’s no big giant TV screen of her in the background for the cheap seats. The intimacy of the Largo lends itself for Silverman’s raunchy off-the-wall random tangent comedy, giving her much more freedom to roam from topic to topic without transitions.  “I don’t need segue ways.” Silverman quips,
“The brain doesn’t work that way.”

Some of the joke highlights were a childhood story of how her older sister used to scare her, sin atonement in Christianity and a bit about the Make A Wish foundation. It’s nice how much politically incorrect jokes she gets away with, showing an affable innocent girly  persona can really go a long way to make hard topics durable.

The whole experience is more akin to a live show, as Silverman is able to milk laughs from silences and even counter critique audience reactions when they aren’t up to par. It’s always awkward when comedians do audience interaction in big theater shows and this completely fixes that. The reactions from the 39 people create a more potent, immersive connection to Silverman’s perspective. And making 39 people laugh, after all, is much harder than making 200 people laugh.


The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

When a veteran 911 operator takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

The Call is a tense thriller that fully explores and delivers on its premise. Everything feels like it’s happening before us. Solving one problem creates another and time always seems to be running out. I watched this with my family and it was so gripping that they became totally responsive to it. They were covering their eyes, flinching and screaming at the television at different points.

Thriller movie elements aside, director Brad Anderson brings the audience inside the world of police procedures and emergency call centers. It is well researched and minute with its real world details. The things that we don’t like to know or look at in real life crimes and murders are drawn as a source of tension. The stress and emotional detachment that is required in being an emergency operator is incorporated dramatically into the story. Together this washes away the genre conventions of a typical cop film and instead feels like we are looking into the lives of real-life police officers handling crime.

This is not Halle Berry’s most demanding performance but she does effectively transport the audience into her plight. Berry plays a lot of emotions despite being confined at a desk for a majority of the film. It’s a very pronounced performance. Morris Chestnut seems too aware of himself to really convince me of his character. It seems like he’s always detached from his own environment. There’s a bit of a sick pleasure in watching Abigail Breslin being kidnapped because she was so profoundly annoying in Definitely Maybe. That’s probably me being mean. But here, Breslin plays the situation very real. Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy as the scene-stealing villain. The scariest thing about serial killers or murderers in real life is that nobody ever looks like a serial killer. They all appear as normal people and are protected by the benefit of the doubt. Eklund’s character practically shifts the film into horror film territory.

As it moved toward to the finale, even on the very edge of my seat, I was still secretly wishing for something to really wow me at the end. I don’t know if it was because I liked The Machinist and developed an expectation from Brad Anderson. There were about two three ways the story could have finished that would have been fine, but nothing mind-bending. But it did deliver. My secret wish was fulfilled. The finale to The Call is a gutsy, left-turn ending that pulled the rug right under me. As it went to black, my mouth went agape pondering about what the fates of all the characters.

With the current trend of long running two-hour films, any film that has the discipline to wrap up around 90 minutes is praiseworthy. There is no fat to be trimmed here. The Call might be a film that goes unnoticed under the radar with its lower budget and hype. I saw it on DVD myself. It is the tensest movie I’ve seen this year. Hopefully there’s less lag time from now till Brad Anderson’s next project.

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.

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

The crew of the USS Enterprise meets an unstoppable force of terror from within Starfleet, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

The central relationship between Kirk and Spock is the most compelling element out of the entire Star Trek canon. My peers frequently debate me about Star Trek: The Next Generation but my viewing experience of TNG has only been the movies. Unfortunately I missed it as a television series. For my money, there’s been nothing nearly as compelling and iconic as Kirk’s hot-blooded brash instinct versus Spock’s cold logic and the temperamental humane Dr. McCoy caught between them. I love what they each represent and their eternal triangular quarrel. They want to work together to solve grandiose problems but they all see different on the approach. Never does one of them ever solve the solution completely with their own philosophy and often it’s a varying combination of all three that saves the day. It’s about hearing people out, being unassuming and adapting to new ideas. When Star Trek: The Original Series debuted in the mid-60’s, Gene Roddenberry intended the original show to have a major political agenda and aimed to present an optimistic version of what man can be at their very best.

Much of the essence from Star Trek: The Original Series remains in Star Trek Into Darkness, it contains themes about colonialism, political intervention, foreign policy and terrorism. But it is there only if you want to read it. These themes are expressed in a muted fashion as the thematic discussions are always running parallel to major action set pieces. As if the material was like a shark that had to keep moving at breakneck speed or it will risk dying of boredom. Personally, I never minded those thematic discussions in the previous Star Trek films. A few more quiet moments wouldn’t have been bad either. Just saying. Now that J.J. Abrams is helming the next Star Wars movie, the “Star Wars vs. Star Trek” geek war that existed when I was a teenager might very well be over now. A Star Wars influence is present in the film and I ponder what elements Abrams will bring over.

The script is workshopped to an inch of its life. Heck, it’s indicative in the film’s “no colon” title. The fact that the writers have been quoted stating that “There’s no word that comes after the colon after Star Trek that’s cool.” has been clearly spent way too much time pulling their hair psychotically, obsessing over every detail and perfecting the story over coffee-spilled paper. Seriously, is there really a group of people out there that feels negative about colons after the movie title? Does that really justify warping (yes, pun intended) English grammar? This sounds like ranting but I really mean this as a compliment to their supposed geek madness.

The cast delivers as they did in the previous installment. I do think having watched the previous installment helps immensely as there are not a lot of character building moments for everybody. But the actors are all well casted in their roles and fortunately every crew member still has something to do. Zachary Quinto shines as Spock and his friendship with Chris Pine’s Kirk is a believable one. Their friendship is the heart of the movie. Simon Pegg gets to do something new as Scotty. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great villain. He owns the audience. One minute he is savagely evil, the next minute we slightly sympathize with him and then he shifts again. On that note, I can’t wait for Sherlock season 3.

This is a very ambitious film that has a lot of things to accomplish. It’s trying to deliver a story with multiple characters, please both the non-fans and the fans, go to new territory but also honor the spirit of the original series. The film essentially wants to have its cake and eat it too but it accomplishes it really well. If J.J. Abrams’ gave any more pop culture nods as he does in this film, his head would fall off. I cheered at the spectacle of the action scenes, laughed at the in-jokes, and almost cried at the film’s climax. It doesn’t go to new territory as much as the first one and I hope they do go somewhere new for the next installment.

I want to see it again and look forward to the third installment. Hopefully it won’t take as long as this one.

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.