Forgetting Sarah Marshall(4/18/2008)

            Judd Apatow has become one of the most unlikely power players in Hollywood, who would have thought the man behind the failed television show “Freaks and Geeks” would end up being the biggest brands in Cinema.  He’s also a figure who challenges the auteur theory, after all he’s only directed two movies, 2005’s The 40 Year Old Virgin and 2006’s Knocked Up.  It’s as a producer that he’s become a household name by making Superbad, Walk Hard, and Drillbit Taylor.  Though he only produces many of these films, his stamp is still all over them.  The elements of an Apatow work are quite clear: lovable slackers, crude humor, and a heart deep down.  These movies have an amazing skill, they take humor that would normally seem stupid and puts it into a smart package.  Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the newest film from the Apatow machine is one of the best.

            The lovable slacker this time around is Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), a composer for a very bad crime series, who’s been going out for years with the lead actress on the series: Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell).  In the film’s opening Marshall hits peter with a bombshell: she’s been seeing another man and wants to break up.  This puts Peter into a grief filled stupor that even a round of one night stands can’t solve.  Finally his concerned friend Brian (Bill Hader) tells him he should go to a Hawaiian resort to take his mind off her.  Unfortunately, upon arrival he discovers that Sarah was staying at this very resort with the man she had been cheating on him with, a rock star named Aldous (Russell Brand).

Jason Segal was a supporting character in previous Judd Apatow projects, here he’s brought to the forefront much the way Seth Rogan was elevated to leading man status in Knocked Up.  Segal clearly had to earn this promotion, as he also wrote the film’s hilarious screenplay.  Segal’s casting also brings up one of the main criticisms people have with Judd Apatow’s films: that they all have ugly losers in relationships with beautiful women (a problem no one ever seems to have when Woody Allen does the same thing).  Segal’s character has been called a schlub, but he’s not quite the loser Seth Rogan played in Knocked Up.  His character is a successful T.V. composer who seems like a nice lovable guy willing to wear bad gifts and carry Sarah Marshall’s purse while she’s on the red carpet.

            The film’s comedic structure is simple; it’s loaded with hilarious supporting roles and Peter bumps into each one of them every once in a while and they do something funny.  Among these funny supporters are Russell Brand as Sarah Marshall’s outlandish new rock star boyfriend, Jack McBrayer who’s basically doing an R-rated version of his page character on the show “30 Rock,” Jonah Hill as a hotel employee who seems to be stocking Russell Brand, and Paul Rudd as a surfing instructor who seems to be stoned twenty four hours a day.  In a lesser movie these characters would have been show stealing standouts, but this movie is so funny that they’re all just parts of one big hilarious package.

            If anyone does steal the show it’s an actress playing a mostly non-comedic role: Mila Kunis.  Kunis rose to fame on Fox’s “That 70s Show,” here she plays a hotel employee who takes pity on Peter, letting him into a vacant penthouse and eventually bringing him to a local beach party.  I never liked “That 70s Show,” so Kunis’ great presence here was a real surprise to me.  Kunis is great at helping jokes set off well, but most importantly she’s able to get the audience to love her, as soon as she comes on the screen the audience has no problem with (pun alert) forgetting Sarah Marshall.

            Forgetting Sarah Marshall, fits into the mold of a romantic comedy more than any of the previous Judd Apatow productions.  But one shouldn’t let that scare away those just looking for a good comedy.  In fact it will probably be a safer bet for those looking for a sex comedy then those trying to entertain a date who may potentially be easily offended.  Keep in mind though that these are sex jokes rather than scatological jokes, they’re closer to Kevin Smith than Tom Green.  You may have heard the film uses extensive male nudity, these reports have been exaggerated; there are 3-4 very brief comedic shots of full frontal male nudity used for a comedic shock effect, but this is not what this movie should be defined by, there’s a lot more to this movie.  The critics who dwell on this small element of the film are doing it a disservice, doing so is like reviewing Borat and focusing on the one wrestling scene.

            Of course, the film also shares a few of the problems other Apatow productions have dealt with, namely that the film is more like a hunk of gold then a perfectly crafted diamond.  That isn’t to say it’s of any less worth, but it can be just a little rough around the edges.  The film could probably use a few cuts, and it also suffers from multiple endings to a certain extent.  Frankly I don’t find this to be too much of a problem, and it’s not as noticeable here as it was in Knocked Up.

            Forgetting Sarah Marshall will probably come as a surprise to anyone who thought the Judd Apatow label had gotten tired.  No doubt the Apatow brand has been watered down by lackluster films like Drillbit Taylor, but this is definitely a return to form that’s right up there with Knocked Up and Superbad.  I don’t think the comedy here ever reached the heights of The Forty Year Old Virgin, but I think it might just be the best Apatow project since that debut.

***1/2 out of Four

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Snow Angels(4/4/2008)

            David Gordon Green has become a critical darling, one of the most acclaimed directors to emerge this decade and one of a few successful directors to thus far remain firmly rooted in independent cinema.  I personally had a shaky start to exploring David Gordon Green’s films, as I initially had a strong negative reaction to his debut film George Washington, whose non-narrative structure caught me off guard.  I revisited the film recently and had a much more positive reception to it, but would not say I loved it.  My second try at George Washington did leave me with enough positive feelings for the filmmakers style to check out his sophomore effort All the Real Girls, a film I found to me much more interesting than his debut.  However, I was not so thrilled with his third film Undertow which felt uneven and disorganized.  Still, even when he failed for me it was clear that there was still a lot of talent in him and I was excited to see his latest film, Snow Angels.

            The film is set in a small Pennsylvania town during the winter and revolves around a large ensemble.  Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has recently separated from her alcoholic ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and is raising a young child. Annie has been having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), who’s married to Barb (Amy Sedaris) who works with Annie at a local Chinese restaurant.  Also working at this restaurant is Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), a teenage busboy who Annie used to babysit when he was a child.  Arthur has recently befriended Lila (Olivia Thirlby), the new girl in school who is something of a free spirit.  Arthur’s own family is going through a tough divorce and he is finding himself trying to find a balance between his two parents.  

            That’s a lot of characters, a lot to set up, and a lot to introduce.  This is the biggest challenge Green faces with this film, he has to introduce all that in a skillful way before he moves on with the main story which I’m reluctant to give away.  I’m not really sure Green is ever able to overcome this challenge.  Anyone who’s seen previous films from David Gordon Green knows that he works at a slow, natural pace and by the time everything is set up there really isn’t much time for the main story to unfold.  This probably wasn’t a problem in Stewart O’Nan novel this film is adapted from, but screen time is more important that page count. 

Additionally the two sides of the story always seem a bit uneven, the Arthur Parkinson character feels somewhat tangential to the story and if he was removed from the film it would have little effect on Annie’s story, while the reverse is not true.  I haven’t read the O’Nan novel, but I have a hunch that it is largely about the Arthur character and his reactions to what happens to Annie, the movie however is not.  The film does not center on a single perspective but shows all the events equally.  Annie has more screen time simply because she is involved in more external action and her story dominates the film more so than Arthur. 

Of course none of these flaws make themselves known while actually watching the film, much like other David Gordon Green films, this is feels really good while it’s being watched even if it doesn’t necessarily add up to the sun of its part.  The film is so well made, so interesting that simply going along for the ride is enough of an experience to recommend the film. 

The acting ensemble here is really great.  Kate Beckinsale gives the performance of her career here as Annie, she’s an actress who has found herself in a lot of trashy Hollywood films, but this film proves that she has a real talent.  Michael Angarano is also quite good, I think he may have a bright future ahead of him, as does Olivia Thirlby who had a small role in last year’s Juno.  Nicky Katt and Amy Sedaris also give good performances, but the performance that really needs to be singled out is that of Sam Rockwell.  Rockwell is one of the best character actors working today and here he’s able to take a character that easily could have been one dimensional and brought it to life in a great way.

Rockwell’s entire character is really interesting throughout the movie, our reaction to him is a case study in perception.  There’s something a bit off about him but he seems like a pretty nice, slightly quirky guy.  Annie’s fear of him and frequent dismissals of his attempts to bring the family together again seem unreasonable at first, but that’s because we don’t know him like she does.  Glenn claims to be a born again Christian, but it becomes increasingly clear that alcohol still has a lot more control over him than Jesus. 

David Gordon Green has moved beyond the Terrence Malick imitating he used to great effect in his first films, but that doesn’t mean Snow Angels is any less captivating.  The film does have a narrative structure but there is still a real patience on display, a willingness to linger and to focus on things other directors would ignore.  The technical elements are all at the top of their game; Tim Orr’s cinematography is as good as ever and the framing is great throughout. 

This all plays into the film’s ultimate success.  The story telling is so great that the film works in spite of itself.  The same could be said of many other David Gordon Green movies, the guy has a real knack for making good movies that fail to be great in interesting ways.  Someone with this much talent is bound to make something truly extraordinary eventually.  This still isn’t his magnum opus, but his filmmaking just keeps getting better.

*** out of four stars

Paranoid Park(4/3/2008)

            Gus Van Sant has had a very interesting if not always successful decade.  Ever since he made Finding Forrester in 2000 he’s abandoned mainstream cinema and started experimenting with a new style of cinema.  This style involved long takes, improvisational dialogue, and minimal exposition.  The style began with 2002’s Gerry about a hiking trip gone wrong which starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. Van Sant further evolved the style in 2003’s Elephant, the first film to deal with the columbine massacre, which abandoned the use of professional actors.  Elephant was probably the most successful Van Sant movie of this period; it was widely acclaimed and won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.  Van Sant followed Elephant up with Last Days, a fictionalized account of the death of Curt Cobain, a pretentious and boring film I had no patience for.  Now Van Sant has further evolved his style with Paranoid Park.

            The film follows a teenager named Alex (Gabe Nevins) involved in a skateboarding sub-culture.  Alex spends a lot of time going to an underground skate park called “Paranoid Park” where he meets a lot of people who are deeper into this world then he is.  However, this isn’t one of those movies about the dangers of some youth sub-culture, in fact that’s really just the background to the larger story.  I don’t want to give away too much, but a security guard has been murdered (this is revealed very early on) and Alex clear had something to do with the crime. 

            The common theme among all these experimental Gus Van Sant films has been internalized emotion, something that’s very true to life.  The films do not try to emphasize with their subjects, only to watch them.  As such these are some particularly voyeuristic pieces of work.  Gerry was about internalized desperation, Elephant was about internalized rage, and Last Days was about internalized depression.  Paranoid Park also fits well into this theme as it’s about internalized guilt.  Alex clearly feels really bad about his part in the death of this security guard but he doesn’t completely brake down in some sort of Oscar bait tantrum, instead the film shows him trying to go on with his usual life in spite of the weight on his shoulders.  The film is all about watching how he reacts to the situation, watching the subtle nuances of his reactions.

            The film is populated entirely by non-professional actors that Van Sant reportedly found on Myspace; these non-actors bring a definite realism to the film.  Firstly, everyone is the correct age, you’ll find no 28 year olds playing teenagers.  More impotently they’re able to feel like normal young people, they’re more qualified to convey the uncertainties and insecurities that plague people at this age.  Gabe Nevins was a good find, he has a lot to do here, and he makes it work.  The supporting actors are also good, Taylor Momsen is very good as Alex’s girlfriend and Jake Miller is also good as his friend. 

            The visual style does have a lot in common with the last three films, it has a deliberately down to earth and somewhat murky look.  It has more in common with the bluish urban hues of Elephant than the more rustic looks of Gerry or Last Days.  The film is shot in Academy ratio color 35mm for most of its duration and uses very messy 8mm color film during a few seemingly disconnected skateboard scenes.

            Bu there are also stylistic differences from the last films Van Sant has made.  The long takes are reduced significantly and the film also uses a non chronological structure.  This structure seems random, but that isn’t to say there’s no rhyme or reason to it.  The chronology is clearly planned but there’s not a rigid pattern to it.  This is one of the film’s more enjoyable aspects; it’s interesting how seemingly confusing scenes are shown twice and the audiences perceptions of the same moments change so much based on context. 

While on the last few films Van Sant was clearly experimenting with visuals, here he actually seems more interested in experimenting with sound.  The music choices all seem very strange, they don’t seem to fit but they do contribute to a certain mood.  The film also has a voice over, which is something that would have no place in any of the other movies in this style series.  But this isn’t like many voice overs, it’s supposed to be a reading of a confessionary note he’s writing to himself, so the grammar at times deliberately feels clunky and often the voice over really raises more questions than it answers.  There are also some odd sound mixing quirks, like one scene where Alex’s jumbled thoughts can be heard on the sound track, each coming from a different surround channel.  Not all of this works of course, that’s the nature of experimentation really.

One could complain that the film’s subject matter seems a little dated.  Skateboarding was a pretty pre-millennial phenomenon, which may not seem like long ago to adults, but the film’s star was about eight years old at the turn of the century.  Of course there are still skate boarders out there, but this still doesn’t seem like it’s on the cutting edge of youth culture.  That said, most of the rest of the depictions of youth culture do ring true.  Most of the slang and dialogue patterns are accurate and up to date, it’s not elegant or overwritten, but it does sound real.

Experimenting is not an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t always bring optimal results, but somebody has to do it.  Gus Van Sant is clearly narrowing in on a style that really will work, but he’s still not quite there.  This is a lot better than Last Days, but it doesn’t quite live up to the heights of Elephant, or even Gerry.  Still, there is a lot of interesting material here, I encourage Gus Van Sant to keep experimenting and I can recommend this film to adventurous cinema goers.

*** out of four