Monday, September 21, 2009

Review - Three Miles North of Molkom...

The title of Robert Cannan and Corinna Villari-McFarlane's documentary refers to the location of Ängsbacka, an idyllic location somewhere in Sweden. Each year, this forest stages the One Mind Festival, a fortnight-long compendium of new-age rituals through which like-minded individuals from around the world hope to achieve inner peace, a sense of oneness with nature...or something. Three Miles North of Molkom... introduces us to a single "sharing group", that will provide the film's main focus, and they're an eclectic bunch. Siddharta is an imposing figure who wants to meet his "Goddess," Regina is a Swedish pop star, Mervi is a middle-aged woman who can't produce saliva, Ljus is a wispy, ethereal hippy who has spent most of his life around goats; and then there's Nick, the gruff Australian rugby player. Nick isn't quite sure what he's doing here, and he spends much of the film's first half griping amusingly about "bloody tree-huggers" who are constantly spouting "spiritual mumbo-jumbo."

For much of the film, I empathised with Nick's discomfort at being surrounded by so much hippy nonsense, but I was more riled by the lack of structure the filmmakers had imposed on their documentary, which quickly grows repetitive and fails to develop any point-of-view on proceedings. The participants are allowed ample time in front of the camera to waffle about their beliefs and their connection, or lack of, with those around them, but Cannan and Villari-McFarlane never probe too deeply or question any of the statements made by their subjects. The film could have benefitted from a more disciplined approach to editing as well, with a number of sequences being allowed to drag on long after they have ceased to hold the attention.
Three Miles North of Molkom... is, however, very amusing at times. Aside from Nick's cynical approach in the film's first half, many laughs occur from the absolute conviction so many of the participants approach their tasks with. It also features one jaw-dropping scene, in which the fragile, middle-aged Mervi is invited to "protect" herself from onrushing energy, with a result that is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. That moment made me gasp aloud and had me shaking with laughter for several minutes afterwards, but it's also the film's last highlight, and the picture subsequently drifts aimlessly towards an unsatisfying close. Even Nick learns to take something away from this odd spiritual journey, but I wasn't quite as ready to drop my sense of scepticism, and I'd had more than my fill of hugging and chanting long before the curtain came down on this year's festivities.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review - Up

Every year, the great minds at Pixar produce a new film for our enjoyment, and it has become customary for each of those features to be preceded by an animated short. Before their latest film Up begins, we are treated to Peter Sohn's Partly Cloudy, an amusing little skit about a stork whose deliveries are slightly less adorable than the babies, puppies and kittens his colleagues carry down to awaiting parents. It's a clever, terrifically animated piece of work, much as we would expect, but I was surprised to find, within Up's opening moments, a self-contained slice of filmmaking that is almost a perfect short in its own right. We are introduced to Carl Fredricksen as an adventure-hungry child, who finds his perfect mate in Ellie, an energetic scamp similarly in thrall to the legendary explorer Charles Muntz. Jump ahead a few years, and the pair are getting married, before a wordless montage whisks us through their subsequent decades together – their joys and difficulties, their pain when they discover they cannot have children, the dreams that go unfulfilled, and the encroaching old age and illness which eventually claims Ellie's life, leaving her devoted husband alone and bereft.

It is, quite simply, an astounding filmmaking achievement; a sequence that manages to encapsulate the full measure of two lives bound by a deep and abiding love, without uttering a single word. That it deals with ageing and death as an inevitable fact of life, not to mention the manner in which it handles their inability to conceive, makes this a remarkable and distinctive passage in the Pixar canon. How many animated family films have dealt with themes such as this in such a subtle, direct and mature fashion? And how many films have managed to reduce you to tears within the opening ten minutes, with the death of a character who has barely spoken? Pixar have long been lauded for their technological advancements – mastering hair, water, cloth etc. – but this emotional advancement is just as impressive as any of the CGI hurdles they have negotiated.

In fact, this opening section is so perfectly pitched, I began to fear that Up had peaked too early, setting itself a standard that the subsequent 80 minutes would struggle to maintain. Fortunately, the film quickly allays those fears, switching tones and kicking off a fast, gag-laden plot that hits the ground running and doesn't look back. Carl (voiced by a suitably grouchy Ed Asner), still trying to come to terms with his wife's passing, finds himself under increasing pressure to sell his house – which is holding up building development – and move into a retirement village. He reacts in the way any rational 78 year-old would – he attaches thousands of helium balloons to the roof of his house and lifts off, with the intention of steering his flying home towards Paradise Falls, a location in South America that Ellie had always dreamed of visiting, but never had the chance.

I went into Up knowing little about the movie beyond the basic premise, and it would be a shame to spoil its surprises here, as the experience of discovering them afresh is one of the movie's pleasures. Suffice to say, the screenplay is a marvel of invention, perhaps Pixar's most outlandishly plotted film yet, but even as it soars to fanciful heights, the film is grounded by a consistent emotional backbone. Carl's unstinting devotion to his deceased wife, determined as he is to fulfil this one ambition in her name, is touchingly developed, and culminates in a beautiful sequence in which he takes another look at the adventure book she compiled as a child. Likewise, the relationship between Carl and Russell (Jordan Nagai), the portly boy scout who inadvertently joins his adventure, is a handled with a sensitivity and humour that transcends its clich̩d origins. Visually too, the pair are a perfect match РCarl is rectangular, Russell almost as round as one of Carl's balloons Рand between them they create a memorable odd-couple partnership.

Of course, Up is stunning to look at. Carl's initial lift-off is wonderful, the multicoloured balloons dancing in the light as he soars above the city, and the South America they finally arrive in is vivid and atmospheric. This is the first Pixar feature to be released in 3D, although the extra dimension adds little of note to the experience, and at times it felt like a distraction (not helped by the rather clunky and spectacles-unfriendly 3D glasses we were required to wear). Thankfully, I was often too entranced by the picture to allow such minor quibbles to get in the way, and the climactic aerial pursuit between Carl, Russell and the villain of the piece Muntz (Christopher Plummer) is spectacular and brilliantly conceived by any measure. It reminded me of the gravity-defying multiple door climax to Monsters Inc., also directed by Docter, who has successfully married thrilling set-pieces, comedy and genuine heart in his two Pixar efforts to date, both of which can be classed among the studio's best. Up is one of the Pixar's funniest films, and it is a film that moved me to tears on three separate occasions; not bad for a family film that clocks in at just over 90 minutes. This is one of the best films of the year, a picture made by artists working at the peak of their game, and a picture driven by a ceaseless spirit of adventure.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Review - Funny People

The films Judd Apatow has written and directed so far have tended to deal with life's messier, more complicated rituals – first-time sex in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, unexpected pregnancy in Knocked Up – and his new film Funny People is his messiest, most complicated yet. Funny People is a film about a man facing up to his own mortality, questioning his life choices, and then being given a second chance to put things right. These are big themes to be tackling in a mainstream American comedy, and I take my hat off to Apatow for his valiant effort in trying to make a film that's really about something deep and meaningful, while simultaneously attempting to break the record for dick jokes in a single movie. Such a delicate balancing act would be a tricky proposition for all but the most adept of filmmakers, so perhaps it's no surprise that Funny People eventually trips up over its own confused feet. Rather than the conflicting tones, however, it's the odd structure of Funny People's narrative and the film's general air of self-indulgence that eventually prove to be its most damaging elements.
Funny People opens with home video footage of a young Adam Sandler making prank calls during his days as Apatow's college roommate. Here, the actor is playing a comedian named George Simmons, although his career draws obvious parallels with Sandler's own; progressing from stand-up to movie mega-stardom via a series of lowbrow comedy hits. He's hugely successful, but he's also alone, having nobody he can truly call a friend and still lamenting the loss of the one woman he loved. When he is diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and prescribed experimental medication, George falls into a maelstrom of despair and self-reflection. He sits gazing at clips of his career, he attempts to build bridges with old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), and in one of the film's most disquieting scenes, he returns to stand-up, bemusing an audience with a self-pitying rant about impending death.

Watching from the wings as George melts down on stage is an aspiring comedian named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who follows the star on stage and gets laughs from his depressed demeanour ("Coming up next, Robin Williams is going to slit his wrists"). George catches Ira's act and likes what he sees, asking the young comic to be his assistant. Ostensibly, Ira's role will be to write material for George, but essentially George is buying Ira's friendship. His tasks extend beyond simply writing gags and into much more intimate territory, such as being George's confidant, helping him get his affairs in order, comforting him when he's sick, talking to him while he falls asleep, and accompanying him on a foolhardy mission to win back his ex, who is now married with two children (played by Apatow and Mann's own). It's at this point in the narrative that Funny People begins to wobble alarmingly, with Apatow's decision to follow a fresh narrative path over an hour into his picture leaving the film feeling unbalanced.

In fact, he might have been well advised to stick to the road he was following, because Funny People's opening hour is mostly excellent; delivering the raucous humour we associate with these films while finding a resonant sense of pathos in George's plight. George Simmons is not a particularly likable lead character, being neurotic, bitter, self-obsessed and frequently cruel to those around him, and Sandler gives a finely calibrated performance in the role, lending his initially abrasive character a soulful, sympathetic quality, and smoothly shifting gears as the role requires it. His relationship with Ira is the core of the film's first half, the openness and sunny optimism of the young wannabe contrasting sharply with the disillusionment of the superstar. Ira is desperate to please his idol and to help him through his dark period, but he has to withstand numerous outbursts and humiliations from the volatile George for his troubles.

Then George finds out he's not sick anymore, resolves to turn his life around, and the movie stalls. Much of the film's final hour and a half takes place at Laura's home, where George tries to convince her to leave her husband and to rekindle the relationship they abandoned ten years previously, and an increasingly uncomfortable Ira tries to stop him from bringing trouble on himself and tearing this apparently happy family apart. After an opening hour which was brisk and consistently funny, Apatow allows his film to drift through this segment, with all of the tension and dramatic impetus quickly seeping out of it, and even the arrival of Laura's husband (Eric Bana, giving his loosest and funniest turn since Chopper) can't pull the picture out of its mawkish funk. This director has been accused of self-indulgence before, but The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up felt like much more rounded and complete works, films that built to a natural end point, whereas it seems as if Apatow has let this bigger, more ambitious piece of work to get away from him. The film eventually stutters to a close without bringing its central themes together in a satisfying way.

Ultimately, there's a lack of focus and discipline in Funny People's storytelling and editing choices that leaves it feeling lugubrious when it should be tight and sharp. Different viewers will all have their own opinions about what could and should have been cut. Some may cite the celebrity cameos (I loved Eminem's tirade at Ray Romano, and James Taylor's "Fuck Facebook", but I could have lived without the others), some might point at the moderately funny stand-up routines, whereas I'd be inclined to highlight the supporting characters, usually one of the richest components of an Apatow film., who don't really shine here. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman recycle their over-familiar shtick to little effect as Ira's roommates, and Ira's hesitant courtship of another young comic (Aubrey Plaza) feels like an irrelevant distraction from the central drama. Funny People is probably the boldest of Apatow's directorial efforts to date, but it is also his weakest. It toys with grand themes but never really gets to grips with them, and for a film with so much going on at once, it feels oddly empty at the end of it all. Sure, Funny People made me laugh a lot, but the film also shows it's not enough for a director to know what's funny, he has to know what's necessary, and with this film I can't help feeling that less would have been so much more.