Friday, March 27, 2009

I Love You, Man

Jason Segel established himself as the dark horse of the Apatow crew last year with the incredible Forgetting Sarah Marshall, far and away the best of the slew of Apatow-produced (and occasionally directed) films to come from the thinktank of former Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared staff and stars. Now he almost single-handed buoys the best of the lesser Apatow works; you know, the ones with which Apatow has barely more than a passing involvement.

The plot of I Love You, Man is both brilliance in simplicity and a big risk: at the start of the film, Peter (Paul Rudd) proposes to his love Zooey (Rashida Jones) and she says yes. But their post-engagement high does not last, as wedding preparations reveal that Peter has no steady male friends to invite to the wedding. Fearing the bridesmaids will have nothing to do but sit around awkwardly, Peter attempts to drum up some guy friends. Rudd plays Peter as a man who wants to be relaxed and cool but spends too much time trying; the actor's got a lot of charm, and it's impressive to see him twist it into awkward humor.

The result is a surprisingly sly take on the average romantic comedy. Peter uses all of the avenues we usually see characters using to find a mate: he looks around the gym and the office, to no avail. His gay brother (Andy Samberg), who chases straight men for the challenge, sets him up with a "man-date" that goes predictably yet hilariously awry. There's also the requisite gross-out gag, one that's been done to death but with a slight tweak that made the whole thing just a tad unexpected. All of this goes on for a 20-minute or so span that starts to overstay its welcome, and the film threatens to drag right out of the gate.

Then Sydney (Segel) shows up. As much the physical embodiment of what every laid-back dude wants to do but abstains from either because of fears of repercussions or a nasty case of maturity. He doesn't clean up after his dog, takes seemingly indefinite lunch breaks, and just generally speaks in the sort of aphorisms that sound really wise when you're young and cocksure but tend to lose their sheen when you actually think about them. Peter and Sydney bond over a mutual love of the Canadian prog rock band Rush, unquestionably the single best group to provide the heart of a platonic romantic comedy between two geeks.

From here the film gleefully follows every rom-com trope in the book and turns it on its side: Peter and Sydney fall into such a deep bro-love which incurs Zooey's jealousy, leading to the inevitable Big Misunderstanding that leaves all parties scattered with an uncertain-but-not-really predicament to be solved in the third act. But if it plays out in predictable tedium, that's only because it's sitting right next to you in the audience laughing at itself.

There's a fine line between comedy gold and abysmal failure when it comes to over-the-top exaggeration; for example, Step Brothers tried to filter the coming-of-age story through the lens of two middle-aged man-children, and the result was downright awful. I Love You, Man succeeds because its exaggerations are tempered by some of the sweetest and most genuine moments you'll find in a comedy these days: Peter's scenes with Zooey never once feel contrived and manage to convey Peter's dopey charm without seeming kitschy (mainly thanks to Paul Rudd's natural charisma). The three leads are helped along by a terrific supporting cast (including the aforementioned Samberg, professional straight-man J.K. Simmons as Peter's dad and Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressley as a perennially-bickering couple), who only make a great film even funnier. I Love You, Man is far from perfect, but it's one of the funnier films in recent memory, and it's worth the price of admission if for no other reason than to see Paul Rudd and Jason Segel jam to old Rush tunes.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


For the entire first hour of Claude Lanzmann's massive 9-1/2 hour documentary Shoah, I disliked it. I expected a comprehensive Holocaust documentary, and here was this Frenchman going around interviewing survivors and witnesses but never really getting to the bottom of anything. And he never tried to establish a timeline, neglecting to show any old footage or list off important dates.

Then I sat back and truly paid attention: Shoah is less a documentary than an oral history, an attempt not to pry explanations out of its subjects but merely to hear their side of the story. His questions are not irrelevant but masterfully paced in order to coax more important answers out of the interviewees. For example, he does not ask the Polish residents of an apartment complex how they felt about moving into the homes of evicted Jews; instead, he asks "Who lived in this house before you?" Even when he goes for more obvious and loaded questions like "Do you miss the Jews?" he skirts being didactic and manipulative.

In between interviews, his camera ambles around various locations relevant to the Holocaust: train tracks that carried Jews out to their new homes in the ghetto and eventually the concentration camps, rivers and woods where people staged resistances or tried to escape and, of course, the dilapidated camps themselves. Now overrun with weeds and other plant growth, these sites of unimaginable horror are slowly being reclaimed into the Earth, giving off the unsettling suggestion that the atrocities that happened there are all just a part of life on this planet. Earth has seen far worse destruction, and continued to survive.

The people interviewed are split into three unofficial categories: the survivors, who managed to make it out of the death camps; the bystanders, people -- chiefly Germans and Poles -- who at least knew that Jews had been moved into ghettos even if they knew nothing about the camps; and perpetrators, ex-Nazis filmed (often unwittingly) offering accounts of their roles in all this. One of the few who stands outside these groups is a Holocaust historian, who offers the only overarching context of the film when he discusses the various atrocities committed by all major civilizations on Earth. What set the Nazis apart, he solemnly intones, was the Final Solution. "Then they became innovators."

What struck me rather early on about Lanzmann was a certain cruelty towards his subjects. One of the ex-Nazis he interviews actually refuses to be questioned, but relents under the condition that he is not filmed. Lanzmann agrees, then sets up a hidden camera and we see his crew taping from a van outside. At one point the man even asks for reassurance that he is not being taped, and Lanzmann gives it to him. "Nazis don't deserve privacy," the director says later, but that's a cop-out. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with his decision: these people need to be documented before they die, and their feelings on the matter cannot interfere with history.

These interviews reveal the careful structure of the Final Solution. Responsibilty was so spread across that no one person ever felt like he was really doing anything. According to these Nazis, they never knew the extent of what they were doing and they were in the damn camps! In order to preserve morale by preventing soldiers from facing the full truth of what they were doing, Hitler and the Nazi leaders turned death into an assembly line. In a sick way, it's kind of brilliant, even though I highly doubted that these Nazis didn't really know what was going on.

But anyone who was willing to side with Lanzmann tactics out of lingering hatred of Nazis (can't blame 'em) might have a tough time aquitting his treatment of some of the survivors. At one stage he interviews a barber who was assigned to cut the hair of those on the way to the gas chambers, and he recounts seeing a fellow barber forced to cut the hair of his own wife and daughter. The man breaks down in tears and begs Lanzmann to let him stop, but the director presses. "Please. We must go on," he gently urges the poor sod, and he's right; just as the stories of the Nazis must be heard whether they will it or not, so too must the testimony of the survivors, even if it means forcing these people to relive unimaginable horror.

Shoah is a one-of-a-kind achievement, a piece of cinema so important it almost sands outside of film itself; ratings, list rankings, it's all pointless. Lanzmann is one of the few people smart enough to realize that any attempt to explain or understand Hitler and his cronies will go nowhere, as there's no psychologist on Earth who could offer any definite pathogen for Hitler's actions. It's easy going into this to expect a 9-1/2 film to be about as comprehensive a study on the event as you could get, but Shoah defies all expectations, and instead paints a much more terrifying, revealing portrait of the tragedy than any study of the actual events could ever create.


With 2007’s 300, Zack Snyder proved himself to be the fanboy’s dream: a director who would take a source and transpose it almost literally to the screen. He didn’t particularly care if the result was a good movie, but then neither do the hardcore fans. If you ask the average superfan whether he’d like to see a director take creative liberties with source material to make a unique product or just copy and paste the panels from a comic or the prose from a novel and he respond the latter 9 times out of 10.

Snyder heard the lament of the fanboy, and went about making what must surely be the closest adaptation of a comic book ever made. There are Shakespeare films that don’t come this close to the source material. Entire pages of the comic come to life as Snyder’s effects team and designers perfectly recreate settings, costumes, and even characters (nearly all of the actors look eerily like Dave Gibbons’ sketched heroes). The opening credits alone will fill the average fan with indescribable glee (or maybe that’s just me). Visually, this is one of the most beautiful, eye-popping movies ever made.

It is also one of the most poorly-paced, poorly-acted and poorly-directed films of recent years. Alan Moore’s dystopic, alternate universe 1985 gave us a world full of vigilantes, a king Nixon, and a superhero who sent that version of Earth off course from our own. Yet it was all scarily plausible, and remains so long after the end of the Soviet Union and the fear of nuclear holocaust, all because Moore filled the world with so many understated themes -- ranging from social commentary to an indictment of comics themselves – that it continues to fascinate readers decades later.

Snyder, to his credit, understands these themes, certainly more than the Wachowski brothers, who turned V For Vendetta from a slice of anarchist rebellion into a “Vote Democrat” PSA. But these themes are promptly glossed over as if they were part of the special effects. For all the political fears Moore conjured, the message at the heart of Watchmen is quite simple: anyone who would put on a gaudy spandex costume and dole out their notion of ‘justice’ is at the very least unbalanced. But this theme doesn’t hold much weight when married to Snyder’s love of ultra-violence. The biggest changes from the book – apart from the ending which still leads to the same result as the original one – are scenes of added gore that add nothing but shock value.

Snyder focuses so much on this gore and on the visuals as a whole that the lines (haphazardly lifted from the novel without care) come off as laughable and the pacing will put 75% of the audience to sleep. The actors look the part, but only Jeffery Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley pull off their roles. Haley in particular proves that if Clint Eastwood really did retire from acting he should hire the man as his proxy, as he commands the role of Rorshach with a gravel voice and a steely exterior that belies the character’s madness.

But not even Haley can breathe life into this bloated, self-absorbed affair. Snyder crafted what basically amounts to 2-1/2 hours of exposition punctuated by action sequences that revel in the violence the comic condemned. He turned a complex character study and political statement into facile psychoanalysis of characters in whom he never bothers to invest. And he put together what may just be the worst soundtrack of all time; I’ve watched anywhere between 1600-2000 movies, and I’ve never heard a soundtrack more intrusive and ill-chosen as this.

When you review a movie, you have to know who the audience for the film will be. You don’t necessarily have to care, but you should know what that group will make of the film. I have no clue who the audience for Watchmen is. Those who haven’t read the book are going to feel mightily letdown by an ad campaign that suggested an action romp and not a political thriller, while despite Snyder’s direct translations a great many of the diehards will find some omissions outrageous. That kind of reverence deifies what it seeks to make entertaining, crafting a shrine, a museum reconstruction, instead of a film. When all the dust settles, Watchmen’s legacy will be the proof that “looking like the book” ultimately means little when it comes to entertainment value.