TIFF 2013 – Love is Stupid Monkeys: Michael Dowse’s THE F WORD

THE F WORD

Michael Dowse is on a roll. After knocking it out of the park with the viciously goodhearted GOON, the Canadian filmmaker returns to the Toronto International Film Festival with THE F WORD, a romantic comedy about the dreaded and much-debated “friend-zone”. Starring Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver and none other than the boy-wizard himself, Daniel Radcliffe, the film is one of those rare treats that manages to be the “good” installment in a genre which is rarely taken seriously.

Because, in the words of Radcliffe himself, the romantic comedy genre is one which is occasionally great, but rarely done right. And THE F WORD – which was written by Elan Mastai and based on the play Toothpaste and Cigars by Michael Rinaldi – gets it right.

Overflowing with sincerity, honesty and constant laughs, Dowse’s latest works on every level imaginable. Not only is it powerfully funny, it has the heart to back it up. It’s filled with sweet, very real-feeling moments which should be instantly identifiable to members of both sexes, as well as those on both sides of the “can men and women be friends?” argument. Notably, the film very, very wisely refuses to indulge either side of the argument: at times, both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. This isn’t the story of a boy trying to win the girl – this is the more nuanced story of both a boy and a girl who come together and the ramifications that their meeting has on their lives.

Nearly every step of the way, the film indulges then subverts elements of the genre, to powerful and realistic effect. It very consciously dictates the line between the truth of love in the real world and the fairy tale of love in the movies, then seeks to tread that line expertly. Yes, all of those cliché things that you imagine will happen in a romantic story are going to happen in this movie, but they happen because the characters are themselves aware of those clichés. The truth and result of those actions are never how we expect them to turn out, and the film uses that reality to create drama, comedy and, above all else, a real truth about the relationship between men and women.

It’s rare to find a film which so perfectly captures the moments that happen between two people who feel an instant connection. Each scene of the film is like a tiny time capsule, a memory, a moment frozen in time. Those vivid, powerful flashes that you remember for years: the sight of a tattoo the first time you see a person in a state of (semi-) undress, the flashing of the lights while dancing at a club, the way they materialize in your mind and dictate your decisions.

Though we initially see the story more from the side of Wallace (Radcliffe), the story quickly opens up to show us Chantry’s (Kazan) side of things. Both characters have agency, both are the victims of circumstance, and both of their situations are unique. Chantry’s boyfriend is not some jerk which Wallace must overcome and rescue her from – he’s an impressive, honest and extremely nice person who does not deserve to be hurt. There is no “winning” in THE F WORD. As Adam Driver’s Allan so eloquently explains, there are only five options: be sleazy, be conniving, be pathetic, be honest or move on. Any way you cut it, somebody gets hurt, and not only does the film not shy away from that fact, it openly embraces it as an inevitable outcome to any conclusion.

THE F WORD occupies that contemporary, comedic space where banter is king, and it surpasses many of its peers in that regard. While many have seen the relaxed editing style which Judd Apatow has introduced to the comedy community as something that has gotten out of hand, Dowse (along with his editor, Yvann Thibaudeau) knows better. At a perfect 99 minutes, the film never has a chance to overstay its welcome, and the long scenes of bickering and bantering are pitch perfect no matter who is on the court: Radcliffe and Driver, Radcliffe and Kazan, Mackenzie Davis and Driver, Megan Park and Radcliffe, Park and Kazan… You get the picture. If there is one single thing that this film does flawlessly correct, it is the casting. Every actor is unique, memorable, and given ample room to play and shine. Every line gets a laugh from every character, and that is a rare and special thing.

Ultimately, THE F WORD is one of the sweetest, funniest films of the year, and a showcase for all of the talent involved: Park and Davis both have great careers ahead of them, Kazan is well on her way to being a household name and Radcliffe proves that he can shake the Potter legacy and forge a path all his own – one with legitimate staying power. And Michael Dowse continues to impress, elevating himself from one of the best Canadian comedy directors to one of the best period.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

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I Would’ve Followed You to the End: Edgar Wright’s THE WORLD’S END

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This review contains SPOILERS.

Once you’ve reached a certain point in life, everybody knows Gary King. Maybe he’s a friend. Maybe he’s a distant acquaintance. Hell, maybe he’s you. But he’s a real person, and he’s one of those rare breeds who manages to stir up a whole host of conflicted, complex and mixed emotions. Is he to be revered for his hedonistic and worry-free lifestyle? Pitied for his inability to let go of the past? Some awkward, indescribable mixture of the two?

Where you fall on this issue is almost certainly a matter of personal identity. The Gary King archetype is something of an agent of chaos, but more importantly, he is a mirror, reflecting one’s own personality back onto the self. He tells us more about who we are than who he is. How we feel about Gary King is directly related to how we feel about ourselves: the reverent are those in denial, the pitying those with perspective (though perhaps not complete perspective) and the conflicted those still grappling with certain indecisions in their own life.

And this is how Edgar Wright drops us into the final instalment in his Cornetto Trilogy, the aptly-titled THE WORLD’S END: among a group of childhood friends, all brought back together by The King in order to lay all their cards on the table. When Gary (Simon Pegg) – alpha-male extraordinaire and epitome of stuck-in-high-school scoundrel – reappears in the lives of his friends after a decade of no contact, he suggests (forces, rather) that they return to their hometown. The goal? To complete the Golden Mile, the pub crawl to end all pub crawls – one which they failed to complete on the last day of high school some twenty years earlier.

Though Gary’s initial motivations are entirely selfish, his mere presence at the core of this group of estranged friends is as revealing of them as it is of him. All of them are at fairly static points in their lives: Andy (Nick Frost) is a buttoned-up businessman, Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a respectable realtor, Steven (Paddy Considine), a recent divorcee, dating a girl half his age, and Peter (Eddie Marsan), who lives a quiet life with his wife and children. Gary’s existence is a mystery: nobody has seen or spoken to him in years, they’re not entirely sure what he’s doing with his life, and nobody seems to really be asking. His past (possibly present) drug problems are an implied (occasionally explicitly implied) issue, and his vagabond-esque demeanour suggests that they really don’t need to ask what he’s been up to – it’s almost certainly nothing good.

But the allure of one last chance to reunite with old companions at the turn of middle age is too strong to ignore. There’s resistance, certainly, but not as much as you’d expect; it doesn’t take long for Gary to convince his old friends to join him on this latest, maybe final, adventure. Wright (along with co-writer Pegg) is smart enough not to spin this setup with too much optimism or positivity: when we meet Gary, his desperation is obvious. Though it’s all played for subtle laughs, there’s nothing particularly encouraging about the situation. Gary’s tragic fixation on the past is less funny than sad, and his friends see it just as clearly as we do: he drives the same car, listens to the same mixtape he’s had in his tape deck for two and a half decades and dons the same duster he’s worn since the ’80s. Here is a man who is stuck deeply in the past, and he is both exciting and pitiable in equal measures.

The first 45 minutes of THE WORLD’S END is pitch-perfect. Wright continues to display his incredible kineticism as a filmmaker, and his storytelling abilities are first rate. The premise is something that is completely identifiable for anybody of a certain age, and it plays out with elegant simplicity: upon arriving in their old hometown, Gary expects everything to be just like he left it. He parades around town in a shot-for-shot recreation of the early scenes we saw of the group as friends, expecting people from twenty years ago to recognize and revere the legendary King. But this isn’t the case. Nobody seems to remember him, and as his absurd expectations for the recreation of the crawl become increasingly apparent, his friends become less willing to enable his troubling behavior. With each passing moment, it becomes more obvious that the great Gary King is floundering.

But then, things change. It’s at this point in the film that Wright, with absolutely zero warning, shifts the entire story. Just as Gary has reached his lowest point and his friends have resolved to abandon their hedonistic crusade, he makes an incredible discovery: the town has been overrun by some sort of extraterrestrial force who has swapped all of the inhabitants with robotic versions of themselves.

The shift is jarring, and is quite possibly the film’s greatest weakness. Unlike his previous films, there’s no feeling here that Wright has been carefully bread-crumbing his way towards the big reveal. Instead, the change in genre and story is more of a product of thematic extension, and proves that THE WORLD’S END is much more of an internal film than any of the filmmaker’s preceding works. Though that kind of ambitious storytelling is commendable, it would have been nice to split the difference a little bit more. Nevertheless, the development brings along with it a host of new ideas and character developments.

THE WORLD’S END is really two films merged into one: a classic story about men who are stuck in the past (even if they don’t realize it), and a throwback to old paranoia science-fiction films from the Cold War era. The juxtaposition is not as random as you might think. Though the initial clash between the two is certainly a bit off-putting, it becomes increasingly apparent throughout the film just how perfect a union the pair make. Wright beautifully captures the (now-antiquated) feeling of identity loss which was a natural product of films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and INVADERS FROM MARS, and he combines it not with the warring political ideologies of that era, but rather with a more universal and complex notion: that identity loss is not just some external thing that can be forced on a person. It can also be an internal thing.

Maybe it is as simple a parallel as High School vs. The “Real World” and The “American Way” vs. conflicting and threatening ideologies (and Gary’s continuous pleas for freedom are certainly verification of this), but maybe not. Maybe it’s something more than that. Gary is trapped in a place where his way of life is being threatened by the expectations, responsibilities and dangers of the real world, sure. But it isn’t just the new ideologies of age that are expecting Gary to change – it’s the paralyzing knowledge that there is no going back. This isn’t a war. This isn’t a situation where Gary is in constant and direct battle with an opposing ideology that could threaten his way of life. His way of life is over. Communism won. He’s nostalgic for capitalism, and he tries to recapture it in menial and pathetic ways, but it’s long gone, and he knows it.

The Cold War-era of science-fiction films was all about fending off invading forces, ones which threatened the very way that we exist and live our lives. There were always replicants and fabricants and replacements of all of the people that you knew and loved. It wasn’t just an external force; it was a creeping sickness, something which burrowed its way into your very being, distorting the things you held dear and transforming them into something unrecognizable, terrifying and often cruel. It wasn’t enough to know that one day this alien force would come to claim you – it had to take everything from you first. It had to steal away the identity of your friends and family before it came for you. And there was nothing scarier than losing your identity.

And this is where THE WORLD’S END succeeds with flying colors. It may stumble a bit on its way into the genre, but once it gets there, it lays its cards bare for all to see. Gary King lives a life in a post-war world. His people, his way of life, has failed. Some of his friends were body snatched before they ever re-entered Newton Haven: Peter, who settled down and started a family, is already gone. He shows sparks of life once he starts to drink – he’s perhaps the most susceptible to the charms of Gary, maybe the most in obvious need of a little return to the old way of life. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Peter which Gary once knew has already succumbed to this brave new world. The same goes for Oliver. His stiff, business-like attire and lifestyle are in direct opposition to his old personality. It’s appropriate that these two characters are the only two to “turn”. Try as he might, Gary can’t bring them back. He may have hope that they can be saved, but their succumbing to this new way of life is inevitable.

It’s interesting to note that both Andy and Steven retain their “humanity”. While Steven’s divorce leaves him free to venture back into the way of life which Gary cherishes so much, Andy’s situation is more complicated. His fellowship with Oliver and Peter’s new-world personas is nothing more than a facade. In reality, his family has left him. He is fighting with all of his might to resist the pull back towards Gary’s world, but the truth is that he is right back where he started, stumbling around, looking for his own feet in the night alongside The King. And so he survives the transformation process, “saved” by the destruction of his own adult world.

This conclusion brings us down an interesting path. We are shown countless times that Gary’s stubborn resistance to letting go is not something to be celebrated – it’s a sad, deeply upsetting reality. It’s the kind of thing that everybody copes with at some point in their lives, and Gary’s embodiment of it is the most extreme version of that trauma. And yet, the ultimate message at the end of the film isn’t to punish Gary’s pitiable behavior – it’s a (temporary) moment of triumph. In the end, when faced with the choice to either save the world by embracing this new, “adult” way of life, or to doom humanity to darkness by retaining our freedom, our heroes choose the latter. Is that a happy ending? Do we inevitably march to our deaths, embracing the things that were important to us at the cost of civilization, growth and maturity? Or do we “grow up”, letting the world live on for the sake of mechanical progress? The movie doesn’t really land on one side or the other.

More than anything else, however, this is a film about the nature of scars – physical, emotional, figurative, etc. Like everybody else in the world, all of our heroes suffer from scars. Peter’s are figurative: the old wounds of being bullied and neglected as a kid. Steven’s are emotional: the long-remembered pain of a broken heart and the betrayal of a friend over a girl. Oliver’s are literal: a birth mark which denotes his placement in the group as the object of ridicule. And Andy’s are physical: the scars of a car crash which ended the best relationship he would ever have in his life – his friendship with Gary.

Wright embraces these scars and makes them the focal point of his heroes’ journeys, using them to show just how similar in reality they are to Gary. All of them are forced to confront these scars at some point throughout the film. Peter allows his scars to consume him, seeking revenge and ultimately succumbing to the alien forces as a result. Steven must confront the girl of his dreams, as well as how it has always stood as a wedge between himself and Gary. All of these characters are stuck in the past, just like Gary. They are haunted. And whereas Gary seems to be the only character to embrace and explore his wounds, the others run from them, forcing them to the surface, where they must ultimately be confronted.

This is where Wright’s use of Cold War tropes plays perfectly into the themes of the film. The “blanks” / robots / no-bots / whatever ya wanna call ’ems are pure expressions of their host – blank slates. It’s an old trope which goes back all the way to the ’50s, but Wright finds a new use for it here. Because truth be told, every one of these characters have reason to embrace a blank slate. They all have a reason to choose an option where their scars can be wiped clean, and they can start over fresh – at a cost. And while some of them do – though not, ultimately, by choice – the ultimate message of the film seems to be this: our scars are what make us human, and though the past may be the past, to ignore its importance to our present existence is to reject our own humanity. Which brings us, in the end, to Gary King.

Gary King is an incredible character. He is, without question, the most compelling and heartbreaking in the entire Cornetto Trilogy. His fear of losing his identity to the shifting ideologies of age and, more importantly, his fear that he has lost the most important thing in his life – his friends – consume him. The revelation that this entire adventure is a product of a suicide attempt sheds new light on the character. The scars he bears on his wrists are just like the scars of all the other characters: a product of his inability to let go of the past, and the way in which he is unable to cope. While the rest of our heroes choose to run from the past because of this inability, Gary’s path is a facade: he obsesses over it and allows it to consume him, something which is even more damaging than denial. When he screams that the Golden Mile is all that he has left, you believe him.

Pegg’s performance here is nothing less than stunning. It’s the performance of his career, bar-none, and he rises to every challenge that both he and Wright laid in front of him. The scene where he reveals the full nature of his trauma is earth-shakingly realistic, a brutal and powerful moment of devastating humanity. And when he chooses to destroy his robotic self rather than succumb, to accept his scars wholeheartedly rather than seek an escape from them (something which he has been trying to do for twenty years by living in the past), it is the most triumphant moment in the film. While this may be the most fully realized, dynamic and all-in-all excellent set of performances in any of the Cornetto Trilogy, Pegg stands apart as a highlight. Even Nick Frost’s refreshing straight-man routine can’t compete. At times eclectic, hilarious, dark and moving, Pegg turns in one hell of a performance.

THE WORLD’S END may be the least funny of the Trilogy, and it may be the most flawed (the transition into genre is not as smooth here, and its ending is less elegantly set up than in the incomparable HOT FUZZ), but it wins so many points for depth, complexity and emotional punch that it renders all problems moot. Only time will tell whether this is the best of the Cornettos, but as it stands, it’s one of the best of the summer.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Of Hippos and Meerkats: Neill Blomkamp’s ELYSIUM

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Let’s face it: Neill Blomkamp is a man of great expectations. The young filmmaker was plucked out of obscurity by Peter Jackson in the wake of several impressive commercials and short films, and ever since then, he’s been on the radar of seemingly every big-budget, genre franchise in Hollywood. After his attempt at a live-action HALO feature fell through (in spite of Jackson’s collaborative efforts), he went on to direct the celebrated DISTRICT 9, a movie which landed him Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the Academy Awards. He has since gone on to turn down offers to helm the latest instalments of both the STAR TREK and STAR WARS universes. Not too shabby for a kid from Johannesburg.

So, when it became clear that Blomkamp was far more interested in telling his own stories than in playing in somebody else’s sandbox, expectations mounted again. Here was another fresh face for the genre community, one determined to tell original stories. It’s a sad fact that this has become a rare treat these days, but it’s the harsh truth of the current Hollywood climate: big-budget, genre pics don’t often get made anymore if they’re not based on existing properties.

Enter ELYSIUM, Blomkamp’s long-awaited, sophomore follow-up to DISTRICT 9. Less allegorical than the content would have you believe, ELYSIUM drops us into the year 2154, where Earth has become a diseased, polluted and wildly overpopulated wasteland. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to take a look at this desolated landscape and see a kernel of truth at its core – population trends for our planet have become increasingly prevalent in contemporary fiction (notably, not just in science-fiction), and we’re reaching a boiling-over point. What happens when we’ve used up all our resources on our own planet, and yet have done little in the way of extraterrestrial colonization?

The answer Blomkamp arrives at is a simple, elegant and perfectly logical one: our class divides would effectively segregate the population even further, necessitating an entirely new habitat for the upper-class – one which does not associate itself with the desolation it has the means to ignore. And so we present the Have-Nots, left alone on Earth to their poverty, famine and general slum-based existence, and the Haves, wallowing in idyllic splendour, up in the titular space station orbiting Earth. The wealthy seem to spend their time doing one of two things: dressing up in pretty clothes in order to entertain guests, or dressing up in skimpy clothes to catch a few poolside rays.

It’s not the most original premise, but it is one that is fundamentally sound and is a relative hotbed for social commentary – something which Blomkamp proved himself adept at with the Apartheid-laced segregation of his debut. It’s the kind of concept that would find itself fitting comfortably alongside latter-year versions of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS or even from the original run of STAR TREK.

Wisely, however, Blomkamp doesn’t seem overly concerned with banging the social reform drum too loudly. Sure, the film has its share of left-wing (maybe even socialist) interpretations, but they seem less an intended message than a natural product of the narrative. In a story with a class system divided so deliberately, having the lower-class rise up against their oppressors isn’t the equivalent of having a political agenda; it’s simply the only logical place the story can go, because history has proven to us time and time again that this is the only possible outcome of segregated classes. Blomkamp uses this premise as a jumping-off point to tell his story, but doesn’t linger too long on any one “message”. After all, our hero isn’t a revolutionary leader or a great resistance fighter – he’s just a selfish, troubled man who uses whichever side of the political landscape that will offer him the momentary advantage.

And that’s where ELYSIUM succeeds. It would have been much too easy for Blomkamp to set up Max (Matt Damon) as a political idealist. And if he had, then any and all criticisms about agendas might have been valid. But he doesn’t paint him as an idealist. He paints him as a normal, humble man; one who has felt and lost love and has made more than his fair share of mistakes in his past, but is ultimately a good person. He’s selfish, and he worries about his own needs, but he has a good heart, and he plays the cards he’s dealt. Max is not a hero. But he is our only protagonist, and a fairly realistic one at that. It’s not difficult to imagine that, given the circumstances under which he finds himself, we might also do the things which Max resorts to in order to just live his life – a life which is fundamentally unfair and troubled by injustices. His navigation of the political landscape is completely dependent on what he needs for himself and the people that he cares about, and nothing more. As those needs change and shift over the course of the film, his allegiances change and shift as well.

But truth be told, ELYSIUM’s major strengths do not lie in its story. Though it is perfectly functional, its characters arcs and motivations clear and distinct, it is not exactly the most compelling or unique narrative. It’s fairly easy to know where the story is going early on in the film. Luckily, that slight predictability is not enough to keep you from enjoying how the film unfolds, and that’s largely due to a few stellar factors that allow the film to retain its originality and creativity.

The first is Sharlto Copley. ELYSIUM’s cast is (mostly) made up of good performances which help ground the occasional silliness: Damon does a great job, William Fichtner (John Carlyle) is terrific (as always) but tragically underused and Wagner Moura (Spider) has a blast with his eccentric arms-dealer / political leader. The rest of the cast is fine – with the notable exception of Jodie Foster, whose performance is a unique and powerful misfire – but Copley comes out on top with his deliciously hammy Kruger character.

ELYSIUM has its share of over-the-top sensibilities, and Blomkamp knows it. When it comes to depicting the upper-class characters, the actors all share a very particular diction pattern – one which is nearly melodic in its overly-deliberateness. It’s almost as if Blomkamp ordered his upper-class-level actors to take the snottiest, most blatantly-defined diction and assume that would be how these rich folk of the 22nd century would speak. It works for some characters (like Fichtner, who manages to make it sound almost robotic, something which lends itself perfectly to his bureaucratic character), but not for others (like Foster, where it can at times be painful to watch). It’s an interesting choice, and it shows that Blomkamp is willing to let his actors have a little fun with their roles.

But nowhere is this more obvious than with Copley’s Kruger, the renegade operative living down on Earth. He’s absurd, he’s ridiculous, and he’s wonderfully entertaining to watch. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Copley – who played the clean-cut Wikus in DISTRICT 9 – let loose in a role like this, where rape, murder and a hilariously mysterious cloak I can only assume he found in a dumpster are all part of the job description. His delivery is perfectly absurd, and he seems to relish every word. And does a rogue sleeper agent who has been biologically enhanced with technology really need to carry a sword? Of course not, but it’s all part of the fun.

The second factor is Blomkamp’s impeccable – at times arresting – visual style. Though there are plenty of gorgeous images in this film, it’s the inventiveness of the imagery that really transcends. Several of the shots in the final action sequence are almost Edgar Wright or Zack Snyder-esque, with speed ramps and dolly shots blurring the line between reality and CGI. In another sequence, Blomkamp somehow manages to reproduce the snorri-cam shot from a distance as he follows Damon’s character into battle. Seeing a Blomkamp film means seeing things that you probably wouldn’t get in a normal blockbuster, and that will always be refreshing, no matter the film.

Lastly, there is the world-building. One of the most important weapons in any genre filmmaker’s arsenal is his or her ability to color each world they create with new and exciting ideas, creations and situations. Blomkamp is no different. His knack for imaginative ideas is on full display here; the film sometimes feels like it is absolutely bursting at the seams with imagination. Sure, the robotic police officers are not exactly breaking new ground, but the scene between Damon and his fast food restaurant mascot-inspired parole officer is priceless. From the vast amount of individually-unique weaponry (specifically the guns, which Blomkamp seems to have a real affinity for) to the various pieces of tech (like floating, holographic screens which appear out of thin air to update citizens with necessary information), Blomkamp and his team never spend too much time explaining or pointing out any of the world’s idiosyncrasies. And the mark of a fully-realized world is when there’s so many things to see, most of them need to be glanced over as givens, rather than objects of curiosity.

ELYSIUM is a quality entry in this year’s crop of blockbusters, and a welcome return by Neill Blomkamp. It may not reach the levels of DISTRICT 9 – which, admittedly, set an unrealistically high bar – but it’s a competently-made, original sci-fi film, and that’s definitely something to be encouraged by people who have grown weary of seeing more remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spin-offs than they could shake a stick at.

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Lake Bell’s IN A WORLD…

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Lake Bell is one of those character actresses who has been popping up in small roles for the better part of the last decade. Occasionally you’d catch her as one of the protagonist’s friends, or a recurring role on a television series; sometimes she’d even appear as one of the leading ladies (like SURFACE, NBC’s science-fiction series from the mid-2000s, or Rob Corddry’s demented CHILDRENS HOSPITAL). But with IN A WORLD…, Bell finally gets a chance to steal the show out from everybody else – largely because of the fact that she wrote and directed the feature herself.

IN A WORLD… has a delightful premise: Bell, the daughter of the world’s (second) most famous voice-over narrator, finds herself as the first major female voice to become a part of the industry. It’s the kind of story that’s catered perfectly to film-lovers, which explains why it went over so well when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. It pushes all of the right buttons: cheesy movie trailers with big, melodramatic voice-overs, larger-than-life characters who live the Hollywood lifestyle (even if they’re technically out on the fringes of The Biz) and a handful of delightfully tongue-in-cheek A-list cameos. But the film also has the added bonus of tackling the story from a purely feminine point-of-view, and that is where Bell truly manages to elevate the material – almost certainly subconsciously.

Where the film shines isn’t in its jokes-per-page, nor in its realistic character arcs (though those are absolutely worth noting, because they’re both excellent). What’s most refreshing about IN A WORLD… is Bell’s voice – both literally and figuratively. It’s appropriate that a film which hinges so directly on a story about the distinction between the male and female voice should find its leading lady’s voice as its most powerful tool. From Bell’s personal brand of situational comedy to her naturalistic character dynamics, she has managed to instil this film with a very particular, feminine voice – one which is neither overly direct nor consciously stifled.

The truth is, this is a woman telling a story in her own voice, from her own perspective, and it feels both natural and refreshing. Whether it’s the simple but realistic dynamic between Bell’s Carol and her sister, Dani (played by Michaela Watkins), or the way male characters seem presented through the for-some-reason-rarely-seen “female gaze”, IN A WORLD… feels different – it feels true, and honest, and uncensored. Bell doesn’t settle for a generic voice which would make her indistinguishable from any other director, male or female; she embraces her own voice, one which just so happens to be female. It’s not ham-fisted, or overly cynical, or even particularly showy. It just is. And though many people would argue that gender politics shouldn’t come into the discussion, I personally think it’s worth both pointing out and celebrating.

It’s also important to note that Bell herself tackles the subject herself in the final act of the film, where her own views on this subject become clear. Handouts and political manipulation are not the same as true, personal success. It’s not enough to praise this film for being a female voice – it has to be worthy of praise in and of itself, no matter where it comes from. A voice is a voice, regardless of gender; its perceived quality should not be influenced by such things. Either it’s good, or it isn’t.

Luckily for IN A WORLD…, it is. The cast is absolutely perfect, from Demetri Martin’s bumbling Louis to Alexandra Holden’s good-natured but abrasive Jamie. Bell populates the film with a who’s-who of memorable character actors, including Nick Offerman (who’s been blowing up the last few years, thanks to PARKS AND REC), Rob Corddry (naturally), Fred Melamed (who steals every scene in which he appears) and more. Even the smallest roles get their chance to work a few jokes in.

The movie is funny, the pace is light and the story packs a surprisingly emotional punch. You could do far worse at the movies this summer.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: John Mitchell & Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK

future folk

John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK has been billed as (probably) the only alien / folk duo / science-fiction / action / romance / comedy movie ever made. It’s difficult to argue with that assessment, because it may be the most accurate description of the film you’re likely to find. After all, this is a movie where a duo of intergalactic space travelers come to Earth bent on its destruction, discover music and decide to spare the human race – all while developing a cult following as the bluegrass / folk duo, Future Folk.

If any (or all) of that sounds appealing to you, you’re certainly in for a treat. THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK is a silly, absurd film, but its idiosyncrasies work in its favor, creating a rare level of charm. From the delightfully catchy musical numbers – there are several – to the goofy-to-the-point-of-endearing sense of humor, it’s difficult to ever peg the film down into any one category. And at an extremely brisk 86 minutes, it never has a chance to wear out its welcome. Mitchell and Walker continuously evolve the story in new directions (and genres) over the course of the movie, and by the time we reach the finale, it never feels like it’s had a chance to repeat itself. 

It’s noteworthy that the filmmakers choose to fully stick to their guns when it comes to the premise’s absurdities. There’s a lot of camp value inherent to these kind of stories, and they never resist putting it all up there on the screen – from the set decoration to the costume design, this is an indie comedy for the DOCTOR WHO crowd. Similarly, it should be acknowledged that the film never takes the easy way out, especially given its classic “fish-out-of-water” set-up. It dabbles briefly in milking humor out of initial alien-human interactions, but it’s all in the service of character development, and it never allows itself to descend into cliché sight gags and scenarios.

The film is not perfect, however. Its narrative is unambitious, though pleasingly so, and some of the sequences have quite obviously been included in order to tick off another genre, rather than because they organically evolved out of the story. But these are small nitpicks in an otherwise delightful story, and the writer / directors earn such huge points for originality and creativity that its hard to focus in on any of them. Really, this is just a very sweet film about connecting with other people (even if those people are actually aliens), whether that connection be through music or love. And even in spite of its goofy tone, Mitchell and Walker manage to pull off a surprisingly poignant ending – one which feels fully earned and emotionally resonant.

This is one of those rare properties that is just dripping with possibility. Much like the similarly eccentric Flight of the Conchords, Future Folk have the potential to expand into all kinds of different areas. In addition to the film, there’s already an album of music available online, and – given the right level of exposure – I could see a whole cult-following springing up around them. And deservedly so.

Hondo!

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Give Them a Reason to Stay: Justin Lin’s FAST & FURIOUS 6

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Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

It’s hard to stay objective or be overly critical about certain kinds of films. Some movies are so flat out uninterested in being traditionally (and often times claustrophobically) “good” that they somehow transcend the usual evaluative criteria and become something more.

FAST & FURIOUS 6 is not one of those transcendental films. Unlike its predecessor – which reached that rare, awesome place where things get so goofy and dumb that things magically transform into sheer joy – the sixth entry in this unstoppable, car-racing-gone-heist-film franchise feels lifeless, soulless and bereft of all the fun that it had accumulated over the last few years.

Here, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew are dragged once more back into the game by the eternally-sweaty Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). Hobbs suggests the possibility of complete exoneration if our dream-team can help him take down the best racing squad / criminal organization since, well, our dream team. There’s only one catch: it turns out that Toretto’s old flame, Leddy (Michelle Rodriguez), is not quite as dead as they’d once supposed – and she’s playing for the other side.

Director-and-writer combo Justin Lin & Chris Morgan return for one more go around the track (my only car pun – I promise), now in their third straight collaboration on the franchise, and the fourth entry for Lin. By this point, they seem to have nailed the formula down to a science, and it certainly shows – everything about this film feels like a repeat of what has come before, a grab bag of early-day street races and latter-day heists. Toretto is still waxing philosophically about the importance of family. Characters are still hopping into cars for a friendly race down the street for no real reason other than audience nostalgia. And Johnson still constantly looks like he just came out of the pool.

At this point, it’s worth noting that for many people, all of those things are exactly what they want out of this franchise. The trouble is, watching Johnson fly through the air and punch somebody in the face is much less entertaining the seventeenth time you’ve seen it happen. It’s worth a chuckle, sure, but it won’t have you cheering and roaring with laughter the way it did in the last film. This film is all punchline and no setup, because the filmmakers know that they already have a built-in audience – one who, they seem to think, responds more to the big explosion than the ticking bomb.

Still, the movie isn’t a complete train-wreck, by any means. It’s just also not particularly entertaining or enjoyable either. And that’s a big problem, considering how much good will was built up with the refreshing, over-the-top pleasure that was FAST FIVE. Whereas that film had a firm self-awareness and breakneck pacing, SIX meanders along, inserting unrelated or unremarkable set pieces and plot points just for the sake of dragging up old characters, situations and plot threads – most of which are seemingly tossed in without any real effort or thought. You could feel how much fun Lin and Morgan had on FIVE – it was the cinematic equivalent of a filmmaking team throwing their hands in the air, punching it up to 11 and just having fun with the material. “Fun” is the key word there; if the duo were having fun with this installment, it doesn’t show. It should come as no surprise that Lin has finally left the franchise, and one can’t help but wonder whether he grew bored of it halfway through making this movie.

It’s clear from the get-go, however, that Lin and Morgan had only one item on the agenda for FURIOUS 6go bigger. Much bigger. And though the film takes its sweet time getting to those big, adrenaline-infused set pieces in the final act, it certainly pays off that ambition. After all, the final action sequence here is probably the biggest, loudest and most elaborate of the entire franchise. It’s an absurd but totally effective half-hour of fun, and maybe the only point in the run-time where Lin pushes himself as an action director – which, in turn, makes it feel like the only point where he’s having any fun with these characters anymore.

FAST FIVE worked because it was big, dumb fun. FURIOUS 6 fails because it goes too far with that philosophy: it’s much bigger and much dumber, and that actually takes almost all of the fun out of watching it. And once the franchise had abandoned any semblance of reality (something I’m sure many critics and fans will actually celebrate and embrace), it lost its ability to excite. When characters are actively and frequently leaping 50 feet or more without a scratch – from one car to another, no less – things stop being impressive and start getting dull. Previous installments pushed that boundary to its limits, and this one finally breaks it.

With all of that said, I’m sure fans will get a kick out it. There’s plenty of plot points which will get longtime fans excited – both in the moment and for future entries. And though the first two acts aren’t particularly exhilarating, it all ends with an entertaining bang. Sure, the dialogue is horrendous and the script is an all-out mess, but nobody goes to see these movies for the writing. They go for the fast cars, beautiful women and lots of fun. It may be lacking a bit in that last department, but it’s got just enough gas in the tank (last one, for real this time) to please fans.

6/10

d.a. garabedian

Respect the Chair: J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

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Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

Throughout J.J. Abrams’ latest foray into the world of science-fiction, a couple of phrases and ideas get repeated a noticeable number of times. Both of these remarks refer to the level of responsibility inherent to being the captain of a ship. They also happen to be at fundamental odds with our protagonist’s natural instincts.

Above all, respect the Captain’s Chair. But more importantly:

The choices you are making, if wrong, will get every single living person that you care about killed.

When we last left off with Abrams’ newly-rebooted take on the STAR TREK franchise, he had assembled himself a ragtag group of absurdly capable and entertaining explorers: Sulu (John Cho), the pilot and swashbuckler-extraordinaire, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), the accented navigator, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the talented linguist, Bones (Karl Urban), the nervous doctor, Spock (Zachary Quinto), the logical but emotionally crippled half-human and, last-but-not-least, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), the overly-eager and arrogant captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

In a move born less out of reluctant necessity than seized through self-aggrandizing delusions of destiny, Kirk assembles his crew and saves the day, proving himself worthy all in one swift stroke. But a single victory does not make a man a leader, nor does a declaration of greatness necessarily make one great.

And so, Abrams has returned to the franchise he reinvigorated with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, a bigger, bolder and ballsier crash-course in blockbuster filmmaking.

Picking up around a year after the first film, Abrams (along with screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) immediately thrusts us back into the waiting arms of the newly formulated super-team, already mid-mission. But when things go increasingly awry, Kirk is forced to improvise, violating the Prime Directive in the process – a rule under which no civilized species can intrude on the development of a less civilized, alien one.

It’s not the first rule we’ve seen the over-zealous captain break – and it certainly won’t be the last – but it’s an important reminder of Kirk’s true nature: that he thinks of himself as outside of and above the rules. Even when acting selflessly, he still believes his natural instincts and moral obligations take precedence over his other responsibilities. It’s a trait which his mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), believes he needs to have rubbed out of him. His lack of humility is not just a danger to himself and to his crew; it’s a sign that Kirk has no respect for the demands and responsibilities of a position he has barely earned. He’s not ready.

It’s an interesting twist on the standard “you’ve earned your stripes, now prove you can handle them” storyline which so many action heroes are faced with in their sophomore efforts. Kirk doesn’t fail because he broke the rules and risked the lives of his crew – he fails because he broke the rules while trying to save them from a mess he put them in in the first place. His respect and love for his crew is readily apparent, but it always comes second to his own arrogant ambitions. This isn’t a film about learning to love your family. This is a film about learning to be worthy of your family – especially when you’re the one seated in the chair at the head of the table.

All of this discussion naturally brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison. The less said about this character, the better, and I have no intention of spoiling him for you after all this time spent keeping him under wraps. He is, however, an infinitely more interesting character than Eric Bana’s Nero, and reflects the themes of the film well.

Harrison is one of those villains who mirror the hero in all of the right ways. He too is a captain, and he too would do anything for his family. His anti-authoritative (borderline terrorist-esque) tactics are aggressive and amoral, but his philosophies – and sometimes even his goals – line up pretty notably with Kirk’s. His plan seems to be fueled by passion rather than anything more insidious. He is a conflicted, relatable, ruthless monster, and his (reasonably) nuanced character makes him easy to root for and easy to misread – by both the audience and the other characters. The twisted and unexpected path down which his character travels is constantly surprising and a little bit incredible; if he wasn’t such an enigmatic force, it might seem contrived, but instead it feels honest and compelling.

And that may as well be true of the entire film, as it were. Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci have cooked up a fairly detailed, politically-charged backdrop for INTO DARKNESS. That kind of storytelling requires a lot of turns and surprises, and some of it will certainly play better with some than for others. The final hour or so is a nonstop barrage of turns, reversals, shifted alliances, militaristic strategy and uncovered truths. It might seem easy to get lost in all of the shuffling around at breakneck speeds, but Abrams nails these plot developments like they’re going out of style.

Because what’s truly impressive about INTO DARKNESS (much like STAR TREK before it) is how unbelievably effortless the entire affair feels. It takes a rare sort of filmmaker to grind such a massive project down to something so polished, it literally shines (yes – there’s more lens flare to look forward to). There are cracks in the surface here which weren’t as readily apparent in the previous installment – wasn’t Kirk’s punishment in the opening of the film washed away a little too quickly? – but it’d take a heart of stone to let them diminish your enjoyment of the sheer wonder on display here.

But lest you believe that Abrams runs this franchise like nothing more than a well-oiled but soulless machine, you can rest assured that the same levels of heart and humor which were so prominent in the first film are on full display here. It’s as consistently funny throughout as the first film (maybe even more so), all while simultaneously embracing darker, edgier and more ambitious goals. The tone never needs to shift, as the film combines both the light and dark in perfect balance. This machine’s soul is fully intact.

And that’s great news, because the men who drew this blueprint are a marvel of the technological revolution. INTO DARKNESS is as tightly structured and as breathlessly paced as the first film in just about every way. As it moves from spectacular set-piece to spectacular set-piece, it’s hard not to be impressed by how the film never relents and yet also never becomes tiresome. It’s a true testament to everybody involved that this ship just keeps blasting through space without a single hiccup.

With that being said, the film is not perfect. Its first hour, exhilarating as it is, lacks the punch that the first film delivered so powerfully throughout.  In STAR TREK, you never felt as if you could see the machinery working behind the scenes; here, however, setup feels a bit like setup, rather than plot. It’s not a serious knock against the film, and it’s not dreadfully problematic, but it’s noteworthy. And after the jaw-dropping final act, the whole thing wraps up with a bit of a dull whimper after a bang: the ending is very abrupt, and could have probably used a little breathing room.

All those nitpicks aside, however, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is another home run for Abrams and his Bad Robot team. Giacchino’s score is wonderfully bombastic as always, though maybe not as unexpectedly great as the first film. The cast all do a terrific job, as well; the main characters are forced to dig a little deeper into their characters, especially towards the end of the film. And the special effects are, as always, top-notch.

Summer blockbusters which operate on this level are a rare treat. Hopefully, once Abrams is done making a little film called STAR WARS: EPISODE VII, he comes back and finishes this trilogy off right. The franchise deserves its latest captain back in the chair, where he belongs.

8/10

d.a. garabedian