TIFF 2013 – It’s Terrible to Be Alone Too Much: Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE

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Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE is one of the best movies of the year. Co-written by the actor / writer / director along with Avi Korine, the film is a contemporary take on Dostoyevsky’s classic novella: the story of a man (Jesse Eisenberg) who gradually finds his life being usurped by a doppelgänger. It’s classic setup, and one which we’ve seen put on the screen a number of times in the last few years alone. Yet Ayoade’s film is so stylized, so different and so tightly constructed that it manages to stand apart in a wonderfully entertaining way.

THE DOUBLE is a darkly comic, surreal nightmare. From the lighting (which is extremely high-contrast and almost noir-esque) to the claustrophobic, dirty and detailed stage design (which recalls early Terry Gilliam, most notably from BRAZIL), you know exactly what kind of movie you’re about to watch from the very first frame. Lights flickering and short-circuiting above his head, a cacophony of sounds surrounding and almost oppressing him, Eisenberg’s Simon James (counterpointed against his doppelgänger’s James Simon) sits alone on a train. Moments later, a faceless passenger appears and announces that Simon is sitting in his spot – despite the fact that every other seat in the car is empty. It’s the perfect opening to a film which relies so heavily on the idea that Simon barely exists, even before his life is taken over by James; as one character so accurately notes, he’s “not very noticeable”. He is wallpaper. He is a ghost.

Eisenberg could not have found a more perfect role(s) for himself than this. Much like Cera’s double-sided turn in YOUTH IN REVOLT, Eisenberg gets a chance to flex both muscles: the ineptly shy, cripplingly introverted Simon, juxtaposed against James’ sociable and nearly sociopathic levels of geniality are the perfect playground for Eisenberg, and he hits it out of the park at every turn. From his stutter and almost unbearable awkwardness to scary levels of extroversion, he treads the whole spectrum with ease.

Ayoade’s visuals are fully complimentary as well. This is one of those rare films that is completely and wholly realized in the best way possible. Faces are constantly obscured – by shadows, by composition, by limbs and objects. They are nearly always revealed from behind something, rather than displayed as a given. In a perfect early example, Simon – his face half-covered by his own arm – slides his face backwards in order to get a better view of a woman in the next train car. In doing so, he reveals the other side of his face, and the simple change between those hemispheres at the presence of this woman is unnerving and revealing of his character.

The film is filled to the brim with absurdist humor, again, much in the style of Terry Gilliam. The bureaucratic nightmare which is Simon’s place of employment is filled with hanging wires, pipes, 50’s-style imaginings of future computers and dimly-lit cubicles. It’s straight out of BRAZIL, sure, but it works here magnificently. Ayoade brings with him his own unique brand of dry, contemporary British humor as well, so the “jokes” come fast and hard. Dialogue exchanges are rapid-fire, each played with a perfectly subtle comedic tone, all desperately revelatory. This is the kind of film where characters openly say what they’re thinking, and the subtext beyond that is more in the abstract than in the literal. It’s all extremely surreal, like a fever dream of another world. A favorite scene involves a pair of detectives whose sole job is to investigate suicides – something which is so rampant in their city that they can barely cover Simon’s neighborhood alone. Their biting dialogue and cool indifference is more revelatory of Simon’s state of mind than of their own.

Because this is definitely a very subjective film. Everything takes place through the eyes of Simon, and it’s hard to know how much of it is a manifestation of his own disturbed mind or whether or not this is just how this world operates. His love-interest / girl that he is obsessed with, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), even seems to share agency with him. Though she’s clearly on her own path, the way she moves and speaks seem more of a twisted version of reality, filtered through Simon’s off-centered eyes.

The film understandably explores interesting ideas about identity, individuality and other themes which are common to this kind of story, but the true strength of THE DOUBLE isn’t in the story itself – it’s in the way the story is told. Ayoade and his crew have crafted a wonderfully unique and memorable film, and everybody involved brings their A-game. Everything about it is dense, layered, funny, compelling and thought-provoking. It deserves repeat viewings and thorough analysis, something which is rare to see these days. See it as soon as possible.

[A+]

d.a. garabedian

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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

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

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

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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

Micro-Review: Colin Trevorrow’s SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

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SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is exactly the film that you think it is, and that can either be perceived as a positive or negative thing, depending on where you stand. It’s predictable, certainly, but it’s also endearingly heartfelt and poignant, and that’s really what saves the film from falling into the bitter entrapments of so many other indie dramedies.

The film – which comes from newcomers Colin Trevorrow behind the camera and Derek Connolly on the page – is a fast, tightly constructed love story with a few high-concept trimmings to keep things fresher than your usual mumblecore fare. Thrusting the audience into the story almost immediately, Trevorrow wastes absolutely no time in getting right to the heart of the plot: a man, who has taken out an ad in a local magazine, is seeking a co-conspirator with which he might travel back in time.

The story is delightfully absurd, and though the filmmakers obviously have no interest in delving into actual science-fiction territory, there is also a clear interest in the thematic weight of the passage of time. Unfortunately, as soon as it becomes apparent that this film is a character study rather than a heady, existentialist story, it also becomes immediately apparent where the story is going to go. Characters in parallel stories bounce off of one another thematically, all learning a valuable lesson about the fleetingness of time. It’s all a bit safe, but nobody can fault the filmmakers for their lack of earnestness.

Still, the casting is spot on, and it’s the actors who elevate the film above its safe territory. Aubrey Plaza (who is basically playing a similar role to the one that she always does), is really coming into her own as the go-to, cynically apathetic young voice of a generation, and the script finally gives her a chance to stretch her limits in the final act of the film – which, thankfully, she handles admirably. Alongside her is the ever-charming Jake Johnson who, again, plays a virtually identical character to the one he’s fast becoming known for (they might as well have named him Nick here, too). Not that this is a complaint; he’s still as funny as ever, and he handles the majority of the comedy beats throughout with the kind of reckless awkwardness that he does so well. Relative newcomer Karan Soni also does a great job with the small role the film asks of him.

Luckily, Mark Duplass crafts a compellingly abstract character in Kenneth, the would-be time-traveller. Duplass has a tendency to gravitate towards roles in films like this (as both he and his brother are both well-known directors in the mumblecore movement, and this is well within his comfort zone), but Kenneth gives him a chance to do something a little different with the role, and the occasional cracks in his smug facade are a welcome change of pace for the actor.

Where the film really shines, however, is in the final half hour. The pleasant but I’m-already-forgetting-it-as-I’m-watching-it nature of the first hour aside, Trevorrow and Connolly do a really excellent job of hammering down the poignancy in the final act, giving the story some much-needed adrenaline and bringing it to a solid close. The film has some touching statements to make about the relationships we forge and the “pain of an old wound” (to quote a little Don Draper) which can be both irresistible and dangerous, but it all feels just a little “been there, done that”. That being said, a pair of scenes certainly do shine brightly: one, where Plaza and Duplass discuss – with disarming accuracy – the hollowness of unattainable, past moments (“It’s that time, and it’s that place, and it’s that song…”), and another with a song around a campfire.

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is a light, enjoyable film, but little else. And though it does well enough in establishing themes which it carries across multiple story-lines to their logical conclusions, everything feels a bit too safe to be as effective as the film thinks they are. But there’s nothing wrong with a little light fare now and again, is there?

7/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Judd Apatow’s THIS IS FORTY

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Judd Apatow has, over the last decade, nearly singlehandedly changed the way that comedies operate in Hollywood. Alongside his braintrust of comedic personalities and talent (similar to J.J. Abrams and the Bad Robot family), the filmmaker has continuously surprised and upset the notion of qualitative, adult-oriented, mainstream comedies. And over the course of his last couple of films (specifically on the wildly underrated, misunderstood and ambitious cancer drama about comedians, FUNNY PEOPLE), he has continued to push the limits of what is acceptable in the genre.

Sadly, things don’t quite reach those heights on his latest offering, THIS IS FORTY. A meditation on, well, aging, FORTY shows that Apatow has thankfully chosen to willfully ignore the complaints that peppered the reception of FUNNY PEOPLE: the film is still very long for its genre (at about 133 minutes), its plot meanders even more so than the schizophrenic / borderline-episodic PEOPLE and his lax-to-put-it-mildly pacing is more apparent than ever.

None of which should be construed as too much of a knock against the film, either. Apatow’s deliberate editing style and his method of simply allowing a scene to play out until it strikes some absurd (sometimes absurdly humanist and realistic) core is as welcome as ever, and it’s a delight to see that in spite of all the bellyaching, he refuses to waver on this edgy brand of emotional comedy. Because if there is one thing that Apatow understands about his films, it’s that if you populate a film with enough funny actors, give them realistically poignant material and simply leave the cameras on for them to riff in front of, you will eventually reach some hidden truth about the scene. There is no greater satisfaction from the world of comedy than seeing Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real-life wife), Paul Rudd (a Hollywood stand-in for his own place in the family unit) and Mann and Apatow’s real-life kids Maude and Iris simply existing on the screen for all to see. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that will work for everybody (as it almost evokes a kind of neo-realist brand of comedy), but for the filmmaker’s oft-kilter form of familial characterizations, it hits all the right marks.

But what really hurts the film is the (possibly intentional) lack of story. Though neo-realist comparisons might seem more apt than ever when talking about FORTY’s script, it’s glaring in a rather unwelcoming way here. In spite of Apatow’s unique ability to drill to the heart of every scene, beat and sequence, there is a distinct lack of momentum and forward propulsion to the story. Again, this might be an intentional commentary on the inherently meandering landscape of middle-aged living, but it comes across as less than satisfying on film. The movie is never boring, however, and it’s often extremely funny; it just also happens to be a film wherein not much happens and there don’t seem to be much in the way of stakes or, worse, resolutions to those stakes. This might be missing the point of the story entirely, but whereas PEOPLE seemed to have self-assured purpose in its explorative narrative, FORTY seems to be content with casual, indifferent meditation.

Apatow also wisely uses the music industry as an appropriately insightful vehicle towards comparing generations – luckily, beyond the obvious generational taste gap. Unfortunately, this idea is not explored to its full potential: apart from some generation-skipping music talk and pop-culture dichotomies, he never really gets into the meat of how traditional ideas about the economics of popular culture and art parallel middle-age. The most interesting part of the film is undoubtedly Rudd’s job as the head of an independent record label, and more focus on this particular plot would have done the movie a lot of favours in finding more cohesion.

Thankfully, Apatow populates his “semi-sequel” with a smorgasbord of delightfully hilarious actors, and even a few returning faces – even Megan Fox turns in a solid performance as Desi, though the fact that she’s half-naked for a quarter of her scenes didn’t exactly hurt either. A deep, sincere laugh is never far away at any moment during the film’s runtime, even in the middle of some of the dramatic fare towards the end.

But fair warning: if you haven’t finished the entire run of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s LOST (and / or care about such things), there is a recurring, significant plot point based entirely around the end of the show, and the film spoils the final season completely. Though the plot uses the show as a cleverly-veiled meditation on the nature of mortality, I could certainly see its inclusion upsetting the spoiler-phobic.

Though it’s Apatow’s weakest film overall, THIS IS FORTY shows that the director has no interest in regressing from the more experimental filmmaking style he has adopting, and that’s certainly an encouraging fact. For some good laughs and plenty of emotional poignancy to boot, you could do worse.

7/10

What Kind of Bird Are You: Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM

For his seventh feature, Wes Anderson returns to live action – after the glorious detour into stop-motion animation that was FANTASTIC MR. FOX – with this whimsical little fairy tale, MOONRISE KINGDOM. Set on a sparsely populated, tiny little island (only 16 miles across with no paved roads), the film takes a loving stab at the romance between two twelve-year old outsiders, Suzy and Sam, as they run away; not necessarily from their problems – which they certainly have – but more so simply for the sake of running. This is the kind of film that revels in the idea that amongst all of the rigidity of life, there are still adventures to be sought out, found and enjoyed. And though there is a touch of melancholy sprinkled generously throughout the proceedings (in some cases, the story takes some surprisingly dark turns), Anderson never stops to abandon the general air of whimsy and excitement that follows these two (moderately) tortured souls.

What’s most impressive about MOONRISE KINGDOM is how unequivocally Anderson the film feels; after all, you have to have one hell of a unique visual style in order to transcend the medium itself and still be recognizable. Whether he’s doing stop-motion animation or live-action film-making, the visuals in a Wes Anderson movie are undeniably his own. Appropriately, large sections of MOONRISE – particularly the first act – feel almost as if we are gazing into a living, breathing diorama. Anderson’s sleek use of deep-focus on a flat, static image – almost as if the screen were itself a window through which we are gazing – is on full display here, and make for some absolutely breathtaking visuals. And as Suzy and Sam slowly make their way away from the mundane existence that they are trapped within at the beginning of the film, the photography begins to open up; while the interior of Suzy’s house is never framed in any way except for in delightful, dollhouse-esque images and Sam’s camp (led by Scout Master Ward, played spectacularly by Ed Norton, who brings just the right level of emotion and playfulness to the role) is practically an assembly line of singular, vertically-staged incidents, the great wide open of their wilderness adventure is free and uncontrolled. Anderson even sneaks in a little handheld camera work to really demonstrate the contrast between the two.

Indeed, Anderson and his entire production team must once again be commended for not only the beautiful cinematography, but also the impeccable production design: MOONRISE is nothing if not scene after scene of perfectly framed images amongst elegantly designed stages. If there was any director working today who I wish would take up the torch from Scorsese and bring a subtle use of 3D to their films, it would be Wes Anderson. These perfect little shoebox-sets, so exquisitely crafted and shot, are the perfect medium for the filmmaker to demonstrate the value of the 3D window – especially since he already shoots with depth and suggested, static three-dimensionality.

The cast is wonderful. The kids, played by newcomers Kara Hayward (Suzy) and Jared Gilman (Sam), do a terrific job of both demonstrating the quirkiness of Anderson’s vision and the emotional damage that these two characters have suffered. Their chemistry is undeniable, awkward and adorable in all of the right ways: just two kids discovering love for the first time, experimenting with the idea of sensuality and adventure more than experiencing it firsthand. And while they have lived idly by in (separate) worlds where uniqueness is discouraged and even something as silly as the Khaki Scouts of North America can be treated with drill sergeant style brutality, the idea of venturing out on their own to find adventure – something they dream of; both Sam and Suzy claim “going on adventures” to be the thing they want to do when they grow up – is something that they cannot deny any longer. Thus begins their tiny, insignificant quest, following in the footprints of the local native tribe, looking for some kind of escape from normalcy; and would be treated as such, had the rest of the characters not treated their mild infraction as something far more dramatic.

Therein lies the most interesting point of the story. Although our two heroes are treated as different and “emotionally disturbed” by the rest of the characters – both young and old – they are not alone in their desire for drama and adventure: as Sam “tunnels” his way out of his tent and the dogs are called (literally), every parent, Khaki scout and policeman in sight gives chase, practically reveling in the idea that something exciting could actually happen in this desolate place. The kids, taught to take on the utmost seriousness in their duties by Scout Master Ward (never just Ward), give chase in violent and hilarious fashion, brandishing homemade weapons in their pursuit of “the fugitives”. At the end of the day, everybody wants to play Cowboys and Indians – some just take it more seriously than others, to varying degrees of emotional and psychological complexity. And when Suzy repeatedly claims that people often tell her that she “goes berserk”, it isn’t because her sense of adventure is wrong, it’s just that it’s intense; the equivalent of the kid who throws a rock in a dirt clod fight, taking things just a bit too far when they’re caught up in the moment. Every kid likes to play at violence – some just can’t quite find the social line.

Also interesting is the adult cast, which is varied and wonderful: Bruce Willis as a sad police officer, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray as Suzy’s lawyer parents and Tilda Swinton as a necessarily cold social service officer (even Jason Schwartzman makes a last-minute appearance as a head Scout at “Fort Lebanon”, a link between the adults and the kids). All of them play surprisingly dark, sad characters in direct contrast to the pluck and spirit of all of the kids; who, regardless of which side their on, still believe in the game they’re playing. There is no line more telling in the entire film than when McDormand leans over to Murray in his adjacent bed (they don’t share one) and mutters, “We’re all they have”. And Murray responds with the only thing he can: “It’s not enough”. These adults, categorically judging their children as troubled and disturbed, are much worse than the kids are, and they know it. What these kids need isn’t just the jaded, troubled concern of their emotionally problematic parents – they need each other, and they need that more than anything else in the world.

Still, in spite of the dark undertones, MOONRISE KINGDOM is a delightfully quirky and fun time at the movies. And though the final act sort of goes a bit crazy with the fantastical and adventurous undertones of the story – becoming one rather than just riffing on the psychology of one – it’s still an absolute blast with a lot of laughs. The children are pitch-perfect, the emotions are true and story is heartfelt. Another victory for Wes Anderson.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian