Review: THIS IS 40

January 16, 2013

2013 blog 40 poster

Given that its focus is squarely on everyday stuff like relationships with family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances, it seems fair to call Judd Apatow’s new film This is 40 a slice of life.

But given that the movie is for the most part a sloppy, sprawling mess, it’s equally fair to call it a big, unwieldy slice that may well leave viewers feeling uncomfortably stuffed but strangely unsatisfied.

I know this is meant to convey 'charming and carefree' but if you can eat cake without getting that shit everywhere I don't wanna know you

I know this is meant to convey ‘charming and carefree’, but if you can’t eat cake without getting that shit everywhere, then I don’t wanna know you

Apatow, the writer-director of hit comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, has become something of a brand name in Hollywood over the last few years.

And as is sometimes the case with such success stories, he’s looking to broaden his creative horizons and shift into something that’s perhaps a little more complicated and meaningful.

It’s a noble goal, of course, and Apatow – whose work has previously managed to combine humour and heart in some truly memorable ways – certainly appeared capable of making that transition.

But with his last film Funny People, and now with This is 40, he has fallen prey to a self-indulgence that comes close to being fatal.

Yes, Judd, I'm calling you self-indulgent. I still really love FREAKS AND GEEKS and UNDECLARED, though

Yes, Judd, I’m calling you self-indulgent. I still really love FREAKS AND GEEKS and UNDECLARED, though

There are laughs in This is 40, true, but they’re scattered sporadically throughout a story about two people it becomes harder and harder to care about as the film goes through its paces for close to two and a quarter hours.

Those people are Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), last seen as the combative in-laws of Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s characters in Knocked Up.

As they provided a bracing reality check in that film, demonstrating that family life wasn’t always a bed of roses, it seems strange that Apatow would wish to devote a whole movie to them and their passive-aggressive (and sometimes just plain aggressive) interaction.

"How'd we get ourselves into this?"

“How’d we get ourselves into this?”

That said, it’s clear that the filmmaker views these characters as surrogates for himself and his family – Mann is Apatow’s wife in real life, and the couple’s two daughters, Maude and Iris, play Pete and Debbie’s children.

Such identification doesn’t automatically make for better storytelling, though. Because all that This is 40 provides is a long, long string of loosely connected scenes about the evasive Pete and the confrontational Debbie wrestling with dilemmas ranging from financial woes to child-raising difficulties.

Various moments are sure to ring true for various viewers, sure. And a cast that includes the likes of Albert Brooks, Bridesmaids’ Melissa McCarthy and The Sapphires’ Chris O’Dowd is going to provide the occasional laugh, no doubt. (That said, the funniest cast member is actually Megan Fox, displaying a dry, precise wit as one of Debbie’s employees.)

I can relate, Megan. I had much the same look on my face for the duration of this movie

I can relate, Megan. I had much the same look on my face for the duration of this movie

But in the end, This is 40 is two hours and change stuck in the company of two people constantly taking shots at one another. It’s about as much fun as it sounds.


Review: DJANGO UNCHAINED

January 16, 2013

2013 blog django poster 2

Quentin Tarantino has been called a lot of things over the course of his 20-year career as a filmmaker but ‘socially conscious’ has probably never ranked high on the list.

That changes somewhat with Django Unchained, his violent, passionate, exuberant and angry tale of a freed slave looking to liberate his wife and take revenge on his tormentors in the American South of the 19th century.

Tarantino being Tarantino, his tangible outrage at the degradation and inhumanity of slavery is depicted in a fairly no-holds-barred manner.

A virtuoso of screen violence, he uses blood and brutality to get the audience’s pulse racing in one scene, seize it almost to a stop the next.

But while Django Unchained is a fiery, fierce and very confronting rebel yell of a movie (if you’re sensitive about racial slurs, bring earplugs), it’s also a sparkling piece of entertainment – to borrow a line from his Kill Bill movies, it’s a “roaring rampage of revenge” that’s also surprisingly moving and hilariously funny.

It begins in Texas circa 1858, with Django (Jamie Foxx), his body scarred and his spirit seemingly near broken, freed from a pair of slave traders by the cultured, articulate German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Inglourious Basterds star Christoph Waltz).

Not so much a foxtrot as a Foxx/Waltz. Oh, fine, YOU do better

Not so much a foxtrot as a Foxx/Waltz. Oh, fine, YOU do better

While he despises slavery, Schultz didn’t spring Django out of sheer goodness. He’s searching for three wanted men with a hefty price on their heads but he’s never seen their faces.

Django has, though. They’re the men who brutalised both him and his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) before separating them.

So Django and Schultz form an unlikely partnership, one that goes from business arrangement to a mentor-protege relationship as Schultz teaches Django the finer points of bounty hunting (Django proves a quick study when it comes to quick-draw gunfighting) to genuine friendship.

Their quest to find and free Broomhilda eventually leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose particular penchant for ‘mandingo’ bouts where slaves fight to the death mark him as a particularly loathsome individual.

I must confess, I did want to try one of those cocktails

I must confess, I did want to try one of those cocktails

As nasty a piece of work as Candie is, he’s not the greatest threat at the ‘Candy Land’ estate – that would be Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the shrewd slave who quickly twigs that there’s more to Django and Schultz than the two men are letting on.

See DJANGO UNCHAINED or Sam WILL judge you

See DJANGO UNCHAINED or Sam WILL judge you

Candie and Stephen are among the most vivid villains Tarantino has conjured up, and DiCaprio and Jackson are both marvellous. DiCaprio makes the most of Tarantino’s clever scripting of Candie – the man initially comes across as a pretentious buffoon, more callow and reckless than actually threatening, but when his vile, venal nature is revealed it adds a new dimension of  danger to the story.

And Jackson, better than he’s been in years, makes Stephen’s grumpy bombast and underlying caginess and cunning a formidable mix. They’re a compellingly evil and vicious pair (and share a really interesting dynamic); they’re worthy adversaries for our heroes.

And what heroes! Foxx is different from the usually Tarantino protagonist – he’s subtly steely, his pain, fury, sorrow and compassion delivered more through expression than speech.

But when that emotion is set loose, as in a thoroughly electrifying scene where Django whips the absolute shit out of one of the men who harmed and humiliated both himself and Broomhilda, it’s a force of nature, as terrifying and awe-inspiring as wildfire or a tornado. It’s amazing work.

And Waltz is a wonder as Schultz, equal parts warm-hearted romantic and cold-blooded mercenary. Gleefully wrapping his mouth around his verbose speeches (it’s a great running joke that the German has a more extensive vocabulary than any American he encounters), there’s charm to burn in his performance.

Then there’s an eclectic but carefully-chosen supporting cast of recognisable names and faces, some who only get one scene. For mine, standouts include Don Johnson (he’s like the Ghost of McConaughey Future), Justified‘s Walton Goggins and the unjustly-forgotten likes of Don Stroud and Lee Horsley.

Oh, and this guy, of course:

OD: Original Django (that's Franco Nero to you)

OD: Original Django (that’s Franco Nero to you)

Naturally, though, the true hero of Django Unchained is the man behind the camera. Tarantino is only improving as a filmmaker as time goes by, and while every movie with his name on it has something to offer Django Unchained just might be his biggest, boldest and, yes, even best to date.


Review: GANGSTER SQUAD

January 8, 2013

2013 blog gangster squad poster

Gangster Squad’s story is as old as the hills – or at least as old as The Untouchables – but brisk, vibrant direction, a muscular screenplay and the solid work of a well-chosen cast polishes up the clichés until they shine like a newly-minted coin.

The gangster-movie genre helped Hollywood studio Warner Bros make its fortune back in the early days of cinema, and this ‘50s-era tale of good guys and bad guys – inspired by a true story – is both a tribute and a throwback to their style.

In this case, the bad guy is mobster Mickey Cohen, played with feral intensity by Sean Penn. A career criminal and former boxer, he’s set up his crooked shop in Los Angeles and has no intention of shifting.

It's okay, he doesn't look quite as comic-bookish in the movie

It’s okay, he doesn’t look quite as comic-bookish in the movie

He’s ruthless enough to rip a man in two with a couple of speeding cars and connected enough to have the city’s powerbrokers in his pocket. Clearly some new tactics will be required to take him down.

Enter Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin, a dead ringer for Dick Tracy from some angles), a square-jawed straight arrow tough and brave enough to rough up a gang of Cohen’s goons singlehandedly.

With police chief Parker (Nick Nolte at his most growly) justifiably worried that Cohen is consolidating his power base, O’Mara is given the go-ahead to assemble a carte-blanche team of cops that will put the kibosh on the crim’s operation once and for all…by any means necessary.

Some good advice from his saintly wife (Mireille Enos, bringing snap and smarts to a potentially sappy role) sees O’Mara avoiding the high-end officers likely to be on the mob’s payroll and instead signing up a collection of scrappy mavericks skilled in intimidation, sharpshooting, wire-tapping and other vital talents.

Johnny Law

Johnny Law

It’s not long before the unofficial, unauthorised ‘Gangster Squad’ is making a dent in Cohen’s business. But with Cohen on the verge of putting the final pieces of his vice empire in place, he’s just as determined that he won’t be stopped.

Gangster Squad’s greatest strength is that it knows just what it is. It’s not heavily laden with subtext or even a complex storyline – it’s a straight-up crime yarn with characters that aren’t necessarily deep but are nevertheless deftly sketched and scenarios that are straightforwardly exciting, emotional or engaging.

Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and screenwriter Will Beall (a former L.A. homicide cop) do their jobs with panache, Fleischer rarely allowing his obvious yen for visual flair to get in the way of keeping the action coherent and the story moving at a steady pace, Beall giving the characters the odd interesting shading and some choice, tangy dialogue to chew on.

Brolin and Penn are well-matched adversaries, the former’s sturdy decency a good counterpoint to the latter’s irredeemable villainy (it’s refreshing to have a bad guy so unabashedly bad).

Ryan Gosling brings some nice ambiguity to O’Mara’s slightly shady second-in-command, and Emma Stone adds some smoky allure and appealing vulnerability to Cohen’s mistress, who becomes dangerously drawn to Gosling’s cop.

It's nice when two ugly ducklings can find solace with each other, huh?

It’s nice when two ugly ducklings can find solace with each other, huh?

A sleek, unpretentious step back in time, Gangster Squad is brassy, ballsy and bloody good fun.