Sean K. Cureton

Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Apatow’s First and Only Truly Bad Film

In Movie Reviews: 2012 on December 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Theatrical Poster

This is 40
Directed by Judd Apatow
2 out of 4 stars

This is 40, the fourth film written and directed by Judd Apatow, is a sequel to Apatow’s 2007 film Knocked Up in the same way that Get Him to the Greek in 2010 was a sequel to Jason Segel’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008. Namely, each subsequent film borrowed part of the supporting cast from its respective initial film in order to make a film about that said part of the supporting cast. Unfortunately, as was the case with Get Him to the Greek, which proved just how tiresome Russell Brand’s sense of humor can be, Apatow’s This is 40 fails to measure up to its brilliant predecessor, turning the characters Pete and Debbie from comic foils to comic failures.

Set around the respective 40th birthdays of the two title characters, Pete and Debbie played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, This is 40 tells the story of this couple’s trials and tribulations as a married couple with kids dealing with a mid-life crisis. In addition to the tension created by their age, Pete and Debbie are also beset by financial difficulties, a worrisome daughter, and two difficult fathers who are either too clingy (Pete’s dad, played by Albert Brooks) or too closed off (Debbie’s dad, played by John Lithgow). Ultimately, Pete and Debbie come out of the film alright, or at least as alright as they can be given the fact that there is no indication that they will ever stop fighting or being downright mean and irresponsible towards anyone that they don’t live or work with, which is just what makes this film so flawed and hard to watch.

Where Apatow’s prior films have been about crude and immature adults, those films have also maintained a grain of respect for other people and a certain genuine sweetness in those films’ main characters and protagonists. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone is a pot addled man child with no means of even comprehending how to take care of a child, yet he is also genuinely sweeter than his stooge roommates, and comes out of the film ready and willing to take care of his new wife and child. In 2005’s The 40 Year Old Virgin, vulgar adult humor abounds throughout the film, and most of the supporting characters are immoral and immature. Yet Steve Carell as the protagonist is kind and tenderhearted, and provides for the film’s moral center that allows for the vulgar humor to become a subtle satire of male licentiousness rather than being simply tasteless and sophomoric.

In This is 40, however, Pete and Debbie belittle others for laughs from the audience, whine seemingly about not much at all, and come off as mean and unworthy of the audience’s attention or sympathy. In particular, there is a scene in the film where Debbie berates and emotionally tortures a young boy because he insulted Debbie’s daughter online. This sequence is meant to be funny, with Mann displaying her ability to riff and improvise off of the script, yet it comes off as simply cruel and plays off of one’s worst impulses. Worse yet, the boy’s mother, who Pete then insults in a possibly worse manner than his wife insulted the mother’s child, is ignored in her pleas with the school’s principal while Pete and Debbie lie through their teeth and smirk malevolently.

Screenwriter and former creative partner of Judd Apatow, Mike White, recently made a public comment on Apatow’s more recent work, remarking on how Apatow’s films have come to be about the bullies where they were previously about the bullied. Such a statement seems apt when considering Apatow’s new film, which derives much of its humor from cruelty and bullying, and offers no character with which one can identify or sympathize with. This is not to say, however, that all of the film’s scenes don’t work or are mean-spirited unanimously. On the contrary, a lot of the film is laugh-out-loud funny, with the same kind of cultural sensibility and awareness that has come to define Apatow’s films over the past decade. In fact, if Apatow had possibly edited the film a little further, with the possible addition of a few more scenes and the reordering of existing ones, This is 40 might have been a completely different film, a film that would have been more genuine and kinder, like the films that Apatow certainly has in him, and was probably trying to replicate in this film. Unfortunately though, This is 40 was not subjected to any further editing, and as it stands, it is the weakest film in Apatow’s film oeuvre by far, for more reasons than one.


Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy off to a Good but Beleaguered Start

In Movie Reviews: 2012 on December 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Theatrical Poster

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson
3 out of 4 stars

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first film in a planned trilogy to be released over the next three years based on the classic and beloved J.R.R. Tolkien novel The Hobbit. Under the careful direction of Peter Jackson, this trilogy, which is the prequel to Jackson’s masterpiece Lord of the Rings trilogy, is off to an unexpectedly good start. While separating Tolkien’s rather short novel into three feature length films is admittedly a bad idea, Jackson’s knowledge and love of Tolkien’s work and his prior experience and hand in creating a cinematic Middle-Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy about ten years ago brings a lot of promise to this new Tolkien trilogy. While a lot of the film could have been cut, and the overall pacing can tend to be slow and meandering, Jackson’s new film still holds true to the spirit of Tolkien’s novel, making An Unexpected Journey just as wonderful a beginning as The Fellowship of the Ring was in 2001.

This first film in The Hobbit trilogy covers the first six chapters of the original novel, which totals to just about 100 pages of narrative. Obviously, 100 pages is not a lot of material to cover, and the plot in that 100 pages only gets to about 3 or 4 major plot points, including the popular “Riddles in the Dark” chapter with Gollum. In order to add more action to this first film, Jackson has added a whole side plot to The Hobbit, consisting of a history of the dwarves wherein the story of a war between the dwarves and an army of orcs lead by a chief orc with a grudge against Thorin, the default leader of the dwarves in the film’s narrative, is told. From a purely analytical stand point, this dwarf/orc sub-plot is completely unnecessary, and only serves to complicate and muddle Tolkien’s originally flawless narrative, not to mention the fact that this subplot serves to lengthen the film to a staggering length of 169 minutes. However, from a fan’s stand point, Jackson’s ability to tell cinematic stories about Middle Earth is just so mesmerizing and magical that one is able to forgive the indulgences of the dwarf/orc side-plot, not to mention the film’s other created side-plots, and ultimately enjoy all of them for their respective strengths and abilities to entertain.

Luckily, An Unexpected Journey is not chiefly concerned with its side-plots, but ultimately focuses on Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves journey to reclaim the stolen dwarves’ treasure from the dragon Smaug. However, as this film only covers the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s novel, Bilbo’s journey only progresses to the point after Bilbo’s escape from Gollum and his ultimate acceptance as a member of the dwarves’ party of burglars and thieves. While this short segment from the larger narrative concerning Bilbo’s journey works as a means of highlighting Bilbo’s journey to an acceptance of the film trilogy’s larger journey, it is also regrettably absent of any true progression in plot, and another source of the film’s indulgent slowness of pace. Nevertheless, this aspect of Jackson’s new trilogy can also be enjoyed from a fan’s stand point, who will no doubt be so completely immersed in Jackson’s cinema imagery and magic that they will not be in the least bit bored, although they should be and probably are aware of such a problem.

Peter Jackson’s first film in the planned Hobbit trilogy is good, and will be sure to delight and over joy fanatics of The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as the Tolkien faithful. However, due to the film’s tedious length and over indulgence in created side-plots and larger narrative-arcs, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is ultimately not nearly as perfect as any of the Lord of the Rings films, and doesn’t hold much promise for anyone not already in love with the Tolkien universe created in Jackson’s initial trilogy situated in Middle-Earth. While this reviewer loved this film and is eagerly anticipating the next two installments in the trilogy, it would be remiss to let such a bias make up for the myriad shortcomings in the set up of this new Tolkien trilogy.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

In Movie Reviews: 2012 on December 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Directed by Steven Spielberg
3 out of 4 stars

Based on the book Team of Rivals by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln explores Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, as an eccentric character played with amazing attention and accuracy by the great English actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Supported by one of the strongest casts imaginable for a period drama/history picture, including the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and James Spader just to name a few, Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln as both the historic icon that he has been made into as well as the conflicted individual that the film’s narrative introduces him to be is nothing short of brilliant.

Spielberg’s film follows Lincoln at an interesting point in his life, namely the period of time at the very end of the Civil War when Lincoln sought to establish the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. Much of the film’s action is thus based on scenes of heated debate and conversation among Lincoln and his advisors, pro-abolitionists and their rivals, as well as the various members of the U.S. House of Representatives while in session over the passing of said amendment. It is admirable that a film with so much talking, and talking overstuffed with political jargon at that, is made to be so entertaining and downright funny. Instead of strictly focusing on the historic nature of the film, which is still attended to in great detail as one can see from simply noting the impeccable attention paid to the costumes in this film, Spielberg’s film is written by screenwriter Tony Kushner in a way that gets at just what made the various players odd, grotesque, funny, and just plain human.

Daniel Day-Lewis, as mentioned before, is in top form as the American president, speaking in the historically accurate high-pitched voice that had been noted upon before the film was even released to a wide audience. However, it is sometimes hard to focus on Lewis when there are so many other wonderful performers sharing screen time with Lewis. Most notably, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones are awe inspiring in their roles as Mary Todd Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, providing two of the best supporting actor performances of the entire year. If it weren’t for such wonderful performances from the supporting players in this film, Lewis’ performance might have been even more stunning, albeit weakened in not having any other performers for Lewis to react in relation to.

However, there is one major concern that mars this film’s lofty intentions, which is Steven Spielberg’s direction. The problem is there doesn’t seem to be any direction at all. It feels as though the entire film were an exercise in acting among some of the best actors alive, with Spielberg simply filming the said actors interpretations of the characters in Kushner’s admirable script. And yet, if Spielberg weren’t the director, maybe the film wouldn’t hold together as well, as, after all, Spielberg knows how to make comfortable Hollywood films, even if comfortable has come to be equated with sappy and mediocre in recent years in Spielberg’s case. Nevertheless, Spielberg did a fine enough job directing this film, even if someone else might have given it a more distinctive aesthetic touch.

Daniel Day-Lewis may very well be nominated for best actor this year and win it. Hell, the picture might sweep this year based on all the factors involved. Yet it needs to be said that Spielberg’s film is not the best film to be released this year, although it may be the most comfortable for a wide audience and the Academy of Motion Pictures come time for the Oscars early next year. Nevertheless, at least this film adaptation of Lincoln didn’t feature any vampires.