Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I Saw This!! Netflix Edition

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all. And they can't do that, can they?

In this edition of "I Saw This!!" Graig covers:

Magic Mike - 2012, Steven Soderbergh
The 5-Year Engagement - 2012, Nicholas Stoller
Frances Ha - 2013, Noah Baumbach
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa - 2013, Declan Lowney


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Steven Soderbergh may just well be my all-time favourite director, and yet I've not seen all of his movies (maybe only half), and I'm not sure that any of his films crack my top ten (Out Of Sight may come close).  But Soderbergh never fails to deliver something interesting or different.  He's a definite auteur, a man of very specific vision, but he doesn't have a distinct style or milieu that he works in.  Where other favourite directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino all have a decidedly distinct voice where you can tell a film is theirs at every passing moment, Soderbergh is a man of varied tastes who likes to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional storytelling in all different sorts of genres such that his impact as a director is often unidentifiable, but present.  Magic Mike is a damn bold, intriguing, and highly entertaining film that takes the sub-sub genre of stripper movies and explores it with a gender flip.

You've got your Flashdance, your Striptease, Coyote Ugly and Showgirls, to name the most prominent examples, which are each in their own way revealing of the worlds they explore, but at the same time, are themselves highly exploitative.  This is ever more clear by the gender flip in Magic Mike which highlights just how much control the men have on stage, how freewheeling and easy-going the experience largely is, especially in comparison to the seedy, grimy worlds that other stripper films present.  It's telling that the characters in Magic Mike are never vulnerable to exploitation, at least not in the same threatening way the women in female sex-trade movies are, and that is definitely a point that Soderbergh is making.

Channing Tatum went into Magic Mike as a meathead pretty-boy actor of little note or interest, and came out the other side a genuine superstar.  Soderbergh's focus on him is a man of confidence, charisma, humour and intelligence and Tatum sells it at every turn (not to mention being a man of skill, showing of some impeccable dance moves that seem far too fluid and limber for a man of his beefiness).  Mike takes young, aimless Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing and brings him into the world of male exotic dancing.  Adam naturally succumbs to all the vices that being young and making money in sex entertainment would provide, and Mike struggles to keep him on the straight an narrow (fostering a crush on Adam's sister doubles his investment in the young man).  The first two acts of the film are so easygoing, they show the environment of male exotic dancing as one of craft (if not exactly artistry), and that it does have it's rewards with few drawbacks.  The third act does take an unfortunate detour into familiar drug-and-danger territory (see Boogie Nights) but the heaviness is thankfully short-lived (you can see the studio notes that these *have* to go that way, don't they?).

It's not a masterpiece by any stroke, but it presents a story and a subject that challenges its audience (particularly the hetero male audience) to appreciate it, and it definitely has its moments worth appreciating.

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A few weeks (months?!) back I was pondering how television has so unanimously trumped film's ability to make a successful comedy, pointing out that in both character-based and situation-based comedy TV has more time and ability to build one and not exhaust the other.  So it's no surprise then that a film like The 5-Year Engagement plays out less like a three-act film but rather like four or five episodes of a television series.

The plot finds Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) as a warm loving couple with a great relationship on the road to getting married, but with plenty of interference -- school, careers, deaths, weddings -- along the way.  The major impact on their relationship involves moving from San Francisco to Michigan so Violet can explore a career in academia.  The film is fragmented into sections of their life together (and apart), rather episodically.  Segel and Blunt have a charming playfulness and excellent chemistry that sells an otherwise middling script.  There's a lot of warmth but not as much comedy.  To their credit, Segel and co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller write character-based comedies that are much more interested character development than pratfalls and punchlines, so the film has a lot sympathy for and pays equal attention for both leads.  The film features a solid cast of supporting players with Chris Pratt, Alison Brie (although adopting a ridiculously awful British accent as Blunt's sister...I thought she should have played Blunt's best friend who was at school abroad and adopted the terrible accent), Rhys Ifans, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Randall Park and Brian Posehn.  It's overall engaging and likeable, but not particularly memorable.

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Noah Baumbach established a reputation as a writer-director of heavy, dark, emotional family dramas, primarily on the backs of his back-to-back Oscar-nominated features The Squid and the Whale and Margot At The Wedding.  One can forget that he started out writing comedy/romantic comedy, and even co-wrote with Wes Anderson on The Life Acquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  He's more versatile than he gets credit for, but his features typically find their humour drowning in the darkness, buried under the heavy weight of their drama such that it's difficult or uncomfortable to remember the laughs.

Francis Ha is a bit of a departure for Baumbach, working on a much smaller scale, in black and white, and cowriting with his star, Greta Gerwig, to develop a very specific character to center the film around.  Gerwig plays the titular Frances, an late-20-something aspiring dancer living in New York who leads a rather cheerful existence despite her hardships.  She's perennially broke, seemingly always between apartments, and her chances of being a professional dancer diminish by the day.  Francis is looking for love but it's not about romance necessarily, but comfort and companionship.  She makes friends easily enough, but it's her best friend Sophie whom she wants to be with the most (again not in a romantic sense), but Sophie's moving on with her life, and Frances finds the void she's left hard to cope with.

In many ways, Frances Ha feels like Baumbach's riff on a Woody Allen picture, Manhattan smushed with Annie Hall, the old love story to New York (and, briefly, Paris) minus the overwhelming neurosis and jazz score.  Frances is a complex character who deals with the world around her in a truthful way (well, truthful to her, she doesn't realize the denial she's in quite often).  In the end, Frances isn't in a better place than where she started, just a different one... she's maybe a little wiser, and made some smarter decisions, but life is ever moving forward.  It's an entertaining light drama, and I enjoyed the examination of a character defiantly pursuing their dreams, unwilling to accept any alternative, until the cold reality sets in that their dreams are perhaps unattainable, but it doesn't mean life is over. Another plus was having Frances' "romance" be more about friendship than about any actual romance.  Any story diversion away from the "need a man to complete them" is a good one.

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Given my recent assessments of big screen comedy, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is an interesting  picture thrust in that mix, as it takes an established character from television and transposes him to long-form big-screen comedy.  Oh, it's not a unique thing, since so many feature comedies are born out of television shows, sketch, or characters developed on stage in stand-up routines, but it's indicative of how a small-screen comedic success (like Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Will Ferrell or Sacha Baron Cohen) can make their way to big screen prominence, even if these days it's no longer an exclusive thing.

I missed out on Alan Partridge as a British cultural icon of the late 90's/early 00's, despite every intention to catch up with The Brass Eye and I'm Alan Partridge where Steve Coogan built his news anchor/talk show host, so I went into Alpha Papa with only the smallest notion as to who the character was and what he was all about.  I think prior viewers Alan Partridge have a slight advantage in knowing the character, his habits and failings from the onset, but by the end of the first act it's quite apparent that Partridge is an ageing egomaniac with faded celebrity wafting off of him.  But he's not desperate, not fully, and he's not necessarily always above his station either.  I don't know if it's character complexity or just inconsistency, but I admire the choice to have him be at once an attention seeking whore that has accepted his age and finds comfort in being at the top of the lowest rung yet will still take advantage of the opportunity to step back up to the next rung, but not at the bottom of said rung.

Alpha Papa finds the ex-national broadcaster now working as a midday disk jockey at a Northampton radio station where he's settled in for some years.  He drives a car that speaks to his shamelessness as a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing shill and makes personal appearances at small affairs for nominal tokens of appreciation ("how big is the key").  When the radio station is taken over by a new broadcasting group and brand-homogenized, jobs are on the line.  When the nighttime DJ (Colm Meany) is fired, he returns with a shotgun and takes the station hostage.  It's up to Partridge, working with the police, to negotiate their safe release, but of course the question is will all the attention allow him to do that job or will he seek to exploit the media circus opportunity before him?

It's been a long time since I've seen any comedy that isn't stand-up be so singularly focused as Alpha Papa is, in that almost all of the laughs come from Alan Partridge, whether it's his witty turns of phrases, Coogan's impeccable timing, a physical gag, or a specific set piece.  The majority of the laughs come from Partridge/Coogan, and remarkably very few of them are at his expense (and even those that are, one gets the sense Partridge feels very little to no shame, or at lease easily rebounds from embarrassment).  It's a little dark, the comedy at times, since the characters are all generally operating with the threat of violence about them, but at the same time the ability to ignore or comedically excel because of that threat is such a large part of the film's entertainment value.

Coogan commands the screen, as is probably his want, but also out of necessity.  A film with this type of story needs to have a central figure who is equal parts intelligent, compassionate, empathetic, ridiculous, and, at times, stupid while remaining completely in-character.  He owns this role totally, and there's never a moment where Alan Partridge feels like he's out of his element (well, there's that daydream he has of being the action hero, but that's intended fantasy).  It is a wholly off-beat picture, but incrementally hilarious, building as one becomes more and more familiar with the ways of Alan Partridge.