Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: I Love You, Man

I used to dread the thought of Hollywood taking yet another stab at the buddy picture.

You know, over the last 30 or 40 years we got the good cop/bad cop movie, then it was black cop/white cop, then old cop/new cop. When the two-cop flicks started to bore people, studios moved on to other non-cop buddy combos: obnoxious/meek buddies, cool/geeky buddies, gay/straight buddies, successful/unsuccessful buddies. They used up all those buddy types too.

Thankfully, every year or two a few deft filmmakers figure out a formula for a buddy picture that crackles with a bit of originality. The crude but hilarious "Wedding Crashers" (2005) is an example of a tandem (Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson) that clicked mightily with viewers and reviewers. As serial wedding crashers in their mid-30s who eventually start to question the wisdom (and long-term viability) of their lifestyle, the buddies do get into their share of disagreements. But the movie didn't dwell on the two guys' differences. There weren't that many, in fact. As raunchy as the movie got at times, it actually dealt with the topic of growing up - and, to a lesser extent, falling in love.

Now there's another fine buddy picture in theatres, and I'd say it has just as intriguing a concept.

"I Love You, Man" is about a real estate agent named Peter Klaven who proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones) but quickly discovers he has no male friends to speak of, and likely won't have time to rustle up a best man before his wedding. Paul Rudd plays the sensitive but clueless, metrosexual Klaven, whose attempts to track down a friend through a series of "man dates" service the amusing premise of "I Love You, Man."

It's co-written and directed by John Hamburg, who also helmed and wrote the Ben Stiller comedy "Along Came Polly" (2004) and co-wrote Stiller's "Meet the Parents"(2000) and its sequel. It's a joyful romp, mainly because Rudd is so believable - and so awkwardly funny. He doesn't get his laughs via the typical channels, ie: glib one-liners or broad slapstick. He earns them through a seemingly endless string of verbal missteps and some delicious - for those who like this kind of thing - cringe-inducing dweebiness. His tendency to embarrass himself in almost every situation involving other men makes you wonder how he's risen as far as he has in his real estate career.

As the movie poster will tell you, Jason Segel plays the man date who just may be the one to click with Peter. Segel's Sydney Fife is an easygoing bear of a man, without pretence, who loves the Canadian band Rush, his dog, and living near the beach. Will Sydney see through Peter's ineptitude and embrace his friendship in time for the wedding? I hope you'll go and find out.

The thing I liked most about "I Love You, Man" was its commitment to its stated goal, which was to explore the phenomenon of "bromantic love" (the studio's term, not mine - unfortunately)." Also, I respect Hamburg for not letting it devolve into a typical boy-messes-up-and-apologizes-to-the-girl-just-in-time romantic comedy. In the process of making me laugh, it got me thinking about what it takes to find, hold and keep a man friend. And it showed me it's a lot more difficult than you might think, especially when time is tight.

"I Love You, Man" is not up to the same level of "The Wedding Crashers," but it's an entertaining, occasionally hilarious film. It also reinforces the notion (begun last year with the comedy "Role Models") that Paul Rudd is a terrific comedic leading man, not just a supporting player. Best of all, "I Love You, Man" bucks the odds and resurects the tired, old buddy picture. And that's definitely something to celebrate.

****stars (out of five)

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Movie reviewers: spill less, kill less

How far should a movie reviewer go when describing plot elements?

It's not easy finding the right balance.

However, I think reviewers who outline entire stories and sprinkle in the odd observation are movie killers. Roger Ebert is one. After all, there's no sense in seeing a movie if you know everything; you'll just be ticking off a list of events as they happen. Wouldn't you rather concentrate on other more interesting things, like the music, the cinematography or maybe the dialogue?

Informed viewers read magazines or keep track of upcoming releases online. They know general plot summaries, who's in what and whether it's likely to be a bomb or a revelation. They may not want to know more until they actually hit the multiplexes.

Some super-serious movie fans wait for many years for Hollywood (or another country's filmmakers) to adapt stories. This is certainly the case for fans of "Watchmen," a comic book series that many believed was unfilmable but is now doing reasonably well in theatres. (According to's Underwire blog ( the film will easily make back Warner Bros' $200 million investment - and probably a lot more after the DVD release). Fans of films like these don't need much from reviewers. Actually rabid fans are almost impervious to poor reviews.

Yes, there are people who spend little time thinking about movies before their release dates, and they want reviews to help them make intelligent choices. And there's value for all in knowing if a movie is bad or good.

But there's a fine line between reviewing and deconstructing.

Personally, if a reviewer has told me the whole story before I've had the chance to see it unfold naturally, it's impossible for me to enjoy it. I want a movie to take me somewhere, but I don't want the road map and a pen to trace it with. I want a story to wash over me. The journey is the experience.

Here's my message to reviewers who get their jollies from spilling beans: save the grade-four-book-report-style reviews for grade four book reports. Set up the story without telling it all. Tease me a bit. Tell me why the movie is unique, who directed it and who's in it. Tell me cool stories about how the movie came to be. Hell, tell me anything that's relevant and interesting, just don't give away the whole thing.

If you truly love movies - and I assume you do - keep the magic alive long enough for your readers to experience it too. Don't be a movie killer. It's not your job.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

The film experience: Will you still love me tomorrow?

When was the last time you saw a movie that grabbed you hard and wouldn't let you go? You know, one that really made you think.

I don't just mean one with a complicated plot, I'm talking about a film so engaging or compelling that you found yourself daydreaming about it for the next week or two or three (when, let's face it, you should have been working)?

And does that make it a good film?

I guess it depends to a certain extent on what you want to take away from your movie experience. I have friends who just want to zone out for 90-120 minutes, plow through a jumbo popcorn and a Coke and go home. For these viewers, all but the name of the movie may be a distant memory by the time head hits pillow, and that's just fine with them.

I'm not dismissing this type of experience, but I tend to hold most movies to a higher standard. What I really like is when a story gets stuck to me, like a piece of double-sided tape fusing two of my fingers, and I just can't shake it off.

The Oscar nominated "The Reader" is one such story. I admit that I approached this particular movie night with trepidation because of the reviews I scanned (I never read full reviews until after; don't want a spoiler ruining my night!). They were mixed. As I write this, gives it 61% fresh approval rating, meaning 61% per cent of the reviewers the site includes in its consensus ratings offered a positive review. This is quite a low rating for this site; most Best Picture nominees hit well over 80 per cent.

But "The Reader" was superb. I came away with questions about the characters' motivations and actions - and inaction - that kept me going for days. I thought that Kate Winslet and 15-year-old German actor David Kross, who played her lover, were heartbreaking. Ralph Fiennes, playing the 15-year-old as an older man, was wonderful too, and he had to breathe life into a brooding, rather troubled man. I don't believe his Michael Berg character ever cracks a smile.

I found "Slumdog Millionaire" to be a glorious film too. Why? Because I cared deeply for the main characters and I wanted them to succeed, against terrible odds. The visuals, the music, the cinematography in "Slumdog" was superior to the other films I saw in 2008, which helped burn it into my brain. I still think about it often.

Yet I saw several movies last summer that I also loved. "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight." were both incredibly exciting, offering farfetched but highly entertaining story lines, good acting, frightening villains (especially Heath Ledger's Joker, possibly the most terrifying screen villain of all time) and cool effects. On the comedic side, "Tropic Thunder" was a hilarious send-up of the filmmaking and actor's processes.

The problem is I can't honestly remember much about "Iron Man" or "The Dark Knight" today. I know that they contained excellent action scenes but I can't recall more than a few. I can't even remember their climactic hero-versus-villain battles. Not good - and I have a pretty good memory for such things. And "Tropic Thunder" made me laugh hard, but it feels like a distant memory.

Sure, there are movies that get better upon repeated viewings. They get under your skin because you uncover more layers to them and you like what you're uncovering. You can even learn to appreciate what you first thought was a bad movie. Maybe my three summer movies will get better with age, and another viewing.

But a film that you love right away and think about a lot afterward - like "The Reader" for me - is bound to stay with you the longest. Have a think about your favorite movies of all time. Do they fall into the "acquired tastes" or "thinkers" category? I'm guessing the latter.

So next time you find yourself daydreaming about a movie you saw recently, let your friends know about it. It's probably a good sign.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

30 Rock's Liz Lemon

I'm in love with Liz Lemon.

For those who are unfamiliar, Lemon (played by Tina Fey) is the chief character on the hit show 30 Rock, a sitcom about a Saturday Night Live-ish variety program and the people who run it. The show also stars Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and a bevy of high-profile celebrity guest stars. Past visitors have included Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Martin and Jennifer Aniston.

Anyway, the reason I love Liz Lemon is the reason most of us love our sitcom characters: they are flawed and they are funny.

And Fey, who is also executive producer and a writer on 30 Rock, provides laughs in a number of ways. We laugh as the cringe-inducing Lemon tries her luck at dating and falls flat - with a soothing consistency. We laugh whenever she loses patience with her harmless, but ultimately hopeless, underlings. We love knowing that any character with a racist, homophobic or other offending nature will be skewered - for humor - in the end.

Besides having a knack for zippy dialogue, somehow Fey has figured out both why her own life is funny and how to skillfully translate that onto the screen.

For example, her line "I want to go to there," delivered robotically whenever she sees something - or someone she wants (such as love interest and recent guest star Jon Hamm of the hit TV series Mad Men) kills every time. Fey's source? Her three-and-a-half year old daughter, who, according to Fey, uttered the words after viewing a commercial on TV for Disney World.

Of course the line wouldn't be funny without the extra "to." It would also fail if used in context; ie: if a kid said it. Fey's delivery, and the way she morphs it into something for the adult world, makes it great.

When it comes to acting, I'd say Fey was the weak link among the principals in season one. I wouldn't say that anymore. Unlike Seinfeld, whose horrible acting you could forgive on an ongoing basis because it was happening inside the bubble of a dream ensemble cast, Fey has elevated her game and now fits alongside the rest of 30 Rock's stars.

What about the supporting cast? Alec Baldwin has proven his knack for comedy several times in recent years as guest host on SNL and frankly his Jack Donaghy character could have his own show and I'd watch it (as long as Fey was still writing it). Tracy Morgan, playing a kookier version of himself, is usually good for several chuckles per episode.

So 30 Rock and Liz Lemon equals good comedy. Why is that blogworthy?

Because I believe Fey is providing something we can really use on television: a hilarious female character who: isn't a nasty, House-like or Glenn Close in Damages-type meany; doesn't rely on double entendres to make you snicker; and who definitely isn't a character who tickles your heartstrings along with your funny bone.

Liz Lemon is silly, she's goofy, she's wacky - take your pick - but Fey's comedy is smart. And 30 Rock is working for me. On a weekly basis, "I want to go to there."

That's why I'm in love with Liz Lemon.


I've always wanted to write, in some forum, about movies and the media. I've written about many things over the years, but never these. Since I am a movie fan and media junkie, I feel I'm able to throw at least a semi-qualified opinion out there every few days. With that, I welcome you to the Media Mel blog.

Whether you agree with the statements here or not I hope you enjoy them. Post your opinions if you get the urge. Tell me I'm full of it (politely). Your participation will go a long way to making this blog better.

Media Mel

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