Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: "Funny People"

3½ stars out of four
Written and directed by Judd Apatow
Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill & Jason Schwartzman

• • •

The restricted-audiences trailer:

The plot: When seasoned comedian George Simmons (Sandler) learns of his terminal, inoperable health condition, his desire to form a genuine friendship causes him to take a relatively green performer (Rogen) under his wing as his opening act.

My review: Roger Ebert brings this up at least once a year in his own reviews, but I couldn't help but think of it today, so I'll bring it up myself.

Gene Siskel famously asked himself this question if he was unsure the movie he was watching was good or not: Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch? If the answer is no, then the movie sucks.

"Funny People" might have made Gene rethink his rule.

Apatow's latest film -- only his third as director, as the pretentious ad campaign keeps reminding us -- is a very good film, maybe even a great one. But I think the lunchtime chat might be even better.

I want to hear Sandler, Apatow and Mann -- Apatow's real-life wife -- talk about how this movie affected their respective marriages, because I can't imagine it didn't.

Here is a film that finally presents Adam Sandler as a real person, not as the violent degenerate he always plays. (Yes, always. His roles in "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Reign Over Me" seemed like departures, but were really just variations on a theme.) The film goes out of its way to make George Simmons seem exactly like Sandler, a megastar whose stand-up career led to a parade of critically reviled films that children adore. In "Funny People," Sandler openly mocks the persona that made him a star, playing a character who wistfully looks back at tapes of his early career -- tapes that show the audience actual footage of Adam Sandler's early career.

The film opens with footage of a young Sandler making prank phone calls while Apatow works the camcorder and Janeane Garofalo stifles laughs while sitting on the floor. This is footage that Apatow shot when he and Sandler lived together, and using it in this way clearly implies that much of "Funny People" is autobiographical, for both men.

And what a depressing picture it paints of these men, men who are now both married with children. If Sandler's character is standing in for Apatow, what does it say that the director casts his actual wife as "the one that got away"? How do Apatow and Sandler's wives feel when they see their husbands' collective on-screen avatar screw around with bimbos and try to steal some other guy's wife? Do Apatow and Sandler really hate themselves this much?

I think the answer was yes, and I think it must be a common experience for comedians. Perhaps that's why so many of them agreed to make cameos in the film: they understand where Apatow is coming from. And, hopefully for him, so does Leslie Mann.

It must seem like I'm prattling on and on without actually talking about the movie, but that helps demonstrate how good a movie "Funny People" is, despite its flaws (which are many). There is a lot going on in this movie, which justifies its epic, 146-minute length, and it gives me a lot to talk about.

One thing "Funny People" is not, is brutally funny -- but that's not a strike against it. This is not a comedy, per se, but a film about comedy. There are funny jokes in it, yes, but "Funny People" is more interested in showing us the process than the performance.

When George and new writing partner Ira (Rogen) write their material, we smile but rarely laugh. But put that material on stage, and give it the comic timing of someone like Sandler or Rogen, and suddenly we are laughing. But mostly Apatow is interested in showing us comics as real people, not as comics. The funniest performances in the movie actually belong to the actors playing the "real" people: Mann and Bana, who play husband and wife, and their children, played by Apatow's actual daughters.

The film's many and varied superstar cameos could have dragged it down, but Apatow gives three very famous people important parts in two of the film's best scenes, scenes that dissect comedy and fame in unexpected ways. One of them I will not spoil. The other addresses Apatow and Co.'s penchant for dick jokes (which this film has in abundance). George and Ira find themselves at a corporate event with James Taylor, who performs "Fire and Rain." Ira asks Taylor, "Do you ever get tired of playing the same songs?" Taylor smiles and asks, "Do you ever get tired of talking about your dick?"

On a personal level, I found George Simmons' story to be very depressing as I struggle with my own feelings about "the one that got away." But I also identify with Ira, who is unsure around women and lacks the "killer instinct," if you will, that allows his friends to chat up women at the bar and bring them home. Rogen plays this character much, much differently than you would expect; this is not a repeat of "Knocked Up," "Zack and Miri" or "Pineapple Express." The leaner Rogen is definitely not the meaner Rogen, and his character is the film's voice of reason. It's a wonderful performance, and so is Sandler's; at the very least, they have Golden Globe nominations waiting for them.

This review has been long, but then again, so is the movie. While it isn't a painful sit, "Funny People" does feel like two completely different movies, and I have trouble reconciling the two parts. The resolution of the second part stretches credibility. Apatow also continues to have problems writing characters that aren't white and/or Jewish; the one black character is a caricature, and "Parks & Recreation's" Aziz Ansari plays a South Asian dude who thinks he's a black caricature. There's also the self-loathing that has become de rigueur for Jewish comedians.

But I wasn't expecting perfection. The lives of our protagonists are messy and complicated, so why shouldn't the movie be the same way?

It's too early to be this excited

... but I can't help it. The "Lost" Comic-Con presentation has my heart all aflutter for the final act of the best television show I've ever seen -- and it doesn't start until February.

Those magnificent bastards over at DARKUFO have been running an NCAA-style bracket to determine the best "Lost" episode of all time, and it's shaping up to be a battle of season premieres and finales. I guess that makes sense, because something terribly dramatic happens in all of those episodes, but I wouldn't rank many of the bookend episodes among my absolute favorites; they typically focus on more than one character, and "Lost" is best when it dials into one islander's story.

So screw the Episode Cup! Here are my five favorite "Lost" episodes:

1. "The Shape of Things To Come" (4x09) -- One of the most exciting hours of television I've ever seen, and Michael Emerson's masterpiece. On the island, Ben makes a horrible miscalculation when dealing with Keamy, and Alex pays the ultimate price. Off the island, we learn what brought Sayid under Ben's employ. The climactic confrontation between Ben and Widmore sets up a major arc in Season 5, and tells us there are "rules" that The Others live by. I think I've seen this one at least ten times, mostly because of Emerson's work in Alex's death scene. How did he not win the Emmy for this?

2. "The Man From Tallahassee" (3x13) -- A wheelchair-bound Ben is captured by Locke, whose flashbacks finally reveal how he ended up in his wheelchair before coming to the island. Emerson and Terry O'Quinn do the acting equivalent of Ward and Gatti, trading blows to the bitter end. (This episode contains the hamster wheel conversation and the "magic box" conversation.) The ending is a double knockout -- Locke blows the submarine to bits just as Jack is about to use it to go home, and Ben brings Anthony Cooper to the island.

3. "Tricia Tanaka is Dead" (3x10) -- Probably the funniest, most flat-out entertaining episode centers on Hugo's quest to restart the DHARMA van he finds in the jungle. (The show's unfortunate title comes from the explosive post-credits flashback, but has little to do with anything else.) Sawyer gets some of his best lines ever, like in this exchange about the dead body of Roger Linus:

Sawyer: Skeletor seems to like it.
Hurley: That's not cool, dude! That guy had a mom, a family and friends. Oh, and a name! Not "Skeletor," it's Roger Workman!
Sawyer: It's "Work Man," you blockhead! That's his job! He was a DHARMA janitor.

4. "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues" (1x11) -- The best Jack episode, hands down. Jack and Kate search for Claire and Charlie after they disappear -- and after Hugo figures out that Ethan was never on the plane. They find Charlie hanging from a tree, and Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly do their best acting of the series in the heart-wrenching scene where Jack resuscitates him. In Jack's flashback, we see why his relationship with Dad was broken -- he ratted him out for being drunk during an operation. Here's an episode where the "Jack Face" is totally warranted.

5. "Through the Looking Glass" (3x22) -- The best bookend episode does, in fact, focus on one character, and it's Jack, whose descent into addiction looks like a flashback, but ends up being a flash-forward. This episode was truly a game-changer, not only because it turned the show's concept of time on its ear, but because it did something even more unthinkable: It ended with Charlie's death.

Honorable mentions:
"The Incident" (5x16)
"Lockdown" (2x17)
"Man of Science, Man of Faith" (2x01)
"Orientation" (2x03)
"Two For the Road" (2x20)

What say you?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'm sorry, what's the game called?

Summer is almost over, which means it's time for football training camp to open for our local football team, the Chicago football Bears.

Soon, our airwaves will be full of soundbites from head football coach Lovie Smith talking about how well his football players play the game of football out there on the football field. We'll hear that Jay Cutler can throw the football very far down the football field, that Devin Hester can catch the football, and that Matt Forte can run the football. Maybe we'll hear about how well Brian Urlacher and the other defensive football players are at trying to force the football out of the hands of other football players. Lovie might even speculate on how many football games the Bears could win this football season.

Then we'll tune into ESPN and hear former football players and football coaches talk about their favorite football teams for the upcoming football season. We'll probably hear them say that Adrian Peterson can run the football better than anyone else on the football field, and that Tom Brady is ready to make a triumphant return, throwing the football down the football field. If there's a questionable penalty flag, we may hear debate on whether or not a football player made a "football move."

Hopefully, at some point during either the professional football or collegiate football seasons, we'll get to hear another football rant as awesome as this one from Colorado Buffaloes football coach Dan Hawkins:

In conclusion, football.

Arrested development

As I'm typing this, Disney's "TRON" is spinning in my DVD player. This past weekend, I joined thousands of screaming teens, tweens and toddlers at a concert starring Disney's next big recording artist, Demi Lovato. I spent the rest of the weekend watching panels from the San Diego Comic-Con on YouTube, with particular interest in the presentation by the cast and producers of "Lost" -- a Disney production that airs on Disney's ABC network. I have visited Disney resorts on both coasts three times since January 2007, and have a framed Jungle Cruise attraction poster hanging over my DVD rack, which contains dozens of Disney movies.

What the hell is going on here?

I am 30 years old. Shouldn't I be listening to Wilco, talking about how great "The Hurt Locker" is, and planning some kind of hiking adventure in Costa Rica?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, Mark Buehrle

45 consecutive batters. Forty-five.

Mark Buehrle's perfection stretched across three different games with three different teams, in two different venues. Leave it to the pesky Minnesota Twins to break the streak in that hellish nightmare they call a ballpark. (At least former Sox 3B Joe Crede wasn't the culprit; he was Victim No. 42.)

Even with the accomplishments of the past week -- and the no-hitter in 2007, and the save in the World Series, and the World Series title, and his awesome walks-to-strikeouts ratio -- Buehrle's a longshot for the Hall of Fame, unless he can win, say, 15 games a year for the next eight years. That would give him more than 250 career victories.

But I think history will remember Buehrle without the "HOF" next to his name. He is already a White Sox legend, and now he may flat-out be a Chicago legend. He has been the face of the Sox for the better part of this decade, and certainly among the classiest players to ever call Chicago home. (Could you imagine the uproar if Kenny Williams hadn't renewed his contract?)

I tip my cap to you, sir. Now go win us the division, please ...

Monday's top-ten list on "Late Show"

The last out of the perfecto, seen from the Scout Seats

President Obama's phone call

Pandemonium after Buehrle's 2007 no-no

Ode to Olivia

My dearest Olivia Munn: Why aren't you starring in Judd Apatow films, stealing Megan Fox's jobs, or playing "Rock Band" and drinking beers with me?

Monday, July 27, 2009


Here's what I've been listening to lately.

I love the Gaga. Call me "lame" all you want.

Dear Jess and Lisa: If I come see you at Great America on Friday, will you ride Logger's Run with me? Love, Sean.

Went to Demi Lovato's concert this Friday. Needless to say, a surreal experience for a single 30-year-old man who doesn't have children. But she's a great live performer.

I heard this band because Demi Lovato name-dropped them on "Fallon" last week. The vocals are awful, of course, but the musicianship is staggering.

Michael Giacchino rules. Why can't this movie be on DVD now?!?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review: "(500) Days of Summer"

3 stars out of four
Directed by Marc Webb
Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz & Matthew Gray Gubler

• • •

The trailer:

The plot: An offbeat romantic comedy about a woman (Deschanel) who doesn't believe true love exists, and the young man (Gordon-Levitt) who falls for her.

My review: "(500) Days of Summer" is a perfectly entertaining Hollywood rom-com wearing indie clothes. If you A) replace Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel with, say, Shia LaBeouf and Katherine Heigl; B) blind the audience with glossy cinematography; and C) ditch the fleeting use of its lush musical score in favor of Sixpence None the Richer songs, you'd have yourself the Nora Ephron version of "Annie Hall."

But the decisions to cast Levitt and Deschanel are crucial to the film's success, and part of why some may be overstating its perceived meaning or excellence. "(500) Days of Summer" doesn't have anything particularly new or insightful to say about love, but it does have moments of brilliance and truth.

The most brilliant moment of truth comes near the end of the film, when our hero Tom (Gordon-Levitt) goes to a party hosted by his ex, Summer (Deschanel). Tom hopes the party will be a new beginning for the couple, who met at work and began a romance despite Summer's reluctance to enter a serious relationship. Tom's experience in the party is shown two different ways, simultaneously, in split-screen. One shows his expectations, and the other shows his reality. Predictably, the reality doesn't live up to the expectation -- like so many romantic (or hopefully romantic) encounters we all have in real life. The scene is a marvel of timing and execution; kudos to director Webb, who previously helmed music videos for everyone from Green Day to Jesse McCartney.

Webb sprinkles little flights of fancy throughout his film, which is presented in non-linear form -- we bounce around the 500 days of the title as an on-screen graphic tells us which numbered day we're about to see. Tom doesn't break the fourth wall as Alvey Singer did in "Annie Hall," but the tone is much the same, right down to the sudden appearance of animated characters in one scene. Tom's movie-theater daydream, in which he imagines his life as an Ingmar Bergman film, is the film's most obvious nod to Woody Allen, and one of its funniest scenes.

The film also employs a narrator, which by turns feels just right and totally wrong. It goes right in the beginning; When we first meet Summer, we have no reason to like her other than the fact she is played by an actress as lovable as Zooey Deschanel. But the narrator basically tells us we're supposed to go ga-ga for her, so we just go with it -- much like how Tom just goes with it. It's not until later that we (and Tom) realize the situation is not so ideal.

After that scene, the narrator seems superfluous. After the movie, Sean Tuohey and I talked about whether a film that employs the fanciful techniques that "(500) Days of Summer" employs needs a narrator; would the audience accept the split-screen scene or the Bergman homage if they didn't feel like they were being told a story? We even speculated that the entire movie was built around that split-screen sequence, and that the narrator was created just to pull that scene off.

The film's greatest miscalculation is its ending, a scene that plays on auto-pilot, and which ends with a real groaner of a joke. The film's big message? "There are plenty of fish in the sea." Yep, that's about as deep as it goes.

Gordon-Levitt's big scene has Tom, a greeting-card writer, delivering a diatribe against his profession. He says that the sentiments within the cards are as phony and unrealistic as those in the movies, and that they give people false hope. I thought this would be where "(500) Days" finally announces itself as a satire of Hollywood romantic comedies, but the neatly wrapped-up finale pretty much goes against everything Tom says in the scene.

It's no "Annie Hall," and it's certainly no "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but "(500) Days of Summer" is a promising debut for Webb and a fine showcase for two of our best young actors. It would make a great double-bill with "Adventureland," another tale of young romance that hits all the indie grace notes, but which ends in a much more satisfying manner.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The perfect game

There are few things in life more exciting than walking into a ballpark.

Every time I walk onto a concourse and get my first peek of the green diamond past it, I feel a tangible thrill throughout my body. This happens at every park -- even the Metrodome, which is just about the most awful baseball stadium imaginable. More often than not, the thrill comes at 35th and Shields, where Jerry Reinsdorf and Co. have transformed the cold, barren "New" Comiskey Park into the bustling, beautiful U.S. Cellular Field. I usually enter the park from Gate 5, go up the escalators, and take a quick lap around the concourse, taking in all the sights and sounds. (Is there a more satisfying smell than that of Polish sausage and grilled onions at the game?)

It wasn't always this way. I used to shun baseball as that slow, boring game where nothing happens. That was easy for a kid who turned 12 the year Michael Jordan and the Bulls won their first of six titles, or a kid who got to see Belfour, Roenick and Chelios in their prime at the old Chicago Stadium. There was excitement in the Stangland house when the Sox won the division in 1993, but it became an afterthought when MJ announced his first retirement amid the Sox playoff series with Toronto. My newfound love for Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Ellis Burks and Wilson Alvarez stood no chance against the thought of losing Jordan. I remember a flock of us Wheeling High kids piled into Elliott Dennis's living room the next day to watch MJ's press conference on our lunch hour.

But I found my way back to baseball in 2001, when I started working at the Daily Herald. Everyone at the Herald is a baseball fan. Don Friske, the night Sports editor, is an official scorer at The Cell and Wrigley, for cryin' out loud. If I didn't know baseball, I wouldn't be able to carry on a conversation with most of my colleagues. So I reinvested myself, and baseball has become a large part of my life ever since.

Some of my most indelible memories of the last eight years revolve around baseball. One would assume that I'd count the 2005 World Series among the best, but what I remember most about that series is missing the final out because my boss told everyone to stop watching the game and get back to work. If she had waited 30 seconds, we all would have seen history made. But she didn't, and I spent most of that night shaking my head in what felt like defeat. After deadline, I went into the men's room for about 10 minutes and broke down -- I missed the final out of a Chicago World Series! I could have been watching it with my dad and sharing the moment, but instead I'm HERE.

But tonight, under similar circumstances, I've enjoyed one of the best memories. Mark Buehrle was mowing down hitters in the final three innings of the game today while a conference room full of Sox fans attempted to have a Page 1 meeting; we mostly failed. The newsroom's collective joy over Buehrle's perfect game has put me on Cloud Nine all day, even though I didn't see it. I scrolled through the pictures offered to us by the Associated Press a few times today, and got a little choked up each time. Seeing this player -- this wonderful, humble, likable player -- achieve something this historic just gets me. No other sport affects me in quite the same way (although I did nearly destroy my coffee table when the Blackhawks lost in OT to Detroit earlier this summer).

Something about baseball feels so welcoming, so perfect. George Carlin's famous routine about the differences between football and baseball is a favorite of mine because it also feels so perfect. When I sit in the bleachers at Wrigley, with the sun going down and a beer in my hand, it feels perfect. When I drink in the Pittsburgh skyline from a seat at PNC Park, it feels perfect. And yes, even when I'm sitting in the cheap seats, 927,000 feet away from home plate at the Metrodome, it just feels perfect.

I'm not scheduled to return to U.S. Cellular Field until Sept. 19, when my dad and I will watch the Sox take on the Kansas City Royals. What memory will I come home with that night?

Tim Burton's Whimsical Adaptation: Part 10

Note: Disney has apparently killed every embeddable version of this trailer. Click here for Yahoo's high-res version.

Shoddy visual effects aside, is there a single surprising thing about the trailer for Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"? And is there any chance I won't be seeing it?

Though hailed as this wildly creative near-visionary, Tim Burton has rarely given us anything truly original -- and that's a shame, because when he does, the results are usually extraordinary. "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which Burton conceived and Henry Selick directed, is a classic, and "Beetlejuice" remains his most memorable and entertaining film as a director.

But most of Burton's career has been devoted to adaptations or extensions of existing franchises. To wit:

• "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985)
• "Batman" (1989)
• "Batman Returns" (1992)
• "Mars Attacks!" (1996)
• "Sleepy Hollow" (1999)
• "Planet of the Apes" (2001)
• "Big Fish" (2003)
• "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005)
• "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007)

And now we can add this rather "Chocolate Factory"-esque interpretation of "Alice" to the list.

I line up for every movie with Burton's name on it, more out of a sense of obligation than one of excitement -- and it almost feels like that's how Tim treats his movies now, too. "OK, I guess I'll make another quirky movie for the Hot Topic crowd." While it fit that decription, "Sweeney Todd" was Burton's best movie in more than a decade because it was a bit of a departure for him: a musical. His best film before that? The black-and-white biopic "Ed Wood," another departure from his decidedly different brand of normal.

What is Tim Burton's true passion? I can't imagine someone with his bursting imagination would want to spend an entire career reinventing someone else's ideas, but that's mostly what he's been doing. (One wonders if he's upset about not directing any of the "Harry Potter" movies.) His next film will be a reinvention of his own idea: "Frankenweenie," a feature-length version of the 1984 short film that got Burton noticed in the first place. I can't say I'm too excited by the idea of that film -- or by "Alice in Wonderland" -- but I'm sure I'll see both of them.

If he really wanted to shock his audience, he'd make a sports movie: "Tim Burton's Roid Rage." That could be interesting...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another blog?

Yes, another blog.

Unlike Widescreen, the blog I write for the Daily Herald, a / v will be completely unfettered and uncensored. That's not to say this is going to be a hedonistic den of debauchery; it just means I'll write whatever the hell I want to.

What that mostly means is that this will become the de facto home for my film reviews and retrospective pieces. That "30 Years at the Movies" series I started (and abandoned) earlier this year may resurface here.

But it also means I can write about sports and sports media, two things I won't be doing at the Herald site. (Our sports bloggers pretty much have that covered.)

I will (hopefully) be blogging extensively this weekend about Comic Con at the Herald site, but in the next week or so a / v will spring to life. Consider this your teaser trailer -- or your warning!