24 December 2009

Rewinding 2009: Part I

Reviews of Invictus, Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, and District 9.

Please join me while I play catch-up on the year in film. Following last year’s example, I’ll be reviewing movies from across the like-dislike spectrum over the next few months, culminating in a (relatively complete) best-of list by the Oscars.


Morgan Freeman plays a really good Nelson Mandela in Invictus, a really bad movie about Nelson Mandela. Actually, Invictus approaches Mandela from an oblique angle, focusing on the first year of his presidency in South Africa through the lens of the 1995 World Cup rugby match, where the S.A. team brought together blacks and whites in the shaky years after the defeat of apartheid. There are some biopics that need a narrative device such as this, but I’m not sure the story of Mandela is one of them; had it not been for Freeman and director Clint Eastwood, it’s difficult to see how this script — which rather clumsily engages the themes of reunion and race relations — would have ever be taken seriously.

There are few men like Mandela, after all: a brilliant and canny leader who valued forgiveness and reconciliation, who managed to put aside all the indignities he suffered and lead a nation out of its moral chaos. Mandela's presidency was an act of intranational diplomacy, with the precision of a laser and the subtlety of a master-class politician, and his life is one of the most poignant stories of the twentieth century. Invictus does a disservice to him and his legacy by clomping around, vanquishing subtlety, and announcing its intentions at every turn. Eastwood, functioning on autopilot, is lazy with visual cues, and the tone-deaf script is in competition with the cinematography to keep everything superficial and convenient. Moments like the 1995 World Cup exist; they are crucial moments of community, sometimes calculated and sometimes not, that can bring together feuding factions and resonate louder than any spoken apology. Invictus makes no attempt to capture that sensation as anything close to organic. The result is deeply shameful, particularly when you consider just how powerful Freeman is. Great men do not deserve films this derisory.


With a name like Funny People, you might expect Judd Apatow’s third directorial effort (after The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) to be, you know, funny; instead, it turns out to be about people. Not to be mistaken, let me say that the film is humorous, certainly good for a few laughs; but in this look into the lives of comedians—the famous, the fortunate, the flailing—the adjective “funny” is defined less by its connection to the humorous than it is to the strange, the unusual, and the offbeat, embodied in George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a sophomoric actor diagnosed with a rare blood disease; side effects include realizing where his life was misspent and a friendship with a young comedian, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who George takes under his wing with a mixture of selfishness and desperation. The strength of Apataow’s films is finding the humanity within unlikely characters, and at least as far as his directorial efforts are concerned, he’s turned it into a profitable enterprise by splicing such psychological analysis into the raunchy comedy genre. After a rather stellar first-hour, Funny People struggles through an overlong midsection (total running time is close to a two-and-a-half hours). In the end it emerges ultimately as a rewarding demonstration of Apataow’s ambition and a realistic portrait of everyday struggles and the means we use to conceal them. It’s not a great film, and it doesn’t nail funny-haha, but in its own way it nails funny-sad and proves the unlikeliest characters are capable of redemption.


Let’s get this out of the way: the British political satire In the Loop is clever and quick, a film that delivers some good laughs and, heaven knows, owns the political allegiances of my heart. But let’s also acknowledge from the outset that it never really arrives in terms of sheer ferocity. The film concerns two diplomatic corps, American and British, jockeying for power (and when that doesn’t work, the mere illusion of power) as the two countries accelerate a potential war in the Middle East. The appeal here is in the language; writer-director Armando Iannucci’s screenplay is an icy sidewalk of barbs, jabs, and every conceivable conjugation of the word fuck (“Fuckity-bye” as a sign-off is among my favorite). But it’s a sort of witty slipperiness that masks itself as something sharper than it is. I spent the entire running time waiting for In the Loop to pull out the big knife and finally stab its victim, to make its definitive statement, but instead the film ends on a series of a thousand paper-cuts. Hey, if the object is to make them bleed to death, that’s one way to go. It just sure isn’t as efficient as it could be.


Like Invictus, Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia delivers a partial biopic that is not an out-and-out success. It is the story of a contemporary blogger named Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who finds strength and assurance as she works her way through the cookbook of Julia Child, played in a coming-of-age story of her own by the impeccable Meryl Streep. The two stories feed (and feed off) each other, although the clear winners by the end are Streep, who sublimely channels Child, and Stanley Tucci, who plays Julia’s devoted husband Paul. The film has a heaping dose of charm and sweetness, which can’t be undersold, and there is a good deal of pleasure to be had through its humor, cuteness, and warmth. But there is never any escaping the fact that Julie & Julia this is one half of a potentially great movie married to one half of a rather standard movie. What’s worse is now Streep has already played Julia Child, and a full-length look into her life, her career, and her personality will probably not happen any time soon. Oh well: I’ll settle for what I can get.


District 9, a sci-fi parable from debut director Neill Blomkamp (and producer Peter Jackson) that’s part apartheid allegory and part video game, is all the evidence necessary that the situation and the story are complementary yet profoundly discrete narrative elements. Aliens, having parked their spaceship above Johannesburg, become abused on earth at the hands of humans, who force them into a ghetto and attempt to profit from their intergalactic weaponry. The film begins as a faux documentary, clearly evincing the themes of prejudice, racism, and social justice. It’s easy to swept away in the potential — at least until the story begins, and the missed opportunities, the hopscotch plot, and Swiss cheese logic quickly sour the experience. This alternate universe Blomkamp constructs leaves too many essential questions unanswered and too many threads untied; much like the themes it initially puts on display, the film fronts an attitude and an angle that isn’t backed up with heavy thinking, and its attempts to go for the heart are often scattershot. I can admire the trajectory Blomkamp gives the film, but it is unwise to aim high if you have no intention of following through. And if I feel too let down, it’s only because I believe it could have been possible.


Sam Juliano,  29 December, 2009  

Well, T.S., I'll admit I felt far differently about DISTRICT 9, a deeply-moving ferocious social satire that gave the multiplexes their most profound film over the summer. It is presently on course to inclusion on my Best of 2009 list.
But INVICTUS is indeed a bad film as you note about an icon who deserved better than this disjointed, emotionally distancing sports movie that never went beneath the surface. Freeman was fine, but Damon amazingly fraudulent.
I won't be going to the mat for JULIE AND JULIA, though Streep delivers another solid performance. In a weak year for lead female performances, she is actually a front-running for awards, which is taking things abit too far. But it's a straightforward, conventional film.
Your final sentence for FUNNY PEOPLE is fair enough, though like you I found it only intermittantly humorous, and in the end rather forgettable. (typical for Apetow)
I liked IN THE LOOP a bit more than you did, but after seeing the brilliant THE THICK OF IT earlier this week (the BBC series it was based on) it is somewhat diminished.

Looking forward to some more of your excellent year-end re-caps.

T.S. 04 January, 2010  

Thanks for commenting, Sam. Your loyalty is priceless.

I wish I had enjoyed District 9 more. I really wanted to enjoy it, just as I've wanted to enjoy a lot of science fiction this year, but it came up short. That's particularly saddening for me because I love its genre — smart, penetrating allegories that probe the human condition much more than probe the sound effects and CGI divisions at local production studios. But still it was off-putting to me, for some reason.

In the Loop may still probably find a spot on my runners-up list of the year, despite my nitpicks. It's currently on my runners-up list as I write to you, but once I add more movies to my list, I'm not sure where it will stay. Again, it's the sort of film (a sharp political satire) that I usually love, but for some reason couldn't embrace fully.

I feel like I spent a lot of time at the theater this year thinking that very idea. It's the beginning of January and my top ten doesn't even have ten films but I already have a long queue of runners-up. I'd be interested to hear your take on whether this was a great year for movies or not. I'm usually inclined to believe that when people talk about whether it was a "good year for movies," they're talking about mainstream, nation-wide theatrical releases. I tend to enjoy so many low-key or not widely distributed films from year to year that it's difficult to say any year is "bad," but some are certainly better than others, particularly when the nation-wide releases are unusually good.

So, I guess I'd say right now that I'm of the mind that 2009 was a decent year for films when you take into account some (I believe) lackluster big releases and some (I believe) stellar small releases. What's your take?

Sam Juliano,  04 January, 2010  

True enough T.S., but as always we must thank the foreign-language releases and a few from the U.K. and New Zealand for making 2009 a reasonably solid year. Films like 35 SHOTS OF RUM, BRIGHT STAR, SUMMER HOURS, POLICE ADJECTIVE, EVERLASTING MOMENTS, OF TIME AND THE CITY, SOMERS TOWN, TOKYO SONATA, SERAPHINE, THE SON, REMBRANDT'S J'ACCUSE, THE MAID and IN THE LOOP are what elevated the year to a respectable level, with the American critical success centering around a small handful, headed up by INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, A SERIOUS MAN, AVATAR, A SINGLE MAN, UP, UP IN THE AIR, STAR TREK, DISTRICT 9 and PRECIOUS. Of course, like you I can't say I'm a fan of every one of those American titles.
The good of course has been outnumbered by the bad, but that's true of virtually every year, and the solid nucleus of quality matches up fairly evenly with the last several years, methinks.

Daniel Getahun 08 January, 2010  

Wow, I did not see Funny People but couldn't be more in agreement on nearly every single piece of every single other film here. Brilliant insight into In the Loop, too!

And Invictus, well I certainly acknowledged its poor quality but I never considered a true biopic of Mandela. Had I done so the film would have been unforgivably shameful, as you mention.

M. Carter @ the Movies 16 March, 2010  

About "Funny People": I feel like it was two movies and I only paid to see one. The first movie is the good one, the one where Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen bond but not in a maudlin or sappy way. Sandler really flexes his acting muscles (who knew he HAD them?) here, and his chemistry with Rogen is superb. The second movie is more of a slapstick buddy-com light on brains and emotional weight (although Eric Bana is hysterical).

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