(On Cable TV, October 2018) So… Jessica Chastain as the lead in an Aaron Sorkin film? You definitely have my attention. But Molly’s Game goes many steps further in giving us a real-life story of poker, Hollywood, organized crime, Idris Elba, a brainy leggy heroine and a two-hour stream of patented Sorkin dialogue. A fascinating example of an adaptation that goes further than the source material, this film not only adapts the content of Molly Bloom’s story as published in the original Molly’s Game, but updates it through a framing device taking place after the book’s publication. The fascination here is evenly distributed between Sorkin’s usual brand of rapid-fire witty dialogue, Molly Bloom’s extraordinary personality and Chastain’s uncanny ability to inhabit the role. It’s a great match between actress and subject, as the attractive Chastain gets to play a ferociously smart character who turns to the legally dubious side in order to make a living. Her conceit is simple enough: take care of all the necessary arrangements for wealthy poker players to have their regular games. It’s not entirely legal, certainly not completely safe, and much of the film’s interest is in detailing all the precautions she has to take in order to attract and retain the high-rollers while protecting herself. Michael Cera plays against type as a slimy Hollywood actor (reportedly Tobey Maguire) who ends up becoming one of Molly’s worst opponents, while Elba is his usual charismatic self as a high-powered lawyer. Sorkin also has fun directing his own script, fully getting into his heroine’s mind and history. (Kevin Costner pops up for a few scenes as her father, and gets a great scene in which he fast-forwards through years of therapy with his immensely intelligent daughter.) At 140 minutes, Molly’s Game is not a short movie, but it is seldom less than engrossing thanks to its script, directors and multiple subject matters. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and a strong demonstration of what Sorkin and Chastain can do at their best.
(Crackle Streaming, May 2017) If Hollywood history has proven anything, it’s that nothing is safe from its vulgar lowbrow comic premises. Here, Year One uses prehistory as an excuse to let Jack Black and Michael Cera go wild with their usual comic persona, from cavemen to old-testament riffs. The anachronisms are the point of much of the humour, but the juvenile nature of most jokes doesn’t allow Year One to fly high. Still, what’s maybe most impressive about the film are the number of known actors willing to ham it up for such a vapid film: Whether you’re talking seasoned comedians like Paul Rudd, David Cross, Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria, or it-girls such as Olivia Wilde and Juno Temple, Year One is heavy in small cameo roles. This may give the impression that the film is better than it is, though, which isn’t the case. Depending on your reaction to Cera and Black’s screen persona, Year One either feels like a chore or a slog. (Black’s shtick is more overly offensive than Cera’s, but an entire film built on Cera tics would be unbearably dull.) Year One probably works best as one of those films you let play on background while doing other things. It’s not as if you’re going to miss anything crucial if you don’t happen to pay attention at every time, and it’s not as if you’re going to feel guilty about missing a few moments of the film if you have to leave the room for a while.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Absence does make the heart grow fonder. After spending much of the early 2010s getting gradually fed up with Michael Cera’s persona, I forgot about him for a while. Watching him being quite likable as his usual screen-self in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist reminded me that, overexposure aside, there is a reason why he was pigeonholed in that kind of role: it works well at what it’s meant to be, especially if you’re going to make an underdog romantic comedy. More or less tightly structured around a wild night in New York City’s streets chasing an indie band’s pop-up concert, this hipster teenage rom-com works largely due to the freshness of its script and the likability of its stars. While the story isn’t particularly innovative, there’s some wit in the dialogue and the small-scale moments of the film. Meanwhile, Kat Denning s earns good notices for her performance in the female lead role, with a decent supporting turn by Ari Graynor and Jay Baruchel popping up in an extended cameo. I’m not a fan of the specific kind of mewling indie “rock” favoured by the film and its character, but their love of music itself is infectiously charming. The NYC location shooting is a highlight at a time where most movies will have other cities play New York—this is the real deal, painstakingly captured night after night. Director Peter Sollett, adapting a young-adult novel, is warm and sympathetic toward its sometimes-misguided characters. Containing the entire story overnight works in the film’s distinctiveness, much like its positive outlook and sweet disposition. Worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for a likable teen romantic comedy … even if you think you’ve grown used to Cera’s persona.
(Crackle streaming, February 2015) For some reason, I managed to miss this now-cornerstone of 2000s American comedy until now –I’m not a big fan of teen comedies (Proof: American Pie is still on my to-watch list) and Superbad seemed to be, what, redundant? Michael Cera acting like a nerd, Jonah Hill like an over-caffeinated potty-mouth? No surprise there. But there’s such a thing as best-of-breed movies, and while Superbad doesn’t exactly break molds or revolutionize genre, it’s pretty much hitting all the cylinders that a contemporary teen sex comedy aims for. It’s superficially crass and aggressive, but it doesn’t take too much tinkering to find the honest beating heart underneath, the paean to friendship and the curiously conventional values at the foundation of the film. But it works relatively well despite a few lengths, and with a few years of retrospection, you can see not only Cera and Hill’s early-career prototypical roles, but also early good turns by Emma Stone and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. The result may not be subtle nor unique (co-writers Rogen and Goldberg would go on to make an entire string of films about young-male friendship) but it works as it should. More broadly, as a piece of significant filmmaking, Superbad fits perfectly in the rise of Judd Apatow as a comedy producing powerhouse.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Teen comedies starring Michael Cera may look the same, but they’re not always the same. Exception made of the superlative Scott Pilgrim, Youth in Revolt is a bit better than the others: Cera can here depend on a clever script and an amusing “evil personae” plot device to extend his typical screen presence beyond the usual, and the film can be surprisingly unexpected at times. The story of a dweebish young teenager trying to win over a girl while acting as delinquently as possible, Youth in Revolt distinguishes itself though witty dialogue, unexpected turns, full characterization and oddball details –it particularly flips over a number of teen-movie plot devices in showing dastardly plans blowing up in the protagonist’s face, doesn’t pander to empty morality and uses a wider vocabulary in its witty dialogue than most other similar teen movies. While Youth in Revolt can’t escape a certain amount of aimlessness in its plotting, it makes up for it with a good conclusion and a clever use of some actors. It’s off-beat enough to fit within the Juno frame of reference, but not derivative enough to be stuck in it. Give it a try, especially if you think you’ve reached the end of your tolerance for the Cera personae.
(On DVD, December 2011) A sketch comedy about teen sex sounds like a dubious prospect for more than one reason: Sketch comedies aren’t that common for good reasons; sex comedy in American cinema is usually an arousal-free mixture of guilt and vulgarity; and American teens aren’t known for discriminating tastes when it comes to that material. Extreme Movie confirms all three problems and adds a few of its own. Hobbled by a low-low-low budget (1.2$M) and even lower comic standards, the film is very loosely based on a high-school sex-education class and the issues students confront at home. While some of the sketches gets a few points for originality and concepts that leave hum-drum reality behind (such as the Weird Science parody, or the Lincoln-obsessed teen who ends up inventing a time machine to fulfill his fetish) and a few other moments have known actors (Michael Cera, Frankie Muniz) gamely submitting themselves to the requirements of the script, much of Extreme Movie is just one lame gag after another, heavily dosed with the kind of embarrassment that seems to be the norm for discussions of teenage sexuality in a comic context. Heavily biased in favour of a male-centric view of sex (only one sketch revolves around a teenage girl), which is another problem in itself, Extreme Movie does itself no favour by jettisoning most of its accumulated character development every five minutes or so –some of the film’s most amusing jokes are call-backs to previous events. The telling lack of nudity (at one or two specific exceptions which are probably specific to the “unrated” DVD) hints at a broader problem about the contradictory impulses dictating any discussion of teenage sexuality in North America: the underlying puritanical social impulses are about shame, whereas the broader customer culture is about desire –but does commentary on this film warrant deeper introspection of this issue? In any case, the “unrated” DVD supplementary material isn’t particularly interesting, although you can almost feel some sympathy for the filmmakers as they describe how to work within a budget that’s a tiny fraction of what most Hollywood productions require.
(In theaters, August 2010) For a movie that only highlighted how truly old I am getting, I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim vs the World from beginning to end. Transforming a fairly ordinary post-teenage romantic comedy into an mythological epic through fantastical devices such as videogame combats given life, Scott Pilgrim becomes a relentless, sometimes exhausting blend of action, romance and comedy gold. Given that director Edgar Wright is best known for manic comedies Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, the whip-fast editing, witty dialogue and reality-defying direction should come as no surprise. What is a bit more unusual, however, is the way Wright plays along with the grammar of cinematic storytelling, telescoping scenes together, taking fantastical flights of fancy in the middle of grainy indie dramatic scenes, or varying his approach just to keep things fresh. This third successful film only highlights how Wright is pushing the envelope of comedy directing, daring older audiences (cough-cough) to keep up. As a fan of the Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, I had a clue about what was in store. But I couldn’t predict how cleverly the script would condense, simplify and amplify the storyline of the comic book into something that feels even more grandiose. Streamlined to make the hero’s final success feel even more rewarding, Scott Pilgrim vs the World should please most fans of the original, while allowing newcomers to grab the graphic novels and find further delights in them: the way material from the book is rearranged in a new plot will keep fans of both versions entertained. The resemblance of some actors to their graphic equivalent is astonishing, and their delivery of the dialogue, in a mixture of arch line readings and mumbled deadpan quips that I find irresistible, is often far funnier than the material would suggest. I’m still only half-sold on Michael Cera as Pilgrim, but the supporting cast is strong and notable performances include Kieran Culkin as the cool roommate and Ellen Wong as a hot-tempered high-schooler. But even better yet is the way Toronto plays itself as a big city capable of hosting cool stories: The script’s Canadian references are not only hilarious, but on-target as well. Still, it’s not all fun and games as Scott Pilgrim has a few things to say about urban romance during post-teenage years (there are practically no older adults in this film, nor any need for them), or the way modern personal mythmaking comes from genre-dominated gaming rather than older sources of inspiration. It all amounts to a hilarious, heartfelt, dynamic film that appealed to me in ways that felt very personal. I’m not sure it could have been any better.