Sunday, June 15, 2008

Waydowntown (2000)

One thing I do miss is the Sundance Film Festival. We used to go every year when we lived in Salt Lake, and even made the trek down there the first couple of years after moving to Idaho. Now we’ve got the kid, and blah, blah, blah, excuses, excuses. I still love a good independent film, though. If you don’t know what I mean by “independent,” it means movies made outside the film studio system, generally on a low budget. “Clerks” is a classic, independent film. Kevin Smith made it for peanuts, using friends and family as actors and crew when possible. Sometimes the Sundance Festival will have movies that feature some pretty big-name actors, making you wonder what the movie is doing in an “independent film” festival. Those movies usually make up for the big stars by shooting on really grainy digital video or by showing some gay sex.

“Waydowntown” is more the classic type of independent film, with actors I’ve never seen, sketchy production values, and loads of dialog (which is cheaper to shoot than action.) It’s set in the Canadian city of Calgary, where city designers have installed tunnels and overhead walkways connecting most of the downtown buildings. That means you can go from home to work to a restaurant and back without ever going outside. Brilliant! Get yourself a Nintendo Wii, and you could live a very full life without breathing fresh air ever again!

“Waydowntown” is about a foursome of young office workers who try to do just that, wagering a month’s salary on who can stay inside the longest. The story is set on Day 24, when the rough edges are really starting to show. The movie truly captures the soul-sucking nature of working in an office building. The comedic tone is a bit darker than “Office Space,” and “Waydowntown” is by no means the classic that “Office Space” is, but it’s still a nice ode to throwing off the shackles of cubicle bondage.

The scary thing about “Waydowntown” is that it might be our future. As cities get bigger and more congested, the Calgary system of enclosed walkways connecting everything might become the standard. Cities might become like airports, with security checkpoints to pass through, and once you’re inside, you’re INSIDE. I wonder what effect that will have on people. Will we need those little soundproof booths to step into and scream at the top of our lungs? What breed of hominids will evolve in such an ant farm? I believe I’d rather go out a 20th story window than find out.

4 stars

Monday, June 09, 2008

I Love You Again (1940)

After an of-its-time disappointment like “Juno”, it made sense to dip back into the archives for something timeless. This classic comedy by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, proved just the thing. It’s a delightful romp filled with physical comedy and surprising innuendo.

Powell plays Larry Martin, a tea-totalling, cheapskate, Chamber of Commerce member. He suffers a blow to the head while saving a drowning man, and he wakes up with complete amnesia for the man who was Larry Martin. Instead, he has recovered his original personality, hard-partying con-man George Carey, an identity he apparently lost following a similar concussion 9 years earlier. With the help of Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh), whom he saved from drowning, Martin/Carey decides to clean out any available “Larry Martin” bank accounts before returning to his shady, big city life.

Once on land, however, Carey discovers that Martin has a lovely wife (Myrna Loy). He relishes the opportunity for a conjugal reunion, but quickly learns that Kay, bored to death with Larry Martin, has taken up with another man and is asking for a divorce. Thus, Carey returns to Martin’s home with the twin goals of swindling some money and winning the heart of his wife.

“I Love You Again” is not one of the greatest films of all time; it is just a funny, little movie that is comfortable in its own skin. The tone and pacing are just right, and the actors have a good time with it. There is plenty of slapstick, physical comedy and some word-play that is surprisingly dirty if you have a dirty mind.

The team of W.S. Van Dyke, William Powell, and Myrna Loy was apparently something of a 30’s and 40’s staple. Powell and Loy formed a Hollywood pair on the level of Bogart and Bacall, though they were a couple on screen only. Perhaps their most famous work was in the prolific “Thin Man” series. The pair was known for excellent chemistry and banter, all of which is on display in “I Love You Again.”

4 stars

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Juno (2007)

If you haven’t seen “Juno” yet, you must be living under an even bigger rock than I am. It’s this year’s Little Miss Greek Wedding. “The little movie that could.” “Refreshing!” Surely you’ve heard the unbridled love-fest surrounding “Juno.” What it all boils down to is that a film with a small budget actually managed to find an audience. It happens at least every year or two, but somehow it always feels like the first time.

Once everybody got over the initial rush over this spunky, clever little film and it’s spunky, clever writer Diablo Cody (Isn’t that a spunky, clever name?), we all had to figure out which side of the “Juno” divide we were on. No sooner had people started to see and love the film than a “Juno” backlash started. Now, you either love it or hate it. You are either with “Juno” or with the terrorists. Myself, I went back and forth over it for a few months, loving it, then hating it, and then loving it again. I finally decided I would never be able to stop waffling unless I actually watched it.

The story is fairly straightforward. The title character, a teenaged girl named Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), does the nasty with her best male friend, track nerd Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). A few weeks later she is guzzling fruit punch to provide material for about a dozen home pregnancy tests. (Which, by the way, is what just about every mother I know has done upon getting pregnant. Isn’t one test enough? Maybe two. It’s like, “You had sex; your period’s late, and the line is pink. How much more evidence do you need?!”) She bails out on her initial plan to “nip it in the bud,” and opts for adoption. Juno thinks she has found the perfect parents in yuppies Mark and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), but…wait for it…it turns out they have some growing up of their own to do. See, you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you, just like you will know everything that is going to happen in “Juno” within about ten minutes of the opening credits. The plot is that shopworn and trite, and I find it amazing that writer Diablo Cody is such the toast of Hollywood based on this.

There is a German word, Witzelsucht, that refers to excessive attempts at humor. “Juno” is guilty of HipundCleversucht. Don’t get me wrong; there are some funny lines and catchphrases in the film; I love the term “up the spout” for pregnant. In too many scenes, though, the script is trying too hard to “crackle,” and it’s obvious the actors are reciting lines.

Many “Juno” fans aren’t even paying attention to all that, though, because they are so busy looking for the “reproductive issues” message. It’s hilarious how everyone has tried to claim this movie as a victory for their side. Right-to-Lifers celebrate Juno’s choice of adoption over abortion. Pro-Choicers celebrate the fact that she has a choice at all. Meanwhile, feminists can’t shut up about how great it is that someone made a movie about a girl. The real genius of Diablo Cody is not her screenwriting, but her marksmanship. She has managed to hit some previously unknown political sweet spot that makes all sides of the reproduction/gender issue love her film on some level, while maintaining the original political divisions.

What saves “Juno” as a movie is the acting. Page, Cera, Bateman, Garner, J.K. Simmons (as Juno’s dad), and Allison Janney (the stepmom) all deserve honors for taking this little movie up a notch. They make the movie fun and human enough that I would have to recommend the film despite my “Juno” cynicism. Ignore the hype; go into it expecting a fun, small movie, and you’ll probably have a good time.

3 stars out of 5