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Film Review: Stranger than Fiction

Beneath the Charlie Kaufman-lite surface of Stranger Than Fiction lies a pair of compelling stories, one of which is clear to the eye and one of which is not.

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Beneath the Charlie Kaufman-lite surface of Stranger Than Fiction lies a pair of compelling stories, one of which is clear to the eye and one of which is not. With only one of them in mind you will most certainly enjoy the film, which itself is a wonderfully astute, sincere and accessible piece of grown-up entertainment, the kind of which has been sorely lacking all season long. Only when you come to discover the other, however, will you catch its third dimension and truly come to appreciate its truthful, direct observations on modern life.

The visible story regards the plight of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a buttoned-up, highly symmetrical human being who works, very appropriately, as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. Through visual and narrative cues we learn that Harold keeps a tight rein on everything in his life, from the number of brushstrokes he uses while brushing his teeth, to the single Windsor knot on his tie and the precise time he walks onto the arriving bus every morning. He’s automatic when it comes to doing otherwise difficult multiplication in his head. Even when Harold wakes up one day to find his life being narrated by an unseen voice (which he mentions to a psychiatrist “has a better vocabulary” than he), he initially seems more genuinely puzzled than just plain freaked out. 

Across town, reclusive, chain-smoking author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) finds herself failing in efforts to fend off a monster case of writer’s block. So bad, in fact, that her publisher has sent along an assistant (Queen Latifah) to keep tabs of the situation, who glibly mentions that she’s never failed in an assignment to help an author finish a book. Eiffel has been stifled in her attempts to find a manner in which to kill off her protagonist, her literary signature, attempting to find inspiration by hanging out on roofs, lingering along canals near bridges and hanging around hospitals, to no avail.

Harold, meanwhile, employs the assistance of professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who takes up his case only when Harold mentions that the unseen voice following him around used the phrase “for all he knows,” which implies the presence of a third-person omniscient, or a storyteller. They set out to determine whether the story that Harold is living is a comedy or a tragedy, which comes quickly to a head when Harold finds himself in the most unusual of situations, falling for an auditee, free-spirited baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), visibly and philosophically his complete opposite.

This is the setup for a sweet, charming trifle of a movie, with a dash of quirk included to keep things from falling into a conventional groove. The inherently curious, though, will find a deeper and more satisfying subtext waiting to be uncorked.

Emma Thompson, playing Karen, yet another author who bears even the slightest resemblance to J.D. Salinger (stick the words “reclusive” and “author” in the same sentence and you’re bound to think the same thing every time), very nimbly keeps her portrayal from descending into parody. You aren’t going to see her character go all Sean Connery and start spouting modernist silliness like, “you’re the man now, dawg.” Whether you are more inclined to create art or to consume art is irrelevant; either way you feel for her plight as the creator of her own work, and that her inability to resolve the conflict facing her eats away at her emotionally, much like a more conventional conflict would eat away at someone in a more conventional line of work. Like Harold Crick. Or Ana Pascal, for whom Harold is the conflict. We see it in Karen’s face, with the bags under her eyes and the perpetually panicked expression on her face, and her neurotic manner of smothering her cigarettes in a napkin. Which, as much as she smokes, happens a lot.

Will Ferrell also engages us as Harold, but from the other direction. He’s a cipher, an exaggerated everyman, a caricature of the 21st Century servant. Reliable to a fault, but also as spontaneous as a doorstop. His only friend, Dave (Tony Hale, whom many will recognize from his role as bespectacled brother Buster Bluth of the late Arrested Development), is a co-worker, albeit one who takes him in after an unusual accident displaces Harold from his own apartment. Harold is jarred from his repetitive, run-of-the-mill existence by the unseen voice, a phenomenon that forces him to resort to answers outside his regimented, systematic existence. Ferrell is refreshing here, being that he finally doesn’t seem to be playing Will Ferrell playing someone else. He’s unconventionally handsome, with a built-in awkward charm that may help him gravitate toward more roles like this in the future.

Harold’s relational conundrum and general confusion may be the audience’s surface connection for a large part of the film, but in the end it is Karen’s struggle as the author that embodies the artist’s constant battle to create something that is both artistically honest and commercially viable. Everyone wants their efforts to be recognized, and artists are especially vulnerable to getting hung up when they realize that their artistic vision may have to be compromised in order to be seen. In this case, her solution not only involves wriggling out of her own quandary, but it is also paramount in bringing Harold’s journey to fruition. 

Stranger Than Fiction is a warm, crisply written movie that thankfully wastes very little of its potential, thanks in large part to a capable and very entertaining cast that are just eating this high concept piece up. Screenwriter Zach Helm, with his first feature film script, and Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland)wind up the cast and just let them go to town. It works equally well on multiple levels, so regardless of your emotional investment you will be rewarded. It’s funny, it’s mature, and it knows that the most honest brand of comedy is that which is based in real life.

STRANGER THAN FICTION
Directed by: Marc Forster
Cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 113 minutes


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Film Reviews

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a splendid coda to the Avengers

Save the world, save the girl?

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Spider-Man

Where do you go after Avengers: Endgame? The finale to an 11-year journey was always going to be a heavy exhale. But with much of the story finding conclusion, it was only natural that the next chapter would be something a little lighter, less fraught but still tense with importance. The question of responsibility and the burden of carrying it has been a fundamental principle of being a superhero in this universe, a burden that only continues in the final film of this phase. So where does the Marvel Cinematic Universe go after Endgame? Well, on holiday of course. Spider-Man: Far From Home is not only a splendid film but a nice coda to the biggest cinematic undertaking we’ve seen in recent history.

You can find Spider-Man: Far From Home nestled in the cinematic landscape somewhere between Iron Man 3 and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Peter Parker (Tom Holland, really solidifying himself as this generation’s best Spider-Man) is Clark Griswolding himself across Europe to chase the heart of MJ (Zendaya). As a bumbling 16-year-old who only wants to find the girl, his romance is cut a little short by the expected Marvel cinematic tomfoolery we’ve come to expect from our arachnid hero. Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as Mysterio is a concerted effort; a cross between Tony Stark’s wise but too cool tutelage and Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin (take that how you will). As the carnage across Europe unfolds, the film becomes a well-balanced juxtapositioning of the kind of humor we’ve found appealing within in the MCU and action and adventure that doesn’t become overly burdensome or heavy. Far From Home keeps things light and breezy, but you never forget the stakes or think that this is just a tacked on fling after the events of Endgame.

The cast are well rounded and the addition of Marvel players we’ve come to love (Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, Spider-Man sidekick Ned, and both Nick Fury and Maria Hill) makes it hit with almost the same gravitas as the previous films. But more importantly, they never make the film feel like an overstuffed mess that plagued outings like Age of Ultron. The pace is engaging, and as the story unfolds amongst the smoke and mirrors, you can’t help but feel a kind of comic book happiness that you felt through Homecoming. It’s charming, it’s earnest, it’s funny, and at times, doesn’t take itself too seriously (Spider-Man video game in-joke included!). Plus it has those little moments that while may have been written for fans, will appeal to anyone who enjoys a good laugh, a touching moment, and good filmmaking. While the death of Tony Stark looms large within the narrative of the film, it doesn’t become baggage- but rather the catalyst for growth within Parker and helps propel the story to its conclusion.

However, one can’t help but feel that the continued presence of Tony Stark, and the reminder that he is gone, really does give this universe a sense of finality. If you stay for the end-credits (both scenes), you’ll know that Marvel has plans both big and small in the coming years. Far From Home is both the end and the beginning in a sense. It’s a nice coda to Endgame, and for some, probably a good place to step away from the past 11 years. Far From Home is also continued proof that heart and the desire to do good doesn’t always have to follow the same tired script. Save the world, lose the girl? Maybe not this time.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is in cinemas now.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
Directed by: Jon Watts
Written by: Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna
Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Colbie Smulders, Marisa Tomei
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Run time: 129 minutes

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Film Review: Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film.

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Murder Mystery is the next film in the long line of terrible Adam Sandler films distributed by Netflix. At this point we’re not sure that Netflix actually watches these movies before they put them on their service but here we are. Murder Mystery, like many of the recent Sandler-helmed flicks, seem less like movies than they do lavish holidays that Adam Sandler and friends go on where filming of random skits tied together loosely by some semblance of narrative occurs. Much of the film is slapped together with the kind of duct-tape storytelling you’d find in all those mediocre SNL movies.

There is star quality though. Jennifer Aniston is back, after working alongside Sandler in 2011’s equally terrible Just Go With It, and they’ve roped in some pretty prominent names, including Luke Evans (Fast & Furious series, The Hobbit), Gemma Arterton, and a happily cashing in his check Terrence Stamp. What happens can be best described as stupid Cluedo, or more blatantly, a dumb Murder On the Orient Express where Sandler and Aniston’s characters, a bumbling New York cop and hair dresser, stumble upon a high-stakes inheritance-grab murder mystery where absurd things happen. It never makes much sense but the biggest problems with these movies are not so much the cartoony skits (Sandler’s cop is so bad at shooting his gun that when he does, it’s a cartoon-like hail of bullets missing their target), but just the insanely unbelievable characters that fill these movies. It’s OK to suspend belief, but at this point, you don’t believe for one second any of the characters would exist in real life or that any of them act like actual humans do. There is also no shortage of cartoon bozos: Fat New York cop sidekick? Check. Buffoony Inspector Clouseau French detective? Check. Overly Spanish Spanish guy? Check. Ali G Indian guy? Check. Even Gemma Arterton’s Jessica Rabbit-esque character would make Jessica Rabbit shake her head in disbelief. At least Rob Schneider isn’t in it.

Is it funny? No, but there are actually some moments worth a chuckle. And that’s already better than Sandler’s previous Netflix outings. Murder Mystery’s jokes are mostly at the expense of the exaggerated caricatures and Sandler’s goofy self, but for the most part, its pretty bereft of humor. To make matters worse, the film has that cheap Netflix sheen to it that makes it even more of a TV movie than it already is. In the end, the movie is such a blatant Murder on the Orient Express rip-off that the end scene literally shows the Orient Express train. Unironically too.

Netflix’s has a serious movie problem- one that we’ve talked about before. Murder Mystery, is no different. You can’t fault Sandler for continuing down this path. Same goes for Aniston. Both have more than established their craft over the years that at times, you can’t help but feel envious of the position they’re in. So what if they just want to put their feet up, cash in a nice pay check, and enjoy the nice sights? Who wouldn’t?

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film, but it’s what happens when we’ve given this much clout to Netflix. Spielberg had a point when he said Netflix movies shouldn’t be competing for Oscars. It is not only because they eschew theatrical traditions, but it should also be because they’re crap. And not even in the Spielberg Artificial Intelligence sense of being an average movie- but in the Lifetime channel level of crap. So really, when you think about, Murder Mystery is all our fault.

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