In the French romantic comedy Delicacy, there is a gorgeous Parisian woman who’s in a semi-permanent state of celibacy after losing her husband. She ignores advances from handsome men, and ultimately chooses a good-natured Swede with poor fashion sense. Everyone who sees the Swede, including the audience, has an Arrested Development moment where they think “Him?” or “Is he funny or something?” But co-writer/director David Foenkinos, working from his novel, makes us believe in the unlikely pair.
Few narratives are more appealing than mandated fights to the death. They neatly distill conflict and tension, so dire stakes cultivate powerful symbols. The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular young adult novel, uses such a premise to explore the similarities between totalitarian oppression and adolescence. Under the direction of Gary Ross, this is satisfying science fiction, although the acting eclipses the action.
In a blockbuster season full of giant killer robots and giant killer monsters, The Raid: Redemption gives the current crop of action films a swift punch in the gut. Its story is delightfully minimalistic. A group of well-trained policeman enter an apartment building that’s run by a drug kingpin. The bad guys are expecting the cops, so a by-the-numbers operation turns into an exhausting ordeal for those who survive. Soon it’s up to Rama (Iko Uwais), a powerful young cop, to stop the kingpin and his deadly lieutenants. Welsh director Gareth Evans follows his brief introduction with nonstop, visceral action. The pace never slackens, and culminates in a powerful, physically-demanding fight sequence. Few martial arts films are this unrelenting. Shortly after The Raid: Redemption had a screening at South by Southwest, I talked with Evans about how he films action, and his plans for future projects.
On paper at least, 21 Jump Street should be a disaster. It’s shamelessly derivative, an amalgam of countless tropes in lazy Hollywood filmmaking. It rehashes buddy comedy, high school comedy, substance abuse, car chases, and wanton gunfire. More importantly, the movie is a reboot of an earnest TV series that hasn’t aged well (watch some YouTube clips of the old show – they’re hilarious). But directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller make no attempt to preserve the tone of the original show, and they expertly riff on clichés with rude humor and visual panache.
Will Ferrell can be a cinematic force of nature. When his persona takes center stage, as it does in Anchorman, his earnest, go-for-broke style sometimes dwarfs his fellow actors and even the filmmaking team behind him. Those characters are highly quotable, obviously, though the movie suffers as a result. In Stranger than Fiction, on the other hand, Ferrell dials down the weirdness, so then the movie improves overall. Casa de mi Padre, Ferrell’s latest, follows in the tradition of Stranger than Fiction, albeit in an unlikely way. By having Ferrell tone down his weirdness, director Matt Piedmont’s feature debut is a side-busting satire of no-budget Mexican melodrama.
Jennifer Westfeldt‘s romantic comedies are funny, warm, and daring. In Kissing Jessica Stein, in which she co-wrote and starred, she played a supposedly straight woman who embarks on a same-sex romance. Her follow-up, Ira & Abby, was a rom-com farce about an unlikely pair who get married on a whim. Now Westfeldt makes her directorial debut with Friends with Kids, opening in theaters today.
Westfeldt and Adam Scott star as Julie and Jason, longtime friends who decide to have a baby without any of the usual relationship trappings. They’re friends with two other couples (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig are one, Chris O’Dowd and Maya Rudolph the other) who have doubts about the arrangement because they’ve seen how challenging kids can be. Friends with Kids is more than a reunion of the Bridesmaids cast. Westfeldt’s characters are at a different stage of adulthood, and she explores their lives with nerve. I recently had a chance to chat with her about the writing process, the state of romantic comedies, and how her characters’ lives resemble the lives of her friends/co-stars.