Summer stock

An off-duty critic catches up with the summer's surprise gems: 'Julie & Julia,' 'Funny People,' and 'District 9'

For those who noticed, forgive my long absence from BDJ Unscreened. Hey, it was summer. I spent a month on a remote lake without watching a frame of film or TV, except for an experimental short that I was editing on a computer in a log cabin—and Antonioni’s The Passenger, which I revisited after buying it some time ago on iTunes. In the couple of weeks since I’ve been back in town, I’ve been gorging on advance screenings for the Toronto festival—which starts Sept. 10—and catching up on some of the summer movies I’ve missed.

Usually you can take a month off after mid-July and not miss much, aside from some puerile blockbusters. But I was surprised to see that good movies had somehow sneaked into the heart of the summer schedule, notably Judd Apatow’s Funny People. But the first one on my wife’s list was Julie & Julia, and I complied. We were both surprised how conventional it was, especially considering that it comes from Nora Ephron, who seems to have the sharpest wit of any woman in America, at least judging by the recent profile of her in the New Yorker. It took a while to get used to Meryl Streep’s super-broad portrayal of Julia Child, which seemed based on Dan Aykroyd’s immortal SNL caricature, which thankfully was included in the film. For the world’s most Oscar-ed actress, Meryl is quite the hambone. Always has been. But the performance eventually ground me down, like Juia’s heavy-duty mortar and pestle, and won me over— as did Amy Adams as Julie, the blogger who assiduously works her way through Child’s French cookbook. I laughed, I cried. But for both heroines in this split-level story, the cartharsis is about writing, not cooking. The big emotional moments aren’t about making the perfect souflee; they’re about scoring a publishing deal. Julie & Julia is a writer-director’s ode to a two writers directing their own lives by turning the kitchen into a one-woman salon of liberation. It’s also a chick flick of the highest order. I was one of three men in a theatre with about 60 women. And the men onscreen were practically servile. As Julia Child’s patient husband, Stanley Tucci gave the film’s most subtle and measured performance, but that’s perhaps because his role was so deferential and devoted. Julie’s husband, despite some whimpers of protest, was equally supportive. Despite the clichés and the bulldozer performances, however, I realized that this stock-pot of conventional tropes is, in the end, a pretty unconventional movie. I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie about two pushy dames cooking and writing their way to personal fulfillment?

But I liked Funny People better. This isn’t just a smart comedy with a lot of dick jokes, although that’s part of it. It’s a superb character drama, with Canadian Seth Rogen striking an empathetic chord as the eager protegé of a stuck-up comedy star (Adam Sandler), who adopts him as his personal assistant while battling terminal cancer. I won’t review it here. Too late for that. But what astounded me was Sandler’s performance, which has a gravitas you’d never expect from him. I know it’s still early, and the Academy is not in the habit of awarding comic actors who portray self-centred jerks—this is a far cry from a triumph of the human spirit, but Sandler gives a performance of unswerving realism that has both bile and heart, and I’d say the guy deserves a nomination. As for the movie, you’ve got to hand it to Judd Apatow: very few directors have the chops to make a 140-minute comedy that doesn’t drag.

Finally, I also caught up with District 9. Despite everything I’d heard, I didn’t expect to enjoy a movie populated by clunky alien invaders with limbs that resemble rusty Transformers. But Neill Blombkamp’s District 9 more than transcends its genre. The premise is ingenious: a brilliant, a giant spaceship has parked itself above Johannesburg, and instead of celestial radiance, it offers a close encounter with a horde of battered, mal-nourished alien beings that are herded into a shantytown and treated as sub-human refugees. Much of the movie unfolds as a documentary that’s been made two decades after the creatures have arrived. And the story focuses on an earnest bureaucrat who’s put in charge of peacefully relocating them to refugee camps, while the armed forces, led by his sinister father-in-law, seem more intent on imposing a Final Solution. Unfortunately, the documentary conceit is not consistently maintained, as the style lapse into more conventional narrative, but this is a riveting thriller with a questionable—and contaminated—hero whose virtue becomes an embattled work in progress. Even the aliens, who earn the racist epithet “prawns”, are well-crafted, although they do look a bit like slimy refugees from Pirates of the Caribbean.

So that’s how I didn’t spend my summer vacation. Now the madness of TIFF is in full gear, at least for media types like me. And BDJ Unscreened will resume in earnest after Labour Day with blow-by-blow reportage from the festival trenches.