Friday, April 11, 2014

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (2014) - A Review
This picks up two hours after the events of the first film, so we'd better start there...
The Raid: Redemption (2011) was all about an elite group of police officers in Jakarta who are tasked with taking down a crime boss who is holed up in a high rise apartment building - or, as the tagline for the film said: "1 Ruthless Crime Lord. 20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Chaos." The good guys soon find that getting into the building was easy, but that getting out is extremely difficult, since the bad guys lock down the entire building once they're in. This leads to an hour and a half of non-stop action and mayhem, at the end of which only two of the good guys walk (well, limp) away. One of those two is Rama (Iko Uwais), who we meet again two hours later...
...When one of his fellow police officers explains that, since Rama (Uwais again) is alive, the bad guys from the first film will want to hunt him and his family down. So it's pitched to him that the best thing he could do is to immediately go undercover - in prison, no less - to infiltrate the Jakarta syndicate and help bring them down from the inside. Rama is understandably reluctant to do so, but, because he fears for his family's safety, he agrees. He's told he'll only have to spend a few months in prison to establish himself with the crooks. Cue the title card that says it's two years later...Rama gets sprung and taken into the fold of the mob run by Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). Rama had saved Bangun's hotheaded son, Uco (Arifin Putra), from being killed during a riot in the prison, an act which made Bangun grateful to Rama, even if he doesn't trust him entirely.
Of course, Rama isn't getting much help from his contact on the police force, either, and he's still furious that he wound up spending two years in prison. So, stuck in his new role for the duration, Rama tries to navigate the Jakarta underworld from the inside - and tries to keep Uco from breaking the truce between his family and the Japanese Goto clan.
There's more to it than that, but I trust you get the idea. At two and a half hours in length, this film unfolds in an unhurried fashion, yet is always moving forward. Films longer than two hours are a tough sell for me, but I was engaged with this all the way through. Yes, it is extremely violent in parts, but it's nothing like the essentially non-stop carnage in the first film. Other than continuing with the character of Rama, this is a very different film from the first one, which is a refreshing change from the usual sequel that is often just a remake/retread of whatever came before.

As with the first film, this was written and directed by Gareth Evans, who is inexplicably but wonderfully a Welshman working in Indonesia (again), this time with a cast that is pretty much all Indonesian and Japanese. Though I really, really hate how blurry digital photography looks whenever there's swift movement, I give Evans credit for doing a good job of keeping things fairly easy to follow, even in the midst of chaos. Even in the prison riot sequence, in which everyone involved is instantly covered in mud, Evans makes it clear who is who, and how all the flailing, fighting bodies relate to one another spatially. I also give him credit for avoiding action movie clichés in his soundtrack (no cliché grating loud rock during fight scenes) and for often choosing to slow things down for a spell, rather than try to keep the entire film going at a hectic tempo.
But hectic moments do occur fairly regularly, and action fans (like my wife, who squealed throughout the film) should be very pleased with this. There are car chases, gun fights, knife fights, hammer fights, and all sorts of very impressive martial arts work and hand-to-hand combat (co-choreographed by Uwais, a professional in pencak silat, or Indonesian martial arts). Much has been made of the elevator fight scene in the recent Captain America sequel, with Cap fighting a whole gang of baddies in that tight space. Well, Uwais totally tops that here in his first big fight scene - a fight in which he takes on about a dozen angry inmates in a toilet stall. There's also not one, but two fights in cars; a fight in a mom and pop restaurant, and in a big commercial kitchen; a fight in a subway car; a fight in a nightclub. The action scenes (though blurry) are really impressive, and very physical in the truest sense of the word.
Actually, comparisons to the new Captain America movie are appropriate. Both are second films in a series. Both are lengthy action films containing many of the stock materials used to construct such things (fist fights, gun fights, car chases, etc.). And both focus on lead characters who are unquestionably good, but who are stuck in a position of fighting evil on one hand, while quite possibly being undermined by some of their so-called allies on the other side as well.
But whereas the second Captain America feels like product turned out for an increasingly global market, The Raid 2 is full of the energy and passion of people creating something that they love. Though its central storyline is one that has been used many times before, the film feels fresh, alive and vital. As pure spectacle, the (mostly) real bodies used to create the impressive (mostly) real action in The Raid 2 absolutely trumps the cliché, CGI fireballs and flying ships that provide so many of the "thrills" in massive and expensive Hollywood film product. The fact that Evans and Uwais were able to turn out such an utterly ballistic and satisfying film on a budget that had to be a tiny fraction of what they spent on Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also worth noting, and something to give them a great deal of credit for. 
I was delighted to see that this was coming to our local multiplex. In the year that I've lived here, I have never seen them buy an ad in our local newspaper - until today, when I spotted a small ad just for this film. My wife and I went to the first show. Besides us, there was just one other person there. I suspect that the theater booked it because of the large number of Asian and international students that we have here. Unfortunately, this is opening here the same weekend that many of the Asian student associations are having their big annual events (India Night, Japan Night, Vietnamese Night), keeping lots of said students busy. Hopefully the attendance will pick up, because this is a great film that deserves to be seen, and to do well. As soon as we were out of the theater, my wife said she'd like to see it again. I would too.
P.S. - "Berandal" means thug...

Monday, April 7, 2014

MICKEY ROONEY (1920-2014) - A Tribute
What can you say about Mickey Rooney that hasn't been said already? The guy had a true one-of-a-kind life, in addition to a remarkably long life and lengthy career. He was well and truly woven into the historical fabric of 20th century America.

Mickey was one of the rare child stars who went on to become an adult star. And he didn't just become an adult star, for several years at his peak he was the star, ranked Number One at the American box office. His films as Andy Hardy and co-starring with Judy Garland are icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
He didn't just make a movie with Clark Gable - he played Gable's character as a child in 1934's Manhattan Melodrama. This was also the movie John Dillinger watched at the Biograph Theater just before he was shot down by the feds. Twenty-two years later, Mickey played real-life gangster Baby Face Nelson in the 1957 film of that name. Nelson and Dillinger had been cohorts, and Nelson was also shot dead by the feds in 1934. How's that for a weird full circle?
Mickey's first wife was Ava Gardner. Just that alone would be enough for a lifetime for most men.
But, in the end, Mickey had eight wives total. His fortunes went through numerous booms and busts.
Mickey was on the cover of Time magazine.

Mickey made great A pictures, and some memorable B pictures, and a few truly whacked out wonders like The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960 - he played the Devil and co-directed the picture) and the awful/wonderful Skidoo (1968).
Mickey was a hit in the movies, and on Broadway.
Mickey sang and danced and acted and wrote and directed.
Sir Laurence Olivier once referred to him as the greatest film actor America ever produced.
And on and on and on - and then on some more. Mickey Rooney in many ways embodied the expression too much is never enough.

Tonight, to mark his passing, we'll be watching him in my favorite of his films, the excellent domino noir, Quicksand (1950). I think it's one of his best dramatic roles, and it was made smack in the middle of the century he straddled like few others. (In Quicksand, Mickey has one scene with a young Jack Elam, whom I used to see almost every morning at a bakery I worked at. So for a time, I guess I was just a couple of degrees of separation from Mickey...)

I'm not going to lie and say the Mickey Rooney was ever one of my favorite performers, but I absolutely recognize and respect his place in American film history, and American history in general. He led a life in the movies, and a life that was like a movie.
Rest in peace, Mickey. I hope that Ava's there to give you a kiss.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

BAD WORDS (2013)
A Double Feature Review
In a giant multiplex setting, let's just say there are sometimes opportunities for creating your own double feature experience. So yesterday, my wife and I saw this noting-in-common combo.
First Captain America, and the goods parts therein. In movies based on comic books, the character of Captain America is probably second only to Superman in being a difficult one to portray in a way that isn't fairly corny. Literally a man out of his time, and an honestly honest and gee-whiz decent person, Captain America/Steve Rogers provides a tough balancing act for an actor. Chris Evens, once again, finds that balance. He is honest without being hokey; patriotic without being a prick about it. I don't really know if he's a great actor or not, but in this role, he does very commendable work. Anthony Mackie, as Cap's new friend and sidekick Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon, also did a good job in a somewhat thankless role. He and Evans (after a nicely set up "meet cute") have a good, believable chemistry, one which will doubtlessly serve the series well as it moves forward.
As for the rest of the film...Well, it was...okay. I thought the first Captain America movie was one of the best Marvel-based films made. It had to introduce multiple characters, straddle time periods between World War II and the upcoming Avengers movie, and generally keep quite a few balls in the air all at once - which it did. The sequel, however, seems far too content to rely on CGI effects blowing things up. Just like the second Thor film, this one, especially the "big" climax, feels like a case of deja vu all over again. The entire world in jeopardy? Check. Giant ships and superheroes battling in the skies over a major city? Check. Flames and destruction raining down on said city? Check. And color me somewhat checked out at this point, y'know?
With the plot here, as stated above, once again placing the whole world in peril (due to the machinations of the secret society Hydra, whose members have infiltrated the world-protecting S.H.I.E.L.D. organization), this films runs into the problem that often vexed characters in comic books: When the safety of the entire world is on the line, why don't these heroes ever call in their fellow (and more powerful) superhero friends? As I watched Captain America and the Black Widow running hither and yon trying to stop Hydra's evil plans, I just kept wondering, "Why doesn't Cap call Iron Man? Or the Hulk? Or..."
Not to worry, of course, since Cap manages to save the day (and the planet) in the end. Now, I don't wish to sound ungrateful for all that, but, I still left feeling a little cheated. For the character of Captain America, this felt a lot like a holding pattern, aside from introducing the Falcon. In terms of the larger, collective Avengers story arc, this didn't advance that at all. And, I'm sorry, but, I still don't buy Scarlett Johansson as a Russian, as an assassin, as a superhero, or anyone to take at all seriously in this context. (I swear she was chewing gum in several scenes.)

What will be interesting to see moving forward though, is how all these interlocking characters and plots evolve. There have been superhero franchises before, but they've always been standalones. Thus, when they ran their course (creatively and/or financially) the studios have just rebooted the character(s) involved and started over again. But that won't be possible here. Now that Cap and the Hulk and Thor and everyone else are all playing together, it's hard to imagine Marvel Studios just deciding to pull, say, Iron Man out and start all over again with the character. So far as I know, this is uncharted territory for Hollywood. Though the Marvel films have been a very mixed bag, I am curious to see how this dynamic plays out over the coming years.
Moving on now...
Generally, I think if you've made a film that really only has ten or fifteen killer minutes in it, it's probably best to put those minutes near the end, to finish on a high note, and send the audience out satisfied.
Unfortunately for Bad Words, what I think were the best ten minutes of the film were the first ten minutes of the film. The very first line had me laughing, and I was hopeful that I was seeing the start of a little gem. But, though there were other bright moments spread throughout the film, it didn't even come close to maintaining the promise of its own opening. The heavy hand of having to have "likeable characters" and a "happy ending" were obviously clamped down on this production.

Directed by and starring Jason Bateman, Bad Words tells the story of Guy Trilby (Bateman), who, for reasons unknown, has found a loophole that allows him to compete in a national spelling bee intended for children. In the beginning, Guy is presented as being, at best, a difficult person to like. His notably unsympathetic character was, in my opinion, a real strength in the first third of the film. The fact that he was acting on unknown motives was also engaging. It was possible to imagine any number of fairly dark things driving him, which only added to the film's initial black comedy appeal.
Ah, but then...We are introduced to one of his rivals in the spelling bee, nine-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, who does do a very good job of being annoyingly adorable). Guy's initial responses to the chirpy Chaitanya are rude, crude and dismissive. But soon enough, the kid is worming his way into Guy's heart, which severely weakens the bleak, black heart of the film itself. By the time that we learn Guy's motive for entering the spelling bee, Bad Words has pretty much run out of steam.
But it never does quite run out of sexism, sadly. This film definitely doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. (Google it if you're not familiar with it.) Though Kathryn Hahn has some nice moments as the "reporter" covering Guy's progress, there were problems with much of the rest of the film. Though both of Chaitanya's parents are seen, and described as having a keen interest in their son's performance in the spelling bee, only his father gets any dialogue. His mother is seen but not never speaks. The only black woman with a speaking part in the film plays a street whore who exposes her breasts for Chaitanya. And so it goes.
What started out as a potentially nicely nasty black comedy ends up being much closer to a standard crude and sexist male farce with an artificial overlay of sentimentality. It's always a shame to see talent wasted, but that's what you get here. Hopefully Hollywood will eventually grow out of its current juvenile male period - especially given the ever-increasing body of evidence showing how having strong female characters helps films at the box office. But you know...I'm not gonna hold my breath waiting.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Well, from one side of the Iron Curtain to another, and to a rocket of a different type. I'd seen the dubbed American version of this before, in various lousy, faded, cropped prints. (You can also see part of it in the 1980 film Galaxina.) But seeing the restored, letterboxed original was a much more enjoyable experience.

Der Schweigende Stern was the first science fiction film made in East Germany, which makes it noteworthy in and of itself. Though a little slow as science fiction, there are a number of things that make it very much worth seeing, either as a historical footnote or a so-so piece of entertainment.

But first, the story. In the near future, scientists are puzzling over a mysterious artifact found in the debris of the famous Tunguska explosion - an artifact that appears to have been manufactured by extraterrestrials. After determining that the object must have come from Venus, a spaceship is launched there to investigate. But the bad news is (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) that a message contained on the artifact is, in fact, a declaration of war on the Earth, and, it turns out that the very presence of the human astronauts on Venus activates the doomsday weapon aimed at Earth.

Now, as I've said, some of this film is just bad sci-fi silly. I can think of no reason for the members of the space team to each have different colored spacesuits, other than to show off the admittedly beautiful Agfacolor used in the film. The remarkably slow-talking, chess-playing robot is pretty corny. And the rocket launch pad located in the middle of a grassy field...Well, let's just say I could see a lot of fire and security hazards with such a set-up.

And most of the first two-thirds of the film are pretty talky, with the introduction of the plot, the various characters, and the journey to Venus. Once there, the film features some great sets, some nice sound effects and music, and some truly trippy and surreal visuals that were way ahead of their time. Not exactly what you might expect from a stolid East German studio.

Given that it is from an East German studio, and was made post-Sputnik in the middle of the Cold War, Der Schweigende Stern does contain what probably counts as propaganda, but, in my opinion, gives it a soft sell that actually makes it more effective. For one thing, the dialogue often subtly makes it clear that, in this particular future, Communist countries are seen as legitimate and valued players on the global stage. Their ideology is presented as being both intellectual and inclusive.

Thus, it's taken for granted that the Germans will take a leadership role in the cooperative efforts to unravel this mystery. When the crew for the journey to Venus is assembled, it is made up not only of scientists (men and women) from Germany and Poland, but also from Japan, Africa and the U.S. In this way, the film is once again ahead of its time, and resembles the one-of-everything casting that has become much more common in Hollywood genre films today.

Now, to repeat, if your personal definition of science fiction needs to include cool robots or lots of action, then this is probably not the movie for you. This leans more towards the cerebral, with some nice surreal special effects near the end, just so you'll know you've been to Venus. I was reminded at times of the Andrei Tarkovsky film, Solaris (1972), which makes a certain sense, since both films are based on novels by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. I don't think that Der Schweigende Stern is something I need to see again anytime soon, but it is an interesting film with much to offer students of film and/or the Cold War.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

ROCKET ATTACK, U.S.A. (1958/61) - A Review

With both Putin and Kim Jong-Un acting up, it kind of seems like the whole world is suffering from some sort of Cold War nostalgia nightmare. So it seemed like an appropriate time to watch this ultra-low budget Cold War classic from cult director Barry Mahon.
The film is, of course, Rocket Attack, U.S.A., and it was cranked out not long after the Soviet Union launched their famous Sputnik satellite. Mahon was ideally suited to this project because he A) had prior experience directing exploitation films, and B) he had flown combat missions with the Royal Air Force during World War II.
But don't worry that Mahon (who probably also wrote the script) brought too much experience or verisimilitude to this cheapie. Rocket Attack U.S.A. offers all the cheap and ludicrous thrills one could want from a Z-grade exploitation picture.
Our hero, John Manston (Mahon regular John McKay) is clearly and quickly identified to the audience as a top-notch spy guy. How do we know? Because he constantly wears a spy guy trench coat, cinched tight around the waist. Obviously he's just the guy to send undercover to Moscow to get the inside dope on the Soviet's missile capabilities! Once he makes it to Moscow, Manston hooks up with his contact, Tanya (Monica Davis - who also had previous experience with Mahon), a beautiful Russian who happens to be the mistress of the Soviet Secretary of Defense, and who also happens to speak perfect American English.
From there it's a mad whirl of bad dialogue, bad acting, cheap sets and stock footage, all leading up to a climactic gun fight at the most unconvincing launch pad you'll ever see. Then comes the ending - which is pretty downbeat: The Soviets successfully launch a nuclear missile that destroys New York City. Clearly intended (for marketing purposes if nothing else) as a "message" ending, the last image of the film is this:

In my opinion, Rocket Attack U.S.A. is a near-perfect specimen of the "torn from the headlines" school of exploitation filmmaking. Its tone is hysterical, its acting uniformly bad. The plot is jumbled, and moves forward in fits and starts. We're supposed to believe that most of it takes place in the U.S.S.R., but it was filmed in New Jersey. The special effects are some of the cheapest I've ever seen. And it crams all this, and more, into a brief 68 minutes. Crackpot history was never so much fun - or made so little demands on your time.

Barry Mahon is a classic bad movie master, perhaps best known for directing Errol Flynn's last movie, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959). He would go on to gift the world with films like The Dead One (1961), The Adventures of Busty Brown (1964), and The Beast That Killed Women (1965), which combined the horror and nudie genres in a story about an ape loose in a nudist camp. Continuing this somewhat schizophrenic nature of his career until the end, some of Mahon's final films included Fanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico (1969) and the children's film, Jack and the Beanstalk (1970). I haven't seen all of his many, many films, but those I have seen have all been entertaining, to say the least.

Monday, March 17, 2014

One of the things I love about living where I do is having access to the nearby (less than a ten minute walk) university library. Even if you're not a student, you can still use it - a library card for local residents costs all of one dollar.
In passing I should mention that my wife and I have availed ourselves of some of the great DVDs they have it the library - things like East German westerns and sci-fi films from the 1960s - but the focus for me is on all the books there. So many books, so little time! Being that I read non-fiction almost exclusively, this is just about the best recreational resource I could imagine. I can, and do, indulge all my personal obsessions there - I mean, the North Korea section is huge.
In any case, they also have a large and fairly deep film section, one with inherent appeal to a movie geek such as myself. I am slowly working my way through it, shelf by shelf. That's one of the great things about a library - you can take your time, it's probably not going to go out of business, and it doesn't cost anything (other than a little of your time) to take a chance on books that might not seem so interesting at first glance.
So I wanted to share a few thoughts on a few of the books that I've read lately. Like the films I review here, these books are from different periods of time. To me, films are fairly timeless, and therefore so are books about films. A film from 1933, or a book on films from the 1930s, is still current to me.
First up is a book I was a little leery of, but ended up finding very enjoyable. It's Night of the Living Dead by Ben Hervey (2008), and it's part of the BFI Film Classics series. Coming, as it does, out of the British Film Institute, and promising to be an "illuminating study" of Night of the Living Dead (1968), I was initially suspicious that this might be a bit too high brow for such a down and dirty film.
They're coming to get you, Barbara!
And the book does get kind of academic at times, with Cold War connections, Vietnam references, racial messages and all manner of (possible) deeper meanings to be extracted from the film and/or its script. I found these ideas interesting without being conclusive or especially illuminating. Even the film's director, George Romero, was apparently surprised at all the things that people read into the film. To paraphrase - sometimes a zombie is just a zombie, and sometimes a horror film is just a horror film. (Or even just a commercial venture.)
But, as a fan of the film, I found the fairly detailed background on the making of the film, and the people involved, very interesting. There are moments of inspiration, humor, and heartbreak captured here, and I suspect that it's this behind-the-scenes material that would appeal to most readers. As a profile of what was involved in the making of a groundbreaking and iconic horror film, this slim little book really delivers the goods.
Of course, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, and that turned out to be a pivotal year for movies in many ways, especially when it came to onscreen representations of violence. Roger Ebert attended a Saturday children's matinee of NOTLD, and his review captures the sense of how things were changing: "...they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up...This was little girls killing their mothers...Worst of all, even the hero got killed."
This is the bloody end of the line surveyed in Stephen Prince's 2003 book Classical Film Violence - Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968. Prince attempts to both explore and explain the many rules, regulations and "don'ts and be carefuls" that were in place during the period in question, as well as how they all came crumbling down at the end of the 1960s. He goes into the often conflicting desires - artistic, financial and moralistic - that were at play in the Hollywood system prior to 1968.
Bang, bang! Read, read!

Breaking with what is the mainstream view of the Production Code restrictions in place, and those who were charged with enforcing them, Prince argues that the people who have been historically viewed as censors were, in fact, much more concerned with helping filmmakers and studios avoid potential troubles with state censorship boards. Thus, those who have been viewed as barriers to artistic expression, were really simply most concerned with the financial wellbeing of the film industry as a whole. It's an interesting view, and one that Prince makes a good case for.
In any case, as a history of Hollywood seen through the prism of permissible violence, this is a pretty thorough and satisfying book. Anyone interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood is likely to find many items of interest here. However, those same film fans would also doubtlessly spot the small but numerous errors throughout the book. As an example: We all know in our dark little noir hearts that Richard Widmark made his screen debut playing Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death. Prince refers to the character throughout the book as Johnny Udo. Errors like this could easily have been avoided by simply checking the iMDB, or any number of film books, and their presence here dulled my enthusiasm for this book a little bit.
Finally, I read the director Edward Dmytryk's 1978 autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living. Written in a frank and straightforward style, this is a filmmaker's autobiography written for those who love movies. Rather than go into great detail about Dmytryk's childhood or upbringing, it pretty much jumps right into the start of his film career, and continues on from there, working in bits and pieces of his youth and background as needed.
Aside from having directed many great, iconic or noteworthy films - such as Behind the Rising Sun (1943), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), The Sniper (1952) and The Caine Mutiny (1954) - Dmytryk will also always be remembered as one of the "Hollywood Ten," the ten Hollywood artists blacklisted due to the efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk was also sent to prison as a result of the HUAC hearings, an experience he also talks about candidly in this book.
Edward Dmytryk made some very fine films.

Laid out essentially in chronological order of his films, and presented in a brisk manner, this may not be the most in-depth autobiography ever produced, but it is a valuable and engaging story of one man's place in both the history of American cinema, and politics. It was a quick read, and one I can recommend without hesitation.
And finally, finally...I also read parts of the Best Film Plays of 1943-1944 (1945), which consists of the shooting scripts of ten films from 1943-44. Some are pretty much forgotten (Wilson), some are now considered racially offensive (Dragon Seed), while some that were financial failures (The Ox-Bow Incident) are now considered classics. I skimmed parts of several scripts, but read the two scripts by Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero) all the way through, with a special interest in the parts in the script that didn't make it into the finished film.
I guess you have to be a pretty hardcore movie geek to do something like that. But if that's your thing, and you can find a copy of this book, have at it. You can make your own photoplay with Eddie Bracken in your head, just like I did.
The sp-sp-spots!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

This recent comedy, co-written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, and starring Gervais, continues to fascinate me. It's a simple concept, and an imperfect film, and yet...
Let's start with the concept. Invention presents a world exactly like our own, except for one thing: The human race has never developed the ability to lie. Everyone tells the truth about everything at all times. This goes for both the spoken dialogue (a waiter, assessing Gervais and his date says "She's way out of your league.") and for the world we see in the background (Gervais visits his elderly mother in building labeled "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People").
Needless to say, this one change in human behavior has created other interpersonal and societal changes - most of them seemingly bad. Many of the characters seem a little emotionally flat; others are relentlessly cruel. Though played for laughs - which it gets - this film paints a pretty grim picture of a world without lies.
Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a sad sack writer for "Lecture Films," a company that produces feature films of people lecturing about historical events. (It's a clever idea; since no one can lie, films produced for entertainment have to be based on real people and events, and can't include any dialogue that isn't 100% historically accurate. Thus, we get Christopher Guest appearing periodically as Nathan Goldfrappe, doing stuffy readings that are sure fire snoozers.) The plot, such as it is, kicks into gear when Bellison is fired and faces a personal and financial crisis.
With no job, and his landlord threatening to evict him Bellison has a sort of biological epiphany when he goes to the bank, and, as he later tells his friend Greg (Louis C.K.), "I said something that wasn't," and gets $800 for his rent, rather than the $300 that his account actually contains. Given that no one lies, the teller assumes the discrepancy in numbers must be due to a computer error on the part of the bank. Have a nice day!

Leaving the bank with his rent money in his pocket, Mark realizes what this new development can mean. Then, in a very general sense, the film sets about making the case for lying as a good thing in human interactions. This leads to some memorable and remarkable scenes, all of which somewhat fizzles out in a less than satisfying conclusion.
But the good parts are very good. When Mark gets the word that his mother is dying, and he rushes to see her one last time, he finds her agitated and afraid, fearing the impending "eternity of nothingness." Though crying and upset himself, Mark spins a tale for her of what happens after you die - an afterlife of eternal happiness surrounded by all the people you love, and in a place where "everyone gets a mansion," and there's no pain, only love. These are the last words his mother hears, and she is clearly comforted by them. Of course, Mark's speech is also heard by some of the hospital staff, who are in awe, and want to know how he knows all this. It's a remarkable scene, one that simultaneously makes it clear that religions are based on lies, while at the same time making the case that those lies can be good things when they bring people comfort in times of trouble.
Afterwards, Mark is beset by the press and his fellow citizens, all wanting to know where he got this information. With the pressure on, Mark concocts a story about "the man in the sky" who controls everything, and tries his best to lay out a coherent proto-theology to get people off his back. But every answer he gives only leads to more questions, trapping Mark in the role of the Chosen One whether he likes it or not.
In an attempt to get on with his life, Mark uses his new power to get his job back, and to try and win Anna (Jennifer Garner), the woman of his dreams. But satisfaction with his new life remains elusive.
It's the subplot with Anna where the film is at its weakest. Mark is clearly smitten with her and then some, and near the end of the film he makes an impassioned speech about how she's the loveliest, nicest, kindest woman he's ever met. The only trouble is, as presented in the film up to that point, she has come across as incredibly shallow and vain, rejecting Mark despite his money, fame and intelligence because he doesn't measure up to her standards for looks. (She repeatedly proclaims she doesn't want to have short, fat kids with snub noses - her thumbnail sketch of Mark physically.) So it's hard to see why Mark would be so head over heels in love with such a self-centered and not-very-nice-at-all person.
Also of note on the negative side: This film contains at least half a dozen montages set to peppy (and lousy) pop songs. I can't recall ever seeing a film with so many montages, especially since they're all so similar. I can't say whether it's lazy filmmaking, or the result of pressures to have more songs on the soundtrack, or what. But whatever it is, it just doesn't work.
Still, this film continues to fascinate me. It's a film, it's a philosophy, it's a question. What would life be like without lies? I think few of us would miss the Big Lies, the kind associated with politicians and other questionable characters. But what about the little lies, the white lies, the lies of omission? Are those bad things, or are they a kind of social and emotional lubricant? Yes, this is a silly comedy with a poop joke or two, but it also offers a lot of things to think about. Taken as it is, with its weaknesses and all, I would say it's probably two-thirds of a great film. And since most films would struggle to get to even one-third greatness, I mean that as a compliment.

Clearly the script spoke to a great many creative people, since the supporting cast is filled with familiar faces doing small bits. Rob Lowe is great as a vain romantic rival of Mark's, who has a huge ego and a flat affect. Jeffrey Tambor is very good as Mark's insecure boss. Edward Norton has a nice scene as a tightly-wound motorcycle cop. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Jim the Bartender. Other people taking small parts include Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jonah Hill (inexplicably third-billed) and John Hodgman.