Friday, July 31, 2009

"The Hurt Locker" Review

"War is a drug." So reads the quotation by American journalist Chris Hedges that precedes Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker." The film has a clear thesis, but offers little of substance to extrapolate or back it up. The movie is remarkably effective on the gut level of provoking an emotional response, but relies on a few disappointing action cliches that prevent it from truly being the masterpiece others have been so quick to hail it as.

The aforementioned quote refers to the bomb-diffusing, adrenaline-addled protagonist of the film, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who deals so intimately with death in his day job, that everything else starts to feel a little bit dull by comparison. Or at least that's the idea. In execution, James comes off more as your prototypical action hero than the fascinating subject of a character study. He behaves like every other Bourne/Bond/Bay superman to grace the screen in recent memory, and the film declines to comment on this condition until the last thirty minutes or so, making what should be the core of the piece feel more like an afterthought.

The pacing is unhelpful as well, broken up as the story is into isolated encounters that neither build in the traditional narrative sense nor offer more than a diverting peripheral glimpse into the lives of the characters. The sequences are so arbitrarily episodic that their order could seemingly be shuffled with little to no detriment to the comprehensibility of the story arc. Ostensibly, "The Hurt Locker" is a film with a clearly defined beginning and end and enough style to keep what's in between from feeling stagnant.

Sure, the bomb diffusion sequences are great. Through the use of ambient sound effects and hand-held camera work (a testament to its correct usage) with an almost Hitchcockian suspense-building prowess, Bigelow is able to masterfully pluck the audience's heartstrings like so many delicate red wires. It's a shame these refreshing, interesting, entertaining pieces of the film are undercut by its vacuous, nearly non-existent story.

And though I'll champion the style in a general sense, the film's pleasing documentary aesthetic is blatantly violated in two auspicious moments, and as far as I can remember, only two. One is a Matrix-esque dancing bullet shell that meets the sand in super-slow motion, and the other, a bomb exploding at an equally fast shutter-speed from multiple angles, letting the audience pause to consider the visual significance of watching the paint peel from the skeleton of a car or a dust cloud rippling in the blast. The moments are pure Hollywood and feel completely removed from the intention of the rest of the film.

Perhaps the most profound moment comes toward the end, when James is confronted with the one, and really only, consequence of his actions, leading to the serious injury of a squad member. However, the implications are decidedly secondary to the film's conclusion, which has all the subtlety and self-aware military chic of an Army recruitment spot, which sabotages James' only meaningful character change and will likely send you out of the theater with a razz between your lips.

So ignore the hype and the nonsensical title. If you approach "Hurt Locker" looking for a little summer fun, the ingredients are assuredly there. Just don't let the art house fool you into thinking Kathryn Bigelow's latest offers much more than a few cheap thrills.

If war is a drug, "The Hurt Locker" is a placebo.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Cheri" Review

"Cheri," based on the novels by French author Colette, is not a film targeted at men in their early twenties, nor is it the type of film I would have autonomously sought out, however the power of a free screening will dispel just about any of my cobwebbed genre prejudices, at least so far as putting me in a seat. "Cheri," unfortunately, is neither a particularly compelling love story nor a particularly convincing period piece. Stephen Frears, who helmed 2006's Oscar-baiting "Queen," but is perhaps best known for heady romcom "High Fidelity," directs, and though the most glaring issues with the film are issues with the screenplay as an adaptation, Frears' direction doesn't elevate the occasionally interesting banter or the by-the-numbers romantic beats.

The bottom line is that "Cheri" plays it safe. For a story about an intergenerational relationship between a moody teenager (Rupert Friend) and a retired lady of the evening (Michelle Pfeiffer), "Cheri" risks offending exactly no one. The film is apparently R-rated, which is puzzling, as the scenes of sensuality barely border on the suggestive, and I completely fail to recall the "brief drug use" outlined by the MPAA. It's a sallow, forgettable piece of filmmaking that owes its only redeeming qualities to earlier, edgier artists. "Harold and Maude," for example, sort of broke the age barrier for romance films back in '71, and the cinematic landscape is peppered with more interesting depictions of prostitutes.

"Cheri" also lacks a consistent, elegant art direction, usually a staple in even mediocre period pieces. Production designer Alan MacDonald's costumes are gaudy and caricatural, though perhaps impressive if only for their sheer audacity. If widest sunhat diameter or most phosphorescent gown are new categories at this year's academy awards, "Cheri" has them in the bag. Macdonald's set design also under-impresses, rarely providing more than a stodgy veneer of the early nineteenth century, a chasm between the source material that's only widened by the wincingly mawkish dialogue. Christopher Hampton's screenplay paints Lea and her eponymous partner Cheri as cardboard lovers, and Pfeiffer and Friend's sexual chemistry is almost non-existent.

The rest of the performances are passable, though the inauthentic dialogue is a constant stumbling block, even for the usually-stellar Kathy Bates, who seems oddly defanged and miscast in her supporting role as Cheri's manipulative mother. The characters are veiled in a layer of faux-elegance, feeling more often like uniformed impressions of turn-of-the-century women than the genuine article. The suspension of disbelief is kept at arm's length.

But I don't mean to suggest that "Cheri" is at all a worthless film; it's just an unnecessary one, which is almost as bad. The story itself is adequate, but has no strong reason for existence. Colette's novels ("Cheri" and "The Last of Cheri"), which were combined for the film version, saw publication in France in 1920 and 1926 respectively, assumedly to a more scandalized audience then today's, which two weeks ago were witness to the spectacle of Sacha Baron Cohen's "Bruno."

"Cheri" is too reserved a film to justify recommendation. It brings nothing new to the filmmaking landscape in either content or craft, and though the score by Alexandre Desplat is impressive, probably the picture's highlight, it seems to have wandered into "Cheri" from some more interesting film, upbeat and suspenseful while the plot is languid and sedentary.

I don't think I'm letting my prejudice get the better of me in the case of "Cheri." Romance fan or no, there isn't a clear reason why Frears' latest is worth seeking out, even for free.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 5: The Hurt Locker

--> Episode 05: 7/26/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, and Andy Kabel

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 01:06
Discussion - 04:46
("Alice in Wonderland" trailer)
The Hurt Locker - 08:05
Cheri - 30:33
I Can't Believe You've Never Seen - 34:43
("The Usual Suspects")
Events and Outro - 50:40

"The Hurt Locker"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"500 Days of Summer" Review

The trailer for Marc Webb's "500 Days of Summer" goes out of its way to define itself as especially "not a love story," which I guess is arguable by some gimmicky perspective technicality, and the film and its creators clearly imagine themselves pioneers in the romcom genre, but are deluding themselves if they don't admit to their playful plagiarism of half a dozen better films.

It's not that "Summer" is an entirely derivative work, but when a film is touted for its imagination, call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to see something new. The story and performances are satisfying, but its impossible to hear the staccato, high-brow, third-person narration without being reminded of Wes Anderson's "Royal Tenenbaums," or ignore the similarities to Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in its non-linear examination of a crumbling relationship, or even watch the film's exuberant park dance sequence without being distracted by its striking resemblance to a number in Disney's "Enchanted."

The film relies on a few other pet peeve cliches, like a precocious eleven year old (Chloe Moretz) who coaches her grown-up brother, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), through his rocky relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), or the ending. There's unquestionably more emotional maturity on display in Webb's film than in most PG-13 Hollywood romantic comedies, but its final moments are pure formula. It's not that Tom and Summer are able to reconcile; they aren't. The trailer said as much. But the popular, ludicrously sentimental and instantly unnecessary rule in ending a romantic comedy in which the love interests don't reunite is that the protagonist needs to meet someone else by the film's end, almost always tacked onto the last five minutes. And as if that wasn't sappy enough, Tom's new girl is eye-rollingly named 'Autumn.' Come on, movie. You were talking about real people there for a minute.

But as I said, the film is halfway able to overcome its foundation of cliches mostly thanks to the stellar performances of its cast. Zooey Deschanel is adorable and completely believable as the sort of siren that would drive a guy like Tom out of his mind. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is charming and funny and never comes off as pathetic as the character easily could. The supporting cast, particularly Geoffrey Arend as Tom's buddy McKenzie, is spot on.

Still, "Summer" is atonal, perhaps from inception in its intention to create both visual metaphors for the sublimity of love and the unapologetic reality of loneliness, but the two worlds never cooperate for the artistic whole, effective as they may be apart. The occasional superfluous bit of narration, precedent-setting but decidedly uncommon fantasy sequences, textbook indie quirk, and non-sequential storytelling all ultimately distract from what would otherwise be considered an acceptable but utterly average love story. And let's face it. To suggest "500 Days of Summer" isn't a love story makes for a nice piece of sloganeering, but is as gimmicky and wafer-thin as the methods Webb employs to distinguish his film from the rest of the romcom crowd. It's a sweet, human piece of storytelling undone by its faux-ingenuity. Everything that distinguishes "500 Days of Summer" has been done better before, and while it's still worth a few healthy chuckles, the young filmmakers hardly make a name for themselves beyond copycats.


Monday, July 20, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 4: Harry Potter, 500 Days of Summer

--> Episode 04: 07/19/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Tyler Drown

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 02:23
Harry Potter - 05:36
(500) Days of Summer (spoilers) - 27:57
I Can't Believe You've Never Seen - 49:58
("Saving Private Ryan", "Goonies")
Events and Outro - 01:07:48

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

(500) Days of Summer

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" Review

Director David Yates' second venture into J.K. Rowling's world, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," is an occasionally magical film in both its content and its effect. Built with an eye for the fantastic, Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is loose and airy, and Yates is adept at grounding and making accessible the supernatural world. "The Half-Blood Prince," is a technically impressive but inherently imperfect film that corrects some of the series' longstanding problems, but stumbles over just as many others.

Like every "Potter" film before it, except presumably the first, "The Half-Blood Prince" suffers as a singular piece of entertainment. A standing knowledge of the novels or a recent viewing of each previous adaptation is almost a prerequisite for full comprehension of the latest, as the protagonists interact with a revolving door of minor characters between the two or three major plot points in a given tale. In "Half-Blood Prince," those points are spread almost two fatty hours apart, and I hope you like wizard flirting.

Granted, the most glaring issues with this sixth installment in the boffo franchise are ultimately issues with its source material. My recollection of Rowling's novel is now four years old, but I recall a distinct sense of ambivalence toward the uneven work. What's on the page (and what translates to the screen) often feels like a storyteller stalling. At 652 pages and 153 minutes, respectively, both versions of the tale of the eponymous Half-Blood Prince are overlong, concluding with a knockout finale that almost makes up for all the time wasted.

Admittedly, the nothingness is a sometimes-welcome change of pace for the film franchise, the past two iterations of which became increasingly hurried and muddled in their attempt to keep the stories as faithful as possible to the bulky source material, both-times backfiring, creating watchable if ineloquent adaptations of their literary counterparts. Perhaps the moments to breathe in "Half-Blood Prince" should be savored (though in splitting the series' conclusion, "Deathly Hollows," into two parts, I fear the worrisome languid pacing may only worsen), with Screenwriter Steve Kloves painting "Half-Blood Prince" as a more anecdotal film, allowing Harry and his pals to be more than just movie heroes. He lets them be kids.

The statement sounds more praise-worthy than it should (your average sixteen year old not being terribly compelling), and while that ideology might improve the franchise on the whole, it does relatively little for the individual film. The middle of "Half-Blood Prince" sags and is largely inconsequential filler between the heavily plot-driven beginning and end.

"The Half-Blood Prince," finds itself in the unfortunate position of being a largely successful adaptation of a mediocre novel. The film is fun and thrilling when it should be, and just as forgettable as its source elsewhere.

Despite its PG rating, Yates treats Rowling's characters with the maturity and the respect they deserve, and "Half-Blood Prince," fittingly ends on a scene reminiscent of the conclusion to "The Empire Strikes Back." The sun is setting beyond a great balcony and our worn heroes are preparing for what's sure to be their greatest challenge yet. Here's hoping Yates fills the series' final chapter(s?) with the invigorating excitement of "Return of the Jedi," or even "Half-Blood Prince" at its best.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Bruno" Review

I admire his intentions, and have nothing but respect for Sacha Baron Cohen's comic creations, but "Borat" is admittedly a tough act to follow. "Bruno" goes further, digs deeper, and offers an even bolder take on exposing American prejudice and hypocrisy than his first, and yet never feels as elegant a balancing act of fiction and non-fiction, commentary and crudity, structure and spontaneity.

In a thematic sense, "Bruno" is a much more sprawling film than "Borat" was, and the people, events, institutions, lifestyles, and religions Cohen skewers are too diverse to ever cobble a coherent narrative from. He and Director Larry Charles ("Borat," "Religulous") try admirably, but never quite succeed. "Bruno" scores almost as many laughs as its predecessor along the way, but comes up short in story. At a paltry 88 minutes, a hefty chunk of screen time is spent setting up the character through expository fictional scenes or explaining precisely why Bruno visits the people and places he does, presuming we'll tolerate the story as more than an excuse for social commentary skits.

Obviously, the meat of Cohen and Charles' film is in the scenarios that are hard to believe they got themselves into, much less out of. On "Da Ali G Show," Cohen was never constrained to a single story. There were no bonds of continuity even within character segments, and it's hard not to wish Cohen had either allowed himself a little more freedom or narrowed his scope for this second outing, which feels closer to the tone of the series, but less like a singular story, because of it.

The plot structure chosen for "Bruno" is also an almost cut-and-paste recreation of the skeleton developed for "Borat." Bruno's assistant's assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), fills the Azamat Bagtov (Ken Davitian) role, and Borat's cultural enlightenment is swapped for Bruno's superficial search for fame, but by comparison, "Borat" feels calculated and focused where "Bruno" is unwieldy and top-heavy.

Still, I find it unlikely that the reason "Bruno" doesn't gel, and the reason it's been so widely unfavorably compared with "Borat" lies only in its gimmicky plot devices, and rather is inherent to the titular character. Maybe it's because Cohen himself is more transparent in the role, and therefore harder to sympathize with, or maybe it's as simple as the character himself. As most fans of "Da Ali G Show" will tell you, Bruno was never as funny as Borat. Borat has a clumsy, well-meaning quality coupled with harmless syntax silliness that makes him an instantly more endearing character than his counterpart. Bruno is more serious, and instigates more severe reactions, which is on one hand more interesting, and on the other, less funny.

I don't mean to harp solely on "Bruno's" problems, because the film is funny. There are scenes that rival and best those in "Borat," but the classic moments are just fewer and farther between. Appearing as an extra on a primetime court drama, pushing parents well beyond the limits of tasteful photography for their infant children, and performing a male on male make-out session in a cage match before a thousand screaming rednecks are among the year's most memorable comic moments.

The shame is that there's always an itch clawing at the back of your mind when "Bruno" starts to drag, a disconnect "Borat" never had that makes you acutely aware of when you're not laughing, which is fortunately infrequently. The film trips over the narrative that should be holding it together, and is a puddle of laughs rather than an (ahem) erect comedic feature. "Bruno" is a spectacle worth seeing on the big screen, but with footage from the theatrical trailer not even making the final cut, it has potential for an even better DVD.


Monday, July 13, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 3: Bruno, Moon

--> Episode 3: 7/12/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, and Brian Johanson

Intro: 00:00
Top 5: 00:40
Discussion: 02:25
("Taking Woodstock" and "Funny People" trailers)
Bruno: 10:20
Moon (spoilers): 30:04
Events and Outro: 48:39

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Moon" Review

Helium-3 provides something like seventy percent of the Earth's energy, and Lunar Industries has a corner on the market. Their profit margins must be huge too, since overseeing the mining operation on the moon's surface is apparently a one man job. That man is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who's coming into the home stretch of a three-year haul when he starts to feel physically and mentally unwell. His condition is only compounded when he discovers the body of a man bearing him more than considerable resemblance outside the station.

"Moon" is an earnest, almost postmodern science fiction film with good intentions and some great ideas. Director Duncan Jones' story is thoughtful but not dense, and though he occasionally stumbles in translating his ideas to the screen, he's crafted a compelling anti-blockbuster worth the price of admission.

The world of "Moon" is largely homage, lovingly cobbled together from shards of sci-fi greats. GERTY, Bell's robot assistant (voiced by Kevin Spacey in an uncommonly quiet performance), is HAL 9000 by way of emoticons. Bell's hallucinations recall Tarkovsky's "Solaris," and the sets fall somewhere between "Star Wars" and Ridley Scott's "Alien." Everything has an appropriate matte sheen to it that pleasingly disregards the recent SFX trend to over-shine. Though there are a few effects shots in the film, including one that almost perfectly recreates Dave's psychedelic voyage at the end of Kubrick's "Space Odyssey," the exterior moon sequences were shot using models, and the film's aesthetic feels all the more consistent for it.

The greatest flaw of "Moon" is not necessarily its early plot twist, but rather the way it knowingly strings the audience along in another direction beforehand. The film travels the comfortable path cut by so many established science fiction films that when it swerves off-road, the viewer is uncomfortably jarred. Jones is a little dishonest in depicting Sam's plight, and so the moment of revelation is met with distrust instead of the desired, "Ah ha!" It's only a brief detour, however, and once the cards are on the table and the plot continues to unfold, all is more or less forgiven.

That's really the worst of it, suffice it to say "Moon" is never particularly challenging. It might be because the film deals in so many degrees of familiarity, or because the Bells' scenario, when revealed, plays out relatively without incident. It's a subtle shade of good, though doesn't take us where truly great science fiction does: where no man has gone before. Jones has a lot going for him, and Rockwell easily carries the film, playing his part(s?) expertly. The cinematography is fluid and unobtrusive, and yet "Moon" is somehow less than excellent.

"Moon" sounds incredible on the page, and occasionally is on screen, but mostly settles for offbeat and interesting, which is still a welcome alternative to pseudo sci-fi garbage like "Terminator: Salvation" or "Transformers 2." It's an interesting companion piece to "Star Trek," which was equally successful on the other end of the action spectrum, if a bit riskier in concept for a mainstream popcorn movie. Jones' film is an enjoyable but ultimately safe take on the genre that pays off to an extent, but will leave those hoping for mind-expanding science fiction revelry wanting. Help us, "District 9," you're our only hope.


Monday, July 6, 2009

"Public Enemies" Review

Dillinger biopic "Public Enemies" is an oddly disconnecting experience, and at two and a half hours, takes ample time to say remarkably little about the man, the Dust Bowl, or action filmmaking. Director Michael Mann's latest is a wet pile, a structureless mass with no discernable character arc and next to no story progression. The sequences are cyclical and redundant, and the performances are too average to elevate the material beyond its inherent mediocrity.

Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the depression era Robin Hood, is written and performed like a thousand better period gangsters, recalling Warren Beatty's Clyde in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde," but without the interesting sexual apathy. Depp's Dillinger is one-dimensionally smug, and while effectively charismatic, never convincingly human. Opposite him is antagonist Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the agent tasked with neutralizing Dillinger in the FBI's first war on crime. Bale has again been cast in a hyper masculine role, but does nothing with it. His performance isn't "Terminator Salvation" bad, but Purvis doesn't pop. The bottom line is the script never feels as smart as the people it's portraying.

The whole film is saturated with a sense of arbitrariness that makes even the shootouts dull, despite their volume screaming to a pitch that would make Peckinpah duck and cover. The sound is consistently inconsistent, in probably the single most embarrassingly unfinished mix I've heard in a major theatrical release. You can hear the chops in the sound bites, the level of ambience rising and falling with the dialogue, and changing altogether between angles in the same scene.

One of the more controversial aspects of the film's technical design was Mann's decision to shoot using HD video in favor of film. One can infer the intention was to imbibe the period piece with a modern feel, like Tak Fujimoto's work on the HBO mini-series, "John Adams," but the results here are nowhere near as successful. The whites are blown out and the darks are muddy and bland, and when combined with the shaky-cam action aesthetic popularized by the "Bourne Identity" and its sequels, "Public Enemies" becomes an ugly, disorienting mess.

Ultimately, Mann's film is tedious, indulgent, and dull. There doesn't seem to be any singular thematic intention behind the piece, and it ends up being the sort of movie where you check your watch on a bi-hourly basis. It's a definite disappointment from the director who's previously proved adept in the action genre, and any given sequence from his 1995 film "Heat" is more memorable than "Public Enemies" at its best.

Individual moments and certain scenes work well, but they never work together, and the film is an eternal thematic plateau. At the end of the day, there's very little to say about a film that says so little itself.


FARCE/FILM Episode 2: Hump Day, Public Enemies

--> Episode 02: 7/5/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Brian Crawford

Intro: 00:00
Top 5: 01:00
Hump Day: 02:12
Public Enemies: 15:22
Director Segment: 28:19
Rewind Segment: 36:33
("Journey to the Center of the Earth")
Events and Outro: 45:08

Saturday, July 4, 2009

"Humpday" Review

"Humpday," Lynn Shelton's indie about straight men attempting gay porn for an erotic film festival, has been praised for its honest portrayal of male relationships, but any goodwill I had for the film was squandered on the intensely dislikable protagonist, the (come on) unbelievable plotline, and complete lack of dramatic payoff. "Humpday" is a stillborn Sundance fiasco with few if any redeeming qualities.

The premise, while certainly original, takes shape only after overcoming a rickety stepladder of cliched comic situations. You know them: crazy old friend needs a place to crash, husband forgets wife's special dinner, husband lies, digs himself deeper. The situations might have been forgivable in an ends-justify-the-means sort of way, but the film is being sold on its premise and its title, and fails to deliver as advertised.

The principal cast is small and they argue a lot. There's Ben (Mark Duplass), the idiot husband who plays both sides, either blaming his wild friend for his own decisions or condescendingly touting his "great" relationship with his wife as a wildcard for his reckless behavior, his buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard), the slovenly, worldly hipster whose artsy lesbian acquaintances spark the drunken conversation that leads to the auspicious idea, and Ben's eternally forgiving wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), whose ability to tolerate her husband's stupidity is surely her greatest asset. Most of their dialogue is improvised, and the film frequently feels more like six fifteen minutes scenes than a properly paced comedic feature.

The laughs are few and far between the clunky roundabout verbal tennis matches, and are completely undercut by the characters. It's assumed we feel Ben and Andrew's friendship at least peripherally, and the filmmaker portrays them as lovable, misguided heroes, though the 'misguided' bit is the only part that really seeps through.

Worse yet, the script only lamely attempts to legitimize Ben or Andrew's inexplicable desire to see the act to its completion. Even sober, neither will back out of having sex with the other, in what we can only assume is the female writer/director's misinformed representation of machismo. And when Ben tells his wife, "I'm not sure why I want to do this," it reads as a screenwriter's confession. The two behave like stubborn children for an hour, only to somewhat appropriately chicken out when the moment arrives, and the film becomes more an examination of exceedingly weak characters than their bond of friendship as a result.

"Humpday" brings very little to the independent film scene, and is never as funny or controversial as the trailer might lead you to believe. Truth told, the film plays it safe, reducing its homosexual content to the type of jokes you would expect in any given PG-13 sex comedy. There's precious little genuine human interaction on display, and while the cop-out ending imagines itself a more profound statement than its alternative, it ultimately cancels out the only interesting thing the film has going for it. It's a reaction I couldn't anticipate, but I've never been so disappointed by a lack of gay porn.