Friday, September 25, 2009

"The Informant!" Review

In preparation for seeing "The Informant!" I came to the realization that despite having a longstanding awareness of Steven Soderbergh and his ever-expanding body of work, I had, remarkably, not seen any of his films. Even his remake of "Ocean's Eleven" has somehow eluded me, which I hear is just great. So to start, my perception of the man may be a little skewed. I know he bounces between mainstream studio films and indie passion projects, which I respect, but in contextualizing his latest, which stars Matt Damon, is playing in corporate cineplexes, and follows "The Girlfriend Experience," which I understand was an incontrovertibly artsy entry in Soderbergh's filmography, I was unprepared for how independent "The Informant!" felt.

If the promotional poster, a not-so-subtle nod to Judd Apatow's "40-Year-Old Virgin" one-sheet, communicates any aspect of "The Informant!" accurately, it could only be the sparse, orange lighting that permeates the majority of its scenes. Damon beams with the same ineffable ebullience as Steve Carell, eyes focused off-frame with 'unbelievable' superimposed above his forehead, but this image and that word provoke a very different set of feelings than those of the film itself.

The correlation to "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is an interesting one, as Soderbergh seems to imagine this film a comedy. Rollicking Woody Allen-esque jazz numbers and campy sixties spy pieces comprise the score by Marvin Hamlisch ("The Sting," "The Spy Who Loved Me"). Next is the curious casting of well-known TV comedians in virtually every role. Patton Oswalt makes an appearance, as does Scott Adsit ("30 Rock"), Tony Hale ("Arrested Development"), Clancy Brown ("Spongebob Squarepants"), Paul F. Tomkins ("Mr. Show"), Andrew Daly ("Eastbound & Down"), and the list goes on from there. But despite seemingly every intention of the director to steer his film firmly to comedy's shores, the result is decidedly unfunny.

Not unfunny in the way "The Hangover" is unfunny, mind you, but rather in the way a movie like "Jackie Brown" is unfunny; it feels as though it isn't even supposed to be. The goal, I think, was the Coen's "Fargo," a deft blend of humor and thrills, but "The Informant!" merely amuses and rarely excites. Soderbergh's direction is generally a moot point however, as what makes movies like "Fargo" work are scripts with clockwork precision, which he never had to begin with.

Sure, it's based on book based on a true story, but the medium of film has a way of turning the most incredible truth into the most banal fiction, and "The Informant!" gets bogged down in the details. Years swing by between scenes and the third act becomes a revolving door of lawyers and roundtable meetings that rob the climactic twist of its visceral impact (if you aren't familiar with the story to begin with).

Having seen "The Informant!" as my first Steven Soderbergh film, my opinion of the director has, ironically, not been colored one way or the other. He makes some (optimistically) unique directorial choices, but struggles to reconcile the novel and the screenplay or the drama and the comedy as a compelling feature film. Ultimately, the Apatow knockoff poster he commissioned is more spunky and successful than the film itself. "The Informant!" is masquerading as an offbeat comedy drenched in orange phosphorescence, but the spy flick's secret identity is just another forgettable corporate caper.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 13: Jennifer's Body, The Informant!

--> Episode 13: 9/20/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 01:20
Discussion - 03:38
(3D Revolution, Emmies)
Jennifer's Body - 13:40
The Informant! - 30:28
I Can't Believe You've Never Seen - 45:57
("Rocky Horror Picture Show")
Events and Outro - 53:08

"Jennifer's Body"

"The Informant!"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Jennifer's Body" Review

I could give just about any opinion on "Jennifer's Body" and it would make a pretty good pun, but I'll try to resist. Instead, it's fair to begin by saying my expectations for the film were easily exceeded, in that it is, in fact, a competently executed and arranged sequence of images. Still, that's about as far as my praise will carry it, with its patchwork of languid, derivative scares and generally unconvincing attempts at humor.

The film, directed by Karen Kusama, who's fast making estrogen her calling card with a body of work that includes "Girlfight," "Aeon Flux," and an episode of "The L Word," never quite succeeds for a couple of reasons, but little of which Kusama can directly be said to be at fault for. The problems, admittedly, start with 'Diablo' and end in 'Cody.'

It's not that I'm one of the Oscar-winning screenwriter's snide detractors, still saddling a grudge from the "Juno" days. I liked "Juno." But "Juno" was indie, and hoo boy did it know it was indie. It was so indie some more cynical critics choked on it. "Jennifer's Body," however, dabbles dangerously in camp, which can be a particularly wily beast to tame. Everything Cody attempts in her screenplay was more successfully achieved in Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell," Brian De Palma's "Carrie," and John Fawcett's "Ginger Snaps" while I'm at it.

The issue of its target audience is a curious one, as the themes Cody tackles and the ages of the entire principal cast firmly suggest high-school, but the R-rating indicates otherwise. Curiously though, "Jennifer's Body" isn't a hard R, with minimal conventional gore, some swearing, and no nudity to speak of. Everything about the film screams PG-13, and with so little seemingly standing in the way of that rating, it's peculiar that this was the cut released. Even on the verge of Halloween season, the film will likely struggle to find an audience.

The precedent set by recent horror/comedy hybrids like "Gindhouse" or "Drag Me to Hell" also points to public apathy for Kusama's latest, but in this case they really aren't missing much. Megan Fox ("Transformers") stars as Jennifer Check, who drags her BFF, "Needy Lesnicky" (Charles Dickens Cody ain't), portrayed by "Big Love's" Amanda Seyfried, to a bar where the two catch the attention of an evil indie band that, mistaking them for virgins, abduct Jennifer as sacrifice in their satanic ritual for superstardom.

The ritual, revealed in flashback later on, makes for undoubtedly the film's funniest sequence. The tone is dark and pitch-perfect as the band members squabble over trivialities while preparing her last rites. It's a tone that's conspicuously and unfortunately absent in the rest of the script. Regardless, because Jennifer is "not even a back-door virgin," the sacrifice goes awry, transforming the high-school hottie into a bloodthirsty succubus.

Campy one-liners are about the extent of the rest of the movie's humor, which is never exactly groundbreaking stuff, and when combined with the ho-hum horror, make "Jennifer's Body" a thoroughly acceptable film that does nothing particularly well. Kusama's direction is solid and the performances of her cast are impressive for a group of up-and-comers, especially Johnny Simmons (no relation to J.K., who also stars) as Needy's boyfriend, Chip. Regrettably, their work is undermined by Diablo Cody's ultimately uninteresting story.

Cody's pop-culture tentacles flail in every direction, but the failure of her script is in its aggressive precociousness and lack of commitment to either wood grain horror or outright parody. Effective campy horror is a tightrope to be sure, one that neither the writer nor the director is quite capable of crossing. Their film is a mishmash of insubstantial storytelling and unimpressive showmanship that doesn't quite know who it's talking to.

Some may find it attractive, but as far as I'm concerned, "Jennifer's Body" is a bit too thin.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

"World's Greatest Dad" Review

"World's Greatest Dad" stars Robin Williams as Lance Clayton, a high school poetry professor, aspiring novelist, and father. His son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), is an internet masturbatory fetishist with scholastic woes and aggressive social dysfunctions. So when the distinguished young gentleman suffers an accidental suicide while engaged in autoerotic asphyxiation, his father finally gets published--writing a fake suicide note that becomes a local sensation.

The concept is as black and bleak as the best dark comedies', but director Bobcat Goldthwait's screenplay and filmmaking ability fall short of satisfactorily executing the strong premise. The film's greatest oversight is that Goldthwait caters his protagonist to mainstream audience expectation, and despite his moral shortcomings, expects us to like him. It's the reason Clayton inexplicably reveals himself as a fraud in the last act, the reason his decision is met with little to no consequence, and the reason the ending he meets is so eye-rollingly schmaltzy. If there's a reason I'm paying to see a film like "World's Greatest Dad," prototypical narrative sappiness certainly isn't one of them.

Genre heavyweights like Todd Solondz or Alexander Payne know the value of putting the screws to their characters and of the bittersweet ending. "World's Greatest Dad" has a pitch-black veneer with an inoffensive core, offering little of challenging comedic intention or thematic substance bellow the surface. What's funny about the film is in its concepts, what's hackneyed and amateurish about it is everything else.

For one, Goldthwait falls back on montage during several key scenes in the film, which play up the weakness of his cinematography and the lack of resonance in his audio choices. These interludes play as sloppy MTV throwaways that inelegantly and worse, humorlessly, progress the plot. I've made no secret in the past of my disdain for this year's other major dark comedy, "Observe and Report," which "World's Greatest Dad," seems to borrow its Bowie/Queen scored naked-diving resolution from, but at least Jody Hill's full-frontal chase sequence went all the way. Because Goldthwait's scene involves Robin Williams, the only shots that actually feature nudity are handled from a distance with an obvious body double, robbing it of any real scandal.

Williams' casting is generally inexplicable, though I assume the film would have been otherwise unlikely to receive funding. Williams brings only his own clout to the role, which simultaneously dilutes Lance's character. The rest of the cast is similarly unconvincing, and while I have no interest in conventionally likeable characters in a dark comedy, I still expect depth. I can almost get behind Kyle as a one-dimensional jerk-off, but Lance's love interest, Claire (Alexie Gilmore), and rival Mike (Henry Simmons) are insipid caricatures, simply too broad to be funny.

Ultimately, many of these complaints would hold little water if the film was funny, which "World's Greatest Dad" is rarely. It doesn't push the envelope so much as it occasionally nudges it, and on those occasions, might squeeze a laugh or two from you, but the atonality of the piece make its prospective audience difficult to identify. It doesn't pack the punch, deliver the laughs, or offer the honed craft of a Todd Solondz film, and with Solondz himself set to release a new film this year, there's no reason to recommend Goldthwait's. Mike Judge's "Extract" also has more laughs, better characters, and is playing concurrently two blocks away.

But if you're desperate for a black comedy about parenthood, you may be stuck with the old standby, "Serial Mom."


Monday, September 14, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 12: World's Greatest Dad, Fall TV pilots

--> Episode 12: 9/13/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 01:46
World's Greatest Dad - 05:08
TV Pilot Roundup - 28:41
("Vampire Diaries", "Glee", and "Melrose Place")
Events and Outro - 57:24

"World's Greatest Dad"

TV pilot bonanza:
"Vampire Diaries"


"Melrose Place"

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Extract" Review

In some sideways alternate universe I'd like to believe Mike Judge is a Judd Apatow or an Edgar Wright, which is to say a modern comedy director whose upcoming projects are actually followed with any degree of anticipation. Of his two previous live-action films, "Office Space," for its flaws, has a special place in my heart and I appreciated "Idiocracy" more than most. So along comes "Extract," a subtle, straightforward comedy about the little things in life. You know, inane neighbors, workplace politics, sexual frustration, male gigolos, and horse tranquilizers.

Okay, maybe it's not all that subtle, but "Extract" is less boisterous than Judge's previous films while retaining their biting, sardonic banter and oddly believable caricatures. Probably the reason the director's work hasn't caught on with mainstream audiences is that their stories and characters are always paramount to their gag writing, which in turn gives them a comparatively low joke-per-minute ratio.

The plot itself isn't as interesting or ambitious as "Office Space" or "Idiocracy" respectively, but the terrific casting and low-key performances keep "Extract" charming even when its story falters. Particular scenes and sequences sag around the middle of the film, and the plotlines never dovetail as well as they probably could, but the narrative, while simple, is strong enough to shield the film from ever becoming an outright bore.

Judge's respect for his storytelling transcends the temptation to pack the film with gimmicky gags or disposable pop culture references, which is refreshing in comparison to the blisteringly unfunny and now highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, sequel green-lit, "The Hangover." Jason Bateman of "Arrested Development" fame returns as another corporate mogul, though of considerably less affluence than Michael Bluth, and the role, unsurprisingly, fits like a glove. It's not exactly a retread for the actor either, who exhibits an empathetic vulnerability that hasn't existed in his previous roles.

"Extract's" Joel Reynolds is an interesting antithesis to Michael Bluth in that he offers a completely opposite take on the pragmatic modern businessman. Michael is a man who assumes his hardest work has yet to come, where Joel considers his dues paid, and at the outset of the film, is looking to sell his plant and embrace an early retirement. Joel is indicative of Mike Judge's greater analysis of the American working class, and reminiscent also, though not in a derivative sense, of Peter, the protagonist of "Office Space," in that both characters long for a life outside of the workplace. Michael Bluth wants to work; Mike Judge's characters have to work.

The rest of the cast, including Mila Kunis as a con-woman catalyst, J.K. Simmons as name-challenged manager, and Ben Affleck as a worldly hipster doofus, all perform admirably. "Extract" is its cast, and there isn't a bad performance in the bunch.

Judge's latest is a film that really needs to be taken on its own merits. It's a warm, entertaining if unambitious film that may not be as funny as some expect, but is never unfunny, if that makes any sense.

If you're not laughing, it's because the film isn't trying to make you laugh, which is almost a foreign concept in modern comedy and sure to leave some audiences cold. That being said, there isn't much reason to rush out and see the film either, so if you're interested in something (somewhat) more mature when "The Hangover 2" hits theaters, "Extract" will make a pretty good rental.


Friday, September 11, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds" Review

"Inglourious Basterds" is a strange brew. Watching it with the misleading marketing in mind creates a sensation akin to downing a mild beer with the expectation of hard liquor. The flavor of Quentin Tarantino's latest is disorienting but familiar, surprisingly placid but intoxicating under the right palette.

The marginal intellect of the director's early work has diminished recently in favor all-out genre exploitation, and though both "Kill Bill" films are perfectly entertaining, they're undeniably shallow. And then there's "Death Proof," the novelty record of Tarantino's career. So if I suggest that "Basterds" has substance, take it with a grain of salt, we're still dissecting a Tarantino film.

Fortunately, the director has taken a giant leap back, which is a rare but accurate compliment. "Inglourious Basterds" is a film of extended, often rich and engrossing dialogue, juxtaposed with the requisite deplorable violence. Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine is front man for the predominantly Jewish-American "Basterds" squad, whose sole objective seems to be snuffing as many Nazi lives as possible.

And that's where the ads leave the film, which is thankfully short of its creative goal. The truth is "Inglourious Basterds" is about the premiere of Nazi propaganda film in a theater owned and operated by a Jewish woman whose family was executed at the hands of the Third Reich and a particularly charming "Jew Hunter" portrayed perfectly by German actor Christoph Waltz.

There's already buzz for 'Best Supporting Actor' surrounding Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa, which is interesting in the context of last year's nod to the late Heath Ledger as Joker in "The Dark Knight." Aspiring actors: be interesting villains! Waltz's performance is probably more award-worthy than Ledger's, but both are really triumphant cinematic baddies. The atmosphere when Waltz is on screen is thick and tensely palpable. He's responsible for the best moments of the film.

Still, Waltz is hardly all the film has going for it. As usual, Tarantino has crafted a genre-defying collage of ideas that clash in a hip punk sort of way. Oddball comedy follows nail-biting suspense and precedes outlandish shootouts. Yes, the world of Quentin Tarantino is derivative, unfocused, and hyper-active, but the man is a mad chemist with the precise, pre-mixed ingredients for potent, pungent fun.

It really is impossible to review the film without commenting on Tarantino's greater body of work or the man himself. There are three distinct stages to Tarantino criticism, and not everyone can make it past the second. The stages are as follows:

1) "That was bad-ass fuckin' awesome, bro!"
Stage 1 is a surface level response to sweet, awesome violence and a kick-ass soundtrack. You're a little bit interested in film, and mentioning that "Pulp Fiction" is your favorite movie scores you art-house cred with that hipster girl in second period you think is way hot.

2) "I've always found Tarantino's work vapid and egotistical."
With more than a basic knowledge of film, Tarantino's inspirations begin to reveal themselves, and the director appears an unimaginative fraud. His work says nothing about the human condition, enjoyed only by bottom-feeding morons.

3) "You know, I actually liked Kill Bill."
You concede that Tarantino is a director of considerable skill and questionable taste who makes exactly the films he intends to. Their purpose is purely entertainment and, love 'em or leave 'em, are appreciable for what they are.

But complaints of unoriginality and tactless pandering to style over substance took a backseat among the loudest and most harsh critics of Quentin Tarantino's latest, deriding the film for its disrespectful historical inaccuracies (big, big inaccuracies to be fair). Spoiler alert, Hitler gets whacked.

So yeah, that never happened, but what does it mean? Tarantino offs the dictator almost as an aside, without suggesting what that supposition means for the canon of World War II storytelling or even, really, for the world of Basterds themselves. Inasmuch, the film does feel disrespectful and worse, indulgent, but only until you approach its hypothesis of an unannounced alternative reality from an artistic standpoint.

Hitler is gunned down in his balcony seat at the movie premiere. Clearly, obviously, not the end that the real man met. Quentin Tarantino makes a greater statement (in a movie about a movie, no less) about historical fiction. What's the ratio of one to the other? Surely countless films purport themselves as historical dramas, but take as many liberties as service their narrative arcs. At the end of the day it's still a movie, and Tarantino just takes it all the way.

He's hardly a Da Vinci or Duchamp, but history's most memorable artists have similarly challenged the public's perception of a piece of art. That's also not to suggest "Inglourious Basterds" is a flawless film, as it suffers from occasional pacing hiccups and irksome stylistic inconsistencies. Still, it's an important film and unquestionably Tarantino's deepest work since, conservatively, "Jackie Brown."

His take on World War II is entirely his own, and probably won't win over many second stage Tarantino critics. Ones and threes, let's have a beer and have some fun.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 11: Extract, Big Fan

--> Episode 11: 9/8/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 01:02
Big Fan - 12:05
Extract - 30:28
I Can't Believe You've Never Seen - 42:20
("Catch Me If You Can")
Events and Outro - 45:14

"Big Fan"


Friday, September 4, 2009

"Big Fan" Review

"Big Fan," a semi-serious comedy/drama/something-or-other starring comedian Patton Oswalt as football-obsessed man-child Paul Aufiero, rode into Philadelphia (a place Aufiero would otherwise only visit for nefarious purposes) on a wave of Sundance buzz. Robert D. Siegel, who penned last year's "The Wrestler," makes his directorial debut, and Darren Aronofsky he is not.

It isn't that "Big Fan" is at all a failure, as the film far outshines bland 2009 indie favorite "Paper Heart" and the loathsome "Humpday," but still Siegel comes across as professionally misguided as his parking garage-bound protagonist. The unfocused tone, odd ball scenes, and sloppy editing make for a curiously amateurish feature that happens to have talented actors and a good script behind it. Siegel is a writer, plain and simple.

Nevertheless, "Big Fan" exists, and is an often entertaining mishmash of genres, sentiments, ideas, and characters. The aforementioned Aufiero is the eponymous 'big fan' of the New York Giants, especially fictional quarterback Quantrell Bishop. He spends his time delivering carefully rehearsed rants on sports radio programs (in a hushed whisper so as to not disturb his mother), and watching the game on his 17" television in the stadium parking lot with his buddy Sal.

Paul has a direct impact on his fantasy world, however, when he approaches his idol in a nightclub and, well, gets the shit kicked out of him. He awakens in a hospital room Monday morning ("How did we do?") and is pitted against his family and the police department, who pressure him to press charges against the quarterback, but he's hung up what it all means for his Giants' super bowl chances.

Oswalt is perfect in his role, as is Kevin Corrigan as his dopey compatriot, and the two ground their characters somewhere real and familiar, which almost make the more bizarre plot developments in the third act believable. Almost.

And "Big Fan" is a whole movie of almosts. Almost a comedy, almost a character study, and almost successful. The psychology of Aufiero is its greatest asset, spelunking into the realm of universal obsession and the innate driving competitiveness of American culture channeled through surrogates like sports stars and celebrities. What does representational victory mean to a loser like Paul Aufiero? What does it mean to submit yourself to an intangible world that suddenly is beating you within an inch of your life? Great questions that the movie almost answers.

"Big Fan" just reeks of first film. Its construction is flawed and transparent, though has the benefit of a strong cast and interesting script, which make it a worthwhile but potentially disappointing film. That the screenplay already suffers from a thematic identity crisis only compounds the mistakes made in shot choice, lighting, timing, and tone. What's interesting about the story is just below the surface, nobly struggling to reveal itself, but only ends up ever really hinting at its presence.

I'm more than willing to see where Siegel's career takes him next, but "Big Fan" is a project that probably would have only benefited from more experienced hands.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Cold Souls" Review

On the surface, "Cold Souls" feels like an unoriginal original. It's being marketed on its offbeat uniqueness, though clearly draws influence from the work of Charlie Kaufman. The trailer plays up a safe weirdness and deadpan comedy that risks alienating exactly no one, but fortunately, paints an incomplete picture of what "Cold Souls" actually is.

Granted, the template is very "Being John Malkovich," (make that "Being Paul Giamatti") and thematically, the two films cover a lot of common ground. "Cold Souls," however, is unassuming and straight-forward, earnest and intelligent, and dedicated enough to its voice that it never feels like a work of plagiarism. The film is mellow and contained, where "Malkovich" is loopy, surreal, and expansive. We begin with a simple supposition: the human soul can, through a specialized procedure, be extracted from the human body.

That's our big buy, and the focus of the film is on the implications of that premise on an intimate and an economic scale. Enter Paul Giamatti, who's struggling with his performance in an adaptation of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya." Giamatti's performance is layered and nuanced, and playing himself proves one of his most difficult and rewarding roles yet. The "Vanya" rehearsals and performances highlight the three different versions of himself he plays: Giamatti, Giamatti sans soul, and Giamatti endowed with the soul of a Russian poet (guess which one performs "Vanya" best).

The better part of the film, however, is an exploration of the soul trafficking trade. Giamatti's soul is stolen by a Russian black market mule, and when soullessness and uncomfortable surrogate souls convince Paul to turn back to himself, he departs for St. Petersburg for some literal soul searching.

The human soul as a physical commodity is the basis for the major thematic and philosophical underpinnings of the film, along with the implication of soul transplant, which interestingly leaves a residue that accumulates during transfers. These shards of identity linger, and in a particularly amusing scene, the soul mule finds herself at a Russian video store asking for any American movie starring Paul Giamatti ("Paul Giamatti?" repeats the clerk). The playful jabs at celebrity (Giamatti's soul is later confused for Al Pacino's), the sci-fi/ existentialist themes, and the terrific performance(s) by Mr. Giamatti grow to wholly transcend any uncouth comparisons to "Being John Malkovich," obvious as the inspiration is.

"Cold Souls" is actually more reserved and mature than most of Kaufman's films, substituting arbitrary oddity for worldly wherewithal. Perhaps director Sophie Barthes' biggest (though relatively lonely) flaw in writing and directing the film is not digging deep enough. "Cold Souls" is a small but surprisingly successful piece with an asterisk that despite a big idea, its ambition is kept in constant check, and it's disappointing she doesn't take the premise further. Then again, Kaufman's sort of staked himself out as the Cecil B DeMille of strange, and a quiet nod to his work may be the most authentic. "Cold Souls" is one of the better indies this year, and if it lacks in originality, it compensates in substance.