Wednesday, October 28, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 16: A Serious Man

--> Episode 16: 10/28/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Tyler Drown, Kevin Mauer

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 05:40
A Serious Man - 17:26
Events and Outro - 52:52

"A Serious Man"

"Youth in Revolt" Review

"Youth in Revolt" had enormous potential as the anti-indie indie. My disdain for the stale, 'quirky' writing and cutesy filmmaking that characterize modern independent filmmaking has been well documented, and the majority of director Miguel Arteta's R-rated film challenges those conventions. That the prince of Sundance himself, Michael Cera, stars in the picture creates an immediate expectation for its content, which is dashed even before the projection of the first image.

Heavy breathing, a corporate logo. We open on Cera as wimpishly named protagonist Nick Twisp masturbating to a 'Hustler' magazine. "Paper Heart" this is not.

The film, based on a novel by C.D. Payne, is refreshing for its willingness to portray characters with conflicted morality, offering an account of the teenage experience that doesn't just jack "Juno's" offbeat precociousness. The disturbing trend in recent indie comedies, emerging probably with "Napoleon Dynamite," has been to sculpt worlds bereft of genuine character conflict. This architectural sentimentality punctuates a Mr. Rogers-esque coda: everyone is special in their own special way.

In "Youth in Revolt," Twisp creates an alter-ego for himself in order to win the heart of his trailer-park sweetheart Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Enter Francois Dillinger. The character, also Cera, but accentuated by a pencil-thin mustache and eternally lit cigarette, is an exercise in antithesis for Twisp. While under the sway of his deadpan Frenchman persona, the character engages in some legitimately shocking behavior, the hilarious highlight of which is causing a multimillion-dollar fire in a sleepy metropolitan cafe via a stolen trailer with the words, "God's perfect asshole," spray-painted on the side. That phrase alone is too brazenly vulgar to have belonged to any other indie film this year. The latter half of "Youth in Revolt" largely consists of Twisp/Dillenger digging himself into deeper and deeper criminal trouble, all with the intention of winning over the elusive Saunders. Other memorable sequences include a half-naked escape from a French prep school, grand theft auto, and cross-dressing.

These are the sort of legitimately quirky plot points indie auteurs should aspire to, and they make a huge difference in shaping a memorable experience, but unfortunately, even "Youth in Revolt" fails to follow through. By the end, the raunchy, surprising, and darkly comedic elements cave to a typically Hollywood schmaltzy ending. Twisp is arrested for his crimes, but still gets the girl and learns a lesson: Sheeni didn't love him for Dillenger, she loved him for Twisp all along. She's going to wait for him to get out of juvenile hall (it shouldn't take that long!). Give me a break.

A riskier ending could have forgiven the film its more minor flaws, which instead make "Youth in Revolt" a tricky film to score. It's a little overlong, perhaps more a function of uneven pacing than the actual running time, and the use of animation for a few of the sequences doesn't serve any immediate purpose beyond servicing a faux home-made aesthetic.

Those as sick of even hearing the word "indie" as I am certainly won't lose any sleep over skipping "Youth in Revolt." Still, it's nice to see Cera branch out a bit, even if Dillenger is a decidedly undemanding role, and the body of the film takes more risks than any mainstream independent comedy in recent memory.

It may not be the anti-indie indie, but it's not another clone.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Antichrist" Review

It sounds perverse to even express enjoyment of Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," as bleak and twisted a portrait of misery as any committed to celluloid or canvas. Inasmuch, the most descriptive compliment I can pay the film is 'fearless.' "Antichrist" disarms its audience early, with an incredible high-shutter close-up of an erect penis before penetration, and becomes exponentially more shocking and less tasteful from there. The act of intercourse between He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg portray the unnamed characters) serves as the impetus for the cryptically metaphoric story; their passionate lovemaking is juxtaposed with the death of their child, who falls from a window in their negligence.

Gainsbourg's character suffers from a crippling postmortem depression, including an implacable fear of death itself. She stifles these imbalances sexually, with and against the better judgment of her husband. Dafoe's Man is a psychologist, taking it upon himself to dispel his wife's fear through assimilation with the source of her overwhelming anxiety. Von Trier's portrayal of Woman has instigated accusations of misogyny. She is emotional, irrational, and helpless, with the interpretation of the latter half of the film, during which She becomes a decided antagonist, being that She is the 'Antichrist' of the title. The character is demeaning, perhaps, but I don't feel von Trier's depiction of man is any more flattering. Predicated on cold logic and condescending passive-aggression, He is incapable of love.

He takes Her to the forest (they call it 'Eden'), where the two have a decrepit cabin. The woods are filled with death, dying and decaying creatures, and as He begins treating her fear, succumbs to it himself. The film, full of ghastly, macabre photography, seems to exist in a world without good. Any moment of happiness or even placidity in "Antichrist" is overshadowed by manipulation or mutilation. The movie makes an abrupt about-face halfway through as the control dynamic shifts between the characters, and von Trier devilishly steps off the low end of the seesaw, leaving his audience to feel the impact. What follows is unrepentantly gory, culminating with Gainsbourg's character performing a self-circumcision with a pair of scissors.

What symbolic meaning is intended in the literal removal of Her womanhood is never revealed, and the closest the film comes to enlightening its audience is in the revelation of a thesis project She had written on the correlation between Satan and nature, and nature and woman. Still, to suggest She, or woman generally, is the antichrist seems a deceptively easy interpretation to write the film off on. The antichrist, if anything, seems be the architect of this world.

Von Trier has been miserly in offering answers to those confused or offended by his film, but the less he shapes his audience's interpretation, the more potent "Antichrist" becomes. It ebbs at the inky corners of the mind like an inexplicable piece of dark magic; von Trier would rather bewilder than satisfy. His efforts make for a particularly brutal, challenging psychological horror film that will likely dissatisfy anyone in the theater expecting to be conventionally frightened. The film asks a lot of its audience in indulging in a world of complete, restless unhappiness, and many would rather label it as derogatory or exploitative, when its clear the film's primary intention is exhibiting absolute inhumanity. "Antichrist" is like the film equivalent of Francisco Goya's "Saturn Devouring his Son."

And in that respect, von Trier's film is nearly flawless. Minor distractions like the violence, which feels too familiar in the age of "Saw" to deliver the appropriate impact, and the aggressive, borderline pretentious cinematography occasionally upstage the story, but cannot detract much from the power of the experience. That the film is powerful is, I think, inarguable, as every opinion on the piece has been defended passionately. Regardless of where yours falls, however, "Antichrist" is the sort of film that sticks to you. Love it or hate it, but you won't forget it, and that's all truly fearless storytelling can hope for.


FARCE/FILM Episode 15: Where the Wild Things Are, Zombieland

--> Episode 15: 10/19/05 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Tyler Drown, Laura Rachfalski, and Micah Haun (briefly)

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 03:05
Where the Wild Things Are - 06:45
Drive-in Tripe Feature - 21:27
("Zombieland", "Fame", "Surrogates")
Philadelphia Film Festival - 38:51
("Youth in Revolt", "Good Hair", "Antichrist")
The Invention of Lying - 56:53
Events and Outro - 01:02:45

"Where the Wild Things Are"


"Youth in Revolt"

"Good Hair"


"The Invention of Lying"

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are" Review

"Where the Wild Things Are" couldn't possibly match public expectation compounded over time with interest. The film has been in development under Spike Jonze for the better part of the decade, with studio interest in the property dating as far back as the early eighties. Disney, Universal, and Warner Brothers' thirty-year game of hot potato has finally landed in American cineplexes, but as with any product gestated over comparable length, ends up unfavorably compared to an ideal preconception. "Wild Things" is imperfect, but nestles into a peculiar crevice where it doesn't disappoint, either. It's as faithful an adaptation as one could reasonably expect of a ten-sentence story, and Jonze's vision of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book is fierce, unflinching, and mature. The director takes particular care in elaborating that "Where the Wild Things Are" is not necessarily a film for children; it's a film about children.

Enter Max (Max Records), as emotionally inscrutable an eight year old as, well, any actual eight year old. In contrast to your Pinocchios and your Charlie Buckets, Max embodies an astounding emotional range, compliments Records' chameleon-like propensity to adapt at a moments notice to being fearful, shy, boasting, ebullient, or enraged. These traits get passed along to the temperamental wild things as well, whose petty squabbles and secret loves substitute for traditional plot points in driving the movie forward.

Certainly a novel premise, Jonze deserves a lot of credit for attempting the unconventional and the uncommercial in directing his first indisputably mainstream picture, even when it doesn't quite work. There are moments of transient beauty and touching affection, but watching the monsters emote can be an uninvolving experience just as often. Maybe it's because Max recedes into the background during some of these sequences, or because the creatures don't seem like products of his imagination so much as they do Jonze's or Sendak's. It may just be that "Where the Wild Things Are" suffers under the duress of being strung out on the rack and stretched to satisfy the requirements of a feature film.

Still, "Wild Things" is a difficult film to criticize given its incredible earnestness and Jonze's clear, unifying vision. As evidenced by some of its most favorable reviews, there will be those with whom the film will form an intimate bond and deeply move. And, as evidenced by the lukewarm Rotten Tomatoes consensus score, there will be just as many that won't see anything of themselves in Max or the wild things, children who will be frightened or bored by the director's approach to the fantastic, and still more on whom the film will leave no impression whatsoever. "Wild things" is deeply personal and subjectively polarizing from its conception, but to dilute its appeal would be to compromise its artistic integrity.

I see the greatness in "Wild Things," and envy those who made a complete connection with the piece. There are moments that strike nostalgic chords in me, tapping the raw emotional experience of my childhood, but are hardly omnipresent. My critical analysis is ultimately futile, ridiculous even, in its attempt to define a movie about feelings using blunt logic. "Where the Wild Things Are" is Max's world, Jonze's proxy, and if that comes at the expense of feeling sometimes inaccessible to me or the general audience, the director makes no apologies for it.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Surrogates: The First Thirty Minutes or So

I've never walked out of a movie before, and I suppose that record remains untarnished given that leaving "Surrogates" can only be accurately described as a drive-out. To help you form a better case ID for my psychological state at the time, it's important to point out that it was a particularly chilly early October evening at the drive-in, and we had to run the AC in the car every ten minutes to keep the front windshield from fogging up. It had also become rather close to midnight, and when "Surrogates" didn't immediately hook me, I made no apologies for feeling sleepy.

As far as I could tell from the first half hour of the film, "Surrogates" spends a lot of time setting up its world, without explaining why surrogacy is actually a thing.

To the uninitiated, surrogates are robotic avatars that humans remotely operate to perform the menial tasks involved in their day-to-day lives, however the concept employs an inherent double standard. Namely, you can have sex as your surrogate, and it's supposed to feel totally righteous or whatever, but apparently the machines are also incapable of relaying pain to their hosts. How is it possible for them to differentiate the perceptions of pain and pleasure or transmit one and not the other? What if you're into S&M? Furthermore, why is experiencing life through a surrogate preferable to a first-hand experience?

These questions swam back and forth in my drowsy mind as Bruce Willis and his possibly sentient hairpiece began investigating the death of certain hosts via their surrogates. In each case there was some guy blasting the robot with a special electricity gun. Seems like a pretty open and shut case, boys.

And then a Rastafarian cult leader showed up, and with his head edge lit by the sun, spoke directly to me. I knew the rest of the film would be too great a struggle to overcome.

I can't, in good conscience, give "Surrogates" a numerical score, but it receives the dubious honor of being the first film to literally drive me away.

"Fame" Review

While I concede that I am not among the target demographic for "Fame," I still feel qualified to inform you that the film is a piece of shit. Its failures reach far beyond the fact that I couldn't possibly care less about students of the performing arts singing and dancing their way to the top. It's a rickety, poorly conceived and bewilderingly constructed fiasco with cliched, interchangeable characters overcoming what are surely life's most trivial challenges ultimately to perform some bizarre, evidently uplifting Cirque du Soleil knock-off at graduation.

"Fame" attempts to create compelling fiction by way of reality TV. "So You Think You Can Dance?" or "American Idol," or any other prime-time talent-off currently on air bares more in common with director Kevin Tancharoen's film than whatever's playing in the adjacent theater. Appropriately then, Tancharoen comes from a music television background, having directed episodes of winners like "The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll," "Dancelife," and something called "The JammX Kids," which imdb informs me is also known by the title, "Can't Dance, Don't Want To."

So in all fairness, Tanchaeoen may have looked on paper like the perfect candidate to direct a remake of the 1980 film of the same title. Unfortunately, he seems to have no artistic comprehension of how the mediums of film and television (let alone reality television) fundamentally differ in their approach to storytelling. He employs a fast-paced music video editing style that makes it difficult to follow what withered conventional story "Fame" has, or even to keep track of who's who or what plot or character archetype is most currently being exploited.

And the film is mostly devoid of likable characters, as each of the featured students has next to no screen time to themselves, each recalling the developed protagonist of some other, better movie. There's the uptight, book-smart girl who needs to learn to embrace her spontaneity, the headstrong street-smart kid who's too macho to be artsy, the girl whose parents want her to become a classical pianist even though her proclivity is for singing, and my personal favorite, an out-of-place pretentious filmmaker with his ubiquitous camcorder recording all the break-out dance numbers that just, you know, happen in those types of schools. To top it off, the characters all fall under the sway of their universally tough love 'tell it like it is' professors.

It's not fair though to hawk all of the films problems off on Tancharoen, as Allison Burnett's screenplay is every bit as scattershot, grating, and uninvolving as the final product, and the cast, who fulfill their contractual obligations to sing, dance and occasionally speak, never go very far above or beyond that. "Fame" is just a limp noodle of a film that I couldn't possibly recommend to anyone who doesn't have a preexisting interest in the performing arts, and I have a feeling even that subset will probably be let down by its blandly talented cast and major dramatic shortcomings.

When you get right down to it, there are a thousand reasons not to waste your money, or even very much more time on "Fame." From the staccato pacing to the cookie-cutter characters and complete lack of dramatic tension, the film plays not only like a remake, but a retread of ideas that have been executed better a hundred times over, making this superfluous, half-baked, intellect deficient cash-grab a one-note disaster.


"Zombieland" Review

I'm going to begin adversarial and maybe we can meet in the middle. I didn't love "Shaun of the Dead." There, I said it. Those still reading can only imagine my reaction then to the "Zombieland" trailer, which on every significant selling point seemed identical, without the novelty of having done it first. My primary objection to this burgeoning 'zomedy' genre is that its sense of humor hasn't been transgressive enough to match the post-apocalyptic setting. "Shaun" set every precedent for "Zombieland" to be a cutesy, inconsequential comedy chock full of gimmicky jabs at the expense of horror convention.

So I hunkered down in an irritable cynicism when the film began building a catalogue of positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes, Facebook feeds, and second-hand conversations all seemed to suggest my prejudice toward the film was unfounded. I saw it last weekend as part of a triple feature at Becky's drive-in in Walnutport and was, admittedly, pleasantly surprised. It turns out "Zombieland" does employ a cutesy, inconsequential narrative, but its emotional and comedic core is every bit as distinct and charming as that of "Shaun of the Dead," but which, as I admitted, I didn't love to begin with.

The screenplay for "Zombieland" is rife with seasoned surface-level details like zombie safety regulations and an intriguing character name template, but has a great big undercooked pink center. The structure doesn't have the snap of "Shaun," and the plot often feels tertiary to the disposable gags and the 'wouldn't-it-be-cool' set pieces. Certainly aimlessness is an appropriate feeling to elicit for a scenario in which any 'save-the-world' opportunity has long since expired, but it comes at the expense of the film feeling underwritten. As near as I can tell, three things happen over the paltry eighty minute running time: boy meets girl, boy and girl travel to surprise celebrity cameo's house, boy rescues girl from amusement park. And those aren't acts, they're scenes.

Fortunately, the screenplay accounts for all but one of "Zombieland's" most-rotten blemishes. Besides green-lighting the irksome giant text espousing every survival tip that floats or crumbles or unfolds distractingly amidst several scenes, first-time feature director Ruben Fleisher performs his duties admirably in bringing the film to life, though was blessed by the natural chemistry of his leads. Woody Harrelson stars as Tallahassee, the Twinkie-obsessed badass, while Jesse 'For-The-Last-Time-I'm-Not-Michael-Cera' Eisenberg portrays the swooning, rule-keeping wimp, Columbus. "Zombieland" works as often as it does because of the classic dynamic pairing of these two.

But I think the primary reason Fleisher's film has been so commercially successful, having already made back its 23 million dollar budget twofold, while other recent horror-comedy hybrids like "Drag Me to Hell," and "Grindhouse" have underperformed, is that his directorial sensibilities skew so comedic. A zombie may trigger a "Boo!" orchestral spike every so often out of obligation, but the undead don't pose any serious threat until the amusement park finale, and even then, "Zombieland" settles for a crowd-pleasing comedic outcome rather than what's logical, mature, or interesting.

Nevertheless, I was won over, if just barely. "Zombieland" contains plenty to chuckle about, but its tonal levity unfortunately extends to the storytelling itself, and the credits roll leaving a sensation of benign indifference in their wake. To bring it back to fan-favorite, "Shaun of the Dead," which is a better-made film, unquestionably, it's my heretical opinion that "Zombieland" is just as funny. The films actually oddly compliment one another in their very English and very American takes on life after the living dead.

And for "Zombieland," what's more American than the sequel? Bloggers are already atwitter over early talks of a follow-up, and as much as the idea disinterests me, I guess I have to give this one the benefit of the doubt.


Monday, October 12, 2009

No Podcast This Week, Super-show Next Week

The Farce/Film team (Colin, pictured) couldn't get their act together this week, and as such we have no podcast to offer our fifteen listeners. Honestly, it probably wouldn't have been that great anyway, since "A Serious Man" was pushed to next week, just in time for the Philadelphia Film Festival and Spike Jonze's uber-anticipated adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are." So look for all of that and more on next week's show.

"Capitalism: A Love Story" Review

It's a shame that I almost didn't see "Capitalism: A Love Story," or rather, begrudgingly saw it out of obligation, because the film reminded me why I once fervently defended Michael Moore as a filmmaker. Between his sardonic sense of humor and his mixed-media aesthetic, dredging everything from educational film strips to YouTube videos to his own back catalogue up onto the screen, he puts together a hell of an entertaining documentary. But invoking Moore's name today elicits about the same reaction as Sarah Palin's; you get a "Oh, that nut," look. The idea of him conjures a smoky, megaphoned muckraker shouting on the steps of the capital at whoever will listen.

And okay, there is an element of that to "Capitalism," but it only serves as a requisite slice of the pie. It's the footage that's being played almost exclusively in the trailers (Moore attempting a citizen's arrest on Wall Street CEOs and papering the buildings with crime scene tape), but where the film plays these scenes for ironic laughs, they come across as pompous and grandstanding in the ads. The concept of selling an audience on the most audacious aspect of a film is hardly a new one, but in this case it may only reinforce the negative stereotypes associated with Moore's politics.

The usual suspects do make brief cameos, namely George Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney, but since leaving office, Moore has come to view them as harmless caricatures rather than legitimate liabilities. If he can squeeze a laugh out of the audience in comparing Cheney to a Roman emperor, that seems to suffice. Politics in general take a backseat in "Capitalism," but expectedly remain a vocal backseat driver. His opinion is as ubiquitous as always, and if "Fahrenheit 9/11" labeled him a terrorist among his detractors, than "Capitalism" will undoubtedly add socialist to his loathsome repertoire.

In truth, Moore simply takes a blue-collar stance on the economic issue, with a grass roots approach to examining the effects of the collapse. He trains his lens on families whose homes have been foreclosed, spouses whose partners have made giant corporations millions through their death in what's colloquially known as "dead peasant" policies, and teenagers who have served prolonged and undeserved sentences in juvenile hall to boost the profits of the independently run facilities.

The film ends on a dour personal note for Moore, who suggests he can't continue pushing issue films without the support of his viewers in setting right his outlined wrongs. I took that statement with a grain of salt until I remembered a story that broke about two months back, the seemingly unprecedented news that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was considering directing two narrative films. It remains to be seen whether his futile attempts at political impact have really worn him down, or whether the topical well is simply running dry, but "Capitalism: A Love Story" proves that the man still has a sustainable artistic vision.

And perhaps the most significant triumph of "Capitalism" is its accomplishments as its own film. Moore doesn't rest on his laurels or harp on his past successes, he constructs his film like he always has. His reuse of "Roger & Me" footage is well integrated, and his clout actually adds a new layer to the security guards' tired delivery of "It's Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker," when radioing their superiors. If I have a gripe to this effect, it's that Flint, Michigan is almost becoming a punch line. Can we get through an hour and a half without Flint somehow sidling its way into the conversation?

If, like me, you're a relapsed Michael Moore fan, I still can't recommend "Capitalism" highly enough. The film won't win over any haters, but for the rest of us, it represents the auspicious director at the top of his game. I guarantee it's the most fun, accessible, and hilairious film you'll see about the collapse of the American economy.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Paranormal Activity" Review

"Paranormal Activity" presents an unsettling and uncompromising reality. Without the context of a hype-fueled theatrical release or reviews like this, a believer in the supernatural could easily perceive the found-footage aesthetic as honest documentary. After all, it was made for only eleven thousand dollars, features one location, and a principal cast of two. The print that ran at the Bridge for last weekend's midnight screening was even bereft of credits. Nothing betrays the internal logic of the film, which is pretty cool in a decade of increasingly glib, grandstanding splatter flicks usurping the once-credible horror name.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to "The Blair Witch Project," or indirectly, "Cannibal Holocaust," which are suddenly hot commodities in genre filmmaking. Among the most successful viral marketing campaigns of the last few years are those for "Cloverfield," and "District 9," both of which experiment with docu-narrative hybrids, and have, along with the recent DVD release of Spanish zombie film, "REC" (and its North American remake, "Quarantine"), paved the way for "Paranormal Activity," which distributor Paramount has apparently been sitting on since 2007, to finally see the light of day, figuratively speaking.

But "Paranormal Activity" deserves to be seen on its own merit, and it delivers because first-time director Oren Peli has an intricate understanding of his audience. He establishes an intimately suspenseful atmosphere for his gradual exhibition of the paranormal, but anticipates the inherent silliness of the ghost story as well. The protagonists are live-in girlfriend/boyfriend Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), the former of whom has had recurring encounters with the otherworldly, and the ladder representing the audience as a giggly, playful skeptic. It's Micah's idea to purchase a camera and document the ghostly goings-on (along with some not-so-noble, good-humored alternatives for the bedroom-mounted recording device), and it goes a long way in creating a convincing scenario for the audience.

Watching the couple sleep has a voyeuristic creepiness in and of itself, but the repeated use of a single brilliant angle, almost like CCTV footage, which places the camera over the foot of their bed, with a clear view through the open door into the shadowy hallway, with a digital time readout ticking away into the small hours of the morning, and with the occurrence of exponentially spookier incidents, viewers' eyes are left darting to every dark corner of the frame in taut anticipation.

I don't intend to part with any hard details about the film, as even its trailer can't help but give away a little too much of what is best experienced with a clean palate. The precognition of certain scenes may unwittingly trigger a subconscious calculation of the structure by what has and has yet come to pass, and that sort of spoils it. As for the conclusion, it suffices to say Peli saves his most genuinely frightening moment for last, and again, the more surprises you leave for yourself, the better.

Despite the excessive praise the film has received from the press and bloggers, insofar myself included, there are two minor issues that keep "Paranormal Activity" from receiving the fullest extent of my recommendation. First, the film is too long, with tension-killing exposition of relationship minutia that admittedly prevents the scares from growing stale, but wears out its welcome early on. The second is the occasionally questionable performance of Featherston. Neither issue has any serious adverse effect on film's accomplishments, but deserve mention nonetheless.

Ultimately, "Paranormal Activity" is a film that lives up to the hype as long as you don't buy into all the hype. It's a genuinely creepy, crawly little film that will likely disarm you if you're not bracing yourself for it. It's a terrific haunted house spook-out that will probably see wide release in time for Halloween. If not terrifying, "Paranormal Activity" settles for shivery fun that'll give you goose bumps. And that's something I haven't gotten from a film in far too long.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Whip It" Review

"Whip It," the directorial debut of actress Drew Barrymore ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua," "E.T."), is a film about full-contact women's roller derby, populated by characters with names like 'Maggie Mayhem,' 'Babe Ruthless,' and 'Smashley Simpson,' but is unsuccessful in co-opting the gritty appeal of the lifestyle. The movie's breezy affability and charm are evidence of its artistic shortcomings, and for a film so forward with its girl power, my man-ass could stand to have been more kicked. I should be emasculated. The world of roller derby should feel coarse and uninviting or at best kinkily arousing. Unfortunately, "Whip It" didn't really elicit any of those feelings in me.

The film is frilly and formal, with a shopworn foundation that roots the narrative in the cliched quirk of the modern independent romantic comedy, though the subject matter screams to be a rough-around-the-edges outcast. To be fair, there's a degree of intentional contrast to protagonist Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page, "Juno") and her double life--pleasing her mother as a beauty pageant queen, and kicking ass as the Jammer for the last place 'Hurl Scouts.' But the opening scene, where Bliss appears before her mother and a mortified panel of judges with recently dyed blue hair, serves as a perfect metaphor for the film itself, in that its approach to the counter-culture is a surface-level aesthetic rather than a complete attitude. Blue hair is about as wild as it gets.

"Whip It" does build kinetic energy during its lively roller derby sequences, with fast, free-flowing camerawork that highlights the good-spirited brutality of the sport. Jimmy Fallon is even amusing as commentator 'Hot Tub' Johnny Rocket. However, the exhilaration of these sequences is matched by the banality of the rest of it: girl falls for lead singer in indie band, has waitress job at quirky small-town diner with quirky shift supervisor, consorts with precocious teens, and comes home to semi-broken family. The Americana is almost suffocating.

But removed from the context of the current cinematic landscape, there's nothing especially wrong with "Whip It," it's just not surprising. Ellen Page's performance is completely earnest and convincing (also not surprising), and the film has the best of intentions. Barrymore proves a proficient if inauspicious director, with enough talent to warrant at least another go around.

Her debut film is well meaning and inoffensive, with the sort of genial conceit that even our enemies aren't so bad, and forgiveness flows as fast and as senselessly between the characters as white water. Even the scumbag indie vocalist whom Bliss believes to be double-timing her may or may not have been guilty, and her reaction to his attempt to make amends is disappointingly timid. The film is intended more as a lightweight, feel-good empowerment piece than a challenging or realistic examination of the subject matter, which frustrates me but may delight some.

It's a movie for modern moms and daughters, which I don't mean to offer as passive aggressive sexism, as the film is perfectly entertaining for a gender-neutral audience, and its flaws aren't identifiable from a male perspective so much as they are from a unisexually artistic perspective. A great piece of art challenges the preconceptions of the medium, which "Whip It" decidedly doesn't. Rather, the film celebrates the bond that exists between Bliss and her matriarch (Marcia Gay harden), individuality, friendship, and the classification of family. It's sweet and palatable to both rebellious, headstrong teens and stiff but loving parents, which is an admirable but unambitious accomplishment. If you want to make a genuinely challenging film about gender identification and roller derby however, you'll have to dispense with the niceties and the formula and throw a punch.


Monday, October 5, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 14: Paranormal Activities, Capitalism: A Love Story

--> Episode 14: 10/5/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Tyler Drown, Suman Allakki

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 04:00
Discussion - 10:30
("Kill Bill 3", "Arrested Development" film, "2012" trailer)
Paranormal Activity - 18:15
Capitalism: A Love Story - 32:07
Events and Outro - 56:10

"Paranormal Activities"

"Capitalism: A Love Story"