Monday, November 30, 2009

Paramount Gets More Than 'Paranormal'

Director Oren Peli, whose debut film “Paranormal Activity” became the sleeper hit of Halloween, has reportedly already concluded principle photography on his next project, “Area 51,” which again co-opts a found-footage aesthetic for, as the name implies, an otherworldly trip to Nevada.

Considering the level of attention that “Paranormal” garnered, it’s a little surprising that outside of a generic press release and vague synopsis, the filming of “Area 51,” was able to fly below the radar, so to speak. The film is being made on a comparatively extravagant budget ($5 million to “Paranormal’s” $11,000), and was again picked up for release by Paramount Pictures, who handled the memorable marketing campaign and ‘demand’ based distribution that helped fuel the hype for Peli's film earlier this year.

However, the future for the up and coming director was not always so bright. “Paranormal” had been shelved by Paramount back in 2006 until Steven Spielberg discovered and took an interest in the comatose project, nursing it by way of additional post production sound work and alternate endings into the success story it is today.

"Area 51" will likely see release by Paramount this coming Fall. Ample time for us all to forget about the similarly themed but critically lambasted, “The Fourth Kind.”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The Princess and the Frog" Review

I would never have guessed it last summer, but Pixar's 2009 effort has, by my estimate, already been bested twice this year. I preferred "Ponyo" to "Up," which is the latest and unofficially last film by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and can now, however surprisingly, knock the airy adventure film down another peg, courtesy of the triumphant return of Disney traditional animation. It's admittedly been a great year for the medium, and I haven't even seen "Fantastic Mr. Fox" yet.

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the masterminds behind two of the best Disney cartoons of the early nineties ("Aladdin" for the boys, and "The Little Mermaid" for the girls--though to be fair, I love both), "The Princess and the Frog" is a film that bleeds nostalgia, and resonates with me for the same reason "Enchanted" did two years prior; this stuff is ingrained on my childhood. As a tyke at West Coast Video, if anyone even remembers those, parental requests for my film selection would invariably come back, 'Lady and the Tramp,' though with a more toothless diction. "Aladdin" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" are a couple of the first movies I remember seeing in theaters. And I know I'm not alone in having had to fast forward through the parts in "The Little Mermaid" that featured the terrifying octopus, Ursula. "The Princess and the Frog" is not a revelatory piece of visual storytelling, but it so nearly mirrors the style, presentation, and ebullient energy of the classics that I couldn't help but fall in love. The music by Randy Newman, which encompasses a diverse range of New Orleans flavor, is catchy and the song sequences are inventive enough to rarely feel shoehorned into this modern family film. The magic is there, and more often than not it just feels right.

The hand-drawn animation is equally stunning, though occasionally suffers from overuse of an ugly computer-shading technique, and jazz age New Orleans springs to life via chugging steamships, sparkling cityscapes, murky bayous, and the brilliant costumes and colors of Mardi Gras. The Big Easy sets the stage for a twist on the classic 'Frog Prince' fable, which not only posits that a kiss from a princess will return a frog to his formal royal glory, but that a kiss from anyone but will spread the amphibious curse. Inasmuch, the majority of the film, and the love story between our protagonist Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) and the handsome prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), takes places between two frogs. The premise sounds anything but compelling, but the sequences prove too charming and clever to feel like a generic animated animal film.

The film has been the target of PC debate since Disney released the first concept sketches featuring its heroine, auspiciously the corporation's first black princess, a while back. The trailer also incited allegations of racism for its loose allocation of black stereotypes in certain characters, most obviously the lightning bug, 'Ray,' who's voiced by Jim Cummings, a white man. These claims are understandable based solely on the promotional material, but the film in earnest depicts its cast as immensely likable. In the same way any of the above films have poked fun at Middle-Eastern or European stereotypes, "The Princess and the Frog" is never guilty of more than gentle jest towards African Americans.

In revisiting these films from my childhood, I've developed an infatuation with the catalogue of Disney villains, including, reluctantly, Urusla. From "Sleeping Beauty's" Maleficent to "Aladdin's" Jafar, it's these characters that I can still unashamedly call 'cool,' and "The Princess and the Frog" has a great one. Enter Dr. Facilier (Keith David), also known as the Shadow Man, a voodoo witch doctor who consorts with his 'friends on the other side' to turn Naveen's slimy disposition into handy profit. David is brilliant as the dark doctor, whose scenes are smattered with popping purples and greens, and of whom my only request is, 'more, please.'

"The Princess and the Frog" tells a timeless story in style, and stands a gorgeously well-meaning and engrossing audience-pleaser that all but the most calloused cynics should enjoy. I suppose those who have either outgrown or never enjoyed the canon of classic Disney animated films will find few redeeming qualities here, but for the rest of us, "The Princess and the Frog" is a blast from the past complete with the warm and fuzzy feelings of Disney at its most magical. Enjoy.


"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" Review

I might have felt underprepared for a comprehensive "Bad Lieutenant" review in having not seen the Abel Ferrara original, but then again, Herzog claims not to have either. The maverick German filmmaker is probably best known for his documentary work, though four of his last five features following 2005's "Grizzly Man" have been narratives. Whether this about-face comes on the heels of his disappointing Oscar loss to the crowd-pleasing "March of the Penguins," or perhaps from a well-deserved impression of medium mastery, the past several years have seen Werner Herzog at his most commercial. So along comes his pseudo-remake of "Bad Lieutenant," which the auspicious director would rather refer to by its sterile subtitle, "Port of Call: New Orleans," arriving with early reviews comparing the piece to the unrestrained work of his early career.

As a portrait of lawlessness, Herzog definitely borrows from his own "Even Dwarves Started Small," which is in truth a much stranger and more perfectly dystopian film, but "Bad Lieutenant" is no slouch in the bizarre department either, coupled with the sort of unhinged, loopy performance only Nicolas Cage can deliver. The guy has become a critical punching bag of late, as his recent overexposure and generally undiscerning taste in projects has overshadowed the gems of his career. Great comic performances in films like "Raising Arizona," "Moonstruck," and "Adaptation," will prime your palette for Cage as Terence McDonagh, and Cage is in fine, grandiose form under Herzog.

Their relationship is really mutually beneficial, as Herzog wrings the script, which may or may not have had as light a tone as his film, into the sort of winking, campy genre satire in which Cage's proclivity for stagey, caricatural performances finds a perfect home. You can feel the comic energy bouncing back and forth between the two as Cage summons a diabolically corrupt super-villain, and Herzog, along with longtime cinematography partner Peter Zeitlinger, paint "Fear & Loathing" esque drug-induced psychedelic reptilian music videos over New Orleans as a beautiful, crumbling Babylon. Klaus Kinski be damned, I think Herzog may have found a new best friend.

If there is a complaint to be had in the teaming of Herzog and Cage, it's that both are having too much fun to worry themselves with substance. "Bad Lieutenant" is a perfectly entertaining film, but is emphatically only that. This isn't a deep, incisive examination of the human condition. It's not "Fitzcarraldo." It's satire. Herzog's cynicism is front and center, prominently portrayed via McDonagh's deplorable behavior and incredible fortune. The plot frequently takes a back seat to his antics, which amuses in surplus, but is distinguished among Cage's repertoire only in that he portrays a cartoon character in a cartoony film. Here, his zaniness is a congruent piece of the jigsaw. Unfortunately, creating a character and a performance as memorable as Cage's McDonagh sets an unwritten precedent in the pacing that reduces the film to a crawl when the officer isn't one-upping his unabashed, ruthless insanity, and because of this, "Bad Lieutenant" occasionally drags.

The pacing issue is the greatest flaw of the film. There aren't quite enough jokes per minute for it to function as a stand alone comedy, and the comparatively serious moments may leave some viewers unfamiliar with Herzog's worldview and snide direction completely baffled. For Herzog connoisseurs like myself, however, the man is as interesting and unpredictable as ever, and watching him unfurl even a minor addition to his filmography is compelling. He's found an excellent creative partner in Cage, though it would be equally interesting to see them collaborate on a more straight-faced film.

Some may label "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" as inconsequential, egotistical silliness, and those are arguments I can't necessarily rebuff, but I think Herzog is the kind of director who's earned the right to goof off. For the most part, it's demented and entertaining stuff.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

3D "Zombieland" Sequel being Mulled

If a recent article posted on MovieHole is to be believed, it seems Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg may be reteaming with director Ruben Fleicher for a follow-up to this summer’s hit ‘Zomedy,’ this time with the aid of 3D technology and those irksome plastic glasses through which a healthy supply of zombie extremities are certain to fly.

The first film was an unusual success story for Sony and horror/comedy hybrids, which have a notorious history of underperforming at the box office (“Zombieland” grossed nearly twice that of Sam Raimi’s riotous “Drag Me to Hell”). Woody Harrelson himself has also proclaimed his performance in the original as the first in his filmography he actively wanted to reprise.

So while enthusiasm for a sequel seems high at this point, the franchise would still be unlikely to shamble back into theaters for another couple of years, as a script at this early stage is all but nonexistent. Also curious is how the character dynamics, which shift dramatically at the end of the first film, will shape a potential second installment.

Honestly, though, if it’s another two years before I hear the phrase, “Nut up or shut up,” it’ll be too soon.

"Greenberg" Trailer Review

I’ve become increasingly wary of coming-of-age type indie comedies. The generically ‘quirky’ characters and interchangeable suburban wastelands standardized in independent filmmaking over the past half-decade have driven me into a permanent suspicion of the genre. I don’t need to see another “Juno,” thanks. In fact, I feel like I see one every two or three months. Their attempts at droll realism feel increasingly tired and derivative, shedding all the charm that mumblecore--as some have come to call the market niche--was once defined by. While this is not necessarily a complaint of the trailer for Noah Baumbach’s upcoming film, “Greenberg,” I can’t help but watch the ad through a pane of cynicism.

But to give credit where credit is due, Baumbach was doing the precocious young adult thing back in 1995 with his debut film, “Kicking and Screaming,” (not to be confused with the Will Ferrell/Robert Duvall soccer-comedy/embarrassment of the same name) which was picked up for release by Criterion a few years back. In the interest of full disclosure, it’s the only Baumbach film I’ve seen, outside of “The Life Aquatic,” which he co-wrote with indie auteur Wes Anderson, and which I found infinitely underwhelming despite its strong premise and piercing volume of adamant hipster praise.

“Greenberg” stars Ben Stiller as the eponymous Roger Greenberg, whom we meet ‘at a crossroads in his life.’ Though the first couple of scenes in the recently released trailer reference Stiller’s character’s age, the actor has been curiously outfitted with a hairstyle (or hairpiece?) that makes him look younger than he has in years. The ‘do has a discouraging Farrelly brothers–esque quality to it that evokes their broad slapstick films rather than, for instance, Stiller circa “Royal Tenenbaums,” (an Anderson film I can get behind). They say ‘don’t judge a film by its stylist,’ or at least I say that, and the content of the trailer shows promise.

Stiller’s Greenberg is reminiscent of the Ron Livingston character in Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” for his articulated desire to do nothing. He has an amusing, jaded pretension to him that suits Stiller’s sensibilities, especially when the actor has portrayed himself in the past, as in HBO’s “Extras” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “Youth is wasted on the young,” a friend of Greenberg’s muses over dinner. “I’d go one further,” he retorts, “Life is wasted on… people.” Stiller’s delivery is convincing and it makes for one of the trailer’s funniest moments, along with a memorable scene featuring the writing of a sarcastic letter to Starbucks.

For the most part, however, “Greenberg” presents itself as a subtly ironic drama, and the remainder of the trailer features predominantly expository information about the character, sets up potential romantic interests (Greta Gerwig), and introduces a subplot involving a (potentially) terminally ill dog. One shot later on seems to border on the spoilerish, with Gerwig’s character addressing Greenberg from a hospital bed, but without context is impossible to fully interpret.

So, despite my initial fear that the prolificacy of indie cliché has usurped any legitimately quirky independent films, I think “Greenberg” could transcend the genre. I must confess to being a big fan of Stiller’s, even in his more broad roles, and have enjoyed the only Baumbach film I’ve seen. Consider me cautiously optimistic.

“Greenberg” hits theaters March 12th, 2010.

Trailer Grade: 3.5/5

FARCE/FILM Episode 20: Bad Lieutenant, Everybody's Fine

--> Episode 20: 11/24/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, and Suman Allakki

Intro -- 00:00 - 04:54
Top 5 -- 04:55 - 19:07
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call (Spoilers) -- 19:08 - 35:54
Everybody's Fine (Spoilers) -- 35:55 - 57:24
Suman's Corner -- 57:25 - 01:04:39
Events and Outro -- 01:04:40 - 01:08:29

"Bad Lieutenant"

"Everybody's Fine"

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Everybody's Fine" Review

"Everybody's Fine." Yes, the title of the film is actually "Everybody's Fine." Excited yet? Apparently director Kirk Jones wanted to preclude the silly notion of narrative conflict upfront. While the truth may be that everybody isn't entirely fine, the title is still more than appropriate given that the world of the film is a sunny euphemism for life where good intentions reign and happiness is just a smile and an old photograph away. Even in portraying sexual solicitation or drug addiction, Jones can't help but do so with the utmost optimism. "Wanna see my legs?" a prepubescent conception of a prostitute asks a neutered Robert DeNiro. "Wanna see mine?" he quips back. Pause for effect. That's about the height of humor in this aggressively inoffensive holiday family film.

To preface, DeNiro plays Frank, a man who gets stiffed by each of his four grown children whom he's invited home for a family weekend. So, with a chip on his shoulder and against his doctor's recommendation (uh oh!), Frank sets off for a spontaneous surprise visitation circuit! The spunky old coot! His visits reveal that each of his children (Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale) has been lying to him about some major aspect of their life, and go to ridiculous lengths to sell their lies. Beckinsale as Amy invites her ex-husband over for dinner for fear of revealing their separation to her father, Rockwell as Robert is a percussionist who claims to be the conductor for an orchestra and has picked up smoking, and Barrymore as Rosie borrows a friend's Vegas flat to impress her father and suppress her lesbianism. You can't make this stuff up, folks. Somebody smashed open a pinata of cliches and "Everybody's Fine" is a God damn mad dash.

Then there's the matter of Frank's fourth child. I had wanted to spare you the tragic--No. No, it's best that you hear it from me. Poor Tom (James Frain) has gone missing from his apartment, and while his siblings bicker back and forth over what lie to tell their father, building obvious, heavy-handed tension as the film wears on, they hit a wall. Tom is dead. Sure, you never see him alive and thus form no emotional attachment, but it's sad. It's sad. He overdoses after 'buying drugs from a bar' in South America. The language regarding the incident is vague and naive, as though the writer himself can think of nothing worse than the indistinct concept of drug use. A middle-schooler could have thought of a more shocking transgression, and believe me, would love to.

However, the problems with "Everybody's Fine" far exceed its clinical detachment from engaging conflict, as it drops its toothy disposition in the final act and suddenly becomes a misguided tearjerker. Frank has a bizarre near-death experience involving his children (played in this sequence by actual children) sitting around a picnic table finally speaking truthfully about their lives. The pretension of the dialogue and the schmaltzy sentimentality of the premise make the scene downright embarrassing to watch. And as if you couldn't guess, Frank soon recovers and finally gets the holiday he's always wanted with his three, now emotionally honest children. The camera pulls away from the warmly lit dining room and Frank's voice over kicks in. Three guesses as to what the last line is.

"Everybody's Fine" is not funny, not moving, and not in the least bit original. It's troubling to see DeNiro take a film like this, as even the third-rate police dramas he's been churning out for the last decade maintain a degree of his dignity as a cinematic bad ass. Frank is just a wet noodle of a character and on the whole, "Everybody's Fine" is blisteringly uninteresting. To be fair, I suppose many big stars and great performers have received a free pass around the holidays to star in invariably shitty family films. So Merry Christmas, Robert, I hope it was worth it.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

"The Road" Review

There's "2012" and there's "The Road;" apocalypse and post apocalypse respectively. The unnamed event that leaves the world of the latter film under eternally windswept gray skies and the last dregs of humanity in utter desperation for sustenance is never seen nor explained. All the special effects happened ten years ago. The film stars a skeletal Viggo Mortensen as a father (like in Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist," his role is simply credited, Man) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (rolls right off the tongue) as Boy. The dynamic between the two: Mortensen as provider, partner, and teacher, proves a compelling emotional ballast to the horrific acts of violence that permeate the film's less tender moments. 'Cannibalism. That's the big fear,' Mortensen muses in voice-over. "The Road" is a bleak, somber film, often poignant and effective in the moment, but somewhat disappointing for its greater thematic ineloquence.

Perhaps by necessity, "The Road" seems broken down into distinct encounters, strung together on the loosest narrative thread, which lends the film a natural feeling of lawless wandering, but undermines the potential strength of the plot. The protagonists have an ultimate destination charted, to make it to the coast, but in general, a character or group of characters will interact with them for ten minutes and part ways. The screenplay by Joe Penhall, an adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, keeps this potentially redundant scene structure from growing stale with a usually fascinating and diverse array of character types, from bloodthirsty cannibals to a hobbling hobo (Robert Duvall) or a roving pack of bandits.

The other premise weaving these sequences together is Mortensen's deteriorating health. He wakes from dreams of his previous life, filled with the unfamiliar greens and blues of the living world, to uncontrollable coughing fits. It quickly becomes clear he must impart his worldly knowledge to the boy before his time comes. In doing so, he is presented with several morally compromising scenarios, involving the trust of a stranger or the punishment of a thief, and his cold calculation and instinct for self-preservation clash with the ideological selflessness of his son. We can hardly blame Mortensen's character for preaching distrust in the world the film depicts, but the sequences themselves inevitably prove the son correct, treating many of the encounters more as parables than legitimate ideological debate.

This premise, without spoiling it, comes to an underwhelming zenith in "The Road's" final moments. It's not that the ending is sappy, though alright, it's a little sappy. Smit-McPhee's character must crucially weigh the application of his trust, in a scene that should carry the emotional weight of the entire film on its shoulders. Instead, director John Hillcoat plays the moment merely for tension, which is displayed to great effect already in half a dozen previous scenes. Resultantly, the conclusion drawn is acceptable but largely unsatisfying. The audience is left to just sort of shrug it off.

Like "Children of Men," "The Road" posits a bleak future that doesn't feel stagey or pretentious. Both films are visually powerful, if in opposite ways, with Hillcoat's film favoring subtle, moody cinematography over the frenetic energy of its contemporary. Despite my issues with the structure of the film, I have no reservations using adjectives like 'powerful' or 'effective' to describe it, though I can't quite bring myself to call "The Road" 'great.' The distinction for me lies in that the piece doesn't speak as a whole so much as it does a series of interesting scenes that come very close to complementing one another.

Entirely watchable, and by no means worth avoiding, "The Road" offers uncompromising performances, and an unusually intimate take on the disaster film. After all, anyone can blow up the world, but not everyone can make us care.


Friday, November 20, 2009

"New Moon" Rises at Midnight

So Friday afternoon rolls around and you’re already reading about the records the second installment in the Twilight saga, New Moon, has broken. According to, the film grossed $26.3 million domestically during last night’s midnight screenings, ousting previous record-holder Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which earned just $22.2 million in its midnight run.

Frankly, I’m a little surprised to see Twilight surpassing Harry Potter already, given that as far as I know, Potter is an adolescent franchise boys and girls can geek out over, where the Twilight series is geared more exclusively to the fairer sex (and the subset of men interested in hairless wolfman man-chests). It could be argued that there’s a certain ‘boyfriend’ element to the equation, but then again, most of the die-hards out at midnight are saving themselves for Edward, no?

If memory serves, I remember hearing mixed reactions from fans and snide cynicism from detractors regarding the original film, but it’s hard to argue with the numbers. Twilight brought in nearly $400 million worldwide, and has had continued success in the DVD market. Call it the Star Wars effect. We all pay to see them, if only to hop on the internet to complain about them. Twilight saga, you’re next!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-e2d526a03e017908b46f1c82f5791fab}

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"2012" Review

Roland Emmerich gets his rocks off blowing up the world. Hey, whatever sinks your battleship. It's like the Tarantino foot fetish thing, you just have to shake your head and go, 'the guy likes feet.' But if destruction is Emmerich's erotica, then "2012" is a perverse shrine; it's disaster porn, a sweaty menage a trois of "Dante's Peak," "Titanic," and "Independence Day." "2012" distinguishes itself from those films only in its unabashed one-upmanship: bigger, louder, and more marginalized story.

The marketing admittedly piqued my interest, I think because it seemed so simultaneously silly and audacious. Highway billboards and movie theater stand-ups depicted iconic human art and architecture being pathetically splintered, smashed, or washed away. I imagined the lunacy of the digital disaster film coupled with an absurdist futility. I wanted "2012" to be genre satire, an unrelenting gleeful cataclysm without redemption. In retrospect, it was not wise to expect these things from Emmerich.

If anything, "2012" is torturously formulaic, layering state of the art special effects over the writer/director's decade-old story template. A renegade scientist discovers an inevitable global catastrophe, meets our always-noble president, and clashes with an evil cabinet member--it turns out 2012 is a whole lot like 1996. But perhaps most disappointingly, by any action movie standard, Emmerich breaks a cardinal rule: he never tops his first act. The five-plus minute sequence that arrives roughly forty minutes into the film involves John Cusack and company speeding through a crumbling Los Angeles cityscape by limousine and airplane while earthquakes topple skyscrapers and split the streets, swallowing countless fleeing innocents. It would have made a fantastically over-the-top finale, but Emmerich isn't content to simply shake things up when he could drown or pelt them with fiery balls of magma.

The majority of the disposable plot actually revolves around the struggle to reserve space on one of several 'arks' being built in China to house the lucky few chosen to repopulate the dying planet. The general public is never informed of their existence, but attention rich and famous: tickets can be purchased for just a few million Euro! The third act of "2012" then takes to the open water and devolves into everything I didn't want it to be, namely a countdown-clock movie in which the resilience of human ingenuity and spirit ultimately triumph over avers--

I'm sorry, I dozed off there for a second. Millions of people die in this film, so forgive me if John Cusack and his fickle ex-wife, son, and hat-loving daughter's survival aboard a ship loaded with billionaires and bureaucrats charting a course for the inexplicably unflooded African continent to, I'm sure, politely explain the concept of manifest destiny to any weary native survivors, fails to move me. Emmerich's ending is worse than cliche, it's insultingly euphemistic, backwards, and schmaltzy.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more apt that porn metaphor becomes. It's not difficult to tell which scenes exist solely to progress the plot, and which scenes set the stage for ludicrous action set pieces. Seeing a hanger full of Russian concept cars is like opening a scene in a porno with two girls on a couch. Come on. The film's primary function, as with feature length pornography, also makes the running time completely unnecessary. You know why you're watching.

As pure spectacle, "2012" occasionally succeeds, with some well-choreographed action sequences that straddle the fine line of utter ridiculousness and competently address their directive to entertain. The plot, however, is at best derivative and at worst short-sighted and masturbatory.

Can't wait for the sequel, Roland Emmerich's "Seamen."


FARCE/FILM Episode 19: 2012, The Road

--> Episode 19: 11/16/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, and Kevin Mauer

Intro -- 00:00
Top 5 -- 01:16
2012 (Spoilers) -- 05:09
The Road (Spoilers) -- 26:55
Events and Outro -- 51:21


"The Road"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" Review

No, it's not a Coen brothers film, but it does a decent impression. The marks are clearly visible, foremost being the casting of veteran leads George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, and a plot that follows their reliable 'Joe-Local-gets-in-over-his-head' template. The film finds release just a year after the Coen's own "Burn After Reading," and the good news is that "The Men Who Stare at Goats," is just about on par with their espionage comedy, though I don't hold either in particularly high regard. Despite the misleading stylistic similarities, "Goats" was directed by a guy called Grant Heslov, who has a far more extensive resume as an actor than a director. He appeared in Clooney's "Leatherheads," last year and this appears to be the mutually beneficial returned favor.

Clooney brings an oomph to the film that Bridges or Kevin Spacey or even Ewan McGregor couldn't alone, and the script trades him one of the more legitimately charming performances of his career. As Lyn Cassidy, self-proclaimed 'Jedi warrior,' Clooney partners with a small town reporter (McGregor), for an undercover psychic mission on behalf of a secret branch of the U.S. Army. Their adventure is interspersed with a history of the 'First Earth Battalion,' a regiment with a freethinking spiritual approach to global conflict, based on information pulled from the supposedly real biography (also titled "The Men Who Stare at Goats") by author Jon Ronson. Experiments allegedly include, as advertised, the power to fell goats through channeled negative energy and the ability to pass through walls. The movie is prefaced with the phrase, "More of this is true than you would believe."

The bureaucratic satire of the snappy flashbacks makes for considerably better comedy than the majority of the present-day sequences, which often stumble in shoehorning the amusing suppositions, characters, and gags from the precursor scenes into a narrative. The issue comes to a head in a generally misguided third act, which fumbles for dramatic and comedic footing, delivering a largely disappointing finale on both counts. Still, the movie is as easygoing as the new-age hippies it depicts, and as such, stands a difficult film to dislike.

Where I do take issue with it, however, is in its depiction of Jedi ability. For the most part, the effectiveness of Cassidy's powers is a punch line, though I can imagine those who believe in the telepathic potential of the mind could read him at face value, pronouncing his psychic powers truncated by a hex cast by a rival solider. These sequences are left pleasingly ambiguous with two exceptions. The first is featured in the trailer, and the second I won't spoil.

Cassidy and Bob Wilton (McGregor as the surrogate Ronson), are driving across the Iraqi dessert when Wilton calls out Cassidy for a peculiar upward squinting. Cassidy explains the behavior as "cloud dispersing," and we cut to an effects insert from Wilton's point of view as the heavenly mass quickly dissipates. As near as I can tell, whether intentionally or not, the shot suggests that Cassidy isn't crazy and that he is legitimately paranormally gifted, which kills the quirky suspense moving forward. Others have suggested the shot represents a natural dispersion, which Cassidy merely perceives to have caused of his own volition, but the speed ramping applied to the image suggests otherwise to me. The same sequence without that single shot could easily have maintained an intriguing open-endedness.

The shot could hardly be said to spoil the film, which on the whole remains a fun, occasionally engaging diversion. My pre-existing interest in the strange is certainly a handicap not all audiences will share, and the proceedings favor subtle irony to joke-a-minute yuk-fests like this Summer's aggressively unfunny, "Hangover," which, no, I really won't get tired of bashing. "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is an acquired taste to be sure, and even under the right frame of mind has its share of problems, but nevertheless offers an entertaining ninety minutes with some great performances and hilarious individual scenes.

If the Coen brothers are inadvertently receiving credit for this film, they needn't be embarrassed.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 18: Men Who Stare at Goats

--> Episode 18: 11/8/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Maggie Ruder

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 02:34
The Men Who Stare at Goats (spoilers) – 20:21
Events and Outro – 42:52

"The Men Who Stare at Goats"


Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Bronson" Review

Can you really produce a biopic about the theatrical brutality of Britain's most dangerous prisoner and not incite comparisons to Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange?" The trailer for Nicholas Winding Refn's "Bronson" spouts the likeness triumphantly with a quote attributed to Damien McSorley for the publication, "Zoo." Surely Kubrick is a flattering filmmaker to have your humble work compared to, though like American director Wes Anderson, who borrows all the style of the man but none of the content, "Bronson" is a film with an air of grandiosity and very little in the way of actual story. Kubrick's film, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, has a Dickensian plot that doubles back on characters and scenarios established in the first act, leaving nothing unchanged by the end of the third. It's a comparison under which "Bronson" unfavorably suffers: well directed, impeccably performed, but completely devoid of structure.

I don't mean to undersell the above compliments, however. Tom Hardy as lowly criminal Michael Peterson and his imprisoned superstar alter ego Charles Bronson, displays a remarkable, feral intensity in the role, spitting meaty, cockney chunks of dialogue with a truly disquieting voracity. And Hardy makes a perfect match for Refn: both share a larger-than-life approach to their craft. The director's visual audacity is never more sublimely paired with Hardy's performance than during Bronson's intermittent narrations; snippets of a surreal one-man stage show for some great, unseen audience. The cutaways recall the feel of Alex's presentation following the successful administration of the ludovico technique in "Clockwork Orange." Swooping crane and sweeping dolly shots, along with some fantastic locations, also evoke Kubrick's directorial sentiments, as does the more obvious accompaniment of classical score to key sequences.

Unfortunately, the failure of "Bronson" is not only that there's very little dramatically to be done with a man who spends the better part of his life in solitary confinement, but that beyond a vague notoriety, Peterson's ultimate goal is never particularly clear. The ending of the film is startling in its abruptness given that the scene seems interchangeable with any number of the fights Bronson picks over the course of the film. It doesn't feel a particularly epic brawl, and by that point, the tedium of Bronson's outbursts, battles, and increasingly severe punishments had worn me (though it could maybe be called a statement on the nature of desensitizing cinema--in that respect a reverse "Clockwork Orange") into a sleepy passivity.

The film is nevertheless a step the right direction for the usually-schlocky and hyper-masculine Refn, but "Bronson" still wants for the substantiality that makes great films great films. It isn't likely to inspire any further meditation on its subject beyond perhaps provoking a curiosity about the man himself in those intrigued but unsatisfied with the screenplay's frugal allocation of hard data and social context. But despite the film's inability to make clear its greater thematic intent, I don't think "Bronson" is a perversely violent film or that it exists solely as a fetishistic idol to counterculture, as some will likely label it, and have labeled Kubrick's masterpiece. Its beautiful cinematography (courtesy Larry Smith, interestingly enough, the lighting cameraman for Kubick's own "Eyes Wide Shut") and stellar lead may make it a worthwhile rental next year, but as it stands, "Bronson" is a precautionary tale. It's a film that has everything going for it except the the thing that matters most: its story. And you don't need to be Stanley Kubrick to figure that out.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"A Serious Man" Review

With a prolificacy unprecedented in their decade and a half filmmaking career, the Coen brothers have released three films in three consecutive years. The first, 2007's "No Country for Old Men" won the duo a long belated best picture Oscar. Their second, the amiable "Burn After Reading" received mixed reviews but remained a commercial success. "A Serious Man," their latest, is a semi-autobiographical parable about the relevance of religion to modern society (modern being the seventies for a pair that have so tirelessly explored the earlier half of the twentieth century). To label the piece one of the best films of the year is to undersell it; it's the Coens' best film of the decade.

The statement gives an initial impression of grandeur, but is still somewhat misleading given that the new millennium has seen a median decline in the quality of the Coens' work, if only when compared to their streak of wildly diverse successes during the nineties. 2003 and 2004 also saw the release of their two most styleless films ("Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers"), which may prompt more cynical readers to regard my proclamation as somewhat hallow. The greatest compliment I can pay the Coen brothers' latest effort may simply be to say that it holds up to their best work. Radically different in setting and character while still embodying an ineffable Coen-ness, "A Serious Man" is truly worthy of the duo's legacy.

Tonally, it bears closest similarity to "Fargo," in that the filmmakers' bizarre humor remains in tact, but is broadcast at a lower decibel than "Burn After Reading," or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "A Serious Man" is a subtly engaging film, its pacing slow and deliberate, with a series of escalating misfortunes that ratchet up the tension for the Coen's surrogate father, protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), until the apotheosis funnels into one of the most viscerally cinematic and profoundly powerful endings in recent memory. The only thing that comes close is maybe the last five minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."

Without spoiling anything, the film is deliberately constructed to leave the interpretation of God, or the manifestation of His will, up to the viewer. Is "A Serious Man" a film about fate, about the futility of religious practice, or about its importance? Plug in either interpretation and it works, and that's just a sliver of the film's brilliance. Religion is really a perfect subject for the Coens, given that the pair has always favored the unresolved and the unexplained in their storytelling. For them, God is the ultimate question mark.

But more importantly, above its philosophical and theological subtext, "A Serious Man" is an entertaining story. More reserved than perhaps any of their films, the Coens still squeeze in their signature hard-edged silliness with a cast of memorable characters and offbeat subplots involving the people in Larry's life: his dope-smoking son, dope-smoking neighbor, live-in brother, estranged wife, and her prospective future husband. Truth be told, the events that transpire are rarely enthralling in the moment, but the further I stand from them, the more complete and satisfying a portrait they form. The final moments are beautiful and haunting, and tie everything together so well with so little that you may not realize how perfect it is until the credits are already rolling.

The Coens have reasserted themselves as incomparable American filmmakers worthy of mention in the same breath as genre-chameleon Billy Wilder. With a relatively dry award season ahead of us, "A Serious Man" is at the top of my list, and though the pair won their first best picture Oscar only two years ago, it suddenly seems rather implausible that they'll be waiting another thirteen years for their next.


Monday, November 2, 2009

FARCE/FILM Episode 17: Bronson, Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus

--> Episode 17: 11/1/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Tyler Drown

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 07:15
Bronson - 13:45
I Can’t Believe You’ve Seen - 23:32
(Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus)
Events and Outro - 41:16


"Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus"