Friday, December 31, 2010

"True Grit" Review

It makes perfect sense for the Coen brothers to direct a period western. They've danced around one for years, with modernist takes on the genre like "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men," while tirelessly exploring the early side of the twentieth century elsewhere in their work. "True Grit," however, is their first giant leap into the past. In fact, outside of a vignette that opens their 2009 film "A Serious Man," the winter of 1878, where "True Grit" begins, is a frontier for both the characters and the filmmakers.

I'm of the mind that the Coens, who have now impressively released four films in four consecutive years, benefit from occasionally stepping outside their comfort zone. "True Grit" is a fascinating experiment in that regard, though in adapting Charles Portis' 1968 novel for the screen (and mindful I'm sure of the John Wayne adaptation to which their film would inevitably be compared), Joel and Ethan Coen contribute less of themselves than might be expected. Granted, the dark humor and caustic irony that run throughout are distinctly Coen brothers additions, but perhaps more so than any of their other films, their latest is a mostly opaque effort.

Still, the pair have some interesting notes on the genre, and perhaps what's most remarkable about "True Grit" is its characters. Westerns are typically full of cookie-cutter cowboys and predictable protagonists, but the Coens go almost out of their way to avert any and all cliché. From the brilliant performance of newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a fiercely intelligent 14-year old, to Jeff Bridges' stiff, guttural take on Wayne's oscar-winning role, it's clear the importance the brothers place on character, and the care they take in realizing them.

Probably the most immediately recognizable 'Coen-esque' personage is Matt Damon as a flamboyant Texas Ranger too big for his britches. The duo love ironic dichotomy, and from the misguided entitlement Damon provokes as the ludicrously named La Boeuf, to his silly cowboy getups, ceaseless boasting, and general ineptitude, Damon rounds out a classic Coen archetype.

When you strip away the characters, what remains of "True Grit" is a fundamental but effective western revenge tale. If the film at all disappoints, it is because the Coens' stories are usually multi-faceted affairs with layer upon layer of nuance. Their most famous works are so busy that the utter simplicity of "True Grit" comes as something of a surprise. Taken on its own, however, the film more than holds its own among the many other revivalist westerns released over the past few years.

And come to think of it, a tale loaded with heavy themes like vengeance, redemption, and justice doesn't need to be artificially inflated with subplots to support them. In fact, one of the reasons the western genre provides such viscerally satisfying experiences is precisely because it tends to wear its motifs on its sleeve. Part of our fascination with that era too comes from the simplicity it entails.

But beyond the mechanisms of its success, the most important triumph of "True Grit" is that it delivers on its promise of six-gun badassery with a heart. Jeff Bridges is awesome as a decrepit Rooster Cogburn, and the begrudging respect he develops for Ross gives the gunfights weight. The last fifteen minutes of the film are beautiful and unforgettable.

"True Grit" doesn't rock the boat as much as "A Serious Man" or offer the same fascinating level of character complexity as "Fargo," but it is nevertheless an important landmark in the Coen brothers' career. They've conquered yet another frontier, and it's as exciting as ever to imagine which they'll turn to next.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 73: True Grit

--> Episode 73: 12/28/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Johanson, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 03:36
True Grit – 08:21
WMD - 25:25
(Driving Miss Daisy, Scrooged, Lethal Weapon, A Christmas Story, Easy A, Love Actually, King of Kong)
E-mail and Outro - 47:42
(Critical reaction to There Will Be Blood)

"True Grit"

-- Weekly Discussion --

This week on the show, our hosts discuss the career of the Coen brothers. What are your favorite films by the pair?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Tron: Legacy" Review

“Tron: Legacy” is a beautiful mess. Packed with state of the art visuals, from the striking blue and orange neon oasis of a computer world to the disquieting de-aging of Jeff Bridges, it’s just a shame that a decent script hadn’t been hammered out beforehand. “Legacy” could have been a stunner. Instead, it’s merely supermodel entertainment—gorgeous but vapid.

You’d think a movie about a brainiac hacker would be a little smarter. Granted, there’s enough techy gobbledygook to choke a computer processor, but it has the opposite of the desired effect. Incomprehensible and long-winded expository scenes make clear that “Legacy” is the worst breed of hand-holding blockbuster—characters formulate and execute plans in ceaseless sequence until they reach end protocol. Structurally, the film is like a bad sonnet.

Probably the single most egregious problem with “Legacy’s” screenplay is its entirely uninteresting characters. Reluctant hero Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is the son of Bridges’ character from the 1982 original. Perhaps it’s fitting that the character is cast adrift in an artificial world, because he’s the least dynamic human being on Earth. A living soul should stick out like a sore thumb when compared to anthropomorphized computer programs, but though Sam gawks and cracks wise, the truth is that his character is as lifeless as a filing cabinet. I can’t think of three adjectives to describe him.

Bridges doesn’t have much to work with either as the elder Flynn; the man is a bottomless well of exposition peppered with antiquated colloquialisms (“dig,” “jazz,” “man,” e.g. “I don’t dig that jazz, man”) leftover from his overzealous performance in “Tron” prime. Olivia Wilde plays Quorra, the last of a super-advanced cyber species with whom personality certainly died. And then there’s Martin Sheen as Zuse, who has enough eccentricities for the four of them combined. He plays the role of an opportunistic bartender like a Greek bohemian, giving a bizarre and unrestrained performance that feels more than a little out of place. He’s in the movie maybe a combined six minutes.

Unfortunately, the story that binds these characters together is just as forgettable. Even as they bolt through its interminable second-half, it feels as though nothing is happening. Their motivator is literally “Get to the portal,” which means “Legacy” is essentially a chase film. The only method employed to break-up the razzle-dazzle action sequences are paunchy bouts of dialogue that beget subplots that beget more chase. There is never a moment to stop and admire the world around them, or even to understand it. The universe of “Tron” never feels alive—it is merely an eye-candy coating over the bland events that comprise this tasteless narrative.

I do not mean to undersell “Tron: Legacy” on a visual or technical level. The production design is superlative, and the digital wizardry (re: the ‘Curious Case of Jeff Bridges’) could be revolutionary. “Legacy” is a beautiful film, but none of that changes the fact that its screenplay is a disaster. It’s never a good sign when you have six writers attached to the same piece of material, and the sequel to “Tron” is an open and shut case of too many cooks.

Outside of the aesthetic artistry and a memorable soundtrack by Daft Punk, there is little to remember “Tron: Legacy” for. Its characters are cardboard and its plot is paper-thin. And without substance, all the cosmetics in the world can’t save you. Sorry, supermodels.


Monday, December 20, 2010

"The Fighter" Review

It’s easy to take a film like David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” for granted around award season. It’s minus the panache of the year’s other heavy hitters, and fills a comfortable ‘sports drama’ niche. O. Russell’s film may very well be among the ten best picture nominations announced next month, but it doesn’t have a shot at the title—which is a shame, because it earns greatness in its own right.

“The Fighter” isn’t the best film of the year, but it features some of the best characters and performances of the year, wrapped in a familiar but accessible underdog story with plenty of fresh hooks. Much attention has been paid to Christian Bale as boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s crack-addicted brother, and rightly so. Even among so talented an ensemble, Bale shines in his transformative turn, once again whittling himself down to little more than a human wireframe.

Bale probably receives too much credit for his wild weight swings, which have the tendency to upstage merely passable performances, but his talent as showcased in “The Fighter” is incontrovertible. This is best Bale has ever been, juggling pathos with a sense of humor I presumed lost after “American Psycho.” If “The Fighter” takes home one award, it’ll have Christian Bale’s name on it.

Bale is so vibrant in his role that it’s easy to forget to mention the strength of the rest of the cast; Mark Wahlberg contributes his best performance in years under O. Russell, whom he’s collaborated with before on “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees.” As an artist, Wahlberg may be guilty of poor taste more than anything else, as he has consistently proven more than capable a performer in the right hands. The same boyish naivety that made him a perfect fit for P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” shines through in “The Fighter,” which along with his physical formidability make him both believable and easy to get behind.

If I have a gripe about the casting, Amy Adams might actually be a bit too attractive as Ward’s love interest—a small town bartender and college dropout—but her performance sells it. Also fine are Ward’s destructive family, including Melissa Leo as the totalitarian matriarch, who’s followed in tow by a gaggle of her fiercely protective daughters, and Jack McGee as the working-class dad who seems consistently out of his element among all the aggressive estrogen.

“The Fighter” is a terrifically acted film, but its real strength comes from the way its characters drive the story. Much of the drama comes from Ward’s poisonous relationship with his mother and brother (his manager and trainer, respectively), and his having to break free of their manipulation and neglect is a decidedly unorthodox angle for a sports flick. Those relationships motivate the narrative, and the result is a drama that runs like clockwork. “The Fighter” is engrossing, unpretentious, and an immaculate crowd-pleaser.

O. Russell and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In”) deserve recognition as well for giving the film its distinctive visual flair. Of particular interest is the style and method by which the pair chose to shoot their fight sequences, which achieve some of the best faux-broadcast mimicry I’ve ever seen. The effect is initially so convincing that I assumed actual footage had been integrated from Ward’s fights—until Wahlberg stepped into the ring. From there, the camerawork is kept tight and effect is satisfying and visceral.

Buzz films like “Black Swan” and “127 Hours” will likely dominate much of the awards dialogue in the coming months, but “The Fighter” deserves a fair shake as well. Unlike last year’s condescending “Blindside,” David O. Russell’s sports drama isn’t exploitative, nor is it only receiving praise in the context of its Oscar-caliber performances. “The Fighter” is absolutely worth seeing, and not just for Christian Bale. It could be a contender.


FARCE/FILM Episode 72: Tron: Legacy, The Fighter

--> Episode 72 - 12/19/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Laura Rachfalski, Ben Wong

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:02
Tron: Legacy (spoilers) – 08:44
The Fighter – 38:07
WMD – 52:25
(The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Restrepo, Bad Santa, Risky Business, Black Swan, 127 Hours, Speed, Point Break, The Walking Dead, The Tourist, Bubba Ho-Tep, Ace in the Hole, Who's Afraid of V. Woolf?, Serpico, Die Hard 2, Die Hard 3, The Green Mile, Superman: The Movie)
E-mail and Outro: 01:22:34
(Favorite Films Featuring Marine Life)

"Tron: Legacy"

"The Fighter"

-- Weekly Discussion --
This week on the show, our hosts discuss the incredible Jeff Bridges de-aging technology on display in Tron: Legacy. What are some of your favorite films that broke new ground with their visual effects?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oops! No FARCE/Film Podcast This Week

Due to scheduling conflicts and the unappealing room-temperature smorgasbord of early December releases, FARCE/Film is once again forgoing its weekly podcast, with eyes to return Sunday, December 19th. Never fear: when we miss a week, we come back twice as strong. In the meantime, feel free to read my review of "The Tourist" below, and look forward to reviews of the highly anticipated "Tron: Legacy" and "The Fighter" from Podcast Alley's* number 3 film-related podcast next week!

*Now defunct?

"The Tourist" Review

2010 has been a year glutted with mediocre spy fare. “The Tourist” joins the dubious ranks of “Red,” “Knight and Day,” and “Killers”—and that it might be the best of the lot isn’t saying much. Anchored by arguably the strongest cast, including stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, “The Tourist” moves at a more relaxed pace than its blockbuster brethren. Then again, “Red” was plenty slow, but still wound up nigh incomprehensible.

I understood “The Tourist,” which is a complement, unfortunately. The Venetian caper keeps its audience in the loop, with a story thankfully straightforward enough to follow. Jolie plays Elise Clifton-Ward, the squeeze of a master criminal who's lifted two billion pounds from a no-nonsense English gangster (Steven Berkoff). In order to keep the identity of her mysterious lover secret, she employs the aid of an unwitting proxy, American tourist and self described “math teacher,” Frank Tupelo (Depp).

Maybe the most impressive part of Depp’s performance is that it feels like the first human character he’s portrayed in years. Leapfrogging from roles like Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd to John Dillinger, surely nobody doubts Depp’s ability to consistently transform himself. After watching him ham it up as Jack Sparrow in three consecutive “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies however, I was surprised by how charming the man can be without his usual flamboyancy. He’s hardly brilliant in “The Tourist,” but by scaling back the theatrics and focusing instead on playing an actual person, he reminded me of something I had since forgotten—I actually really like Johnny Depp.

Jolie is less interesting as his seductive captor. The actress has recently whittled herself down to little more than a skeleton with full lips; her sharp inset cheekbones and sickly pipe-cleaner legs make many a male head turn in “The Tourist.” Thanks but no thanks, the double-digit weight doesn't do much for me. Jolie is playing beautiful, elegant, and sexy, but she just looks malnourished.

Her physical appearance doesn't detract from the performance, however, and her chemistry with Depp is what makes “The Tourist” sail, though the plot is eventually blown in an unexpected and unwelcome direction, after which the film struggles to stay afloat. The silly twist undoes a lot of the goodwill the film has going for it, and its final minutes feel as though they’re unraveling rather than unifying what came before.

Directed by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”), “The Tourist” is a decidedly marginal success, but a success nonetheless. It makes a few interesting decisions to distinguish itself from its middling colleagues—unlike “Knight and Day,” von Donnersmarck casts Jolie, his female lead, as the savvy spy and Depp as the smitten Joe Average instead of subjecting them to more conventional gender roles.

This review may be full of half-compliments, but “The Tourist” is played so down the middle that there’s next to nothing to say about it to begin with. It was admittedly a pleasant surprise keeping in mind the critical reaming it received via Rotten Tomatoes. In competition with any of the other mediocre to outright terrible espionage films mentioned above, I would recommend “The Tourist” without hesitation—taken alone, it receives a significantly less enthusiastic endorsement.

There is, however, one 2010 spy flick to which “The Tourist” doesn’t hold a candle (and coincidentally, another film about traveling abroad): Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” which arrives on home video December 28th. Until then, I suppose we’ll have to make due with von Donnersmarck’s sometimes compelling, occasionally painful action/romance. I suppose you could also rent “Knight and Day” or “Killers” if you’re a real glutton for punishment.


Monday, December 6, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 71: Tangled, Megamind, Love and Other Drugs

--> Episode 71: 12/05/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Jon Mauer, Suman Allakki, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 04:25
Tangled – 08:03
Megamind (spoilers) – 21:03
Love and Other Drugs (spoilers) – 31:41
WMD - 44:50
(TMNT, Louie, The Running Man, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Eat Pray Love, Charlie St. Cloud, Fringe, Winnebago Man, Aliens, Assassination of Jesse James, Hot Tub Time Machine, 2012, Adventureland, Surrogates, Mother, The Cove, Man on the Moon, Play Time, Lost Highway)
E-mail and Outro - 01:31:15
(Favorite Adult-themed Animated Films)



"Love and Other Drugs"

-- Weekly Discussion --

This week, our hosts discuss 2010’s two most recent animated films: Megamind and Tangled. What are your favorite animated films of the year? What are your all-time favorites?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Tangled" Review

This is what you get for not seeing “The Princess and the Frog.” Disney eschewed its revitalization of traditional animation for this forgettable CG adaptation of Rapunzel, which goes by the nondescript nom de plume: “Tangled.”

If the recent announcement that the animation giant is placing a moratorium on fairy tale films should come as a surprise to anyone, their position on the matter is telegraphed plainly into the first five minutes of their latest and last: modern audiences won’t sit for straight-faced fantasy. The name-change alone underscores the corporation’s feelings on the commercial viability of a tradition it once held proud.

That willful dissolution of magic is a slap in the face to “Snow White” or “Sleeping Beauty.” “Tangled” begins with striking imagery, but buries it beneath a sour, smarmy voice over by this year’s prince-not-so-charming, Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi). As narrator, he cracks jokes at the expense of the archetypical framework—as if he doesn’t, and we shouldn’t, treat the story with one modicum of seriousness. Being cavalier about your own film isn’t a great way to hook your viewers.

Thus “Tangled” is a disengaging experience from the outset. It downplays its fairy tale roots, but then never defies them. It disinterests us in its world, and then asks us to spend ninety minutes there. Worse, it suffers from sloppy characterization, including one of the single weakest antagonists in Disney history. Donna Murphy plays Mother Gothel to Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel, and neither has a lick of personality. The irksome Flynn is practically the only other human character, with the rest of the world being populated by nameless thugs and townspeople. When so much relies on so few, you’d think more attention would be paid to making them distinct.

Essentially, Repunzel's sole remarkable trait is her magic hair, a plot device that is curiously ignored throughout the film. There are plenty of early gags visualizing how she manipulates it (for instance, in order to lift her mother into the tower), but it's clearly an afterthought as her adventure is set into motion. To illustrate, the princess emerges from a stream without any indication of the added water weight. She never once has her locks stepped on, snagged, or caught in a door. I thought this movie was called “Tangled!” Having hair that long would be a major inconvenience, people!

Maybe I’m splitting hairs (ouch); I probably shouldn’t have expected anything more from “Tangled”—it’s the near unanimous praise I don’t understand. The songs are lousy, the characters are dull (save for one spunky chameleon), and the story merely suffices (but then it’s tough to break something that’s survived hundreds of years). The film is so clearly catered to a younger crowd that my curmudgeonly opinion is somewhat irrelevant, but with Pixar managing year after year to satisfy the storytelling needs of both adults and children, Disney’s “Tangled” is an immediate relic. It’s a film made for twelve year olds who need to be convinced that fairy tales aren’t stupid and boring.

“Enchanted” and “The Princess and the Frog” were classic Disney films despite their flaws. Their creators clearly understood what made the studio in its prime so successful. “Tangled” is a harmless children’s cartoon, but it doesn’t recapture any of the magic the company is known for. Instead, it takes a snide approach to the Rapunzel story while simultaneously contributing nothing to it. I may not be the target audience, but to quote an old friend, “If this is where the monarchy is headed, count me out.”


Monday, November 29, 2010

"Love and Other Drugs" Review

“Love and Other Drugs” has an immediate leg-up on its romcom competition in that it actually has a halfway decent premise. Set against the backdrop of the nineties pharmaceutical boom, and with a charismatic Jake Gyllenhaal shucking Zoloft and Viagra for the umbrella company Pfizer (drugs which today are so commonplace that Microsoft Office automatically capitalized them for me), there is the tantalizing potential that “Love and Other Drugs” may do more than play it safe.

Now consider Anne Hathaway as an artsy early-onset Parkinson’s victim and the hard R for nudity, and it feels as though the filmmakers are genuinely determined to take a few risks—and they do, but not necessarily in the right places. Much of “Love and Other Drugs” feels frustratingly formulaic, and conflicting ideas (presumably the amalgam of multiple drafts and authors) lend the film an unkempt, atonal quality. A surplus of half-baked ideas suffices in the place of one strong one, and this nearly two-hour endeavor never amounts to more than the sum of its disparate parts.

Its most interesting aspect is surely the pharmaceutical angle, and one of the greatest shortcomings of “Love and Other Drugs” is that it fails to take a definitive stance on the industry. The rock-and-roll Pfizer presentation Gyllenhaal is treated to early on is a great scene with irony to spare—the theatrics and sexiness with which the company presents itself is as humorous as it is overlooked later on. The satiric edge that marks a strong beginning is then dulled on narrative millstones that impede its momentum.

Eventually, the film skirts or ignores politics wherever possible. Maggie (Hathaway’s character) is totally reliant on expensive medication to offset the effects of her first-stage Parkinson’s, but she never expresses contempt for the system despite chartering a regular bus trip from Chicago to Canada to land cheaper meds. Strangely, she seems to hold no grudge against Pfizer or its representative, Jamie (Gyllenhaal). If anything, she seems as staunch a supporter as the salesman himself.

But once their relationship begins in earnest, the romantic comedy autopilot kicks in, and what made “Love and Other Drugs” even somewhat unique is left high and dry in favor of straight up archetype. But what’s even more annoying is Jamie’s slovenly live-in brother, a Jonah Hill-esque 'comic relief' character who serves no purpose to the plot whatsoever. He exists purely for comedic potential—a potential that is not once realized. His existence in this world is tacked-on and transient.

Still, as far as romantic comedies go—and I can’t profess to being an expert on the genre—you could do worse than “Love and Other Drugs.” Half the battle is establishing likable characters and a compelling scenario, both of which the film manages admirably. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are fine together, and both have the opportunity to play off of some interesting character actors (Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt). The real shame is that the film never comes together in spite of everything it has going for it. Medical malady drama one minute, sweet romance the next, and lame duck comedy after that, “Love and Other Drugs” is ultimately the median between its successful peaks and deep, disappointing troughs.

Though the film multitasks poorly and muddles its message, it isn’t the disaster it might have been. Even in botching its potential it has spurts of creativity, which is more than can be said for most of its uninspired kindred. Having fun and playing it safe aren’t always mutually exclusive, after all.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gobble gobble! FARCE/Film takes a Thanksgiving Breather

While the FARCE/Film crew adjust their belts and ease themselves back into the horrible work week, there will regrettably be no new podcast. Look forward to one of our signature "Super Shows" next Sunday, featuring reviews of "Tangled," "Love and Other Drugs" and much, much more! There may even be an appearance by America's favorite erotic clown: Suman!

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" Review

Even having read every “Harry Potter” book and seen every “Harry Potter” film, I still hesitate to call myself a fan. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the world J.K. Rowling invented or the characters she created, but rather that my enjoyment of the series has always been transient. With sometimes years between each subsequent release, my memory of the litany of events preceding them is often shaky at best, and I've never felt particularly inclined to re-visit.

Inasmuch, every “Harry Potter” has been almost an insular experience for me. I enjoyed the film series as pure Hollywood spectacle, but have always felt their independent merits were questionable at best. In that regard (taking into account I haven’t seen “The Sorcerer’s Stone” since I was in high school) “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” may be the weakest in the series. Curiously, in others ways, it’s the best.

I love that director David Yates pumps the breaks for this adaptation—that he actually gives the material breathing room, allowing it to be more than a feature-length amusement park ride. On a technical and artistic level, there is a lot I admire about his team’s work on this penultimate adventure. But at two and a half hours, covering only half a book, there’s no getting around the fact that “Deathly Hallows” is perhaps the least exciting and inherently least complete-feeling film in the franchise.

I get it, Warner Brothers. Splitting the final “Harry Potter” into two parts was a brilliant marketing decision. It’s hard to lie down and watch a cash cow die, and I’m sure many consumers will even relish the grandeur of a two-part finale. From a creative perspective, however, Rowling’s “Deathly Hallows” might be the worst book in the series to divide.

The bloated first half of her novel features a few action sequences peppered in out of necessity, but Rowling’s authorial stalling is what translates most clearly in this film. Painfully little transpires, rendering probably the most faithful adaptation of her work as the weakest cinematically. Of course, Potter portrayer Daniel Radcliff and co. do as admiral a job as always in breathing life into the characters and humanizing the often absurd plot developments and plethora of plot-holes a magic world entails, but nothing can save “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” from feeling like half of a story—or more precisely, one eighth of a story.

Unlike prior “Potter” outings, “Deathly Hallows” also over-relies on the hunting of mystical artifacts. Major story arcs and characters are ignored in favor of horcruxes—trinkets imbued with pieces of Voldemort’s soul that Harry must seek and destroy before their climactic confrontation. The titular deathly hallows are then yet another collection of requisite magic items; between the hallows and the horcruxes, “Harry Potter 7” feels like one tedious fetch-quest.

That may be enough to satiate some Pottermaniacs, but even having read every book and seen every film, I’m not devoted enough to the franchise to overlook that “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is a shameless cash-grab. It's a film almost inappreciable when considered on its own, and unexciting when compared to its prequels. There is no reason Rowling’s last “Harry Potter” book (which is not the longest in the series) couldn't have been concisely and effectively wrapped up in two and a half hours, and asking audiences to pay twice for one film strikes me as more than a little unfair. “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is a colossal tease—crippled on its own and treading water in context, its never more than half a film. It's only fair it gets half a score.


FARCE/FILM Episode 70: Harry Potter 7, Charlie St. Cloud

--> Episode 70: 11/21/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:04
Harry Potter 7, part 1 (spoilers) – 04:02
Charlie St. Cloud (spoilers) – 44:56
WMD - 51:28
(For Colored Girls, Before Sunset, The Thin Blue Line, Party Down, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The English Surgeon, Natural Born Killers, Alice in Wonderland, Lady in the Water, The Running Man)
E-mail and outro – 01:24:31
(Favorite Bond and Bond Films)

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1"

"Charlie St. Cloud"

-- Weekly Discussion --

This week, our hosts discuss Harry Potter and disagree on its independent merits. Does Deathly Hallows Part 1 work as a stand-alone film? Should franchise filmmakers strive to create insular experiences, or is the impetus on the audience to keep up?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Unstoppable" Review

With a capable cast and the right script, Tony Scott has made terrific movies. Lately however, he’s taken on a string of lousy screenplays and contributed little to them. In “Unstoppable,” it isn’t initially clear whether he’s working for or against us—irksome stylistic choices threaten to derail his momentum at every turn. But like Triple Seven, a ghost train towing a half-mile of hazardous chemicals, the breakneck energy he builds vaporizes any obstructions in its path. “Unstoppable” is a fun, effective film.

Anchored by charismatic performances by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, Scott’s latest is refreshingly straightforward: a seasoned engineer (Washington) and his trainee (Pine) are on a routine delivery when they unwittingly become the last, best hope to stop an unmanned locomotive from jumping track in a highly populated Pennsylvanian town. Silly though the characters’ transitions from blue-collar workers to action stars might be, the premise is simple and stays that way, and the plot builds not in scale but in intensity. Of course, there’s plenty of railyard jargon and engineering exposition peppered throughout to create a veneer of complexity, but “Can’t stop the train” is about all you’ll ever need to know.

And what more do you need to know? “Unstoppable” is one of the most viscerally exciting Hollywood spectacles this year, and a welcome relief in the action spectrum from the ceaseless deluge of military and mercenary films. An action movie sans combat is all but unheard of in this day and age, but never fear; Scott squeezes in enough explosions and speedometer-snapping trucks, helicopters, and trains to keep even the most attention deficient spectators docile. That he does so without relying on conventional violence is just the icing on the cake.

Still, “Unstoppable” is a far from perfect film, and the fun had comes only after a mandatory adjustment to Scott’s ugly shooting style. His carousel dollies, unmotivated snap zooms, and bland color palette are all major distractions. Either Scott doesn’t care whether his images have an independent artistry, or he has terrible aesthetic taste. Even his coverage feels inadequate in certain instances—key moments are muddled because we aren’t sure of Triple Seven’s spatial relationship to its surroundings. For an action director, that’s a significant oversight.

Yet ultimately, it barely matters. As ugly and unpolished as “Unstoppable” often looks, it’s hard to deny the base effectiveness of the imagery. The sense of constant motion is no accident, and that the photography manages to vilify Triple Seven as our inanimate antagonist is an accomplishment in itself. The integration of faux newscasts into the narrative is an interesting choice as well, though does little to elevate it on a visual level.

“Unstoppable” is an unambitious action film, but one that succeeds beyond its own meager expectations for itself. It’s a goofy, gimmicky movie that will likely play on basic cable years from now, watched and enjoyed by its audience simply “because it’s on.” There is a certain timeless appeal it shares with the likes of Scott’s own “Top Gun,” and “Unstoppable” does for trains what it did for jets.

Tony Scott is rarely the sole determiner of his successes, and the stars aligned for “Unstoppable.” A marriage of performance, material, and realization, the director has hit his first Triple Seven in years. The effectiveness of the equation was audible; even in a half-full screening, the crowd gasped and applauded at all the right moments.

If you don't have the opportunity to see this worthwhile thriller theatrically, fear for your evenings when “Unstoppable” makes its way to basic cable.


Monday, November 15, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 69: Unstoppable

--> Episode 69: 11/14/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Tyler Drown, Brian Johanson, Max Cooke, Kelly Conaboy

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 01:29
Unstoppable (spoilers) – 07:28
E-mail – 37:24
(Favorite NY films, including before 1980s)
WMD – 48:00
(Batman, A Buddy Story, Tiny Furniture, Shrooms, Saw 3D, Saw 6, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Catfish, Audience of One, The 400 Blows, Garden State, Do the Right Thing, Anchorman)
Outro - 01:24:44


-- Weekly Discussion --

This week, our hosts discuss their favorite films set in New York City. What are some of your favorites? What are some of the best films that embody their settings?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 68: Due Date

--> Episode 68: 11/09/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 01:04
Due Date – 09:23
WMD – 37:15
(Terminator, Romancing the Stone, Standard Operating Procedure, Fast Cheap and Out of Control, Dancer in the Dark, Barton Fink, The Color of Money, Fright Night, Candyman, Zombi 2, Fawlty Towers, The Walking Dead, Vertigo)
E-mail and Outro – 01:10:51
(Time travel movies)

"Due Date"

--Weekly Discussion--

This week, our hosts discuss Todd Phillips’ “Due Date,” and compare the criterion by which they rank comedies. Should obvious flaws be overlooked if the material is funny? What is more important to you, that a comedy make you laugh or draw you in?

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Due Date" Review

I appreciate that “Due Date” dials back the faux-outrageousness that made director Todd Phillips’ shallow smash hit “The Hangover” such an aggravating, unfunny experience for me. “Due Date” deals in plot and character, words I was beginning to think had been dropped from the comedy screenwriter’s handbook. The problem is, “Due Date” isn’t riotously funny either.

Humor is always a balancing act. While “Due Date” sports fewer laughs than “The Hangover,” it boasts a higher laugh to joke ratio. Also, since its predecessor crams shtick into every vacant nook and cranny, we never end up caring about its group of sorry misfits, let alone their Vegas bachelor’s party gone awry. When a joke falls flat in “The Hangover,” there isn’t a safety net to break the fall. The film splinters on impact.

The tightrope is safer in “Due Date” because we actually care about Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.). An expectant father with anger management issues and a lousy row of bad luck, Peter is exactly the sort of flawed protagonist we inherently root for. His cross-country companion Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), however, is another story. His sole purpose in the film is to instigate Peter’s short-temper, a task at which he excels. We don’t care much about him, but then we don’t need to—his personality quirks aren’t the punchline, Peter’s reaction is.

In that regard, there are some beautifully cathartic moments that distinguish “Due Date” from many of today’s ultimately polite comedies. The gravitas with which Downey Jr. delivers his tirades make them that much more effective, and his lack of conventional comic attributes is what makes “Due Date” palatable. If only his resolve had held stronger.

As Peter and Tremblay arrive at an awkward friendship, Phillips regrettably kills the only thing “Due Date” has going for it: animosity. These are characters I don’t care to see get along; when they’re enjoying each other’s company, it hard to enjoy either’s. Everything funny about the film comes from their being at odds—Peter’s unapologetic audacity is what makes the character such a great foil to the naive, annoying Tremblay. Stripped of that dynamic, the film merely sputters.

Where “Due Date” finally collapses is in its cheap third-act schmaltz. The film is all but devoid of a climax, and Peter arrives at the hospital to meet his wife to neither fanfare nor adversity. The film is almost working against itself at this point, because Tremblay never becomes a proper antagonist. Even when the nature of his greatest deceit is laid bare, the character clash between he and Peter is underwhelming in comparison to earlier bouts. That they afterwards go on to become buddies is the coup de grace.

Though “Due Date” is hardly a contender for comedy of the year, it nevertheless displays more intelligence than one would expect from the follow-up to “The Hangover.” That intelligence, however, renders its “Hangover”-esque material (masturbating dogs) embarrassingly obsolete. The characters are strong enough to overcome the script’s stinkers, at least until friendship rears its ugly head.

Still, “Due Date” is encouraging as a testament to the importance of strong character writing, if only because it edges out a pass in spite of its blemishes elsewhere. Odd as it might sound, it’s refreshing to see even a middle-of-the-road comedy that isn’t trying to squeeze in six lame jokes per page. “The Hangover” may have had more laughs, but I’ll take better characters any day.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 67: Paranormal Activity 2, The Walking Dead

--> Episode 67: 11/02/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Jon Mauer, Micah Haun

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 00:50
Paranormal Activity 2 (spoilers) - 04:02
The Walking Dead pilot - 34:37
WMD - 49:26
(Zombieland, The Tudors, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pushing Daisies, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Saw 3D, The Blob (1956), Trash Humpers, Dracula (1931), Bram Stoker's Dracula, Suspiria, Louie, Kontroll, House of Wax)”
E-mail and Outro - 01:19:34 (Favorite Horror Franchises/Deaths)

"Paranormal Activity"

"The Walking Dead" pilot

-- Weekly Discussion --

This week on the show, our hosts discuss Extended, Unrated, and Director’s Cuts of films. Does allowing filmmakers to revise their work have its merits or does it just dilute the film itself? What are some of your favorite alternate versions?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Paranormal Activity 2" Review

“Paranormal Activity 2” is inferior to its predecessor—few sequels aren’t. I could rag on it for regurgitating the ideas and scenarios that made the original such a memorable theater experience, but what’s more interesting to me is where it goes right. Very few people awaited this found footage follow-up with any degree of anticipation, and with a conspicuous absence of the advanced screenings that so stoked public interest in the first, “Paranormal Activity 2” was, to all appearances, shaping up to be an unmitigated disaster.

Turns out it was plain bad marketing. “PA2” might actually be the most conceptually creative sequel since J.J. Abram’s “Star Trek” reboot. Like that film, this is chronologically a prequel, with the ill-fated original stars, Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), returning in a supporting role as relatives of the affected family. The handheld camera premise has also been extrapolated on, and after the first paranormal incident (misconstrued as a break-in), the patriarch of the Rey family (Brian Boland) has a series of security cameras installed, by which we monitor his kitchen, living room, patio, bedroom, and nursery.

It’s a clever natural progression of the first film’s conceit, though it never justifies itself as well. Rationality of characters’ actions has always been a stumbling block for horror films, and one way the original “Paranormal Activity” distinguished itself was in creating a character who would believably continue filming the bizarre phenomena in his home. Most of the time, our videographer in the sequel is a stuck-up teenage girl (Molly Ephraim). Her interest in cataloging her family’s day-to-day lives, along with the increasingly surreal occurrences is never explained. The motive for camera involvement in certain scenes is questionable at best, and her inseparability from her camcorder is completely artificial.

That being said, the majority of the film is viewed from the vantage point of the mounted security cameras, which better serve the reality of the story. The sets are designed with the same attention to detail as the first—these are deep, cluttered spaces that keep you scanning the frame for signs of movement. Again, “Paranormal 1” does it better, and the use of multiple locations, though novel, does admittedly kill some of the visual tension.

But despite being significantly less effective (re: scary), “Paranormal Activity 2” is neck and neck with the original in spooky fun factor. What I love about both films is their unapologetic simplicity. Modern horror filmmaking has become oversaturated with textbook mood, and artists presume their work scary because it's lit like a horror film, scored like a horror film, and directed like a horror film. Fear cannot be calculated and manufactured in that way—“Paranormal Activity” and its follow up are refreshing because they are effective without ‘trying’ to be frightening. Naturally, they both are, but it’s so much easier to suspend our disbelief when we aren’t watching a Hollywood starlet meander down a flickering blue corridor with a string orchestra phoning in the emotional experience.

That “Paranormal Activity 2” manages to avoid all that without taking itself overly seriously—in addition to building an interesting dialogue with the first film—is a miracle in itself. It definitely would have been nice had the film been more original, or upped the ante in the suspense department, but color me pleasantly surprised “Paranormal Activity 2” achieves even that much.

Needless to say, this follow-up far exceeded my modest expectations, and though it is inferior to its predecessor in nearly every way, it’s still smarter than your average shameless cash-in. It’s a worthy sequel, and alongside countless other franchises’ many unmitigated disasters, that’s praise enough.


Monday, November 1, 2010

"Saw 3D" Review

How many “Saws” does that make now? Evidently, even its creators have stopped counting. “Saw 3D” is only the second film in the annual horror franchise I’ve seen (the first being the first), and this alleged “final chapter” assumes working knowledge of Jigsaw canon. My critique, however, is of “Saw 3D” as a stand-alone film, though my gut reaction undoubtedly echoes what you already know—this is a ‘fans only’ affair.

The story of “Saw” fandom is one of diminishing returns. After being decimated at the box office this Halloween and last by the low-budget “Paranormal Activity” films, the series is struggling to stay relevant, or at least to sell tickets on shock-value alone. “Saw” has long since passed that threshold, and the obvious draw this year is the incorporation of 3D. It may seem like a gimmicky application of the technology, but having human entrails hurled into the audience is the logical next-step for the series, and may even be the highlight of this experience.

As it turns out, “Saw 3D” is a lot like “Jackass 3D,” albeit far less entertaining. Both are shameless excuses for elaborate spectacle, be they stunts or traps, and “Saw” excels at creating crass psychological experiments. Unlike “Jackass,” however, it relies on a story to connect the grisly dots, though it really needn’t. We don’t care who these people are; the stars of the movie are Jigsaw’s inventions, and the traps have more of an arc than the characters. So little attention is paid to the audience’s emotional investment in the story that they might as well do away with one entirely. “Saw 3D” is boring and pretentious when it presumes our interest—the series would be better served by taking the “Jackass” route or going all out anthology. Compiling upcoming and established horror directors’ takes on the “Saw” universe in a series of short vignettes could trim the fat considerably.

It would certainly beat the muddled, uninteresting, and expository excuse-making of “Saw 3D.” Morbid curiosity drives the franchise, and that the traps are paramount to the characters they ensnare is readily apparent. Almost immediately, we understand Jigsaw is teaching twisted morality lessons through his sadistic mechanisms—empathy for his victims is thrown immediately out the window. Here, our protagonist is faced with a series of time-based challenges to save the lives of his acquaintances, but fails every time. Who cares? The audience has paid in advance to see them killed.

My qualms with that sentiment are not moral, but creative. What irks me is that the narrative is at odds with viewer expectation when they should be working in tandem. The script should be adding dramatic weight to the gore, but instead it feigns interest in its characters only long enough to brutally murder them. “Saw” needs to either attempt something more emotionally compelling, or not waste my time with its placeholder storytelling.

If this is indeed the final “Saw” film, which seems more likely a function of declining attendance than anything else, my constructive criticism is irrelevant. There are a thousand and one ways the franchise could be improved upon, but “Saw” (judging at least by the first and final installment) is uninterested in adaptation or change. The creativity stops at the carnage, which is unfortunate because the series could be phenomenal in better hands. As it stands, the incorporation of half-hearted 3D is about the extent of its creators’ willingness to innovate. At its best, “Saw 3D” is an appropriately squeamish theater experiencethe problem is that it’s otherwise boring.

Not that it matters. As it turns out, “Saw” is like “Jackass” in another way. Fans know exactly what to expect, and can’t much complain about receiving more of same. This many entries in, however, I can’t imagine anyone will be sorry to see it go.