Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Shutter Island" Review

"Shutter Island" is a schlocky, second-rate screenplay--which has the incredible good fortune of being directed by Martin Scorsese.

A psychological thriller wasn't really what anyone expected from the acclaimed filmmaker, and although he sometimes feels lost in the unfamiliar genre, Scorsese lends a natural authenticity to the predictable plot and an earnestness to the would-be flat characters that salvages what might have been another "Wolfman" for something half-way memorable. And, hey, he won his Oscar. What better time to branch out?

The problem with Scorsese's experiment is ultimately that it feels safe, which is half a function of an unremarkable script, and half his unfamiliarity in directing horror. He approaches the genre in the way a famous baker might prepare a steak—He goes back to the recipe. Sure, he sears some effectives sequences, with palpable suspense and unsettling visuals, but it's missing those hand-written notes in the margins that bring you back for seconds.

His take on the story, while infinitely superior to, say, Joe Johnston's, still isn't quite ideal, and he seems to cling to the familiar whenever possible. He has a tendency to play up the noir element, with a fetishistic infatuation for the fifties period trench coats and fedoras that Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffolo sport, and for conversations punctuated by cigarettes, with a performance vocabulary that screams of the gangster flicks he's known for. That "Shutter Island" so clearly bears Scorsese's fingerprints is sort of the issue: a film about an insane asylum should be anything but predictable.

But the director's successes should not be undermined either, and when "Shutter Island" works, it really works. For instance, DiCaprio as Marshall Teddy Daniels suffers from a particularly distrubing recurring flashback (compelling perhaps because it wasn’t spoiled in the trailer) that features the young man as an Allied soldier liberating a Nazi concentration camp. The grotesque imagery of the war blends beautifully with the heady horror, and the cinematography is so sharp that one might wonder why Scorsese has never taken on a war film.

Scorsese also achieves some masterfully atmospheric scenes on the island itself. He has a way of making the omnipresent hurricane a character, and the way the rain beats against the windows and leaks in during the night is subtly threatening, ratcheting up the intensity that he skillfully pays off in exteriors. These great moments are hardly lonely, but even the director's eerie visuals and tight pacing falter by the final third of "Shutter Island's" overlong 138-minute running time.

The film becomes so suddenly talky and expository at its end that the whole thing almost capsizes under the weight. There is a twist, and you will likely understand it long before Scorsese is finished spoon-feeding you the solutions to each presumed non sequitur and tying up absolutely every loose end.

But even though Scorsese is feeling his way through the dark in directing a modern psychological horror film, watching him work is still enjoyable, and I stress that the vast majority of the problems with "Shutter Island" on the screen are problems with “Shutter Island” on the page. Scorsese elevates the mediocre script into an above-average thriller that, if nothing else, is better than what’s playing down the hall. Whether you enter as a fan of the genre or the director, "Shutter Island" is a palatable film. Just don't expect to be hungry for seconds.


FARCE/FILM Episode 34: Cop-Out, Hot Tub Time Machine

--> Episode 34: 02/28/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Jon Mauer

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 00:55
Cop Out (spoilers) – 05:22
Hot Tub Time Machine – 21:56
Weekend Movie Round-Up – 41:13
(The Crazies, 17 Again, In the Loop, and Inland Empire)
Events and Outro – 52:25

"Cop Out"

"Hot Tub Time Machine"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

High Noon in Wonderland: AMC to Boycott Disney's Latest?

“Wow, that was fast,” is an increasingly common sentiment while browsing DVD new releases, and consumers aren’t the only ones taking notice. The theater to DVD turn-around window has all but slammed closed of late, and AMC, America’s second largest theater chain, is ready to put its foot down.

The corporation is in a stand-off with the Walt Disney Company after they announced plans to make Tim Burton’s upcoming “Alice in Wonderland” remake available on home video within three months of its March 5th theatrical debut, a move which cinema owners are concerned will defer audiences to cheaper rental outlets.

A compromise is expected to be reached for the mutual benefit of both parties, but less than two weeks out, AMC still has yet to agree to show “Alice in Wonderland” on any of its 4500+ screens, effectively boycotting the Disney tentpole. Internationally, two U.K. theater chains have vowed not to carry the film if the DVD either, as have four chains in the Netherlands.

It seems crazy for Disney to potentially forfeit so much revenue over a difference of five weeks in their home video release, even if DVD and blu-ray account for a larger slice of their pie. AMC’s silent warning is a serious one, and one Disney would be wise to heed.

Perhaps if their fear is letting "Wonderland" slip from the public consciousness before the DVD release, both parties will agree to simply precede screenings with, "Coming soon to home video."

Thanks to FilmJunk

Monday, February 22, 2010

WMD! (Weekly Movie Diary) - February 22

Chronicling my adventures in home video

“The Bourne Identity” Doug Liman, 2002
Full disclosure: I’m not an action guy, which is part of the reason it’s taken me eight years to sit down and watch the Matt Damon version of “The Bourne Identity.” I remember it being a fairly big deal when it was released (in that I actually remember its release), but despite the fact that I now see movies every week, I’m still not sure it would catch my attention.

So with fairly reserved expectations, I found Doug Liman’s film a pleasant experience, and was particularly impressed by its emphasis on character, which is a rarity among films of its type. Damon gives a solid performance, and I really like the casting of Franka Potente as his love-interest, when the impulse would so commonly be to cast a Hollywood A-lister.

Overall, I still found the film inconsistently exciting (I briefly nodded off a few times, but it was more a result of the time than the film), and the action gets a bit hokey when Damon’s fisticuffs are digitally sped up and mixed with kung fu sound effects. I also could have done without so much focus on the government antagonists tracking Bourne down, as I think it would have been more exciting to have his enemies seem an omnipresent phantom than trite Government bureaucrats.

Still, “The Bourne Indentity” struck me as an above-average espionage film. I can’t say I’ve been inspired to see the sequels, which I’ve heard are exponentially inferior to the original, but If, like me, you managed to avoid the first for this long, it’s probably about time to throw it on the queue.
Score: 3.5/5

FARCE/FILM Episode 33: Shutter Island

--> Episode 33: 02/21/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Jon Mauer, Kevin Mauer

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 00:41
Shutter Island (spoilers) – 09:29
I Can’t Believe You’ve Never Seen – 46:05
(The Bourne Identity)
Movie Round-Up – 52:25
(17 Again, Oscar Shorts, 9, Crazy Heart)
Events and Outro – 56:57

"Shutter Island"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"The Wolfman" Review

Most one or one and a half star reviews I write are in response to films that are stupendously bad--not just poorly made, but also offensive to my artistic sensibilities on some level. That isn't the case with "The Wolfman," which is too dull to provoke so strong a negative response.

The film suffers from a blanketing mediocrity that compounds itself with each passing scene, and I was strapped to think of a single compelling reason (outside of a half-baked feeling of critical duty) not to fall asleep. But though my eyelids grew heavy, I watched the film in its entirety and can now offer the sentiment that, while not stupendously bad, "The Wolfman" is a film that I can't think of a single good thing to say about.

The opening scene serves as a telling microcosm for the greater disappointing experience. In it, a man with mutton chops and a lantern (Victorian England, duh) makes his way along a moonlit wooded path. The atmosphere is eerie only in an immediately familiar horror-shorthand sort of way. You've seen this scene before, or if not can probably imagine it, because it's the very stereotype of a werewolf attack. And worse, any incidental suspense that's built is thrown completely out the window when the creature strikes, felling the mustachioed man in a half-second blur. For the record, I'm not sure there's a less interesting visual in the vocabulary of film that could have been applied. It sets a clear precedent for the uninspired, thoughtlessly choreographed action in "Wolfman," which has every reason to be the only highlight of this Hollywood remake.

Instead, the action is just as inept as the story, which shuttles its characters around as if on rails to service one unsurprising plot development after another, and even the incredible cast (Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving) shuck lame performances under director Joe Johnston, whose principal problem is a lack of focus in the screenplay. First, Del Toro's character returns from America to investigate the mysterious murder of his brother (our friend with the mutton chops)--and really that's enough for a movie--but then he gets bitten and the focus shifts to his becoming a werewolf. And then the identity of the first werewolf is revealed, and the film becomes a three-way power struggle between the wolves and Weaving, who plays the Chief Inspector tasked with hunting them down. Toss in a completely unconvincing love story and the bottom line is that there’s so much going on in "The Wolfman" that none of it feels important.

In fact, so little of the film stands out that it's almost impossible not to let your eyes glaze over and embrace the coming drowsiness. The film exists apart from its audience, completely unengaging, joyless, and unworthy of anyone's time or attention. "The Wolfman" scores a one not because it does anything horribly, but because it does everything poorly. If just one or two elements had fallen into place, maybe the movie could have been salvaged as popcorn entertainment, but even on the peripheral you have Danny Elfman's melodramatic score and merely serviceable visual effects.

"The Wolfman" may not inspire the sort of venom that stupendously bad films do, but it's so achingly boring that you can't help but wish you felt anything at all.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 32: Wolfman, Frozen

--> Episode 32: 02/16/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Jon Mauer

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:25
Wolfman (spoilers) – 04:14
Frozen (spoilers) – 24:22
I Can’t Believe You’ve Never Seen – 30:34
(The Birds)
Colin’s Movie Round-Up – 36:41
(Star Trek, A Serious Man, Twin Peaks)
Discussion – 42:26
(Movies You’ve Fallen in Love With)
Events and Outro – 55:20



Monday, February 15, 2010

WMD! (Weekly Movie Diary) - February 15

chronicling my adventures in home video

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (David Lynch, 1992)

I only had the opportunity to watch one film this week, and it was a doozy of a disappointment. “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” was made as a fan service film after the series had been taken off the air in order to “answer the big questions” that lingered.

However, most of the series trademark characters aren’t even in the film, one is insensitively replaced, and the fate of agent Cooper is only vaguely touched upon over this two and a half hour, completely superfluous prequel.

Why did Lynch even think a prequel was what anyone wanted? Seeing the events that lead to Laura Palmer’s eventual murder is completely beside the point. The movie just feels like a checklist of confirmations of the show’s hypothesis (and as such, contains huge spoilers). Very little new is added to the overall cannon, and what little is added is confusingly implemented. I read up on some homespun theories after finishing the movie, but generally decided I didn’t care enough to make sense of it.

As a fan service film, the biggest problem I had with “Fire Walk With Me” is that it doesn’t feel like “Twin Peaks,” which is surprising given that Lynch is a constant. The tone is curiously melodramatic and the director’s bizarre, creative visuals are few and far between.

Pointless for fans, and I’m sure incomprehensible as a stand-alone story, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” is a film I can’t recommend to anyone.
Score: 2/5

Friday, February 12, 2010

"The Blind Side" Review

I'm no sports fan, so I suppose "The Blind Side" was already fighting an uphill battle for my praise. I dislike the film, but not because the characters are interested in things like high school football, college football, and videogame football, but because they exist in a world without lasting consequence. That John Lee Hancock, the writer and director, wants to deliver an upbeat, entertaining film proves his Achilles' heel; he omits clear dramatic potential in favor of sitcomy euphemism.

His breezy plot, based on the true story of a Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman, whisks conflict aside for "Big Mike" Oher (Quentin Aaron), who lumbers his way from kindly mentor to kindly mentor, without any indication or expression of the hard life he's led. The film unfolds almost serendipitously for the teen, who is enrolled in private schooling, gets taken in by a wealthy southern family, gradually wins over his teachers, receives a brand new truck as a birthday gift, and is on the fast track to play football for "Ole Miss" University. In short, it's hard to feel bad for a guy that has so much going for him.

I don't mean to undermine the personal tragedies that the real life Michael Oher endured, but we really never get a visceral sense of that reality in the film. We meet Big Mike well after the majority of his neglect and trauma has occurred, and he really hits a terrific string of luck. He isn't the victim of any direct prejudice in his seemingly all-white southern suburb, and the kindly family that takes him in, led by headstrong matriarch Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), seems to adapt to his disruption of their family dynamic instantaneously. The tiresome thesis of the film is that the Tuohys are just really great people.

This makes for a surface-level heartwarmer, and I suppose audiences shouldn't be ridiculed for appreciating the film on that criteria, but to me, what's missing underneath is all the more apparent for it. Hancock would have done well to introduce us to Big Mike at the gritty bottom: one of twelve children of a crack-addicted mother, in turns homeless, under foster care, and a struggling student in a revolving door of unsupportive schools. Being taken in by the Tuohys would make a better midpoint for Michael's story, and provide a better sense of the dichotomy of his two lives.

If only by narrative necessity, Hancock eventually throws in isolated sequences of hard drama, but which have almost uniformly negligible impact on the story. For example, Big Mike totals his new truck with Leigh Anne's son in the passenger seat--the paramedics show up, they wheel out the stretcher, and it turns out everybody's fine. The following scene plays out as though the crash didn't even happen. Or later on, the NCAA suspects the Tuohys of forcing Ole Miss on Mike after a heated vetting, which leads him to a brief identity crisis (even though he's always been fiercely loyal to his foster parents)--after which he decides he wanted to play there all along.

These internally-resolved conflict blips are so lonely in the cheerful world of the film that they draw attention to themselves by sheer contrast. Admittedly, I prefer Hancock's optimistic storytelling to an excess in melodrama, but it leaves "The Blind Side" starkly overlong and unsatisfying. The film depicts the great things that happen to Michael Oher without providing the context that makes them meaningful. Hancock is under the bizarre assumption that Leigh Anne Tuohy is his protagonist, and the film is more a tribute to the family that hosted Big Mike than the man himself.

I'm no sports fan, but you don't need to be one to call Hancock out. "The Blind Side" is a bust.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Legion" Review

You can almost feel the English language bend in trying to convey the ineffable awfulness of a film like "Legion." The girders of syntax simply can't support the weight of the adjectives necessary to condemn such lazy, irrelevant art. To the mercifully uninitiated, "Legion" is a religious action-horror flick in which God being "tired of all the bullshit" suffices for plot exposition, and Bible mythology is simultaneously demeaned and validated. However, it's mostly an unabashed third-rate "Terminator" knock off, which worst of all, is rarely even fun.

And campy fun was all I had hoped for from a film whose poster features the archangel Michael with a dagger in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. How could you not have a sense of humor releasing an image like that? I imagined a gleefully irreverent action film that would be bad, sure, but nothing if not cheap entertainment. "Legion" instead presents itself with an embarrassing self-seriousness that quickly subsides into numbing boredom.

Still, the beginning of the film is palatable enough, with the expected expository introduction to each of our protagonists--a cliched smattering of patrons and employees caught at the "Paradise Falls" (Har, har) garage and diner--and Michael, who's opted for mortal strife over enacting God's order to eviscerate mankind. Fortunately for us, the best trick God seems to have up His sleeve is "possessing" individuals, which turns them into silly zombie/vampire hybrids with rubber necks, nubby teeth, and the power to walk on ceilings.

The group's first encounter with one of these creatures works if only for the sheer weirdness of the circumstance. The vessel is an elderly woman, and the "Looney Tunes"-esque shotgun sequence that plays out as she scuttles across the ceiling is tonally more comparable to "Drag Me to Hell" than "Legion" on the whole. Regrettably, what follows is wave after tedious wave of the possessed arriving (inexplicably by car), only to emerge as rifle fodder in a shameless co-opting of "Dawn of the Dead."

"Legion" may wear its influences on its sleeve, but never manages to forge the joie de vivre that make the films it's imitating so successful. The better part of the second act is bogged down by interminable character development, during which the cardboard characters bond in the most artificial, writerly way imaginable. Would you believe that a father and son make amends and a rebellious teen with a conservative mother falls for a black guy? It's groundbreaking stuff.

And the most egregious crime of the film is that it doesn't even pitch to its target audience. I don't generally care for schlocky action, but even I concede that the last thing "Legion" needs is relatable characters. I'm okay with the fact that we meet them as movie cliches, but as such I have less interest in how they feel than what they do, and for about half of the film, they do absolutely nothing. The finale then culminates with a knock-down, drag out fight between Michael and fellow-angel Gabriel, but watching them swing a mace at one another for fifteen minutes is exactly as exciting as it sounds.

"Legion" is the first feature from director Scott Stewart, who has an impressive history in effects work, though his talents in that field are conspicuously absent here, as is anything beyond the occasional, incidentally amusing moment or unsolicited laugh. The film fails to commit to its Christian apocalyptic premise and ends up feeling vague, boring, and muddled as a result.

Worst of all, Stewart is unfaithful to audience expectation, and "Legion" falls shy of even "so bad it's good" territory. It's a pointless, worthless January abortion that even has the gall to presume itself a sequel. If I ever see a "Legion 2," I think the English language might just snap.


Monday, February 8, 2010

WMD! (Weekly Movie Diary) - February 8

Chronicling my adventures in home video

“Dune” (David Lynch, 1984)
I’ve been on a Lynch kick recently, and despite every warning, wanted to see what he did with “Dune.” I’m unfamiliar with the source material, but the first sentence of the Netflix synopsis (“In the year 10,191, the world is at war for control of the desert planet Dune -- the only place where the time-travel substance Spice can be found.”) sounded intriguing, and the cult following it’s built convinced me that I would be uncovering a misunderstood masterpiece.

I couldn’t be more wrong. Roger Ebert put it most succinctly in saying, “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”

The film is over two hours long, and torturously paced. It simultaneously feels as though a trilogy is being stuffed into a single film and as if absolutely nothing is happening. I understand that there’s an extended cut available, but the prospect of watching an even longer version is frankly unthinkable.

Lynch works best on an intimate level, and it feels like “Dune” just got too big for him. We’re never properly introduced to any of the characters, and as a result, it becomes exceedingly difficult to care what happens to them. The sets are bland and the effects are unimpressive. To make it to the credits is a trial of will in itself.
Score: 2/5

Twin Peaks (Mark Frost & David Lynch, 1990)
I got the Twin Peaks “Gold Box Edition” for my birthday two years ago and never made it very far. I think I felt daunted by the prospect of committing to ten discs and soon retired the set to my shelf. I decided to give it another shot last month, and without the pressure of feeling obligated to get through it, found myself really enjoying it.

The second and final season is pretty widely disliked, seemingly as much by the cast and crew of the show as its fans based on the behind the scenes interviews I watched, but going into it with low expectations, I found it overlong but enjoyable. The big controversy is that halfway through the season, the crux of the show—the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder—is solved. Some peg this revelation as the series’ downfall.

Personally, however, I think the season improves after the plotline is dropped. I prefer the weird, goofy, tangential second half of the season to the first, which feels like it’s artificially extending the Palmer case. Had Twin Peaks continued, I think it would have been interesting to tackle one main mystery a season.

The show is somewhat dated, and the acting and effects aren’t always top notch, but it’s still worth watching, and watching all the way through.
Score: 4/5

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)
I think I remember hearing of “Carnival of Souls” in some famous person’s top 5 films list on Rotten Tomatoes, and with that in mind, found it generally disappointing. By no means bad, it’s a somewhat bland black and white horror film in which a young woman experiences strange phenomena after crashing her car into a river.

Mostly this phenomena boils down to an omnipresent ghoulish-looking man who haunts her at every corner (growing less and less effective with each appearance). Nevertheless, there’s some interesting imagery when she explores an abandoned midway, with a scene not unlike “The Shining” in which an entire ballroom comes to life with the waltzing undead.

The movie also has an interesting social dynamic to it, with the introverted protagonist being courted by a sleazy boarder across the hall. Their relationship really comprises the bulk of the film, and watching them interact is genuinely discomforting.

If nothing else, I think I just expected something more consistently bizarre from a film called “Carnival of Souls,” which turns out to just to be a moderately successful pre-“Night of the Living Dead” social horror film.
Score: 3/5

Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
The east coast snowstorm afforded me the unusual opportunity to watch movies for an entire day between shoveling, and the second film I watched, available via the Netflix instant queue, is the 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, “Primer.”

From a filmmaking standpoint I was instantly underwhelmed by the low-budget aesthetic and DIY casting, but assumed the championed story would win me over. Its heady approach to time-travel has been insanely well received, but as the movie wore on, I felt my comprehension of the plot gradually deteriorate until I was left with nothing.

Determined to see the greatness I had missed, I proceeded to read 11 pages of a thesis essay explaining the plot of “Primer” point by point. When I reached a level of satisfactory understanding, I decided that I didn’t like the film very much. It’s convoluted to the point of absurdity, and the direction is muddled, disorienting, and inelegant. “Primer” is a brilliant film blundered.
Score: 2.5/5

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
This really qualifies as a “I Can’t Belive You’ve Never Seen.” I’m shamefully poorly versed in Hitchcock’s films, and though I’ve seen bits and pieces of “The Birds” here and there, this past week was the first time I sat through it from start to finish.

What’s really surprising is how the perception of Hitchcock’s films differ from the reality. For example, the first time I saw “Psycho,” I imagined the shower sequence would be the finale, and with “The Birds,” I was pleasantly surprised that the plot is more about a blossoming relationship than a swarm of killer crows.

A huge chunk of the movie, and a huge chunk of all of the Hitchcock films I’ve seen, is just about the way people interact with each other. He chooses fascinating characters and his absolute control and subtle manipulation of the audience in shot choice and framing is incredibly impressive.

“The Birds” was far from my favorite of his films, but Hitchcock is undeniably a master of the medium.
Score: 4/5

Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)
Tim Burton should have stuck to comedy. I remember watching “Beetlejuice” as a kid and thinking it was pretty great, but was still surprised by how well it holds up ten years later. The script has a great satirical edge to it, and Burton’s weird imagery really works when he doesn’t want you to take it seriously.

Once we get into the “Sweeney Todds” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factories” of his career, he still employs the same aesthetic tricks, but in a context where he wants us to respect his goofy art direction and silly effects. Not to mention that the CG nonsense he’s pumping out now is infinitely less charming than the creative practical effects in “Beetlejuice.”

There’s a lot of surprising cast members and terrific performances here from the likes of Alec Baldwin, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael Keaton. The movie is witty, fun, and reminds me why a uniform distaste for Burton’s filmmaking is an absolute oversight.
Score: 4/5

FARCE/FILM Episode 31: Legion, The Blind Side

--> Episode 31: 02/07/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Suman Allakki, Jon Mauer

Intro - 00:00
Discussion - 00:45
(2010 Oscar Nominations)
Top 5 - 10:55
Legion (spoilers) - 16:12
The Blind Side (spoilers) - 35:30
Events and Outro - 51:22


"The Blind Side"

Thursday, February 4, 2010

'5 Fast 5 Furious?'

I’m a little confused as to how a series like “The Fast and the Furious” has managed to survive five iterations, and all I can come up with is that Vin Diesel must be working cheap.

All kidding aside, “Fast & Furious” did rather well for itself last year, and it looks like Universal Pictures gave its inevitable sequel “Fast Five” (no giggling) the greenlight on Wednesday. The film will reunite stars Diesel and Paul Walker with director Justin Lin (“Tokyo Drift,” “Fast & Furious”), screenwriter Chris Morgan, and producer Neal Moritz.

And as if getting the gang back together wasn’t reason enough to start revving your engines, the series is going the “Smokey and the Bandit” route this time around, with a plot that casts our heroes as “fugitives being pursued by legendary lawmen,” according to the press release.

At this point, “The Fast and the Furious” is only a step or two behind “Saw” as America’s most prolific modern franchise (not counting the likes of the Harry Potters), and it’s because Universal has found a way to keep the series profitable that we, if nothing else, will be continually amused by whatever silly title their marketing department tinkers up.

There’s not even a solid release schedule for “Fast Five” yet, but feel free to offer your own sequel titles below. Personally, I’m going with “Fast & Furious: Six Appeal” and “The Furious Seven,” (Diesel hops a DeLorean to Feudal Japan).

Thanks to /Film.

Podcast Update: We're Probably Seeing 'The Blind Side'

After much deliberation, it’s looking like episode 31 of the FARCE/FILM podcast will feature late reviews of “Legion” and “The (Best Picture Nominated) Blind Side.” Based on the Academy's recommendation, I’m ready to eat my words and give (Best Actress Nominated) Sandra Bullock a chance to win me over after what I consider one of the worst and most overplayed trailers of 2009.

I'll be joined by Brian and Suman on this excursion (pictured, above), which if nothing else, should prompt some interesting discussion. Also included on the show will be our comments and predictions for the 2010 Academy Awards.

Old Timey Religion and Football! Our All-American Episode 31 should be available for download early next week

"A Town Called Panic"/"Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" Combo Review

I hate to keep having to repeat myself, but 2009 was a kickass year for animation. I said the same months ago having only loved “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Ponyo,” and “The Princess and the Frog,” but the past two weeks have afforded me the opportunity to catch the French language stop motion farce “A Town Called Panic” and Sony/Columbia Pictures’ “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” both of which expand the scope and breadth of last year’s animated achievements, if not necessarily setting the highest benchmarks themselves.

“A Town Called Panic” is a minimalistic affair, aesthetically not unlike Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken,” but without its “Family Guy” brand of referential humor. Rather “Panic” is a surrealist comedy of error: zany and unpredictable for the entirety of its breezy 75-minute running time.

The film, based on a Danish television series animated by Aardman Studios of “Wallace and Gromit” fame, begins with three characters (Cowboy, Indian, and Horse) and a simple premise: Horse’s birthday. Of course, Cowboy and Indian have forgotten gifts, and the plot quickly ramps into absurd comic situations including but not limited to the accidental purchase of 50 million bricks, a journey to the center of the earth, and a run-in with a mischievous team of scientists and their enormous mechanical penguin.

Okay, it may not be a marvel of storytelling, but in a way, that's kind of the point. What really works about “A Town Called Panic” is the kinetic goofiness of it all. It has a refreshing, careless vitality to its pacing that may turn off or annoy as many as it delights, but those who sync with its weird sensibilities won’t be disappointed.

Then you have “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” which if nothing else, is a pretty incredible looking film on blu-ray. Besides being a non-Pixar branded CGI outing, it had another strike against it from inception, being adapted from one of my favorite children’s books. The art direction as showcased in the trailer seemed overly cartoony, which clashed with my memory of the book’s illustrations.

Ironically enough, it’s precisely because “Meatballs” is so unabashedly cartoony that it ended up winning me over. It’s one of the only CG films I’ve seen that doesn’t feel like either an emulation of Pixar’s oeuvre or witless kiddie pandering. The dialogue is sharp and the visual gags are clever, but what I appreciated most was the sardonic bite to the joke writing. And it's no wonder coming from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the creators behind MTV’s adult-oriented “Clone High” animated series.

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is an immediately palatable film that for me achieves what some argued “Kung-Fu Panda” did last year in besting Pixar’s work on a level of pure entertainment. I wouldn’t argue that “Meatballs” is a better film than “Up,” but I do think it’s more fun.

I'm tempted to say these films close the book on 2009 animation, but with the Oscar nominations just released, there's still this "Secret of Kells" thing to check out. I'm hoping for another pleasant surprise.

PANIC - 4/5

Best Picture Noms--Your Comprehensive Gripe

Nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards were posted Tuesday morning, and henceforth we, the internet, have conducted our annual foot stomping, arm crossing, and frantic, pretentious blogging (hey, that’s my cue!).

The big news this year is the expansion of the best picture category from five to ten films, presumably in effort to coax a more diverse range of moviegoers into tuning in, and to generally bait more people out to the theater. But honestly, beyond casting recognition on films that would otherwise be relegated to the outskirts of our collective conscious, the Academy’s new capacity is fairly pointless. Every other category still sports only five nominees, and there can still be only one best picture.

And if you’re the gambling type, then I’d suggest scrolling past the lucky films to this year’s honored directors. You’ve got Bigelow for “Hurt Locker,” Cameron for “Avatar,” Reitman for “Up in the Air,” Tarantino for “Basterds,” and Lee Daniels for “Precious.” This existence of this category alone is like having the 50/50 lifeline on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” You can bet that “Serious Man,” “Blind Side,” “District 9,” “Education,” and “Up” are going to walk away empty handed for the last award of the night.

So who won’t?

Most of the time, predicting best picture is a matter of gut reaction with acknowledgement to the hype machine, and my impulse is to guess “Hurt Locker” for tops in 2010. But I’m not certain. Much like a real “Millionaire” 50/50, halving the options only cuts out the obvious. “Blind Side” will be deemed too sappy and unhip, “District 9” will be discarded for fanboy fantasy action, “Basterds” is just too bloody, “Education” and “Serious Man” are too far under the public radar, and “Up” will win best animated feature and likely nothing else.

I have a feeling “Precious” will be too abrasive and potentially alienating to win, which leaves “Avatar,” “Up in the Air,” and “The Hurt Locker.” It’s hard to argue with what’s now domestically the highest grossing film of all time, but after Cameron’s film stormed the Globes, I think the academy judges will skew more highbrow. “Up in the Air” and “Hurt Locker” are both topical, but let’s face it, historically, comedies don’t have the best odds come Oscar night. I think the prospect of inducting an Iraqi war film into the best picture pantheon will appeal to the judging body more than Cameron’s 3D camera, and more than Reitman’s cross-continental comedy.

It’s hardly worth getting worked up over the Oscars anymore, though, and it’s been years since my personal favorite film has synced with the Academy’s. I’m satisfied with the selections given that “Inglourious Basterds” and “A Serious Man” made the cut, and in a perfect world, the Coens would walk away with it. But I know Oscar all too well, and he’s got his target locked and loaded.