Tuesday, March 30, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 38: Greenberg

--> Episode 38: 03/28/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 08:25
Greenberg – 19:17
Discussion – 37:32
(Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World Trailer)
Movie Round-Up – 45:36
(Repo Men, Halloween, World's Greatest Dad)
Events and Outro – 50:49


-- Weekly Discussion Question --
In "Greenberg", Ben Stiller plays a pretty disagreeable guy. Who is your favorite dislikable protagonist or anti-hero?

-- -- e-mail us your thoughts at farcefilm@gmail.com -- --

Saturday, March 27, 2010

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Review

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is hardly what I expected from the highest grossing Swedish film of all time. Maybe it's the graphic rape, I don't know—I was expecting something more commercial. The good news is that in such moments, "Dragon Tattoo" is disquietingly powerful. The bad news is that they lie few and far between an otherwise mediocre mystery. Swedish actress Noomi Repace plays the eponymous lead, Lisbeth Salander, and brims with a badassery on par with Franka Potente of "Run Lola Run." She's terrific, but let me say this up front—The character and her performance are better than the film (or at least its second half) deserves.

The first seventy-five minutes impressively juggle gritty, squeamish scenes of Lisbeth's abuse at the hands of her slimy probate and her subsequent revenge, with a straightforward, slow-paced thriller involving Mikeal Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist convicted of libel, being privately hired to shed light on a long cold family kidnapping case. The two threads are remarkably dissimilar in theme and style, and it's a peanut butter and jelly situation for the film; they complement each other ideally, preventing the other from becoming tiresome.

But as should be expected from a story with simultaneously unraveling plotlines, we soon reach their intersection, and although it's a matter of personal preference, for me "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" flounders once its characters coalesce. For starters, Lisbeth's infinitely more interesting arc (and consequently, its stylish flourish) is swallowed by Mikeal's when she becomes his investigatory partner midway through the film. The 'straightforward, slow-paced thriller' takes hold, with the odd addition of a buddy cop dynamic. Generations collide! Lisbeth understands computers and Mikeal has antiquated taste in music!

It's a weird turn, and one I don't think "Dragon Tattoo" really recovers from. The character of Lisbeth is far and away its highlight, and if anything, as the film progresses, her role becomes increasingly marginalized. She loses the snap and snarl that she has independently as she and Mikeal inevitably get intimate, and maybe for some, watching the two change each other as the case comes into focus will be the emotional apex, but I found it a disappointing detour. Lisbeth's act of unflinching vengeance early in the film is neither topped nor matched—She becomes more boring in Mikeal's presence.

Maybe it's that a relationship in general doesn't feel convincing for so scarred a character. Certainly this is the implication of Lisbeth's interest in sex above intimacy, but it feels like a requiste development dictated by genre expectation rather than an organic attraction between the two characters. That she uses sexuality as a vehicle for self-empowerment is an interesting angle, but then I don't buy the legitimate affection later on. Lisbeth has a photographic memory and is haunted by her past—She isn't the sort of person whom I believe has a dormant tenderness.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is long, and by the end of the engagement, I felt exactly what the dual storylines prevented me from feeling: tired. The wrinkles in the mystery aren't especially surprising, and the plot is stretched to the point that I'm almost inclined to forget what I found initially so compelling about the characters because where it takes them is so much less so. Lisbeth is fiercely independent, and watching her emasculate her pervert probate has a gratifying brutality that seeing her play second fiddle in a PI procedural couldn't hope to.

My mixed feelings about the film make it difficult to consolidate a final score, so I'll leave it here: "Dragon Tattoo" is a film I half-liked.


Friday, March 26, 2010

"The Runaways" Review

"The Runaways" isn't much of a film, but it has so much damn style that it's hard not to be intermittently enthused by music video director Floria Sigismondi's music video of a movie. Her chipper cutting and blisteringly upbeat Joan Jett/Runaways soundtrack makes, on one hand, for spontaneous and thrilling tour sequences, which on the other, emphasize how hopelessly average the narrative around them is. Sigismondi has worked with the likes of Sheryl Crow and David Bowie, and understands the symbiotic relationship between sound and image—The problem is that when the film rolls sans tunage, she can't quite find the rhythm.

I suppose she didn't have the best script to work with, and as she's also credited with the adaptation of Cherie Currie's book, I'm inclined to blame conservative manipulation of fact in her writing before her direction. Knowing literally nothing about the Runaways as a band going in, I couldn't care less if "That's how it happened." In truth, I found their rise to superstardom in the first act of the film fortuitous to the point of contrivance.

The truth may be stranger than fiction, but watching characters I met ten minutes ago immediately succeed isn't endearing, it's alienating, especially in proximity to yet another groaningly caricatural cinematic businessman. You’ve got Giovanni Ribisi in "Avatar," Jon Bernthal in "The Ghost Writer," and now Michael Shannon in "The Runaways," all in the span of, what, four months? Hollywood, I get it. Corporate guys are weasels. Even your corporate guys. With the omission of Jeremy Piven, I just don't find it funny or compelling anymore. It's cheap, lazy character writing.

But Shannon's performance in "The Runaways" is a minor gripe compared with its overall insubstantiality. The band biopic is nothing new, and while I commend Sigismondi for not watering down the sex, drugs, and rock and roll to cater to the sort of PG-13 audience that would eat up anything Kristen Stewart is doing by peripheral association, her film is still intellectually immature and fundamentally broken.

For starters, Stewart as Joan Jett has every reason to be our protagonist except a book deal. Cherie's got a louse of a father, a strained relationship with her sister, and a burgeoning singing career complete with a trendy drug habit. Really, movie? The 'price of fame' angle? Give me a fucking break. The family stuff should carry weight, and doesn't, because the bulk of the film is bubblegum, which I'm perfectly content to chew. Just don't tell me it's a three-course meal.

"The Runaways" is overlong. Its second half, which sinks into the band's inevitable downturn of fortune, comes to a screeching halt to flesh out story bits that I didn't care about to begin with. Sing that "Cherry Bomb" song again.

The problem is there's no reason to care, and entertainment value alone doesn't cover for the obviously weak story. And if the story is weak, as I suspect it is, because it's based nearly to the T on the honest to God truth, then with all due respect, it doesn't make for great cinema as is. Aspiring biopic writers, here's a tip: lie a little.

Like I mentioned in my "Ghost Writer" review last week, it's ultimately character that begets emotional gravity, not an event itself. Pill popping, drunkard dads, and band infighting don't amount to a hill of beans unless I really care about who those people are.

Sigismondi's film is strung up on the rack and pulled from both ends until its neither frenetic rock pic nor indie coming of age story, which is a shame, because the former is executed so well. When the music stops, it's all too clear that as far as drama goes, "The Runaways" is an absentee.


Monday, March 22, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 37: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, City Island

--> Episode 37: 03/21/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Maggie Ruder

Intro – 0:00
Top 5 – 4:50
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (spoilers) - 16:51
City Island - 37:22
Events and Outro - 53:52

"Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

"City Island"

-- Weekly Discussion Question --
What's your favorite dysfunctional movie family? Why?

-- -- e-mail us your thoughts at farcefilm@gmail.com -- --

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"The Ghost Writer" Review

So Roman Polanski has been in the news lately.

Probably his new film "The Ghost Writer" benefits from that attention. After all, it's the reason that I saw it—and I haven't heard a thing about his previous film, an umpteenth adaptation of "Oliver Twist." His last major work was "The Pianist" in 2002, which has been sitting in a Netflix envelope on my desk for nearly a month (which isn't a jab at the director so much as it is a reflection on my work schedule and my disposition towards period dramas). My conception of Polanski as a filmmaker is therefore based on his seminal work of the sixties and seventies, namely "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown."

Masterworks both that, plainly, "The Ghost Writer" is not. However, for a straightforward thriller, Polanski admirably emphasizes entertainment value over self-seriousness. He shows a lighthearted honesty in his direction of the cast, with a disarming sense of humor. The trailer sort of makes the film out to be a "fate of the free world" spectacle, but the product is interestingly the antithesis. International politics are played between the lines of an intimate character piece, which is infinitely more compelling than trying to give geopolitics direct weight in the context of a two hour story. You can nuke the planet and no one will bat an eye, because it's the characters that make us feel that weight, not the event itself.

Polanski gets that, and "The Ghost Writer" has a (mostly) great cast of characters anchored by unanimously strong performances. Ewan McGregor is great as the lead, though not in the way that one typically defines a performance, "great." For one, it's not a terrific stretch for the actor, and it's neither bombastic nor powerful in its execution, and that's fine—the story doesn't call for it to be. McGregor is subtle, charming, and real as the ghostwriter hired to redraft the memoirs of fictitious former English Prime Minster Adam Lang (Pierce Bronsnan), whose manuscript McGregor describes as the "cure for insomnia."

Maybe it's that playful cynicism or my own writerly ambitions, but McGregor's character is immediately relatable, and because he isn't written as an action hero, he's that much more fun to watch in a dangerous situation. Wry and amusing when not, McGregor is the perfect fish out of water protagonist: he doesn't have a strong political affiliation, and as Lang becomes embroiled in a volatile scandal, he remains to McGregor and the audience a person before an international symbol. Lang is the guy lingering absentmindedly in the hall between sandwiches.

I think in a lesser filmmaker's hands, "The Ghost Writer" would likely have been disposable cinema, especially because the priority for directors now seems to be set pieces and special effects, and by comparison, Polanski's film has few memorable hard action sequences. In that way, its lack of gravitas can be a detriment, underdelivering what some might expect from a suspense/espionage film, but its unconventionality is precisely what I find so endearing about it.

"The Ghost Writer" doesn't have the world's greatest screenplay. It doesn't stand up to a clockwork detective drama like "Chinatown," but so what? How can it, really? It has what counts, which is a great sense of humor and an earnest conviction in itself as halfway intelligent entertainment—And it absolutely succeeds. Roman Polanski is an uncommonly talented storyteller, and his new film, at worst, is a testament to his ability to shape something durable from even second-tier source material. At best, it's timelessly entertaining moviemaking at its finest.

One of these days, I ought to watch "The Pianist."


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"The Crazies" Review

"The Crazies" is not scary.

"Horror" has come to mean something very specific to Hollywood, and perhaps more than any other genre, is withering from a lack of creativity. The horror film should unnerve, disorient, and startle—qualities that evaporate when imitated. The formulaic scare tactics of "The Crazies" and its contemporaries are so well established that their effect on audiences now is negligible. It's compounded by the remake phenomenon, and though you can put a fresh coat of paint on a forty-year-old film, can you really expect it to frighten anybody?

I suspect fans of the genre aren't even showing up to be scared anymore. How can they be? They know the rules. What passes for great horror today is really 'horrortainment:' competent atmosphere and innovative gore slapped on an obvious template. And such has been the reaction to "The Crazies," which has a relatively high 72% Rotten Tomatoes metascore, based on 130 reviews. The consensus is that the film is "uncommonly intelligent," without reference to the embarrassingly low mean intellect of 21st century horror.

And "The Crazies" does have competent atmosphere, though it's merely that. Following a promising start, the film still suffers from the stilted predictability that plagues the genre at its worst, and it shouldn't be praised for performing above a very low average, especially when nothing interesting happens after the first twenty minutes.

There's a gravity to act one, before the meddlesome government steps in and fucks up the film, with attention paid to the fact that the Crazies are our (suddenly creatively homicidal) friends and neighbors. There's your movie: what does it mean to be brutally attacked by the people you love? Why don't we leave it at that and do away with this trite big brother/quarantine shtick? All it nets us is regurgitated social commentary, a half-hearted compound escape sequence, and a film that's approximately 30% walking.

And the walking dissolves into more walking, which is intermittently punctuated with exactly the sort of scenes you would expect in a post-apocalyptic zombie flick. Where do we go? Is one of our party members infected? Why don't you wait in this dimly-lit diner alone while I go do something important?

An occasional effective jump scare, menacing visual, and suspenseful moment aren't enough to make up for a wholly second-rate script. It all goes back to that first sentence. "The Crazies" is not scary. And it's not scary just because it doesn't surprise us, but also because it exists in a world without consequence. Early in the film, a son and his mother stow away in a coat closet to hide from her infected husband. When dad finds them, he doesn't yank them out—He locks them in and sets the house on fire.

Okay, you got me—Now what? We cut out of the scene and never see any of the characters again. What? If you really want to horrify me, stick me in that closet with the burning family. Let me feel the smoke inhalation and smell the singed flesh.

Like comedy and laughter, if a horror film finds a way to frighten this jaded moviegoer, I'm more than willing to overlook its flaws elsewhere. But the last thing I should ever feel is comfortable—No, scratch that. The last thing I should ever feel is bored, and "The Crazies" is a boring film. It's objectively a step above "Legion" or "The Wolfman," but I suppose that's what passes for praise in the current horror climate.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 36: The Ghost Writer, The Runaways

--> Episode 36: 03/15/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer, and Micah Haun

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:26
The Ghost Writer – 12:27
The Runaways – 32:43
Weekend Movie Round-up – 51:45
(17 Again, Saw 4, Michael Moore Hates America, Cannibal: the Musical, Dare, The Pacific)
Events and Outro - 1:03:55

"The Ghost Writer"

"The Runaways"

-- Weekly Discussion Question --
What's your favorite rock and roll biopic?

-- -- e-mail us your thoughts at farcefilm@gmail.com -- --

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

WMD! (Weekly Movie Diary) - Playing Catch Up

Chronicling my adventures in home video

“Inland Empire” David Lynch, 2006

Like I said, I’ve been on a Lynch kick recently, and after trying to watch “Inland Empire” on the Netflix instant queue a few weeks back and finding it the first film available on the service with what I reported to be of “unacceptable” picture quality, I finally got around to renting the DVD.

--And frankly, it’s an endurance test. Where a film like “Mulholland Drive” politely waits until its last act to not make any sense, “Inland Empire” is 40 (relatively) understandable minutes followed by nearly two hours of utterly nonsensical collage. Given, there are some pretty great sequences thrown in there, hilarious and unnerving both, but without a narrative to latch onto, “Empire” never feels rewarding.

It’s also the first film Lynch shot digitally, which I can’t say agrees with him. Whites are nasty and blown-out, and dialogue scenes are often executed in extreme close-up with a fish-eye lens. I realize Lynch, as a textural director, wanted to play around with a whole new palette, but it ends up being another liability. The humid colors and subtle film grain are a huge part of his best work—which “Inland Empire” is far form.

“In the Loop” Armando Iannucci, 2009
“In the Loop” is a witty political satire—Or it was when my ears could pierce the thick English accents. Shot documentary-style, the wry comedy is lent the familiar feel of something like “The Office,” though its characters don’t address the camera or offer testimonials.

The plot revolves around a bumbling English politician who becomes the subject of a political firestorm after telling a reporter “war [in the Middle East] is unforeseeable.”
The way the story escalates is predictable enough, but what “In the Loop” lacks in plot, it makes up for in character. The entire cast delivers really subtle, hilarious performances that drive each respective subplot.

They’re so good, you could strip away the political context completely, and “In the Loop” would still be a funny and charming film. The way everyone seems to be at odds as they struggle to save face and pass blame works in any context.

It’s a minor gem, but one completely worth digging up.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Hot Tub Time Machine" Review

More so than with any other genre, I confess to being somewhat of a comedy snob. It's not that I have particularly highbrow taste, there's simply a very thin line separating what I find enjoyable and what I find intolerable. I will tell you that the upcoming film "Hot Tub Time Machine" falls squarely into the latter category, and to be honest, it's not even close to the line.

Take a look at the title with me. I realize "Hot Tub Time Machine" has no delusions of grandeur. It's not about weaving a complex story, it's not about great performances, and it's not about smart direction. It exists for the sole purpose of making me laugh—and that's its crippling failure. The film is so absolutely flimsy that when a joke misses the mark, everything collapses. You're not looking at a beautiful image, you're not engrossed in the story, and if you're not even laughing, then there's truly nothing to behold.

Personally, I'm more inclined to laugh at situations and characters I understand and am invested in. While Mike Judge's "Extract" wasn't a great film, the director and his cast created three-dimensional performances, and I was content to watch them work even when they weren't making me LOL. "Hot Tub," on the other hand, defines its characters with a single cliché: narcissist, asshole, married guy, weirdo (Jeez, that sounds familiar)—and spends all of fifteen minutes in introduction before chucking them into a car together and asking the audience to take for granted that they were once best friends. Their performances are bereft of this assumed comraderie, and they spend most of the body of the film with one or fewer of their three supposed amigos.

Here's the thing. Character is the foundation of even adequate cinema, and not only does "Hot Tub" forgo the character angle—which would be fine if the comedy compensated—but the inane dialogue they let dribble from their mouths blends tired, lazy college humor with lame eighties retrospective. To give you an idea of the intellectual level that the film and its pull-string characters operate on, at one point Nick (Craig Robinson), suspicious that he has been transported back in time, asks a stranger, "What color is Michael Jackson?"

I'll let that one simmer. Not only is the gag unfunny, but it's so stupid a thing to say that hearing it is outright frustrating. The joke is for the benefit of the 21st century audience rather than the internal logic of the film, and "Hot Tub Time Machine" is pathetic in its universal preference for cheap laughs over creative integrity. Even ideas that should be amusing either aren't or lack polish and execution. There is a somewhat successful running gag involving a future one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover) presented with an escalating series of arm-threatening situations in the past—though with a completely unfulfilling pay-off. That and a laundry list of other scenarios might have worked had "Hot Tub" had even a germ of originality.

I don't mean to offend with my comedic snobbery, but plainly, "Hot Tub Time Machine" is the sort of film I can't abide. As one who's attempted to write comedy before, watching the director pander (successfully) to the lowest common denominator while liberally pilfering from better work is an enormously frustrating experience. The screenplay is asinine and a blatant cash-in on the inexplicable wave of popularity a certain film by Todd Phillips generated last year. And yet I must concede, "Hot Tub Time Machine" is even a step removed from that. It's a pale imitation of a white turd.


Monday, March 8, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 35: The Crazies, 2010 Academy Awards

--> Episode 35: 03/07/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Jon Mauer, Suman Allakki

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:59
The Crazies (spoilers) – 12:32
2010 Academy Awards – 35:45
Events and Outro – 01:16:30

"The Crazies"

-- Weekly Discussion Question --
Did "Avatar" really deserve to win Best Cinematography?

-- -- e-mail us your thoughts at farcefilm@gmail.com -- --

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Cop Out" Review

The advanced screening of "Cop Out" I attended probably couldn't have played to a more appreciative audience. It was a packed house at the Prince, and everyone had come to laugh—even when Bruce Willis and Tracey Morgan weren't saying or doing anything particularly funny. Still, it was hard not to crack a smile when the audience's uproarious response overwrote entire stanzas of dialogue.

I make no apologies for having enjoyed myself watching Kevin Smith's forgettable new comedy, but take heed, I saw it under probably the best possible circumstance.

And yet, it's not a matter of sheer infectious giggles. The following night, I listened to idiots yuk their way through "Hot Tub Time Machine," which served to only compound my bitter contempt for its lethargic joke-writing. And if "Hot Tub" was lazy, then my experience with "Cop Out" was laissez-faire, in which I found myself perfectly content to let the goofy plot unravel, and even between the lines, Willis and Morgan seemed to be having a genuinely good time.

For as important as it is, context is rarely credited in opinion. For example, I had a great time watching shit like, "Wolverine" and "Fame" because I saw them with friends at the drive-in. I hated "Rocky Horror Picture Show" because I watched it alone in my room, and I enjoyed "Cop Out" because there was a potent positive energy in that theater. I'd probably agree with Smith's harshest critics on a point-by-point basis of why it isn't a great film, but I can't deny that for me, the experience remains a net positive memory.

The chorus goes something like, 'When the plot isn't cliched, it's arbitrary; the humor is reliably sophomoric; as a director, Smith is an absentee.' Check, check, and definitely check. Not only is "Cop Out" Smith’s first collaboration with another writer, but (probably as a defense mechanism following the unsatisfactory box office performance of "Zack and Miri Make a Porno") he seems to remove himself from the equation altogether. The film appropriately adapts a visual style closer to that of a police drama than to "Clerks," and the implication seems to be that if "Cop Out" is a commercial failure, at least no one can blame it on Smith.

The problem, though, is that he recedes entirely into the background, and while many of the performances are amusing, they generally rely on tried and true shtick that Smith's direction seems to have little to do with. Perhaps his transparency accounts for the film feeling sometimes aimless, but he gets the job done, and not especially poorly. He does have a somewhat lame villain on his hands, whose scenes feel like dead weight in a film that has no business exceeding ninety minutes, and a final shoot-out that devolves into a series of unearned violent gags that come completely out of left field.

But with exception to the above gripes, "Cop Out" is a good-natured diversion undeserving of the incredible rancor with which it's been met. My review is somewhat hypocritical by design in that I find myself coming to its defense though my thesis boils down to little more than, "It's better than bad."

"Cop Out," unlike truly, aggressively unfunny comedies I hear praise for each year (see: "Hot Tub Time Machine"--or actually, don't see it) is an absent minded piece of escapism that frequently isn't laugh inducing, but does have a certain amusing air that makes it an easy watch.

I can't speak to how "Cop Out" will play alone in your room when it hits DVD; an audience like mine is tough to come by. Not just any crowd can make mediocrity shine.