Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Death at a Funeral" Review

‘Unnecessary’ is probably the best single word description of Neil LaBute’s “Death at a Funeral.” I mean, there’s really no precedent for the release of a same-language remake a paltry two and a half years after its original, and yet the guest list arrives for this new “Funeral” with almost as fast a turnaround as a Hollywood sequel. Hell, Chris Nolan hibernated on his second “Batman” film longer.

Nevertheless, the reality is that the decidedly Afro-American-friendly version of the dysfunctional family comedy (notable only because it really is the later film’s sole distinguishing feature), is now in theaters, leaving anyone who remembers the Frank Oz original to ponder why.

LaBute and star Chris Rock, who also served as a producer on the film, cheekily ‘adapt’ U.K. writer Dean Craig’s screenplay by peppering it with hip-pop pop-culture nods to Usher and R. Kelly, and leaving the rest, in essence, unchanged. On one hand, I appreciate the sentiment in that it doesn’t presume to outdo its progenitor, but that’s its problem as a standalone piece: it’s either identical or inferior in every conceivable way. As such, the majority of its first-time audience will probably appreciate the comedic build-up having not been spoiled on the gags, and that's fine for right now, but it poses a potential dilemma, say, ten years down the road.

When film buffs and historians look back on “Death at a Funeral” (which they honestly have little reason to), the choice between the two versions will be obvious. Plus, they’ll have no idea who “Usher” is.

Likewise, even today I’d recommend a rental of the 2007 film over a ticket to its 2010 counterpart, because, well, the original is the original, and for all its faithfulness, the remake actually accentuates what’s lost in translation. The pop-culture one-liners clash with the characters on the page, and leave them feeling half-formed and sloppy on the screen—Are we watching Chris Rock do what makes Chris Rock hilarious, or are we seeing him play a repressed, introverted protagonist? The answer, messily, is both.

On that level, there’s a creative integrity to the original performances that is impossible in LaBute’s version. Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, Tracey Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Peter Dinklage, Luke Wilson, and others comprise an undeniably talented cast that does an admirable job performing characters that were written as upper-crust Englishmen, but watching Rock sulk his way through the film makes it abundantly clear that they’re not being themselves.

There’s also the not-so-insignificant matter of LaBute’s bland artisanship. In the past, he’s been responsible for equally lifeless big-screen adaptations of his own stage plays, and a spectacularly poorly-received remake of “The Wicker Man”—It begs the question, why was he asked and trusted to shepherd this project? There’s no single performance in the film that feels particularly informed by his hand, and LaBute fails to bring a single funny idea to the table. In adhering so rigidly to “Funeral” prime, his remake is marked by an absence of directorial and comedic vision.

I have no qualms with anyone who enjoyed “Death at a Funeral” for the first time via the LaBute/Rock version. A lot of what made the British comedy memorable has survived, and even with a jaded precognition of the gags, I mined a couple laughs. However, the fatal flaw of the 2010 adaptation is that the 2007 version exists. It’s not like it’s antiquated or anything; it’s three years old.

Anyone with an open mind can still appreciate the original “Death at a Funeral,” and its immediate availability for less than the cost of a night at the movies makes the 2010 remake quintessentially one thing—Unnecessary.


FARCE/FILM Episode 42: Death at a Funeral, The Losers

--> Episode 42: 04/25/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Jon Mauer

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:41
Death at a Funeral (spoilers) – 08:56
The Losers (spoilers) – 31:18
Movie Round-Up – 45:07
(Pushing Tin, Pink Flamingos, Master and Commander, Easy Rider, Little Children, The Lords of Dogtown, BASEketball)
Outro – 59:40

"Death at a Funeral"

"The Losers"

-- Weekly Discussion Question --
This week we argue that Neil LaBute's "Death at a Funeral" is an unnecessary remake, arriving only three years after the original without any substantial changes. What remakes, if any, do you think are successful? What constitutes a 'necessary' remake?

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"The Good, the Bad, the Weird" Review

Off-kilter Korean neo-western “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” is a frenetic genre mash-up packed with visceral, loopy violence. That isn’t a complement so much as it is a description.

Suffice it to say, if you’re into a modernist, freewheeling foreign take on Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” with cartoony characters and outrageous action, you’re going to have a blast; if you’re looking for a substantive or meditative reflection on the period or the original film, you’re in the wrong line.

Personally, I’m caught between the two perspectives. I appreciate the pure Peckinpah punch of the gunplay, but was in equal parts bored and bewildered by the overall film. Perhaps the principal flaw in writer/director Ji-woon Kim’s script is that he indulges in too much of a good thing. His action sequences are a lot of fun, and the ├╝ber-stylized retro/modern aesthetic delivers bizarre and inventive visuals like a gunslinger in a deep-sea diving helmet.

But the deafening sound effects and quick cutting style wear thin if not appropriately paced, and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” is almost relentless in its drag race to the final showdown. I’m loathe to draw a comparison to “Transformers” here, but Kim proves that even good action has a threshold, and there are times in his film where it’s easy to let your eyes glaze over.

In its more quiet moments, the story, a very loose retelling of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” follows a band of misfit thieves who come into possession of a treasure map sought by both Chinese thugs and the Japanese military. What’s maybe most interesting about the film is seeing the conventions, chronology, and geography of the western customized to fit eastern ideology, and China’s Taklimakan desert stands in for Manchuria circa 1940.

The tone is played as loose as the history, however, and Kim is never bogged down by self-seriousness or the oft-stringent requirements of a period piece. “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is closer to a gleeful “Kill Bill” in tone than South Korea’s own operatic, ultraviolent “Oldboy,” and benefits from it. Kim easily leapfrogs from hard-hitting shoot-outs to charming comedy, a phenomenon that has everything to do with his incredible cast. Each of the title characters, Park Do-won (Good), Park Chang-yi (Bad), and Yoon Tae-goo (Weird), brings with him a distinct tonal octave that lends the film some much-needed variety. My lone gripe in this department is that it would have been nice to get to know them a little bit better. As it stands, their rifles seem to have far more to say.

And for many, that won't be an issue. I’ve no question that there exists a very appreciative audience for this film—I’m just not it. Nevertheless, I’m only too happy to report that everything basically works. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous, the performances are stellar, and the action is kinetic—There’s just too much of it. By the end of the two-hour engagement, what should be a satisfying, visceral finale comes off as extravagant hoopla.

As viewers we shouldn’t be conditioned to expect non-stop action, because once you pass the threshold, there’s a diminishing return on adrenaline, impressive as any sequence that follows may be. “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” gets all its forward momentum right, but could benefit from applying the brakes more frequently.

Then again, maybe that reckless pace is what made it such a fast, fun ride to begin with.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 41: Kick-Ass

--> Episode 41: 04/18/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer, Laura Rachfalski

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 01:41
Kick-Ass (spoiler city) - 04:57
Second Opinion - 35:49
(Where the Wild Things Are)
Movie Round-Up - 41:45
(Saw V, Everybody's Fine, Deep Water)
Outro - 01:01:27


-- Weekly Discussion Question --
Roger Ebert argues that "Kick-Ass" is morally compromised by its graphic violence. Does the violence in "Kick-Ass" serve a dramatic or comedic purpose? Can it ever?

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

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"GasLand" Review

Allow me to alleviate your initial trepidation. “GasLand” is not another documentary about the oil industry. You’re on the right track, but first-time feature director Josh Fox has his sights set not on the gas you pump into your car, but the so called “natural gas” extracted from beneath your feet through the process of hydraulic fracturing known colloquially as “fracking.”

Issue films, like “Food, Inc.” or “An Inconvenient Truth” are notoriously dry, and Fox takes a welcome page from the Michael Moore book of documentary filmmaking, without the hard leftist political grandstanding. Rather, he adopts the format of painting himself a protagonist of sorts, though more justifiably than Moore. “GasLand” begins with an intimate history of the Fox family and their home, which lies just off of an artery to the Delaware River.

Positioned above the Marcellus Shale, a subterranean formation that stretches from New York through Pennsylvania to Virginia, and as far west as Ohio, the Fox home receives a lease offer for their land, a constituent slice of what energy companies have dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” and so Fox embarks for some first hand reconnaissance on the communities already tapped by hydraulic fracturing, and his findings are nothing short of alarming.

The chemicals used in the fracking process seep into the soil and water supply, leaving many families with bizarre aberrations like flammable tap water. Uh oh. And as Fox makes his way across the country, into dozens of areas crippled by decade-past drilling efforts, he collects bottles of yellow-brown water like postcards in some macabre travel diary.

If there is a problem with “GasLand,” it’s that as a story, it becomes a little redundant as we watch family after family set fire to their sinks, but perhaps all the more resonant for it. From a filmmaking standpoint, the effect is marginalized, but in making something so shocking feel almost normal, Fox underscores the breadth of the issue. This is happening everywhere, and with such clear evidence of the immediate health hazards, the question is, why?

Fox’s intimate approach and genuine stake in the issue is “GasLand’s” greatest asset. He never has to rely on talking heads or PowerPoint presentations, and even at nearly two hours, the film is positively gripping. His story comes full circle as he returns home, faced with the “speculative” fracking of the Delaware watershed, which provides water to rural towns, suburbs, and cities. The implication is truly disquieting, and Fox can only ask that the public make themselves aware of the issue and take a stand before it’s too late.

His film is an excellent place to start, and manages to entertain while outlining the severity of the problem, and to do so without an overreliance on the pitfalls of so many of its contemporaries. “GasLand” is just about everything you could hope for from a documentary of its type, and its Sundance special jury prize is testament to its impact.

The film has yet to see general release, but a distribution deal is reportedly immanent. Interested parties can join the mailing list and watch a potent 15 clip at www.gaslandthemovie.com.

Ignore that initial trepidation. “GasLand” isn't another documentary about the oil industry, but it’s just as important, if not more so.


You can hear more about "GasLand" on episode 40 of the FARCE/FILM podcast, including additional reviews and a roundtable discussion: Farce/Film Episode 40: GasLand

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Kick-Ass" Review

The ultraviolent, postmodern "Kick-Ass" is at the forefront of the comic book movie scene at a volatile turning point. The '00s were defined in no small part by Hollywood's Spidermen, Batmen, and X-Men, and until "Avatar" rolled around, they were the box office champions smashing records every year. Now Raimi's "Spiderman" has fizzled out and is being rejiggered by Sony, the "X-Men" franchise has devolved into schlock, and "Batman," while healthy, represents the superhero sub-genre at its most pointedly operatic.

"Kick-Ass" takes a fresh approach, smartly deconstructing comic book ideology in a meta-comedy that satirizes convention while simultaneously drawing from it. As a movie based on a comic book about comic book geeks, there's a degree of self-conscious irony to watching a fake superhero narrative snowball into a real one. It pokes fun at the melodrama of origin stories even as it unfurls its own. "Kick-Ass" follows protagonist Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who's as big a dweeb as Spiderman's alter ego Peter Parker, but without the chip on his shoulder and radioactive spider bite. Lizewski is roundly average, and ultimately more believable than Parker; his superhero dress rehearsal doesn't end victorious in an underground fighting ring—It ends in an ambulance after being knifed in a parking lot.

Undeterred, Lizewski tackles pet rescue and petty theft until a passerby records one of his more marginally successful street brawls on a cell phone camera, and his alias, 'Kick-Ass' becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. His sudden prominence heralds dozens of copycat heroes, but even the progenitor finds himself outmatched by the likes of "Big Daddy" (Nick Cage), and his deadly 12-year-old daughter, "Hit-Girl" (Chloe Moretz), a character that truly tests the audience as accessories to vigilante justice.

There's already controversy brewing, though personally, I find it a little hard to buy into the offense. The exponential brutality of the violence perpetrated not only against Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl later in the film, but more importantly by them, is appalling on some level, sure. But it's taken to an extent that's pure slapstick. At heart, "Kick-Ass" is gory, bloody comedy.

But a comedy nonetheless. Maybe it's all the more troubling that Hit-Girl's casual propensity for murder is played for laughs, but I think we laugh at Hit-Girl for the same reason we laugh at Bugs Bunny, even when he's got a shotgun in Elmer Fudd's mouth: it's classic comedic role reversal. Who doesn't want to see the wabbit humiliate the hunter? If anything, "Looney Tunes" is less responsible in its depiction of violence because there's no consequence of the shotgun blast. Hit-Girl's action sequences are deliriously destructive, unbelievably graphic, and a hell of a lot of fun.

And that's really what I love most about "Kick-Ass." Even (or especially) in the face of violence, it doesn't take itself seriously, nor would I argue it directly purports its characters as heroes in the traditional sense. No one seems especially concerned that they're held up as role models, and what's endearing, hilarious, and horrifying about their behavior shines through because of it.

This is ballsy commercial filmmaking, which is likely why seven studios passed on the script last year. It takes risks that may alienate some in the mainstream, and its success has already been capped somewhat by the hard R rating, but I don't think "Kick-Ass" is the sort of film that will go out without a fight. If not a huge hit like the PG-13 Spidermen and Batmen of years past, it's got real cult appeal, and because it's uncompromising in its premise—Even to a fault in the uneven gradient from reality to comic book reality, "Kick-Ass" is the sort of film with staying power. And if this is where we're headed, count me in.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 40: Gasland, The Good The Bad The Weird

--> Episode 40: 04/11/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Suman Allakki, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 02:26
Gasland - 07:39
The Good, The Bad, The Weird – 24:53
Movie Round-Up - 37:12
(Avatar, It Might Get Loud, Million Dollar Baby, Saw V, The Pianist, House of the Devil)
Events and Outro – 59:52


"The Good, The Bad, The Weird"

-- Weekly Discussion Question --
In "Gasland", we argue whether a documentary should be more about style or content. Where do you draw the line?

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

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Support Farce/Film's Films!

Hello everyone!

Today marks the opening for the online festival FirstGlance Hollywood, and Brian Crawford's "Jacob" is in the running! This festival has done a lot to prevent this kind of social-network voting, but if you'd like to help out, read on!

1 - As with any of these online festivals, you'll need to create a login (no e-mail confirmation needed though).
2 - You'll need to watch the whole film. While I recommend everyone to sit down and watch it as all of us here at Farce/Film have participated in its creation in one way or another, you can simply let the video play out in a separate tab if you're short on time, and when it is over vote (though you're more than welcome to watch it again if you'd like).
3 - You'll need to do this for two other films for your votes to count (that's a total of three, including "Jacob."

Anyway - I've browsed some of the shorts, and there are some pretty good films worth checking out when you have the time. Make a day of it! Or just vote and be done with it. Either way - have fun and thank you, thank you, thank you for your support!

FirstGlance Hollywood: http://firstglancefilms-contest.openfilm.com/

"She's Out of My League" Review

We both know "She's Out of My League" is a lame duck. The evidence is irrefutable based on the trailer alone. On the dystopian plane of teenage sex comedies, the product falls squarely in the hellacious center, with every shopworn semen gag and punch-out character archetype hitting their tired romcom marks in predictable sequence. It's bad. But there's one thing the movie has going for it that salvages the experience and carries it halfway to 'guilty pleasure' territory—star Jay Baruchel.

He almost seems to have teleported into "She's Out of My League" from some better film, with an authentically charming take on its prototypical loser protagonist, Kirk. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I've had a thing for Baruchel ever since seeing him alongside the comedic heavyweights in "Tropic Thunder" two years ago, and here he somehow manages to sell a film otherwise inundated with dislikable and unfunny characters. He brings an accessibility to the role that made following him breezily palatable, even when by every other conceivable measure, I should have been apathetic and frustrated.

Kirk's friends are the worst offenders. They're not real people. We're talking about characters like "Stainer" (Stifler, anyone?), the arrogant, romantically successful one who turns out not to be all that romantically successful; Devon, a stocky married bloke whose single point of reference seems to be the work of Walt Disney; and last and least interestingly, Alice Eve as the "hard 10" love interest, Molly. The character is sold to the audience on her looks alone, presumably because there's nothing else remotely interesting about her. She's the personification of a plot device, and "She's Out of My League" wears its on its sleeve.

At least in the grand gross-out tradition, the film follows through on a few comedic premises that risk making the audience uncomfortable, which is more than I can say for something like "Hot Tub Time Machine," which has vulgarity to spare but wants too badly to be cool to even let its characters come off as situationally homosexual. A scene in "League" has Devon shaving Kirk's genitals in preparation for a hot date with Molly, which actually prompted a pick-up truck in the front row of the drive-in to turn the ignition and turn tail. In truth, the scene isn't particularly funny, but I do give it credit for taking that risk.

Or there's the climax of the film, which also momentarily jukes convention, making for one of the more legitimately amusing scenes. Beforehand, Kirk and Molly have had a falling out that leads him and his bitchy ex to reunite for a family vacation. On the plane, Kirk makes the obligatory eleventh hour decision to abandon the trip and his unsupportive family in a profanity-laced tirade. He turns to walk off—But it's too late. He quietly retakes his seat.

It's rare moments like those, along with the consistently relatable performance by Jay Baruchel, that kept "She's Out of My League" from getting on my nerves, even over the extent of the slightly bloated running time. It's a played story brimming with bad characters, but I make no apology for having had a decent time with it anyway.

The evidence is irrefutable, though on second thought, halfway to guilty pleasure ain't bad either.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Clash of the Titans" Review

"Clash of the Titans" is an unusual film to remake for a modern audience. I mean, how familiar is Joe Moviegoer with the 1981 original or Greek mythology on the whole? The answer is 'Not very,' and the producers know it. They've taken broad steps to protect poor Joe from the alienating Grecian polytheism and comfort him with an immediately recognizable protagonist. To the layman, and in effect, for the layman, they've dumbed it down.

Sam Worthington is Perseus, which I guess is a big deal now that he's the star of the highest-grossing film of all time. And when you hire Sam Worthington, you get Sam Worthington. The '81 Perseus is aloof, oddly lackadaisical, with shoulder-length hair and a caring, inquisitive disposition. Worthington's Perseus is a buzzcut graduate of the Christian Bale/Batman school of acting. His dialogue is gruff, brief, and introverted, because coolness now is apparently inversely proportional to vocabulary and elocution. It speaks to a certain extent about the types of characters we hold up as heroes in our current social climate, but more so, it's a simple example of commercial viability over storytelling practicality. Worthington as Perseus is a carefully calculated business move, and the streamlining of his character is indicative of director Louis Leterrier's greater neutering of the myth for 13-year-old boys. After all, if there's one thing less cool than masculine eloquence, it's ancient culture.

Damn the gods indeed. 2010's "Titans" retells Perseus’ story through a decidedly Christian lens. Mount Olympus has been downsized, and Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) essentially become surrogates for God and the devil. Most of the roles fulfilled by other gods in the original film have been reassigned to these two to keep things simple, which would be fine if they were interesting characters. Instead, a hunchbacked Fiennes rasps ominously at his brother, and Neeson sucks all ambiguity out of the king of the gods. It's worth noting that the original is far from a masterpiece, but the insecurities and petty vengeances of Zeus and his kin are among the more entertaining ideas it puts forth. The remake drops most of these characters and fits Zeus with a stoic (re: boring) gravitas, and a ridiculous set of digitally glistening armor.

And I can complain until I'm blue in the face about the intellectual inadequacies of "Clash of the Titans," but it's surface level mistakes like bad costumes and poor action choreography that really kills the film. The '81 version is defined by its special effects and set-pieces, and the best we can do in 2010 is CG monsters and post-production 3D? The remake is everything an effects-heavy film shouldn't be: sweeping and grandiose at the expense of intimacy. I don't care how many scorpions you render or how big you've made the Kraken when I don't even understand the decisions your protagonist is making.

But it's not like the remake ruins a classic or anything. The original has its share of problems, and one of the things the 2010 film does right is to kick the pacing in the pants where it needs to, leaving fewer sedentary dry spells than its predecessor. Regardless, I still hold the '81 version in higher regard because of its faithfulness in depicting the pantheon of the Grecian gods, and the charm and personality of its effects. The mythology is all "Clash of the Titans" circa 2010 has to distinguish itself by, and it downplays that difference instead of embracing it. Splash bland action and unimpressive effects on that cinematic identity crisis, and even Joe Moviegoer will agree you've failed.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 39: Clash of the Titans, She's Out of My League

--> Episode 39: 04/03/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Brian Crawford, Suman Allakki, Max Cooke

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 03:11
Clash of the Titans (dual review) – 04:18
She’s Out of My League – 29:28
Weekend Movie Round-Up – 42:14
(How to Tame Your Dragon, House of the Devil, Alice in Wonderland, The Endless Summer)
Events and Outro – 54:13

"Clash of the Titans" (1981)

"Clash of the Titans" (2010)

"She's Out of My League"

-- Weekly Discussion Question --
In "She's Out of My League", Jay Baruchel plays a lovable loser. Who are your favorite cinematic losers?

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

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"How to Train Your Dragon" Review

Dreamworks has been getting better, haven't they? Overall? They've certainly learned from Pixar that a little bit of heart goes a long way in animated children's filmmaking. Unfortunately, a little bit of heart is all you really get in their latest, the Norse coming of age comedy, "How to Train Your Dragon."

The film is split into two tonally distinct sections: an intimate and charming boy-and-his-dragon friendship fable, and an exceptionally dull gladiatorial adventure film. It seems like nearly half of the running time is swallowed by a series of dragon defense training sequences with our hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), wowing a gaggle of cartoon stereotypes with his ability to tame the ferocious beasts without violence. There's seriously so many of these scenes that I keep thinking the name of the movie is "How to Tame Your Dragon."

The arena stuff doesn't do much to carry the plot; it just sort of peripherally shows the practical application of learning the softer side of dragons. And because the plot isn't really being advanced (the young Vikings are being trained while most of their village is out searching for a dragon hive), gags substitute for story, and wit is not the film's strong suit. Honestly, most of the characters feel shamelessly yanked from an animated who's who of the last decade. You've got the bickering siblings from "The Incredibles," a protagonist not unlike Linguine of "Ratatouille" fame, and a couple of Shreks thrown in for good measure (or maybe that's just the Scottish accent). The supporting cast ultimately dilutes the simple maturity of film's central friendship, and sucks "Dragon" dangerously near the "Shark Tale" sinkhole.

It's sort of like "Up" and the talking dogs. When you have something powerful, stick with it. Not every animated film has to be a 3D action/effects spectacle. Maybe this is a little greedy, but I'm not interested in going timeshare on "How to Train Your Dragon." Give me "Old Yeller" or give me "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

Fortunately, it's more the former than the latter. As kids films go, you could do a lot worse, but the divide that makes Pixar Pixar and Dreamworks Dreamworks is still firmly inset in "Dragon's" design philosophy. Pixar transcends the idea of making children's films, where Dreamworks embraces it, and while that's terrific for the target demographic, I don't think mom and dad are going to have as good a time as they did watching "Finding Nemo" or "Monster's Inc."

But Dreamworks is getting better at keeping the whole family entertained, and "How to Train Your Dragon" is among the very highest echelon of the studio's animated work, which probably partly accounts for its overwhelming praise via Rotten Tomatoes. Objectively however, it doesn't quite know who it's trying to please, and settles for a 'some of the people, some of the time' scenario that left me intermittently yawning. At its heart, there's a timeless companionship—It just sometimes gets lost in favor of disposable entertainment.

And that may be a backhanded compliment, but it's a complement nonetheless. "How to Train Your Dragon" is entertaining and sometimes touching, but doesn't quite overcome its kiddie stigmata, and the ADD child in me has already moved on.


Friday, April 2, 2010

"Greenberg" Review

This would actually make a great companion review for "City Island," because both films live or die by their characters, and especially in comparison, Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" has great ones. As a Ben Stiller fan, I'll admit upfront he does carry a certain stigma of silliness that made me wonder if he was right for the role, but I was pleasantly surprised by how ill-founded my fears turned out to be. Stiller's understated take on the narcissistic title character is perfect.

And it's a performance that fits the film snugly; both are quiet, real, and subtly funny. Greenberg, first name Roger, is a New York carpenter by trade who, after a vague nervous breakdown before the film's outset, spends a few weeks house-sitting for his brother in their Californian hometown. He takes the opportunity to reach for old friendships, muse on the band he once broke up, and stab at a relationship with his brother’s self-deprecating assistant (Greta Gerwig), all with a pronounced anti-sociality. Stiller plays Greenberg as a misanthropic Larry David type that will likely divide audiences.

Of course, you won't get as much out of the film if you hate his guts, but I think Baumbach does an admirable job of playing Greenberg down the middle. If he comes off dislikable, he's intentionally so, and if we find his overinflated ego and communicative hang-ups even slightly endearing, it makes the film's reserved climax that much more meaningful. Mind you, the character doesn't undergo a profound, hundred and eighty degree change over the course of the film, which again may leave some cold, but it lends "Greenberg" an uncommon authenticity.

Mostly, Stiller's character just passes blame, misdirects criticism, picks at wounds, and proudly proclaims his life choice "to do nothing for a while," content to ignore his immaturity as even his one-time slacker buddies become career men and parents. Aging is the film's central theme, and Greenberg is caught in a time warp. His rash decision-making and selective memory later leads to an awkward date with an ex, and a college party he simultaneously participates in and ridicules. It's pathetic, and you'll either appreciate that irony or find him intolerable.

If I have a complaint, it's that the film is sometimes too much like the character: aimless and distant, though never for very long. It's tough to justify even a mild boredom, but I think the story probably benefits from the occasionally itchy sedentary scene; for better or worse, it wrings us closer to the idea of Greenberg, and underscores the juxtaposition of his impulsiveness in the third act. It may not make for the most exhilarating cinema, but it's hard for me to shake the notion that "Greenberg" is exactly the film it's supposed to be. It's pretty straightforward, and there doesn't feel like very much room for debate beyond a gut reaction.

Like I said, it lives and dies by its characters, and they'll either resonate for you or they won't. For me they absolutely do, and although there are probably a hundred films like it, Baumbach finds a way to make "Greenberg" feel fresh, significant, and genuinely funny, which is more than I can say for any of the year's purported "comedies." You know what, never mind "City Island," maybe this is the film you should see instead of "Hot Tub Time Machine."


Thursday, April 1, 2010

"City Island" Review

I don't think competent indie directors are in any short supply; what worries me is the state of "independent" screenwriting. Where are the passion projects? Where are the radically unconventional and anti-commercial controversy-magnets? Narratively and comedically, we can do better than "City Island."

See, the time has long since passed that art house filmmaking was about getting big ideas on the big screen. Maybe as consumers, that business model has lost its value given that weird, offbeat, and counter-mainstream content is readily available on home video or at the push of a button. Now, especially for the little guy, it's all about inking a distribution deal, which means independent films have a few looming successes over their head. If you want to generate studio interest in an independently financed project, buzz films like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno" are exactly who you want to be compared to. The movie businessmen factor those comparisons in heavily when formulating their equation for the bankability of your indie.

For filmmakers, this seems to mean that "Little Miss Sunshine" and the like are to be used as roadmaps in writing their films, with readymade archetypes to be pilfered for maximum profitability. You can't tell me year after year that filmmakers are just burning to tell the story of their quirky, dysfunctional families—It's just an insofar successful business model, and I'm tired of it.

The exact reason I go to the art house is to see filmmakers take risks that Hollywood wouldn't, and when you take that dynamic away, you're left with bland, marginally distinct stories that have little to no reason to be told. What's going on in "City Island" works, to an extent, from a directorial standpoint, a visual standpoint, and a performance standpoint—but from a screenwriting standpoint, you should be able to generate a compelling list of reasons why someone would want to sit through your movie. If "Andy Garcia" and "Alan Arkin" make your top three, your story probably needs work.

"City Island's" story is about as complex as your average half-hour sitcom. The Rizzo family's inability to communicate leads to 'comic' situations and misunderstandings, like Garcia's patriarch keeping the profile of an adulterer so he can take acting classes, his college daughter's soon to be not-so-secret strip gig, or his smart-aleck son's fetish for plus-sized women. Their vices are so pedestrian that I couldn't possibly care how they work them out.

The dialogue isn't any better. It's often considered tacky when the title of a film is spoken aloud, and "City Island" devotes an entire monologue to it—And if even Emily Mortimer can't sell it, you're looking at a rewrite situation. "City Island," she says. "The two words stand in stark contrast to each other," and proceeds to explain exactly how. For God's sake, really? You think I don't naturally comprehend the ironic dichotomy of the title? I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but it's not clever. It's indulgent and condescending.

But I'm being a little harsh. There's nothing especially wrong with "City Island" other than that it's creatively defunct. If you haven't seen a dozen movies like it, maybe it comes across as charming. For me though, Raymond De Felitta's film feels calculated where it should feel human. The Rizzos don't feel like four real people, they feel like salesmen hawking their artificial lives directly to a studio whose definition of "independent comedy" is as rigid as "horror" or "western."

Thanks but no thanks, I'm not buying.