Thursday, July 29, 2010

"The Complete Metropolis" Review

Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” was the first film I ever rented from Netflix. The (then) two-hour German expressionist science fiction masterpiece carried an immediate appeal for me I know not many will share. Nevertheless, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the film again, and on the big screen this summer, now ‘complete’ with 25 minutes of newly integrated footage uncovered in Buenos Aires in 2008.

Other than that the experience was marred by a crummy digital projection, the new cut of the film is nothing short of revelatory for fans and cinephiles. The restored scenes, which were cut in 1927 following early criticism, expand the scope and breadth of the narrative, rounding out a much more human film.

It’s a shame so little could be done to spruce up the supplemental material. I was initially put off by just how starkly it contrasted with the clean, relatively well-preserved 35mm whole; the 16mm additions are matted along the top and left of the frame, and are so scratched that the scenes appear to exist amidst an omnipresent rainstorm. But bad as they look, their benefit to the film is undeniable. My only real objection to their inclusion is in two to three second insert or reaction shots, where splicing in the new content seems more distracting than it is productive. Largely, however, the aesthetic unpleasantries are worth the emotional payoff of a more satisfying story.

The other issue is that “Metropolis” was already a long film, and one that isn’t always easy to appreciate in a modern context. Fortunately, its narrative backbone is a simple but timeless ‘workers vs. social elite’ fable, and the sincere, if unchallenging, plot makes plenty of room for contemplation. It’s easy to just slip into Lang’s world, and though the pacing and running-time hardly render it accessible, what’s really incredible about the film is how well its visuals still hold up.

The towering, angular cityscapes, oppressive walls of machinery, and the now iconic “machine man” are stylistic triumphs that look great today and have had obvious influence on more recent science fiction/fantasy classics, from the dark metropolis of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” to character design for “Star Wars.” The fact that it was even possible in 1927 is as incredible as Kubrick’s half-centennial “Space Odyssey” was for 1968. Maybe more so.

It’s rare and awesome that a piece of art is as ahead of its time as “2001” or “Metropolis” were. Fritz Lang’s film may not be a 2010 audience-pleaser, but in its flawless realization of its world, it’s every bit on par with something like “Inception.” Lang’s vision of the future is in many ways still our own, which helps account for its long shelf life. The forward-thinking design and fantastic visuals make it easy to forget that it saw release twenty years before Isaac Asimov published his compilation, “I, Robot.”

“The Complete Metropolis,” though not completely complete, is absolutely the best way to see the film. Despite the fact that certain scenes are still (and likely always will be) missing, this is the closest its come to a definitive version. Those with a vested interest in the history of film, particularly science-fiction film, absolutely need to seek it out if they haven’t already—The new cut is even worth reanalysis for those underwhelmed by the previously available version. It's a real treasure, however, for longtime fans, who’ll be glad to hear the 25 extra minutes, while not pretty, substantially benefit the story. For the first time, “Metropolis” really breathes.

However, if my unfortunate theater presentation has taught me anything, it’s that Kino’s home video release later this year will be the real attraction. I’ll be picking up the blu-ray come November, no rental required.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 54: The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Salt, Metropolis

--> Episode 54: 07/26/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Jon Mauer, Maggie Ruder

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 05:10
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – 09:52
Salt – 23:19
Metropolis – 29:46
WMD - 45:22
(Whip It, Overnight, Boondock Saints 2, Blind Date, Basic Instinct, Sunset Boulevard, Session 9, Kill Bill: Volume 1, Elephant)
Question and Outro - 01:07:59
(Can you list any heroes that look more badass than the villains?)

"Sorcerer's Apprentice"






--Weekly Discussion--

This week, our hosts express their love for the cast and performances in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and their disappointment with the direction and storytelling. As moviegoers, are you more attracted to a film with talent behind or in front of the lens?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" Review

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” might be the least amazing film about magicians I’ve ever seen—But, walking hand in hand with my expectations, it’s also one of the most honest. The trailer says it all; I mean, Nicolas Cage and Alfred Molina play sparring sorcerers in present day Manhattan. Jerry Bruckheimer produces. You get what you pay for.

The idea is predicated on infusing the old with the new. Balthazar (Cage) and Horvath (Molina) are meant to be Merlin’s thousand-year-old protégés, the former of whom cannot age until he’s located his master’s direct descendant, and the latter has only recently been freed from a millennial stint in magic artifact jail. Toss in lovable idiot Dave (Jay Baruchel), who must balance his university life with wizard training under Balthazar’s tutelage, and the premise quickly lends itself to elaborate feats of ancient spell-casting set to some truly awful modern rock.

To compare, I think one of the strengths of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” earlier this year was the way it managed to mingle its mysticism with England circa the 21st century. Jon Turteltaub, who hit the big time directing Cage in the “National Treasure” films, doesn’t have the well-developed sense of visual irony Terry Gilliam does. The magic world of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is impressive photographically, but it gets forgotten amidst an ever-brilliant color palette.

Let’s be real. No one expected a universe on par with “Harry Potter,” but the reason the movie doesn’t wow is because Turteltaub doesn’t take the time to ground it in reality. There are so few scenes that don’t incorporate some permutation of CGI wizardry that it entirely looses its impact given the real world setting. What’s more, Balthazar reneges (often) on his instruction not to practice magic in public; “It would be complicated,” he explains. Later, after defeating a dragon in plain sight of hundreds at a Chinese New Year celebration, he transforms Dave and himself into comical NYPD caricatures, and talks his way out of the situation with a single sentence.

That’s actually one of the better gags in the movie, and while it’s dramatically counter-productive, it’s also indicative of “Sorcerer’s” saving grace—Its sense of humor. And really, how could a movie with this cast have ever taken itself seriously? I know the Nick Cage hater wagon is about twelve cars long at this point, but I’m a fan, campy performances and all. He isn’t especially over the top as Balthazar, but a couple of his signature Cage-isms shine through, and I think he’s genuinely talented as a comedic actor. Meanwhile, Baruchel won me over back in “Tropic Thunder,” and Alfred Molina has now twice this summer made something of disposable roles (see, “Prince of Persia”).

Because of them, I find the film hard to hate. It runs long at 110 minutes, and the last act in particular is sloppily conceived, but it rarely got on my nerves. It’s a blockbuster’s blockbuster, and a tolerable children’s adventure film. There isn’t a whole lot going on in terms of the filmmaking, or any nuance to the storytelling; in fact, its straightforwardness runs exactly counter to the spirit of illusion and deception.

But maybe the greatest triumph of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is that in spite of its obvious shortcomings (not the least of which is the recurrent use of “Secrets” by the band OneRepublic), it still manages to be intermittently fun. It’s not the worst film of the summer, it’s not even the worst Disney film of the summer (see, “Prince of Persia”)—It’s just a languid, hopelessly average popcorn flick no one saw because it was released the same weekend as "Inception."

But then, it’s no great tragedy that it goes unseen. If you’ve seen the trailer, in essence you’ve seen the film, and already know what you’re missing. If, on the other hand, the idea of Nicolas Cage as a goofy, bedraggled wizard teacher does something for you—Well, you’ll get exactly what you pay for.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Inception" Review

With “Inception,” Christopher Nolan doesn’t necessarily raise any big questions—He’s more of an exclamation point guy. Shame on me. I don’t know why I ever let myself believe that the giant summer blockbuster from the director of “The Dark Knight” would be anything other than an action movie first and foremost. It was an error of judgment on my part, and one I don’t intend to hold against it.

While not entirely absent, the cerebral drama I thought I paid for rode along the margins. Nolan, who beyond “Batman,” also directed “Memento” and “The Prestige” among others, is great at dialing back the complexity of his narratives to their most accessible level. This means “Inception,” particularly in its first half, leans against a scaffolding of exposition, on which characters glassily explain how the business of dream invasion and information extraction works, right down to its subtlest intricacies. It can easily become grating, but the transparency of the writing is somewhat forgiven by the strength of the performances, and the not-so-insignificant fact that it exists purely to deliver an incredible, uninterrupted finale. Honestly, the sooner you stop expecting “Inception” to challenge you, the more you’ll enjoy it.

It’s hard to say on first viewing whether any of that exposition could be cut without compromising audience understanding of the events that unfold—Essentially “Inception” is a reverse heist film, with a crack team of dream spelunkers (Leo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page) attempting to ‘plant’ an idea in the subconscious psyche of the heir to a corporate mogul’s empire (Cillian Murphy)—But even at his most condescendingly explanatory, Nolan runs at a brisk pace; he forgoes atmosphere in favor of adrenaline.

And there I do take issue. Maybe I bring my own dream experience into the equation, but when I remember my dreams, I more often recall abstract feelings than concrete cause and effect. Conversely, it seems Nolan’s dreams are all about events—Meetings, kidnappings, James Bond compound infiltrations. It’s all very exciting, but not as emotionally transporting as I would have hoped.

But then it’s not Colin George’s “Inception,” and my dreams run antithetical to Nolan’s greater intent. His film isn’t faux sci-fi gone sour, it’s a smarter than average thriller, and taken in thriller context, its unquestionable genre elevation. Here Nolan not only crafts visually distinct, memorable action scenes, but he understands that those scenes carry weight only because of their context to his characters’ journey.

Precisely for that reason, the opening of the film did little for me. It makes all the sense in the world to begin with an elaborate dream sequence gone awry, but without immediately knowing what’s at stake, we have no reason to root for the characters or care about what they’re doing—Beyond the fact that it all looks gorgeous. Nolan finds his footing when he introduces Page as DiCaprio’s protégé, and as an outlet for the exposition, she keeps the audience in the loop. Granted, it’s not the most elegant solution, but without it, “Inception” runs the risk of spiraling into entropy.

Simply put, it isn’t the sort of film that deserves to be critically scrutinized, playing just a few short weeks after Shyamalan’s snoozy “Airbender” and barely a month removed from the inept action comedy, “Killers.” By no means a perfect film, “Inception” is damn near the perfect summer film, and during an unusually tepid season, it’s exciting just to see someone brave enough to get into the water.

And Nolan puts his head under. It may not have been the revelation I stupidly expected, but “Inception” backs up brawn with brains, and that’s what the director does best. Whether he’s working within the guidelines of comic book canon or acting as the architect of his own worlds, he doesn’t necessarily innovate—But he always reinvents. Exclamation point.


Monday, July 19, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 53: Inception

--> Episode 53: 07/18/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Suman Allakki, Jon, Mauer, Kevin Mauer

Intro – 00:44
Top 5 – 03:46
Inception (spoilers) – 06:53
I Can’t Believe You’ve Never Seen – 42:31
WMD – 50:12
(Book of Eli, The Crazies, Kung Fu Panda, Sunshine, Brothers Bloom, The Invention of Lying, Twilight)
Questions and Outro - 01:10:10
(Who would you rather fight—Dane Cook or Ashton Kutcher?)



-- Weekly Discussion Question --
With Christopher Nolan’s rabidly anticipated “Inception” finally in theaters, our hosts are divided on whether or not it delivers. What are your thoughts on the film? Creative masterpiece or delusional disappointment?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Predators" Review

I was always an “Alien” guy. Wretched from the opium dreams of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, that phallic chest-burster is the most imaginative space creature ever devised. It’s a Superman/Batman debate, but by comparison, the “Predator,” who was introduced to moviegoers almost ten years later—Didn’t seem to bring anything interesting to the table. Like Batman, he had gadgets to spare—But where’s the creativity in that? He was a villain that better reflected a decade of machismo action than the seventies’ horror boom that begot Ridley Scott’s film—Look no further than the casting of his foil, eighties icon Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So “Predator” and I parted ways. And though the two franchises would go on to literally duke it out in the miserable “Alien vs. Predator” films, the argument still seemed to me pitifully one-sided. But then, three days ago, something clicked. “Predators,” a pseudo-sequel to the original, finally won me over.

I’m as surprised as anyone; in an attempt to emulate a film I disliked, director Nimród Antal made one I did. However, his intention was not, as others have hastily criticized, to parrot what worked in 1987 verbatim. In fact, the influence of “Alien” on his film is just as apparent as that of its namesake (it even borrows the other series’ pluralized sequel title gimmick), and the audience gets the best of both worlds. Run and gun action is superseded by atmosphere and suspense, but Antal knows he’s not making straight horror either.

The filmmaker instead rides the line equidistant. He rightly plays the predators threatening rather than overtly scary, invisibly calculating rather than brutally aggressing. Their looming absence runs the risk of upsetting some more literal-minded fans, but as someone who was never sold on the character in the first place, the less predator in a “Predator” film, the better. Plus, the deliberate pacing offers some interesting, offbeat payoffs that I frankly wouldn’t have expected from a movie like this—Anyone questioning “Predators’” originality needs to point me in the direction of the other human on alien sword fight they’ve seen.

But as much as I love unprecedented choices like that, I can’t pretend there aren’t also minor problems in this jungle. It’s more of a warning than a complaint, but you need to be willing to accept some character clichés going into “Predators.” Elsewhere, it may distinguish itself as a cut above its contemporaries, but the humans in the film snugly fit archetypes exploited a dozen times over. Their big personas and propensity for campy dialogue is soothed by the talent at hand (Adrien Brody—Whose range continues to amaze me, Topher Grace, Danny Trejo, Lawrence Fishburne), but a couple clunkers still shine through—You’ll know the misplaced rape joke when you hear it.

But really that, along with one or two inelegant plot developments, is a small trade-off for all “Predators” does right. On the whole, genre films have become submissive entertainment, content to passively shovel innutritious junk food into our eye sockets, with no regard for what should make what we’re seeing scary or exciting. “Predators” takes its time and explains itself—It creates a beautiful, believable world—While still wearing a permeating cologne of mystery.

Maybe this review ultimately says less about “Predators” and more about the industry at large given that I find practical locations, largely practical creature design, and a script that takes a few risks so praiseworthy, but there it is. For once it’s nice to just see a straightforward sequel done well, and the film has so much authentic adoration for its many sources of inspiration that it almost feels as though it has existed since 1990, when the actual “Predator 2” debuted. Had this been released in its place, I’m confident the film would be remembered as fondly as “Aliens” is now.

But sadly, in the realm of public opinion, many consider digging up old graves an automatic disqualification. For me, there’s nothing sacred about the original “Predator” film; this one improves upon it. Of course, it’s made by someone whose sensibilities are closer to my own, but Antal makes no apologies for that.

Maybe I was always an “Alien” guy, but I may have room in my heart for another hideous space monster after all.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" Review

Hold on a second, what happened? Where am I? Suddenly, I’ve seen not one but two “Twilight” films, and what’s more, I actually have something positive to say about this one. Ahem—“Eclipse” is 100% better than “New Moon,” a film I initially scored one star. Make of that what you will, mathematicians.

Like many males, I’m an outsider on the Stephanie Meyer phenomenon. I haven’t read her books, and I laugh derisively at the cardboard Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner chilling outside the local record store (though maybe I’m just jealous no one will pay $29.99 for a life sized stand-up of me). Regardless, last November I decided to give the series a chance to win me over. It did not.

However, the improvements this third installment wields over its predecessor are immediately apparent. For starters, Chris Weiz, who directed “New Moon,” along with the equally contemptible adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” abdicated the director’s chair to David Slade, helmer of “Hard Candy” and “30 Days of Night.” Slade seems an unusual choice, and one, I can only assume, was made with the intention of casting the “Twilight” net clear across the gender gap, coaxing more teenage menfolk into the seats by way of grittier, more competent action. Also, more of it.

Still, “Eclipse” is anything but action-packed, and most of the time it feels as if the script is working against that goal. Slade can class up the werewolf on vampire (on vampire) scuffles till the bats come home, but nothing can change the fact that his film is founded on one of the most unnecessarily redundant screenplays in cinematic history. In fact, so little happens in either of the latter two “Twilight” films that most of “New Moon” could be stricken from the series, and would be better for it.

But instead, we’ve got star-crossed lovers Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Pattinson) picking up precisely where they left off, or maybe even earlier. To summarize: Bella wants to be a vampire; Edwards wants to be married—You’d think they’d reach common ground at the ‘eternity’ part. But while their apparently passionate relationship is at loggerheads, Jacob T. Wolf (Lautner) is determined to thwart the union and win over Bella, who seems more uncertain than ever which monster man she’s more interested in.

And that’s the big problem with Bella Swan. She’s portrayed as supremely desirable—Despite her conspicuous lack of personality. She’s billed as a hero, but is largely incapable of enacting change on her surroundings. She is disingenuous with both of her would-be supernatural suitors, and is childish, arrogant, and hypocritical. Edward, Jacob, listen carefully... YOU’RE BOTH TOO GOOD FOR HER.

But in the escalating farce of their one-upsmanship for her love (with feats that range everywhere from charming to psychopathic), Jacob literally carries her into one of the worst romantic plot devices of all time:

You see, there are these other vampires. Bad ones, like the kind from every other vampire book. They want to kill Bella for something or something, so she must be spirited away to the safety of a mountain cliff (????). The vampires can, I guess, smell other vampires but not werewolves, but they can also smell Bella. So she can’t go to the top of the mountain alone, which again, is the most logical place to hide (????), and Edward is powerless to help… Obviously, the only viable option is for her to be carried there—By none other than an extremely shirtless Jacob. Let me tell ya, Washington state's never been so hot!

Plus, once there, Bella, Jake, and Eddie all spend the night in a tent together (even though we’re led to believe she only needs to be hidden for the duration of a battle that won’t occur until the following morning). Despite the fact that everyone knew they would be camping on the peak of a snow-covered mountain, Bella is under-insulated and freezing in the middle the night. What can Edward, with his cold vampire’s blood, possibly do except allow the hot-blooded Jacob to cuddle his fiancé back to warmth?

The transparency of every motive is proof that no matter how far the filmmaking in the franchise comes, the quality of the stories remains along a single horizontal plane with a whole lot of headroom. Slade brings the series another step closer to credibility, but based solely on the adaptations (which I know some of the novels’ fans have shunned), “Twilight” is adolescent drivel, a projected paperback romance lost at a costume party—And this brainless two hour third attempt is too much mash, not enough monster.

Never mind the mathematics. The numbers are in, and any way you spin them, “Eclipse” is an improvement—Pity it’s still a net loss.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Despicable Me" Review

Never one to pass up a good cinematic curmudgeon, maybe I was predisposed to enjoy Universal’s “Despicable Me.” I mean, when it comes to off-brand animated entertainment, ass-kicking Pandas and pet Dragons only take me so far—It wasn't until Russian supervillian Gru (Steve Carell) put his adopted children to bed in the hollowed-out casings of “probably” inactive bombshells that I finally felt like the target audience.

Ever since studios began better emulating Pixar’s secret sauce, they’ve met with varying degrees of success in combining raw, gooey emotion with their signature lighthearted recipes. “Despicable Me” grapples with it, and though it may be one of the most consistent examples yet, it’s still about as nuanced a dish as macaroni and cheese — which, fortunately for me, I’ve never outgrown.

However, of the two conflicting senses of humor at play, there is one I absolutely have outgrown. Rarely has a family film so distinctly set aside its kids’ humor from its more mature fare; In “Despicable Me,” it’s a difference personified. Gru’s subterranean lair is crawling with his “minions,” little, yellow jellybean-like creatures who make butt jokes and slap each other around. They’re cute purely for the sake of being cute (in effect, a sort of artificial cuteness) and anytime they’re on screen, the comparable intellect of the rest of the film is suffocated by indecipherable high-pitched chatter and broad gags that make vaudeville look like the Divine Comedy.

The good news is that the minions are never on screen for particularly long, and there are a few laughs to be had at their expense when they become the unfortunate casualties of Gru’s experiments. Conversely, most of film’s jokes have an avant-garde sensibility that jived better with me; Gru must acquire a loan from the “Bank of Evil” in order to fund his diabolical scheme to shrink and steal the moon. Coupled with a “Spy vs. Spy”-esque kinetic goofiness, it still averages out to be a fairly funny film.

No surprise, a lot of upper-echelon voice talent is involved, and I remember being impressed months ago at the wall of names that played after the teaser-trailer. Admittedly, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Carell’s work since he left “The Daily Show” back in 2005, but he doesn’t distract as Gru. He plays well off of a cast eerily similar to that of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall:” Jason Segel as his nemesis, Vector (who is, interestingly, another supervillian—“Despicable Me” doesn’t have a hero); Russell Brand as an elderly inventor by the name of Dr. Nefario; Kristin Wiig as the proprietor of the orphanage from which Gru adopts three young girls in a ploy to infiltrate Vector’s fortress.

But perhaps most interestingly, “Despicable Me” has some of the most easily-missed cameos in the history of animation. Danny McBride plays Gru’s neighbor with a line and a half of dialogue, and Jemaine Clement from HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” (apparently) voices one of the minions. Other than stacking the deck as an advertising vehicle, it seems pointless to pay such funny people for such inconsequential roles.

But I think their presence signifies, if nothing else, that “Despicable Me” is a project worth being attached to. It may fall back on certain cyclical annoying tendencies, catering occasionally to lowest-common-denominator comedy (the avoidance of which even the best emulation of Pixar hasn’t managed), but the world of the film is comically rich, and no amount of disposable, annoying minions can wreck that — though not from lack of trying. The heart of the story, Gru coming to begrudgingly love his adopted daughters, may not win any prizes for revolutionary storytelling, but it’s well executed and ‘cute’ in a legitimate way.

As something of an amateur curmudgeon myself, please disregard my smile.


FARCE/FILM Episode 52: Eclipse, Despicable Me, Predators

--> Episode 52: 07/12/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer, Laura Rachfalski

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 00:53
Twilight: Eclipse – 03:46
Despicable Me – 19:17
Predators – 31:53
WMD – 49:32
(Winter's Bone, Dogtooth, Crazy Heart, Moon, North by Northwest, Breathless, Futurama, Youth in Revolt, Batman Returns)
E-mail – 01:07:02
Outro – 01:12:20

"Twilight: Eclipse"


"Despicable Me"




--Weekly Discussion--

Expectations can dramatically alter the way one watches and interprets a film. This week, Colin is blown away by “Predators” and Kevin is let down. What are some of your most and least pleasant cinematic surprises?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"The Last Airbender" Review

All of a sudden, “The Last Airbender” is the worst film of the year—Or the most hated, anyway. It sits at a lowly 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of just 2.8 out of 10, based on the opinions of 122 critics. Come on, guys. That’s a little unfair.

Now I’m not saying M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, an adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series, is “great,” or “good,” or even “mediocre;” I disliked it. But with hyperbolic descriptors like “torturous” and “nauseating” and “worst-film-of-the-last-20-years,” being lobbed, I can’t help but backpedal the conversation. By my estimate, 2010 has wrought at least half a dozen worse films (and because the internet evidently has no long-term memory, they are: “Legion,” “The Wolfman,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Survival of the Dead,” “Killers”), and a few more I would consider of “equally bad” caliber.

So where does the fire-and-brimstone fury come from? I’ll tell you why I had trouble with “Airbender,” though it’s hardly worth getting into a tizzy over—It bored me. Plain and simple. The fight scenes in particular elicited yawns, with gymnasts pointlessly whirling batons or kicking theatrically at one another before unleashing their impotent elemental tempests. Some of these scenes are cut so short that they border on nonexistence; others are stretched long enough to support multiple catnaps.

The choreography is lousy, but the real perpetrator of “Airbender’s” persistent boringness is its clunky pacing, a function of either poor scripting or eleventh-hour editing. As I recall, early test-screenings for the film begot none too positive feedback, resulting in ominous reshoots. It seems likely that among those initial complaints was the snore factor—Which might have been sloppily addressed by slashing scenes and bridging the gaps with an unconvincing voice-over.

Of course, the alternative is equally likely, since as readily as I’ll defend Shyamalan the director, as a writer I’m one of his stalwart detractors. Out of misguided pride, he carries a snooty auteur’s attitude about directing anyone else’s material, which is especially frustrating given that he still shows potential as a visual storyteller. The fact of the matter is he didn’t have the slightest qualification to pen “Airbender,” and had he instead hired a (competent) professional screenwriter, the results could have been something extraordinary.

I will, nevertheless, cede one final point to the piranhas that encircle Mr. Shyamalan’s every release. One of their most vociferous accusations this time around was in regards to the performances of his young cast, particularly the airbender himself. Aang, who as the title suggests, is the sole descendant of a race with the ability to manipulate wind, and who befriends and battles those that 'bend' fire, water, and earth, is portrayed by newcomer Noah Ringer—Who is terrible in the film. However, I’m inclined to blame Shyamalan for his dramatic floundering—Ringer was clearly chosen for his talent as a martial artist over his obvious inability to carry a film.

And yet, for all “Airbender’s” clear missed potential and consistently shoddy storytelling, I didn’t leave the theater formulating some all-caps condemnation of Shyamalan. Nor did I, as has been tirelessly proclaimed and repeatedly rebuked, type up some smarmy headline about this being the final, final nail in the coffin of his movie career (until the next one)—I just felt sleepy and dissatisfied.

His film is nowhere near the year’s worst, let alone of the past two decades, but Shyamalan has become irrelevantly hated and an exceedingly popular target as public opinion, along with critical consensus of each subsequent project, has steadily fallen since the release of “Signs” in 2002.

Can 122 critics and a thousand internet fanboys really be wrong? Maybe not, but they don’t have to be so ornery about it.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Winter's Bone" Review

Debra Granik, director of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, “Winter’s Bone,” exhibits a rare confidence in her vision that nearly supersedes criticism. Her film is a portrait, and her brush-strokes are so self-assured that I suspect she could provide two diametrically opposed interpretations and pass a polygraph test with flying colors each time.

In a way, that’s what nags me about it. My stubborn inclination, despite the potent, pea-soup atmosphere of dilapidated shacks and leering, shadowy characters, is to dismiss it all as ‘almost great.’ The story is kick-started by a strong, simple premise—That 17 year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) must track down her father who, having put the family house up for a bail bond, must be returned by his court date—Which quickly escalates into an engrossing high-stakes mystery when she starts asking questions of the wrong (or is it right?) people.

And yet the experience receded promptly in my mind. Why is it that I should consider Granik’s film anything less than one of the year’s best, immediately worth recommending? I suppose my expectations are partially at fault for the traces of disappointment laced with my enjoyment of the film. I had been hearing scattered but decisive praise for “Winter’s Bone” over the last few weeks, and I went to the theater having only seen the trailer. Usually, the less I know about a film, the more chance it has to genuinely surprise me, but in this case it felt like the story built to an early peak it couldn’t outclimb—Or rather, didn’t try to. The early twists seem to precipitate later ones that never come.

Nevertheless, Granik’s authenticity in mimicking (and in many cases, simply capturing) the feel of the rural, dirt-poor Missouri communities is so complete that it’s hard not to fall into the moment. The pacing is perfect, and it’s a compliment that my greatest complaint is its straightforwardness. “Winter’s Bone” washes over its viewers like a cool fog; it can be slow, but our heart rates seems to slow with it. In more tense scenes, Granik’s direct line to our pulse is only more apparent.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that her characters, in addition to being vessels for a mood, also have the propensity to be very funny. It’s more than that though; somehow they don’t feel like characters at all. It’s not that they’re particularly deep or fantastically realized—They just seem real, even at the expense, in several cases, of being great fictional personages. They joke, they allude, they threaten, they share; they exist as an extension of the environment rather than pawns of the plot.

And perhaps the same can be said for the story. Maybe I was expecting something more conventionally thrilling, when what I was offered was a convincing, if very down-to-earth, mystery. The way it unravels is involving—It just never reaches that ‘Coen brothers’ level of (very showy) brilliance, and Granik isn’t trying to be clever. She’s a painter, not a writer.

I still can’t bring myself to call “Winter’s Bone” a great film, but paradoxically, I do think the filmmaking is great. Granik is an unflinching director, the best kind. However, as a matter of personal preference, her style stands in stark contrast to that of my favorite auteurs: Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, Tarantino, Lynch, the Coens. Granik seems more intent on publishing authenticity than cramming it through some self-stylized filter, and the result is a film of uncommon honesty. I guess that caught me off guard.

Next time, though, I’ll be willing to take her at her word. No lie-detector test necessary.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 51: The Last Airbender

--> Episode 51: 07/06/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Jon Mauer, Suman Allakki

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 02:48
The Last Airbender – 05:59
WMD – 34:08
(Restrepo, Red Dawn, Postal, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Rescue Me, Pretty Little Liars, Winter’s Bone, Prince of Darkness, Sunshine, Gasland)
Weekly E-mail - 01:00:28
(What is the worst movie that you’ve seen in recent years?)
Outro - 01:04:14

"The Last Airbender"


--Weekly Discussion--

This week, our hosts bicker over Airbender’s bad writing and cinematography, with Kevin suggesting that one, if competently executed, could outweigh the problems with the other. What are some films that are clumsily executed but saved by a great story? What films suck but look beautiful?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

"Knight and Day" Review

Has “Knight and Day” been sitting on a shelf somewhere since the late nineties? I can just imagine some backlot custodian blowing the dust from the canister and proclaiming, eyes wide, “My God—This was supposed to be released thirteen years ago!”

It recalls a simpler time, when summer blockbusters were sold on Hollywood star power rather than franchise familiarity. The stars of “Knight and Day,” Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, now 48 and 37 respectively, are considerably older than the leads of last summer’s highest grossing film, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” (Shia LaBeouf/Megan Fox, both 24). But while the performers may have passed their commercial ‘best by’ date, they’re nowhere near expiry; they bring a wholesome charisma to the silly script that might otherwise have been embarrassing for its over-the-top protagonists.

In fact, the story is so absurd that Cruise and Diaz’s performances are probably the only way to sell it. Sure, the twentieth-century goofiness is refreshing in an age where the dour Christopher Nolan is synonymous with action, but the film feels just as often like an instant-relic. “Knight and Day” is no “Dark Knight,” a fact that is made especially apparent as the film tips into its second half and the tendrils of the overgrown plot start to suffocate it.

The difference, appropriately enough, is as stark as day and night. The first half has a constant energy to it, blowing by at such an airy pace that it doesn’t really matter what’s trite, or nonsensical, or what Peter Sarsgaard’s deal is. Cruise plays Roy Miller (a spy every bit as distinctive as his name) who inadvertently becomes involved with Jane Average: June Havens (Diaz), on a flight gone awry. In eluding his aggressors, he must also protect her, while a mutual attraction blossoms—Yada, yada, yada. The latter hour then expounds on why Miller’s being chased (a game changing super-battery called a zephyr—Just go with it), and the energy takes a nosedive. There’s also greater emphasis on the relationship dynamic, which is anything but the movie’s strong suit.

In principle, I’m fine with so hollow an action film exploiting clichéd devices—Namely the girl and the McGuffin—But only as shorthand to keep the story moving. The second half of “Knight” stops frequently to nurture its ill-begotten narrative, and for the most part, I couldn’t care less. Shoot some more guys.

However, of the plethora of problems with “Knight and Day,” probably the most serious is that it provokes absolute ambivalence in retrospect. Anyone who saw Robert Luketic’s “Killers” will attest that director James Mangold got something right here, but that something is largely devoid of spark. That Cruise and Diaz (both of whom are overdue for a great starring role) work so well in the film makes its utter averageness all the more resounding. Despite their best efforts, it’s still the sort of experience you forget about the same day you have it.

The film is just chemical entertainment; fun in a completely artificial way, like some palatable off-brand snack food you’ll only eat once. Even with decent action and occasionally successful humor, I wouldn't recommend that anyone actually go out of their way to see it. Or change the channel, for that matter.

“Knight and Day” is a flash in the pan so forgettable that if the studio rereleased it in thirteen years, I’m not sure anyone would notice.