Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Jackass 3D" Review

How does one review “Jackass 3D”? The tertiary installment in MTV’s prank and stunt franchise is basically immune to criticism because you get exactly what you pay for. Love it or hate it, “Jackass 3D” accomplishes just about everything it sets out to; in effect, Johnny Knoxville scores a goal on an empty net.

I am the anomaly, but I’d wager next to no one is ‘on the fence’ about whether or not they should see this film. They either contributed to the massive $50 million opening weekend box office cume, or they immediately dismissed it. In my case, however, having never seen the “Jackass” films wasn’t a conscious snub. Believe it or not, there just always seemed to be something better to watch.

But mine’s not a high horse. I sought out and watched “Jackass” and “Jackass: Number Two” the week prior to my first theater experience with the series, and I’m glad I did. After all, I grew up on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and throughout high school religiously followed the English hidden camera show “Trigger Happy TV.” “Jackass” isn't as clever as the latter, but by measure of unbridled chutzpah, Knoxville and Co. are the reigning kings.

Like a Victorian freak show or museum of oddities, the often self-destructive experiments of the “Jackass” crew are the guilty pleasures of our generation. There’s something almost gladiatorial about watching the elaborate dangers these brave idiots subject themselves to. Man vs. bull, man vs. mule, man vs. man—our fascination with competition, spectacle, and injury is nothing new.

“Jackass 3D” being my first chance to observe others' response to these shenanigans, I was most amazed by the two-pronged reaction the audience had to the physical trauma the performers sustained. A given stunt would be executed, typically resulting in its participant doubling over in pain. The crowd laughed, as they’d been cued to. The film would then play back the moment in slow motion and suddenly everyone would groan or sharply inhale. Though we paid to laugh at people injuring themselves, what’s more interesting is our ability to empathize with the depiction of human pain. That the “Jackass” films achieve both is not an insignificant feat.

This isn't the definitive “Jackass” experience, however. Having watched all three films in the span of a single week, I did discern a distinct arc that left me somewhat letdown with Knoxville’s most recent effort. “Jackass: Number Two” improved upon the original with a more polished, professional look, and more elaborate and inventive stunts. It gave the genuine impression that the crew was pushing its boundaries and trumping itself wherever possible. That same sense of pioneering is largely missing from “Jackass 3D.” The glasses-gimmick seems to supplant genuine innovation in their routine, and on the whole it feels slapdash in comparison to the conceptual genius of its prequel.

But what survives in “Jackass 3D,” and what ultimately endeared me to the franchise is its creativity. Where it won me over was not in the painful payoff of each trick, but rather in the setup. The use of the camera to disorient, spotlight, and surprise is what really makes the series sing, and the trilogy is full of epiphanic moments of hilarity. “Jackass” has and always will be a potpourri of comedic elements, not all of which directly appeal to my specific sensibilities, but the variety is essential and the whole is somehow more than the sum of its parts.

I only wish “Jackass 3D” had more of the entrepreneurial spirit that so distinguished the second film. It may not be ambitious, but hey, a goal made on an empty net still counts.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"The Town" Review

Simple, focused, and perpetually entertaining, Ben Affleck’s “The Town” plays like the best Michael Mann film in years. It stands apart in the summer spectrum, maybe because the MO for action in 2010 seems to so heavily favor high concept; Affleck’s second directorial effort is like a breath of fresh air.

But how could he hope to score the fickle fanboys’ attention without the dream-spelunking of “Inception,” the gratuitous violence of “The Expendables,” or the retro gaming nostalgia of “Scott Pilgrim”? For one, he sidestepped those direct competitors by releasing his film on the very last Friday of the season. Second, he instilled the film with one vital element the other three lack: heart.

Sure, “Pilgrim” is a romance, but the relationships in “The Town” resonate on a deeper level. Affleck plays protagonist Doug MacRay, a brilliant bank robber who becomes romantically involved with one of his prior hostages against his better judgment. Claire (Rebecca Hall) recognizes neither his face (which was masked during the theft) nor his voice. The scenario makes for an inherently suspenseful courtship, playing our desire to see a ‘happily ever after’ against our knowledge that Doug cannot sustain his lie indefinitely.

Grounded by the simple, relatable contrast of Doug’s optimism for a brighter future and his dim present, “The Town” is free to alternate between elaborate heist sequences and intimate conversations. It works because Affleck understands what so few filmmakers seem to: that something real needs to be at stake for our characters. For Doug, it’s his relationship. For his buddy James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), that risk is hard jail time; the character has already served nine years.

We care about these people, and it is for that reason the action sequences deliver. There may not be anything as impressive as in the final forty minutes of “Inception,” or as many explosions as “The Expendables” was packing, or even the creativity of “Scott Pilgrim,” but Affleck outshines them all with straight good storytelling and classic one-upmanship.

There are three heists in “The Town,” each more elaborate than the last. Costumes play a major role in all three, ranging from cliché (skeleton masks) to bizarre (nun habits) to ingenious (Boston police uniforms). In terms of suspense, Affleck expertly paces himself. The first heist leads to Doug’s involvement with Claire, whose relationship ups the stakes for a considerably messier second outing. It devolves into a citywide car chase with the police and FBI in hot pursuit. The tension is ratcheted even higher for the final heist, which takes place at a locale described as the “Cathedral of Boston” and concludes with the largest, most visceral action scene in the movie.

My gripes are few and far between. “The Town” does feel perhaps a little longer than it needs to, and the outcome of Doug’s last job and his relationship with Claire feels somewhat inauthentic by comparison to the pragmatic whole. Nevertheless, neither issue amounts to more than a minor grievance, and Affleck concludes the film on a beautiful, somber moment that emphasizes his strength as a director.

“The Town” is one of the most pleasant sleeper surprises of the year. Like Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” it offers a grown-up alternative to action, a compelling cast of characters, and confident filmmaking. That Ben Affleck, who was once a punchline in comparison to his accomplished buddy Matt Damon, has emerged so triumphantly as a director in the past three years is a development few if anyone saw coming. Both his vision for this film and his performance therein are incredible, and “The Town” is the best, most compelling action film of 2010.

Whatever project Affleck takes on next, his ability to perpetually entertain isn’t going to expire anytime soon.


Monday, October 25, 2010

"Red" Review

“Red” is bland. Jilting its vibrant namesake, director Robert Schwentke’s pallid comic book movie is about as exciting as a grayscale rainbow. It’s a self-celebratory slog and one of the longest hour and fifty minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year. In my defense, its trailer was a calculated work of CIA-level deception—each moment is expertly chosen to give false impression that the whole is mindless fun. But mindless fun is only half right.

There’s next to nothing to say about a film this unremittingly boring. I’d stop just short of calling it a failure, but the most incredible thing about “Red” is that such a lackluster script attracted such high-profile talent.

The cast, including Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Mary Louis-Parker, along with Karl Urban, Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss, speaks for itself. That’s part of the problem. “Red” relies too heavily on big names to make the material pop rather than directly addressing the many problems with its confusing, amorphous screenplay. Surely it seemed like a pretty safe conclusion—I’m as surprised as anyone that a film this stacked could be so completely devoid of personality.

Then there’s the not-so-insignificant fact that our leading man is the most uninteresting person in the entire film. Black ops superhero Frank Moses never lives up to his reputation—pity Willis doesn’t supply his own. His character is meant to be a “romantic” at heart, but his relationship with dopey civilian Sarah Ross is just as unconvincing. Moses isn’t a compelling protagonist—and he’s shown up repeatedly. First by Malkovich as an LSD-warped CIA retiree, but also by Freeman, who is in the film for maybe a combined ten minutes.

I’m not gunning for Bruce, though. “Red” is an amalgam of creative failures in which his is the very least offensive. It was never going to be a great film given the inept writing of Jon and Erich Hoeber, though under Schwentke’s direction it isn’t even passable. He attempts to pawn "Red" off as disposable entertainment, but reneges on the ‘entertainment’ part. It's the type of movie that squeaks by on a slow weekend, but would have been justly ignored had it been released three months ago.

Even its music is egregious. Not since Soderbergh’s "The Informant!" has a film been so tonally altered through soundtrack and score. Composer Christophe Beck imbues each languid scene with a false sense of energy—be it bouncy, comedic accompaniment or nondescript action orchestral—but he fails to make a case for them. In fact, his music underscores the dichotomy between sound and sight; he makes us acutely aware of what we should be feeling, but aren’t.

Collectively, “Red” is one massive miscalculation: criminally overlong and underwhelming given the caliber of talent on hand. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t have offered the same breezy fun as “The Losers” and “Knight and Day” did earlier this year, flawed though they were. Schwentke attempts to mend a Humpty Dumpty script by infusing it with style and enunciating its humor, but the former comes off as gimmicky and the latter is a series of embarrassing air balls. Joke upon joke was met with stifling silence from the crowd.

"Red" is one of the most colorless films in recent memory. In it, the acronym ‘R-E-D’ stands for “Retired; Extremely Dangerous,” but I’ve come up with an abbreviation that far better describes the experience: “Reclining; Extremely Disappointed.”


FARCE/FILM Episode 66: Red, Jackass 3D

We apologize for out-of-sync audio between 01:13 and 14:08. Feel free to fast forward. Paranormal Activity 2 won the weekend, Red stunk, and we're not that interesting anyway.

--> Episode 66: 10/24/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:07
Red (spoilers) – 03:58
Jackass 3D – 19:10
WMD – 55:25
(Quiz Show, Prom Night in Mississippi, Death Race 2000, The Town, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, Breaking the Waves, Child’s Play, American Werewolf in London, Terminator 2, The Hustler, The Omen, Rashomon, Maderlay)
01:17:45 – Poll, E-mail and Outro
(Johnny Knoxville as an actor)


"Jackass 3D"

-- Weekly Discussion --

This week, our hosts wax intellectual in their discussion of Jackass 3D. Is Jackass art, performance art, entertainment, or worthless? Where do you draw the line?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"A Buddy Story" Review

I can’t even feign objectivity. “A Buddy Story,” formally “Buddy Gilbert Comes Alive,” formally “Buddy Goldstein Live” is a low-budget romantic comedy I served as a production assistant on in the fall of 2007. It was neither a pleasant nor entirely professional initiation to the world of feature film production, and now, three years later, after hearing rumors surface about reshoots in California, I sat down in Philadelphia to watch the film I helped in some small way to create.

Problem is, I couldn’t watch it the way I normally would. With each scene, I was fumbling for an accompanying memory, focused more on what was happening off camera than what was happening on. As such, take my impression that the film felt choppy and under-realized with a grain of salt. Apparently it worked for the meager crowd and even some of my fellow crewmates.

But my big problem with “Buddy” has nothing to do with its craft. From a creative standpoint, writer/director Marc Erlbaum fails to distinguish his characters and his story from the myriad of other indie films exactly like it. From the eye-rolling quirkiness of Buddy’s pet choice to the complete lack of dramatic risk, the film not only says nothing new—it says nothing old in a particularly interesting way.

The story is about struggling singer/songwriter Buddy Gilbert (Gavin Bellour) and his developing relationship with Susan (Elizabeth Moss), the wounded woman that lives across the hall. The two end up touring a blur of hick town bars, community centers, and retirement homes together, forming a bond in the process. Probably the greatest strength of the film is their easygoing chemistry.

Elizabeth Moss’ career has taken off since I worked with her. She was cast as the female lead in “Buddy,” just as the first season of “Mad Men” was airing, and largely because of its success, she has come into some very high profile gigs since—including the Apatow-produced “Get Him to the Greek” and the upcoming Lawrence Kasdan film, “Darling Companion.”

She is believable in “Buddy,” even when she has to work against the script. Bellour is slightly less so, but he too is making the best of a poorly written character. Erlbaum writes Buddy as an odd loner who, on the surface, sports an almost naïve childishness, but who underneath is dissatisfied with himself. The latter isn’t explored nearly as thoroughly as it should be, and as such, Buddy never quite comes across sympathetic. He, like all struggling artists, is waiting for his big break, but his moments of pessimism are so few and far between that we never buy the struggle.

The issue with this mediocre film is that there simply is nothing at stake. Nothing seems to depend on whether or not Buddy gets signed. He makes ends meet as is. Even in resorting to a telemarketing job, he seems happy; if it’s good enough for him, why should I care his dream is falling by the wayside?

Yet in my best impression of objectivity, I don’t think “A Buddy Story” is a worthless film, it’s just an unnecessary one. The music is a definite highlight, and though it doesn’t directly appeal to my taste, it works well within its context. My only question is whether the tunes are genuinely catchy, or if I’ve just heard them ad nauseam.

“A Buddy Story” just premiered, and as such does not yet have a distribution deal. God only knows when and if the opportunity will be made available for the public at large to see it, but frankly, they’re not missing much. Then again, what do I know? I'm just a disgruntled employee.


"Black Swan" Review

Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” makes ballet cool—and if that isn’t a Herculean feat in itself, I don’t know what is. It also happens to be one of the best films of the year, featuring one of the best performances of the year. Natalie Portman will be nominated for her devastating portrayal of petite perfectionist Nina the ballerina or I’ll pull a Werner Herzog and eat my shoe.

“Black Swan” is cut from the same cloth as Aronofsky’s 2008 film “The Wrestler,” if at the opposite end. Interestingly, before either project was realized, the director was reportedly mulling a drama about the relationship between a professional wrestler and a ballerina. Somewhere along the way, however, that concept was split down the middle—and thank God. “Black Swan” is brilliant, but it wouldn’t necessarily play well with others.

Like its predecessor, the film examines a physically demanding and widely unappreciated art, and though thematically similar, the two complement each other via mutually exclusive cinematic vernaculars. “The Wrestler” is ultimately a safer film. Its emotional experience is directly conveyed via plot and dialogue. What Aronofsky attempts with “Black Swan” is riskier: he plays genre Frankenstein, taking established themes and transplanting them into that which feels initially least appropriate—horror.

Yet despite certain unmistakable cues, I’d hesitate to call “Black Swan” a horror film. Visually, maybe, but John Carpenter insists “The Thing” is a Western, and likewise there is more to “Black Swan” than is aesthetically obvious. It probably best fits the psychological thriller mold, but as Aronofsky suggests through his manipulation of mirrors, it is not a film that ever casts a clear reflection. For me, that dichotomy is what makes it so fascinating and rewarding.

“Black Swan” strikes an immediate haunting note that seems to grow louder with reverberation rather than quieter. In the first half, the director lays track work; in the second, he runs right off it. Nina begins her journey receiving the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a modernist production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Her practiced technique makes her ideal for the role of the goodly White Swan, but her lascivious director (Vincent Cassel) has reservations about her ability to portray her evil twin, the titular Black Swan—a character that embodies instinct and lust. Nina’s process of unlearning takes her to increasingly dark, surreal depths.

The final act of the film comprises the most riveting 40 minutes I’ve seen on screen all year, though “Black Swan” is never the mindfuck some have improperly labeled it. Aronofsky deliberately builds atmosphere and anticipation toward a Kubrickian climax that is at once obvious and stunning. Tchaikovsky’s score falls like an aerial assault, and that inherent theatricality collides with Aronofsky’s narrative as they come to a dual boil.

Perhaps best of all, however, is that for all the audacity on display, the director knows when to dial it back as well. The casting of Mila Kunis (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “That 70’s Show”) was idyllic. She plays a comic relief of sorts, with a comely, down-to-earth veneer but viperous eyes. Her performance is fantastically calculated—she provides derisive, but much needed perspective on Nina’s deteriorating sense of reality.

“Black Swan” is a wholly effective work born from the shadowy underside of the mind, anchored by a career-defining turn by Portman. It is a quick, impulsive piece, but it explains artistic devotion and the consuming nature of obsession as well or better than any film I’ve ever seen. In hindsight, it feels more characteristic of the filmmaker responsible for “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” than “The Wrestler,” though the parallels between it and “Black Swan” run deep.

They may be cut from the same cloth, but the difference between the two is as stark as black and white. Hail Aronofsky, the Swan King.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 65: Philadelphia Film Fest Edition

--> Episode 65: 10/17/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer, Jon Mauer, Laura Rachfalski, Micah Haun

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:30
A Buddy Story – 04:17
127 Hours (spoilers) – 19:23
Black Swan – 40:51
Kings of Pastry – 57:23
WMD – 01:06:59
(Undeclared, Teenage Paparazzo, Stripes, Teach, Before Sunrise, The Dark Crystal, World Trade Center, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Fourth Kind, Trainspotting, Henry Fool)
E-mail and Outro – 01:37:49
(Do the personal lives of filmmakers affect your opinion of their works)

"A Buddy Story"

"127 Hours"

"Black Swan"

"Kings of Pastry"

--Weekly Discussion--

This week, our hosts consider the objectivity of allowing the personal life of an artist to influence an evaluation of their work. Is that fair? Has your opinion of a film ever been changed by an external force?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"127 Hours" Review

There is a threshold for single location films at which they overcome their self-imposed limitations, and though “127 Hours” rockets past that point, I don’t think it ever transcends its premise. Danny Boyle is a great director, and this is a good film, but there’s no getting around the fact that its scope is as limited as the resources in Aron Ralston’s backpack.

An adaptation of “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Ralston’s true account of having his arm lodged beneath a boulder in an isolated Utah canyon, Boyle’s interpretation relies perhaps a little too heavily on the built-in adjectives like ‘harrowing’ and ‘powerful;’ he doesn’t seem to add many of his own. The film is certainly more successful than this year’s “Buried,” in which Ryan Reynolds spends the entirety of a film trapped inside a coffin in Iraq, but then Ryan Reynolds is no James Franco.

Franco’s multifaceted performance really anchors the film and keeps it from becoming stagnant. The journey of his character, from devil-may-care adventurer to anguished prisoner, is kept in constant motion even though he is physically immobile. Franco embraces not only what makes Ralston heroic, but also what makes him human, and we need that accessibility in order to participate in the film’s more brutal moments.

And Boyle definitely doesn’t disappoint in the intensity department. More so than any filmmaker in recent memory, he commands attention with his unflinching depictions of violence here. On the off chance that some aren’t yet familiar with the outcome of Ralston’s story, I won’t spoil it—suffice it to say “127 Hours” is not for the squeamish. I consider myself among a generation of roundly desensitized moviegoers, but the way Boyle puts the screws to his audience during key sequences is undeniably affecting. Expect to do a fair amount of squinting and inhaling through gritted teeth.

I only wish the film on the whole had the same impact as those isolated scenes. Boyle cobbles together what little conventional narrative he can from the five day ordeal, but it never fully ensnares. Flashbacks seem like a given, though the brief instances of escape we witness via dream or memory aren’t especially interesting until they began mingling with Ralston’s increasingly distorted reality. Even still, I’d argue Boyle doesn’t dig deep enough into Ralston’s deteriorating mental state—merely explaining the emotional impetus for his physical actions is about as far as he goes.

Part of the problem may be the visual experimentation Boyle implements in the interest of keeping things fresh. It serves that purpose fine—“127 Hours” is a lively, energetic film in spite of its subject matter. In a way, however, the triptych music video approach feels like Boyle taking the easy way out. After all, the man is a master of genres; a greater feat might have been to capture the quiet desolation and solemnity of Ralston’s trip through equally inauspicious filmmaking. It would never have been as exciting a film, but it might have been a better one.

Don’t get me wrong, “127 Hours” is still a terrific accomplishment, and one for which Boyle and Franco deserve joint recognition. It feels like a minor entry into the esteemed director’s oeuvre, but the creative decisions he made (fault them though I might) showcase his ever-innovative eye for shooting and editing. The visceral impact of the images he conveys is unquestionably the foremost strength of this film, and it is that aspect that critics have already lauded and audiences will doubtless remember.

The effectiveness of such scenes earn “127 Hours” an adjective like ‘harrowing.’ I just can’t quite bring myself to call it powerful.


Monday, October 11, 2010

"Catfish" Review

“Catfish” is a difficult film to talk about without spoiling. The sensationalist trailer gives a deliberately one-sided peek at a film which is ultimately defined by its ending. Expectations should probably be mediated, however—“Catfish” isn’t going to blow your mind. In fact, the outcome of this social networking mystery is rather straightforward, but no less brilliant for it. This is a film where palpable suspense cedes way to an unconventional and thought-provoking character study. Maybe the best introduction I can offer is that I really liked it.

Arriving in a market practically gorged with tongue-in-cheek faux documentaries, it’s initially difficult to take “Catfish” at face value. The story begins innocuously enough; Yaniv “Nev” Schulman has just had his first picture published in the New York Times when a package arrives at his office containing a painted replica of the photo. The artist is a 12 year-old admirer, and her correspondence begets a peculiar Facebook friendship. As Nev becomes involved with her and her family, however, he begins to notice certain inconsistencies with the perfect lives they lead online.

Much of the build-up feels stagey, and surely something is amiss, because either filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are considerably more talented directors than they portray themselves as, or they are not being entirely forthcoming. The prevalence of the camera during seemingly random moments that become key scenes seems perhaps a bit too fortuitous, and the placement and framing of the shots themselves seem too precisely calculated to have been captured on the fly for this amateur guerrilla venture.

Yet it doesn’t matter in the slightest. “Catfish” is about calling our willingness to accept unsubstantiated information into question, and thus encourages a skepticism and natural inquisitiveness towards itself. The entire thing could be fabricated, and its creators have a built-in ace in the hole. Falsifying a non-fiction film about false identity could add a brilliant meta layer to the puzzle.

That being said, I don’t believe that Joost and Schulman invented the whole thing. Somebody get these guys a pen and paper if they did. Rather, I tend to identify with the prevailing online rumor that suggests the ending was shot first, with some or most of the first half consisting of retroactive reenactments. But though I question the authenticity of certain moments, whether or not they are genuine seems beside the point—“Catfish” is an effective film.

The foundation of that success lies in its solid technique. The gradual rationing of information and the introduction and unraveling of the central mystery is surprisingly well handled. The plot is obtuse and intense when it needs to be, and the suspense is so potent that some have even been let down that it never becomes an all-out thriller.

But suspense has the tendency to be undervalued in an of itself, and the suspense in “Catfish” is an exceptionally executed, integral part of the ride. The film, on the whole, works not only because of its moments of seizing, visceral tension, but because of the greater message it evokes. In hindsight, scenes like those exploited in the trailer featuring Nev and his buddies arriving at a quiet farm in the dead of night seem downright silly when compared to where they eventually end up.

“Catfish” has been getting a ton of very positive press recently, and it deserves much of the praise it’s received. But backlash follows hype like a shadow, and I have a feeling that those swayed into seeing the film who might not have otherwise will enter with unrealistic expectations. It is a fascinating, offbeat experiment, but it still appeals to niche interests. The extent to which we let ourselves believe that the internet is a direct extension of our preceptory senses can be dangerous—But I’ll say no more. I don’t want to spoil anything.


FARCE/FILM Episode 64: Let Me In, Catfish

--> Episode 64: 10/10/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Crawford, Kevin Mauer

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:09
Let Me In (spoilers) – 13:10
Catfish (major spoilers) – 28:56
WMD – 01:00:24 (Me and Orson Wells, Zodiac, Enter the Void, After Hours, Audition, Shortbus, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I Love You Man)
E-mail and Outro - 01:22:28
(What do actors do all year?)

"Let Me In"


-- Weekly Discussion --

Between Catfish, The Social Network, and Zodiac, this week our hosts discuss the importance of factuality in storytelling. Is it more important that a documentary or adaptation be 100% truthful or that it tell a compelling story?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Enter the Void" Review

One thing’s for sure, you won’t leave Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void” with comparisons ready. More than likely, you won’t want to think about it at all. Over two and a quarter hours, the film hijacks your consciousness like a potent hallucinogen, and leaves you feeling burnt out and brain-fried on the other end.

Is it worth the trip? Yes, with an asterisk. After all, the opportunity to see something this flagrantly original comes but once in a blue moon, yet it isn’t the sort of experience many will enjoy having. “Enter the Void” begins with a strobing title sequence that explodes into a first person account of drugs and death in Tokyo; it ought to come with a seizure warning. Compounding matters, almost every scene is designed to look like one continuous shot, with the camera being placed either behind our protagonist Oscar’s head, or behind his eyelids. As if the pulsating neon lights weren’t enough, we’re also subjected to the split-second blackouts of Oscar blinking.

Visually, “Enter the Void” is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but it sure ain’t perfect. The problem, bluntly, is its amorphous, front-heavy structure. The first half plays out conventionally enough, beginning with what we assume is the end, and playing flashback catch up to contextualize the subsequent events. We arrive back in the present to neatly tie the knot, only to discover that Noé isn’t remotely close to finished telling his story.

Where he takes “Enter the Void” in its ethereal second half is actually pretty fascinating, conceptually. However, it feels like an entirely different film. Noé floats aimlessly back and forth across Neo-Tokyo (to support the ‘one shot’ aesthetic, he rarely cuts directly from one location to another, often necessitating that the camera move through walls and entire buildings). The film really wears its premise thin during this overlong stint, though the last twenty minutes mostly redeem it.

The conclusion is a little predictable given that the characters seem to be arbitrarily engrossed by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but it works because it boils “Enter the Void” down to its visual core. Somewhere along the way, the lines of the narrative are obliterated and Noé takes a hypnotically beautiful and bizarre psychosexual detour that bridges the gap to his ending nicely.

In retrospect, it’s easy to remember the curious power of its final moments and marginalize the boredom that divides it from the first, much stronger hour. The film would almost certainly benefit from a second viewing, but I’m still not entirely sure that I would ever grant it one. I seriously question how Noé and his editor could stand to watch and assemble this film all day every day, because even their 137-minute finished product is a workout for the eyes. God help us if it were released in 3D.

But for better or worse, eyestrain is part of the experience, and “Enter the Void” is more an incomparable experience than a great film. It’s a shame that the vast majority of its potential audience will never even have the opportunity to see it projected, as I can only imagine home video will diminish its psychedelic impact.

The best recommendation I can make is that if, like me, you go out of your way to see distinctly different films, you’ll get your money’s worth with “Enter the Void.” Objectively, it’s hard to deny the incredible creative scope and visual audacity on display, but it’s also hard not to wish the whole thing were just a wee bit more succinct.

It ain’t perfect, but “Enter the Void” is original, and there’s no undervaluing that. Hell, I’ll try anything once.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Let Me In" Review

Remember when vampires played by the rules? When they only came out at night and actually bit necks? Judging by today’s glowering daywalkers, respect for that mythology has been all but Eclipsed. Ahem.

Maybe that was the fear with this remake of “Let the Right One In.” Hollywood had essentially defanged the vampire, and many—myself included—poo-pooed the notion that an American remake of a brilliant foreign film could be anything but fast-food imitation. Fortunately, we were dead wrong; Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In” is the rare sequel worthy of its original.

Still, it’s peculiar timing. Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish version is barely in the ground, less than two years old, and its English-language retelling is already in western theaters. And it appears mainstream westerners still aren’t interested; even sans subtitles, opening weekend box office returns were abysmal, evidence at least that they didn’t gratuitously sex it up.

Sexuality has been intimately linked with vampire myths for hundreds of years, but part of what made “Let the Right One In” so fascinating was the way it turned all that on its head. Seduction and lust had long been the vampire’s tool and victim’s vice, respectively; conversely, the film—based on a novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist—illustrated an uncommonly innocent, romantic vampiric relationship. It’s the heart of the story, and a brilliant creative stroke that survives its Americanization unscathed.

That success is due in no small part to an equally talented young couple in the lead, this time Chloe Moretz—who, between “Let Me In” and her turn as Hit-Girl in “Kick-Ass,” has had one hell of a year—and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who impressively costarred alongside Viggo Mortensen in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Films about kids can be a risky proposal, but Moretz and Smit-McPhee subtly convey their ability to create authentic young characters.

The evolution of Moretz is particularly impressive. Many so-called ‘child-stars’ burn out hot and fast because they allow themselves to be typecast as a child. Moretz, on the other hand, seems to have futureproofed her career by never committing to a specific genre, and by never shying away from more adult fare. Though she always plays a child, most of her characters are not childish; we have no trouble seeing her already as a young woman—Or a centuries-old vampiress, as the case may be.

Beyond the performances, Reeves’ version is as solidly constructed as Alfredson’s. The pacing is deliberately slow, which can make either feel disengaging at times, but only if you’re already well acquainted with the plot of the other. Likewise, I found myself roundly less enthralled by “Let Me In,” if only slightly, because of my familiarity with the Swedish film. Neither is perfect, but despite a slight edge to the original in the subtlety department, the two films are practically interchangeable. “Let Me In” is like a good cover or acoustic version of an already great song.

Both versions are alike in their minimalistic framing, and to air one minor gripe the two share, they both feature ugly CG effects that mar certain moments. In “Let Me In” Reeves pulls back during action sequences to showcase just how fast his vampire moves, but instead of being disturbing, it comes across cartoony. The style juxtaposes the atmosphere of restraint he builds elsewhere uncomfortably. In a film this slow, he really has to nail the spikes, and he isn’t always successful.

Nevertheless, “Let Me In” is still a firm reminder of what the genre is capable of when treated maturely. It’s a shame that vampires have become popular as such silly caricatures of their former selves—the resounding thud of this film tanking will likely ensure it stays that way. As it turns out, it’s hard to win when you’re the only one playing by the rules.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 63: The Social Network

--> Episode 63: 10/03/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Suman Allakki, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 02:22
The Social Network – 05:45
WMD – 54:06
(Life As We Know It, Alice in Wonderland, The Last Exorcism, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Fringe, X-Files, The Hellstrom Chronicles, Top Gun, Waltz with Bashir)
Outro – 01:21:51

"The Social Network"


-- Weekly Discussion --

This week, our hosts discuss “The Social Network” and “Toy Story 3” as the two best films of the year. What are your favorite movies of 2010?

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Jack Goes Boating" Review

"Jack Goes Boating", above all, is indistinct. My memory of the film isn’t yet a week old, and already the transience of its impact has set in. If the script, based with painful obviousness on a stagnant stage play, was really the material that made Oscar winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman want to throw his director’s beret into the ring, surely I must be missing something.

"Jack Goes Boating" doesn’t have an ounce of creativity, which is a shame because Hoffman honestly shows promise as a director, and the performances of his entire cast are superb. The unfortunate inevitability in following bum blueprints is that the whole thing collapses.

The mediocrity that practically oozes from its pores is enough to gag a man on scent alone. The undue theatricality of the writing is heightened by a fact that becomes obvious painfully early: you know exactly how it’s all going to turn out. Worse yet, you’re stuck watching the world’s two least articulate people fumble their way around their love for one another. Though to be clear, the film is by no means bad cinema. Hoffman, who plays the title role in addition to directing, has a great, subtle chemistry with his co-star Amy Ryan; a chemistry that’s completely wasted on a story as sharp as safety-scissors.

The plot, insofar as one exists, revolves around two modern couples living in New York City. The first (John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega) are married and appear to have it great. They introduce the second, their two awkward (or is it only?) friends, on a blind date. Hoffman and Ryan’s characters share a dinner during which neither appears to be having a good time, though both are apparently lonely enough to consider it a mild success.

And so the film tediously prattles on, drawing a heavy-handed comparison between the crumbling marriage and the fledgling courtship. Interspersed with these scenes are subplots where Jack learns to swim and cook, and Ryan’s character, Connie, deals with sexual harassment in the workplace. The entire film dovetails into an expectedly tumultuous climax, where everything can and does go wrong for our two couples before crescendoing into fifteen minutes of self-aware shouting that highlights its source material so transparently that you can practically see the stage.

Thankfully, the performances are opaque. Hoffman isn’t exactly challenging himself; he’s played broken, socially inept sweethearts on more than one occasion before, but it’s a character archetype he excels in. Ryan is as delicate and sympathetic as his companion, and we really do want things to work out well for them (even though that seems to be a foregone conclusion). Meanwhile, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega’s portrayals of Jack’s bourgeois acquaintances work on a performance level. Both feel authentic, but are ultimately sabotaged by their storyteller, who appears to have less understanding of them than they do.

"Jack Goes Boating" is another testament to the power of the screenwriter, in this case, to spoil everything great a film has going for it. For my money, Hoffman is one of the greatest actors working today, and he asserts himself here as a confident purveyor of images. The problem is, he chose weak material.

Though I hope he directs again, I question Hoffman’s taste as a storyteller. Perhaps he was just sharpening his creative knives for something juicier, but the memorable moments in "Jack Goes Boating" were few enough to have already been jettisoned from my consciousness.

Its impact may have dissipated, but first impressions last a lifetime. Here’s to hoping Hoffman’s next effort lives up to his talent.


"The Social Network" Review

The genius of “The Social Network” begins with the story that inspired it. The tagline on its poster, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” perfectly conveys the inherent dramatic irony; royal narcissist Mark Zuckerberg is today the champion of the web’s most popular socialization tool, Facebook.

It’s rich soil for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who imbues the material with his signature wit and a searing theatricality. Frankly, I’m not concerned with what small liberties his brilliant script took along the way—Not that even the most obscene inaccuracy could stymie the momentum he builds. The film is guiltier of embellishment than falsification, a crime for which he and director David Fincher should be awarded our highest praise. Fincher knocks this one out of the park with confident cinematography, nuanced performances from his cast, and layered storytelling that lends the film its surprising depth. On its surface, “The Social Network” is funny, brisk, and compelling, but underneath, it’s near rotting with angst.

Its moodiness and purposeful visual melodrama are its most unique assets. Fincher approaches the story from the position of Zuckerberg himself, striving for the honest emotional experience of each scene, with all the grandiosity of a nineteen year old’s perspective. To the layman, that means he finds a way to make sitting at a computer, or having a conversation in a crowded nightclub seem invigorating and fresh.

“The Social Network” is immediately in contention as his best film, but as much as Fincher brings to it, the lion’s share of the Mark Zuckerberg experience is etched in the long, perpetually unsmiling face of Jesse Eisenberg, who portrays him in the film. Eisenberg has a history of taking on lighter roles in comedies like “Zombieland” that has prompted some to unfairly label him “the poor man’s Michael Cera,” (though the comments seem to stem from Cera bashers themselves—There’s no pleasing those guys). Eisenberg’s turn here should slap the cynicism from any remaining doubters’ mouths. He owns the role; the callous calculation, the condescending sense of humor, and the introverted inner pain are expertly realized, and yet the true testament to Eisenberg is that Zuckerberg at his worst is a character impossible to truly hate.

And Eisenberg is matched by a cast of equal talent; Andrew Garfield plays Facebook’s co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, and Armie Hammer plays both of the Winklevoss twins, who together bring suit against Mark for intelligent property theft. The beauty of each character is that despite their muckraking in the deposition room, which acts as a framing device in “The Social Network,” none ultimately feels like the antagonist. As with the best cinematic scuffles, we indentify with both sides.

But as beautifully as the stars aligned for what is insofar the best film of 2010, “The Social Network” is somehow more than the sum of its parts. Its underlying themes of capitalist corrosion and the price of success are made all the more poignant given the age of its participants. Fincher has jokingly referred to the film as “The Citizen Kane on John Hughes movies,” but he honestly isn’t far off. Young love, rebelliousness, arrogance, and burgeoning identity play major roles in shaping the behavior of Sorkin’s characters.

And yet, for all their bitterness and hostility, “The Social Network” is still an exciting, encouraging film. Somewhere beneath the veneer, alongside the greased cogs in its innermost workings, the power of Mark’s idea gestates. Facebook, as silly and as trivial a subject as it may seem, is for many an essential communicative hub in their day-to-day lives. Watching Zuckerberg succeed beyond his wildest dreams, literally bringing strangers together while pushing his friends away, paints an oddly optimistic portrait.

The future for the internet generation seems bright in Fincher’s mind. Even as we make the gradual shift to living our lives electronically, even when we’re polluted by a consumer culture, and even when we lose sight of our humanity, some kid can still change the world.