Friday, December 31, 2010

"True Grit" Review

It makes perfect sense for the Coen brothers to direct a period western. They've danced around one for years, with modernist takes on the genre like "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men," while tirelessly exploring the early side of the twentieth century elsewhere in their work. "True Grit," however, is their first giant leap into the past. In fact, outside of a vignette that opens their 2009 film "A Serious Man," the winter of 1878, where "True Grit" begins, is a frontier for both the characters and the filmmakers.

I'm of the mind that the Coens, who have now impressively released four films in four consecutive years, benefit from occasionally stepping outside their comfort zone. "True Grit" is a fascinating experiment in that regard, though in adapting Charles Portis' 1968 novel for the screen (and mindful I'm sure of the John Wayne adaptation to which their film would inevitably be compared), Joel and Ethan Coen contribute less of themselves than might be expected. Granted, the dark humor and caustic irony that run throughout are distinctly Coen brothers additions, but perhaps more so than any of their other films, their latest is a mostly opaque effort.

Still, the pair have some interesting notes on the genre, and perhaps what's most remarkable about "True Grit" is its characters. Westerns are typically full of cookie-cutter cowboys and predictable protagonists, but the Coens go almost out of their way to avert any and all cliché. From the brilliant performance of newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a fiercely intelligent 14-year old, to Jeff Bridges' stiff, guttural take on Wayne's oscar-winning role, it's clear the importance the brothers place on character, and the care they take in realizing them.

Probably the most immediately recognizable 'Coen-esque' personage is Matt Damon as a flamboyant Texas Ranger too big for his britches. The duo love ironic dichotomy, and from the misguided entitlement Damon provokes as the ludicrously named La Boeuf, to his silly cowboy getups, ceaseless boasting, and general ineptitude, Damon rounds out a classic Coen archetype.

When you strip away the characters, what remains of "True Grit" is a fundamental but effective western revenge tale. If the film at all disappoints, it is because the Coens' stories are usually multi-faceted affairs with layer upon layer of nuance. Their most famous works are so busy that the utter simplicity of "True Grit" comes as something of a surprise. Taken on its own, however, the film more than holds its own among the many other revivalist westerns released over the past few years.

And come to think of it, a tale loaded with heavy themes like vengeance, redemption, and justice doesn't need to be artificially inflated with subplots to support them. In fact, one of the reasons the western genre provides such viscerally satisfying experiences is precisely because it tends to wear its motifs on its sleeve. Part of our fascination with that era too comes from the simplicity it entails.

But beyond the mechanisms of its success, the most important triumph of "True Grit" is that it delivers on its promise of six-gun badassery with a heart. Jeff Bridges is awesome as a decrepit Rooster Cogburn, and the begrudging respect he develops for Ross gives the gunfights weight. The last fifteen minutes of the film are beautiful and unforgettable.

"True Grit" doesn't rock the boat as much as "A Serious Man" or offer the same fascinating level of character complexity as "Fargo," but it is nevertheless an important landmark in the Coen brothers' career. They've conquered yet another frontier, and it's as exciting as ever to imagine which they'll turn to next.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 73: True Grit

--> Episode 73: 12/28/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Brian Johanson, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 03:36
True Grit – 08:21
WMD - 25:25
(Driving Miss Daisy, Scrooged, Lethal Weapon, A Christmas Story, Easy A, Love Actually, King of Kong)
E-mail and Outro - 47:42
(Critical reaction to There Will Be Blood)

"True Grit"

-- Weekly Discussion --

This week on the show, our hosts discuss the career of the Coen brothers. What are your favorite films by the pair?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Tron: Legacy" Review

“Tron: Legacy” is a beautiful mess. Packed with state of the art visuals, from the striking blue and orange neon oasis of a computer world to the disquieting de-aging of Jeff Bridges, it’s just a shame that a decent script hadn’t been hammered out beforehand. “Legacy” could have been a stunner. Instead, it’s merely supermodel entertainment—gorgeous but vapid.

You’d think a movie about a brainiac hacker would be a little smarter. Granted, there’s enough techy gobbledygook to choke a computer processor, but it has the opposite of the desired effect. Incomprehensible and long-winded expository scenes make clear that “Legacy” is the worst breed of hand-holding blockbuster—characters formulate and execute plans in ceaseless sequence until they reach end protocol. Structurally, the film is like a bad sonnet.

Probably the single most egregious problem with “Legacy’s” screenplay is its entirely uninteresting characters. Reluctant hero Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is the son of Bridges’ character from the 1982 original. Perhaps it’s fitting that the character is cast adrift in an artificial world, because he’s the least dynamic human being on Earth. A living soul should stick out like a sore thumb when compared to anthropomorphized computer programs, but though Sam gawks and cracks wise, the truth is that his character is as lifeless as a filing cabinet. I can’t think of three adjectives to describe him.

Bridges doesn’t have much to work with either as the elder Flynn; the man is a bottomless well of exposition peppered with antiquated colloquialisms (“dig,” “jazz,” “man,” e.g. “I don’t dig that jazz, man”) leftover from his overzealous performance in “Tron” prime. Olivia Wilde plays Quorra, the last of a super-advanced cyber species with whom personality certainly died. And then there’s Martin Sheen as Zuse, who has enough eccentricities for the four of them combined. He plays the role of an opportunistic bartender like a Greek bohemian, giving a bizarre and unrestrained performance that feels more than a little out of place. He’s in the movie maybe a combined six minutes.

Unfortunately, the story that binds these characters together is just as forgettable. Even as they bolt through its interminable second-half, it feels as though nothing is happening. Their motivator is literally “Get to the portal,” which means “Legacy” is essentially a chase film. The only method employed to break-up the razzle-dazzle action sequences are paunchy bouts of dialogue that beget subplots that beget more chase. There is never a moment to stop and admire the world around them, or even to understand it. The universe of “Tron” never feels alive—it is merely an eye-candy coating over the bland events that comprise this tasteless narrative.

I do not mean to undersell “Tron: Legacy” on a visual or technical level. The production design is superlative, and the digital wizardry (re: the ‘Curious Case of Jeff Bridges’) could be revolutionary. “Legacy” is a beautiful film, but none of that changes the fact that its screenplay is a disaster. It’s never a good sign when you have six writers attached to the same piece of material, and the sequel to “Tron” is an open and shut case of too many cooks.

Outside of the aesthetic artistry and a memorable soundtrack by Daft Punk, there is little to remember “Tron: Legacy” for. Its characters are cardboard and its plot is paper-thin. And without substance, all the cosmetics in the world can’t save you. Sorry, supermodels.


Monday, December 20, 2010

"The Fighter" Review

It’s easy to take a film like David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” for granted around award season. It’s minus the panache of the year’s other heavy hitters, and fills a comfortable ‘sports drama’ niche. O. Russell’s film may very well be among the ten best picture nominations announced next month, but it doesn’t have a shot at the title—which is a shame, because it earns greatness in its own right.

“The Fighter” isn’t the best film of the year, but it features some of the best characters and performances of the year, wrapped in a familiar but accessible underdog story with plenty of fresh hooks. Much attention has been paid to Christian Bale as boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s crack-addicted brother, and rightly so. Even among so talented an ensemble, Bale shines in his transformative turn, once again whittling himself down to little more than a human wireframe.

Bale probably receives too much credit for his wild weight swings, which have the tendency to upstage merely passable performances, but his talent as showcased in “The Fighter” is incontrovertible. This is best Bale has ever been, juggling pathos with a sense of humor I presumed lost after “American Psycho.” If “The Fighter” takes home one award, it’ll have Christian Bale’s name on it.

Bale is so vibrant in his role that it’s easy to forget to mention the strength of the rest of the cast; Mark Wahlberg contributes his best performance in years under O. Russell, whom he’s collaborated with before on “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees.” As an artist, Wahlberg may be guilty of poor taste more than anything else, as he has consistently proven more than capable a performer in the right hands. The same boyish naivety that made him a perfect fit for P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” shines through in “The Fighter,” which along with his physical formidability make him both believable and easy to get behind.

If I have a gripe about the casting, Amy Adams might actually be a bit too attractive as Ward’s love interest—a small town bartender and college dropout—but her performance sells it. Also fine are Ward’s destructive family, including Melissa Leo as the totalitarian matriarch, who’s followed in tow by a gaggle of her fiercely protective daughters, and Jack McGee as the working-class dad who seems consistently out of his element among all the aggressive estrogen.

“The Fighter” is a terrifically acted film, but its real strength comes from the way its characters drive the story. Much of the drama comes from Ward’s poisonous relationship with his mother and brother (his manager and trainer, respectively), and his having to break free of their manipulation and neglect is a decidedly unorthodox angle for a sports flick. Those relationships motivate the narrative, and the result is a drama that runs like clockwork. “The Fighter” is engrossing, unpretentious, and an immaculate crowd-pleaser.

O. Russell and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In”) deserve recognition as well for giving the film its distinctive visual flair. Of particular interest is the style and method by which the pair chose to shoot their fight sequences, which achieve some of the best faux-broadcast mimicry I’ve ever seen. The effect is initially so convincing that I assumed actual footage had been integrated from Ward’s fights—until Wahlberg stepped into the ring. From there, the camerawork is kept tight and effect is satisfying and visceral.

Buzz films like “Black Swan” and “127 Hours” will likely dominate much of the awards dialogue in the coming months, but “The Fighter” deserves a fair shake as well. Unlike last year’s condescending “Blindside,” David O. Russell’s sports drama isn’t exploitative, nor is it only receiving praise in the context of its Oscar-caliber performances. “The Fighter” is absolutely worth seeing, and not just for Christian Bale. It could be a contender.


FARCE/FILM Episode 72: Tron: Legacy, The Fighter

--> Episode 72 - 12/19/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Laura Rachfalski, Ben Wong

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:02
Tron: Legacy (spoilers) – 08:44
The Fighter – 38:07
WMD – 52:25
(The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Restrepo, Bad Santa, Risky Business, Black Swan, 127 Hours, Speed, Point Break, The Walking Dead, The Tourist, Bubba Ho-Tep, Ace in the Hole, Who's Afraid of V. Woolf?, Serpico, Die Hard 2, Die Hard 3, The Green Mile, Superman: The Movie)
E-mail and Outro: 01:22:34
(Favorite Films Featuring Marine Life)

"Tron: Legacy"

"The Fighter"

-- Weekly Discussion --
This week on the show, our hosts discuss the incredible Jeff Bridges de-aging technology on display in Tron: Legacy. What are some of your favorite films that broke new ground with their visual effects?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oops! No FARCE/Film Podcast This Week

Due to scheduling conflicts and the unappealing room-temperature smorgasbord of early December releases, FARCE/Film is once again forgoing its weekly podcast, with eyes to return Sunday, December 19th. Never fear: when we miss a week, we come back twice as strong. In the meantime, feel free to read my review of "The Tourist" below, and look forward to reviews of the highly anticipated "Tron: Legacy" and "The Fighter" from Podcast Alley's* number 3 film-related podcast next week!

*Now defunct?

"The Tourist" Review

2010 has been a year glutted with mediocre spy fare. “The Tourist” joins the dubious ranks of “Red,” “Knight and Day,” and “Killers”—and that it might be the best of the lot isn’t saying much. Anchored by arguably the strongest cast, including stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, “The Tourist” moves at a more relaxed pace than its blockbuster brethren. Then again, “Red” was plenty slow, but still wound up nigh incomprehensible.

I understood “The Tourist,” which is a complement, unfortunately. The Venetian caper keeps its audience in the loop, with a story thankfully straightforward enough to follow. Jolie plays Elise Clifton-Ward, the squeeze of a master criminal who's lifted two billion pounds from a no-nonsense English gangster (Steven Berkoff). In order to keep the identity of her mysterious lover secret, she employs the aid of an unwitting proxy, American tourist and self described “math teacher,” Frank Tupelo (Depp).

Maybe the most impressive part of Depp’s performance is that it feels like the first human character he’s portrayed in years. Leapfrogging from roles like Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd to John Dillinger, surely nobody doubts Depp’s ability to consistently transform himself. After watching him ham it up as Jack Sparrow in three consecutive “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies however, I was surprised by how charming the man can be without his usual flamboyancy. He’s hardly brilliant in “The Tourist,” but by scaling back the theatrics and focusing instead on playing an actual person, he reminded me of something I had since forgotten—I actually really like Johnny Depp.

Jolie is less interesting as his seductive captor. The actress has recently whittled herself down to little more than a skeleton with full lips; her sharp inset cheekbones and sickly pipe-cleaner legs make many a male head turn in “The Tourist.” Thanks but no thanks, the double-digit weight doesn't do much for me. Jolie is playing beautiful, elegant, and sexy, but she just looks malnourished.

Her physical appearance doesn't detract from the performance, however, and her chemistry with Depp is what makes “The Tourist” sail, though the plot is eventually blown in an unexpected and unwelcome direction, after which the film struggles to stay afloat. The silly twist undoes a lot of the goodwill the film has going for it, and its final minutes feel as though they’re unraveling rather than unifying what came before.

Directed by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”), “The Tourist” is a decidedly marginal success, but a success nonetheless. It makes a few interesting decisions to distinguish itself from its middling colleagues—unlike “Knight and Day,” von Donnersmarck casts Jolie, his female lead, as the savvy spy and Depp as the smitten Joe Average instead of subjecting them to more conventional gender roles.

This review may be full of half-compliments, but “The Tourist” is played so down the middle that there’s next to nothing to say about it to begin with. It was admittedly a pleasant surprise keeping in mind the critical reaming it received via Rotten Tomatoes. In competition with any of the other mediocre to outright terrible espionage films mentioned above, I would recommend “The Tourist” without hesitation—taken alone, it receives a significantly less enthusiastic endorsement.

There is, however, one 2010 spy flick to which “The Tourist” doesn’t hold a candle (and coincidentally, another film about traveling abroad): Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” which arrives on home video December 28th. Until then, I suppose we’ll have to make due with von Donnersmarck’s sometimes compelling, occasionally painful action/romance. I suppose you could also rent “Knight and Day” or “Killers” if you’re a real glutton for punishment.


Monday, December 6, 2010

FARCE/FILM Episode 71: Tangled, Megamind, Love and Other Drugs

--> Episode 71: 12/05/10 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Jon Mauer, Suman Allakki, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 04:25
Tangled – 08:03
Megamind (spoilers) – 21:03
Love and Other Drugs (spoilers) – 31:41
WMD - 44:50
(TMNT, Louie, The Running Man, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Eat Pray Love, Charlie St. Cloud, Fringe, Winnebago Man, Aliens, Assassination of Jesse James, Hot Tub Time Machine, 2012, Adventureland, Surrogates, Mother, The Cove, Man on the Moon, Play Time, Lost Highway)
E-mail and Outro - 01:31:15
(Favorite Adult-themed Animated Films)



"Love and Other Drugs"

-- Weekly Discussion --

This week, our hosts discuss 2010’s two most recent animated films: Megamind and Tangled. What are your favorite animated films of the year? What are your all-time favorites?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Tangled" Review

This is what you get for not seeing “The Princess and the Frog.” Disney eschewed its revitalization of traditional animation for this forgettable CG adaptation of Rapunzel, which goes by the nondescript nom de plume: “Tangled.”

If the recent announcement that the animation giant is placing a moratorium on fairy tale films should come as a surprise to anyone, their position on the matter is telegraphed plainly into the first five minutes of their latest and last: modern audiences won’t sit for straight-faced fantasy. The name-change alone underscores the corporation’s feelings on the commercial viability of a tradition it once held proud.

That willful dissolution of magic is a slap in the face to “Snow White” or “Sleeping Beauty.” “Tangled” begins with striking imagery, but buries it beneath a sour, smarmy voice over by this year’s prince-not-so-charming, Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi). As narrator, he cracks jokes at the expense of the archetypical framework—as if he doesn’t, and we shouldn’t, treat the story with one modicum of seriousness. Being cavalier about your own film isn’t a great way to hook your viewers.

Thus “Tangled” is a disengaging experience from the outset. It downplays its fairy tale roots, but then never defies them. It disinterests us in its world, and then asks us to spend ninety minutes there. Worse, it suffers from sloppy characterization, including one of the single weakest antagonists in Disney history. Donna Murphy plays Mother Gothel to Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel, and neither has a lick of personality. The irksome Flynn is practically the only other human character, with the rest of the world being populated by nameless thugs and townspeople. When so much relies on so few, you’d think more attention would be paid to making them distinct.

Essentially, Repunzel's sole remarkable trait is her magic hair, a plot device that is curiously ignored throughout the film. There are plenty of early gags visualizing how she manipulates it (for instance, in order to lift her mother into the tower), but it's clearly an afterthought as her adventure is set into motion. To illustrate, the princess emerges from a stream without any indication of the added water weight. She never once has her locks stepped on, snagged, or caught in a door. I thought this movie was called “Tangled!” Having hair that long would be a major inconvenience, people!

Maybe I’m splitting hairs (ouch); I probably shouldn’t have expected anything more from “Tangled”—it’s the near unanimous praise I don’t understand. The songs are lousy, the characters are dull (save for one spunky chameleon), and the story merely suffices (but then it’s tough to break something that’s survived hundreds of years). The film is so clearly catered to a younger crowd that my curmudgeonly opinion is somewhat irrelevant, but with Pixar managing year after year to satisfy the storytelling needs of both adults and children, Disney’s “Tangled” is an immediate relic. It’s a film made for twelve year olds who need to be convinced that fairy tales aren’t stupid and boring.

“Enchanted” and “The Princess and the Frog” were classic Disney films despite their flaws. Their creators clearly understood what made the studio in its prime so successful. “Tangled” is a harmless children’s cartoon, but it doesn’t recapture any of the magic the company is known for. Instead, it takes a snide approach to the Rapunzel story while simultaneously contributing nothing to it. I may not be the target audience, but to quote an old friend, “If this is where the monarchy is headed, count me out.”