Sunday, January 30, 2011

"No Strings Attached" Review

Romantic comedies need a good kick in the pants, and an aging Ivan Reitman ain't the guy to do it. "No Strings Attached," the first of at least three 2011 films about non-committal sex (with "Friends with Benefits" and "Hall Pass" in hot pursuit), is only sparsely amusing and never insightful. Big surprise. Who would have guessed that a 64-year-old director would be the wrong choice for a movie about hip people half his age? "No Strings Attached" might have been a decent film had it followed through on its premise, but that it falls victim to just about every romcom trapping negates the most potentially interesting thing it has going for it.

Everyone involved has proven themselves elsewhere. Reitman directed legendary '80s comedies "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters" before churning out a string of stinkers, including "My Super Ex Girlfriend" in 2006. Stars Natalie Portman (Emma) and Ashton Kutcher (Adam) are similarly defenseless against the lousy script. For my money, Portman still put on the best performance of 2010 in "Black Swan," and by comparison her turn here is particularly disappointing. Kutcher is the weakest link, but has consistently proven he can hold his own in otherwise lame duck comedies like "Valentine's Day."

But between the bad direction, worse script, and lazy performances, "No Strings Attached" is a triple threat. Its worst blunder is that Emma and Adam's relationship is unbelievable, and their chemistry is nonexistent. Fledgling screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether posits a female lead that flip-flops her stance on monogamy every two scenes, and Portman doesn't even attempt to sell it. Emma comes off pragmatic one minute and off her rocker the next. It makes less sense still given that her relationship with Adam isn't anything special to begin with. The B-romance between Greta Gerwig and Jake M. Johnson, friends of our principle couple, is actually markedly more naturalistic and compelling. It's a shame they're onscreen so infrequently.

Meriwether's script is also criminally overlong. Two-hour comedies need to die a slow and painful death; there's just no reason "No Strings Attached" should exceed the 100-minute mark. What's worse, the audience has little expectation for when the film will end. More than once, a picturesque finale will align only for Emma to inexplicably get cold feet. Or Adam's father to take ill. The bait and tease might work if the better-late-than-never conclusion defied expectation, but in all likelihood you already know exactly how it will end. The biggest surprise is how much melodramatic filler we have to wade through on the way.

"No Strings Attached," like last year's mediocre "Love and Other Drugs" articulates the pressing need for innovation in Hollywood's romantic comedies. Depicting a relationship built on causal sex isn't especially progressive, and Ivan Reitman isn't one of the directors I'm especially interested in seeing discuss sexuality. Then again, he barely clears his throat on the subject; for a film about sex, "No Strings Attached" is pretty much sterile despite its R rating. Intellectually, the film is a solid PG-13. Our characters generally don't behave with the nuance expected of two 30-year-olds, and Meriwether relies on decrepit genre archetypes rather than cause and effect to progress the plot.

All told, Reitman's latest is unworthy of recommendation despite falling short of being an outright waste of time. It does feature a few genuinely funny moments that help excuse its crippling formula, but it never asserts itself or challenges the classic romantic comedy blueprint as much as its premise might indicate. Reitman deserves a kick in the pants every bit as much as the genre.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Somewhere" Review

"Somewhere" is a polarizing film, which makes it all the stranger that I find myself precisely in the middle of debate. Some hail it as a minimalistic masterwork, while others leave the theater rubbing sleep from their eyes. The latest film by Sofia Coppola isn't for everyone, and stands so structureless that it threatens to liquefy at any moment. With few cuts and most scenes playing out in even fewer angles, it's easy to grow impatient or frustrated with the director. What I admire about her film however is its commitment to capturing complete moments even at the expense of the audience.

"Lost in Translation" this isn't. "Somewhere" isn't anchored by as charismatic or immediately recognizable an onscreen pair as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The world of the former film is also more vibrant and alive than the Hollywood Coppola depicts. She dials back everything until "Somewhere" is essentially an exercise in simplicity. Many have found that quality refreshing, but I was left somewhat cold by the purely surface-level examination of the tedium of stardom.

I absolutely admire Coppola's intentions. Probably my biggest gripe with "Somewhere" is that it employs plot-bombs out of necessity. After 45 minutes of casual observation of our protagonist, burnt-out actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), Coppola inelegantly drops 30 seconds of expository dialogue into a phone call that sets up the rest of movie. It rings immediately false and seems out of place in an otherwise drifting film.

And there are some beautiful sights along the way. Coppola manages to transcend her sedentary camerawork with occasionally brilliant choreography. A pair of pole dancers performing a hokey routine springs to mind, as does a gracefully executed figure skating sequence. The director has a knack for using characters rather than set-ups to color our experience, but my problem with "Somewhere" is that not every scene is equally fascinating. Some merely communicate an idea and a feeling, but drag on for far too long. Admittedly, to truncate her moments would be to rob them of their intended impact, but as a moviegoer it's hardly thrilling to watch characters lounge poolside for the better part of a minute.

Coppola is at her most successful when she's able to wring the irony out of a scenario. When Johnny arrives in Italy to accept an award, we get a clear sense of the dichotomy between the hoopla of the entertainment industry and a jaded entertainer. That everyone around him is speaking in a foreign language completes the metaphor and makes for one of film's best sequences. Watching the character play "Guitar Hero" is comparably flat. That scene serves only one purpose: to demystify celebrity. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it boring, it doesn't offer any additional insight into the character.

But then "Somewhere" isn't just a portrait of a movie star but a portrait of a father, and Dorff and Elle Fanning deserve recognition for the flawlessly naturalistic relationship their characters share. Considered opposite her countless melodramatic peers, Coppola is in a league of her own. The people who populate her films never fail to impress with their nuance, but in this case I'm not convinced the filmmaking does them justice.

"Somewhere" is a film I find equally hard to love or hate, though I sympathize better with its detractors. Nevertheless, it posits compelling characters, great performances, and enough smart and amusing scenes to make worth recommending. Whether you leave the theater rubbing sleep from your eyes or having witnessed a minimalistic masterpiece, you have my blessing. Much like Marco himself, I'm neither here nor there.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 77: No Strings Attached, Somewhere

--> Episode 77: 01/25/11 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Suman Allakki

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 03:56
No Strings Attached - 07:21
Somewhere (spoilers) – 21:44
WMD - 58:50
(Social Network, Black Swan, Green Hornet, Skins, The Right Stuff, Caligula, A Boy and his Dog)
E-mail and Outro - 01:14:12
(Favorite Catch Phrases and Brown Ales)

"No Strings Attached"


-- Weekly Discussion --

This week, our hosts discuss Sophia Coppola's Somewhere. Does the film push the boundaries of minimalistic storytelling too far? How little story can a storyteller get away with telling?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"The Green Hornet" Review

There are worse ways to waste 108 minutes than on "The Green Hornet." Thinking back to last January's tepid slate of releases, I can already think of a few. Low expectations might be one reason I found indie spirit Michel Godry's foray into franchise filmmaking a worthwhile distraction, but so long as you aren't in the market for a straightforward, solemn superhero affair, it offers enough disposable entertainment to earn commendation in its own right.

Seth Rogen is not a superhero. That's an important fact to understand upfront. The role is not a transformative turn for the comedian and screenwriter, and his take on the material is to form fit the character to himself rather than vice versa. The result is a goofy, inarticulate comedy about an over-privileged slacker and a jack of all badass trades (Jay Chou as Kato in his American debut) clumsily stabbing at genre convention. It may not make for great storytelling, but as comic heroes the pair provide more than enough laughs.

And "The Green Hornet" is funny. The core relationship between the protagonists provides an amusing parody of the unspoken homoerotic tension in so many machismo-driven actioners. The Green Hornet and Kato are a less-secure dynamic duo, and they lead a cast of misfit characters that embody the skewed reality of the film's world. Their nemesis is played by Christoph Waltz of "Inglourious Basterds" fame—a gangster toting a double barreled handgun with the tin-eared pseudonym, 'Bloodnovsky.' Waltz manages to juggle a threatening presence and broad slapstick rather well, and his delivery of the line, "I'm ungassable!" deserves special recognition. In short, the humor de jour is delicious, aromatic cheese.

Much of the negative response to "The Green Hornet" comes out of two unfair criticisms. The first stems from the current societal expectation that superheroes necessarily deserve straight-faced screen adaptation. Christopher Nolan's Batman films have had a considerable impact on the tonality of comic book fare, to the point where this lighthearted alternative is already fighting an uphill battle for public acceptance. To my mind, even a mixed bag of successful barbs and Saturday morning hijinks are preferable to another depressingly grandiose and self-servicing stab at dramatic credibility.

The second criticism is even less fair. Many have whined that "The Green Hornet" is unimpressive by comparison to Gondry's other creative wellsprings. Granted, his latest doesn't represent the innovative visualist at the top of his game, but the French auteur achieves everything he set out to. For better or for worse, Gondry is satisfying studio expectations, asserting style only when the story allows him to do so. "The Green Hornet" is a mainstream superhero film first and foremost, and well integrated flourishes like a multiplying split-screen sequence distinguish his version over most imagination-defunct Hollywood jobbers. Where problems exist, they seem to have seeped in through the cracks in Rogen's screenplay.

I wouldn't argue that Gondry's "Green Hornet" is a great film, but it deserves defense when a double standard sees tripe like "Iron Man 2" receiving high marks. It isn't the reinvention of the wheel you might expect from a music-video director turned art house favorite—nor is it the hilarious comedy you might expect from Rogen—but it does offer a unique interpretation of the tired superhero origin story, an increasingly rare feat as companies award third and fourth tier comic book characters their undeserving title shots.

"The Green Hornet" is the product of many talented people having fun in tandem. Sounds like a perfectly good way to waste 108 minutes.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Blue Valentine" Review

There's not a whole lot happening with the relationship film. From annual Jennifer Aniston comedies to requisite art house dramas, there hasn't been a real innovation in far too long. "Blue Valentine" takes a crack at it, employing a unique combination of techniques and a back and forth bittersweet narrative, but it still falls squarely into the latter camp.

Tremendous credit is owned first and foremost to its cast. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play characters at the beginning and end of a relationship, and the difference couldn't be more stark. The pair is essentially pulling double duty, and the juxtaposition between past and present is what makes "Blue Valentine" unique. We meet the pair now: Gosling with a cigarette crutch and Williams with a defunct imagination. The spontaneous and affectionate couple of years past are unrecognizable at first glance.

Perhaps the most interesting byproduct of the flashback gimmick is that it exists solely for the benefit of the viewer. The irony of its implementation is that the characters themselves are incapable of retrieving the euphoric memories. Resultantly, the further we dip into the past, the more poignant their present unhappiness becomes.

To conclude analysis there, "Blue Valentine" would be just about perfect. The problem is the filmmaking doesn't live up to the premise and performances. I can't overstate how good Gosling and Williams are, but they're getting no help from the camera department. The single most irksome quality of the film is that it's shot often in extreme close up, at times overusing and even cheapening the otherwise effective cinematic tool. Of course "Blue Valentine" is meant to be an intimate portrayal of two strong characters, but shooting entire sequences as dueling heads seems like the easiest and most obvious way to communicate that. Gosling and Williams sell the naked intimacy of their relationship on a performance level alone; the jarring directorial decision to focus solely on their faces is not only superfluous, but it robs the audience of their peripheral nuance.

A minor gripe, maybe. Director Derek Cianfrance clearly understands that the movie is about a relationship, first and foremost. The script he wrote with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis is a good one, and is brought to cathartic life by his actors. His impulse is correct that the film is about them, not him, but the technique backfires by drawing attention to itself with its on-the-nose minimalism. The result is that "Blue Valentine" feels like a small picture. Admittedly, it is a small picture, budgeted at a paltry million dollarsbut be it a function of the time constraints or a carefully calculated creative choice, the claustrophobic ambience imbued by the tight shooting style plain didn't work for me.

The feeling that eventually seeps in amid the warm, ephemeral glimpses of the past and the shipwrecked future is that much like its characters, "Blue Valentine" is spoiling its potential. Admirable in many ways, and I'd still venture to say the film ranks somewhere among 2010's best. Compared to storytellers like David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and the Coen brothers, however, what Cianfrance communicates with his visuals is muddled at best.

Fortunately for him, he got everything else right. In a way it's revealing that the greatest complaint I can leverage against his film is that it's ugly. "Blue Valentine" certainly shakes out better than average in the greater spectrum of romance films, and though it may not be the innovation the genre sorely needs, it does shake off some of the cobwebs. Beneath the grime, there really is something.


Monday, January 17, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 76: The Green Hornet, Blue Valentine

--> Episode 76: 01/16/11 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Kevin Mauer, Matt Kaufhold

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 – 01:08
The Green Hornet – 08:41
Blue Valentine – 30:56
WMD – 48:29
(17 Again, Apollo 13, Knight and Day, Alien, The Town, The Social Network, The Iron Giant, All the Real Girls, The Kids Are All Right)
E-mail, Top 5 of 2010, and Outro – 01:16:30
(Best drunks in film)

"The Green Hornet"

"Blue Valentine"

Weekly Discussion:
This week, our hosts discuss the MPAA's initial NC-17 rating for Blue Valentine. Is there a double standard for the depiction of violence and sexuality in film? Do we really need an NC-17 rating?

Friday, January 14, 2011

"I Love You, Phillip Morris" Review

The battle to bring "I Love You, Phillip Morris" to the screen was a curious one. Originally set to bow in early 2010, the film was shelved for six months by its distributers. A vague legal battle postponed the second scheduled release last summer, and the film finally limped to my local art house in December. There was widespread speculation that one of the reasons for its initial delay was—how should I put this—its gayness.

Honestly, that was one of the primary reasons I was interested in seeing this docudrama, which casts Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey as penal lovers (pardon my French). Distinctly different actors, the idea of the pair performing together proved an interesting proposition, especially if the tone required Carrey to display a modicum of gravity. Unfortunately, a modicum is about all we get.

Instead, Carrey and the film deliver a caricatural portrayal of homosexuality in a bizarre dramatic farce that struggles with an unfocused story and amorphous style. "Phillip Morris" leans toward comedy, and does feature some very funny moments, but the drama sticks out like a sore thumb. McGregor is naturally empathetic as the title character, but Carrey is the protagonist. Enter Steven Russell, a "Catch Me if You Can" esque con man, whose corporate hijinks, subsequent jailing, and repeated successful prison breaks provide the film's narrative backbone.

Like many biopics, "Phillip Morris" struggles structurally. Unlike Aaron Sorkin's brilliant "Social Network" screenplay, "Morris" is more or less a laundry list of notable events rather than a properly paced story. A cloying title card during the film's opening reads: "This really happened. It really did," and I'm forced to assume its proud adherence to actual events is in large part the problem. The first act, ostensibly about Russell's life as a straight man, has nothing to do with the love story to come. That Russell lived a lie for decades prior is interesting biographically, but completely inconsequential to the story at hand.

It's no coincidence then that things pick up when Russell lands himself in jail. It's the real start of the movie. Regrettably however, the problems with the first act are echoed throughout, and by the 90-minute mark it's still not clear where "Phillip Morris" will end. I'm not usually one to play the rigid structuralist, but in this case, there's no denying its importance. "I Love You Phillip Morris" is a plodding, messy film.

But it isn't a complete loss, either. The core relationship between Carrey and McGregor is as interesting as I had hoped. Though Carrey's performance matches the atonality of the film—bridging mortal revelations with his signature dopey shtick—he does manage to sell the relationship dynamic during its surprisingly brief duration onscreen. McGregor is terrific as always, bringing vibrant life to a character that might otherwise have been a blank slate. It's just a shame that his performance is wasted on as mediocre a film as "I Love You, Phillip Morris."

Uneven, but well acted and occasionally amusing, the directorial debut of the screenwriting duo behind "Bad Santa" shows promise but lacks polish. In hindsight, the content probably wasn't the primary concern in its distributers delaying its release—after all, it boils its gayness down to comfortable stereotypes. More likely, the advertising battle was fought over how to sell the story rather than how to sell the characters' lifestyle."This really happened," killed the movie. It really did.


Monday, January 10, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 75: I Love You Phillip Morris

--> Episode 75: 01/10/11 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Kevin Mauer, Jon Mauer, Laura Rachfalski

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 01:13
I Love You Phillip Morris – 05:46
Top 10 of 2010 – 22:54
WMD – 49:40
(Year One, Julie and Julia, Best Worst Movie, Skins, South of the Border, Paris, Texas, Viridiana, Live Free or Die Hard, Lost in La Mancha, Them!, Roger & Me, Toy Story 3, Best in Show, Teeth)
Outro – 01:18:40

"I Love You Phillip Morris"

--Weekly Discussion--

This week, our hosts squabble over their favorite movies of 2010. What films are you most looking forward to in 2011?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Colin's Top 10 of '10

There's been lot of talk recently about 2010 being a subpar year for film. While the summer notably lacked the same impressive slate of blockbusters 2009 offered, I'm not convinced there is otherwise a whole lot to complain about. "Inception" was a pretty unifying crowd-pleaser and "Toy Story 3" became Pixar's highest grossing film. The fall and winter produced a handful of impressive dramas, and unlike last year, there's still a few indies I'm desperate to see expand.

Below are my personal top 10 films of the year, with one disclaimer. I strove to recognize a diverse collection of films, and my honorable mentions are worthy in their own right. As always, hyperlinks to my original reviews are provided. Enjoy, and please feel free to post your own thoughts and lists!

10. Easy A

Honorable Mentions:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"The King's Speech" Review

It's easy to shrug off awards films when the season rolls around, and on the surface, "The King's Speech" shows all the symptoms of shameless Oscar bait. It's a period drama loaded with stiff English accents, led by a cast of previous Academy Award winners and nominees. In all honesty, the average moviegoer doesn't have a whole lot to be excited about in Tom Hooper's new film, but those compelled by the idea of a character study detailing the relationship between King George VI (Colin Firth) and his impertinent speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) will find this an often lively and effective drama.

The speech angle is an interesting distinguishment. Unlike many of the films that helped lend the genre its dry reputation, authentic atmosphere doesn't substitute for drama here. "The King's Speech" works not because we watch a historical personage overcome a debilitating verbal ailment, but because we watch a human being do so. Colin Firth has received much kudos for his performance, but it's likely many honored him for the wrong reasons. Firth is excellent because he humanizes George VI—making him rounder than some haughty profile—not because he can act with a stammer.

Rush plays his counterpart with absolute authority. We get a sense of the coddled life George leads as a prince, and the implicit respect he garners from the countless instructors he's worked with before. Logue, who operates out of the basement of his shabby apartment building, is the first to deny George (or Bernie, as he presumes to call the future king) special treatment. His cheeky remarks and irreverent lessons occasionally offend, and the nature of their relationship is often antagonistic. The one thing His Royal Highness can't argue with, however, is the results.

The greatest filmmaking fault then, out of necessity, is that "The King's Speech" must divide its time between these enlightening lessons and more typical period drama affair. The impending death of King George V and a scandal between Prince Edward and an American divorcee play major roles in shaping the narrative arc, though are significantly less interesting to watch. In merely retelling history, Hooper loses the character-driven force that makes the one-on-one therapy segments so special. Outside of Logue's office, "The King's Speech" becomes just another stylistically restrained biopic.

The speech lessons, by comparison, free the director up. Probably there is no official record of what was said between George VI and Logue, and the scenes are infinitely better for it. "The King's Speech" is almost a different film when released from the short reigns of history. The two characters come alive, as does the camerawork, exclusively in these instances. The difference isn't jarring enough to make the film feel disjointed, but there is scarcely a memorable moment that doesn't involve Logue.

On the whole, "The King's Speech" goes above and beyond most uninteresting but extravagantly decorated period films. The performances elevate the material beyond biography regurgitation, and by focusing on his characters above the historical events they instigated, Hooper avoids the most popular pitfalls of the genre. Ultimately, his film is still one caught between two worlds, and the balance struck between them isn't always perfect. The great atmosphere he creates within the context of the speech lessons is his own antagonist—he can't match that energy elsewhere.

But even being intermittently captivating, "The King's Speech" is absolutely worth seeing. It's not exactly what I would consider award-worthy, but that seems to be the only context in which such a film will be seen by most. In all honesty, you'll be better off ignoring the hype and seeing the movie simply because it features an unusually intimate portrait of a king, and a compelling story of personal triumph. Oscar who?


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 74: The King's Speech

--> Episode 74: 01/04/11 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim, Kevin Mauer

Intro – 00:00
Top 5 - 01:23
The King’s Speech - 12:21
WMD - 33:49
(17 Again, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Head Case, My Left Foot, Dead Man Walking, Teen Wolf, Batman, Batman Returns, Dogtooth, Total Recall, Larry Sanders, Lost Highway, Citizen Kane)
E-mail and Outro - 01:08:44
(Actors Better Than Their Roles)

"The King's Speech"