Monday, March 28, 2011

"Sucker Punch" Review

If the filmography of Robert Rodriguez were projected onto the wall of Plato's cave, the fever dreams of its sorry inhabitants might come out something like this. "Sucker Punch" is an asylum for every unoriginal impulse that strikes director Zack Snyder's attention deficient mind. It is an unmitigated disaster of storytelling—thematically diarrheic with visuals to match. This hopeless post-"Inception" melodrama isn't based on a comic book like either of Snyder's previous efforts, but every genre cliché carries over tenfold.

Like a pockmarked teen with an anime fetish, Snyder's convoluted revenge flick plays out with a cast of buxom babes who look as though they might bleed mascara when cut. Stuffed into absurdly tight-fitting outfits, gals with names like Rocket, Baby Doll, and Sweet Pea unload thousands of shells from their semi-automatic rifles and leap columns of flames in when-exactly-was-this-cool-again slow motion.

The tiered fantasy worlds of "Sucker Punch" might be exciting if they corresponded in any way to the next reality over. Probably the most asinine aspect of Snyder and Steve Shibuya's screenplay (I say probably because competition is steep) is that while our protagonist is fighting a 20-foot tall sourpussed samurai or fleeing a castle from an apoplectic dragon, we are meant to believe she is really—how should I put this—doing a sexy dance. A major structural component of "Sucker Punch" is Baby Doll's escape from incarceration, a feat that necessitates trinkets such as a map, knife, lighter, and key, all of which are obtained by distracting their male overlords with… exotic dancing.

For every item on the checklist, Baby Doll gyrates—though while she cuts loose, she imagines she is annihilating clockwork Nazi soldiers in the trenches of a steampunk World War II, or tearing apart an android army on a futuristic bomb-strapped bullet train. The latter is set to a cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," in which John Lennon once sang, "Turn off your mind," and "Lay down all thought." Snyder seems to have appropriated that message quite literally.

The bigger problem is that Snyder throws dramatic tension out the window by creating a fantasy world where nothing is at stake. The laws of these alternate realities are unclear at best, and the sequences themselves are purely masturbatory given that whatever happens is only loosely tied to the story we're supposed to be following. I might be more forgiving of that conceit if Snyder really wowed, but "Sucker Punch" doesn't bring a single idea to the table that hasn't been done to death in movies or video games. Snyder does so much recycling that he ought to receive special commendation from Greenpeace.

It's equally hard to muster up sympathy for his characters outside of their imaginary adventures. Snyder has a bad habit of using trauma as a binding agent between them and the audience; other than that Baby Doll fell under the shadow of an evil foster-father before imprisonment, there isn't a single reason why we should care about her. She is as devoid of genuine personality as the rest of the cartoon cast.

"Sucker Punch" might have been a blast if the tone was more in line with "Scott Pilgrim" or even "Kill Bill." Gratuitous action can be fun—just don't ask me to take it seriously. The worst of Snyder's misconceptions is that he can simultaneously blow shit up and pull our heartstrings. That he directs schlock under the pretense of style is laid bare in this, his first original work. "Sucker Punch" is not only brain dead, it's contagiously stupid. It's a high school sophomore's juvenile doodles on an 82 million dollar budget. If Snyder's filmography were projected on the wall of Plato's cave, I think those poor bastards would welcome the first disorienting rays of sunlight and their freedom with open arms.


"Paul" Review

"Paul" is innocuous extraterrestrial fun, but should have been funnier given the caliber of its cast and crew. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the British bosom buddies who previously collaborated with Edgar Wright on genre send-ups "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," pen their first screenplay, which lovingly pays tribute to a half century of science fiction moviemaking.

The target audience for "Paul" is old enough to appreciate an homage to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and will recognize odd dialogue torn from "Star Wars" and "Aliens," and yet much of the humor skews juvenile. For every gallon drawn from the cultural lexicon, there is a runoff of infantile attempts at comedy—Kristen Wiig as a Jesus Freak spouting tin-eared strings of mismatched expletives is one of the worst offenders.

Thankfully, with a brisk pace and a stacked cast—bit parts are filled by greats like Jeffrey Tambour and Jane Lynch—the momentum rarely falters. Pegg and Frost play the leads, a pair of English geeks on holiday to Comic-Con, one RV rental away from a tour of America's kitschiest UFO tourist traps. While on an otherwise deserted stretch of moonlit highway however, they witness an epic car crash and meet the genuine article—an E.T. colloquially called Paul, voiced by comedian Seth Rogen. Less sci-fi parody than offbeat road film, the trio become fast friends on the lam from Paul's governmental pursuers. Jason Bateman of "Arrested Development" fame makes a convincing turn as a badass man in black.

And yet for all the talent on board, "Paul" is short on funny. It's an easy hour and forty minutes, but the laugh out loud moments are few and far between. In addition to being the weakest Pegg/Frost flick, "Paul" is an equally underwhelming effort from director Greg Mottola, who previously helmed the hilarious high school comedy "Superbad" and the surprisingly poignant self-authored "Adventureland." Mottola brings a visual acuity to the proceedings, including an earnest prologue that recalls the Spielbergian charm of yesteryear, but such stylistic flourishes are ultimately abandoned in favor of conventional comedy over-lighting.

"Paul" never really feels like Mottola's film. He does manage to elevate Frost and Pegg's material from a directorial standpoint, but too often it's all too apparent that the authors are but fledgling storytellers. Occasionally, their lack of traditional screenwriting experience works to their advantage, and their offbeat sensibility is part of what makes the film endearing in spite of its flaws. Rather than embrace their status as Hollywood outsiders however, Frost and Pegg attempt to emulate American studio output. The result is an unusual comedy worth seeking out, but one with a serious identity crisis on its hands.

Hit and miss high jinks and bipolarity aside, Frost, Pegg, and Mottola are having too good a time to harp incessantly on where they went wrong. Gifted creatives all, even their lesser successes are more amusing and original that the lion's share of their competition. Science fiction diehards should be especially satisfied with "Paul," which taps the nostalgia spigot for all it's worth with a plethora of in-jokes and surprises. The film may not rival the early work of any of the constituent creators, but it's still worthy of their legacy. It's just hard not to wish this extraterrestrial outing was more, well, extraordinary.


FARCE/FILM Episode 85: Sucker Punch

00:00 - Intro
01:36 – Top 5
04:27 – Main Review: Sucker Punch (2011), dir: Zack Snyder
31:02 – WMD

(Jane Eyre, Limitless, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
44:37 – E-mail and Outro
(Episode 84 redux)

Sucker Punch

Friday, March 25, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 84: Paul

00:00 - Intro
01:06 – Top 5
04:13 – Main Review: Paul (2011), dir: Greg Mottola
20:22 - WMD

(Bad Lieutenant, The Assassination of a High School President, All the Real Girls, The Naked Kiss)
40:32 – E-mail and Outro
(Favorite Historical Inaccuracies, Highest Proof You’ve Consumed)


Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Battle: Los Angeles" Review

It's tough to hear yourself think over the racket of "Battle: Los Angeles"—not that you'll need to do any thinking. The film is an affront to the senses: loud, ugly, and coarse. It's the kind of brainless would-be summer blockbuster that might be fun if it were willing to ease up on the melodrama, but gloom and doom with an extra helping of hopelessness is the only item on the menu. Cooked up in the same tepid crockpot as a decade's worth of mediocre extraterrestrial epics, "Battle: LA" is unfit for human consumption. Call the health inspector.

Welterweight director Jonathan Liebesman ("Darkness Falls," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning") tries way too hard to champion this as science fiction's answer to modern war classics like "Black Hawk Down" and "Saving Private Ryan." He lets the all the faux-grandeur go to his head, and simply doesn't have the money or the talent to make a movie on the scale he envisions. Despite impressive imagery like military helicopters flying in formation against a silhouette skyline or meteorites impacting the coast, "Battle: LA" feels budget.

Maybe because the camera is mostly tethered to a squad of marines who creep through narrow alleyways and take shelter in dim supermarkets. Liebesman conspicuously avoids visual effects wherever possible, though it's just as well; his armor-plated invaders are hopelessly bland bugs. Then there's the nauseating overuse of close-ups to hammer home the cheap and dirty aesthetic. By my recollection, over half the movie is recorded sans tripod, and "Battle: LA" is a sea of buoying heads. That its color palette barely ventures beyond brown doesn't help.

The shoddy craftsmanship might have been forgivable were there at least a compelling cast of characters—but these marines, led by an earnest Aaron Eckhart, are as unimaginative as their otherworldly opponents. Watching them fight skirmish after identical skirmish wherein no one dies and nothing is at stake, the ceaseless ratatat of gunfire and tinkle of spent shells became like so much white noise I was actually lulled into a short-lived nap.

I couldn't have missed much. After all, "Battle: Los Angeles" teeters on one of the most under-thought premises in the history of under-thought invasion movies. Of course, the prosecution will always win in the case of The People Vs. Outer Space, which necessitates some critical flaw in the stratagem of our alien aggressors. Even so, the tactics of this space-faring species makes you wonder how they even got airborne. In a bid to liquidate Earth of its precious H20, these idiots show up to fight us on land. I'm no George S. Patton, but wouldn't it make more sense to drop anchor in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and set up a defense perimeter while you suck our planet dry? Well out of range of our tanks and troops and fuel-guzzling helicopters? I'm just some guy and I thought of that.

But the truth is I don't even really care that "Battle: LA" makes no sense, or that its characters are cliché and its aliens dull. Almost instantly disengaging, the film scarcely evokes any emotion at all. I frankly couldn't care less about the carnage on screen after 10 repetitive minutes of it. 'Non-stop action!' often reads as a compliment, but it's the fatal flaw of this colossal misfire. On top of everything, Liebesman even has the nerve to hint at a sequel using some half-baked breakfast analogy. If this is indicative of the swill he'll be serving, I think I'll skip lunch. Check please.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 83: Battle: Los Angeles

00:00 – Intro
01:15 – Top 5
04:31 – Main Review: Battle: Los Angeles (2011), dir: Jonathan Liebesman
38:20 – WMD

(Battle of Algiers, Grown Ups, Rango, The Adjustment Bureau, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Tropic Thunder)
01:15:46 - Outro

Battle: LA

Friday, March 11, 2011

"The Adjustment Bureau" Review

"The Adjustment Bureau" is preposterous, and before you counter with "Well, duh, it's science fiction," allow me to elaborate. I'm down with the premise that mankind is safeguarded by an invisible shadow organization that dictates the paths we follow and the decisions we make—what baffles me is that they achieve these means through (spoiler alert?) magic hats. I wish I were joking.

The single biggest misstep in this bungled Philip K. Dick adaptation is that the mystique of our antagonists is dispelled almost instantaneously. We get to know our aggressors who, as it turns out, are anything but aggressive. To compare genres, there's never been a great thriller where the detective in pursuit of a killer is 'just doing their job.' Passion breeds compelling cinema, and the paper pushers at the heart of "The Adjustment Bureau" are supremely uninteresting.

And despite the fact that they are explicitly "not human," a very human error sets the plot in motion. An Adjustment Bureau agent oversleeps (these guys sleep?), thus congressman and senate hopeful David Norris (Matt Damon) catches an early bus, bumping into a familiar comely Englishwoman (Emily Blunt) whom he was never supposed to see again. The film's saving grace is the pair's believable rapport, but after the forces that be repeatedly pull them apart, with sometimes years lapsing between meetings, it gets harder and harder to believe either is still carrying the other's torch.

Then you get into the contradictions and lapses in logic so heady a concept lends itself to. The law that governs the Adjustment Bureau is foggy at best, and though they evidently think nothing of freezing time to manually alter the opinion of Norris' political advisor, they seem incapable of preventing the divergences Norris himself so frequently propagates. Why not squelch Norris' irksome infatuation through similar tactics? Elsewhere, the Bureau threatens him with a memory wipe, but repeatedly chooses to reason with him rather than to take more effective action. For as much as they make of their supposedly infallible plan—which looks a lot like the animated Marauder's Map from "Harry Potter"—and the omniscience it grants, these celestial shepherds are about as dumb as sheepdogs.

In the belated final act, Norris races toward the mother of all movie climax clichés—the eleventh hour wedding intervention. With his unrequited love set to marry another dude, Norris exploits "The Adjustment Bureau's" two most ridiculous plot devices in order to intervene. First, he scores a magic hat, enabling him to access the subspace network that provides a series of shortcuts throughout New York. Second, he cloaks himself in a rainstorm, which like all water, inexplicably clouds the Bureau's ability to chart movement.

It's a shame that "The Adjustment Bureau" hangs its own proverbial hat on so many ludicrous details. The big questions it poses, while far from new, are well suited for a love story, and the directorial debut of screenwriter George Nolfi shows some promise. Unfortunately it's the writing that's at fault here, and while I can't speak to the source material, Nolfi's adaptation is rife with questionable choices. Potential squandered, "The Adjustment Bureau" is cast adrift in sci-fi no man's land between good intentions and their eye-rolling realization.

"Trust no one with a hat," Norris is melodramatically advised. "A Yankees cap, even a yarmulke." No joke, if you can swallow a line like that—hat's off.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Rango" Review

Anthropomorphic animals are the bread and butter of the animation industry. Ever since Walt Disney found a cash cow in Mickey Mouse, the medium has tickled audiences with talking critters that span the breadth of the animal kingdom. But Rango, the titular chameleon of Gore Verbinski's cartoon western, is something of an anomaly. The gangly, photorealistic bipedal lizard didn't graduate from the "Bambi" school of cuddly creature design. Voiced by Johnny Depp in rare comedic form, the character is defined by beady eyes, a sharply crooked neck, and a gaudy Hawaiian T-shirt.

Refreshingly, Verbinski doesn't constrain himself to Pixar's particular reality. The brilliant Disney-owned studio has set the gold standard for computer animation over the last 15 years, capitalizing repeatedly on an effective storytelling formula that put a magnifying glass over insects, fish, and rats, among others. Any of those films could be retitled, "The Secret Life of _______." Competitors followed suit, with "Madagascar," "Bee Movie," and a slew of other me-too efforts.

"Rango" turns the overcrowded genre on its ear. Despite being gaspingly more realistic-looking than your average doe-eyed Disney endeavor, Verbinski's flick doesn't stage its critters in a cartoon facsimile of the real world. Instead, the film takes place in some skewed dimension wherein humans exist, but might as well not save for their ever-present eco-footprint. The film is scaled to fit its characters and can't be bothered to stop and explain the origin of its windswept desert town in miniature. It's easiest to think of "Rango" as a modern (comedic) western in which the constituent players just happen to be scruffy rodents and scaly reptiles.

The world and its inhabitants may be grimy, but what makes "Rango" such an endearing experience is its irreverent and offbeat sense of humor. Verbinski, who cooked up the story alongside screenwriter John Logan, borrows a page or two from the Coen brothers; Rango's faux eloquence is reminiscent of Nicolas Cage or George Clooney's character from "Raising Arizona" or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" respectively. It shares their dry wit and a surrealist dream sequence reminiscent of "The Big Lebowski" too.

Those qualities highlight that "Rango" is not a movie especially geared at children. From its litany of literate film references including "Apocalypse Now," "Chinatown," and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" to its seriously scary baddies, the film rejects kiddie convention outright. Younger or more sensitive viewers may be frightened by Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a venomous villain with a six shooter for a tail, and parents might object to the mild swearing.

But by my estimate, "Rango" is a near-perfect kids' film. Looking as far back or further than the Grimm brothers' macabre fairy tales, the impulse to shield children from potentially off-putting content is a relatively recent development. Verbinski runs the entire emotional gradient here, exploring moments of loneliness and fear as well as adventure and jubilation. Important themes all in the human psyche. Of course, much of the humor will go over the heads of young audience members, but the copious slapstick certainly won't. In the end, it should play well to just about everyone.

That is, everyone who's in the market for a conceptually challenging cartoon. "Rango" is unwieldy, occasionally unfocused, and also the first great film of 2011. The anthropomorphic animals that comprise its world are less a reflection of the Mickeys, Bambis, and Nemos of years past than of the Waynes, Eastwoods, and Fondas. Verbinski, who famously teamed with Disney for their "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, steps out of their shadow for one of the most clever, fun, and original animated epics of the 21st century. And with the sequel to Pixar's least loved film on deck for this summer, our favorite Hawaiian shirt-wearing Chameleon may need to don a tux this time next year.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 82: Rango

00:00 – Intro
01:54 – Main Review: Rango (2011), dir: Gore Verbinski
25:35 - WMD
(Waking Sleeping Beauty, Lars and the Real Girl, Raising Arizona, Pan’s Labyrinth Winnebago Man, The Warriors, Michael Clayton, Insomnia, A Serious Man)
55:32 - E-mail and Outro
(Podcast Hosting Site)


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 81: I Am Number Four, 2011 Academy Awards

00:00 – Intro
02:45 – Top 5
06:05 – Main Review: I Am Number Four (2011), dir: DJ Caruso
24:51 - WMD
(The King's Speech, Dexter, All About Eve, F for Fake, The Quick and the Dead, The Kingdom, Futurama, Fire in the Sky, Deliver Us From Evil, Frankenstein)
48:51 – Oscar Predictions and Outro
55:38 – Post Oscar Discussion (chat room audio)

I Am Number Four

--Discussion Question--

This week on the show, our hosts break down the winners of the 2011 Academy Awards. Were you satisfied with the winners? How important are the Oscars to the cultural lexicon nowadays?