Sunday, April 24, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 89: Super, African Cats

00:00 – Intro
01:42 – Top 3
03:23 – Main Review: Super (2010), dir: James Gunn
29:28 – Additional Review: African Big Cats (2011), dir: Alastair Fothergill
39:04 – WMD

(Four Lions, Howl, Hanna, Police Academy, Dead Poet’s Society, Matinee)
52:09 – Outro


African Cats

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 88: Scream 4, Rio

00:00 – Intro
01:30 – Top 5
04:15 – Main Review: Scream 4 (2011), dir: Wes Craven
21:52 – Additional Review: Rio (2011), dir: Carlos Saldanha
29:51 – WMD

(Game of Thrones, 127 Hours, Police Academy, Glee, The Kingdom, Black Hawk Down)
56:17 – E-mail and Outro
(Favorite Road Trip Movie, The Future of 3D)

Scream 4


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Rio" Review

"Rio" is one for the kiddies, so you'll have to forgive this childless twenty-something for feeling at odds with the target audience. The theater was stuffed with tykes with mouths agape—whispering, screaming, and coughing. I have no idea if that means they were enjoying it. From an adult perspective, this anthropomorphic epic isn't necessarily a painful endurance test, but unlike Nickelodeon's "Rango," there isn't a single compelling reason to recommend it to anyone over the age of 12.

The voice cast is unsurprisingly stacked with actors in vogue looking to score an easy paycheck. Jesse Eisenberg channels his innermost neurosis as Blu, our fine, feathered protagonist with a fear of flying. Leslie Mann plays his owner Linda, a bookish Minnesotan who is coerced into schlepping her beloved pet to the eponymous South American city in order to have him (ahem) mate with the only known female of his kind.

If you've ever been subjected to children's programming, you may know the cadence that most of the cast adopts. Sentences delicately spill from animated lips with careful annunciation of each syllable, lest anyone fall behind. There are a couple of legitimately impressive performances, including Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords" fame as a conniving cockatoo, and Tracy Morgan from "30 Rock" as an oversensitive bulldog. Rounded out by the likes of Will i Am and Jamie Foxx, "Rio" draws from a pool of veteran vocal performers.

And if the above talent didn't tip you off, I regretfully inform you that "Rio" fancies itself a musical. Doubtless spurred by the success of "Happy Feet," every so often the characters break into exuberant song, which is even more grating than their unhurried dialogue.

The archetypical adventure plays out predictably. Blu doesn't exactly hit it off with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), his undomesticated mate—but the two are birdnapped and find love as they find their way home together. Granted, it's a proven template, but to use the oeuvre of Pixar as a counter-point, there's plenty of wiggle-room to establish identity within the stringent confines of a narrative 'sure thing.' Even when Pixar isn't pushing boundaries, its creative shepherds generally recognize the chasm that separates the kiddie crowd from general audience.

Not that there's anything wrong with catering a cartoon to children, but even under those auspices, I can only recommend "Rio" to, what, 15% of the population? Probably none of whom are reading this review. Parents have my condolences if they're dragged to this utterly uninteresting animated flick, though history is fraught with worse cinematic prison sentences.

It's hard to outright hate "Rio" given that I am almost two decades the elder of its target audience, and childless to boot. Thus, my window into its appeal is either long-since closed or not-yet open. As a fan of animation, however, I can safely assert that grown ups need not apply. If readymade heartstring pluckers like lost pets and orphans get you all gooey-eyed, maybe "Rio" will speak to you—but my sense is that most of us are calloused to such obvious emotional exploitation.

As for the twelve and unders—their reaction was tough to gauge amid the chorus of whispers, shrieks, and hacking coughs. They all pretty much sat still and watched the damn movie. That must count for something.


Monday, April 18, 2011

"Scream 4" Review

Self-referentiality is the soul of the "Scream" series, but its fourth installment carries so much franchise baggage that director Wes Craven never really gets around to making a new movie. "Scream" and its sequels skewered then-modern genre tropes—a decade later the mind reels to imagine how the modern horror landscape might lend itself to parody. From the proliferation of "torture porn" to the endless deluge of remakes, one would think the 21st century meant easy pickins for satirists. But if "Scream 4" is any indication, the barbs are only as sharp as their inspiration.

To be fair, the savvy deconstruction of cliché is still present in this addendum to the trilogy. Unfortunately, it's marginalized in favor of enriching "Scream" fiction. Instead of constructing a self-sufficient narrative, writer Kevin Williamson unfairly forces a cast of up-and-comers to contend with familiar characters that have a lot of catching up to do. As an audience, it's never quite clear who "Scream 4" is about.

Naturally, Neve Campbell returns as Sidney, on tour with her New York Times best-seller when a flash of fatalities crops up in her home town. Instead of gracefully passing the torch to a new generation of snarky high schoolers however, she flimsily becomes embroiled in the bloodshed and subsequent media frenzy and police investigation. Enter Courteney Cox and David Arquette, reprising their roles as Gale Weathers and Dewey Riley respectively, and you might as well cut the new characters altogether.

Which is a shame, because "Scream 4" might have worked better had the newbies been trusted with the spotlight. Williamson should have at least left his veterans more on the periphery of the story. Instead, he jumbles their reunion with the new tale he's attempting to tell and neither plays out satisfyingly. It feels like an eternity before the plot gains traction because our focal point is perennially being adjusted.

Even once the masked antagonist shows up in earnest, "Scream 4" is an exercise in redundancy. Not only because it follows three prior "Scream" films, but because internally it fails to up the stakes. Encounters with Ghostface play out virtually identically from beginning to end, with a volley of phone calls, the inevitable bait and switch, and a gruesome death. Scares were never the series' primary concern, but at least the original never lost sight of the punchline. In "Scream 4," I'm not even sure there's a setup.

Part of the problem is that Williamson's stab at modern horror is tethered to an outdated formula. "Scream 4" is still a slasher, and Ghostface is a less topical villain then ever, especially when his would-be victims are dissecting Jigsaw. Several scenes manage to smartly pinpoint new clichés, but they have little bearing on the clockwork of the narrative, and you've already seen most if you've seen the trailer.

Missed opportunities abound in "Scream 4," which pitches new material but ends up trotting out a tired routine. Though it scores easy points with in-jokes, its hokey humor quickly grows stale. Instead of fostering a conversation that might prove why the franchise is still relevant, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven seem content to remix their smash hit for a new audience. They make tiny modern concessions, but it's apparent the pair hit an artistic plateau back in the '90s. If this is their indictment of 21st century scares, our modern perverted sadists and Japanese ghost children got nothin' to fear.


Monday, April 11, 2011

"Your Highness" Review

Well, that was disappointing. "Your Highness" turns out to be a juvenile letdown of epic proportions. You needn't look further than the title to glean the intellectual extent of its pothead-pandering humor, which wholly lacks the tragic undercurrent that made co-writers Danny McBride and Ben Best's equally crass HBO endeavor "Eastbound and Down" such a success.

The pair's medieval genre mashup fails by comparison. Even doled out to a stacked cast that includes McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, and Zooey Deschanel, the jokes often read like fairytale MadLibs filled in by a gaggle of stoned teenagers. If your idea of incisive comedy is the suffix "motherfucker" to a line of dialogue, or hearing the Oscar-endowed Ms. Portman say the word "beaver," then ready your funny-bone for one gut busting adventure.

For the rest of us, "Your Highness" only occasionally tickles. Lowbrow humor has its place, but Best and McBride make it the star attraction. Their focus clearly isn't on the plot, which serves only to carry our reluctant hero from one set piece to the next, each accompanied by a handful of easy gags. First we meet a pedophilic puppet (har har) and later a minotaur with a third horn, if you catch my drift.

Thanks to some welcome practical effects, the fantasy characters and locales actually carry audience interest better than the one-note humor. Director David Gordon Green borrows from a stable of genre classics, and "Your Highness" features shades of Jim Henson and Ray Harryhausen, among others. Given that aesthetic acuity, it's a shame so much of the running time is eaten up in a nondescript forest. The most absorbing visuals end up being somewhat few and far between, and at over 100 minutes, that leaves plenty of lulls.

And yet "Your Highness" is rarely an outright bore. It has a tendency to drag, and though the jokes often skew to the lowest common denominator, it's easy enough to fall into its dumb rhythm. I'd be remiss not to mention that Best and McBride elicited a handful of laughs from me, though batted well below 500. "Your Highness" isn't a strikeout for the pair—it's more of a foul tip. McBride's is a career treading water, and instead of expanding upon the emotional facet of "Eastbound," he merely transplants his Kenny Powers persona to the middle ages.

Don't get me wrong—I'm usually the one to defend comedians accused of role redundancy, and I'm far more disappointed in McBride the writer than I am in McBride the actor. But where elsewhere he blends his crudity with offbeat social commentary, in "Your Highness," he and Best aren't even trying to be edgy—comedically or otherwise. The laughs are cheaply won, and the plot doesn't elevate its archetypical underpinnings. Naturally, the intention was to create an unobtrusive framework for the gags, but then when the gags fail, the audience is left with no backbone of appreciation for the protagonists or the quest at hand.

"Your Highness" isn't a terrible comedy, but it is a disappointingly transient one—especially given the aggregate talent on hand. Everyone involved has been funnier elsewhere, though blame ultimately lies with Best and McBride. Their stab at adults-only fantasy earns its R rating, but without challenging a single convention or bringing one genuinely new idea to bear. That is, unless you count plugging profanity into an otherwise nondescript conversation. Motherfucker.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 87: Your Highness

00:00 – Intro
01:22 – Top 5
06:13 – Main Review: Your Highness (2011), dir: David Gordon Green
26:38 – WMD

(The Wire, Catfish, Glee, Dexter, Brick, Assassination of a High School President)
01:10:16 – E-mail and Outro
(Guilty Pleasures, MPAA ratings)

Your Highness

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Insidious" Review

Hollywood horror films draw from a grab bag of assorted Halloween party favors, but amidst all the cheap plastic spider rings, director James Wan inserts a tarantula or two for good measure. His latest, "Insidious," takes a see-what-sticks approach that can sometimes be as frustrating as it is refreshing, but in a cinematic climate where scary movies are becoming an increasingly on-rails experience, every goose bump is worth its weight in gold (and I imagine it adds up).

"Insidious" has plenty of genuinely chilling moments, and makes better than average use of the oft maligned 'jump scare.' The technique doesn't always deliver the desired impact, but that such instances are uneven in effectiveness is in a way an incredible asset. Emotionally, we're on our toes. Wan puts convention in a blender and the audience is often left reeling from the topsy-turvy inertia. That familiar horror guardrail is gone and we're left groping in the dark.

Taking a page from Sam Raimi (not to mention title work more than a little reminiscent of his 2009 flick "Drag Me to Hell"), Wan keeps us off-balance with unpredictable emotionality. Not every bizzaro changeup he pitches lands squarely in the strike zone—a bumbling pair of paranormal investigators falls flat on the comedy front—but by constantly upsetting our expectations, "Insidious" picks a cerebral scab and burrows under our skin. A particularly inspired and disorienting soundtrack choice is the use of Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," proving perhaps definitively that nothing is more terrifying than a ukulele.

Little unconventional details help too, and with credit to "Saw" screenwriting veteran Leigh Whannell, "Insidious" makes some subtly interesting choices. For once, our parental protagonists, Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), are not the progenitors of an only child. Creepy kids are a genre staple, but by diffusing that cliché with siblings, Whannell opens himself to some less-traveled roads. Unfortunately, one of his most glaring oversights is underplaying that idea; in the inferior second half of the film, the other offspring essentially disappear.

Or take, for instance, the critic's ace-in-the-hole: "Why don't they just leave the house?" Like in "Paranormal Activity," Whannell explicitly explains that the demonic presence is attached to his characters rather than their homestead, but they hightail it out of there all the same. I can't immediately recall another example of haunted protagonists rationally raising stakes in the middle of the second act.

It may seem insignificant, but it makes a big difference in a genre as delicate as horror, where the element of surprise is everything. If "Insidious" were comprised entirely of offbeat innovations, it would be a perfect film. But just as often, Whannell lets convention get the better of him, or he piles on too many sub-genres—what starts off in "Poltergeist" country winds up closer to "A Nightmare on Elm Street," if you can imagine that. The disparate elements clash and complement each other in equal measure.

Spearheaded by Wan and Whannell, the "Saw" franchise pushed horror in a new direction. "Insidious" nudges it back. Inspired by classic seventies spook-outs, the filmmakers crafted what feels like Hollywood's most synonymous effort in years, imperfect though it may be. There are no hidden camera gimmicks, and absent is the also oft maligned 'torture porn' the pair popularized eight years prior. Instead, expect to be treated to the unexpected. True, the beats and "Boos!" are familiar as can be, but when "Insidious" jumps the rails, it's one hell of a ride.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 86: Insidious, Source Code

00:00 – Intro
01:51 – Top 5
03:42 – Additional Review: (spoilers) Source Code (2011), dir: Duncan Jones
26:30 – Main Review: Insidious (2011), dir: James Wan
43:41 – WMD

(Minority Report, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Laura, Never Let Me Go)
59:34 – E-mail and Outro
(Favorite Clint Eastwood role and Whiskey)

Source Code


Friday, April 1, 2011

"Source Code" Review

"Source Code" isn't even vaguely plausible. I try not to overthink sci-fi spitballing, but even the most preposterous premises should adhere to an implicit rule set. Based on a screenplay by Ben Ripley, who previously authored two direct-to-DVD "Species" flicks, this lazy follow-up to director Duncan Jones' understated 2009 character study "Moon" is a major disappointment.

Steeped in pseudo-science, "Source Code's" biggest fault is its failure to adequately explain the parameters of the titular alternate reality experiment. Through vague governmental computer wizardry, Army Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is uploaded into the body of a civilian aboard an ill-fated Chicago-bound commuter train and tasked with locating a rigged explosive and its owner. To complicate matters, he only has eight minutes until impact and it's back to start.

So begins a trial and error rescue mission—not to save the train itself, but to identify the culprit and avert a looming second attack. If you're already confused, don't sweat it—Stevens is too. After every botched attempt, he finds himself back in a dank isolation room harnessed into an enormous machine with a video link to his commanding officers. As he probes them for more information on his mission, he also pries out the requisite exposition about the tech.

Long story short, Source Code isn't time travel. It merely relocates Stevens' consciousness into the lingering memory trail of the recently deceased. Cool, right? The problem is that such a heady concept immediately opens itself to a thousand potential plot holes. For instance, if Stevens is reliving the terminal eight minutes of someone's life, why can he exit the train at random when the body and mind he's sharing has no frame of reference for it? How does he even know what the passengers two cars over look like?

Even if you buy into the flawed logic of "Source Code," the filmmaking just isn't up to snuff. Jones throws subtlety to the wind for this antithetical take on the genre he seemed so passionate for two years ago. He imbues the proceedings with a nondescript glossy veneer and achieves unanimously stilted performances from his cast. Character actor Jeffrey Wright comes away looking especially bad, but Gyllenhaal is also mismanaged in the lead.

It isn't their fault; Jones lacks vision and Ripley lacks talent. The latter in particular seems incapable of executing on even his better ideas interestingly. By his hand, Stevens' lame bomb-sniffing stratagem boils down to blindly badgering suspicious-looking commuters and eventually lucky guesswork. Maybe some will respond to his common sense approach, but I much prefer watching characters more clever than myself weasel their way out of trouble. For all his military training, Captain Stevens might as well have been Joe Average Passenger.

A far cry from the careful construction of Duncan Jones' offbeat debut, "Source Code" is a discouragingly impersonal film shellacked with Hollywood disinfectant. Worse, it's plain bad science fiction. It's a halfhearted amalgam of films like "The Matrix" and "Inception," hold the fresh perspective. Still, I'm not ready to count Jones out. The young director had a hand in fleshing out "Moon," and will hopefully creatively contribute more to future projects. However, as it stands, his first two features couldn't be more at odds. Taken alone, "Source Code" is a misfire; given that it's the sophomore effort of so promising a talent, it's a major missed opportunity.