Monday, May 23, 2011

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" Review

Pirates of the Caribbean debuted atop a cresting wave, but after a hat trick of subpar sequels, this rickety franchise is all but shipwrecked. The fourth installment, On Stranger Tides, cements a downward spiral of diminishing creativity with Captain Jack Sparrow's most shallow adventure yet. Gone is director Gore Verbinski, whose surrealist sensibilities were the saving grace of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End. His leftfield replacement is Rob Marshall, the man behind the Academy Award-winning musical, Chicago.

Action is obviously not Marshall's forte, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to have expected better choreography. Marred by shapeless large-scale skirmishes, On Stranger Tides lacks the series' signature spunk. To that effect, personality walked the plank prior to the opening titles.

Granted, the characters of the Pirates universe have always been archetypes enlivened by smart performances, but even the novelty of Johnny Depp as our ne'er-do-well antihero is wearing itself thin. Likewise, Geoffrey Rush trotting out his Barbossa doesn't deliver the same impact four times over. Other familiar faces appear throughout this overlong narrative, but On Stranger Tides is better defined by its absentees and new recruits.

Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are the most obvious examples. Axing their dull relationship is no great loss, nor is the omission of squid-faced antagonist Davy Jones. Pity their replacements are less interesting still. An aloof Penélope Cruz might be the most boring woman on the seven seas, and her romance with Sparrow is dead in the water. Don't even get me started on the courtship of the cleric and the mermaid, which sounds like the setup to a bad joke. Deadwood's Ian McShane turns in a compelling interpretation of the legendary pirate Black Beard, but is criminally underused.

Weaving a tale that involves three factions pulling anchor to find Ponce de Leon's fabled fountain of youth, On Stranger Tides plays out like the world's most expensive snail race. And the audience ain't getting any younger. No epic is as simple as point A to B, but Pirates revels in getting sidetracked. Silly business like voodoo dolls, mermaid tears, and magic compasses needlessly postpone the endgame; "It's not the destination so much as the journey," Sparrow quips. I'd be inclined to agree if either were any fun.

Of course it wouldn't be a Pirates of the Caribbean movie without CGI sea creatures and mystical trinkets, but both serve merely to inflate the plot — it's like catching a glimpse of the director backstage gesturing stretch, stretch! Or perhaps it's proof of weak characterization that the inanimate objects prove just as interesting as our heroes.

With a gray-brown pallet and precious few postcards to remember it by, On Stranger Tides is inconsequential even by popcorn standards. The franchise has become increasingly inaccessible, and while this fourth installment stands better alone than At World's End, there is little incentive for viewers not yet familiar with the wily charms of Jack Sparrow to care. Accordingly, attendance for the Pirates films continues to drop, though the 90 million Marshall raked in over opening weekend is nothing to sneeze at. Word is a fifth installment is already in the works.

Realistically, Pirates won't stop until Disney runs it aground or Depp says no — and like any good captain with a multi-million dollar check in hand, he's going down with the ship.


FARCE/FILM Episode 92: Pirates 4

00:00 – Intro
04:25 – Top 5
08:46 – Main Review – Pirates 4 (2011), dir: Rob Marshall
32:37 – WMD

(How Do You Know, The 400 Blows, The Experiment, Badlands, The Killing, The Fifth Element)
58:32 – E-mails and Outro
(Favorite Apocalypse Movie, Opinions on Armond White)

Pirates 4

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Bridesmaids" Review

It's clear "Bridesmaids" got greenlit as "'The Hangover' for chicks," but to condemn it as such would be a disservice. The latest Judd Apatow Family Production is a savvy, character-driven comedy worthy of commendation in its own right. SNL's Kristen Wiig stars, having co-wrote the screenplay with actress Annie Mumolo. In a culture with great reverence for the pomp and circumstance of marriage, the pair dispenses a generous allocation of banana peels along the length of the aisle.

It may not make for the most intellectual humor, but "Bridesmaids" thrives on broad comedy by way of endearing characters and vibrant performances. Wiig plays Annie, the broke proprietor of a failed bakery whose best friend (Maya Rudolph) is engaged. Named maid of honor at the upcoming wedding, Annie is soon overwhelmed with all the inherited responsibility. She spars with bitchy perfectionist Helen (Rose Byrne) over bridal shower themes, bachelorette party locales, and naturally, bridesmaid dresses.

Though the cast is rounded out by Wendi McLendon-Covey of "Reno 911" fame and Ellie Kemper from the American "Office," the real standout is "Gilmore Girls'" Melissa McCarthy as Megan, the 180-degree antithesis of class. Heavyset, hilarious, and not the least bit demure, she easily walks away with the movie. Whether she's accusing a seatmate of being an air marshal incognito, or bent over a sink in a compromising situation, the funniest moments in "Bridesmaids" are almost exclusively hers.

Not that "Bridesmaids" has any shortage of funny moments. Some scenarios work better than others however, and at two plus hours, it's hard not to notice where it could use a trim. For all the positives Apatow doubtless brings to the production, he is a poor role model when it comes to maintaining an appropriate run time. Director Paul Feig is more directly to blame for not axing the most superfluous and least funny bits; Annie's portly English roommates spring to mind as characters whose absence might make the film leaner in more ways than one.

The lack of focus keeps "Bridesmaids" from achieving real staying power. Subplots like Annie's relationship with an Irish cop (Chris O'Dowd) — amusing though they may be —consume too great a slice of our time, and dilute what makes the simple premise so strong. Feig and Wiig are firing on all cylinders during the ensemble scenes, and I'm confident a better 90-minute cut exists somewhere in the folds of this wedding comedy, which has as many frills and puffs as even the gaudiest bride to be.

"Bridesmaids" may not be one to have and to hold until death do you part, but it's still a saucy affair. Wiig plays a loveable loser and surrounds herself with some seriously funny ladies. Their performances alone carry most scenes. Coupled with a refreshing refusal to cater exclusively to the sense of humor of teenage boys, the film suffers only in setting itself too high a standard and failing to continually exceed it.

Though the output is sadly less than the sum of its parts, there is enough great, boisterous energy on hand to make "Bridesmaids" worth checking out, gender regardless. It's leagues ahead of the competition when it comes to personality, and its savvy, character-driven comedy could actually teach a thing of two to those clowns behind the "'Bridesmaids' for bros."


Sunday, May 15, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 91: Bridesmaids

00:00 – Intro
01:36 – Top 5
03:22 – Main Review: Brides Maids (2011), dir: Paul Feig
23:06 – WMD
(Priest, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Monsters, Dirty Dancing, Wet Hot American Summer, The Thin Red Line, In Bruges)
46:58 – E-mail and Outro
(Source Material vs. Adaptions, Favorite IPA)


Thursday, May 12, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 90: Thor, Fast Five

00:00 – Intro
01:50 – Top 5
05:51 – Main Review: Thor (2011), dir: Kenneth Branagh
21:44 – Additional Review: Fast Five (2011), dir: Justin Lin
28:24 – WMD
01:04:30 – E-mail and Outro
(Thoughts on Piranha 3DD)


Fast Five

"Thor" Review

"Thor" operates under the mistaken assumption that Thor is cool. Marvel's unsolicited film adaptation makes no attempt to entice an audience that may yet be unfamiliar with this benchwarmer hero. Peter Parker was a dweeb; Bruce Wayne lost his parents; Clark Kent was abandoned at birth; great comic heroes have compelling origin stories. Our introduction to Thor is as a spoiled warmonger about to ascend to kinghood. Why are we rooting for this guy, again?

Pitting your audience against the protagonist is something a filmmaker the caliber of a P.T. Anderson can pull off, but I'm pretty sure we're supposed to like Thor. Maybe we're supposed to sympathize when daddy takes away his mallet, but once the eponymous meathead is booted from his cushy Asgardian throne, he crash lands on Earth as a colossal buffoon. See Thor get tased. See Thor smash a coffee mug while a glib teenager uploads a photo to Facebook and you'll have an idea just how low the comedy here is flying. Watch your heads.

"Thor" treats Thor with such undeserved adulation that reducing the thunder god to a punch line in the second act comes like a bolt from the blue. Following a foundation of pretentious melodrama set in a Seussian CGI metropolis, even the more successful attempts at humor later on play foreign and weird. And just to keep the audience on its toes, the tone wobbles wildly to and fro like a pair of burly Norsemen on a teeter-totter.

I've got nothing against flawed heroes. Thor's arrogance might have helped make his story worth telling. Instead, the filmmakers (with credit to no less than five writers) waste two hours attempting to redeem him in the audience's eyes. Still, the real problem is that the character is uninteresting. It's more than possible some of the nuance of the comic books has been lost in translation, but I can't think of a single trait that makes Thor (Chris Hemsworth) appealing.

The same goes for the rest of the cast. Natalie Portman plays a scientist who ought to be studying the mysteries of her missing personality, and Stellan Skarsgård plays her mentor, an equally pale placeholder character. Rounding out their misfit team is Kat Dennings, whose character description might as well read: "Social media junkie; loves her iPod, and whatever else those damned teenagers are into nowadays."

The aesthetic of "Thor" is as bland as its players. Director Kenneth Branagh, best known for his Shakespearean endeavors, takes a 'broken tripod' approach to directing this summer tent pole. He has cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos frame half his shots diagonally in lieu of investing in a coherent visual style. Branagh is elsewhere absent as the shepherd of his cast otherwise proven performers mumble their way through the movie.

As if Thor didn't have enough shame to contend with as a D-list superhero, his big screen debut is similarly underwhelming. Instead of making a case for the character, Branagh and a gaggle of screenwriters cement his lame duck status in this bludgeoningly boring popcorn flick. Even undiscerning cinemagoers looking for little more than a two-hour refuge from the summer sun have better choices available to them. Comic book aficionados likewise have no shortage of spandex to look forward to in the coming weeks.

After years of warming the bench, Thor finally got called into the big game, only to slip up and sustain a career-ending injury on his first play. That's gotta hurt.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Fast Five" Review

Forgive my ignorance of the "Fast and Furious" films. Believe it or not, this fifth installment is the first I've seen in its entirety. I could generally care less about car culture and only just learned how to change my own oil. The closest I come to drifting is in "Mario Kart." I am not the target audience. But as the producers have apparently exhausted street racing tropes, they've pimped the franchise out to the masses. Color me impressed, it actually works.

"Fast Five" may be brainless action, but at least it's the type that revels in its own ridiculousness. The genre has lately fallen into a self-serious slump, teeming with stern-faced heroes who don't enjoy saving the world one bit. Conversely and to all appearances, Vin Diesel and company couldn't be having a better time tearing up the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Sometimes a fast car and a toothy grin is all you need.

Director Justin Lin obviously appreciates the simple and satisfying marriage of physical stunt work and compelling cinematography. Granted, it's no master's course in action filmmaking, but his use of the camera to transfer momentum is undeniably effective. Particularly impressive are his opening and closing chase sequences, in which he employs CGI sparingly in favor of real vehicles and visceral wrecks. Smartly favored in the trailer, "Fast Five" is bookended by an hour of easy escapism.

The problem is everything in between. No one was expecting Shakespeare, but Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan should have at least dog-eared the bit about brevity being the soul of wit. At two hours 10 minutes, "Fast Five" is longer than it has any earthly business being. The bloated running time allows for some presumably obligatory street races and more tiresome exposition than you can shake a stick shift at.

Hours seem to wither away in a dimly lit garage where story beats are spoon-fed to the audience. Get on with it; "Fast Five" is a "one last job" heist film with few surprises. Whole swaths of the story could be cut—they exist solely to justify more drag races, fistfights, and shootouts. Morgan also relies on cheap, microwavable drama in his peripheral storytelling: an unexpected pregnancy and leftfield romances add little depth to the proceedings. Having his characters emote plays to nobody's strengths.

Thankfully, the charisma of the cast buoys any less than Oscar-worthy performances. Diesel comes off surprisingly empathetic as the muscle-bound mastermind of the hundred million dollar heist. Along the way, he spars with a gargantuan federal agent played by The Rock, and calls in help from a colorful cast of returning characters, including an ex-rival (Paul Walker), his sister (Jordana Brewster), a smooth-talker (Tyrese Gibson), and a safecracker (Ludacris).

Despite its lulls, "Fast Five" kicks the summer off right. With more judicious pacing, it might have been the perfect Saturday afternoon snack, but junk food necessitates a conservative serving size. Lin's overlong film is fortunately punctuated by the sort of tangible high-octane action that has become a rarity in the age of CGI superpowers and spell craft. Even if you're as unfamiliar with the franchise as I was yesterday, you'll likely find this fifth installment immediately accessible and intermittently fun. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a date with my 2001 automatic transmission Toyota Camry.