F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 7, 2016)

7 04 2016

IdiocracyA new subgenre of criticism seems to have spouted up in the past few months eager to find things in culture and society to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. To be fair, I too have given him consideration on my site, but it has taken on the tenor of looking at things that might explain his popularity rather than directly cause it. A look back at the cinema of the ’00s shows various prescient takes on the underlying issues in America that have recently bubbled to the surface: xenophobia, nationalism, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism.

Few distill these into a frightening, humorous essence as well as Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” however. This comedy played as ridiculous when it was released in 2006; its studio, 20th Century Fox, regarded it as such and unceremoniously dumped it in theaters with no fanfare. But in the decade since, it becomes less and less like an imagined portrait of America and more like a plausible future. Such eerily insight, roughly as it might be presented, makes it a fitting selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

To say too much about how “Idiocracy” hits the nail on the head would only ruin its considerable pleasures for those yet to experience the film. Judge remarkably shied away from the easy targets of the time, choosing to satirize some less obvious culprits in the dumbing down of the country. He digs into demographic trends in population and education level to find the fault lines in society. He examines the cumulative effect of the “infotainment” dominating the news media. He takes corporate influence over the government to its logical extreme.

For Luke Wilson’s Corporal “Average Joe” Bauers, a man chosen for cryogenic freezing then unceremoniously forgotten for 500 years, this strange world of 2505 seems completely foreign. Yet even from a vantage point just 10 years ahead of when Joe gets frozen, this dysfunctional America hardly seems implausible. There are almost too many ideas packed into the running time of “Idiocracy,” so many that each issue gets a slightly cursory examination. If only Judge had the budget or the time of, say, a miniseries to really unpack his social critique. Sequel, anyone?

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REVIEW: The Judge

1 11 2014

The Judge” tries to be a lot of things, among them a courtroom drama, a family drama, an illness drama, and a relationship drama.  It’s a shame that amidst all that action, seldom does the film manage to be any good.

It’s certainly admirable that Robert Downey, Jr. wants to convert his mainstream credibility into something of greater cinematic value.  But the effort is in vain as “The Judge,” which he and his wife Susan produced, bites off more than it can chew in nearly every aspect.  Their one genius move was bringing Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer for Steven Spielberg’s last two decades of work, on board to give the film the sheen of prestige.  (Not as great a hire? Director David Dobkin, whose recent credits include “Fred Claus” and “The Change-Up.”)

Kaminski’s beautiful rays of ambient light flood every frame, but the beauty largely stops there.  “The Judge” meanders for the whole of its runtime – a bloated 140 minutes – without ultimately settling on any kind of identity.  Every time one of its subplots begins to pick up steam, the film inexplicably shifts gears to follow another one.  As such, momentum never builds, and “The Judge” just begins to feel like a life sentence.  One with lots of cloying montages set to Bon Iver.

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REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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REVIEW: When In Rome

29 08 2010

I was preparing for the worst when I popped “When In Rome” into my DVD player.  It’s a romantic comedy, so that means a marriage to formula and the same old gimmicks for an easy laugh.  But the thing about low standards is that it becomes a whole lot easier for a movie to really surprise you.  Such was the case here.

Shockingly enough, it’s not half bad.  I’m sure you are shaking your heads, saying it’s not possible for a romantic comedy that looked pretty uninspired from the previews to actually be any good.  And I’m not saying that this a new classic for the genre or that it has successfully introduced a new formula into the romantic comedy lexicon.  It’s nothing highly original or innovative.  All I’m saying is that something about “When In Rome” … works.

At the start of the movie, I was preparing to hate Kristen Bell’s character Beth after she can’t stop rambling to herself about a bad experience in an Applebee’s.  It’s even worse because she’s a high-brow art curator and Guggenheim obsessive, something regular Applebee’s customers usually aren’t too fond of.  Yet at her sister’s wedding in Italy, she gets a little too much champagne in her and makes an impulsive decision, yanking coins out of a fountain of love.

All of a sudden, that paradoxical facade is wiped away, and Beth is someone we can actually like as she is thrown into a crazy situation.  She had never been the kind to actively seek love, but by taking the coins, the men who threw them come looking to her for love.  Four men are over-the-moon smitten for her: a sausage mogul (Abe Froman, anyone?) played by Danny DeVito, an Italian painter played by Will Arnett, a model in love with himself as much as Beth played by Dax Shepard, and a loopy magician played by Jon Heder.

And then there’s a wild card thrown into the mix: the best man at her sister’s wedding, Josh Duhamel’s charming Nick, seems to be quite interested in Beth after they had a connection at the reception.  Her concern at first is that these four men will ruin her chance with Nick, but she soon realizes that he could just easily be one of her head-over-heels lovers.  It’s a bit of a romantic mystery, enough to keep a little bit of suspense throughout the fun and funny “When In Rome.”  B /