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SXSW ’17 Review: ‘THE DISASTER ARTIST’

There in perhaps no film in existence that better exemplifies “cult” status than Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. A titanic miff on every level imaginable, Wiseau’s self-produced “romantic drama” is often called the worst movie ever made. And rightfully so. Anyone who’s had the privilege of witnessing this filmic trainwreck is treated to a level of incompetence that is almost endearing in its epic failure. If you however are among the many uninitiated, I would suggest you stop reading and run to your nearest video store (assuming it still exists) to grab a copy The Room. I guarantee they have one. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘WHY HIM?’

Oh Bryan Cranston, how far the mighty can fall. The four-time Emmy winning actor and Academy Award nominee rose to stardom putting the meth in method acting as high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White. But Cranston was not always the one who knocks. Many will remember his stretch as the goofy Hal on 2000s sitcom Malcom in the Middle. Here Cranston was the antithesis of the mean-mugging Heisenberg as an indecisive and immature father figure. He was the Stevia to Mr. White’s ricin; proof in the pudding that Cranston can wear many hats (even if the wool pork pie fedora still fits best.) With his latest comedic endeavor, the mind-numbing Why Him?, some might say that Cranston has returned to his roots. Not that that’s a good thing.   Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘GOAT’

Goat harrowingly explores the hypocrisy of fraternal brotherhood, bearing witness to the ugly rights of passage that men must submit to into order to earn their badge of masculinity. In Andrew Neel‘s testosterone-fueled melodrama, ideas of modern masculinity are examined through the lens of the Phi Sigma Mu fraternity of the fictitious Brookman University as new arriving “goats” (that’s pledges to those who don’t speak frat) are victim to a brutal “hell week”.    Read More

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Sundance ’16 Review: ‘GOAT’

Goat harrowingly explores the hypocrisy of fraternal brotherhood, bearing witness to the ugly rights of passage that men must submit to into order to earn their badge of masculinity. In Andrew Neel‘s testosterone-fueled melodrama, ideas of modern masculinity are examined through the lens of the Phi Sigma Mu fraternity of the fictitious Brookman University as new arriving “goats” (that’s pledges to those who don’t speak frat) are victim to a brutal “hell week”. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE NIGHT BEFORE’

Mix one part holiday sentiment, two parts 21st century bromance and a healthy teaspoon of bath salts and you’ll have cooked up Jonathan Levine‘s latest comedic vision quest. The Night Before is packaged as a drug-fueled Christmas romp starring such likable actors as Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and works from a script from Levine and frequent Rogen collaborator Evan Goldberg. When the formulaic cocktail of easy chemistry and easier laughs is working, The Night Before is funny bone-shaking good, a zesty melange of manic humor, gross out gags and breezy charisma. At one too many of its Santa’s sleigh stops though, the bromance is invaded by bromides, making for an uneven and inconsistent holiday farce with uncomfortably obvious pacing problems. But, being a comedy, the essential question really boils down to: is The Night Before funny? Read More

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Out in Theaters: TRUE STORY

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Based on a true story, True Story tells the story of a NYT journalist disgraced for publishing an untrue story about neo-African slavery who must earn back his mag-cover reputation by penning the true story of a wily, potential homicidal killer notorious for telling untrue stories. Got it? Good. Director Rupert Goold‘s doesn’t bother trying to reinvent the wheel with this 2001 true crime saga/Christian Longo biopic so much as he flips the genre’s tropes on their back and proceeds to dissect with a spoon in slow-moving, dull-edged pokes and prods. The result is psychologically unsettling – and speaks to the hazy nature of truth and truth-telling in journalism – but often the pathway is too humdrum and lacking in the significant battle of wits that such a feature truly demands to really get any blood boiling.

James Franco‘s shady simpers have always lent him a kind of notable incredulity and his best performances have come from a place of being able to exploit that to his characters’ advantage. From Aron Ralston to Saul Silver, Franco emotes through his half-cocked smile and stoney, squinty peepers.  For however half-baked and half-witted the writer/director/actor/poet/professor/artist can come across as, there’s something genuinely unnerving about casting his baby browns and easy grin as those of a bonafide psychopath but, due to a script that is decidedly set to simmer, he never gets to really explore the character’s darkest depths to fulfilling – or particularly worthwhile – degree. Rather the project, like Franco’s role within it, is served undercooked and is ultimately underwhelming.

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Sitting across the aisle from Franco’s murderous sycophant is a clean-cut Jonah Hill as Michael Finkel, the aforementioned defrocked journo. He wound up here in a round about way involving identity theft (when captured, Longo was posing as Finkel) and pure dumb luck (a phone call from a party interested in the scoop.) Having been stripped of his position at the New York Times and deemed untouchable by its many competitors, Finkel would be the last man to land an exclusive with a recently captured topper of the FBI’s Most Wanted List but Longo, for reasons not fully clear, has invited Finkel to his stainless steel conference room in exchange for “writing lessons” and friendly convos. You see Longo is a dedicated Finkel fan – or so he says – and wants to learn to hone his writing prowess at the foot of a master. And potential master fibber. After all, there’s not that many great avenues for self-expression for the incarcerated and Longo has always craved an audience.

As Finkel and Longo circle one another, becoming dangerously close and blasting past the line of unprofessional-ism early on and with relish, an unconventional game of cat and mouse unfolds. Goold’s game playing is meant to keep the audience on their toes but he can’t shake the feeling of being too obvious and too oblivious to his obviousness. As we’re expected to parse out whether Longo is a David Gale or a Hannibal Lecter – a patsy or a true psychopath – the film hems much closer to the dramatic success of the former (sitting at 19% on Rotten Tomatoes).

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Felicity Jones steps in briefly to jumpstart the coronary pumps but her character – the most interesting in the film – is mostly relegated to the offscreen or in charge of sulky but supportive backrubs. When she does rise from the depths to blast her unbridled, fearless opinion of Longo at his own self-satisfied face, Franco again fails to take charge of the scene and the character, leaving him to lie flat as a scolded pup and with just about as much agency.

Though Hill and Franco have played together well in the past – This Is the End and, to a lesser extent, Knocked Up – seeing the two take on such self-serious roles – stripped of even the smallest inkling of black comedy – is far less satisfying than one might hope for. Though for admittedly different reasons than you might expect. Neither flat-out fail (The Interview) or fall on their face (The Sitter) so much as they just do their jobs competently and without any fanfare to speak of. Each have worked as dramatists in their own right but the near-inspired union here is one tear away from disintegrating into a black hole of complete and utter humorlessness.

You would think that the casting of such comedic icons would demand us to reinvent our perspective on the two high-profile jesters. That is just not the case. For a two-hander so focused on these dueling central performances, neither has enough seasoning to turn the product tasty nor ship off our assumption that once “cut” is called, one of the two launch into a one-liner of the “that’s what she said” variety. Give me True Story the Comedy next time. At least that would be different. Instead, we’re treated to a blandly flavored re-heated crime saga that, though not bad, is highly forgettable (even a week after screening it, I almost forgot I had seen it at all.)

C

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SXSW Review: WILD HORSES

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The proof-of-concept for Wild Horses is in the pudding: Robert Duvall in front of and behind the camera, festival “it” boy James Franco and once teenage heart-throb Josh Hartnett saddled at his side. Even though Duvall hasn’t directed a film since 2003’s widely panned Assassin Tango (what. a. terrible. name.) there is promise in the idea of the diverse trio hidden beneath cowboy brims mugging through difficult family dynamics. Duvall, Franco and Hartnet aptly square off but there is just so much wrong with Wild Horses that it’s hard to overlook its bumbling, clueless ways.

In the opening moments of the film, Duvall discovers his youngest son (Franco) in the arms of the Spanish stable boy and threatens them both at gunpoint. There’s mumbling and grumbling to such a degree that I wasn’t sure whether Duvall’s character was supposed to be senile – he’s not – and soon he fires two shots from his handgun – the fire time, the barrel doesn’t even register a visible flare but a shooting noise rattles through the room. Inattention to detail like this abounds in Wild Horses. In a real d-bag, deep-Texas, sternly backwards move, Duvall threatens his son at gunpoint, effectively booting his candy ass from the ranch once and for all.  

The film picks up 15 years later when a “lady sheriff” (Luciana Duvall) is assigned a cold case involving the disappearance of the aforementioned stable boy. Turns out that he was wiped from the face of the earth following Duvall’s barnyard discovery. How coincidental. Before long, Ms. Lady Sheriff comes sniffing ’round ol’ man Duvall’s ranch asking nosy questions like, “Do you know what happened to that boy that was buggering your son that you banished?” Rather than sift through a convincingly maze-like web of mystery, Wild Horses keeps the “who killed the stable boy?” card in its back pocket until the final scene of the movie. It’s excruciating getting to the end because by the time we’re only quarter of the way there, we think we know that Duvall did it and don’t really care either way.

Admittedly, there are some fine performances from Duvall and Franco, particularly when the two face each other down and attempt to reconcile their broken relationship, but the script is so poorly written that you are left wondering why Franco even signed on in the first place. I’m nearly convinced he only took the role so he would play a gay character.

In my interview with him, Robert Duvall admitted that the first draft of the script was “fucking terrible”. I don’t know what happened between that iteration and this but it’s hard to imagine something even more messy, poorly written and almost entirely fake feeling than Duvall’s final edit of the material. To make matters worse, Duvall cast his younger, much more Argentinian wife in the lead role of “Lady Sheriff” and she is all but incompetent in the part. She can barely hack her way through her lines but tasked with taking on a Texan accent, she flubs and fumbles her way into a full-blown cinematic safety. She chokes worse than the Seahawks on the one-yard line.

From a directing standpoint, Duvall is almost incapable of framing an interesting shot. It feels more like he planted the camera in an arbitrary position, yelled “Action”, did the scene and rolled the print. There is no indication of forethought, visual complexity or composition. When mounted on a horse looking down on the outcast son, Duvall doesn’t even take advantage of the natural opportunity to frame himself looming large in the corner of our line of sight, lording over his once rejected offspring, meant to look small and unfocused.

No, every shot is the product of a camera somewhere for no reason telling a story that does need to be told, but not by the people assembled here. The tale of a father and son – particularly a conservative, Texan one – trying to sort through what it means to have a gay son/have a father that believes that being gay is “evil” is one rich with dramatic potential. To see it so egregiously executed and sufficiently botched as it is here is borderline painful.

D

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Out in Theaters: PALO ALTO

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James Franco
wrote a collection of linked short stories about growing up in Palo Alto, California: the untold violence, limitless bottles, designer drugs, prescription pills and caution to the wind sexual congress splaying this way and that which defines the sun-bathed, fantasy community of world renown. A third generation Coppola, Gia Coppola in her debut effort (who better to direct a movie about Californian angst and ennui?) adapted that novella into a movie. This is a review of that movie: that movie sucked.

Emma Roberts is April, your run-of-the-mill, somehow awkward, bikini-bridge valley girl who plays soccer, plows packs of cigarettes and has eyes for her older but sexy – in a unkempt, high school dropout kind of way – coach B, played by a scraggly and uncommonly sketchy Franco. He’s a whistleblower (literally, not figuratively) closer in kind to Humbert Humbert than Eric Taylor and his sheepish flirtations with April are just real enough to keep your daughter out of this season’s summer sleepaway camp. But like this land of the living (and oft livid) lethargic, Franco’s Mr. B is only charming to a stillborn or someone recently reanimated. His chemistry with April is no rose ceremony, it’s a Nickelodeon’s sliming.

Franco’s shown a penchant for stonerish, dead-eyed empty stares – stares on full display during his ugly 2011 Oscar hosting duties. In those empty round canyons are a kind of vacuous presumption of boyish candor that emotes stoner philosophy more than anything close to “genius”. Sometimes there’s nothing behind a blank stare save for the blankness (I mean have you read the reviews of his latest “art” installment?). That same faux-artistic tendency to fluff nothing into something is on embarrassing display here. If the Oscars are any indication of Franco charm gone horribly awry, Palo Alto hardly rights the course, chartering Franco into new coves of poopiness.

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As his player/d*ckslayer, April navigates the springs below life’s great water-dump with the pointedness of a waterlily. We hardly get to know the girl outside of her penchant for feeling lonely and moping to and fro. Lest we actually grow attached to any of these characters, the story plops from one turdish storyline to the next as we meet more d-bags and hoes for us to generally not care about.

The central conceit of the movie finds April at odds with should-be beau, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) a baby-faced, is-he-or-isn’t-he ginger who shares April’s love for not caring about much. Teddy is often in hot water with the law – a character flaw exaccerbated by total loser and pejorative fuck Fred (Nat Wolff). While Fred skulks around flying his misogynist flag high, April and Teddy circle one another with the lazy stalkings of a drunken falcon – too distracted by shiny objects to find the field mouse they’re ultimately looking for. They miss and miff again and again, never on the same page at the same time, too  balls deep in court-ordered community service or James Franco to connect. It’s hard to care though because, well, fuck these kids. Teddy adds blowies to his notch from a girl tipping past 11 on the hammer-scale while April’s awkwardly felt up in the hallway. It just brings back all the worst elements of high school, dunnit?

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The issue (as if this wasn’t enough already) is that the character’s have all got very serious problems but keep them stuffed so deep down inside that the actor’s have very little wiggle room to emote. Coppola, like her characters, lives on autopilot heading towards hazardous trajectories – and while that might be an interesting concept to ponder from a metaphysical stance, it doesn’t make for very compelling watching. Especially with a lead like April who’s got the strength of a pussy willow and sways with every breath of wind just about as much as that naughtily-named vegetation. Again though, it’s challenging to feel bad for someone who’s already so occupied feeling sorry for themselves and does nothing to better her situation. Though the waters she traverses are brown and stinky, she still strips down to her skivvies and paddles gingerly around in them.

What transpires is a whole bunch of nothing that adds up to little more than: “Rich white people gots it ruff.” Like the offspring of someone tragically out of touch might be, Palo Alto is an off-putting blend of Hollywood melancholia that invites you to the pity party but promptly turns you away at the door when you’re not dressed in custom Versace. Appropriately, it earns about as much sympathy as a billionaire basking in despair (“But I wanted the Gulfsteam G650 in red!!!”) The project might work better on page than as a movie because self-reflection is hard to play on screen, especially with a crew of actors this… uninspiring. The sparsely intriguing moments of genuine interest are as exciting as finding a raisin in your oatmeal – it’s a slight improvement over the goopy remains but still dried-out and old before its time, like this film.

D

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Red Band Trailer for HOMEFRONT Gets Bloody

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Jason Statham continues his streak of playing badass Americans with British accents, in Gary Fleder’s Homeland. But, like with Arnold Schwarzenegger, we don’t really care. The spoiler-ridden trailer plays like an annotation for five different action movies in one. A little bit Taken, a little bit Walking Tall, a little bit A History of Violence, and a little bit Malone (if you want to get obscure), Homeland promises nothing new. As silly as it sounds, though, as long as it gives Statham the chance to beat people up and say cool-sounding lines, it will probably be fun as hell. Statham is on his way to full Seagallhood.

This film harbors no illusions about being anything more than a B-movie with a budget. James Franco looks to be really solid, as the meth kingpin (a scene in a yellow hazmat suit makes it impossible not to think of Breaking Bad). Also, Jason Statham looks to turn in a stunning performance as Jason Statham. The hilariously cliché plot and generic action sequences make it tricky to judge the overall quality from the trailer. Films like this tend to be a mixed bag of cult classics and garbage. If you’re in the mood for mindless action, check this out in theaters starting November 27th. If you are like me, wait for it to be on TNT in a year and watch it over a couple beers with friends, while doing Jason Statham impressions.

Homefront is directed by Gary Fleder and stars Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth and Frank Grillo. It opens on November 27, 2013.

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