#355: The Color Wheel (2012)

wheelAlex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel is proof that indie narcissism can occasionally pull out the goods.

Filmed on grainy 16mm, it’s a meandering road movie about two underachieving, alienated siblings. After she splits up with her professor-cum-boyfriend , aspiring news anchor J.R. (Carlen Altman) begs her shlubby younger brother Colin (played by director Perry) to help her back up the remnants of her miserable life and move on to the next. The journey across the States causes quite a stir, with the pair constantly berating each other in that conventional brotherly-sisterly banter way. It escalates to a harrowing final ten minutes, where the familial relationship is tested and it’s clear that, if they weren’t to have each other, they wouldn’t have anything.

Like many a-mumblecore movie before it, The Color Wheel consists of verbal sparring and excruciatingly awkward long takes. Unlike those insufferable predecessors, Perry and Altman’s script moves with great acerbic force, audaciously treating the blackly comic as flippant light humor. It’s quite similar in tone to Rick Alverson’s The Comedystarring Tim Heidecker, only the two loathsome characters here are presented with more compassion, actually having a narrative arc to follow right up to the film’s bitter end.

Whilst the scenes shared between the two are close to Alvy Singer>Annie Hall style perfection, The Color Wheel loses it’s spark when the pair are backed up by cliche filler characters – the sorority bitch, the dumb jock, the rich kids – during a horrendous dinner party. It’s the only time when the amateur acting and forced dialogue reflect it’s minor budget production qualities.

With improvised dialogue, a roaming plot, grainy 16mm stock and Sean Price Williams’ artless cinematography, The Color Wheel absolutely stinks of Husbands-era John Cassavetes. Not that it’s a bad scent, but it permeates throughout the film and leads the homage into unwarranted pastiche, and ultimately externalizes us from the drama.

Even still, this minor tragicomedy, is a minor triumph for Perry and star in the making Altman. For fans of all things awkward, this unassuming movie sets the m-m-m-mumblecore wheel back in motion.

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#350: God Bless America (2012)

godAfter covering such subjects as bestiality in Sleeping Dogs Lie, and suicide martyrdom in World’s Greatest Dad, Bobcat Goldthwait returned to the big screen earlier this year with God Bless America; his darkest, violent and most scathing film to date.

Joel Murray stars as the middle aged Frank. A divorced old fart living in a crappy apartment, he spends his evenings alone in front of the box, catching glimpses of the “oh no you didn’t generation” and their fascination with celebrity culture. When he gets word that he is dying of cancer, Frank takes this as a sign from God to go out in a gung-ho blaze of glory, and kill one of the many putrid Sweet 16 brats in the area. In the process, he strikes up a companionship Roxy, a teenager equally phlegmatic with asinine society. Together, the platonic kindred spirits go on a Bonnie & Clyde killing spree across America, bumping off any vile human that gets in their way.

Nothing is off-limits for mockery in Goldthwait’s America. Not only attacking the zeitgeist pop culture, he takes aim at the indie subcultures, homophobes, and Bill O’Reilly style news commentators. Even Woody Allen and his penchant for “young hairless Asians” is a topic this tyrannical comedian feels is worth berating. Whilst some of these jokes land, it soon becomes glaringly obvious that God Bless America is a one-trick pony of a movie, relying on crass, futile rants to keep the audience engaged with the film, rather than any sort of genuine satire or development.

Brother to Bill, Joel Murray is excellent as the shlubby sad clown, making the character both compelling, funny and, at it’s darkest reflexive points, relatable. The same goes for newcomer Tara Lynne Barr, who delivers the “I hate Juno” shtick with great panache and wry reflexivity.

More than ever, we are inundated with annoying, nonsensical media entertainment. Even if, like me, you actively chose not to watch such degrading reality tripe, it still permeates everyone’s lives, and certainly dumbs down the pub conversation. Whilst Goldthwait’s script may be bursting with dogmatic arguments against this here horrible world, they are far from revolutionary thoughts. By trying to be so broadly satirical about mass culture, Goldthwait loses the subversive punch and savagery he usually excels with. Just as painfully telegraphed the ironic title is, God Bless America is so intent on being angry and polemical that it forgets to ever be entertaining.

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Fun fact: One film that is currently wowing UK arthouse crowds is Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers. It’s narratively similar to Bobcat’s movie: a couple travelling across pastoral England and murdering the angry village folk that they’ve grown sick of. I’m quite desperate to see it, and expect a review of that sometime around Christmas.

#269: Ruby Sparks (2012)

It’s somewhat ironic that Ruby Sparks‘ central character is a novelist spending an excessive period trying to write his second masterwork, given that the films’ directing duo have been off our screens for six years after their Oscar winning, gooey comedy Little Miss Sunshine. The married indie darlings Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are back with a film that fringes on the saccharine, yet the Woody Allen premise takes Ruby Sparks into unexpectedly sinister territory.

The appropriately bemused looking Paul Dano stars as the prodigious writer Calvin Weir-Felds who has coasted on the success of his debut novel from ten year’s previous. Now it’s time to write the bestselling follow-up. But it won’t come. Tormented by a harsh break-up and the pressure from his demanding agent, the perpetual loner only escapes his depression in the land of nod, dreaming up a red-haired vixen named Ruby Sparks (played by the movie’s writer Zoe Kazan). Wanting to spend more time with his (wait for it) “manic pixie dream girl”, Calvin compulsively labours over his typewriter. Creating a character so detailed and real that he wakes up the next day to find Ruby has lifted off the page and into the real world; wearing his shirt and cooking him breakfast.

With Ruby and Calvin’s blossoming relationship at the crux of the movie, the impressive supporting cast aren’t given much time to shine. Steve Coogan is perfectly cast as a sleazy author in the shadows, yet isn’t given enough drugs to dazzle. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas turn up as the film’s most eccentric and likeable characters, Calvin’s bohemian mother and carpenter step-dad. The pair have a natural chemistry and the sense of exuberance one hopes for in a movie of this pedigree, which is unfortunately, and somewhat worryingly, nonexistent between real-life couple Dano and Kazan.

Ruby Sparks’ main problems don’t arise from the fantastical plot, nor the acting credentials of its cast, but the film’s drastic shifts in tone. Starting as a depressive look at the pitfalls of stardom with Dano’s dowdy Calvin, once Ruby manifests it turns into a (500) Days of Summer, cardigan wearing twee-fest, followed by Meet The Parents broad comedy, destructive relationship drama, Frankenstein vs. Monster nightmare and closing with a wimpy return back to the cardigans (now with additional leather elbow patches). Although none of these moods are bad in their own right, their mashed-up result is hardly the fuzzy ball of fun one expects from the Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers, nor does it sufficiently explore the issues of idealism and relationship control which it disingenuously toys with. A nice try, but no jewel to be found here.

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#260: Pootie Tang (2001)

Louis CK is on fire right now. With the lauded third season of his eponymous comedy series Louie, and an upcoming role in the next Woody Allen movie, the overweight ginger ball of misanthropy can’t seem to do no wrong. That is, until you look back into his previous cinematic outings. Ladies and gentleman, I woefully bring you the deplorable ‘comedy’ Pootie Tang.

Based on a recurring, throwaway sketch on HBO’s much forgotten The Chris Rock Show, Pootie Tang is a one-note riff on outmoded black culture. With parodies of blaxploitation movies, ludicrously flamboyant attire, chauvinism and sleazzzy R&B music, writer/director Louis CK’s film is an ambitious bricolage of comedic parts. But he never finds a way of meddling them together to create an enjoyable–nay, tolerable–film experience.

The titular Pootie (Lance Crouther) is a pop culture icon. Spending his time making rap music, loving the ladies, fighting crime and strutting around the streets in buttonless silk shirts, he strikes misfortune when corporate CEO Dick Lecter (played by the once incredible Robert Vaughn) gets Pootie to sign a contract agreeing that his famous face can be marketed across Lecter’s fast food, cigarettes and alcohol. From riches to rags, Pootie and his cronies (Chris Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s J.B. Smoove) try to fight their way back into the big time.

With lavish music videos, ridiculous action scenes and bedroom ditties, the one-note joke that ties all the sketches together is that the Tang-man has a way with words. Not any words we he his own vernacular which, like Chewbacca or Snoop Dogg, everyone on screen miraculously understands. With classic lines such as: “you’re a baddy daddy lamatai tebby chai”, and “I’m going to sine your pitty on the runny kine!”; it’s initially a funny concept, just as long as we forget the ‘Jive Talk’ scene from one of the best comedies of all time, 1980’s Airplane!

The main problem with Pootie Tang isn’t that it’s bad, it’s that it’s confusing. With such great talent both in front and behind the screen, you spend the exhaustive 82 minute running time trying to understand how they could coop together to make such a shit storm. Even a cameo from David Cross can’t save it.

Considering Louis CK has complete creative control over his unique dramedy series Louie and it has been so universally acclaimed, this 2001 trainwreck is the archetypal example of how studio executives can corrupt creative minds. It’s not big, it’s not clever, and it’s evidently destructive.

Pootie Tang is categorically unfunny, wretched, and exhaustive. Avoid it like the plague and go watch Louie, The Chris Rock Show, Black Dynamite, or virtually anything else instead.

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#237: To Rome With Love (2012)

After somewhat of a career resurgence with the Oscar-baited fluke Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s continental cruise across Europe sees him back in familiarly disappointing territory with To Rome With Love. His seventh film set in picture-postcard Europe, it’s a set of four unconnected vignettes serving up the schmaltzy themes of love, lust and celebrity, minus the laughs.

From the very opening scene, To Rome With Love wreaks of amateur hour. An affable cop halts the traffic on a busy Romany junction to address the camera directly. With the cliche sounds of “Volare” in the background, our humble narrator introduces the film’s four tales. Aside from a few pithy lines and crude character arcs, each story is as tedious and meandering as the next; so caught up in the capital’s ineffable charm and romanticism that Allen fails to give us anything worthy of interest.

First up is the gap-year American tourist Hayley (Alison Pill), who falls in love with local Romani hunk Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Planning on getting hitched, Hayley’s parents jet over to meet the future in-laws. Her mother is Phyllis (Judy David), a liberal psychiatrist who has a remarkable patience for her neurotic husband and former opera director Jerry (Woody Allen, in his first acting role since 2006’s equally bad Scoop). When Jerry overhears Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) singing beautifully operatic arias in the shower, he sees his ticket back into the big time. But there’s a problem, Giancarlo’s talent can only be achieved when under soapsuds and flowing water. Predictably, it all culminates in several excruciatingly long opera-shower scenes, with Woody looking lost throughout.

Out with the old and in with the new, naïve newlyweds Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome to live la dolce vita. But soon after they check-in to a hotel, the pair lose each other by accident. Roaming the streets alone and apparently incapable of asking for directions to the hotel, she stumbles onto a film-set and gets caught up with a lustrous movie star (Antonio Albanese). Similarly sex-fuelled, Antonio’s hotel room is invaded by the paid in advance prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) who he passes off as his real wife to family and potential employers. Told in the native tongue, it’s the most rampant and engaging frolic Woody has on offer, with Cruz clearly relishing the role as the scantily clad lady in red.

Back in tourist territory, Alec Baldwin plays John, an esteemed American architect revisiting the cobbled streets of his youth some thirty years ago. Roaming Rome, he crosses paths with budding architecture student Jack (played by eternal man-boy Jesse Eisenberg). The story turns semi-magical when John is lasciviously omnipresent as Jack’s subconscious, trying to convince him not to cheat on his sweet girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) with her visiting best friend Monica (Ellen Page). Although this may be To Rome with Love’s most dynamic story, it’s a master-class in miscasting. Gerwig is underused, Eisenberg is too one dimensional to play a young Woody Allen type, Baldwin isn’t given enough space to flaunt his naturally comedic talent and Ellen Page is far too twee to play a character once described as a “man-magnet”.

Last and most definitely least, Roberto Benigni is local schlub Leopoldo who leaves work one morning to find himself caught in paparazzi frenzy. His unaccountable rise to stardom is mundane, with reporters desperate to know what he had for breakfast that day, how did he get that stain on his shirt and what kind of underwear he is wearing. With Allen drawing influence from Italian neorealist Federico Fellini, Benigni tries to animate the well-worn, dreamy material, but seeing Leopoldo’s titillating sexual escapades with gorgeous women is irrevocably creepy.

Shot with the same vibrancy found in Midnight in Paris by cinematographer Darius Khondji, it’s a shame that such warmth didn’t carry over to Allen’s insipid, almost entirely humorless script. I didn’t laugh once.

Often applauded for his rigorous one film a year work ethic, such a quick turnaround means that so many of his recent films feel like both a waste of decent narrative ideas, and a waste of impressive ensemble casts who are also desperate for that “I’ve worked with Woody Allen” accolade on their CVs.

After Jerry’s wet, operatic megastar wows crowds in his production of Pagliacci, he reads a snippet of a critic’s review claiming: “whoever created this monstrosity should be beheaded”. Although decapitation may be a little strong, one wishes that the 76-year-old would take a year out to wind down with his psychiatrist, listen to some jazz records and come back with Manhattan 2 in 2014. We all know he still has the ability to make one more great film; it’s only Allen that still needs convincing.

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