Thursday, December 2, 2010

'Tiny Furniture' star has ample room for growth

At the forefront of the low-fi comedy “Tiny Furniture,” is a new brand of the recession-era female nerd, a “Juno” of the mumblecore.

Oberlin grad Lena Dunham, 24, wrote, directed and starred in her second feature, “Tiny Furniture,” in what is likely a semi-autobiographical profile of the directionless twentysomething.

Aura is 22, a college grad in a self-professed state of delirium since moving back home after four years in Ohio. She has an imperfect, flabby body with an ugly arm tattoo and an endearing neediness. Here is an example of Apatow’s common depiction of man-child syndrome as adapted for the XX chromosome. Dunham the actress has a knack for eliciting surprise chuckles from the audience, not the hearty guffaw but the zinger that’s so faint it strengthens the tone more than anything else.

Aura gets a job as a day hostess, reunites with a rebellious old schoolmate Charlotte (Jamima Kirke) and lets a platonic boyfriend Jed live with her in her mother Siri’s posh TriBeCa loft. Siri, a successful artist, sides with Aura’s bratty teenage sister Nadine (Grace Dunham, Lena’s real-life sibling) in almost every family quarrel.

As a storyteller, Dunham makes a fervent attempt to stay true to the characters and honest in its depiction of relationships. Pop culture allusions do slip into the wry, self-aware dialogue. There’s mention of YouTube and Seinfeld re-runs as well as the Codyesque line, “It’s worth a Google.”

“Tiny Furniture” has more polish than the Hollywoodized indie circle where Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Sam Mendes and dull conversations about Vampire Weekend went to die. Those movies have plots that movie at a glacial pace or search for life answers that never appear.

By the time the audience is content with the pacing in the third act, Aura’s life flies off the handle. She takes a progressively active role in harming each of her relationships. It’s awkward, vaguely disturbing and ultimately redeems itself as offbeat.

Celebrity comparisons are evident, a tribute to its effectiveness perhaps. Alex Karpovsky has a David Krumholtz voice, Grace Dunham has a Scarlett Johansson vibe and Laurie Simmons must derive her character’s coldness from an Anjelica Huston role. And, David Call, who plays the chef, may be a thin Tom Hardy.

In addition to a laudatory New Yorker profile, Dunham has gained residency in Apatown in response to the film. Judd Apatow is producing Dunham’s new series for HBO, tentatively titled “Girls.” Dunham’s potential as a new star transcends through all of this, and in spite of the film’s blemishes, the girl has room for growth.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Photo Credit:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Franco adds weight to stoner persona in boulder saga ‘127 Hours’

With “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle’s career comes full circle with a film that once again makes use of the tourniquet a la “Trainspotting.”

His tenth feature arrives on the heels of Oscar wins and takes on the true story of Aron Ralston, who in 2003 went to great lengths to survive while trapped between a rock and a rigid spot.

If watched back-to-back with “Slumdog Millionaire,” a crime-tinged romance lacquered in artificiality, the opening five minutes are bubbling with passion. Shown in a three-panel split screen, the hyperkinetic opening presents huge crowds amid global haste. Then, enter the solitary Ralston, portrayed with commanding sincerity by NYU grad student James Franco. He leaves home in the early morning to embark in a canyoneering trip through Blue John Canyon in Utah and tells no one where he’s going.

His right arm goes without circulation for five-plus days in the recesses of a cave. Within 10 minutes of running time, Ralston’s trapped under a boulder, which initially had me worried. The movie keeps the story compelling as we’re caged in with our Castaway.

Most folks going in already know how the story will unfold, but the anxiety of the situation had a boy begin to vomit in the row in front of me.

If Boyle hadn’t taken it on, the tale would have been relegated to a two-minute blip on a broadcast newscast or fodder for a short screening at the Tuttleman IMAX dome.

Franco takes his career to new heights, acting bleary-eyed and aloof with none of the stoner drollness.

His family is played by Lizzy Caplan and, in inspired casting, Treat Williams, who also worked with Franco in “Howl.” I craved more Williams screen time, but that’s not uncommon.

I had a problem with how “Into the Wild” portrayed the family as caricatures. Even poor William Hurt. “!27 Hours” employs them for the sake of brevity and atmosphere without making much of a statement.

The film is sparsely plotted with Aron’s several futile attempts at escape and a memory recall of snapshots from his life. The retrospective would be more meaningful, not only if they were longer but if the 28-year-old had lived a more remarkable life.

Boyle, arguably too anxious a filmmaker for straightforward source material like this, gets stylish when filming inside Aron’s camcorder, his bottle of water and even the water itself. These shots struck me as David Fincher’s territory, but it worked. When it comes to the few grisly moments however, the camera is stationary.

Boyle re-teamed with “Slumdog” crewmembers, his writing partner Simon Beaufoy and music composer A.R. Rahman, all of whom possess Academy Awards. Compared to back when he debuted with “Shallow Gave,” he’s working with an almost entirely new set of people.

Franco dives deep, and Boyle makes a film about courage and perseverance even if it the end product does not warrant repeated viewings.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two Lower East Side dive bars are not what they seem

Two of the Lower East Side’s finest bars are shrouded in irony.

Cake Shop and The Library are unpretentiously hip and unique dives, sort of. The Cake Shop is too multi-functional to be classified as a bar, and The Library’s back wall projector of an endless stream of cult movies detracts patrons from the front-counter seating. Speaking of irony, the former has no pastries (but $3 Rolling Rock cans), and the latter has a few novelty rank bookshelves out of arm’s reach.

Upon entering The Library, lasciviously dressed barmaids in low-cut garb serve affordable beer and lowbrow combos like The Pube – a shot of whiskey and a can of Natty Light. The best in punk, post-punk, indie pop and speed metal is blasted through speakers. You’ll hear more Pixies, Metallica and Smiths there than anyone else in the neighborhood. Lady Gaga’s LES hangout, on the other hand, wishes it has this kind of cred.

But the main attraction is the selection of depraved, vile B-movies and grindhouse pics on the big screen in the back. Some films have the awesomely bad quality, prompting you and your date to engage in a do-it-yourself Mystery Science Theater commentary. “Scanners” is a prime example because spontaneous combustion in the third act is still fun.

Other times, it takes it too far. Horror-exploitation classic “Blood Sucking Freaks” is grotesque beyond the realm of camp. The women are either topless or in bikinis while getting their brain sawed into by a Gene Wilder-type gone berserk and his ‘little person’ assistant. This pint-sized henchman is no Tony Cox, Peter Dinklage, elf or smurf; he’s pure evil. Violence is enacted with a skull-crushing vice, a bone saw, a meat cleaver and the goddamn anachronistic presence of a guillotine.

Two women abandoned their table to nestle amid a crowd by the bar up front. It takes both confidence and apathy to play that during peak hours on Saturday night. I don’t frequent this place enough to know how frequently “Videodrome” is played, but it would probably be gilded in a shrine.

Unabashedly plaintive pop and rock numbers, good beer and the unpredictable X-rated cinema pretty much sum up my expectations for a fun night.

Cake Shop is a lot more hands off albeit juggling multiple personalities. This amalgam of a records store, bar, music venue, coffeehouse and speakeasy puts the ball in your court. Their red velvet cake is a cool commodity but never the sole reason to visit. The ragged, vintage furniture situated incongruously always appears to be in a state of quiescence.

It’s a one of the few bars that promotes an interrupted, introspective conversation with friends and applies little-to-no pleasure to drink. No one will bug you if it takes you three hours to finish a design project on your Mac.

The Library - 7 Ave. A.
Apollo's Rating: B+

Cake Shop – 152 Ludlow St.
Apollo's Rating: A-

Photo Credits:
1 - The Library -
2 - Cake Shop -

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Film Review: Knight and Day

In light of the commercial failure of Knight and Day, some analysis is needed. The movie, which cost some $125 million to produce, has thus far failed to recoup even half that amount at the box office. The question: did it deserve to flop?

The film’s plot, formulaic as it is, pushes the right buttons for a summer action movie. Cruise plays Roy Miller, a rogue secret agent with apparently noble ideals. Cameron Diaz is June Havens, a civilian who’s swept up into Miller’s world by chance. The formula is so well worn that a movie released just a few weeks prior to Knight and Day – the Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl bomb Killers – used it as well.

As is the case with such movies, Knight and Day leaves its identity in the hands of its stars. The leads, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, are two Hollywood veterans who could once be counted on to rake in the ticket sales. Their performances are predictably solid, and their time on-screen together almost sells the idea that a super spy could fall for a girl next door type after meeting her in an airport.

Audiences long ago learned the appropriate amount of suspended disbelief necessary to accept the diminutive Tom Cruise as an action hero. He’s not doing anything here that’s more difficult to swallow than, say, any of the Mission: Impossible movies. Cameron Diaz, on the other hand, is out of her element in a way the film’s writers didn’t intend. No doubt, she’s perfectly cast as a fairly sheltered middle class woman who is unaccustomed to flying bullets and international espionage.

But the film expects us to believe she owns an auto garage and is completely restoring her father’s dilapidated 1966 Pontiac GTO to give as a wedding present to her sister. It isn’t that a woman as slight as Diaz couldn’t believably get her hands dirty tinkering with muscle cars. The problem is she doesn’t sell the idea, a problem that may well lie more with the script than Diaz. Whenever she talks about the car, it’s as if she has only a passing knowledge of auto restoration. It’s unfortunate, because it turns out that Diaz’s supposed profession plays a sizable role in the movie’s plot.

Other than these minor holes in the plot, Knight and Day makes a perfectly sturdy summer popcorn flick. It’s funny at times, particularly the interactions between Cruise and Diaz, and there’s no shortage of gunfire and explosions. Why, then, did no one really care when it was released?

The most likely culprit: star power, or lack thereof. The leads certainly haven’t lost their acting edge, but this is the age of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. In comparison, Cruise and Diaz are most likely in the twilight of their years of drawing the 18-35 demographic based on name recognition alone. Pair that with an essentially nameless summer paint-by-numbers flick and it’s a recipe for a big disappointment.

The bottom line: expect plenty of light entertainment from Knight and Day. Expect a similarly plentiful number of empty seats in the theater.

5 out of 10

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

TV Review: Louie

HBO – a time-honored vessel for innovation and truth in the modern-day television medium – treated Louis C.K. like trash. While comedies like "Bored to Death" and "Flight of the Conchords" were fresh but low-rent shows that shot on location, “Lucky Louie” had the production value of a cardboard box.

The network gave a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track to one of the most subversive, brilliant stand-up comedians, and canned it after one season despite a gradual surge in viewership. He has yet to succeed in film or television for the reason that he never had the freedom to mouth off in the vein of his specials, “Shamed” and “Chewed Up.”

Thankfully, Louis C.K. is back on TV in “Louie.” From the looks of it, FX lent him some freedom. He writes, directs, stars, produced and edits the show, which follows Louis as middle-aged divorcee with two young daughters and fading ginger locks.

What ensues is a claustrophobic, caustic series of vignettes that are largely very funny. Some segments daringly venture into darkness through conversation, such as when Louie and his poker buddies interrogate a gay friend (Rick Crom), or fly off the handle with imaginary conclusions. Those fictionalized bits smugly suggests you’re in Louie’s head – his sad life, his twisted dreams, his perverse curiosity – and therefore at his disposal. He can lie to you, take you on detours and break the fourth wall to tell off Marshall McCluhan if he so chooses. Boy, if life were only like this!

More a sketch show than a sitcom, “Louie” features the comic’s stand-up act and leads into a semi-related skit. It’s sharply photographed but still gritty, especially the intimate club scenes privy to essentially to him, the viewer and the brick wall. In the opening credits sequence set to “Brother Louie,” the title character emerges from the Washington Square subway to the evening Manhattan streets, all the while detached from humanity and somewhat pissed off. He eats a slice of pizza, then heads to the Comedy Cellar – the shots playing like a more downtrodden version of Saturday Night Live opening.

In the first two episodes, Louie finds himself on a bus full of kids who are lost in Harlem and Facebook stalking an old classmate with whom he once shared a ‘moment.’ Meanwhile, an old woman flashes him in the hallway of an apartment hallway, and he explains his approval of bestiality. In the aforementioned poker sketch, fascinating truths come out of comedians arguing about elements of their respective acts that are considered taboo.

“Louie” perpetuates a ‘No hugging, no learning’ Larry David-style doctrine of self-loathing while avoiding the structural requirements of a series-long narrative. The format of a comedian using stand-up to lead into scripted scenes dates back to before “Seinfeld,” but the edgy Louis C.K.’s manner is modern, cruel and thoroughly hilarious. This is a huge leap for the comedian and, God help us, director of “Pootie Tang.”

Bottom line: By taking the lion’s share of executive creative control, Louis C.K. has finally found a highly promising vehicle. “Louie” deconstructs the TV comedy form and tailors it to his peculiarity. It replicates the animosity the world feels toward David on “Curb” and takes it even further thanks to a fearless asshole like Louis C.K.

"Pilot" and "Poker/Divorce" = 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Film Review: Iron Man 2

"Iron Man 2" is a vibrant but forgettable spectacle, a sharp light that momentarily blurs your vision and then fades into anonymity.

With superhero movies coming out every month for the past few years, the excitement is lesser, but the stakes are consistently higher. Either skewer the genre ("Kick-Ass") or make the best entry yet ("The Dark Knight"). “Iron Man 2” does not try to be the best; it tries to be the fastest.

At the onset, billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed his identity as Iron Man to the public and rejects the U.S. government’s commands to hand over his inventions.

Stark is slowly being poisoned by the palladium in his arc reactor, he acts irrationally and promotes his secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO in what is already a severely understaffed corporation.

Stark admitting that he’s Iron Man causes such a media circus that, in the world of the movie’s first half, his life is practically broadcast on TV. From a live session with the Senate on C-SPAN to the car racetrack on a sports network

Director Jon Favreau - a chummier Brett Ratner - goes ahead with the ‘bigger is better’ philosophy in almost every way. He even gives himself a bigger cameo role in the sequel. He’s not just delivering Burger King happy meals this time.

“Swingers” fans, note the inclusion of “Picking up the Pieces” in one of the expo scenes.

More so than the first film, the sequel cobbles together the pedigree of several big-name actors: Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell (who might have the biggest part as a Queens-based weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer), Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Garry Shandling, not to mention, it’s penned by actor Justin Theroux. The machine appears not just to be onscreen but in backstage Hollywood.

In a film with this many major characters (and this many egomaniacs), backstory must be concise but essential. Russian physicist/ex-con Ivan Vanko, played by Rourke, may boast impressive credentials and a genius father, but from what the viewer sees, he’s no more than a criminal with a limited vocabulary and a distinct likeness to Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

The second act, while still propulsive, is wasteful. Stark acts like a belligerent drunk and sulks over daddy issues. Like the protagonist, the movie is running on a battery and has to re-up midway so as to deliver through to the end.

The party scene would have been entirely superfluous even if it didn’t give Col. James Rhodes a reason to sell the suit, feature Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock” and an allusion to Gallagher’s watermelon shtick.

The Avengers, the film series’ add-on subplot, has gone nowhere after two movies. Jackson as Nick Fury shows up post-credits in the first film to appease comic book nuts, yet in the sequel, he awkwardly appears in two scenes with Stark, which play like some out-of-context job interview. But Fury’s not a recruiter; he’s a cocky intruder in a boxed-in script.

The pacing on the whole still makes the film nonstop fun despite the aggressive commercialism and the lackluster snark that has since eroded from its peak form in the original. This speeding-bullet actioner doesn’t quite warrant a follow-up third film in spite of the thin Avengers hook. Yet considering the velocity of the visuals chewing up frame after frame of “Iron Man 2,” signs say no. 3 will be here soon enough.

6 out of 10

Frame of reference:
Iron Man 7/10
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 8/10
Sherlock Holmes 5/10
Superman 9/10
Watchmen 6/10
Swingers 8/10

Thursday, March 25, 2010

'Lost' by genre

Sawyer – Western
Kate – feminist crime drama
Hurley – stoner comedy
Sayid – post-9/11 action drama
Juliet – romance that ends in tears
Sun and Jin – historical nonfiction
Desmond – existential noir involving time travel
Daniel Faraday – meta-science fiction
Jack – part-medical, part-domestic drama
John Locke – science fantasy
Ben – psychological thriller
Charlie – alternative music journalism (nonfiction)
Miles – black comedy
The Man in Black – horror
Jacob – propaganda
Claire – Australian docudrama
Mr. Eko – faith-based drama
Walt – Disney fantasy

Monday, February 1, 2010

Film Review: Edge of Darkness

Edge of Darkness is Mel Gibson’s first appearance in a leading role since 2002, and he uses it to remind audiences that he’s far from finished as an actor. The film itself doesn’t quite live up to that standard.

Edge of Darkness was originally a six-hour BBC mini-series that aired in 1985. The longer television format may have benefited the story in a few cases, particularly the character development of Emma Craven (Bojana Novakovic). The audience is barely introduced to Emma before she’s dead in Craven’s arms, which makes it more difficult to share in his desire to find her killer. That’s where Gibson’s performance takes over.

Though his recent media-baiting personal problems have obscured the fact, Gibson remains a powerful actor. His turn as the unfortunately named Tom Craven may not be the most original or challenging role – a police officer driven to work outside the law in order to avenge his daughter – but the pain he emotes, coupled with several “hallucination” scenes with a younger version of Emma, helps flesh out the relationship he had with his daughter that wasn’t initially apparent. Elsewhere, Danny Huston plays corporate fat cat Jack Bennett with skin-crawling efficiency.

The plot is intriguing enough to keep audiences engaged, and the initial questions are answered in a reasonably satisfying manner. There are, however, some murky points, the lingering one being Jedburgh’s (Ray Winstone) motives for sympathizing with Craven.

Though action movies fans will be happy to see Gibson’s several scenes of gunplay, the movie focuses more on conspiracy and less on violence. The story seems to take on an anti-government theme, and the fear over nuclear research that fueled the British mini-series has diminished over the time between the Cold War-era airing of the original and the present. The official types working against Craven tend toward the one-dimensional, demonstrating shady evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil personalities that are all too familiar in conspiracy films.

Meanwhile, it takes a suspension of disbelief to follow Craven’s relatively linear search for the murderer, considering characters’ constant assertions that the perpetrators of such crimes are rarely captured. It doesn’t wrap up as neatly and happily as it could have, but the ending is pure Hollywood. For comparison, consider that the original series’ writer, Troy Kennedy Martin, wanted Craven to transform into a tree at the conclusion of the story.

As a conspiracy thriller, Edge of Darkness is above average, thanks to Gibson’s strong portrayal of Craven. The movie itself doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its televised inspiration, but it’s a worthy diversion nonetheless.

[Apollo's] Hipness rating: 5 out of 10
[Apollo's] Actual rating: 6 out of 10