Monday, February 22, 2010

New stuff coming!

Hello everyone. This is just a little note to fill you in on some things. You may have noticed that recently updates have been few and far between in the Front Row Center world. There are a few reasons for this. Joe is in his last semester of grad school, Watson is in grad school, and me, well I've just been deciding how I want to do my reviews from now on.

See, we've decided to completely rebuild Front Row Center from the ground up. (We'll do it better than Domino's new pizza, I promise!) We are in the process of getting ourselves an honest to goodness real website with a catchy new group name. We also will no longer be reviewing on our podcasts. Instead, we will be discussing topics in cinema, we will be critiquing, and do all that stuff we learned to do in film school, but somehow neglected to do.

I will be posting a few new reviews here coming up, at least until our new site is up and running. We hope that this new incarnation of our little experiment will be more accessable, less rambling, and, yes, more enjoyable. So stay tuned folks, 'cause the times, they are a changin'.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blu-Ray Review: A Serious Man

Well, well, well...  The Oscars are a month away and, slowly but surely, more of this year's Best Picture nominees are starting to appear on DVD.  This week sees the release of Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man.  You'd think after the success of No Country for Old Men that the Coens would be able to get any film they wanted into wide release.  Not so, apparently, as A Serious Man never made it to most theaters in its initial run.  Now that it's in the running for Best Picture, it'll likely show up on more multiplex screens, but why do that when you could just pick up the DVD or Blu-ray?

Speaking of which, how is it?  Well, I'm here to tell you just that.

By the Coens' standards, A Serious Man is a relatively simple film.  It tells the story of a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose normal, simple life slowly starts falling apart.  It starts when his wife informs him that she plans to divorce him and marry a family friend (Fred Melamed), and his troubles escalate as his brother (Richard Kind) becomes more of a nuisance, his children become more of a nuisance, and one of his students attempts to bribe him for grades.

Joel and Ethan Coen are never at a loss for the smart gag or a fun visual shot, and this film is no exception.  They take their jabs at late 1960s culture, Jewish traditions that they no doubt experienced growing up, and the kind of domestic troubles that they've always tackled in oddball ways.  Like in many of their other films, characters interact as though they're from two completely different movies.  It creates a fascinating dissonance between Larry (and the viewer) and the people around him.  It's almost as though Larry has been dropped into an alternate reality in which his life has always been falling apart.  This is key to the Coens' brand of humor; in some ways it's similar to the awkward relationships between characters on, say, The Office, but never goes for the obvious joke.

There are a number of twists and turns along Larry's search for meaning, but compared to films like The Man Who Wasn't There or Barton Fink, A Serious Man is pretty cut and dry.  You could say that the film is sort of the Coens' version of the Old Testament story of Job, and there are indeed some elements of that, but the heart of the film lies more in simply taking life's hardships in stride rather than letting them weigh you down.  Despite such an inspirational message, however, A Serious Man is a considerably dark film, and the Coens wouldn't have it any other way.

This is a film that isn't particularly enhanced by the hi-def transfer.  The disc features Universal's standard "My Scenes" feature, which allows to you bookmark your favorite scenes, but other than that, there's nothing here that's any different from the standard DVD.  The film's blu-ray transfer does indeed look sharp and vibrant, but this is a film where story takes precedent over visual design (not to slight the Coen Bros.' direction or Roger Deakins' excellent cinematography).  It's not the kind of film with which you'd show of your home theater system, though it's definitely worthy of your blu-ray player, I guess is what I'm saying.

THE MOVIE: 8/10  -  This is vintage Coen Bros., and while it's arguable whether or not it's their best work, it definitely ranks among their most interesting.  The mix of humor and, well, seriousness isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you're familiar with the Coens' other films, you should at least get a kick out of this one.

THE BLU-RAY: 7/10  - The film looks and sounds great, though it's not outstanding as far as blu-ray transfers go.  Simply put, it doesn't disappoint.
THE FEATURES: 5/10  -  Coen DVDs are notorious for being scarce on the features, and A Serious Man is no exception.  Three featurettes are all you get here. "Becoming Serious", your standard 15-minute making-of feature.  "Creating 1967" is just as long, detailing the look of the film.  Finally, "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys" is exactly what it sounds like: a brief series of definitions of Hebrew vernacular for the uninitiated.  Blu-ray and DVD share the same set of features.

OVERALL:  7/10  -  A Serious Man is among Joel and Ethan Coen's best and the blu-ray transfer is impressive, though the extras are scant.  There's no reason not to pick this up, though if you have your doubts or don't have a great HD system, I'd say save yourself a few bucks and pick up the standard DVD instead.  I guarantee you'll enjoy the film just as much.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I've been waiting two years to see this movie. No, no, no.... It had nothing to do with it being Heath Ledger's last movie. No, I'm a Terry Gilliam fan. He's never made a bad movie, in my opinion. Sure, some are average, but he's at least got a stunning visual style and won't compromise his vision. This is his first movie since the very polarizing Tideland, which came out in 2006. This movie won't be quite as controversial, I don't think. It doesn't require a change of thought patterns for the viewer like that one did.

The movie is about a traveling sideshow attraction, and more specifically the people involved with it. The sideshow is run by a Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) who has lived a thousand years. See, he made a deal with the devil for eternal life. Now the devil keeps making additional bets to tease Parnassus, making Parnassus' end of the bargain possibly not need to be paid, but Parnassus keeps losing the bets. What Parnassus owes the devil is his only daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), due at the age of 16, which is just two days away. To foil things even further, another member of the team, Anton (Andrew Garfield), has a crush on Valentina, and the team rescues a man hanging by his neck from a bridge. The man turns out the be an amnesiac, who they end up calling George (Heath Ledger). He joins the team and they set off to improve people's souls. How, you may ask....? Why the fake mirror that the sideshow is about... It takes you into Parnassus' mind, where you can fulfill your deepest desires. However, the devil is often there too, to fool you into choosing selfish desires.

The movie is a bit difficult to understand at times, but then again almost all Gilliam movies are... even 12 Monkeys. The visuals are amazing, and include a sort of tango through floating broken glass, climbing ladders into the clouds, and dancing, singing, pantyhose-wearing coppers! (I'm not kidding on that last one either.) Now, I do have to point out that the movie does take a good thirty minutes or so to get going, and even then it'll leave you wondering what the heck it's trying to get to for a while. Unlike a typical Hollywood film, it's really not a build, ebb, build, ebb type of movie. It doesn't go by the same formula as those movies. In fact, as with most Gilliam movies, at the end of the movie you're left feeling somewhat cheated of something. Of what? It's hard to say. It's just a feeling I always get after every movie of his. Is it of a happy ending? A meaningful resolution? Sanity? (Usually yes on the last one...)

Now, I know most people will not be seeing this because it's Terry Gilliam. Most will be seeing it for Heath Ledger and the cameos by Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp. Well, they are in there, with Johnny Depp's screen time being the shortest, and Colin Farrell's the longest of the cameos. Heath Ledger had actually done most of the stuff he was supposed to. They changed the script so that each time the George/Tony character entered the mirror, he changed appearances... Those were the parts that Ledger had not filmed, or at least not completed. It works remarkably well.

It's not Gilliam's best work, nor his least best. It's better than Brothers' Grimm, but not quite up to the level of Time Bandits or Brazil. If you like his movies, you'll probably like this. If not, I'd stay away. It's not for everyone.

**** out of ***** (4 out of 5)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ep. 67: The Last Episode Ever?

Once again, the Front Row Center Podcast goes live tonight at 9PM (Eastern)!  Click here to visit our show page!

Tonight, we'll be tackling the many sordid issues surrounding James Cameron's Avatar.  We'll be offering up our own thoughts on the film, as well as discussing some of the ulterior readings of the film (of which there are definitely a few). 

Also tonight, we'll talk for a few minutes about Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, the Golden Globe nominees, this year's National Film Registry selections, and more.

Finally, we'll take some time to discuss the future of the show.  We may soon be switching to a new format, and whether that means leaving TalkShoe or staying on in another form remains to be seen. 

So if you'd like to discuss Avatar or Sherlock Holmes, or if you know anything about the technical side of podcasting, we'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Joe's Decade in Review: Genre Cinema All-Out Attack!

Like many others, this decade in cinema has been one of joyous highs and and dreadful lows.   While traditional fare continued on pretty much as it always had, the big-budget spectacle became a beast like no other.  Many of this decade's high-rollers were inexplicably critic-proof; no amount of negative press kept films like Transformers 2 from raking in all the money in the known universe.  Sure, some critical darlings have raked in the big bucks, but more than ever the gulf between the critic and the audience is distressingly wide. 

For better or worse, we soldier on into a new decade of cinematic surprises.  There will be inevitable excesses, as filmmakers like Matthew Vaughn, Quentin Tarantino and Rian Johnson will continue to deconstruct popular genres and blur the line between the sublime and the ridiculous.  There will be bigger and better explosions as the summer blockbuster train rolls on, so long as there's material to adapt and dollars to spend.  And there will be files; terabytes and terabytes of files.  Digital media will continue to change the way we watch movies, though it'll be a slow transition.

I could play Nostradamus from here to Doomsday, so for brevity's sake I'll leave you with these, a pair of lists.  First, my favorite movie from each year; not exactly a top ten.  I made an entire Top 100 list, and the ordering there is quite different (To see my full list, coming soon, visit my other blog here).  Then, five that I just absolutely hated.  Enjoy.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)  -  Joel and Ethan Coen have a knack for making the antiquated and mundane seem fresh and exciting, and their ode to The Odyssey (never read it, my ass) is among their most entertaining.  George Clooney is brilliant, as is the faded color palette and folksy soundtrack.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)  -  Wes Anderson's spent the past eight years trying to recreate the visual poetry of his third film, and for good reason; it's still his best.  The ensemble cast plays beautifully off one another, and the visual design is just a fantastic.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) - The whole thing is great, but if I had to pick one, it'd be The Two Towers.  There's a palpable sense of despair that the other two simply don't have, and even though Aragorn going over a cliff is the single most idiotic turn of the whole trilogy, Jackson makes up for it by having the battle at Helms Deep be one of the greatest things ever put to film.

Big Fish (2003)  -  Tim Burton's fanbase will tear me to shreds, but I don't care.  This is his best movie.  It's an ode to nostalgia, but an even bigger ode to storytelling, to embellishing the truth for the sake of entertainment.  It's probably the best film Terry Gilliam never made.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)  -  For a debut feature, Edgar Wright's zombie film is remarkably nimble in storytelling, and at the same time densely intricate in its construction.   That it's a sly comment on cultural complacency is really what sets it head and shoulders above every zombie film since (even Romero's).

Serenity (2005)  -  Almost five years on, the fanboyish fervor has worn off and I've been able to watch Serenity with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  Yup, it's still the best space opera since The Empire Strikes Back, and every bit as inventive, goofy, and thrilling as you remember.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)  -  Another film about the intricacies of storytelling, this one more obsessed with the telling than what's being told.  Will Ferrell's performance is equal parts pathetic and charming, and it's the best he's ever been. This is one I'm sure won't wind up on many Best-Of lists, largely because most see it as a poor-man's Adaptation.

Ratatouille (2007)  -  Outside of Toy Story, which lives on it's own little pedestal, this is my pick for Pixar's best film.  In typical fashion, Brad Bird pushes his animators to the limit, telling a story that's as rich in plot as it is in beautifully rendered scenery.  Much like Remy's food, this is one to savor one little bit at a time.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008)  -  Here's another film about obsession over the mundane.  What starts as an examination of competitive video gaming slowly becomes nothing less than the best sports movie of the decade.  Think I'm crazy?  Watch it and see if you aren't cheering for Steve Weibe to kick Billy Mitchell's ass at Donkey Kong.

The Brothers Bloom (2009)  - Most of you never saw this, because it only played in a couple hundred theaters, so when it hits DVD (if it hasn't already), go find it.  Nine times out of ten, I hate caper movies, but Rian Johnson's goes so far out of his way to make this the Ulysses of caper films that it won me over in spite of myself.

And because I can't leave it at just ten: Unbreakable, Snatch, Road to Perdition, Oldboy, The Incredibles, Grizzly Man, Pan's Labyrinth, No Country For Old Men, Iron Man, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Now, five things I hated this decade...

...You know what?  Throw a rock at a horror film or sex comedy and I probably hated it.  Also: remake fever, Star Trek, Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction notwithstanding), vampires, Hancock, "____ Movie"s, any Part III that wasn't Star Wars, postmodern fantasy and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Good riddance.