Aug 10, 2013

Clear History (2013)

Clear History is a stunningly unfunny comedy, a failure that's all the more disheartening when one considers that it comes from the same minds that penned some of the finest episodes of both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. Nathan Flamm (Larry David, channeling the same schtick as he did on Curb) is an eccentric marketing executive with an upstart electric car company, but the name of their new product—“Howard,” inspired in part by the main character of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead"—is so off-putting to him that he sees no choice but to sell back his share of the company and disassociate himself completely, a decision that becomes the focus of public ridicule when the car proves to be a raging, billion-dollar success. Ten years later, Flamm is in hiding on Martha's Vineyard (where the populace, oblivious to his embarrassing and financially ruinous history, knows him as Rolly DaVore) when his former boss, Jon, (Will Haney), buys a local property.

This scenario might have sufficed for a half-hour episode of television, but at feature length, it's stretched past the breaking point, and it's one not helped by the script's tendency to pass over ripe comedic opportunities for those of the obvious and uninspired variety. Given the film's blatant attempts to capitalize on David's long history of playing a socially graceless narcissist (as indicated by the script's assortment of awkward personal encounters, unfortunate coincidences, and typically David-esque pet peeves), it's somewhat astonishing when, after the invocation of Ayn Rand, Flamm's anger over the name Howard is revealed as entirely apolitical, instead proving to be merely a curmudgeon's petty reaction to something new, an unsubstantiated idea necessitated by the script to justify all that follows. Such pettiness is on display throughout Clear History, from the predictably structured setups and payoffs of the plot's disparate threads to the tossed-off and callous nature of most of the jokes (a long-gestating gag concerning the weight of Eva Mendez's character, Jennifer, feels particularly cruel) to the almost complete absence of a tangible world with rules and consequences. One of the strengths of Curb Your Enthusiasm was its creation of situations in which David's guilt or innocence was largely beside the point, and the hilarity of his existential frustration worked because of a distinct moral context that questioned the nature of justice. Clear History, by contrast, exists in a moral and ethical void.

That David manages to score a few laughs throughout is a testament to his innate talent as a comedian, but the script's rehashing of situations, gags and personal hang-ups (some of them dating as far back as the Larry David persona's original incarnation in Seinfeld's George Costanza) to such diminishing returns suggests that a different kind of characterization was called for this time around. Ostensibly, we're supposed to be rooting for Flamm, and while many a successful dark comedy has put far more reprehensible characters in the role of protagonist, Clear History's shorthanded characterizations and ethical vacuum prove so flaccid that it fails even if one views it as a nihilistic statement. Among the largely wasted cast, only Michael Keaton, as a grizzly islander with an appetite for destruction, walks away with his dignity intact, while it's roundly embarrassing to see talent like Philip Baker Hall and J.B. Smoove spinning their tires. On top of it all, the film simply looks banal and dreary, another surprising disappointment given director Greg Mottola's usual flair infusing life and energy into otherwise visually sparse locations. Clear History fulfills the mantra that Seinfeld cheekily embraced – it's a film about nothing. If the Larry David persona hadn't already jumped the shark in Whatever Works, it most certainly has now. Enthusiasm, curbed.

Jun 13, 2013

Current, HRW Film Festival, "The Guillotines," "Beetlejuice," etc.

Less output than I'd have liked the past few weeks, but given that I've finally started proper full time employment for the first time in nearly two years (as opposed to multiple part time job employment in excess of 50 or 60 hours a week), I consider this much in the way of published material to be something of a triumph.

The meatiest is by far my coverage of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which starts today and runs through June 23 (details here). I covered only six of their 20 films this year, and next year hope to go even more expansive; of the six, Camera/Woman (pictured above) was by far my favorite. At Slant Magazine you'll also find reviews of the disappointing The Guillotines as well as the recent DVD release of the complete animated Beetlejuice series. Last and, to these eyes, most certainly least (in terms of the film; as far as the writing goes, I leave that to your eyes) is my Southern Berks News piece on J.J. Abrams' rank Star Trek Into Darkness. Retch.

May 23, 2013

Current: "The Great Gatsby," "The Last Stand," etc.

A few links to catch up on. Though mixed, I'm ultimately in favor of Baz Luhrmann's all-over-the-place adaptation of The Great Gatsby, my review of which can be read online at the Berks-Mont News here. Less favorable was my take on the threadbare indie comedy 3 Geezers! at Slant Magazine, but it was a film I adored compared to the patience-testing experience that was Pilgrim Song (autopsy detailed here). The cream of the crop was my coverage of the Blu-ray release of Kim Jee-woon's The Last Stand, a Schwarzenegger action vehicle I more or less love in spite of some quibbles. More goodies to come.

May 7, 2013

Current, "Iron Man Three," "The Big Wedding," etc.

Not much new over these past few weeks, but some exciting news in that I'll now be contributing to the online (and occasionally the print) edition of The Southern Berks News. My first review for them is for this summer's first mega-release, Iron Man Three, which I rather shamelessly enjoyed (twice, actually; the 3D is ultimately unnecessary, but well rendered, surprisingly so for a post-conversion job). Why did I write out three, you ask? Because that's how the title appears onscreen, and I'm stubborn like that. Less noteworthy is the documentary Free the Mind, which I wished had proven more substantial given how endearing its subjects are, but it's still leagues away from The Big Wedding, which will likely end up on many worst-of-the-year lists.

Apr 18, 2013

Current: "Naked Lunch," "MST3K XXVI," etc.

Time to catch up on my latest critical endeavors: Murph: The Protector came and went and as near as I can tell no one cared. Fists of Legend may still be playing but, despite some energetic fighting sequences and good performances, it's hardly worth a trip to the theater. On the home video front, it's always excited when I get to review a Mystery Science Theater box set, even the tepid collection of episodes in Volume XXVI (in which I manage to read something like subtext). Last and most certainly not least is The Criterion Collection's blu-ray rerelease of Naked Lunch, a sterling package of a sterling film if I've ever seen one.

Apr 8, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942 - 2013

There isn't much I can say that hadn't already been repeated a thousandfold by this past Thursday evening. Roger was a mentor, a poet, and even though I never met or corresponded with him directly, a friend. His death comes at a crossroads in my own life and will likely be of greater influence than many live relationships I've had or will have. My first conscious awareness of Roger's presence in the world was through the Microsoft Cinemania program, and I'm grateful to have known his work and his writing as long as I have. Few others have eased the burden of existence so readily. His is a void that will never be filled; the example he gave us as a compassionate, worldly and humble man is such that it never has to be.

You will be missed.

Mar 15, 2013

Current: "Vanishing Waves," "College," etc.

Three new pieces at Slant Magazine for your reading pleasure: Vanishing Waves (pictured above), the best new film I've seen so far in 2013, is out this week in New York and other privileged locations. Greedy Lying Bastards opened last week but is still lingering and is worth a recommendation for those into the whole angry liberal diatribe thing. Finally, and most relevant (to me at least), is the newly released blu-ray of Buster Keaton's overlooked College, considered here.