Wednesday, September 28, 2016

3 Short Paragraphs: Burying the Ex

2014, Joe Dante (The Howling, Small Soldiers) -- Netflix

What movies has Joe Dante done again? I dunno; sucky ones? He's a familiar name but not one associated with quality. And along comes a low key, not very ambitious zombie rom com (that is not very funny) starring the late Anton Yelchin (bye bye Chekov) and Ashley Green, the girl from Twilight who is now relegated to click baits at the bottom of pop culture blogs ("Why Doesn't Hollywood Cast Ashley Greene Anymore?").  Oh, and my favourite blue eyes -- Alexandra Daddario.

Yelchin is a nice guy dating a not so nice girl. She is the classic depiction of how we hate green bloggers, our collective dismissal of people who care about the Environment while not giving a shit about their relationships. She's gorgeous and looks good on paper, but she's manipulative. And then she gets hit by a bus; literally. But Yelchin works in a LA horror shop and one the shipments contained an evil genie thing, so his GF rises from the dead, to continue their "perfect" relationship. Meanwhile, during the mourning period, Yelchin fell for the ice cream ("i scream") girl of his dreams; someone who was not only stunningly beautiful but someone he had a lot in common with. Two girls at the same time but one is dead?  Instant hah hah! Then how come the movie is not really all that funny?

The thing is I liked it. It is a weird, confused little movie more tragedy than laughs but it had charm. Yelchin and Daddario really do exude chemistry, and I have a fondness for movies that spotlight a particular lifestyle. These are horror kids, the kinds who go to rep theatres to watch classic black & white monster movies, who have posters and toys all over their place, who still collect VHS tapes because many movies have not been reissued. They live in a small section of LA, probably near old Hollywood, and the movie lets you get the idea of what it is like to live there. And they also reflect the audience who watch this kind of of movie. And I guess it takes these kind of kids to accept a zombie ex-GF (well not accept accept, but not entirely freak out) and properly process the breakup.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pilot Season '16: Son of Zorn

Fox, Sundays @8:30

again with the "awkward family photo"
style poster. Perhaps the best use of it in
a while, but this trend has got to die.
Hell, if people can stop using the
vocorder/digital tuning then surely this
style of promo poster can cease too...
If there's one show I want to love this season, it's Son of Zorn.  It's produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller  (whom astute readers of this blog [haha, astute readers of this blog...like that's a thing] will recognize from reviews of The Lego Movie, the Jump Street movies and even Last Man on Earth) purveyors of askew storytelling and whose every involvement seems to be worth my attention.  (The show's creators, Reed Agnew and Eli Jorné, I'm not familiar with, nor showrunner Sally McKenna). 

The show's premise seems like it was extruded from my own brain... Zorn is an animated a He-Man analogue (voiced by Jason Sudekis) who has been estranged from his son for nearly a decade fighting battles in the island of Zephyria.  He's returning to Orange County (a real, non-animated environment, populated with real, non-animated people) for his son's birthday.  There he reunites with his ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines) and meets her new husband, an on-line college professor, Craig (Tim Meadows!), but can't seem to connect with his son, Alan (short for Alanguilan, naturally... played by a seriously aged-down Johnny Pemberton).  Zorn is a warrior, a barbarian, and Alan is scrawny, and a vegan no less, there's not much in the way of common ground.

It's a classic sit-com fish-out-of-water trope, but with added levels.  Having an animated character invade a real-world setting has inherently comedic value, making it a homage to a beloved 80's cartoon (there's some deep-seeded Masters of the Universe references in there that only fans would catch) just steps it up a notch.  But the show doesn't just rest upon its weirdness.  It's attempting to have some substance to its characters while also having more than just (many, many) clever visual gags up its sleeve.  There's dimensions to the comedy, thankfully.

And yet, it's not a success right out the gate.  There's definite potential, but, if anything, it's too reserved in using its conceit, where it should be using it took hook especially in the pilot.  There's not enough foundation to Zorn.  Intrinsically we're supposed to assume the aggressive alpha male, but if he's a He-Man analogue (particularly one satirizing 1980's kid-shows), he should be moralistic and almost gratingly compassionate.  Instead, the show's going more head-on with the violent barbarian angle, like a refugee from Axe Cop.  We should spend more time with Zorn in Zephyria, getting a sense of what his regular life has been like (we get the sense that it's been full-on war, and he loves it, but that seems too obvious).  Hopefully the show will subvert expectations of who Zorn is, as well as who Alan is.  I already love the way the show's subverted the usual "new husband" dynamic with Craig.

Some of the jokes fall flat in the pilot.  I'm not sure if it's the timing, excessive tinkering (as happens with pilots), or just too obvious, but, still, it does end on a strong note, with Zorn presenting Alan with a giant riding-hawk for his birthday, since a boy his age needs transportation.  Edie of course says "no", and naturally Zorn deals with it as a Barbarian would, much to the horror of everyone.  Also, Ellen Wong (Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is here playing a teenager yet again (she's 30), but she's great, and I hope she's a series regular.

Definite promise, but it could fall spectacularly flat.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pilot Season '16: The Good Place

NBC, Thursdays @ 8:30

This is a terrible ad for this good show.  It's a
show that makes a point about the afterlife
being intensely multicultural and yet it
promotes with only its white leads. And doing
that 40-Year-Old-Virgin thing that's been
played out for well over a decade...sigh. 
  
For a few years in the early 2000's we (as a collective audience) were treated to surreal comedy dramas about death from the creative mind of Brian FullerDead Like Me and Pushing Daisies...hell, even Hannibal can be considered a deep black comedy in the right (/wrong) light.  So to find that The Good Place, a surreal, vibrant show about the afterlife didn't come from Fuller, but rather Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99 creator Michael Schur was rather surprising. 

There's an absolute kinship between The Good Place and Pushing Daisies most explicitly, with Daisies being the lightest and warmest of Fuller's works.  The Good Place is about a perfect society, lovingly crafted by Ted Danson's Michael (who had apprenticed for a builder for over a century), where roughly 300-400 newly dead go to live.  The catch, of course, is that this is the Good Place, where only the goodest of good people go.  The rest go to the Bad Place, and pretty much everyone winds up there.  Yet, through some kind of clerical error, Elanor (Kristen Bell) has wound up in the Good Place where she definitely doesn't belong, only Michael doesn't know it.  In fact the only person who does is her "soul mate", Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who raised himself up from poverty to be an ethics professor, and he's promised her that he won't betray her.  Now he struggles with betraying a promise and the well being of the Good Place's society, as Elanor's mere presence is causing random chaos to ensue, distressing Michael every time.  It's a fantastical twist on My Fair Lady in a way.

The pilot episode is an extremely bright and eye-popping widescreen adventure, directed by Drew Goddard (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cabin in the Woods fame), and is a very assured pilot.  The premise is well set-up, and by the episode's end the cast seems quite at ease with each other and the comedy.  The second episode, directed by Mad TV and Cougartown vet Michael McDonald, is a shocking transition as McDonald's style is far more tellingly for TV.  More close-ups and tighter framing.  It wouldn't be so noticeable if the two episodes weren't paired for a 1 hour premiere.  Even still, the show grows in its second episode and the laughs increase as do the stakes.  The cast starts to flesh out even more, (particularly Jameela Jamil as the pompous Tahani gets a bit of a showcase).

It's a strange scenario for a comedy, for sure, which may curb its mass appeal, but in the niche reality of today's TV, there's no question it should survive if it can come out the gate so strong.  The possibilities for the show increase when one realizes that there may be other Good Places to explore, new faces can arrive, and a reality that can be shaped and reshaped as it goes along on the whims of its creator.  Plus, the flashbacks of Kristen Bell being utterly terrible in her living years are hilarious, and a needed pop outside the surreal environment.




Pilot Season '16: Atlanta

FX, Tuesdays @ 10

You know how shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are big, meaty crime dramas with a seriously dark (and sometimes not-so-dark) streak of humour throughout?  They can be uproariously funny shows but they're also really, really intense.  Donald Glover's Atlanta is the flipside to that.  It's a 1/2 hour comedy foremost, but it's damn intense in its delivery.

Glover is a wunderkind, a gifted actor, stand-up comedian and rapper, but he cut his teeth with sketch (with the Derrick sketch troupe) and comedy writing on 30 Rock.  It should be no surprise to anyone that he can come out with such an assured first effort when creating his own show.

Atlanta is difficult to put into words.  It follows Glover's Earn, an underemployed college dropout (Princeton no less, a little mystery surrounding what went down there), in a stressed, uncommitted relationship with the mother of his baby.  Earn's cousin, the rapper Paper Boi, has put together a demo album that Earn thinks has real crossover promise, and Earn wants to become his manager.  Of course, navigating a cruddy, commission-based day job, his family commitments, patching his relationship with his girlfriend, and promoting his cousin while staying out of trouble, which seems all to easy to find in Atlanta is the crux of the show.

The first episode, written by Glover and gorgeously directed by Hiro Murai, opens with Earn and Paper Boi getting into a parking lot confrontation with a thug from around the way, and Paper Boi shooting the thug.  The confrontation is tense, and it casts a dark shadow as the rest of the episode jumps back and leads into the confrontation.  It's somewhat of a hindrance to the comedy, and yet the comedy does seep through the darkness.

The second episode finds Earn spending the night in holding, while Paper Boi gets released (since the guy he shot didn't stay on the scene).  It's a surreal experience for Earn, who doesn't revel in or champion the thug life, at one point seated uncomfortably between a man and his ex-lover, a trans man.  Their relationship only seems to make Earn uneasy because he's seated directly (and hilariously) between their flirtatious conversation, but he seems to be the only one in holding without any real problem with their relationship.  It's a commentary on how prejudiced segments of the black community can be about non-heteronormative culture, while also showing how out of place Earn is with that segment.  Likewise, there's also a sequence where a frequent visitor to holding starts causing a fuss, clearly in some form of psychological distress (as Earn points out), and yet the rest of the group, including the cops, find him cartoonishly amusing...until he's not, and then is beaten severely.  The system fails the people, constantly.  It's clear this is not a place where Earn can ever fit (and why would anyone want to).  Yet, having been deprived of sleep, Earn can barely muster up any fear or anxiety over his situation.  The stats are that 1 in 3 black men in America can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, and from Glover's poker face throughout, it's as if Earn has been conditioned to be here, even if he had no expectation to ever be.

Meanwhile, in this same episode, Paper Boi's single has exploded since his arrest.  People are playing his track on the radio, his name is all over the news.  Crime is good for a harcore rapper's career is the point.  Kind of fucked up.  The dream, as they say in one of the episodes, is to escape this life, to become famous so they don't have to put up with the reality that fuelled their creativity and got them famous.  Paper Boi, though, is confronted with a bit of the price of his fame.  He's exceptionally nervous that the crew of the guy he shot is out to get him.  The guy that came to his door, asking if this is where Paper Boi lives, was he just a fan, or a scout?  Paper Boi takes a walk and sees some kids shooting toy guns, one of them screaming "I shot you, just like Paper Boi."  There are pangs of regret, conflicted by the surreality of the boy's Mother, having just chided the child for his actions, wants to take a selfie with this newly minted local rap star.  There's no easy answers here, just stark juxtaposition.

The third episode takes things a little easier, as Earn, desperate to make it up to Vanessa for bailing him out, wants to take her to dinner, except he's just got paid and only has $96 in his account.  He catches wind of a budget, higher-end tapas restaurant, but learns too late their nighttime budget menu was phased out.  Meanwhile Paper Boi and his buddy Darius prepare for a drug deal that, let me tell you, takes some serious turns, some comedic and some not so much.

Atlanta is an incredibly well-shot show (the nighttime aerial tracking shot of Paper Boi and Dairus following their supplier down and long, winding, desolate highway is just gorgeous, accompanied by a chilling, downtempo hip hop thump is masterful mood setting), and an incredibly well-acted one too.  Glover, at this point, has shown his range in comedy, drama, and even genre pieces, so his restrained, nuanced performance here is no surprise.  Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi, though, is incredible.  You think from the opening sequence, seeing him angrily confront and seemingly so easily shoot a guy...you think you know him.  But he is a surprise scene after scene, the range of subtle expression he can deliver.  He's as intelligent as Earn, if not moreso, he just never went to Princeton.  He's not callous.  He's not reckless.  He's not a clown, or a buffoon, or a thug.  He does what he does to try and make himself better.  His seemingly everpresent partner, Darius, could have quite easily been the evergreen stoner cliche and provided very basic, very overt comic relief, but Darius, as written by Glover and played by Keith Stanfield, is the poetic stoner.  He's a truth teller, even if sometimes that truth is totally absurd or a non-sequitur.  Glover's restraint in creating any buffoon characters is beyond admirable.  Even Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) isn't a shrew, nagging girlfriend.  She quite clearly sees through bullshit and calls Earn on it at every opportunity.  She's a woman whose patience has run out, but isn't quite ready to give up.  Hell, Earns parents are more than willing to look after their grandchild, but they have no time for Earn beyond pleasantries (they won't even let him in the house), which is a parent-child dynamic we haven't seen.  It's not hostile, there's not a lot of ill will, just some bad experiences and tough love. 

Glover's not aping any specific formula with this show.  There's elements of Twin Peaks and Breaking Bad here.  Glover wants weird, surreal, and he wants that intensely consumable crime drama, but he also wants honesty, reality and, hell, even earnestness to creep out from the the 8 Mile/Straight Outta Compton/Hustle & Flow rapper origin story pastiche.  It's funny, but yeah, intense as hell.



Tuesday, September 20, 2016

10 for 10: Tube is sleeping edition

10 for 10... that's 10 movies/TV shows which we give ourselves 10 minutes apiece to write about.  Part of our problem is we don't often have the spare hour or two to give to writing a big long review for every movie/TV show we watch.  How about a 10-minute non-review full of scattershot thoughts? This edition's title comes from an extremely obscure Coldplay reference? Whatevs.  Time to write about old TV before the new TV season starts.  I've already seen Son of Zorn.  Sigh.
In this edition:
Love (Season 1) - netflix
Daredevil (Season 2) - netflix
Lady Dynamite (unfinished) - netflix
Last Man on Earth (Season 2) - Fox
Star Wars Rebels (Season 2) - Disney XD
Angie Tribeca (Season 1) - Comedy Network
Cooked (unfinished) - netflix
Preacher (unfinished) - AMC
Playing House (Season 1 & 2) - Shomi
Difficult People (unfinished) - Shomi

aaaaand...go...
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I don't remember anymore what show it was everyone was talking about all the time earlier this year that created such a stir.  It's gone from my memory [edit: probably Daredevil].  But what I can recall is all I wanted to talk about was Love's first season on Netflix.

Produced by Judd Apatow and co-created by/co-starring comedian/writer Paul Rust, and co-starring Greendale alum Gillian Jacobs, I thought Love would be sort of the newest amazing comedy, and it turned out to be far, far from that.  It's a comedy, but it's an upsetting and dramatic one in the guise of a rom com.  The slow burn of the show reveals how truly insular and awful these two characters are.  You start off liking, even identifying with them and it's like the show willingly dares you to continue liking them with each subsequent episode, particularly in the latter four.

Small seeds are planted from the onset of how ugly these people are inside, and those seeds blossom over 10 episodes as they fully melt down into people you're quite sure you don't want to spend time with anymore.  And yet... there's something compelling to all that.  There's a reality to who these people are, again, something identifiable.  We're all self-destructive or self-serving at times, Love's tactic is to bring that to these characteristics to the forefront more and more.

Beyond the uncomfortable or even despicable situations these characters get themselves in, there's strangely a lot to like about this show.  Favourite comedian Kyle Kinane shaves his beard and a lot of his gruff metalhead stand-up exterior for a weirdly complex and confusing ex of Jacobs, while Aussie ex-pat Claudia O'Doherty (no time to look up the spelling) is the show's brightest center at every turn.  Season 2 is coming, and I both can't wait and am dreading it. [9:52]

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Man this image is so kick-ass...if only the show looked this
cool.  I mean, it looks good, but not this good.
How have I gone this long without writing about Daredevil season 2?  Did I love it?  I think so. The wife and I took the day off work when it turned up on Netflix and with the kids away we just binged our way through it in one day.  I know for some this is the norm for some, but it's a real luxury for us.  We only broke to answer the door for the pizza guy and walk the dog.

So much of my Season 2 experience is tied to this almost-Holiday-like scenario.  Did I love the show just because I loved having the day with my specialladyfriend and geeking out all day, or did Daredevil 2 really deliver the goods?

My memory of the actual show is already quite hazy.  The Punisher arc was doubtlessly the highlight of the Season, but I don't recall a tremendous amount beyond that.  I remember Fisk was back and had a great mini-arc late in the season, but my feelings about the Season as a whole was that it wasn't totally cohesive, and that the Electra arc fell a little flat, and the climax had a major logistics flaws in it that we couldn't seem to resolve.

I liked the fact that the cast wasn't stagnant, that there wasn't a status quo the show was upholding or continually returning to.  The events of each of the characters' lives shape who they are as the season progresses.  There's no turning back.  Karen does her thing, which serves her well for about half the season then seems to drop off in how it contributes to the show, while Foggy does his thing and it's pretty wonderful...he's the real heart of the series.

As has been with Season 1 and Jessica Jones before it, the 13 episodes stretch the season arc a bit too far.  By the time the show reaches episodes 11 & 12 it feels like it should be over and is padding for time.  It's a step up from Season 1 and even Jessica Jones, but still the showrunners here need to ask Netflix if they can scale back their seasons to meet the demands of the story or else have something else going on (which could be dangerous). [19:28]

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As a comedy fan it took me a while to warm to Maria Bamford's unique storytelling, characters and presentation, but since I've adjusted then I've become a very receptive fan to her utterly distinct comedic style.  Bamford's sensibilities aren't just evident in her new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, but they dominate the show.  I can't think of a more idiosyncratic scripted comedy.

Lady Dynamite is quasi-autobiographical, a fictionalization of Bamford's time as a struggling actor/comedian in Los Angeles, to her time in a mental institution her hometown in Minnesota after a breakdown, to being an established-yet-still-struggling actor/comedian in Los Angeles.  It jumps between these three distinct time periods without any real cues that it's doing so, and it's a little bewildering as a result.  I think as a whole though it might come together better as I found watching episodes 2 and 3 back-to-back a little more amenable, less befuddling.

The show has no qualms about breaking the forth wall, and does so in both a meaningful and disarming fashion.  It's not just Bamford doing it, however, as guest appearances from actor/comedian friends like Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn often are accompanied by some fourth-wall busting commentary about the nature of the show or elements thereof.

Produced by Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz, there's definitely a seed of his in the show too, his proclivity towards running gags, long build-ups to gags, and call-backs are all seeded in here.  I'm keen to finish the season, but my wife hasn't had the same desire. [29:51]

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Even if you don't like the show, you have to admire Forte's
commitment to the beard and scrag hair, then later his commitment
to the half-shaved head/face. That's not a wig/makeup, he lived
that for weeks.
I quite enjoyed the first season of Will Forte's Last Man on Earth [edit:link to review], and did heartily recommend it to many a friend.  But I know a lot of people came back to me finding it unfunny, depressing, and/or unlikable.

To me part of its genius was how Forte's character, Phil Miller, revealed himself to be an ugly, awkward, selfish human upon the arrival of other people in his life, starting with Carol (the always delightful Kristen Schaal) but not stopping there.  By the end of season 1, Phil had told so many lies and sabotaged every relationship he made for no real gain of his own that he wound up as alone as he was at the start (a figurative Last Man, rather than a literal one).  His ego was so fragile that he couldn't handle that what others brought to the table wasn't an indictment of who he was as a person.  The show got pretty deep as well as uncomfortable.

Season 2 returned with a softer Phil/Tandy, one who was fervently trying to be a better man in spite of himself.  There were still characters who were wary of Phil's ability to change, and even with obvious growth as a human being he's an extremely aggravating or annoying person, but this softer Phil/Tandy is much more fun to watch.  The season mostly deals with his reunion with the group, and then bring his brother down from space, causing a resurgence of the old Phil for a brief period of time (what is it about family that can bring out the worst in us).

The show alternates between hilarious and shocking, funny and heart-wrenching.  It manages its post apocalyptic setting with strange reality that in no way lessens its status as a comedy, but also doesn't mute the horrors of the reality.  It's a unique show, a marvel on network TV. [39:50]

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Season 1 of Star Wars Rebels [edit: review of Season 1] took its sweet time revealing that it wasn't just a kind of knockoff of either the Original Trilogy or the Prequels, that it had its own story to tell.  It was really towards the end -- as it started to show its connection to the Star Wars universe as a whole (both TV and cinematic efforts) and exhibiting that there's a larger story arc at play -- that it really took off and made season 2 a must watch.

And season 2 delivered.  Far less inconsistent than season 1, this past year of Rebels had drive and purpose for almost every character.  Ezra's journey was naturally the centerpiece, but Hera also became a much more developed character.  Zeb even got a focus episode which ended with one of the most stunning sequences on TV anywhere this past year.

Of course the crew of the Ghost have grown over two seasons into favourite characters, but it's the bridging of The Clone Wars into this series that has made the show truly great.  Bringing Ahsoka, Rex, Maul and even Hondo back all lead to stellar (no pun intended) episodes this season, while a reappearance of Lando, a guest shot of Leia, and Grand Moff Tarkin among other Original Trilogy figures only brighten the overall experience.

Most satisfying, naturally, was the confrontation between Darth Vader and Ahsoka in the season finale.  Brillaint, dark, and intense.  The show can be overly cartoony, particularly with Zeb and Chopper, but when it skews into real, palpable emotional content it's some of the finest entertainment out there.  It's not afraid to challenge its audience, to provoke them, even to disappoint them.  It really does want to balance the dark and the light.  Can't wait for season 3. [49:14]

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I grew up with the Naked Gun movies as regular viewing.  Absurd humour, obtuse characters, taking turns of phrases literally, these things I appreciate because of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker's films.  Airplane was a little before my time, as was Top Secret, but Naked Gun was right in the sweet spot (all three of them were, in fact... even Hot Shots).  But since the ZAZ trio split, one of them devolving into right-wing-propeganda comedy, there's been a decided absence of this refined stupid humour anywhere in cinema.  Sure the Not Another... and Scary Movie series try for this very type of humour but fail miserably with lowest common denominator tactics.  The ZAZ formula was all about delivering sleezy jokes with a poker face, with an unawareness of how lewd or bad they were.  Behind the camera it was all winking but in front it was all business.

Angie Tribeca, created by married ex-Daily Show alums Steve Carrell and Nancy Walls, intentionally mimics the ZAZ style, and is in fact quite devoted to it.  Angie Tribeca wants to be Police Squad/Naked Gun and works hard to do so.  It succeeds about half the time, which means that some episodes succeed most of their run time while others are flopping and gasping for life as they play out.

The Naked Gun movies, being movies, are so very, very tight.  Having 13 episodes (or maybe it was only 10, no time to look it up) means that Tribeca has to fill a lot more time, a lot more quickly, and with less budget for bigger visual gags, and therefore can't succeed as often.

The cast is great (I mean, it's Rashida Jones, come on!) and everyone involved is utterly game for what's at play.  It's not the greatest show ever, but it has its joys. [1:00:08]

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A few years back I read a book called "In Defense of Food", and it quite literally changed my life and how I eat and shop for food.  That one book I must have loaned to a half dozen people (it would have been more but it never came back after the last loan-out), and I would deem it to be one of the most important books of the decade (the 00's).  Its writer, Michael Pollan, continues to explore the topic of food and our relationship to it.  He's written more books (which I unfortunately have yet to read) and he's produced a few documentaries on food, including Cooked, which is currently available on Netflix.

Unlike a lot of people who like to write about food, Pollan isn't interested in shaming you about what you eat, he recognizes that driving home a message doesn't have to include alienating or putting down the audience.  Instead he seeks to educate and reshape how we think about what we eat.  He never resorts to the cliche of "everything in moderation" but that could be one of his basic tenets.

The first episode of Cooked he deals with cooking with fire, our history and different uses... from native tribes in Africa to the steel drum bbs of America's south.  Pollan doesn't tell you outright that anything is bad, but tries to get you to reconsider your relationship with meat... which doesn't mean abandoning it, but respecting it.

I love this even handed approach.  The only people its bound to piss off are adamant vegans/vegetarians, but he's not playing to that crowd.  Pollan, as an educator is trying to reach the masses as much as possible, to relate to them, and to hopefully change minds willingly, subtly, rather than forcefully.  Arm people with the knowledge to let them change their own minds. [1:09:44]

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I read Preacher back in the day.  I would say I even liked it.  But Preacher was just one of 4 dozen books I was reading each month back then.  It's been off my radar for over a decade.  I've read literally thousands of comics since then.  It left a faint impression but it's not one of my holy grails of comics, it's not one of my treasured collections, and it's not even been one I've been too keen on revisiting. 

I recall Preacher being smart but provocative, purposefully disgusting and outrageous.  It's was high-fallutin' Grindhouse for the Tarantino generation, Irish writer Garth Ennis' skewed take on southern U.S. cowboy culture and sensibilities. An adaptation has been threatened for a very long time.  This one finally stuck, coming to us from two Canadians, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and the channel that brought us Mad Men and The Walking Dead.

The first two episodes of Preacher feel suitably at home on AMC.  Rogen and Goldberg capture the sense of the comic without needing to literally adapt it.  They deliver a tone that's less off-putting, but also not designed strictly for mass appeal.  It is afterall a violent modern-day western about a Preacher who gains the power of the "Word of God" from an alien, a hyperviolent renegade woman, and a venomous Irish vampire.  It's not exactly standard fare.

I liked what Rogen and Goldberg did, and was willing to continue on, but the show got away from me in the summer timeslot.  It definitely had a slow burn feel, but you could also tell once it hit boiling point, it would rumble.  Look forward to catching a Preacher marathon on AMC soon. [1:19:31]

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Some sitcoms just leave a pleasant taste in your mouth.  They fill your brain with little noodles, little phrases or expressions or even just certain ways of saying things that become part of your life.  Shows like Arrested Development, or Seinfeld, or Community just live on in memes in your mind, if not on-line as well.  Playing House does just that, but in its own special way.  It's not as big or bright or expensive or long-lived a comedy as those that appear on Network TV and live on through syndication, but its got immense, underrated, raw talent behind it, and that's hard to keep down.

By nature of being a USA Network TV show, Playing House doesn't quite get the exposure it should.  But creators Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham are two mighty comedians who will have their voices heard.  Both have cropped up in other places (St. Clair on Review on Comedy Central and Parham on the aforementioned Lady Dynamite) but they are most at home in characters they created themselves and can fuel their unique brand of best friend humour.

The thrust of the show find St. Clair's Hong Kong-based high powered sales exec Emma returning to her small, midwestern hometown for the first time in a long time to see Parham's Maggie before Maggie gives birth.  Whiles she's there Maggie and her husband have a long festering arguement and break up.  Emma quits her job and decides to stay with Maggie to help her raise her baby.

It's a simple enough premise, but the show feeds in suitable romantic comedy complications like Emma's ex-boyfriend Marc (Keegan Michael Key, yay!) and Emma's estranged mother (the wonderful Jane Kaczmarek from Malcolm in the Middle), as well as actually establishing a real and mature relationship between Maggie and her ex-husband.  The show is smart with how it subverts expected sitcom tropes, and it's hilarious mostly in the nature of Maggie and Emma's playfulness with each other and the people around them.  2 seasons, so far, 18 episodes total, it's not enough.  3rd season is promised but can't come fast enough.  In the meantime check out St. Clair and Parham's hilarious podcast, "Womp It Up", a spinoff of "Comedy Bang Bang". [1:33:34]

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Difficult People has had two seasons and it's only been in the past month that I've heard of it.  I've caught Billy Eichner's un-gameshow Billy on the Street only a handful of times but quite enjoyed it, and I though he was great as the always angry Craig on Park and Recreation.  I've had even less exposure to comedian Julie Klausner, having hear her on the occasional podcast and a couple of her smaller stand-up sets, but I like her too.  A series created by Amy Pohler, and starring these two just seems like something a comedy nerd like me should be into.  And I am.  Finally.

Mercifully, despite its title, Difficult People does not mean Despicable People.  Julie and Billy aren't bad people, they're just a little self involved (no more so than most) and a little bitter in life, having reached a certain age and not really had the success they desired in life.  Julie seems to get paid (maybe) mostly for writing, while Billy waits tables during the day (the staff at his restaurant are fantastic, including an underutilized Gabourey Sidibe) and they work as a comedy team doing sets at night.  They're best friends, having a relationship Julie's husband Arthur seems envious but not jealous of.   Arthur (played by Dr. Venture himself, James Urbaniak) is a wonderful character, he seems dutiful as a husband, but also a perpetual third wheel to Julie's relationship with Billy.  He's not unliked, or even without agency, but he's hilarious as a character who's outside looking in on a relationship which surpasses his own.

It's not quite a binge watch worthy show, but it's quite funny.  Its plots are so small stakes that any awkwardness is usually mitigated by this fact.  I'll pick up an episode whenever there's 20 minutes to spare.  [1:44:16]

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Over time.  I went a bit long with Playing House, but that's cause I love it so much.  Really I liked all of these shows (except maybe Love, which I kind of am more fascinated by than like or respect), but Playing House has become a particular favourite.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Rewatch: They Live

1988, John Carpenter (Vampires) -- Netflix

We are not on a John Carpenter binge but in June we re-watched The Thing. And not long after we re-watched this.  THIS is one of those post-high school movies for me, when catch lines were still a thing. "I am here to chew bubble gum and kick ass; and I am all out of bubble gum," Rowdy Roddy Piper says as he walks into a bank with a loaded shotgun, knowing full well the bank will be full of the aliens that have quietly invaded earth. Roddy is not a good actor, but he really falls into the role. Seriously, he is not an actor at all, but he genuinely does a decent job of playing an out of work guy just looking for honest pay when he stumbles across an alien invasion conspiracy -- one that has been on the go for quite a while.

I remember loving this movie when I first saw it, thinking it was a cut above what else was out there. But really, no it is just a classic John Carpenter flick -- not very good but done with a lot of oomph. And it is quite the man's man movie. It dedicates an inordinate amount of time to a fight scene between Roddy and Keith David. I know I know, the guy was a wrestler and his fans are in the audience, but these guys keep on going at it again and again. And in the end they are friends, because that is how manly men make friends? Dunno; was never one of the club.

The movie is set in a divisive period, that could be the late 80s, but could be now. The wealthy are wealthy and employed; the poor are poor and living in shanty towns. Do shanty town still exist? Tent towns? Or have we knocked them all down and forced the indigent into shelters and group homes... and prison? Its not likely we have reduced the number of homeless. So, the movie bases itself out of a small one on some edge of LA. But really, it exists only to be knocked down once the aliens realize residents are involved in the resistance.

I love the whole core of the alien invasion, so Twilight Zone or Outer Limits influenced. When Rowdy puts on the sunglasses, the Arnie inspired glasses, he sees the current world as it really is -- a massive black & white pastiche of subliminal messages and drab 50s style. The aliens have come with their skeletal, bug eyed look and adapted entirely to the 1% lifestyle on Earth. Quietly they live the privileged life while most Earthlings barely scrape by. And broadcast world-wide is a signal that makes us susceptible to the messages everywhere -- on billboards, on TV, in every magazine, on every poster, etc. Obey, marry and reproduce, conform, submit, consume, etc. All those familiar messages that even now the freaky left accuses the Authority of actually transmitting into our brain. But this movie was pre-Internet, so can you imagine how this would have been done in the age of Facebook, blogs, smart phones and the Kardashians ?  Scares the hell out of me.

I wonder how Carpenter will feel that this movie will be relegated to re-run theatres and late night movie stations.  movie that is so inspired by old 50s movie and serial TV shows, is now the old, retro horror movie. It is the B Schlock flick that will be looked upon with amusement by the kids of today, sort of like we looked at the Atomic Age movies.

Fuck it, I am using the fan art posters from Dr. Monster. I actually stole it from someone else's blog post about alternate Carpenter posters.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I Saw This!! -- Rewatch Central

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so.  Here's five old movies Graig has probably written about before, elsewheres on the intertubes.

Rewatch: Ghostbusters - 1984, d. Ivan Reitman (TMN on demand)
Rewatch: Ghostbusters II - 1989, d. Ivan Reitman (TMN on demand)
Rewatch: 5 Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit) - 1968, d. Roy Ward Baker (TCM)
Rewatch: Soylent Green - 1973, d. Richard Fleischer (TCM)
Rewatch: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - 2010, d. Edgar Wright (Blu-ray)
Rewatch: Beverly Hills Cop - 1984, d. Martin Brest (Much)
Rewatch: Into the Night - 1985, d. John Landis (Shomi)
Rewatch: Oz, the Great and Powerful - 2013, d. Sam Raimi (Netflix)
Rewatch: Zardoz - 1973, d. John Boorman (DVD)

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How many times have I seen Ghostbusters in my life?  I couldn't tell you, but it's been a lot.  It's not one of my favourite movies, and it doesn't hold a super special place in my childhood (certainly not like Masters of the Universe or Star Wars).  If I've seen it so many times, it's because it's a damn entertaining movie.  But at the same time, coming out of the modern reboot and all the unwarranted controversy around that film, I felt it best to go back to the original and have another look.

It is, quite frankly, just as entertaining today as it ever was.  It's got some absolute classic moments in cinematic history, ones that the reboot just can't replicate, and in trying it hurts.  But what the classic Ghostbusters doesn't really have is much cohesion.  There's no sense of what Peter Venkman and Ray Stanz' relationship is really about.  Any character and relationship building seemed to have wound up on the editing room floor in favour of Bill Murray's amazing quipping and skeevy come-ons.  It is an ensemble piece, but Murray is its de facto star.  Venkman's sheer brassiness make him the loudest and most visible, putting Ray, Egon, and especially Winston deep in the background.  The only character able to steal scenes from Murray is Rick Moranis' Louis Tully (Moranis, more than anything, makes the movie for me).

I went into this latest viewing looking for flaws, and I found them... again, largely in the fact that there's almost no interpersonal dynamics between the lead characters, it's all Murray playing off them (and on top of this, Venkman is a skeevy douche, teetering between charming and gross at every moment).  It's only Moranis and Sigourney Weaver who get outside of Murray's sphere of influence and have a chemistry of their own (both as Louis and Dana, and as Vinz and Zuul).  What the reboot lacked compared to the original, besides Rick Moranis, was both the maturity and immaturity.  It was a film more clearly designed to appeal to a younger audience (and be approved by parents), while the classic Ghostbusters' appeal with children was a happy accident out of a film intended for adult audiences.

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Now, people complain about the rebooted Ghostbusters tarnishing the original's impact, which is complete bullshit.  As I just said, watching it again today, it hasn't lost its entertainment factor one iota.  At the same time, there already was a movie that quite possibly could have tarnished the original's impact and destroyed the franchise for good, and it starred the same cast as the original, was directed by the original director, and was written by the original's creator.  So let's call a spade a spade, these's fanatical "critics" of the new Ghostbusters are sexists and racists, and not really fans of anything other than trying to make others feel bad about themselves.

Ghostbusters II isn't a great film.  Most of the charm of Ghostbusters is missing, primarily because very few of the people involved really wanted to be doing it.  The success of the first film, and subsequent cartoons and toys meant the studio pressure was on to make another.   Many complain about the fact that the film starts out with the Ghostbusters down on their luck, pretty much forgotten as saviors, and with paranormal activity on the wane.  Dana and Peter dated for a time, but broke up because, well, Peter's an asshole, as we kind of surmised from the first movie, but now she's a single mom (the dad took off to Europe).  Dana becomes a target for paranormal activity because her new boss (Peter MacNichol, speaking with an overblown, indeterminate European accent) is even creepier than Venkman in his advances, and becomes the servant of a demon trapped in an old painting at the museum where they work.

On purely a story front, Ghostbusters II is decent, with a great villain and some memorable ghost detecting moments (the sewers of slime have been seared into my memory for decades), but the film fails in the comedy factor at almost every turn (MacNichol, really, is the only exception).  Annie Potts and Rick Moranis get Janine and Louis together, but they really can't make any magic happen comedically.  Once again, Venkman is so focused on Dana in the script that he has no time to build relationships with the other characters, so in two films over 5 years, they establish zero chemistry between the Ghostbusters.   Egon is twisted from antisocial to just plain weirdo, while Ray and Winston are there, but really not presences in the film at all.

The film also fails in structure, following the beats of the original far too closely, including yet another visit to the mayor (same mayor) and suit of some kind trying to shut them down.  It's redundant.  There are plenty of points in the film where things happen solely to advance the plot, logic be damned, and while passably watchable, the film just isn't all that fun.  At least in the remake everyone wanted to be there and you could sense there was some fun being had. With Ghostbusters II everyone fell asleep at the comedy wheel.

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5,000,000 Years to Earth, also known as Quatermass and the Pit, is a wonderful slow-burn science fiction thriller from Hammer Studios, based on a teleplay from the mid-50's.  Quatermass was Britain's first TV hero, a template for Doctor Who and paranormal investigators for years to follow, Kolchak, Sapphire and Steel and the X-Files all owe Quatermass at least some small debt.


It's wonderful to see 50's compressed sci-fi executed on a bigger (relatively) 60's film budget.  There's a congested feel to the story, which involves tunnel workers discovering a spacecraft, a millennia old, as they're digging new tunnels.  The properties of the ship have a disastrous effect on people who touch it, so investigating it must be taken with the utmost care.  Of course, nobody really knows what they're doing with it, and ultimately, it's purpose is revealed to be cataclysmic.  Bernard Quatermass is a man of science, but he's also a man of caution so there's no rushing into action here, and he's respected, mostly, so there's not a lot of disregarding his expert opinion.  Almost everything negative that happens is the result of an accident and not foolish, script-dictated behavior.

If you're familiar with Hammer's horror catalog, you know that they take their fantastical quite seriously.  There's not a hint of camp in a Hammer Horror film, and that follows suit into this, one of their rare excursions into science fiction.  This is a direly serious, methodical film, but the better for it.  Like all Hammer films, it's sumptuously lit, and looks fantastic, even though it's obviously all sets and sound stages.  The craftsmen and women, from sets and costumes to lighting and sound design, all deliver to create a film so very much a part of its time, and yet somehow timeless.  It's perhaps too dry for the casual viewer, but genre fans should find much to appreciate.

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If you're of a certain age, your main reference for Soylent Green was as a driven-into-the-ground bit on Saturday Night Live where Phil Hartman (R.I.P.) would pull out his Chuck Heston impersonation screaming "It's people!!!", mimicking the end of this film with only slight exaggeration.  This totally spoiled the ending and made an utter mockery of the film.  I didn't watch the film for a long time because I thought it was MST3K-worthy camp, but when I finally watched it (probably on Space or Bravo near the end of the 20th Century) I was not only wrong, but captivated.  Here was a film from the 70's that was feeling a lot of anxiety about our potential future.  Set in 2022, the world is massively overpopulated, the temperatures are brutal, natural vegetation is almost impossible to grow (and thus reserved for only the rich), as is livestock (again, for the rich).  Most of the population survives on Soylent rations, processed bars that are enough to keep one alive, if not satiated.  The Soylent rationing days, however, are a mob scene, a nightmare of angry, hungry hordes.

Charlton Heston is a police detective, called in to investigate the murder of one of society's upper class.  In this not-so-far-fetched future, Heston is middle class, since he has a home (a small apartment which he shares with a book-loving older gentlemen who helps with research in his investigations), and doesn't sleep in the stairwells or live in a car village.  The gap between rich and middle class is a hypothetical extension of today's examination of the 1% vs the 99.  The gap between middle class and destitute is not far off at all.  Through Heston's investigation of the murder we get a fascinating tour through this completely fucked-up, frightening, and all-too-possible future world.  There's such a tangible sense of malaise to the whole thing, as if almost the entirety of humanity has given up and are just waiting for death.  In fact, for some, this is the case, and death centers offer a spacious, peaceful and tranquil assisted end to your own miserable existence.  These centers are bright beacons in the toxic, sweaty, greasy world, the shiny lure to bait the fish.

Obviously we know where this story ends.  Soylent Green is made of people, indeed.  But it's the procedure that the film takes us through that makes it more than worthwhile in getting to that "twist" ending.  This is the film M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to live up to his entire life.  But the twist isn't even remotely what makes the whole experience worth it.  It's compelling, and visually arresting.  The effects are mostly practical, so New York feels utterly claustrophobic and dank beyond comprehension.  The film's spartan soundtrack leaves the ambient noise to fill the gaps in dialogue, which, along with the visuals and a never-less-glamorous Heston (and that's saying something) will have you feeling parched and in need of a shower by the end.  It's a movie set in the (at this point) very near future, but it's still a future as envisioned from the 1970's so it's a weird hybrid of futuristic and retro at the same time, but it makes clear that fashion and technology virtually ceased advancing from the 70's.  It's a bottle city, stuck in time with no way out.  Honestly, I'm not sure this isn't a masterpiece of science fiction.

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I love Edgar Wright's movies.  His Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End) are each equally fantastically entertaining movies.  Some very prominent critics list Shaun as his masterpiece, a game-changing blend of comedy, romance and horror, and I can't argue too much with that.  At the same time, I personally am so attached to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that I can't possibly agree.  Scott Pilgrim is an aberration of cinema, it shouldn't exist.  It doesn't work the way cinema is supposed to work.  It doesn't tell a story the way cinema wants its stories told.  It's at once infatuated with video games and indie rock, but it doesn't center its story around them, they're just two of many aspects of the story.  It pretends to be a romantic comedy, but it's got far too much Anime-inspired action to give that an earnest whirl.  Plus, it's not really about romance... it's not a "boy chases girl" story, even though that's kind of exactly what it is.  It's really a "boy chases girl but really is chasing himself".

I could live quite happily if Scott Pilgrim were one of, say, 10 movies left in the world.  It's such a sassy, snappy, hilarious, sensitive, passionate, dazzling, adjective,...just, experience.  It will visually and audibly overwhelm you at the same time, and in alternating fashions.  It dares not to make a lot of sense sometimes (Vegan Police?!?) but that's part of what makes it so wonderful.  It's its own surreal reality existing inside a very real, very tangible Toronto of 2009.  It's a snapshot of this awkwardly glorious cultural stew pot of a city, one that's already changed in the intervening half-dozen years, and will continue to change.  But Scott Pilgrim, by its end, is comfortable with what it is.  Wright isn't reaching for timeless, he's making a pill of a film, a capsule to be swallowed that's like taking the red pill and the blue pill simultaneously.

Some criticism levied at the film is that Ramona Flowers, Scott's object of affection, is a cypher, with no real agency, and it's true, from a certain point of view...that view being Scott's.  This strange surreality exists in Scott's point of view, and from Scott's point of view, Ramona doesn't really become her own person until the very end of the film.  Until then, she is his ideal, she is what he wants/needs/thinks her to be.  He doesn't see her for who she truly is, until the end, and at that very end, where they walk off together, it's all possibility with no certainty.  Scott and Ramona could be a real-deal couple forever and ever, or they could break up a short time later.  But at least they will give it a shot with both eyes open to themselves and each other.  This is a film about growing as a person.  And indie rock.  And kickass fighting.  And funny shit.

(My 14-year-old bad-mouthed this film the other week, saying it was awful, that it made no sense.  His current viewing preference is crappy Nickelodeon teen comedies and cartoons so I can't really take his opinion seriously.  After much discussion, he didn't concede his standpoint, but I realized that he's too young to get it.  It's so saturated in pop culture concepts from the 90's and 00's that someone his age hasn't had time to intake much of that pop culture, especially given his undiscerning viewing tendencies.)

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The first Beverly Hills Cop movie is pure magic.  Eddie Murphy is utterly magnetic and completely ego-free.  He struts around the screen with confidence in his character and his performance, it all seems so easy and natural for him.  There's no questioning who he is... he is Axel Foley, a full fledged detective from Detroit.  Even though Murphy was only 22 at the time of shooting, it`s not hard to buy him in the role of a smart, capable, and more than a little reckless.  He owns this movie almost completely, only Bronson Pinchot's Serge is able to steals a moment or two from him.

I`ve seen the film about a dozen times, almost always on late night TV, and even if it`s halfway through I still get sucked into it.  It`s just a goddamn charming movie, every time Axel smiles, I get giddy.  He`s such a good guy character.  He really cares about people, except maybe the bad guys, but he will go to great lengths for them.  He`s not a malicious prankster, he`s not solely self serving.  I mean, there`s a tremendous amount of bending and outright breaking the rules that Axel does in this movie (so many cop and lawyer shows in the years since this film have made us all somewhat amateur experts in what is and isn't kosher in police procedurals) but either the film doesn't acknowledge the rules or it`s letting Axel get away with it (and sometimes not).

The soundtrack, from the Pointer Sisters` "Neutron Dance" to the immortal "Axel F" by Harold Faltermeyer make the film as much as they date it.  But the songs just work, in part because they haven't been overused since then (though the sequels did their best to try and drive "Axel F" into the ground) and that they are so complimentary to the film's bright 80's aesthetic.  Martin Brest's direction is so innocuous, it gets the story told and the job done without ever really calling attention to itself, which means there's no creative flourishes, but also very little wrong with it either.

It's hard to write a review about Beverly Hills Cop, because its a film that just is.  There's not much to be critical about, and most people who are reading this are in all likelihood quite familiar with it.  It's straight up entertainment, I would be curious to find someone who didn't enjoy it (I'm basically setting David up here for a patentent "we disagree" moment).  It's not terribly deep or artistic but even still it's an essential part of the cinematic landscape, a touchstone of the 80's that continues to live on.  The sequels offer diminishing returns on an exponential level (the third one finds Murphy practically sleepwalking his way through it), but they can't tarnish the original.  It's just a pleasure to come back to time and again.

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The write-up on Shomi for Into the Night seemed to indicate that Michelle Pfeiffer was a spy who disrupts Jeff Goldblum's life.  Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum?  I admit I was curious.

From the opening moments of the opening credits, with the thudding BB King-sung theme I had a feeling of familiarity.  By the time we get to Jeff Goldblum and his insomnia problem (and David Cronenberg as his not so understanding boss, just one of many directors John Landis stunt-casted into this film...see also himself, Jim Henson, Amy Heckerling, Lawerence Kasdan and Jonathan Demme, amongst others) I knew I had seen the film before.  I checked this very blog but entering "Into the Night" in the search bar pulled up a whole swath of results with it's trio of all too common words.

Turns out though, I have already done a write-up, and I was a little harsher on it then than I would be now.  I think I didn't give Ed, as a character, enough credit.  Goldblum has to play exhausted, so it Ed is a little laissez-fair throughout the film, it's a decided choice on his part.  Really though, once I realized I had seen it, I still kept watching, so it really can't be that bad.  And it isn't.

Pfeiffer is absolutely gorgeous, but she's playing a real character, not just a pretty face.  The fact that Diana (seen by others as a gold digger) seems to genuinely care for the much, much older man who was her sugar daddy speaks volumes about her as a character.  She's savvy and tough, reckless and fearless.  She's not a diva, she's not a femme fatale, she's not a vixen, she's a woman who got herself in a tough situation and she's grateful that Ed's there to help her dig her way out.

My original assessment that "Landis was trying, and trying hard, to make a big-time romantic-action-comedy romp" was kind of wrong, while also being right.  I think Landis was trying for all these things but not trying to be all these things at once.  The film is flavoured with those genre's but feels more like a stew, a precursor to Coen Brothers' kind of unclassifiable films.  It's just that Landis didn't make a career out of these kind of undefinable "all dressed" projects, so it sticks out as an admirable effort, but not necessarily a thoroughly successful one.  The flourishes like Diana's brother, the Elvis impersonator, or David Bowie's assassin character, or even the last minute FBI intervention are all of the almost too crazy to not seem real (as Noah Hawley, creator of the Fargo TV show has said, the "Based on a true story" conceit/lie allows them to intone from the outset that any bizarre thing is so out there that it must be plausible)

What I appreciated the second time around was the lack of forcing Ed and Diana into coupledome.  They technically run away with each other at the end, but it's more a sense of escaping with each other, and less an outright romantic attraction.  Diana is far too concerned with resolving her situation to look at Ed with anything but gratitude, while Ed, despite Diana's remarkable beauty, is far too tired, far too worn down by life to think anything about her, running on autopilot with a sense of decency to help her out.  It's not a romantic action comedy, because there's no real romance, but watching two good looking people get chased around 1980's LA at night and happen across all manner of strangeness ...well, there really are worse ways to spend two hours.  I'm glad I caught it again...and I look forward to the next time I forget I've watched it.

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I've become a bit of an Oz buff in the time since I last reviewed Oz, the Great and Powerful, doing a fair bit of reading and research into the background of Oz and its creation, even catching up on some of Frank Baum's follow-up stories to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  I'm no where near a hardcore fan but I've really become endeared to this curious and fantastical land.  I like that Baum's expansion of his fantasy universe didn't immediately involve retreading the same plot or even the same characters, but unlike, say, Narnia, it doesn't feel radically different, the terrain begins to feel familiar.

In the intervening years since I saw Oz:TG&P in theatres, I've been less kind to it in my memory than my initial review would indicate.  A criticism that the film puts a male protagonist as the central figure in what was historically, and by design, a female-led series (Baum's mother-in-law was a leading feminist thinker of the time, and her influence is felt in his series) has weighed heavily on my opinion of the movie.  And it is indeed a valid criticism.  Particularly Mila Kunis' Theodora (who eventually turns into the Wicked Witch of the West) seems to be reduced to a lovesick/jilted woman cliche (Kunis does play the hell out of it though).  She is, however, being strongly manipulated by her very manipulative older sister, Evanora (fated to get crushed by Dorothy's house), so it's not that there aren't strong female characters here.  Even Glinda is played by Michelle Williams with a soft-spoken, almost demure facade that betrays the incredible strength and power that she has (and Williams adeptly hints at).

But the character arc is almost solely James Franco's Oz, a stage magician and con man whose self-serving attitude seems to be a betrayal of his true nature as a caring and loving individual.  The film doesn't really explore why he does what he does (beyond his own shortsighted self-satisfaction) and while it seeds his goodness enough throughout, it's a bit too cliche that it's the love/respect of a good woman that can only bring it out of him.

Despite these philosophical flaws, I actually am quite fond of the end result as a piece of entertainment.  The works of Baum were exactly that, fantasy fuel for young minds.  They were stories meant to delight, not necessarily to educate in any great fashion.  Oz, The Great and Powerful certainly lives up to that, and it manifests the Land of Oz visually in a way we've never seen on the big screen.  Certainly there was money put into it.  If I had one story gripe, it's that it doesn't fit into Baum's original Oz stories where the Wizard was responsible, if perhaps inadvertently, for keeping Ozma (the land's rightful ruler) from her throne.  Of course it would make him less sympathetic (and even less redemptive) if this were the case, but it essentially blocks Disney from adapting Baum's novels as sequels.  However, the Land of Oz, now in public domain, has had countless iterations over the past 100 years from a multitude of writers and artists and filmmakers, and even in Baum's own stories there's a disconnect in continuity, so I can't hold that against the film.  It does still very much feel like an Oz story.

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What doesn't feel like an Oz story, at all, is Zardoz, despite the fact that it takes its name from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  There's no actual parallel to the journey of Sean Connery's Zed to Dorothy's here (except in finding the powerful leader of the realm isn't exactly what it's represented itself to be).

No, instead Zardoz is a a plodding head-trip of a dystopian distant future where a very small group of elites enjoy what's left of the world, while those outside are left to struggle, worship and die in ingnorance and poverty.  Zed is an infiltrator into the world of elites, the savage outsider whom they deem inferior, treat like a pet, an object of study.  But Zed is far smarter than he seems, and is in fact the one studying them.  Some of the outsiders aren't pacified by false gods and are all too aware there's another life hidden, unavailable to them.  Zed is their Trojan Horse.

Zardoz is a very, very strange film.  It opens with a giant floating head spewing out guns to the masses chanting "The penis is evil, guns are good"... a decree that is ridiculously charged with sarcasm, if not in-reality than at least as presented to the viewer.  If there's a moral to the film, it's likely about the nature of class systems, of how the elite can so easily manipulate the reality of those lower than them in the class system.  And yet it also posits that the elite are simply far too bored without any of life's challenges hindering them. 

This film's elite society have discovered immortality and in the process forsaken sex and almost any desire at all.  On the surface it's utopia, utter harmony, and yet the facade is almost entirely made up of cracks, tenuously holding together, ready to fall apart with the slightest provocation.  Zed's purpose is to see it shatter.

It's a trippy film, somewhat obtuse, but not illogical.  It's true meaning can be hard to decipher, because it's obvious that it's not meant as speculative future fiction, but rather allegorical.  Yet, the film progresses in a manner that I think was well ahead of its time, perhaps still is.  It doesn't guide the audience by the hand but it's not unwilling to give the audience what it needs to understand.  It's actually in its methodical nature that the film suffers, for it at times becomes a bit of a chore to understand the motivations of the characters at any moment.  There's so much deceit, so many facades, everyone's wearing masks almost all the time. 

It's a fascinating and unique watch for fans of weird sci-fi.  The average viewer would probably have little tolerance.





I Saw This!! What I Have Been Watching (PT C)

Pt. A, B can be found there.

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of stuff they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. But we can't not write cuz that would be bad, very bad.  Y'know, three types of aliens invading your world, bad.

So, back from three abandoned shows to three more completed seasons. If I was blogging about these while they were running, it wouldn't be an entry of I Saw This!!

Before we roll into the latest SyFy Channel genre series with a lone female kicking ass, i.e. Van Helsing (disappointgly not based on the Hugh Jackman movie), let's go back and talk about season one of another lone female kicking monster ass. Amusingly enough, both are descendant based, gender bent (kinda) heroic shows.

Wynonna Earp, 2016, SyFy -- download

Based on a comic book, which I only know from some atrocious covers, Wynonna Earp is a descendent of Wyatt Earp, the American lawman who had the Shootout at the OK Corral. But we only heard half the story; those fallen to Wyatt's peacmaker returned in generations after, as demon possessed people.  Someone, a descendant of Wyatt, as to re-kill them with The Peacemaker. There is also something about them being contained within a western triangle.

Wynonna's returns to Purgatory after an extended absence and resumes her role as the town pariah. Years ago her older sister was kidnapped and her dad killed, all in front of her; by said demons. She was institutionalized. She comes home only to find out that all the "delusions" she had as a teenager (not that long ago, really) were real and there are demons in Purgatory. Aaaand she is quickly recruited by a current day lawman, a Black Badge -- an agency that combines cross-border (FBI/RCMP) enforcement of supernatural crimes. Something is up, and he is here to make sure the demons don't escape their magical confinement.

In the genre range, that goes from Asylum (Z Nation) all the way  up to Firefly, this show is a little bit above middling, smacking of Canadian scifi shows (shot in Alberta) but having more heart than most of them do. At that heart is the relationship between Wynonna and her sister Waverly.  As well, there is the antagonistic relationship between them and chief demon Bobo Del Rey, played by my fav Canadian bad guy Michael Eklund. The rest of the cast, unfortunately including Black Badge Dolls (it took me five episodes to hear his name correctly), are so generic it hurts.

The series tries to milk the demon of the week but does so weakly. It shines when it focuses on its primary story. Sure the demons are back again, but this time they are organized by Bobo (yes, stupid name, but he used to pretend to be Waverly's imaginary friend) and witches are involved. Some sort of End of Days conspiracy is at play. Again, the weakest story link was the whole Black Badge element which is badly attempting some X-Files shadowy backstory.

Outcast, 2016, Cinemax -- download

On the other end of the spectrum is the incredible, spectacular, the second best thing I watched this year past -- Robert Kirkman's Outcast. Kirkman is the creator behind The Walking Dead and this is his new story, about demonic possession and a coming apocalypse. But just calling it demonic possession is doing it so much injustice. This is a deeply nuanced story, which had me sitting up straight in my seat once I realized what they were doing.

At the core of the story lay Reverend Anderson, a small (incredibly grotty) town preacher known for a successful exorcism years ago, and Kyle Barnes (holy crap, Patrick Fugit, the kid from Almost Famous), the now grown son of the exorcised. Kyle has his own dark recent past, which has forced him back to Rome and the abandoned home of his childhood. The Reverend has been milking his own pride at exorcism and continues them. Nobody asks why such a small, one horse town has so many possessions.

When Kyle returns it not only stirs up a lot of emotions, but also sheds some light on the demonic possession situation. The good Reverend was never successful at the exorcisms, in fact the only time he actually did get rid of a demon, it was due to Kyle -- blood & tears, when in contact with the possessed, causes horrific expelling reactions. The Reverend learns that many of his "successes" were just demons pulling the wool over his eyes. And he begins to come unhinged. That slow realization, the turn around from a confident man to a stumbling, ranting pariah was incredible.

As for the possessions, it has all the attributes of an alien invasion. For one, the black goo at the heart of it, highlighted in the opening credits (with incredible music by Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross) which reveals more with each watching, is very X-Files. And then there is the creepy man-in-black leader of the demons, played by Brent Spiner. He is a man who has come to terms with the demon inside him, a pact having been made, an agreement that benefits the two.

And furthest out in the already-done series is S2 Daredevil.

(Uh, where's my review of S1 ?)

Daredevil Season 2, 2016, Netflix -- Netflix 

I guess I didn't do a post about season one, but let me just say... it... was... incredible. The Marvel cinematic universe was barely touched upon, and it wasn't needed, in this microcosmic story set in NY's Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood where blind lawyer Matt Murdock decides to put his extreme martial arts training to use defending his town from the enigmatic, powerful Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin. If I remember anything about the first season, it was the powerful fights -- heavy hitting, heart pounding, bone crunching, chest heaving, exhausting fights. Conversely the connections between the mains: Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, had more heart than almost anything on TV. I loved the season, but for the weak final episode, something Marvel TV seems to repeat.

Season Two begins with a heat wave. Foggy Nelson is still pissed at Matt for revealing he is the masked vigilante in town. Matt is also majorly letting the lawyer side of his life slide, and their agency is hurting. Karen seems to be doing most of the heavy lifting. The void left in Fisk's absence has been filled by the gangs, but someone is voiding them -- The Punisher. Thus appears the core question asked this season; how far should you go as a vigilante? How far is too far?

Jon Bernthal as The Punisher is the best of the many sordid versions of Frank Castle to be seen on the screen (Dolph Lundgren, Ray Stevenson and my fav Thomas Jane) and the only to actually take on the rather broken soul he is. His tragic history is dug up by Karen, who again proves she is much more than any man in the show cares to notice, and makes us care for an ultra violent man, so much more so than Suicide Squad did.

Meanwhile Matt is dealing with his own connection to the end goal of every vigilante -- to stop criminals. He was trained by Stick to be a weapon, an ultimate weapon. And his ex-girlfriend, Elektra Natchios (mmmm nachos) has returned to remind Matt of how he was supposed to turn out. But from Matt, she wants her own redemption.

Again the season moved towards a weak ending, one that is probably going to connect to in greater detail to the larger Marvel cinematic universe -- magic and Iron Fist and Dr. Strange.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

We Agree-ish: Suicide Squad

2016, David Ayer (End of Watch) -- cinema

Who are we supposed to be rooting for in Suicide Squad ? After all, the mains are Bad Guys (say it in Harley Quinn's voice) but the Good Guys are even worse. Despite some shoe-horning of motivational personality traits, Deadshot being a dutiful dad and Harley doing it all for love (love established through physical and mental torture, but loooooove), they are still a bunch of sociopathic ne'er-do-wells. So, why are we supposed to root for them?

Suicide Squad is based on a couple of series / restarts of an idea at DC. In the comic world, there is always so much going on, there are times you get tired of the rinse-repeat of the heroes beating up the Bad Guys and wonder what it would be like to bring them to the forefront. That works, inside established canon, as a sort of What If, a respite from the norm.

But this movie has not yet established any such norm for the DC Cinematic Universe. Superman has already tarnished his reputation with collateral damage and a single murder with grand implications. BatAffleck abandoned Batman's no-kill ideal for rampant violence. We have not yet met the rest of the Justice League, except for a brief appearance of Wonder Woman, who may be the only unrelenting hero in the bunch. So then, who do we need a respite from? Marvel's squeaky clean Avengers? Maybe if they had abandoned continuity and just did their own thing, it would have gone well. In fact, that is exactly what I was expecting them to do, to have a fun run with a stand-alone movie with only some tenuous connections to the coming movies. Alas, no.

Good Guys? Amanda Waller is reprehensible, a nasty example of that American ideal about doing whatever it takes to protect the country. Her idea is to implant a bunch of convicts with tracker/mini-bombs and coerce them into doing things that she believes only bad guys can do. Before she can even conceptualize what they are about, one of her own goes rogue (ancient god/witch/extra-dimensional-being) and wreaks havoc in Midway City (downtown Toronto). Waller's test run ends up being more about saving her own ass than anything. Again, reprehensible lady. We won't talk about the poor FBI agents.

But I didn't hate this movie, as it's well constructed (design, effects, etc. not script, editing, directing); its just that the pieces seem kind of messed up. This time, it's not just my own ranting about studio meddling, as it was all over the news when they were sent back for additional shooting. Punch up the comedy? Make it more colourful? Nothing seemed to have helped, so I wonder what the finished product was like before. And the music! It was like someone recognized there wasn't enough catchy tunes and ran out to their car to fish around for a mixCD. Bang! Rock song. Bang! Rock song. Bang! Pop song. Bang! Rock song. And so on.

I loved Harley. I have no connection to the comic book Harley so go ahead, sex kitten her up all you want. I admit it, I also do love me some Margot Robbie. She's perty. But she does pull off the kookie/scary very well. I was surprised there was so much Joker; I had assumed he was a toss away cameo for her backstory. And I also have to admit, while not having any problems with the "edgy" reboot of him, I did not like Leto as The Joker. He just wasn't bombastic as the original ideas, nor as downright fucking scary as Heath Ledger. Hot Topic Joker is the best way to describe him.

As for the rest, I get it Will, you are the big bank here, but the remorseful assassin is just soooo tired. Get it through your skull man, you are a Bad Dad. No amount of hugging is going to change the fact your daughter knows you are a murdering psychopath. The only thing I liked about him was how much he and Harley got along. Will doesn't do bad guy very well. And the rest rest were toss away characters, fun to watch but oh so bloody empty.

Finally, one thing I didn't get. In the comic world, non-powered supers and villains are all over the place. They have a place in the world. But in this world, everything seems to be about the emergence of powered people, i.e. metahumans. In fact, it's that emergence that has Waller bring them all together. And then she chooses a guy with a boomerang and a weird girl with a baseball bat? Maybe, if you stretch things, you might say Harley getting dosed in goo gave her some minor power, like strength and nigh-invulnerable skin? Maybe. So, yes mega-assassin, mega-pyro and crocodile man are logical. But seriously? He throws boomerangs and knocks back tallboys. Oh, and a ninja with a magic sword and a crop top.

For a more comprehensive view of what the movie was actually about, see Kent.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I Saw This!! What I Have Been Watching (Pt. B)

Pt. A can be found here.

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of stuff they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. But we can't not write cuz that would be bad, very bad.  Y'know, world ending bad.  Rewritten time bad. Monsters from another dimension bad.

This is how I stated I watch TV, to a coworker yesterday, who was somewhat surprised I had not yet watched all of Mr. Robot S2. There are good shows I cannot miss, there are bad shows I cannot miss, there are shows I don't watch and probably never will and there are shows I know I will just eventually get around to watching.

There are also dropped shows. Shows that just didn't keep me paying attention long enough, not because I thought they were bad but just because... well, yawn or meh or I fell asleep on the sofa. Here are three from overseas that unfortunately are / will be in that body of work.

The Aliens, 2016, Channel 4 -- download

The Aliens comes from Channel 4 in the UK. In this darkly comedic show, but not sitcom, aliens crashed landed in the 70s. Alien Nation or District 9 comes to mind, but that the aliens look human. They integrated into society pretty easily but the 80s and 90s saw tons of unrest, and eventually the UK government segregated the aliens behind a wall. Whoah, that is all kinds of current news culture dark. Did some sort of alternate reality Trump live in the UK ?

The shows starts with a young security guard on the wall getting mixed up in  the drug trade. Or the hair trade. Apparently alien hair is a great narcotic to humans. And then the guard learns he is probably half-alien.

This is a show about a seedy underbelly.  All of Lewis's family and friends are class chav/riff raff. And the alien girl he falls for is a cam chick. I never actually watched enough to see where the show was going, as it didn't capture my attention but for its shock value. Obviously, the racism metaphor is Mjolnir heavy in its hammering. But I wonder how long it can spin that metaphor out without any other central plot.

Cleverman, 2016, ABC (Australia) -- download

Also using the same metaphor and the same idea, but from an entirely different fantasy point of view is Cleverman from Australia. As far as I understand, in watching three episodes, the "Hairies" are other beings that came from the Aboriginal Dreamtime and migrated to our world not so long ago. They are pseudo-human, more bestial and obviously more body hair. Hairies didn't do a very good job of integrating, and are currently living in a ghetto around an abandoned train station. The human authorities fear them and are moving to fully segregate them, possibly into classic detention facilities. Many have already began to disappear.

Koen runs a bar with two friends; his brother keeps the Hairypeople camp running through free clinics and political movement. They don't like each other much but their "Uncle" tries to draw them together. He is the family Cleverman, a mix of shaman, wiseman and family leader. But this is a world where beings from mythology have appeared, so the Cleverman is more than just your local psychic, faith healer. And Koen is destined to become the next one.

But really, the focus of the bit I watched was more on the dire situation the Hairies are in. Humans don't trust them; of course. And even more than they never trusted the Aboriginals. On one level, the show is an extreme representation of the tension between the whites of Australia and the Aboriginals themselves, but its also a fantastical representation of how we always fear what we don't understand. And magic is a scary thing in a mundane world.

Something was going to happen, but I never watched enough to know. Koen is on his way, connected to the Hairies by a force he doesn't understand, by a monster that is hunting... something. The Hairies are close to having enough of the fear and abuse. And rich white folk want to take as much advantage of the situation as they can.

Hunters, 2016, SyFy -- download

This show, also about aliens from ... somewhere, may call itself an American show but its produced and shot in Australia and does a pretty bad job of pretending its in Baltimore... or is it Philadelphia? Washington DC ? The same way you can tell a show is shot in Vancouver, when they say its Seattle or Denver, boy can you see this ain't the US. But all that sort of lends itself to the weirdness of the show.

Aliens are invading, this time quietly and unknown to the populace. They are reptilian, sort of V like, covered in human skin. There is a conspiracy tieing them together and on the other side is a human task force trying to root them out and... well, kill them. This is all tired mystery, double talk and shadowy low-rent X-Files. The primary focus is on an FBI agent drawn into the task force because his wife is taken by the alien leader (in human form) played by Julian McMahon (yes, Dr Doom from the first Fantastic Four movies) who actually does a great job of a creepy, charismatic alien terrorist.

The problem is that the show doesn't seem to know how to do episode to episode. There is a core world its building, but it doesn't have a real story to tell. That wouldn't hold down many other shows, as alien intervention of the week could hold it together. But this one just fails to make anything interesting happen. They just jump from here to there, never actually capturing our attention.

I think I stopped watching it before SyFy cancelled it.