Tuesday, December 31, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: R.I.P.D.

2013, Robert Schwentke (Red, The Time Traveller's Wife) -- download

This movie has no right to be as terrible as it is. It comes out as a blatant rip-off of Men in Black as if it was the worst in the series. Both were adapted from comics but where the former captured the feel of the illustrated series, the latter just took the premise and ran willy nilly with it. Adaptation Decay is the trope we are applying here. And yet, look at it.  Look at it!! Look at the money and production values applied to it! What right did they have to shovel so much money into the maw of such a steaming pile of crap? Do they still make movies doomed to fail because of some sort of twisted insurance loophole that make the producers money?!? This is where all my fantasy scenarios of how movie producers do their jobs fail. I just don't get it.

So, here is the Men in Black re-tread plot. A cop gets dragged into a law enforcement agency of a type he never even knew existed, this time being divine, post-death based. Yes, he is policing the dead. Dead cops sometimes stay undead cops, sent back to Earth to capture other undead folks who have escaped the afterlife. These deados hide in bodies that look like real people until they are challenged. Curry powder has something to do with the challenge. Then they become big, bloated CGI monsters that have to be shot by laser, I mean, divine bullets. They can be either captured but its more fun to blow them into ether. Ryan Reynolds is the smart mouthed young cop being introduced to the Rest in Peace Dept and Jeff Bridges is the seasoned veteran, a cowboy lawman with a drawl, a hat and a case of the sensitives. Together they must chase McGuffins in order to stop the deados from doing something bad.

Actually, Jeff Bridges is kind of fun as Roy the cowboy who hasn't really gotten over his death. In this buddy cop movie, he is both Murtaugh and Riggs as he is a loose cannon as well as too old for this shit. Nick (Reynolds) is just a shithead. For some reason, when returned to Earth they appear in bodies not whatsoever like their own nor suited to law enforcement -- Roy is a blonde porn star and Nick is an old Chinese guy, racial stereotype intended. And also for no good reason, deados are actually visible to the average person when they are forced to reveal their real shape. And no one has ever noticed this before this plot shoves it into the limelight. Any myth mirth that could come from the idea of working for Heaven is ignored. Except for some banter between the two, there is no reason to even rent, download or read about this movie. There, I did it for you. You can thank me now.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The World's End

2013, Edgar Wright - in theatre & blu-ray

Yep, I'm finally getting to this review... it's almost like I didn't want to write it.

IT'S BEEN about 4 months since the wife and I went to see The World's End on opening weekend at the cinema, and I knew the further away from the film I got the less inclined I'd be to write it.  It was a weird night when we went to see it.  We had babysitting for the kids, I had spent a good 10+ hours on my feet working at Fan Expo (for a second day in a row), and it was our anniversary so we had dinner an a bit (oh, just a bit) of wine.  So I was physically wiped, the euphoria of an honest to gosh night out was overwhelming, and yeah, some drink.  By the time the film started I was fighting to stay awake.

I should confess that I love Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, from Big Train and Spaced onward, so I'm already a receptive audience for whatever they're peddling, so going into The World's End I was predisposed to liking it.  I wanted to like it and have a good time, and by gum I did.  Having heard Pegg, Frost and Wright on the podcast circuit, I already knew what the film was about, what the themes were, what the character arc would be... there wasn't much discovery for me to have beyond actually experiencing the film.  However, even as I was laughing and clapping, I did get the sensation that I was, perhaps, just a little, forcing my enjoyment of it, perhaps to validate my built-up enthusiasm, or perhaps to force myself to stay awake.  By the end of the film I was calling into to question the authenticity of my experience, and whether my slight inebriation, post-fatigue and prejudicial attitude had greatly skewed my feelings about the movie.

That's why I didn't want to review the film all these months, because while I said I liked the film, I couldn't validate whether I actually felt like I liked the film.  My wife was a lot less critical of her enjoyment of it and had lobbied for a copy for Xmas, which, alongside a copy of This Is The End, were simple buys on my part.  We re-watched  The World's End on Boxing day (or, the day after Christmas, as it's known in the USofA) and I was pleased to have any festering doubt of my enjoyment of the film wiped away.  I was questioning whether the film was actually any good the past three months (wondering if, perhaps, it's very British, patently ridiculous fantastical ending sullied any honesty the film had generated) but I came out the other side of a second viewing thinking it's honestly brilliant.  Low-luster brilliant, but brilliant nonetheless.

The World's End completes the loosely tied "Cornetto Trilogy" that started with Shaun Of The Dead, and centered by Hot Fuzz, all grounded in relationships -- friends, family, romances -- but also about growing up.  In Shaun, it was Frost's character pulling Pegg's character down, remaining juvenile, irresponsible and unable to move forward in life.  In Fuzz, it was Pegg's character pulling Frost's character up, teaching him to be responsible.  In World's End, it's Frost's character that's the responsible one, but he's failed in bringing Pegg with him into responsible adulthood, and it's just one of the many things that have left their friendship noticeably damaged.

Shaun was an ingenious mash of romantic comedy and horror that was grounded in only thematic truths, but the film (as Wright and Pegg's first big outing) never fully escaped it's swirling blender of cinematic tropes.  Fuzz even more traded heavily in genre cliches, particularly cop dramas and buddy comedies, but also a loving homage esoteric 70's small town conspiracy films like the Wicker Man.  The World's End seems like the first film from Wright and Pegg that is looking to stand on its own merits, without looking to other influences as a crutch.

Wright, having detoured with Scott Pilgrim, comes back to Pegg and Frost with a whole new arsenal of shooting techniques, as well a phenomenal confidence in both storytelling and action sequencing that permits him to downplay the knowing nods to other movies and make his own feature.  At the same time, his script with Pegg is more narrowly focused on character than any of the previous films.  Pegg's Gary King, while often hilarious, is equally tragic, and all-too-believable, even amid the fantastical sharp right turn that occurs.

It was Pegg's portrayal of King that I focused on in second viewing and was even more impressed with the depth of the character.  Beneath every quip and jape is a sharp spike of pain.  He's a lost soul, all his potential having dissipated over two decades before into drugs and drink.  His friends --or once friends, as it were-- that he reunites to relive a glory day from their youth have long ago given up on him, but they give him a moment, a moment to prove that he's still got a glimmer of that potential he once had, and failing in that moment.

It's an inventive science-fiction action comedy with a dark, personal underbelly that shows how good these filmmakers are at crafting multi-tiered entertainment.  More importantly it elevates Edgar Wright as an action director, whereas, the impression always was that he was more of a comedy director, even after Scott Pilgrim.  Beyond that, Wright puts Frost in the light of an unlikely, burly action action star, becoming the real centerpiece of the action sequences, even beyond the blue ink-blooded Blanks they're fighting against.  It would be truly interesting to see Frost in a more traditional action movie.

I still have a sweet spot for Hot Fuzz, but without a doubt The World's End is the best film of the Cornetto trilogy, odd ending and all.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Ender's Game

2013, Gavin Hood (Rendition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) -- cinema

Back in university days Mukey made a bookshelf as a project in sculpture class, if I remember correctly. It was made from slats of extra-splintery, very soft wood. The marvellous beast of a bookshelf was wobbly, uneven and entirely charming, sort of like Mukey. We fastened it to the wall and began to gather the books that were supposed to be on it. 'Supposed to' meant all the books you have been told you should read, by different people of different interests and temperaments. This included classics, best sellers and a long list of scifi books I had heard so much about but never got around to reading. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card had its place on the shelf. But that it had a place says something about the book in scifi culture; love it or hate it, it should be read by all scifi fans.

At least then. You see, some revolutionary books have a shelf life, excuse the pun. Unless they are so well written or have such wide ranging and impactful themes, those books that introduce a concept that is then rehashed and rehashed and reinvented time and time again, well their own impact softens with age. Especially if they deal with a technological aspect of culture. In the 70s, the idea of remote control of computer systems, of tele-presence or virtual reality was non-existant.  For me, in those early 90s or late 80s when I read the book, that was still the take away. Wow. What could be done with technology of the future! (p.s. SPOILER) That kids could control far away ships of war from the comfort of their star bases was a great idea. Now, in a time when we control scalpels from another continent, not so much.

But the other aspect of the book, about the use of children as weapons of war, because they have an ability to react and adapt that we lose as we grow older, well that still applies. Even more so, when we watch 14 year-olds kick our asses in online games. That is what the movie adaptation followed, the morals of manipulating children to further our agendas. This is not The Hunger Games where the kids are just fighting for our enjoyment (Evil!!) but a much more blatant play on our beliefs and morals. For me, the answer is an easy one -- lose the innocence of children or the planet?  Easy answer. But in a beautiful looking movie, full of CGI technology and completely animated VR, they don't give up that moral dilemma and I applauded them for their heavy hammering of the real moral they have to deal with -- what if you were wrong? What if you ended up sacrificing these kids for all the wrong reasons? What then?

I need another paragraph, as I really haven't mentioned much about the movie itself. It does smack of The Hunger Games  but more so of Harry Potter. I am not that fond of the change in paradigm for young heroes, from forced into quests against great evil, to training stories, boarding schools full of cranky headmasters. Everybody is going to school. But the third act of the movie is in space, in real war, where any childishness of Harry Potter is dispensed with for the nail biting playground of the battlefield. Where the whole tele-presence aspect, not being a surprise for me, had no impact, the roles. Harrison Ford has long since stopped being Han Solo or Indiana for me, here he is completely enveloped as Colonel Graff making the hardest decisions. The kids are both weighed down by the bootcamp in space and their potential but do brilliant jobs of retaining their... age. Its quite a well done little movie but its a shame that it stayed small. It came to the cinema and then just went away. I guess the lack of impact it holds now was transmitted through the movie as well. Shame.

Friday, December 27, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Broken City

2013, Allen Hughes (From Hell, The Book of Eli) -- download

Allen seems to have left his twin behind and also left genre movies, for a straight up, crime movie. The stylish appeal of their other movies is a bit there, a little bit, maybe a smidgen but for the most part this is recognizable, dyed in the wool, New York crime and politics melodrama as only a city like New York, and maybe LA, can do.

(Marky) Mark Wahlberg is Billy Taggart, your typical rough shod cop who commits a crime of punishment against a murder-rapist. Russel Crowe is the mayor who makes him a deal -- he will hide the incriminating evidence if he just walks away from the force. And, and this is the particular detail that makes the plot of the movie, Taggart owes the mayor a future favour. Faustian !  Faustian you say? No, as Crowe's Hostetler is a pretty low rent Lucifer, more a money grubbing son of a bitch who enjoys using people. He would be good friends with a certain other mayor in our lives.

Taggart is a broken cop. He should never have taken the deal, and while he makes a living as a low rent (low rent is a theme here) private dick, he is full of misplaced anger and resentment. Crow is a broken mayor, all deceit and corruption, hating his wife and his employees and just about everyone around him. Everyone around him is broken in some way, from the gay (i'm not gay!) opposing mayoral candidate (Barry Pepper) to Crowe's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to the Police Commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) doing his best wobbly attempt at the straight and narrow. With a bit of more style, this could have been a very good noir pic but in the end, she just sits as a low rent crime movie that was passably enjoyable.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Starbuck

2011, Ken Scott (Delivery Man) -- download

I am pretty much a softie these days. I wipe my eyes at coffee and iPhone commercials on a regular basis. I enjoy sentimental movies about lovey dovey stuff. OK, not these days. I was always like this. I was a sensitive 90s guy long before the 90s and will continue to be as it is no longer in vogue. I cannot apologize. And don't make fun of me, it will hurt my feelings.

Starbuck is a movie that made me continually smile and occasionally wipe my eyes. It is about a nice guy deciding to be a better man. It is about a guy with a supporting family who inherits an even larger extended family, basically over night. It is a movie all about familial love and responsibility and the rewards that come with it. It is unapologetically a movie for softies. I may not be a guy in touch with fatherhood but I could identify with the connection this man sought out. It was about choosing to love someone as that is your responsibility.

David Wozniak is a guy without much direction at the beginning of the movie. He works at his family butcher shop as a delivery guy, but not a very good one. He has a girlfriend but rarely seeks her out. His family is constantly upset at him ditching work and shirking responsibility. Then he discovers his serial sperm donating has sired hundreds of children, and 142 of them are suing the fertility clinic to know who their father is. This inspires David (known as Starbuck to the sperm bank) to find out who his kids are, and then to become their guardian angel and eventually their very very public father figure. He shifts his paradigm from only himself to the well-being of over a 100 young folks, and all without them really knowing who he is. Until the reveal.

Its not a really realistic movie. Wozniak's shift in attitude is literally over night. His capacity for love and understanding is mythic. That the kids just accept him, a random stranger who starts being nice to them, is a little unbelievable. But this is a movie for softies, where we love the interactions despite the lack of realism. Its also a very very enjoyable view of Montreal from the wrought iron stairs to the narrow, long apartments, reminding me of the ever so distinct character of that city. I wonder if they can keep the fresh, upbeat attitude in the English language / American remake of the movie, also directed by Scott, called Delivery Man?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

End of the world double header: Contagion and The Road

Contagion, 2011, d. Stephen Soderberg -- netflix
The Road, 2009, d. John Hillcoat -- netflix
(Countdown to the World's End, day 10)

The wife has a thing about end-of-the-world and post-apocalyptic scenarios... they freak her out something fierce, putting her head in a space of hopelessness and despair that just isn't fun for her.  It's kind of funny then that two of her favourite films this year were The World's End and This Is The End... a spoonful of sugar, I guess.

I, on the other hand, generally love seeing both the "how did it come to pass" and the "what happens after" type of stories.  That's why I watched these two features whilst my special lady was away one weekend. More often than not I like them to be steeped more in science fictional or fantastical elements, but that covers a lot of terrain.  Contagion, though, is about as down-to-Earth as they come, starting small with patient zero, and watching how a virus rapidly spreads across the globe, not caring who gets in its way no matter how big a celebrity they are.

Contagion is a brilliant antidote to the usual Hollywood methodology of making an outbreak kind of story.  It has dozens upon dozens of characters, from bloggers to health care workers, from teenagers to lab technicians, and on an international scale, giving not just the American perspective.  A robust use of television news really fills out the world of Contagion, one that's very nicely filled out already by the diversity of cast and locale.

Director Soderbergh really breaks down how a new virus can spread so easily in our global culture, and how difficult it is to contain.  Equally he shows how determined, how proactive, and how capable the scientists and the infrastructure of communicable diseases can be, particularly when it comes to extremely virulent outbreaks.  Though he doesn't belabor it too much (and I think he could have done even more to hit the point home) in everything there are going to be those looking to capitalize off the misery of others.  We catch a glimpse of that in one story thread, and hints of private pharma versus the public interest in another.  We also have moments where a state government weighs their options, looking at how they should balance quarantine with the economic hit.  I'm sure there's plenty more conversations that occur than what we see in the film, but Soderbergh tries to tackle as many realistic conversations as possible in the film's unbelievably brisk running time.

Though filled with great moments, the most potent aspect of the feature is the opening credits sequence underneath Cliff Martinez's intensely pulsating score which shows a montage of people coughing, and Soderbergh's framing making the viewer hyper-aware of how bugs spread, the surfaces people touch, the air we breathe, it actually gets close overwhelming.  There's the sense of wanting to hermetically seal ones' self off from the world, but as the film resolves itself, one deftly executed handshake kind of restores one's sense of normalcy, of the appropriateness of human contact.  It's a moment that had me saying bravo.

The film reminded me in tone of the Andromeda Strain, a much more claustrophobic and more direct movie, but parallel in intensity and fascination.  They're both very much in-depth procedurals on disease control, just this one's a lot less spec fic.  The world never does come to its end, thankfully in Contagion, but it does get pretty bleak at times, particularly when food rations start running low and the streets start becoming more aggressive, but it's got nothing on The Road.

The Road, I have to admit, proved even to bleak for me, and after a couple years of teasing my Viggo-adoring wife about her reticence to see it, I had to apologize.  It's a dreary, miserable, painful, uncomfortable, terrifying film.  It's both a credit and a damnation of director Hillcoat's craft that he was able to sustain such a narrative in what wasn't exactly a small film, and that he didn't betray it with any overt Hollywoodisms (although the moment where the kid tries to reaffirm with his dad that they'll always be good guys was quite heavy handed and obviously setting up their downfall).  At the same time, this incessant bleakness makes for a thoroughly unenjoyable, and eventually unwatchable movie.

Mortensen plays a Father on the road with his pre-teen son, where they've been for some time.  The apocalypse happened, but we're never clear on what it is, and the director and writer are never to keen on filling us in.  This is disappointing as one of my favourite elements of post-apocalyptic movies is the story of how it happened, or the seeding of clues to allow us to figure it out for ourselves.  The point here is what happened doesn't matter, now that there's some distance after the fact, certainly not for the characters at least.  The events of the end of the world are negligible compared to survival.

The road for these two is an endless gauntlet of challenges.  Finding food or replacement clothing, searching for shelter, avoiding cannibals and violent scavengers, and just staying alive.  They carry with them a gun, with few remaining bullets, perhaps just enough to end their own lives should the desperation be enough, and Mortensen takes the young Kodi Smit-Mcfee through the drill of shooting himself in the head a number of times, to the great discomfort of any parent watching.

There is one scene of respite in this film, a moment that allows the characters time to breathe, to smile, to clean up and to eat, but they're on a journey to the coast, where they hear of a respite from the dank grey world they've come to know.  It's an inevitable conclusion what happens in this film and it attempts, in its final minutes, to leave with the promise of hope, of salvation, of the strength of family that abandoned Viggo and his boy, but it's far too little and way too late to resuscitate this utterly depressing movie.

In pure honestly, I must confess to fast forwarding through most of the second hour of the picture, stopping for any scenes that had the characters engaging in any lengthy conversation, but the scene towards the end where Mortensen ultimately succumbs to his paranoia and fear, stealing everything Michael K Williams (a man simply as desperate as themselves) has, including every scrap of clothing... that scene decimates me every time I think of it.  It's a film that showcases the worst in humanity, as so many post-apocalyptic tales do, and it makes for pitiful entertainment.  It's exceptionally well done, and I absolutely hated it.

(Contagion: David's Take)

Monday, December 9, 2013

X Days of Xmas: 3 Godfathers

In 2011, we attempted the 31 Days of Xmas, but failed miserably forgetting how the season takes hold of even a family of two. In 2012, we never even tried. We? J and I as this is our own little endeavour and the 'reviews' are just a by-product. But this year, by combining a number we already have downloaded and a few we will find as the days go by, we hope to watch X number of Xmas movies -- i.e. no commitment !!

Tokyo Godfathers, which might actually be properly review later on, is one of my prime examples of how Anime can transcend its reputation of being all giant robots, giant boobs and big eyes. This one is a brilliant story, adapted from an old movie called 3 Godfathers, about three homeless people in Tokyo who find an infant and return it to its mother, via a series of Christmas based coincidences.  We had not seen the original movie, so it was about time.

3 Godfathers is a western set in the Arizona desert, where three amiable bank robbers escape justice only to find a family trapped in the desert. Dad has gone mad, destroying their only water source and running off. Mom gives birth, and dies, leaving the infant in the care of the three robbers: John Wayne's Hightower, Pete Fuerte and the Abilene Kid. The trio assumes the role of godfather forgetting their own escape and seeking only to get the baby to safety, before all provisions run out. And the posse is hot on their tail.

These are not just amiable bank robbers but strangely moral men, for criminals with wanted posters. It really plays up the western movie idea of the desperadoes being the heroes of the west, as much as they were criminals. Each of these guys are willing to lay down their life to get the kid to safety.

Its an Xmas movie as it all happens around Christmas day. There is also a theme that these guys are the new three wisemen, being guided by the north star to New Jerusalem. But really, all three are delirious from lack of food and dehydration so... There is not much else Xmas-y about it but for this allusion and as a period movie, it is heart warming. Its just not that good of a movie though, with stereotypical unsophisticated acting and dialogue. To be honest, the anime remake is much much better.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

We Agree: Iron Man 3

2013, Shane Black -- blu-ray
(countdown to the World's End, day 8)

The Marvel methodology of movie production is an interesting one, in that they build their characters around actors, rather than attempting to fit actors into their characters.  Sure, they want the icons from their comics to be represented on screen, but they're wise enough to know that behind the image needs to be an actual personality.  Robert Downey Jr. was definitely the template for this, very quickly making Tony Stark more a RDJ character and less one coming off the comic pages, and the success of the Iron Man series, which directly led to the success of Thor, Captain America and the Avengers afterwards, largely rests on that portrayal.

The importance of Robert Downey Jr. can't be understated, and it's shown off here, in his fourth movie as Tony Stark, where he spends the majority of the movie outside of any armor.  Even in the first movie it felt like RDJ was sharing the screen, with Gwyneth Paltrow or Jeff Bridges or Terrence Howard, and the second movie, with its duelling villains and world building and Scarlett Johansson and Sam Jackson clogging up the screen, leading directly into the Avengers, where he shines, but he's among six others (at least) in equal billing.  Iron Man 3 clearly puts him in the center of everything, the supporting cast is clearly supporting him.

With the big Avengers convergence out of the way and the idea of a broad Marvel cinematic universe firmly set, the Marvel films are free to deal with things on a smaller scale.  In this case, Tony's dealing with PTSD, or rather, not dealing with it.  It's putting strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts as are the effects of having a public superhero identity.  When terrorists make him a target his ego and his own sense that he should already be dead find him pushing buttons instead of targeting the threat.  Goading an enemy, especially when they know were to find you (and you're not even sure who they are, nevermind unable to see them coming) is unwise, but then that's totally Tony's character: a technical genius and otherwise kind of a rash idiot.

Iron Man 2 was financially successful, but deemed a creative disappointment by fans and critics alike, so Marvel was anxious about their inaugural franchise heading into post-Avengers terrain.  With Shane Black, they wisely brought aboard a writer-director who knows how to write for RDJ (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), knows action (Lethal Weapon series) and is able to negotiate action, drama and comedy with nimble agility.  Of course, Black's view of the Marvel universe would be a lot different than any others, and it winds up with elements we've seen from Black before, like the final act shaping out to be very much a buddy cop adventure as Tony and Don Cheadle's Rhodey come together to face down the big bad, or Tony's narrative.

Even still, it's a film that feels far from familiar, particular in relation to other superhero pictures.  It's got a few monstrous set-pieces, including a rescue sequence that is thoroughly inventive and exhilarating (rescuing people in superhero pictures has become more an afterthought and rarely a centerpiece to the film), but it has a number of scenery changes as Tony investigates his enemy, feeling like a lower-key, snarkeir James Bond hopping across America.  It's a more patient film than I was expecting, one that feels long, but not labored, and ultimately a rewarding character story more than blockbuster action film.  It doesn't feel like the third part of a trilogy, or even the start of another arc, but a resting point for the character on the way to at last one further appearance (in the Avengers sequel and, if it comes together, a welcomed fourth installment.)

(David's take)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Riddick

2013, David Twohy -- in theatre
(countdown to the World's End, day 7, part 2)

I've been keen to write this review since the credits rolled after my screening in mid-October, because I have so many thoughts, opinions and emotions when it comes to Riddick, the character, and the film series.  Of course, I probably should have written this that same night, alas, the backlog of write-ups made me feel guilty about jumping the queue.

Where to start... I love Riddick... the character, not the movie.  Pitch Black is one of the most awesome sci-fi-action-horror films ever made.  It doesn't have quite the refined quality as, say, Alien, but it's brilliant in its execution, setting up Riddick as its villain, only to make him its hero.  Twohy mined multiple cross-genre B-movie tropes and combined them into a deceptively simple film, shot in an attractively alien locale, and maximizing his modest effects budget with a bevvy of lighting tricks.

The follow-up, the maligned Chronicles of Riddick, went the complete opposite direction of the first feature, opting for grandiose space opera, as Riddick traveled between worlds, a man against an entire civilization that glorifies death.  It's a messy picture but full of invention, operating on a scale its budget struggled to support, manned by a director that knows what he wants out of his pictures but is often challenged only by his own skill in achieving it.  For all the awkwardness, Chronicles in the right mindset is joyously delightful.  Twohy specializes in making films that are a cut-above direct-to-video but a step below summer blockbuster.  He's more clever a storyteller than high-budgeted filmmakers like Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay but his tastes are on the fringes and thus so is his appeal.

Riddick comes out of Chronicles as a king, and my mind dizzied as to where it would go from there.  Alas, Chronicles fared poorly at the box office and it looked like there would be no more Chronicles in Riddicks future.  Nearly a decade later, a new Riddick movie comes as a welcome surprise.  Knowing that the budget has been dramatically slashed, we were not going to be treated to another grand epic, but outside of the fact that Riddick (the movie) would be more confined I didn't know what it would be.

What it is, in fact, is a terrible movie.
Really, it's laughably ridiculous.
I loved it.
Tremendously.

Riddick (the movie) looks back longingly at the sci-fi movies of the mid-1980's, the post-Star Wars trilogy era when studios were looking for anything to fill in the gap and completely unaware or unsure of what would work.  A lot of B-movies got an A-movie release... Enemy Mine, Solarbabies, the Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator and the like all came and went but somehow resonated not with the cinemagoer but the young videocassette-hungry youth.  Twohy, with Riddick (the movie) mines those lower-budget, mid-quality flicks for inspiration and what results is a plodding half hour in which Riddick, stranded on a desolate desert  planet, recovers from injuries, has a flashback, and makes friends with a dog-like cgi thing.  It's terrible, and yet, absolutely perfect for taking Riddick from grand scope to confined budget.

Vin Diesel hasn't had a lot of showcase screentime over the past few years.  Even his Fast and Furious endeavors have been ensemble pieces and his broad physique, normally quite impressive is overshadowed by the massive Dwayne Johnson.  But here, it's him against some cgi and the environment, and he's ridiculous.  Riddick is a worn glove for Diesel, one he can slip into with ease, it just requires a bit of grimacing and a lot of brooding, with sporadic croaking of barely intelligible words.

I went in expecting a relentless actioner, but that half hour of a man-and-his-dog really establishes a different pace and setting than we've seen Riddick in before. The average explosion-hungry blockbuster audience wouldn't sit patiently through that, but fans of genre films will key right into the trope and, like me, adore it.

But that's just the first act.  After roaming the desert, Riddick finds a bounty hunter waystation and sets off the alarm, calling a "rescue" ship that's in every probability going to attempt capturing or killing him.  Unexpectedly, two different ships arrive and a pissing match occurs between the rival teams as they realize their target is a most dangerous one indeed.  The second act sees Diesel disappear into the shadows, leaving the teams of mercenaries to work themselves into a fervor around the legend of Riddick as he starts to pick them off one-by-one, continuing the terror until one of the team gives up their ship.

But even this aspect isn't allowed to play to fruition, as a storm is coming on this desert world, and with the storm brings a world of trouble that will kill them all... they don't heed the warning.  The storm awakens monsters, and Riddick must team with his hunters (or rather, his prey) in a fight for survival as they try to somehow salvage their ships and make it off planet alive.

The mercs are a cookie-cutter cast of international third-string characters actors, the most prominent of them being Battlestar Galactica's Katie Sackhoff and UFC fighter Dave Bautista.  This gaggle of toughguys and girls makes for a perpetual pissing contest, but despite how conventional it is, it's still quite entertaining.  Twohy knows how to play with genre conventions, making it silly but fun.

The final act sees a planet of scarab-like beastie thingies coming to surface, and Riddick (the film) rips its own progenitors off as it emulates almost exactly the rhythms concepts of Pitch Black, as if Twohy was saying, "if you just want me to repeat Pitch Black, then I guess I'll repeat Pitch Black".  But despite a couple dodgy effects sequences (primarily the dodgy rocket-hogs, poorly designed and equally awfully executed in animation) Twohy plays things somewhat differently, by pulling a lot of visual references from fantasy and sci-fi artists.  Like the final shot of Chronicles, there's a battle on a peak -- Riddick (the character) forced up a mound by a horde of scarab-y creatures -- that's backlit by a lightning strike that might as well be a Frazetta or the Brothers Hildebrandt painting.

The third act particularly feels not just over the top but that it swung back down, around and went back over again.  It just piles on moment after moment that feel like an endless parade of utterly worn cinematic genre tropes being trotted out, because it is.  Twohy here knows exactly what he's doing.  He's reveling in cliche, and not archly, but for fun.  Pushed only a tiny bit further and it goes from ridiculous to hilarious... Riddick (the film) is so close to being a parody comedy, but it's enjoying the tropes it keeps drawing upon.  I imagine Diesel and Twohy had a tremendous amount of fun making this film.

It's a awful picture, but it's supposed to be.  Riddick fans will appreciate everything happening here and ask for more.

3 Short Paragraphs: The Lone Ranger

2013, Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Ring) -- download

I am of that generation who probably saw re-runs of the TV show remake of the radio show. Like kids today playing with Star Wars or Master of the Universe toys of their parents generation, I had an action fig... no, it was a doll, of the Lone Ranger in his blue suit and white hat. But I was not very well versed in his mythology. Knowing myself, I added a whole new mythos to the character probably involving magic and monsters and superpowers -- he wore a mask, you see. Gore Verbinski, while having the name of an aged director who once did arcane art films, is not much older than me so he is probably as exposed to the character in much the way I am. Like the theme park ride the inspired the first blockbuster in his name, he is inspired by something that probably more appropriately belongs to a that other generation writing his paycheck.

The ads for this movie were terrible. Just terrible. It was if Michael Bay had cut them together while working with the Farrelly Bros. It was all explosions and obvious comedy. And their choice of Depp as the faithful Indian companion Tonto (you know what that means, right?) was a controversial choice. Well, controversial to  those that believe only people of the race in question can play characters of said race. But Verbinski, Disney and Depp are forever entwined so no complaints were going to change that. And no, Depp thinking he might be 1/8 Cherokee on his Grandmother's side doesn't help the matter. I wasn't keen on the movie in the theatre but something... something about it tweaked my interest. Maybe it was a line from a review describing Tonto constantly trying to feed the dead bird on his head. Tonto is dumbell in latin languages.

While this is a movie meant for the big screen, with wide complicated sweeping shots, it works OK on its own, on the smalls screen. Well, as small as any widescreen HDTV is these days. And it worked for me. The comedy is there, satirical and wry. It mostly stems from Armie Hammer's ranger constantly being at odds with his Indian sidekick. I would say spirit guide, but that title goes to the horse Silver. Tonto is cracked, broken by events from his past and cast out from his tribe. Reid the Ranger is a dead man risen, an avenging spirit Tonto believes cannot die and therefore, is assigned to righting the wrongs against his people and the current ones, against all the peoples of America. So, rollicking adventure ensues. Yeah, there are some pretty big explosions but strangely enough, they work. And the feeding of the dead bird never stopped cracking me up.

Goon

2011, Michael Dowse
(countdown to the World's End, day 7 -- oops, missed day 6
in one of my drunken stupors)

I have, generally, very little interest in sports movies.  It's a product of not giving a crap about sports through most of my life.  I kind of like the Olympics, and I've come to be a huge hockey fan and an admirer of tennis.  I come to appreciate sport, athleticism and skill,  but at the same time, the manufactured Hollywoodness of sports movies, the overwrought tension of the games can be effective, but it's the overwrung drama that I find unpalatable.

I think since hockey is not one of the big celebrated sports in the United States (I think it's like #6 behind Football, Baseball, Basketball, College Football and College Basketball) , hockey-centric films are able to be a lot different than your usual manufactured hero worship films, and those making hockey films tend to have more of a personal investment in making them.  Even the actors have to have a level of dedication, since they must know how to skate, and skate well, in order to perform in the film.  You can't fake good skating with camera tricks.  Look at the big hockey movies (no, not the Mighty Ducks trilogy) - Slap Shot and Youngblood - they're gritty, harsh, and raw (to my recollection, I'm quite distant from my last viewing of either) and certainly not as wistful or faux operatic like baseball, football or basketball movies are.

Goon is the product of good Canadian boys and hockey fans Jay Baruchel (actor in Undeclared and This Is The End)  and Evan Goldberg (co-writer of This Is The End, Superbad, and Pineapple Express), obviously having in mind making a rough-and-tumble minor-league hockey-centric comedy in the vein of Slap Shot, but with their comedy pedigree there's naturally more focus on humour.

The film stars Seann William Scott as Doug Glatt, a rather simple small-town guy, sweet and honest, but tough as nails.  His fighting skill is impressive, and wasted on his job as a bouncer.  When he joins his foul-mouthed, hockey-obsessed best friend at a local minor league hockey game, Pat's mouth winds up getting the visiting team's tough guy crawling out of the box and into the stands, only to have Doug take him town effortlessly.  An enterprising coach sees potential for Doug to be a team "enforcer" (a lesser skilled player who protects the high skilled players from hits and provides retaliation if anything dirty happens) and recruits him.

Despite not knowing how to skate, Doug takes on the role and excels, very quickly moving up to a farm-team (last stop before making the NHL)  in Halifax.  There he is tasked with protecting and restoring the confidence of former top prospect Xavier LaFlamme, which proves desperately difficult despite Doug's endless positivity.  He also meets Eva, a puck bunny of the highest order ("puck bunny" = girls who sleep around with hockey players) and falls for her.  Though negligible at first, Doug's keen attitude, heart and team-centric attitude begins to have the desired effect, making the team a viable one.  The usual tropes follow, with the montage of happy wins, team bonding and whatnot.  His complex relationships with Eva and Xavier provide some curious depth that most sports films try to avoid, but then even in Doug's rather simplistic view on life there's an anti-hero complexity, especially when his parents refuse to be supportive.

The supporting cast of the hockey teams and rival players all tackle the broadest of hockey player tropes... the washed up veteran, the quirky Euorpeans, the superstitious goalie, but they're hardly well worn given the perennial lack of hockey-releated pictures.  The rest of the supporting cast, largely Doug's family and friends, are interesting and diverse (Eugene Levy and Ellen David are his devoutly Jewish adoptive parents, while his brother Ira, is a successful Doctor and gay).  There's also Liev Schreiber as Doug's rival/mentor, a notorious tough guy in his last season whom you're never sure whether he's impressed with Doug or bitter about being replace. Then there's Pat, which Baruchel plays detrimentally over-the-top with vulgarity, and harshly annoying.  He's absolutely the weakest element of the film, which is unfortunate given that he wrote an otherwise winning screenplay.

The final moment of the film is not scoring the big goal, or winning the big game, but the big fight, and the film actually plays out more akin to boxing movie than hockey.  It's egregiously violent and better for it.  Hockey is a punishing game and those in the roles of being the punishers do real damage.  The violence is heightened from real life for the screen, and makes the thug aspect of the sport fun only because it is fantasy.  In real life it's one of the less appealing aspects of the sport, and these days doesn't result in nearly the same brutality of fisticuff (referees tend to step in the way pretty quickly if it gets rough).

The film is based on the true story of Doug Glatt very loosely, but the end credits roll with a taste of the real man career int he sport.  Goon 2 is in the works apparently and it's a good thing.  This is a fun exploration of hockey, its characters, the lifestyle, all centered around a sweet and likeable character.

Zero Dark Thirty & Unthinkable

2012, Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, The Hurt Locker) -- download
2010, Gregor Jordan (Ned Kelly) -- download

How do you feel about torture as a method of interrogation? What about when circumstances are extremely dire? What if the subject is a fanatic, completely convinced their evil acts are in the right? This is a story that has been going on in the US, and honestly, around the westernized world for the past decade. Oh, the conversation was there long before that but when 9/11 happened and Guantanamo opened, and stayed open, the theories became reality. The west will do whatever it takes to get the information they need, to make sure such an event never happens again.

Zero Dark Thirty is the movie about the hunt for Bin Laden. We are led through it via the obsessions of Maya, who has been collecting data about Al Qaeda since high school, from where she was plucked by the CIA. We meet her in 2003 when she is assigned to the Al Qaeda task force and follow her until ... well, she succeeds. This is a movie set as a window into the fact that there were people completely and utterly dedicated to finding out who orchestrated the terrible attack and ending him. Its.a response to the US publick who constantly asked their government, "What are you guys doing?!? Why isn't that evil men dead already?!?"

As a Canadian, I didn't feel the events as an American would. But I remember thinking that the days when the US would take tempered measures against their enemies were over. I was actually only mildly surprised that things take a darker turn, but that was probably seeded by my years of reading dark urban future fiction. That there are dark, hidden places run by the US, out of country and out of jurisdiction, is not surprising. That they string up people and torture them for information is not surprising. I never really expected it to be just an element of spy fiction. What was surprising is that the story shows them dispensing with it very soon, realizing not much of the info is reliable. So they are forced to move onto other measures -- data gathering and analysis.

Much of the movie is bureaucratic and operational, showing dirty offices and tired people, not-tirelessly pouring over documentation and videos about various operatives Al Qaeda has around the world. Maya is convinced that the idea that Bin Laden is holed up in an Afghani hill fort is ridiculous. She cannot imagine a man in utter control of a global terror group would be without phones and computers. And she is right. Through meticulous detail gathering and more than a bit of luck, she is responsible for driving the research that finds him.

When we actually reach the action that invades (and what else can you call it) a Pakistan neighbourhood to find the bearded man in his compound, the movie slides into a standard military thriller. We have real scifi style black helicopters and over eager combat specialists. it is not as exciting as one would expect nor should it be; its depicting reality, not a Michael Bay action flick. While this may be the climax of the movie, it was more denoument for me.

This movie looked good and acted good. The roles are engaging and the people invested but I was left cool. Its just too much of a straight forward line to the already known end game. There wasn't much to sink your teeth into. Think of the liberties Afleck took with Argo and this is not here. You can commend Bigelow for that but I was hoping for a bit more; its a Hollywood movie afterall. At least Chastain was as brilliant as always.

So if Zero Dark Thirty was a big movie, set around the world with a big cast and great sets and locations, conversely, Unthinkable is what you would expect from a straight to some format movie -- few sets, a few stars and a very small plot. Almost all of it takes place in an abandoned high school where they are torturing, yes out and out torturing a domestic terrorist who is set to commit an act that would make 9/11 pale in comparison.

Low budget movies have the opportunity to blow out their plots. A gritty, more realistic movie would make the act more recognizable but this movie is full of dirty bombs in major american cities and extreme uncomfortable torture scenes. Its all about raising the stakes and seeing what the protagonists need to do in response. Where Zero Dark Thirty only briefly approached the torture, this movie is all about it. It is a bottle episode trope, where all the action takes place in one room. And that room is a torture room. This movie wants to ask the question and have someone actually sit at both ends of the extreme. We have a torturer (Samuel L Jackson) and a noble FBI agent (Carrie Ann Moss) who is in disbelief at the acts Jackson performs on the homegrown terrorist (Michael Sheen).

This is not a great movie, somewhat heavy handed (somewhat?) and melodramatic. And we know what the answers will be going in. It is OK to torture when the situation demands, as long as someone asks the questions of how far they are willing to go. But really? Is that the only moral answer for such things? Ambiguity? While the movie does directly tackle torture, not masked in a thriller or espionage movie, it never really is willing to present people truly convinced of their ideals. To ask the questions in fiction, you need the person willing to belief what they believe despite the consequences. You do not need to depict people displaying opinions from both sides. THAT is too simplistic and never really allows the audience to ask themselves what they belief. But in comparison, as two movies in response to terrorism, it was an interesting exercise.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gravity

2013, Alfonso Cuaron - in 3-D
(countdown to the World's End, day 5)

As late as I am to writing this review of Gravity (which I believe I'm 3 weeks removed from viewing) I was even later to getting aboard the Gravity train.  I had no doubt from my previous experiences with Cuaron movies, whether it be Children of Men or Y Tu Mamá También or Prisoner of Azkaban that I was in for a great experience.  Word of mouth multiplied that perception exponentially.  It just took me a very very very long time to find the time to see the picture.  Thankfully it's ridiculously successful run carried deep into November, and surprisingly only in 3-D.

I had heard that the 3-D in this movie was spectacular.  I'm an established opponent of 3-D, and yet with this and Pacific Rim (and even Dredd, which I saw in 2-D yet could easily see how the 3-D would have enhanced the experience) I'm softening my stance.  3-D should never be essential to a picture, and I've yet to see one where it is, but at the same time if it's going to be used, the element of depth should truly be explored.  Gravity uses this like no other film before it. 

Early on in the film Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone is tossed from a space structure (was it a telescope?) when debris orbiting the planet collided with them.  She's tossed outwards, towards the Earth...away... parallel...? We don't know.  Spacial reasoning is very difficult when surrounded by so much blackness.  She's spiralling, spinning with no gravity to help her right herself.  There's no traction in space, we become all to keenly aware.  Dizzied (and the POV camera allows us to share in her dizziness...thanks Cuaron, this wasn't helping my vertigo any) she's attempts to regain some sense of composure as George Clooney's space walking Matt Kowalski needs to locate her for a rescue.  At one point we're shown the figure of stone as she moves outwards into the darkness of space... only it's not dark, specks of light in 3-D show us the same dimensionality of space we get from the ground... and the figure is pretty much black, only visible as she interrupts the light of the stars.  It's brilliant in 3-D, absolutely stunning.

Scant minutes into the film, Gravity sends us on a gripping journey alongside Ryan Stone as she tries to survive in space, her oxygen depleting, and the threat of the debris making another pass in orbit.  There's space stations to venture between, capsules to ride in, and all sorts of tasks that need to be performed, all in the name of survival.  It's truly relentless, and it's a definite experience.

At the same time, it's an utterly preposterous one, and how much you like Gravity will depend on your willingness to suspend disbelief.  Early on I had to remind myself that it's not a representation of a real situation, or even a believable one, that it's only a movie, and with that I relaxed my critical eye.  I wouldn't have been able to make it through the fire extinguisher sequence without it (a similar activity my wife reminded me we had seen recently performed by Kid Flash in the Young Justice cartoon).

Bullock was a great choice for the role.  She's a naturally likeable actress who is usually sidled with either hammy or annoying roles.  Here she gets to be brave and vulnerable and intelligent and inspiring all at once.  She makes some pretty great choices in her physicality, particularly at the end.

Cuaron for his part draws out inspiration from all over.  Naturally 2001 plays inspiration, while so does Ray Bradbury's Kaleidescope, and I bet sci-fi fans will likely spend a lot of time pulling out other nuggets of influence (... Cameron Esposito on the Wham Bam Pow podcast pointed out that the end sequence was a homage to Planet of the Apes).

This isn't necessarily a great story, but it is a pretty incredible experience.  After leaving the theatre I felt a little unsatisfied, but the further I get away from it, the more I want to see it again.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

2013, Alan Taylor -- in theatre
(Countdown to the World's End, day 4)

This one's going to be unapologetically geeky and perhaps a little unobjective.

My thoughts on the first Thor movie have changed somewhat since I first wrote about it.  I liked it okay when I saw it in the theatre that first time, but after watching it for a second time with my wife, I found I quite enjoyed it to the point that I now think of it fondly.  I don't doubt that it is flawed, but the tone it was going for -- the sort-of comedy meets mystic royal melodrama meets fantasy meets action-adventure meets romance meets superhero amalgam -- a monster of a genre mash-up has in the years since become far more acceptable and palatable.  There are a half dozen TV shows that try to recreate this very thing on a weekly basis, and while the Avengers didn't dally in so much in different genres, what it did do is solidify the awesome tandem of Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

This second feature reunites the cast of the first, the rather expansive cast.  There's Thor and Loki, naturally, and Natalie Portman's Jane Foster with Kat Dennings Darcy tagging along as highly able punchline deliverer.  There's the heroic warriors of Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral and Sif, the latter of which an unnecessary foil for Thor's affections.  There's Thor and Loki's parents, Anthony Hopkins returning as Odin and Renee Russo as Frigga, and also Stellan Skarsgard returning for a third time as Dr. Selvig, and of course the always, always incredible Idris Elba as Heimdall.  It's such a robust cast of characters and an awesomely impressive cast of actors, that it's no wonder the villains are given the short shrift when it comes to screen time or character development.  Christopher Eccleston steps in as the main adversary in the film, a dark elf looking to return darkness to the universe (what happens when the darkness returns isn't clearly explained, but we're to assume it's bad and probably shouldn't happen).

While this main plot of the film is thin, what I really bit down on was the characters, with Thor's relationship with his father and brother so deliciously rocky.  The reunion of literal star-crossed lovers plays out nicely, with prolonged frustration leading to a fast rekindling of passion.  But there's 9 worlds to save so the god-love has to wait.  They attempt to beef up Heimdall's role, and it gives Elba an impressive action sequence, but it's still not enough for an actor of his caliber.  I hope the next film has him fighting right alongside Thor throughout.  Equally beefed up is Hopkins and Russo's presence, and this presents a particularly surprising and enjoyable sequence involving Frigga and a short blade.  Thor's warrior buddies, however, are still as ancillary as they were in the first movie... it's a "they're critical supporting characters from the comics so they need to be here, but we don't know quite what to do with them".

Outside of the characters and the action, there's the humour and, most surprisingly, this film is really, really funny.  There were some charming and entertaining moments in the first, but this matches the Avengers for some sharp line reads and visual gags.  Also bolstered from the first, and this is where the budget boost comes in, there's many more action set pieces here, and most are really quite great.  The climactic finale finds Thor and Malekith fighting, bouncing between the 9 realms as the fabric of reality disintegrates, and scriptwriters and director use this unique situation to create a really unique fight that also lends itself to some terrifically funny moments (poor Mjolnir seemed so confused).  The effects are also much bigger, particularly Asgard looks more lived in, and with its defensive capabilities on display, more formidable.

Like the first film, it's far from perfect, but it is quite entertaining.  Hemsworth remains mid-bogglingly attractive (Natalie Portman's incredibly pretty, but he way out-pretties her), and Hiddleston's Loki deserves his own movie at this point.  I liked the strength of the female characters in this film (the sub-plot with Sif mooning over Thor, and Odin trying to push his son towards her either needed to be reinforced or removed altogether, it was far too slight a sub-plot), and it's really the humans, Selvig, Jane and Darcy, along with her boy toy intern, that save the day, with a little help from Thor.

As I said in my last review, I'm not a fan, at all of Thor in the comics, but I'm absolutely invested in these films.  It's done well enough that a third is inevitable.  Given the great reveal at the end it should be marvelous (no pun intended...okay, yes it was).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

3 short paragraphs: Room 237

2012, Rodney Ascher -- Netflix
(Countdown to the World's End, Day 3)

I've seen Kubrick's The Shining once... twice maybe?  Certainly once with plenty of exposure to various scenes from the film over the years.  I liked it, but, like the Exorcist or other critically revered "suspence/horror" films of the 1960's and 70's I wasn't really getting it on a deeper level than just what the story was presenting.  I think in large part these groundbreaking films become such a part of the zeitgeist, they get parodied and emulated ad nauseum to the point where it can really weaken and dilute the actual product, especially when you don't get around to watching it after you've watched the Simpson's parody of it a dozen times.  I've never doubted that Kubrick was a filmmaking genius, however, and that there's certainly something more to his films than most others... it's not just about telling a story... there's the script, there's the dialogue, there's, the scenery, the props, the blocking, the effects, the acting... everything is so very guided and precise to a degree that few other filmmakers before or since take it to.  But is The Shining really a parable about the white man's atrocities against the Native Americans or a morbid sex satire?

These are just two of the many questions that Room 237 poses, and the vocal progenitors of such bizarre theories, in voiceover only, attempt to make their case that Kubrick designed the film to be watched forward and backwards or that it's a holocaust allegory.  Director Ascher splices together the voiceovers in a bit of a mad jumble, further accentuating each eccentricity, at times losing the thread and blurring the line of whose Shining conspiracy is whose, but also largely still able to keep the threads separate without any real visual cues.  Of course every one of these theories sounds preposterous, more and more mad the deeper you get into them.  It's people seeing what they want to see, pulling out of the film whatever they want to connect it to their thesis, no matter how tenuous an idea it might be.

At the same time that I was continually balking at how absurd so many of these theories were, I still was drawn further and further in by the commitment of these people to their ideas.  The depth of thought and insight they have into the film is impressive, like the woman who makes maps of the interior of the Overlook Hotel or the step-by-step frame examinations or the thorough scouring of background details.  Out of all of the most interesting theory was that Kubrick used The Shining to covertly convey that he was in fact the directory of the moon landing footage.  It's a dumb theory, but it's the one that's has the best amount of evidence to back it up within the documentary, and my favourite moment of the entire film questions how and why the carpet seemingly reversed from one scene to the next, but provides no satisfactory answers.  My guess about so many of the film's ambiguities and visual inconsistencies are an attempt by the director to embed subtle, almost unnoticeable cues on the viewer to slightly disorient them and heighten the elements of madness in the film.  But that's just me.  Perhaps I need to watch it again.  This documentary, all told, is a waste of time, but still quite a curious and entertaining one, especially for cinephiles who like to think too much about their movies.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Dredd

2012, Pete Travis - DVD
(Countdown to The World's End, Day 2)

I realized while watching "Mega City Masters" -- a supplemental bonus on the DVD that briskly grazes over the creation and continued endurance of the character of Judge Dredd in comics, by way of a series of talking heads with some of the more prominent writers and artists of the character -- that I know jack shit about Judge Dredd when it really comes right down to it.  My total exposure to the character was the Batman team-ups in the 90's and the first issue of the short-lived DC Comics series (I've attempted to purge all recollection of the Stallone-starring adaptation).

Through one of those Batman team-ups, the one rendered rather seductively by Simon Bisley (edit: "Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham" circa 1991), I came to know of Judge Death, Judge Anderson and Mega City One, but I didn't know the characters or the types of stories they came from, and I haven't been terribly curious to find out, despite the character being one of the (if not the) most popular British comic book creations.  So this new Dredd film was never high on my priority list when the film was being made or upon release.  It performed poorly at the box office but word of mouth told a different story, which I guess had me curious.  Not curious enough to rush out and see it or buy it or rent it (it came to me by way of a free Redbox promotional rental), but it was on the list based on certain recommendations (David's review is here).

I agree with David's comparison that it's like The Raid: Redemption (Graig's, David's), in that it's a couple of cops trapped in a high-rise apartment building totally controlled by drug dealers and having to stay alive, and if possible take down the head.  They are, in story and tone, pretty much the exact same feature.  It's a formula that has seen countless iterations since Die Hard (or even the Towering Inferno before that), a rather sizeable confined space and a struggle for survival. My wife chimed in that there was a bit of a "dungeon crawl" element to it (referring to the Dungeons and Dragons-style of role-play storytelling, as if you didn't know) which I would also agree with.

Writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) also adds in facets of the Gauntlet (where cops are protecting a witness through a field of opposition) and, servicing the characters, a trial-by-fire training day scenario for Dredd's new partner, the young mutant Judge Anderson (whose psychic powers allowed her to squeak through the preliminary testing, despite having marginally failed).  It's all a very comfortably familiar movie, with not a lot of surprises in the way of characterization or story, but it's in the larger environment and the artistic sensibility the film stands out.

Using this sort of story-mashing from within the action and cop genres gives a very robust skeleton to pile the world of Dredd meat on top of.  It allows for Mega City One to exist, but on a budget, it's economy in working in a confined environment allows for more involvement of "future technology" without it having to be omni-present.  The environment of an apartment complex (even one that housed 75,000 residents and is 200 stories tall) allows the world of Mega City One (a futuristic cityscape spanning from ex Washington DC to Boston IIRC) to be exhibited in a microcosmos.  It's all an effective way of presenting Dredd on screen but without the Hollywood mega-budget.

Director Travis doles out a very specific vision for his feature, which quite literally pulls no punches.  It's a hyper-violent feature where instead of buckets of blood gore-effects enthusiasts are treated to plenty of images of scattered chunks of flesh.  There's a B-movie or grindhouse influence at play here, never once pretending to be a conventional Hollywood blockbuster.  Travis' use of the POV camera, particularly when characters are on the drug SLO-MO, is kind of hypnotic and beautiful, were it not so smeared with grime and filth.

The primary cast is solid, with Karl Urban embracing the role of Dredd wholeheartedly, keeping the perpetual scowl peeking out from beneath his visor the entire time, as well as bravely keeping that helmet on the entire movie... it's hard for an actor not to use their eyes in a performance, thankfully Urban understood Dredd's one-dimensional character, and never pushed him beyond that.  Game of Thrones star Lena Headey seems to thoroughly enjoy the unglamorous, scarred, rotting teethe drug kingpin role of Ma-Ma, soaking up screen time with some gruesome mugging.  I adored Olivia Thirlby as Anderson, getting completely right the notes of fear and unpreparedness, but also never betraying that the character has had training and has some level of competency.  Nobody in this movie is a superhero (though a couple scenes, like Dredd outrunning some insanely powerful machine guns hit incredulous levels) despite it's origins...

It's not for everyone, but those that like their action films loud, violent and extremely bloody, but also well made and with interesting sci-fi concepts... it's happening here, quite nicely.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Frozen

2013, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee -- in theatre

I've been quite negligent and equally tardy in my movie reviewing, with a backlog of 12 titles sitting in my "to review" list.  The list stretches back to August and my wedding anniversary, where the wifey and I went to see the final installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World's End.  So, two things: 1) I need to catch up on my movie reviewing, 2) I probably need to watch more movies if I've only seen 12 in the past ... (August, September, October, November...1,2,3...)... four months...well really more 3 months since The World's End was at the end of August, but still that's at best four movies a month, only one movie a week. Of course, that's not counting the endlessly repeated kids movies or things that I pay next to no attention to (the less said about "My Little Pony: Equestria Girls" the better).

Which (kind of) leads me to Disney's return to their "musical princess fantasy" milieu, where they were so comfortable and so successful in the 1990's.  Working from the latest film I've seen backwards to The World's End (like "Coundown to The World's End"?), Frozen is based (very) loosely off the Hans Christian Anderson fable, The Snow Queen, so, as is tradition in the House That Mickey Built, a classic children's story is repurposed into a more modern romantic adventure set piece with quirky sidekicks and plenty of singing.

I'm not a fan of "Disney Princesses", the marketing gimmick, as it brands characters outside of their storytelling context, and removes any sense of their strength of character, instead devolving them into pretty dresses and dress-up jewelry.  But at the same time, I'm not fond of most of the princesses in the Disney films themselves.  They're usually reactionary creatures, love-struck and in need of rescue, or action-adjacent.  I was really hoping Brave would be a more positive, tough princess added to the Disney pantheon, alas, she turned out to be a spoiled brat who learned nothing after turning her mother into a bear.  An element of Brave is resolving the mother-daughter conflict, and it's an important story, but Brave does not handle it very well.  Frozen, on the other hand, is about unintended conflict between siblings, with both sisters front and center in the story, and any romantic elements being asides to the central aspect of the bond of family.

The commercials for Frozen have not played up the fact that the film is indeed a Disney musical (so not a full-on musical, but characters are breaking into songs throughout) and the centerpiece of the commercials has been to sell the slapstick sidekicks -- the snowman, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven -- more than any of the human characters, or to even really infer what the story is.  The comic relief characters, a classic element since Shakespeare's day, are an expected staple of these types of things.  Olaf is truly a useless character in the grandest sense that he serves no story purpose other than comic relief.  Sven on the other hand is a beast of burden in the film, so at least he serves a purpose, but as well being Kristoff's best friend is punctuation on how socially isolated this man is.  The music is not what I'd call classic, but mercifully it's original and not yet another digitally animated film that's taking classic rock or modern hits and reusing them as in-story song-and-dance numbers.  The cast, beyond Kristen Bell as Anna (can she really sing like that?  I'm impressed if that's actually her) is comprised of stage performers, Broadway stars and Tony winners, it's a marked difference from the usual celebrity-studded kid flicks.

[Spoilers]

But beyond that, it's got a good story featuring interesting characters, complex emotions and more than a bit of princess genre-busting.  It begins with the sisters Anna and Elsa as little girls.  The elder sibling Elsa has fantastical powers which allow her to create ice and snow, which her younger sibling likes to take advantage of in the grand foyer of their Danish castle home.  But an accident while using her powers threatens Anna's life, and a mad dash to the Troll people saves her but requires the removal of all of Anna's memories of Elsa's powers, and Elsa sheltering herself lest she lose control of her ever-strengthening powers and harm someone.  As they age into early adulthood (in a musical montage showcasing Anna's rather desperate disappointment in her sister's isolation, and Elsa's increasing fear of herself) they lose their parents and ultimately it comes time for Elsa to be crowned queen.

They open their gates for the first time in years to the outside world, and the masses (part curious, and part reveling) come to celebrate her coronation.  But what Elsa fears the most, losing control, naturally comes to pass when Anna, desperate for social contact and love, meets Hans, a neighboring prince who seems absolutely perfect for her and proposes marriage.  With her powers erupting, Elsa sets the village into perpetual winter and flees into the fjords before she harms anyone, where she finally lets loose, revealing she can create buildings, bridges and clothing out of ice and snow, and even bring snow people to life (not just life, but full cognition).  Anna sets out after her, meeting ice farmer Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and the summer-loving snowman Olaf along the way.

By this point I had already expected a love triangle between Elsa, Anna and Hans, a sibling rivalry between Elsa and Anna that would see Elsa turn into a wicked witch-type figure (similar to Oz: the Great and Powerful earlier this year), and another love triangle between Anna, Hans and Kristoff.  None of these actually came to pass, but the language of these types of movies naturally has us expecting those types of shenanigans that almost any deviation is a welcome one.

The climax of the film holds true to what came before, though once again leading us to expect the conventional and mercifully denying us that.  The climax of the film finds Elsa in chains and Anna near death with the only thing to save her an act of true love.  The expectation is that it will be Hans or Kristoff providing such an act, or even possibly Elsa saving her sister, but it's actually Anna who saves herself, and it's rather glorious.  The men in the story are love interests, sure, but they take more of the princess role that Disney films of not-that-old would find Jasmine or Ariel in.  It's still a princess movie, with plenty of dress adoration to go around (the Danish influence on the costuming and art design is wonderful) but it doesn't stop there with these characters.  It allows them a full range of complex emotions and moments of valiant heroism, basically more of what I wanted out of Brave, but welcome it here.

Frozen is a good movie with the potential to tell a great story.  The film glosses over Elsa and Anna's childhood and teenage years as their once tight bond dwindles and we never actually feel the true impact of their separation, and their isolation.  As this section is glossed over in song, we receive lyrical resonance, but it doesn't satisfactorily convey the overwhelming disappointment Anna feels or any further complexity beyond that, nor does it effectively capture how Elsa feels beyond fear (I suspect sadness and depression would be darker impulses).  A novelization of the story, expanding on these aspect (and eliminating the completely peripheral Olaf altogether) would be most welcome.

A definite winner, and I think an easy favourite in the Disney princess repertoire (Elsa and Anna come second and third only to Princess Leia in the Disney Princess department).





Friday, November 22, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: The Colony

2013, Jeff Renfroe (TV like Haven, Being Human) -- download

Last year the genre movie blogs (the impetus for much of my downloaded viewing) were both learning about movies taking place in post-apocalyptic, snow-covered environs. At first, the reporting merged the two, but we learned that there was to be Snowpiercer by Joon-ho Bong (The Host) and this mostly Canadian production.  Considering how quickly this came, or didn't, to the cinemas and disappeared, we can guess what was meant for the OnDemand world and what was to make a good popcorn muncher in the theatres.  The blogs are still talking about Snowpiercer but if it was possible for digital systems to have dusty shelves (i.e. Netflix) this movie will soon be relegated there. It is a cut above those terrible, SyFy-produced disaster movies but not by much.

Post-apocalypse. Snow covered landscape. The last survivors of the human race are hidden inside well-stocked and powered bunkers, doing their best to live, but really, all hope is lost. From many bunkers, they are down to this one. And this one, from hundreds of people, down to a couple of score. Though doing OK for food and water, what is killing them are viruses and most likely, the common ones like the cold and flu. Medicine is basically non-existent so if one person gets a bug then it can easily kill many. If you get sick, and do not recover quickly, you are sent to walk in the snow.

Could be a compelling plot? But its just the B-plot, the one that is written for conflict between main characters. The real plot is the loss of communication with a neighbouring, and possibly the last bunker. So a couple of guys gear up and trek across the ice & snow to see what happened. From there it turns into your typical postApoc movie, as our heroes (and its no real spoiler alert, as every blog rolled their eyes at the reveal) discover the place has been the latest buffet for a band of cannibals. The cannibals, insane and not bothered by the cold, follow the surviving heroes back to their bunker for a standoff. Even though a few people survive, and with hope of a future, I don't give less than a dozen people much of a chance to repopulate ice age Earth.


Monday, November 18, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: About Time

2013, Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Pirate Radio) -- cinema

As we came into the theatre, J commented on the obvious demographic for this movie. There were about three men, probably all my age. The rest were women covering all range of ages, from the teenage girls next to us to the grey hairs sitting below us. As we were leaving the theatre, J commented, "That was not a chick flick, that was a movie for guys, about a guy's relationship with his dad." She was so very right.

Tim and his family live in Cornwall, in a very large house, in an idyllic life where his dad reads books all day long (having retired happily at 50) and everyone has tea on the beach, every day. On New Year's Eve Tim's father explains to him the family secret -- that every male can travel in time. Just stand in the dark, scrunch your hands together and envision the time you want to be in. And poof, you are there. You can also come back to the starting point and see the product of anything you may have changed. But this isn't a time travel movie, with very little told about the rules and ramifications; in fact his dad says that they seem to not have much impact on big things, and can only affect their own lives. The key point is what Tim will use it for, what he will change to make his life better.

And that is what this movie is about. It is a lovely lovely movie about making your life what you want it to be. Or being happy with the life you make for yourself. Tim knows he has to be with Mary, from the first moment he meets her. So, he goes back and back and back until he gets it right. It doesn't make his life perfect but it does teach him about how so many little circumstances of life are important and it is what you make of them that defines your life. Platitudes belonging on Instagrams, I know, and I am somewhat bitter that it takes a man with the ability to time travel to learn this, but I still cannot help but love this movie. Its a sweet confection when so many movies are strong tasting and often bitter. And I actually liked every character in the movie, which is so hard to say these days.

Bonus Paragraph: The love story angle actually seems to take second place to his constant visits to chat with his dad. This is a family that really loves each other and are not afraid to show it. And when Tim realizes it may not be a rule to it, a consequence crops up to impact his visits back to his dad. And the scenes where they spend their last few days together are beautiful and heartbreaking. As someone who has lost his father, this is the part that made me come out of the theatre misty eyed. I wouldn't have minded the chance to use time travel to have a better relationship with him.

Monday, November 4, 2013

I Saw This!! All About the Magic

I will subscribe to Graig's new theme and clear out some outstanding films.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 (2010, David Yates) download
Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (2011, David Yates) download
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, Peter Jackson) cinema
Now You See Me (2013, Louis Letterier) download


It may have been only a few days after watching ...the Half-Blood Prince that we watched the two part finale for the Harry Potter series but it has been almost two years since then. Part 2 is now on Netflix, so I was able to half-heartedly watch it again, while doing housework, inspiring this cleanup. Not sure why they only have Part 2.

The final two left the most impression on me of all the movies. It is easier to think about them as one long long movie. Easily the darkest movies of the series, they carried a heavy melancholy The weight of the prophecy Harry has been experiencing since the first movie is overshadowed by Voldemort's nasty campaign to make sure Harry fails.  Everything is dull and grey, from the dull streets of London to the cold, narrow streets of Godric's Hollow. Wizard society is falling apart around them and the trio of old friends have to flee like criminals into the dark. And death is all around Harry. Real death, not alluded to or far away death. These are not kids movies but movies for the kids grown up.

The Hogworts kids are pursuing the horcruxes, seeking to destroy Voldemort and the journey brings them back to Hogworts where the place is preparing for war.  This is rather heart breaking, to see that place of wonder and magic resorting to outright battle against a rabble of goth wannabees.  Even more heartbreaking are the deaths that inevitably have to happen once the battle is in full swing. And its all about Harry; if they give him up Voldemort promises lenience. Of course, heroism and sacrifice win over everything.

My favourite scene is the ending, seeing the aging Harry and Ron with their kids heading off to Hogworts. It must be nice, almost twenty years later to send their own back to a likely rebuilt and healed place that not only educated them but changed their life and that of the world.

So, The Hobbit finally on the big screen. The book that established my love for swords and sorcery, dwarves and dragons, is finally created. Even more than The Lord of the Rings, I wanted to see this movie brought to life. And as much for the meet-the-dwarves scene as for anything else. But I was so so so so disappointed with the production of this movie that I held back from any attempt to do a review, with intentions of watching the movie again to pick out what I did enjoy about it. I will do a proper review when I do get around to that.

What didn't I enjoy? Well, basically because it was a retrograde recreation of the LotR movies. Structure, style and even format were recreated to make this movie attractive to the non-reader fans of the earlier movies. Its not the additional content to extend to three movies that bothered me but the fact these added elements seemed so familiar. There had to be a Big Bad orc, there had to be a chase scene underground and there had to be flashback scenes with grand battles and the sweeping grandeur of Middle Earth. I wanted more faerie tale The Hobbit and less The Lord of the Rings, Pt 4.


In our final focus on magical movies, we have Now You See Me.

I am not sure of what I really thought of this movie. I rather dislike the premise, a bunch of Las Vegas, reality-TV type magicians and street cons brought together by a shadowy organization doing seemingly impossible real magic. Their first act robs a bank in Paris and gives all the money to the audience. From there its a crime caper as two cops try to bring down the magic gang and figure out how they are doing it at the same time.

The movie smacks of the interest in (real) magic that was shown in The Prestige and The Illusionist but with the modern charlatanism we see on TV. It is kind of fun to see them blow up the faux magic and there is an even more fun twist to the story and I rather like Leterrier as a director. But it is not a great movie, more a pop-corn-burp rental.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

What I Am Watching...Fall '13 New Shows (part 1?)

Were I still a teenager, I would be absolutely overwhelmed by the programming schedule this year.  There's so many genre shows, trying to capitalize on the somewhat surprising success of Once Upon A Time, Arrow, and more of recent years.  The CW, primarily, has top-loaded its roster with fantasy/supernatural-tinged programs.  The cowtowing to the "Comic-Con" crowd that has been so pervasive in the cinema in the past half-dozen years has finally hit television full bear.  The cop procedural is ebbing in popularity, replaced by magic and anti-heroes.  I teased the Fall season earlier this year and a lot of the shows I was looking forward to sampling (Enlisted, Intelligence, The 100, Almost Human, Rake) haven't arrived yet.

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Sleepy Hollow (Mondays @9:00 on Fox) was the first out the gates, a new show from Fringe creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.  I loved Fringe, but I was not terribly excited for this show... the property just isn't appealing (even though I'm one of the few that enjoyed Tim Burton's film, to which this show is not at all connected).  It's a mis-matched buddy cop supernatural action-comedy-drama-procedural, because genre blending is essential in order for a program to not be marginalized into the "nerds-only" ghetto.  The show finds Ichabod Crane awaking hundreds of years in the future, to present day at the same time a series of ghastly murders are occurring in a small town.  The Headless Horseman is responsible, naturally, resurrected at the same time as Crane as their fates are intertwined. In this iteration, the Headless one is in fact Death, one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, which is a nice twist on the story.

Crane finds his first sympathizer in  Abbie Mills, a police lieutenant that naturally has a greater connection to what's going on than she knows, plus there's a prophecy at play here, as well as secrets within the Sleepy Hollow,  and other such usual fantasy fare.  The pilot was a top-loaded mess of exposition, playing far too many of its cards at once.  In this age of television glut, I presume that some showrunners feel the need to entice the audience by teasing them with as much of their long-term agenda as possible.  Knowing what Orci and Kurtman did with Fringe, how they seeded four further seasons worth of material within their first season, I can see much of that same design in Sleepy Hollow.  Yet, I don't particularly like the source material, I'm not interested in the characters, and the mysteries at play don't entice me.  The actors obviously hadn't settled into their roles in the pilot, particularly Nicole Beharie as Abbie, but I shouldn't judge because I didn't like Anna Torv's performance in Fringe at first, but she revealed her amazing skill.  Then again Fringe had John Noble, who was brilliant from stage one, and Sleepy Hollow has no John Noble.  I didn't watch any further beyond the pilot.

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There's a new batch of comedies, considering how many were cancelled or came to a close last season.  Brooklyn 99 (Tuesdays @8:30 on Fox) comes from Parks and Recreation veterans Dan Goor and Michael Schur and features an great ensemble or proven talents like Andy Samberg, Jo Lo Truglio, Terry Crews, and surprisingly great in a comedy Andre Braugher.  I've watched the first four episodes of the show and while I like the cast immensely (particularly Stephanie Beatriz as Diaz, tough and scary on the exterior and only slightly less tough and scary on the interior), and find the show generally amusing, it's never actually all that laugh-out-loud funny.  Like many comedies it may need a dozen episodes to find it's comedy voice and rhythm, and for the actors to solidify their roles (Samberg and Braugher have already found their groove since the show is built around their expected personalities), but with such a crowded market, a show doesn't have that long to make an impact.  I've dropped the show from my regular regimen, but will check back in a few episodes.  Parks and Rec had a pretty gnarled and thankfully brief first season before it rebounded incredibly in its second, so hopefully Schur and Goor can do the same here, only faster.  As I noted to David when telling him about the show, how entertaining you'll find the series will be equally proportional to how amusing you find Andy Samberg's shtick.  He's the center of the show and the most prominent figure, a goofy man-boy but also a hell of a detective, and all the incongruities that apply.  Braugher's reveal as a gay lieutenant in the pilot is played brilliantly, and it continues to play as an accepted part of his character, while smartly not used as a comedy target.

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Michael J. Fox was always an incredibly likable performer, and his unfortunate affliction with Parkinson's saw him exit his last starring role in Spin City early, thinking his symptoms would make being a viable actor impossible.  But over the years, Fox has made some incredibly memorable and award-winning appearances on shows like Scrubs, Boston Legal, and the Good Wife.  In some respects, by metering out his performances in these guest starring roles, Fox's status has elevated as result. People are reminded how appealing he is, but at the same time there's been no opportunity for Fox to overstay his welcome and he's able to pick better roles which only furthers enhances his reputation.  The Michael J. Fox Show (Thursdays @9:30 on NBC) finds him back out front, though, the premise of the pilot (which I missed) put Fox as a TV news anchor who retired early due to his Parkinson's only to go stir crazy at home, while driving his family nuts with his ever-presence.  In parallel with the show's reality, he returns to work, so the show acts as both a workplace and domestic comedy, with Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt as his wife and Anne Heche as his competitive co-anchor most notably.

The Michael J. Fox Show deals head on and somewhat comfortably with his Parkinson's but perhaps relies on it too much as a crutch.  The show makes jokes in the same way friends or family would about it, once everyone was comfortable...it's never in a malicious or laughing-at kind of way... one of my favourite moments was Fox attempting to sabotage a romantic moment by flinging food on his friend's lap proclaiming innocently "oops, Parkinson's".  But at the same time outside of this there's not a lot of funny going on.  The early episodes play out many familiar comedy plots in equally conventional fashion, and the show doesn't quite know what to do with the kids yet.  Modern Family this is not, for better or worse.  I think the show is geared towards people of my generation or older, but a less savvy comedy viewer, it's a likeable show, and it would seem that's all it's aiming to be.  It's not trying to push boundaries or redefine the sitcom.  It just wants to exist and hopefully bank on its lead actor's Q rating to keep viewers coming back, and it has a good chance of succeeding in that regard.  It's just not for me.

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I was cautiously optimistic in my preview write-up of The Blacklist (Monday @10 on NBC), but what I saw in the extended trailer played out even better than expected in the series.  Perhaps surprisingly The Blacklist has become my favourite new show of the season, at least for now.  The first five episodes so far have established a really great cast of characters and performers who seem to enjoy their roles.  The premise finds internationally renowned super-criminal Raymond Reddington (as scene-eating James Spader) surrendering himself into FBI custody, but proving uncooperative otherwise unless he can deal directly with rookie profiler Elizabeth Keene (Megan Boone).  Keene is unaware why "Red" is only interested in dealing with her, but he seems keen to assist her in advancing her career, and has mentioned "because of your father" or something along those lines, with the obvious insinuation being that he is her father.  I'm hoping it's more complicated than that, but the paternal relationship he develops with her, and to which she rather quickly succumbs (signifying perhaps a void in her life she's keen to fulfill, no pun intended) seems to suggest heavily he is her dad.

As the Blacklist plays out, each episode Red provides the FBI with a target on his titular blacklist, a particularly nasty man or woman or organization, sometimes known, sometimes not so well known, and he works with them to either capture or kill or dismantle, but always somehow gains something for himself in the process.  Red is still left to his own devices to keep his reputation up, and the FBI (and CIA, who have together assembled a specific blacklist task force around Red and Keene) turns a begrudging blind eye to his activities as he's otherwise proving to be quite helpful.  It's utter balderdash, but it's incredibly fun, particularly as Red is so easily able to play everyone around him.

The rest of the cast of characters are all interesting in context.  Keene's husband (Ryan Eggold) gets brutally attacked in the first episode, and while he's in hospital, Liz finds a secret stash of false passports, a pile of money and a gun, leading to the best subplot of the show.  Keene's boss, Harold Cooper (the always fun Harry Lennox) has a past with Red, which gets hinted at each time they're on screen together, but is so far only teased about what has gone down between them. I'm unfamiliar with Canadian actor Diego Klattenhoff, but his Agent Ressler is great, particularly in the third episode where he gets to show off his bruiser physicality and fight a handful of thugs high on a skyscraper construction site.  I like how all the characters are being developed, Keene particularly is showing both a lot of strength but potent moments of weakness as well.  For what could have been such a silly show, it's showing some surprising depth.  It's taking the popularity of Homeland but going pulpy with it.  It fall apart at any moment, quite easily pull a Heroes/Desperate Housewives and go from being deliciously entertaining to sourly stupid, but so far so good

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My initial impression of Hostages (Monday @9 on CBS) held firm after watching the first episode, here's a story that would make a decent movie or mini-series but makes no sense as an ongoing.  Toni Collette plays a surgeon who is set to perform surgery on the POTUS, so her family is taken hostage by some militia-types who want her to make it look like the Commander-In-Chief died during surgery.  It's a simple set-up that seems unbelievable how they can stretch out into a full series.  Watching the pilot I can see how they're going to stretch this show out, but in the first ep it ALREADY feels exactly like that, that they're stretching out the plot of the show.  Nothing about it feels organic.  Each of the family members becomes engaged with one of the special forces-types that has taken over their home, establishing a seed of familiarity that will obviously play out as the show progresses into a Stockholm syndrome friendliness.  The subplots are hamhanded, especially that of the son who's in debt to a drug dealer, and I figured out a solution early on that the show likewise thinks of, then implausibly throws away (she attempts to use a pair of scissors to cut off her baby finger, but then can't go through with it...).  My Mother tells me the show does get better, but the absurdity of the first episode and the seeds it planted means I can't be bothered.

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Perhaps the most anticipated show of the season, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays @8 on ABC) has been its biggest disappointment.  It's not a terrible show by any means but it hasn't yet lived up to the megablockbuster films that seeded it.  Naturally an ongoing television series is a much different beast than hundred million dollar cinema, and likewise it's quite different than what you can achieve in comics, but so far Agents... hasn't met the standards of either.  It even hasn't lived up to Joss Whedon-created shows of the past.

Part of the problem is the show and the audience have both taken for granted that this is a familiar world and that Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson is a familiar character.  But the reality is the Marvel cinematic universe is different depending on which film you're watching, and also that Coulson is a very, very minor character in the films which he appears, with little recognizable character development.  He's likable but his role in the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films is rather one-note.  Agents... has rested too much on Coulson being familiar that they haven't developed him enough to make him feel like the leader the team needs.  The team as well is being developed by tropes rather than feeling like actual people inhabiting a miraculous world.  If Agents.. is supposed to give us a ground-level view of the Marvel Universe's grandiosity they have yet to really succeed.  These characters are saying words that make it sound like they're reacting to gods and monsters and aliens in their midst, but they don't feel like they're living it.  It's perhaps the failing of the trademark Whedon pithiness, this tendency towards archness distances them from having genuine emotions in this reality.

SHIELD, in the films, is a massive global anti-terrorist organization, and in the show it's reduced to a small elite team of 6 aboard a very fancy airplane.  It's budgetary obviously, but it feels too small for what they're trying to accomplish.  As the episodes progress though we start to get a larger sense of SHIELD and how expansive they are, what their reach is, but it still needs to spend more effort defining what they do, and how they do it, not just what this specialty team is for but the overall structure.  It's meant to be a breezy, poppy, retro-70's-style action show, but I think it needs to invest a bit more into the politics of the organization.

Five episodes in, the show is establishing a nemesis organization that's playing with the Extremis formula introduced in Iron Man 3 to nefarious ends.  By the end of episode 5, the larger scope of these bad guys is teased and if the series can get into some richer cat-and-mouse style spy games it will do so much better.  Establishing the characters has been slow, with most of the focus going towards Skye, the civilian hacker whose trustworthyness is the core of the first few eps.  But resolving that facet was the crux of the 5th episode, so perhaps with that out of the way we can get deeper into the rest of the crew.  The actors are all likeable but their characters less so, so far, so there needs to be a lot more team building than just the second episode (though the Sam Jackson guest spot as Nick Fury was the show's highlight so far).

Despite all the grousing above, I actually am enjoying it, it's just not living up to its potential yet.

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I had intended to pass on The Tomorrow People (Wednesdays @7 on CTV)  but after hearing some positive things about the pilot I bit into the first two epsiodes.  The pilot actually was quite good, if immeasurably familiar to anyone who's read or watched the X-Men at any point over the past 50 years.  The Tomorrow People are the next stage of humanity, having developed supernatural abilities, "the three T's": telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation.  They survive in hiding, since they're being hunted by Ultra, an organization seeking to destroy or control them all, seeing them as a threat to humanity's continued existence.

The focal point of the show is Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell), a high school senior who's been drugged up and in counselling for all the weird things happening in his life that are beyond his control, but with both the Tomorrow People and Ultra after him his life gets weird.  With the Tomorrow People he meets his peers, others around his age with the same abilities, who inform him that not only is he like them, but also the son of their MIA leader.  When Stephen encounters Ultra, he meets its leader Jedekiah Price, who happens to be his uncle, and offers him a job, which he accepts, despite the knowing protestations of his new Tomorrow People friends.

Stephen is so ill-equipped to play both sides, and the show does an adequate job in exploring that, but at the same time Stephen becomes all too aware all too early about how nefarious Ultra is.  The series tries to avoid the usual CW melodrama, and largely succeeds, but also doesn't measure the characters reactions or motivations honestly.  It's so close to being a really good show, it just needs to learn to move its plot forward by the characters rather than have the plots of each episode and the demands of the series pull them around.  Knowing what he knows, there's no way Stephen should still be working for Ultra after the second episode, and Jedikiah is stamping out the Tomorrow People because of an inferiority complex he had towards his brother, with a religious fervor.  I don't know if Ultra is an autonomous entity or a Government organization (it may have been mentioned)... either way it would be interesting if there was some sort of conflict Ultra was dealing with regarding their ... methods.  There's definitely promise here two episodes in - good effects, solid acting - amidst the familiarity.

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Though hardly a revolution, I do so like that on TV, network TV no less, female comics and performers are starting to have a true voice as creators and showrunners of their own programming.   Though there have been strong female-centric shows in the past from Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Bea Arthur and Carol Burnette, and of course Diane English's Murphy Brown, Tina Fey really kickstarted it in the modern era with the lauded 30 Rock, paving the way for Lena Dunham's Girls, Emily Kapnek's Suburgatory, the short-lived but wonderful BFF from Lenon Parham and Jessica St Clare (coming back this year on USA with Playing House),  Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, The Middle, and quite a few others that didn't make it (like all those Chelsea Handler produced ones).  Add to the list the new show from Australian star Rebel Wilson, Super Fun Night (Wednesdays @9:30 on ABC), which finds Wilson as the improbably named Kimmy Boubier, a competent business lawyer, and self-conscious extrovert.  Kimmy is the leader of her two friends/roommates, and the premise of the show finds them having set aside every Friday night as their "fun night".  This premise, by the fourth episode, has already fallen to the wayside, which is either a result of show reordering (the Hallowe'en episode appeared a week early) or just not deemed a required hanging point for each episode.

Wilson, with a well-masked accent, is an incredibly confident performer, and has established a relatable character in Kimmy.  She's obviously aware of her size and how to both use it comically and comment on how difficult being plus sized can be in a very superficial society without needing to do so head-on.  Kimmy and her friends are all outcasts of a type, with social awkwardness not being a Big Bang Theory laughing point, but a genuine part of their character.  The second episode finds Kimmy and friends joining a 3-on-3 group dating site, but being honest in their profile yields no results.  Kimmy "punches up" their profiles, and they get a date with three equally socially uncomfortable guys who are eager to buy into their falsities because they're just happy to be out with women.  But the deception, once revealed leaves them no less hurt.

Super Fun Night succeeds with an honesty underneath the situational comedy, characters that behave in a heightened way for television but emotionally react with a sense of reality.  If the show falters in the early stages its in letting it's secondary characters have their own sub-plots apart from Kimmy so early.  At this stage the show needs to establish Wilson as its center and make her key to both the A and B plots.  We need to completely be on board with Kimmy Boubier before we jump aboard the Marika or Kendall train.  Particularly in the fourth episode, which finds the B-story peering in on the relationship between Kimmy's nemesis Kendall and Kimmy's romantic interest/boss Richard who have already hooked up and are having relationship troubles.  They just haven't earned our interest in their lives yet, though I find Richard's bewilderment at being suddenly in a relationship with a domineering and  forward woman he may not actually like to be relatable.

Each episode seems to find a way to work in the characters singing a song, banking of Wilson's popular turn in Pitch Perfect, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if done every episode could prove dicey in doing so naturally.  There's also a hint of Felicia Day's Guild as influence in Kimmy's video journal pieces, which allow for a narrative element into the show.  Like The Mindy Project or Girls, this show gives a female-specific, but not exclusive, perspective, something that definitely differentiates it from the legion of situation comedies that have dominated television for 50 years.  Not to tokenize, as not all women-run shows work (*cough*Witney*cough*) but this one has a very solid foundation and a genuine star in the lead.

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Okay, I lied.  The Blacklist isn't my favourite new show of the season, @Midnight (Mondays through Thursdays @12am on Comedy Network) is.  Hosted by Nerdist podcast and AMC after-show host, comedian Chris Hardwick, @Midnight is a comedy gameshow that is the painfully obvious next step from media satire shows like The Soup or Tosh.0 and the talking heads panels of Chelsea Lately and the Jeselnik Offensive.  That Hardwick was once a panelist on Chelsea and host of The Soup franchise Web Soup (along with being a podcasting pioneer) provides him with just the right perspective to meld comedy and web trends into a gameshow format.

Three comedians join Hardwick four nights a week as they scroll through the weirdness of the internet -- Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Etsy, Amazon, etc. -- and use their conventions to establish games around, like writing an Amazon review of a weird youtube video, deciding based on a title whether it's an Etsy shop or porn, or coming up with twitter hashtags.  The show is two weeks old and I plowed through all 8 episodes in one night on Comedy Network's streaming site, laughing heartily frequently.  I'm a fan of Hardwick, he's a great comic and genial host, which definitely works for the show.  His guest list so far has been great, the best combination probably the Eugene Mirman/Kristen Schaal/Doug Benson episode and Kyle Kinan/Dion Cole/Tom Lennon.  The show is flexible and topical, the daily format allows it to stay current on web trends and memes before they become dated or diluted by the masses.  It's not lasting comedy but of-the-moment it's frequently hilarious.