Thursday, September 25, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: The Tower

2012, Ji-hoon Kim (Sector 7) -- Netflix

I love disaster movies. Yet, so few come out that I haven't reviewed a legitimate one here. By legit, I mean something I saw in the theatre. Someday, you will get a 2012 rewatch. And yes, once I see Into the Storm on downloads, you will get that. But until then, I am getting my fix from Netflix and apparently, from Korea.

If, as a genre, disaster flicks are not very good, then the enhanced melodrama of Korean cinema only enhances the not-so-good elements of these movies. I am convinced that melodrama, present in every country's movies, is a very cultural thing. What is deep, heart wrenching and touching in one country is overly cheesy and unbearable in another's. If balanced by a good story or good special effects it can work. Those are not to be expected in this genre.

This is all a way to say, yes, my latest Korean disaster movie, about a luxury tower catching fire on its "launch" night, is not a very good movie. It burns, it explodes, it even floods. The wide net of a cast including plucky firefighters, single dads, trusting Christians, hard working housekeepers and the required uncaring building owner. The effects are actually decent, a mix of heavy practical effects and CGI fire. I just couldn't get past all the longing looks and desperate cries, to attach myself to the characters, required to actually care for the dying cast. Only the quiet focus of the Captain Young-ki, the dedicated fireman who is never home because he works so hard, kept me watching. His final sacrifice, detonating explosives to collapse one tower so its twin doesn't topple over taking out downtown Seoul, is actually tragic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

One Episode: Gotham, Scorpion, Forever

Ooooo Gotham (Fox, Donal Logue, Ben McKenzie), ooooo all the villains in younger forms, ooo its young Bruce Wayne. That's it, that is why I didn't give a hoot about this show -- why would I want to watch a Batman show without even the possibility of a Batman? Sure, Gotham is a character unto itself, the deeper, darker version of Manhattan with all those elevated trains and a corrupt police force & government. But even the promotional campaign annoyed me, as they dropped hints about incidental characters who we know would grow up to be big players, such as Selina Kyle the street kid or Ivy, the daughter of a thug who hides behind her potted plants. And all that, "Which one is the Joker? Is it the standup comedian??" So, I was not looking forward to this show.

But surprisingly, I was not all that bothered by the first episode. This is tooled for the fans of Arrow, with a sort of drama light. Gotham is gritty and dirty, but not so much so that its always night. And honestly, anything with Donal Logue is going to have me watch at least occasionally. But really, it was Ben McKenzie sporting a confounding tough-guy accent (did I catch hints of growly Christian Bale?) and the clear values of Jim Gordon that made me enjoy it. There is no way he can clean up the entire city or even the GCPD in the first season, but I was happy to be convinced he will try. But with a level head on his shoulders, not all gung ho, "You guys are all corrupt, I am gonna take you down !!"

I will probably watch a few episodes until I get bored or more annoyed by the references.

Meanwhile we have mostly no names in Scorpion (CBS, Elyes Gabel, Katharine McPhee, Robert Patrick). Billed as a non-comedic version of The Big Bang Theory (because we always have to provide common ground) with overly intelligent, socially inept people who are gathered together to save the world each week, this was not as terrible as I expected it to be.

Oh, it was pretty bad. We have a white male math genius, a white male psychology genius, a white male (but Irish, ooo the ethnicity !) genius genius (one of the 5 smartest people in the world) and a, Asian female technology genius.  Token smart girl has to be Asian. So, one understands numbers, one people, one machines and the last is smart enough to know everything. Together they are smarter than all of us (I mean all of us) but they cannot pay their bills or keep relationships because they are emotionally crippled. Like a room full of Sheldons.

Except, they are not. Main character Walter O'Brien is well dressed, obviously works out, has friends and at every turn is cracking smiles, connecting with people and understanding the emotional impact of what he is doing. But they add the occasional interpersonal flub to remind us. And the math genius can talk to pretty girls; now THAT was the most unrealistic bit.

They are gathered by blacksuit Robert Patrick (Homeland Security, NSA, something like that does not matter) to save a bunch of planes that cannot land because of a virus in the LAX air traffic system. No one can get hold of the planes and they would rather them be blown out of the sky than attempt dangerous landings.  ??!?!

But all together, this silliness was kind of fun. The tech talk is your typical mix of technical bullshit with a dose of truth so it sound real. Their solutions are way over the top (such as connecting a network cable from a low flying plane to a speeding car) and the interactions are fun. I could actually enjoy this, as long it doesn't ever try to take itself too seriously.

P.S. The show is also stylishly titled as </scorpion>. Uh, closing a tag to connect something to tech is soooo 10 years ago. And its not even proper syntax. <scorpion /> would have been more appropriate.

Speaking of common ground, I can hear the elevator pitch for Forever (ABC, Ioan Gruffudd, Alana de la Garza, Judd Hirsch). Its Castle meets Bones meets Elementary meets New Amsterdam. That's alot of meeting. So, we have the cop & non-cop partnership, charming and well dressed. We have Dr. Henry Morgan as a coroner / medical examiner, who also happens to have a Sherlock style of noticing details about people & situations. And finally, most importantly, he is immortal. If he dies, he instantly appears nearby, naked, in a body of water.

Now, given it has the directing and writing style of Castle, I am built to find it appealing. Surprisingly, Gruffudd who has annoyed me in movies past, is becoming rather charming as he grows older. And the relationship between him and Judd Hirsch just seals that for me. You see, Hirsch is effectively his son, adopted in the 40s and the two have been together since. Abe has aged but Henry is still late 30s. But the two display such a bond, inter-changing father and son, as the situation plays.

The story of how he became immortal is somewhat explained, but with enough mystery to play out for a few seasons. Also, Henry has a "fan", possibly another immortal who is taunting him. As long as they don't end up with tons of mythology, which overshadows the buddy cop show, it could last awhile.

Of the three, I think Scorpion will die the quickest. Despite being on Fox, Gotham will have the most support and it will be up to Forever to find an audience to stick around.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

2014, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) -- in theatre

It was a pretty amazing summer for blockbuster movies.  Even if the box office didn't reflect it as being the best ever, I'm almost certain this summer's crop provided us with the best batch of movies week after week.  It started early in February with The Lego Movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in March, and went full steam ahead with X-Men Days of Future Past, Godzilla and onwards.  There were naturally a couple duds (Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transformers 4, and Ninja Turtles, all of which I avoided) there always are, but the caliber of the summers biggest films were so above par, not just in providing cool effects, but really strong directorial vision, thoroughly engaging and satisfying stories, and a measure of intelligence we're just not used to seeing in our popcorn entertainment.  While I'm still tardy on reviewing a few of these (Guardians of the Galaxy, Snowpiercer, How To Train Your Dragon 2), I had watched all the big movies that were worth watching this past one: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

There's often a divide among cinephiles and nerds over what constitutes a "good" movie, but also a bridge of nerd cinephiles sitting right in the middle of that venn diagram who appreciate a masterful drama or well-crafted documentary and the biggest of explosions and best special effects money can buy in equal measure.  Most of these people do reviews on the internet (*AHEM*).  Of these hybrid "cinerdphiles", it seemed like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was quite often coming up as highlight of the summer.  It's not like I didn't want to see it.  I love the original Planet of the Apes series, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an emotionally devastating and utterly surprising reboot of the series.  David and I had planned to see it together, but with the crazy summer schedule it just never worked out...but I knew I needed to see it in theatre before it went for good.

Where Rise was a smaller story about family with a strong anti-animal testing message, Dawn goes much bigger into examining what brings societies to war.  The setting of the film is a decade after Rise, the anti-Alzheimer's drug that Jame Franco's character invented in the first film that caused Caesar to rapidly evolve in intelligence also mutated into a virus that turned lethal to humans.  Society as we know it quickly collapsed while the escaped apes who were experimented on have built an entirely new and quickly expanding ape society in the forests outside San Francisco.  Humanity has survived, but in very small numbers.  When we meet the apes they haven't seen a human in years, up until Caesar's son, Blue Eyes, and a friend encounter one in the woods, one who panics and shoot's Blue Eye's friend.  This sets of a very tense chain of events as the increasingly desperate surviving humans in San Francisco, running low on diesel-generated power, get set to reclaim the forest to get to the dam, led by nervous Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).

Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the sort of engineering leader of the humans, looks to establish a truce with the Apes, and ventures out to connect with Caesar in hopes of reaching an understanding.  Caesar is reluctant to engage with the humans, concerned the influence they will have on his new society, but agrees to help them restore their power if it means peace.   His right hand ape, Koba, not only doesn't trust the humans but hates them with a fervor, and continually advises Caesar against his diplomacy, but when it falls on deaf ears, he turns Blue Eyes against him.

The humans, by and large, are fearful of the apes, blaming them for the deadly virus, not the laboratory scientists that created it.  The fact that some of them can speak and ride horses and brandish weapons amplifies their terror.  The desire to destroy what they both fear and do not understand is an all too common trait, one which both Caesar and Koba know all too well. But what Caesar had experienced, and Koba never did, was compassion, love and guidance from a human hand, and he nostalgically believes there is still value to them.  Koba can't see past his hate and begins scheming to convince to his leader and his apes that they must attack and destroy them.  When his scheming doesn't work directly, he becomes downright insidious in his actions.

It's a potent analogy to real life, that there are good people trying to make the world and the lives of people within it the best they can be for everyone, which includes compromise and tolerance, and there are others out for their own agenda fueled by hate, fear, an greed.  Dreyfu is convinced that their means of survival is taking other's land by force, while it's Koba's blind hatred of another race that he's willing to sacrifice the lives of his own to exterminate theirs.  It operates on a much smaller, more simplified scale, dealing solely with terrain in and around San Francisco populated with only a few hundred people and apes, but in a small dramatic package it speaks to what drives cultures to war.

Of all of the summer films, Caesar may be the best realized and best performed character of the bunch (and it's a hybrid performance between the animators and Andy Serkis' motion capture acting).  Caesar is trying to establish a society that is built around a hybrid of apes of advanced intelligence and of normal ape intelligence.  He has to lead using his superior mind, but also through his brute primal nature in equal measure.  He's a family man, teaching his son about the world both as he once knew it and how it is now, with another son just born and a wife who is ill (women get the terrible short shrift in this film, it doesn't pass the Bechdel test in the least).  He is a warrior, a hunter, a diplomat, and whatever he needs to be to ensure his society doesn't collapse or get destroyed.  The face of Caesar, being digitally rendered, is afforded a level of animation that few human performers could achieve.  But beneath it all are some very real emotions, the eyes of Serkis conveying the weight it all has upon him.  The look of betrayal when Koba turns on him, or the expression of  his failure when his son turns to Koba after rejecting him are palpable.

But it's not just Caesar, all the main apes, Koba, Blue Eyes, and Maurice the Orangutan are so wonderfully rendered, they are the richest characters on screen.  The human characters pale before them, but arguably it's because they have the tougher job of acting against not a actual ape.  Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee share a nice bonding moment -- as Malcolm's girlfriend and son, respectively, she lost a lot in the collapse, and he's never known anything but suffering -- but it's brief, and the human struggle is of lesser interest overall.  Beyond just wanting to see the human race survive, and, well, be decent, the film gives you little incentive to invest in their plight, or care all that much about the characters.  But it's kind of like watching Jurassic Park from the point of view of the dinosaurs, the humans just aren't as important.

The film has its choppy moments, particularly the opening hunting scene in the beginning where there is way too much cgi fauna on screen.  The uncanny valley maxes out and it doesn't look great.  The scene with the bear was good, particularly Koba's assist, but the bear just didn't quite look right.  Perhaps on the small screen.  But beyond that the cgi apes seemed quite refined, the lead apes certainly having the most amount of effort invested in bringing them to life.  The soundtrack from Michael Giacchino is dangerously dull, television drama quality, threatening to take the viewer out of the film with every slow piano.  It's like Giacchino used up all his tricks on Lost, and I'm so familiar with his work from there, it doesn't easily get repurposed elsewhere.

Of all the summer movies, this is the heaviest, most intense.  I welled up with tears any number of times throughout it, director Reeves balancing the spectacle with the emotional drama, using his effects budget not to dazzle so much as present the weight of the characters and their actions.  It's an excellent continuation of the series, and it's tremendous success means more will definitely be on the way (although the reports from producers seem to indicate a remake of the original film is the ultimate destination point, which seems ill-advised, as it does hold up pretty damn well).

Friday, September 19, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: I'll Follow You Down

2013, Richie Mehta (Amal) -- download

I am a sucker for time travel movies, especially indie ones. When you are not shooting for blockbuster fame, you have the energy to visit smaller ideas. In I'll Follow You Down it focuses on the question of which timeline deserves to exist.  This, of course, is assuming there is a singular timeline with which to mess with.

When Erol (Haley Joel Osment; all grown up but still baby-fat faced) was 9, his dad (Rufus Sewel) disappeared. He was off to Princeton and never showed up. Everyone assumed he just ran away but Erol's parents' love was so strong, it left his mother (Gillian Anderson) so irrevocably broken, she is lost to her family. Sal (Victor Garber), her father, believes that Gabriel didn't disappear but went somewhere more insidious -- into the past. He confesses this to Erol, who shares his father's genius and together the two decide to recreate the time machine and pursue Gabriel. Sal believes they are all living an alternate life that shouldn't be -- his daughter shouldn't be broken, Erol should not be prone to depression and Gabriel should be here, the perfect father. This will fix it.

This is a mild manner movie, set and shot in Toronto. Erol is a quiet lad, loving the girl next door, preparing a life with her. Despite his desperate desire to have his father back, he cannot deny his fiance is correct in saying, if they revert the timeline, she will definitely be in his life. This is the conundrum he must wrestle with -- which timeline is real, which one is the right one, why should all the people and choices and circumstances that exist currently be wiped away by a short jaunt into the past? But questions asked must be answered, or at the very least confronted.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

We Disagree(?) - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

2013, Francis Lawrence -- netflix

It seemed I was one of few who admired director Gary Ross' vision for Suzanne Collins bleak, totalitarian-run, classist future, as well as Ross' ability to focus on the humanity that is both lost and found by the participants in a fight to the death, last-man-standing competition.  I said at the end of my review "A second and third chapter aren't wholly necessary, but at this point they'll be welcome (unless they get too... Hollywood)".

Well, with Ross being cited by so many as the weakest element of the first chapter, he was out and in his stead, Francis Lawrence, director of such astounding mediocrity such as I Am Legend, Water For Elephants, and Constantine, was in.  It's not that Lawrence can't put a movie together, as the stories of those films all flow just fine (and truth told, miscasting of Keanu aside, I kinda liked Constantine a little), but there's little to nothing exceptional or daring about them... they're totally Hollywood productions, competently told to appeal to the masses.

If I have a problem with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it's exactly that the story is merely competently told.  From the onset, the film plays out like episodic television, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) having an exceptional amount of tension over her "on screen" relationship Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Peeta still harbors romantic feelings for her, but she doesn't reciprocate, and the drama over it is beaten into the ground.

David, in his review covers well the turmoil Katniss has to face (major PTSD), since she has become a darling resident of the 12 Districts, a champion and a hero, but the pressure is often too much, and her awareness of the potency of her symbolism, of a champion who beat the system, is beyond her comprehension.  When the masses start to, in small ways, rebel against the Capital, they do so in her name, which frightens her more than it inspires her.  It also frightens the people in charge, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) particularly.  He looks to his new gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (GODDAMN THESE NAMES ARE FUCKING AWFUL!!! I can kind of ignore them when just spoken, but I couldn't imagine reading three novels with names like these without feeling nauseated...anyway, he's played by the late, amazing Philip Seymore Hoffman) to help him squash the looming uprising before it begins.  The answer is a tournament of champions, so to speak, in honour of the 75th anniversary of the last failed uprising.  Katniss and Peeta are sent back into the fray along with a male and female former champion from each other district (I find it interesting that each of the 12 districts has both a male and female champion and that so many are so young).

This leads to a whole repeat of the process of the first movie, only accelerated and with more poignant flourishes. The last act of the film is the game itself, which again, is competently handled by director Lawrence, but far too often I could see the actors acting, as they flailed around to imaginary pains and fought imaginary apes and birds.  It was kind of laughable actually, and Finnick O'dair's Aquaman schtick twirling around a trident was quite cheeky.  The quick pace at which the tournament claimed its victims was disappointing, especially since we got very little time with most of the 24 contestants save for a half dozen or so who proved useful in the film's climax, which leaves with a cliffhanger-ish ending that feels more like a "see you next week" ending to a TV show than a cliffhanger proper.   That Lawrence has been twiddling around in TV in recent years with Touch and Kings makes sense.

The performances in this film are all fine.  It's got a great cast with Lawrence, Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and a most delightful Elizabeth Banks all returning, with Hoffman, Amanda Plummer in typical full-crazies, and Jeffrey Wright all excellent additions to the cast. Star Lawrence is, unfortunately, welled up with tears for about half the film, screaming at someone for doing something bad, or crying over someone dying or who has died, or just in a perennial state of being upset.  The look on her face as the tube goes up into the battlefield is completely "FML".  But the payoff I guess, is the final scene, which hearkens back to Gary Ross' style of the first film (SPOILERS).  It's a full close-up of Katniss' face, rescued but injured, laying on a table, sedated, staring at the ceiling, in a ship on its way to the resistance headquarters in District 13, she's just been told by Gale that her entire District 12 has been firebombed as penance for her in-game revolt.  Lawrence once again profusely extrudes tears, her face torn with regret, but the emotions run the gamut, fear, regret, remorse, sorrow, anger, rage, and ultimately resolve.  The tears stop and that face, the attitude say she's ready to take control and change the world, symbol or martyr or whatever it needs.  It's literally the best moment in the film.

Again, it's an interesting movie, but drawn out, overlong at nearly two and a half hours, needlessly so.  If director Lawrence could handle the breathier moments better, with better cinematography or more intense focus on the characters, it would have helped the film along, but again it's competent storytelling and little else.  I'm interested to see the finale play out, but decompressed over two films, it feels like it's going to be a nightmarish slog.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Chef

2014, John Favreau (Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man) -- cinema

Its really hard for me to write well (shaddup) about something I really like. Often the minutia that comes together to make something that perfectly clicks with me is intangible, even to me. But some of the elements of Chef are already right down my alley, so they have to be contributors. First, its a food movie with all the classic overhead shots of tasty looking food being well plated. And its also about a food truck, one cliche of the mid-otts that I am happy to indulge in; well, whenever you can under Toronto's draconian food truck laws. And it is about love: familial love, romantic love and the tight bonds of friendships that cannot be denied. It even tosses in some insightful uses of social technologies, focusing on how they can bring people together instead of just sharing their naughty pics. It is a feel good movie that presents itself to all the senses and emotions.

John Favreau is Carl Casper, a chef in an LA resto. He wants to cook his best, present his creativity but Dustin Hoffman wants him to continue to cook the favs on the menu, the items that keep the patrons and money flowing in. Add to that a food blogger (Oliver Platt) gone national who ridicules Casper and you get the first act, the life Casper is leading and how he is struggling. His difficult relationship with his ex-wife and young son only further complicate things. So, of course, it all has to collapse when Casper freaks out on the food blogger with it all being captured on someone's phone cam. He is instantly a meme. He is fired.

There is almost an entire movie in that first act, and what I loved so much about this movie is how much it continued on. It didn't feel rushed through the different acts of the story, but filled them up with so much. That we could cover an entire act with Casper rebuilding a food truck in Miami, along with the dedicated friendship of Martin (John Leguizamo) and Casper's son, is lovely. Its about rebuilding relationships, with his son, with his ex-wife and re-establishing why Casper and Martin are such good friends. The final act has the guys driving the truck back to LA, stopping in key cities to promote the truck on Twitter and add local fare to the menu: cubano sandwiches from Miami, beignets from New Orleans and BBQed pork from Austin, Texas. This act is a road story, a music story and the vacation I desperately need in my life. Oh, if I could have half the passion with which these guys live their lives I would be a much richer man, even if you ignore the fact that once again, people pursue a grand life only because of a grand amount of money. Ignore that lil bit of cynicism. I loved the movie. And the best sign of loving a food movie? I was hungry afterwards.

So, where can I find cubanos in Toronto?

I Saw This!! Netflix Edition

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all. And they can't do that, can they?

In this edition of "I Saw This!!" Graig covers:

Magic Mike - 2012, Steven Soderbergh
The 5-Year Engagement - 2012, Nicholas Stoller
Frances Ha - 2013, Noah Baumbach
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa - 2013, Declan Lowney


Steven Soderbergh may just well be my all-time favourite director, and yet I've not seen all of his movies (maybe only half), and I'm not sure that any of his films crack my top ten (Out Of Sight may come close).  But Soderbergh never fails to deliver something interesting or different.  He's a definite auteur, a man of very specific vision, but he doesn't have a distinct style or milieu that he works in.  Where other favourite directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino all have a decidedly distinct voice where you can tell a film is theirs at every passing moment, Soderbergh is a man of varied tastes who likes to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional storytelling in all different sorts of genres such that his impact as a director is often unidentifiable, but present.  Magic Mike is a damn bold, intriguing, and highly entertaining film that takes the sub-sub genre of stripper movies and explores it with a gender flip.

You've got your Flashdance, your Striptease, Coyote Ugly and Showgirls, to name the most prominent examples, which are each in their own way revealing of the worlds they explore, but at the same time, are themselves highly exploitative.  This is ever more clear by the gender flip in Magic Mike which highlights just how much control the men have on stage, how freewheeling and easy-going the experience largely is, especially in comparison to the seedy, grimy worlds that other stripper films present.  It's telling that the characters in Magic Mike are never vulnerable to exploitation, at least not in the same threatening way the women in female sex-trade movies are, and that is definitely a point that Soderbergh is making.

Channing Tatum went into Magic Mike as a meathead pretty-boy actor of little note or interest, and came out the other side a genuine superstar.  Soderbergh's focus on him is a man of confidence, charisma, humour and intelligence and Tatum sells it at every turn (not to mention being a man of skill, showing of some impeccable dance moves that seem far too fluid and limber for a man of his beefiness).  Mike takes young, aimless Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing and brings him into the world of male exotic dancing.  Adam naturally succumbs to all the vices that being young and making money in sex entertainment would provide, and Mike struggles to keep him on the straight an narrow (fostering a crush on Adam's sister doubles his investment in the young man).  The first two acts of the film are so easygoing, they show the environment of male exotic dancing as one of craft (if not exactly artistry), and that it does have it's rewards with few drawbacks.  The third act does take an unfortunate detour into familiar drug-and-danger territory (see Boogie Nights) but the heaviness is thankfully short-lived (you can see the studio notes that these *have* to go that way, don't they?).

It's not a masterpiece by any stroke, but it presents a story and a subject that challenges its audience (particularly the hetero male audience) to appreciate it, and it definitely has its moments worth appreciating.


A few weeks (months?!) back I was pondering how television has so unanimously trumped film's ability to make a successful comedy, pointing out that in both character-based and situation-based comedy TV has more time and ability to build one and not exhaust the other.  So it's no surprise then that a film like The 5-Year Engagement plays out less like a three-act film but rather like four or five episodes of a television series.

The plot finds Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) as a warm loving couple with a great relationship on the road to getting married, but with plenty of interference -- school, careers, deaths, weddings -- along the way.  The major impact on their relationship involves moving from San Francisco to Michigan so Violet can explore a career in academia.  The film is fragmented into sections of their life together (and apart), rather episodically.  Segel and Blunt have a charming playfulness and excellent chemistry that sells an otherwise middling script.  There's a lot of warmth but not as much comedy.  To their credit, Segel and co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller write character-based comedies that are much more interested character development than pratfalls and punchlines, so the film has a lot sympathy for and pays equal attention for both leads.  The film features a solid cast of supporting players with Chris Pratt, Alison Brie (although adopting a ridiculously awful British accent as Blunt's sister...I thought she should have played Blunt's best friend who was at school abroad and adopted the terrible accent), Rhys Ifans, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Randall Park and Brian Posehn.  It's overall engaging and likeable, but not particularly memorable.


Noah Baumbach established a reputation as a writer-director of heavy, dark, emotional family dramas, primarily on the backs of his back-to-back Oscar-nominated features The Squid and the Whale and Margot At The Wedding.  One can forget that he started out writing comedy/romantic comedy, and even co-wrote with Wes Anderson on The Life Acquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  He's more versatile than he gets credit for, but his features typically find their humour drowning in the darkness, buried under the heavy weight of their drama such that it's difficult or uncomfortable to remember the laughs.

Francis Ha is a bit of a departure for Baumbach, working on a much smaller scale, in black and white, and cowriting with his star, Greta Gerwig, to develop a very specific character to center the film around.  Gerwig plays the titular Frances, an late-20-something aspiring dancer living in New York who leads a rather cheerful existence despite her hardships.  She's perennially broke, seemingly always between apartments, and her chances of being a professional dancer diminish by the day.  Francis is looking for love but it's not about romance necessarily, but comfort and companionship.  She makes friends easily enough, but it's her best friend Sophie whom she wants to be with the most (again not in a romantic sense), but Sophie's moving on with her life, and Frances finds the void she's left hard to cope with.

In many ways, Frances Ha feels like Baumbach's riff on a Woody Allen picture, Manhattan smushed with Annie Hall, the old love story to New York (and, briefly, Paris) minus the overwhelming neurosis and jazz score.  Frances is a complex character who deals with the world around her in a truthful way (well, truthful to her, she doesn't realize the denial she's in quite often).  In the end, Frances isn't in a better place than where she started, just a different one... she's maybe a little wiser, and made some smarter decisions, but life is ever moving forward.  It's an entertaining light drama, and I enjoyed the examination of a character defiantly pursuing their dreams, unwilling to accept any alternative, until the cold reality sets in that their dreams are perhaps unattainable, but it doesn't mean life is over. Another plus was having Frances' "romance" be more about friendship than about any actual romance.  Any story diversion away from the "need a man to complete them" is a good one.


Given my recent assessments of big screen comedy, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is an interesting  picture thrust in that mix, as it takes an established character from television and transposes him to long-form big-screen comedy.  Oh, it's not a unique thing, since so many feature comedies are born out of television shows, sketch, or characters developed on stage in stand-up routines, but it's indicative of how a small-screen comedic success (like Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Will Ferrell or Sacha Baron Cohen) can make their way to big screen prominence, even if these days it's no longer an exclusive thing.

I missed out on Alan Partridge as a British cultural icon of the late 90's/early 00's, despite every intention to catch up with The Brass Eye and I'm Alan Partridge where Steve Coogan built his news anchor/talk show host, so I went into Alpha Papa with only the smallest notion as to who the character was and what he was all about.  I think prior viewers Alan Partridge have a slight advantage in knowing the character, his habits and failings from the onset, but by the end of the first act it's quite apparent that Partridge is an ageing egomaniac with faded celebrity wafting off of him.  But he's not desperate, not fully, and he's not necessarily always above his station either.  I don't know if it's character complexity or just inconsistency, but I admire the choice to have him be at once an attention seeking whore that has accepted his age and finds comfort in being at the top of the lowest rung yet will still take advantage of the opportunity to step back up to the next rung, but not at the bottom of said rung.

Alpha Papa finds the ex-national broadcaster now working as a midday disk jockey at a Northampton radio station where he's settled in for some years.  He drives a car that speaks to his shamelessness as a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing shill and makes personal appearances at small affairs for nominal tokens of appreciation ("how big is the key").  When the radio station is taken over by a new broadcasting group and brand-homogenized, jobs are on the line.  When the nighttime DJ (Colm Meany) is fired, he returns with a shotgun and takes the station hostage.  It's up to Partridge, working with the police, to negotiate their safe release, but of course the question is will all the attention allow him to do that job or will he seek to exploit the media circus opportunity before him?

It's been a long time since I've seen any comedy that isn't stand-up be so singularly focused as Alpha Papa is, in that almost all of the laughs come from Alan Partridge, whether it's his witty turns of phrases, Coogan's impeccable timing, a physical gag, or a specific set piece.  The majority of the laughs come from Partridge/Coogan, and remarkably very few of them are at his expense (and even those that are, one gets the sense Partridge feels very little to no shame, or at lease easily rebounds from embarrassment).  It's a little dark, the comedy at times, since the characters are all generally operating with the threat of violence about them, but at the same time the ability to ignore or comedically excel because of that threat is such a large part of the film's entertainment value.

Coogan commands the screen, as is probably his want, but also out of necessity.  A film with this type of story needs to have a central figure who is equal parts intelligent, compassionate, empathetic, ridiculous, and, at times, stupid while remaining completely in-character.  He owns this role totally, and there's never a moment where Alan Partridge feels like he's out of his element (well, there's that daydream he has of being the action hero, but that's intended fantasy).  It is a wholly off-beat picture, but incrementally hilarious, building as one becomes more and more familiar with the ways of Alan Partridge.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Guardians of the Galaxy

2014, James Gunn (Slither) -- cinema

OK, let me get this out of the way, so we can start with the hate (from you, the reader, and likely Disagree, from Kent) and get it out of the way. I was not all that blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy. It was actually less than my expectations, instead of more, as I had hoped for. It is a comedic science fiction romp that probably sits just above Thor in my enjoyment of Marvel movies. It is only barely space opera but for the fact it has spaceships and is set in a widely populated galaxy. It is not a superhero movie, but I say that more for the benefit of my non-geeky friends than the others, as it only has a tenuous connection to the capes, albeit some pretty substantial villains. Remember the reverb voice that was manipulating the Chitauri at the end of The Avengers?  Yeah that purple guy. Don't get me wrong, its an incredibly fun movie! It just felt like Marvel-light for me.

Peter Quill, aka Starlord, is a thief amongst thieves. He was abducted from Earth when he was a kid, by a group called The Ravagers. He double-crosses them and steals an orb from a long dead planet and crosses laser guns with some rocky looking fellows who also want it.  Enter the latest MacGuffin in the Marvel movies universe. For most of the movie we know its powerful, but not exactly how. When we find out it is one of those Infinity Stones (including the blue box and the red mist from previous movies) things become dire. Bad Guy Ronan is going to use it to destroy a planet full of people he doesn't like, despite his people having a armistice treaty with those people. Quill and his band of misfits decide they will throw their fly bodies against Ronan's windscreen. But of course, they win to guard the galaxy for another day.

GotG is funny. I am not against funny. Iron Man was funny. But this is mostly funny, in other words, all the best bits are the funny bits. Rocket the Racoon is wonderful, part pathos part ranty lil @!#%-er. Quill, is weirdly enough, kind of the straight man of the team as he pulls them together to accomplish the impossible. Everyone else is anti-funny, to emphasize the main funny men. Sure, there are spaceships and zappy coloured laser guns and weird aliens but its all gathered together into the lightest of light space opera fare, the ultimate in popcorn movies for the summer audience. I almost wish it was less popular so it could have meat to it. It was made to be a quotable, laugh out loud, easily accessible flick. And because of this, I cannot actively dislike it, but I can be very very meh about it.

Still, I love love love love baby Groot dancing in his pot.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rewatch & Reread: Wanted

2008, Timur Bekmambetov (Nightwatch) -- Netflix
2003, Mark Millar / JG Jones -- download

Wanted the movie showed up on Netflix and I took the opportunity to rewatch it during one of my less than attentive but free periods, making and eating supper. And after that, I had to reread the comic series, which I had remembered enjoying immensely.  I am not sure what has changed in my brain, but, I guess I am not as much a misanthrope as I used to be.

The comic Wanted is by Mark Millar, known for his over the top, ultra-violent stories such as Kick-Ass and Nemesis. With DC he was touted for his work on Superman: Red Son and with Marvel, he had done the The Ultimates. He has also garnered some controversy lately, but I rolled my eyes and assumed it was part of the Outrage Machine.

And then I re-read Wanted.

In a world of super powers, the son of a slain super villain assassin is recruited into The Fraternity. In the 1980s of their world, the super villains banded together to kill all the superheroes and then alter reality so they were remembered only as comic books. The Fraternity now controls the world and raids alternate realities for fun and profit. They are untouchable.

Wesley works a dead end job, his girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend and he has a myriad of anxiety disorders. But when he learns of his origins, who his father is, and that he has super level abilities with weapons and such, he joins the Fraternity with little thought. Oh, there is some initial hesitance about becoming a completely amoral killer, but then he then jumps in with both feet, murdering & raping to his heart's content. Yes, a very extreme end of the Anti-Hero, the misanthropic Mary Sue for all those despondent souls who cannot escape their lives.

I will not address the ultra violence. Violence is, and will probably always be, a part of our pop culture fictions. But the constant use of homophobic slurs, racial slurs and references to rape just got to me.  Sure, these are evil people doing as evil people do, but they are the protagonists in this story. Yes, Wesley is a misanthrope even without being weighed down by the oppression of his life. But he is also the underlying hero in the story, the beaten down worker drone that many many will identify with. Yet he is already racist, sexist and blames the world for his own woes. I find it dangerous to elevate this kind of character, when the Internet these days is rife with basement dwellers finding their hate filled voices, if only threatening violence and vitriol. Wesley is not depicted as a batshit crazy spree shooter who wipes out his school or office; he is seen as an average guy who just finds the power to have his revenge.

It bothers me. There is something very wrong between the lines.

I can now see why the movie tempered the story so much, which bothered me the first time I saw it. Sure, Wesley is still the downtrodden office worker bee, beset by anxiety and oppression. His girlfriend is still fucking his best friend. His boss is still hating on him. And he is still the son of super assassin. But in this world, they are not super villains, just a Fraternity of Assassins who learn of their victims from the Loom of Fate. In the threads of the world, there are people who just have to be killed, to keep the balance, to keep the rest of us in a somewhat safer world.

Wesley is pulled from this by Angelina Jolie, the Fox, in flashy, stylish slow-mo gun fights in public places. This is Angelina as she was just easing into the current stick-figure stage of her physique. I thought my distaste for it would have softened by now, but no, still too skinny. She never quite seduces Wesley but his ability to shoot the wings off a fly, get up the courage to yell at his boss and bash his best friend (Chris Pratt!) in the face with an ergonomic keyboard is seduction enough. He is tasked with the finding & killing of whomever shot his father.

I was disappointed the first time I saw the movie, being rather bored at how toned down it was. I like Bekmambetov's style, the way he shoots a shoot. He handles the curving of the bullets around corners very well, the shooting of a stylized bullet from miles away and the building of a ensemble cast of assassins of different skills & personalities. But everything is so shallow. The assassins are barely there, just names and death scenes. Its all about Wesley and Fox, their prey and the leader, the ever cool talking Morgan Freeman.

Even now, just days after seeing it, it is all fading away. This is Cool Lite, all the rough edges worn off an idea so it is palatable for a general American audience and a director's style toned down so we don't get overwhelmed. Again, we have Sunday afternoon watching fare, good for coming out of the kitchen for the best scenes and not missing what you miss when you walk back in. I guess I am still disappointed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wes Anderson Twofer: The Grand Budapest Hotel / Moonrise Kingdom

d. Wes Anderson, 2014/2012 -- in theatre/netflix

Some people find Wes Anderson movies far too twee and way too calculated to be enjoyable.  His characters and films have a surreality to them that can be hard to buy into if you're unprepared, or not otherwise in a position to concede to his nuanced charms.  Each of his films exhibit a universe all their own, rife with a colloquial patois that's overly eloquent and verbose, old-worldly and out of step with the modern tongue.  At the same time, his characters are soft-edged, living in a fantasy world that's not entirely divorced from reality, but still quite distanced.  A lot of his pictures are period pieces, but even those are separated from the truth of their times by a layer of nostalgic wish fulfilment. Yet even as Anderson specializes in escapist entertainment, a getaway from normalicy, he always always seems to provide hints at exactly what his work is escaping from.

It's been over 2 months, a trip to NYC, a cruise through the rocky mountains, and hours of other entertainment/alcohol consumption since I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, but facets of that film still linger strong in my memory.  From the very first moment of that film you know you're in a Wes Anderson picture, but then the same could be said for all of his films since The Royal Tenenbaums, so strong is his creative vision.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional hotel at the top of a mountain in a fictional land, and this film is the story if its most notable concierge.  Or rather, in true Anderson fashion, it's the story of a girl, reading the book of an author, who listened to the story of the owner of the hotel in 1968 telling the story of the concierge's most daring adventure in 1932.  As we eat our way through this convoluted but utterly amusing layer cake at the start of the film, Anderson switches cameras, film stock and aspect ratios, creating his own weird little Inception-style story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-etc.

The concierge is Monsieur Gustav H (Ralph Feinnes, in a career-best performance), an apparently flawless dapper man who has sight over the entire hotel, its staff, and its guests at all times.  He lives modestly, but he expends his energy lavishly, loving more than a few of the hotel's elderly patrons, including one Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton under piles of ageing make-up) who dies a short time after our story starts.  Monsieur Gustav is willed a priceless painting, which infuriates Madame Céline's thuggish children (including Adrian Brody and Willem Dafoe) and they set out to make Monsieur Gustav's life a miserable one.  Meanwhile, Monsieur Gustav has taken on a new protege, in the form of young Zero (a bold introduction to Tony Revolori, who most assuredly deserves a best supporting actor nod), whom he reluctantly learns to rely upon and in turn benefit him with his own good charity.

The film is a sprawling epic of whimsy, the likes of which have not been made in decades, and even then, were never made like this.  I dare say there's barely another director out there who can come close to touching Anderson in this department.  A film like Amelie or The Brothers Bloom have the feel, but those directors don't have the consistency or interest in consistency across their works.  Every single object on display in a scene, actors included, seem purposefully placed in this film, and the 1:33 aspect ratio of the main story creates a wonderful  boxed-in frame to attempt to examine it all.  This is easily Anderson's most ambitious and rollicking story (The Fantastic Mister Fox included) with an exceptionally game and in-tune cast to execute it.

There's such a joie de vivre to this picture, even the menacing evil of Willem Dafoe, the harsh undercurrents of war and regime changes, and even the harsh bandaid-tear of the characters' ultimate fates once we revert back through the layers can't sully the overall good-timey feel.  Beyond that even, there's a particular sadness to Monsieur Gustav H. that always threatens to rear its head, but never does...but you see it there in Feinnes' performance.  He's a man revelling in life almost desperately, clinging to the almost inconsequential status he has as concierge, but even when that's gone, he never loses his ability to pick himself back up and make something of himself.  There's such unabashed delight throughout the picture that Anderson's subtle insertions of cold, harsh reality only server to make that delight even more delightful.  This may well be Anderson's masterpiece, in a career that's been somewhat defined by them.

Moonrise Kingdom, on the other hand, is a lesser effort, but only in comparison to what came next.  Having just watched this days ago, rather than months, it should be fresher in my memory, but there was a cloud of Grand Budapest over this film as I watched, and it couldn't live up to it.  Oh, I can take it and accept it on its own merits, but it's such a smaller-scale picture in comparison, and it's not as outrageous.

Anderson has a bit of a fascination with youths and their parental/authority figures.  Rushmore is the story of a boy's crush on a teacher, and his relationship with a mature, much older rival. Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited, and The Life Aquatic are all about the affect parents have on their children, especially once they're grown.  The Fantastic Mister Fox was Anderson's wry way of presenting a grown-up story (despite being based off a children's novel) forward as a children's film, exposing them to adult themes, worries and conflicts but in a palatable presentation.  Moonrise is his most direct effort at tracking the life of children and their somewhat helplessness living in an adult world.

His protagonists here are Sam Shakusky, age 12, and Suzie Bishop, age 12, young, disenfranchised outsiders who have found kinship and solace in one another.  The film is set in the early 1960's on a fictional New England island where Suzie's lawyer parents maker their home, Sam is in the vicinity thanks to participating in a Khaki Scout summer camp.  But Sam "resigns" from the scouts and disappears into the wilderness, having plotted with Suzie who wishes to escape her own troubled existence.

Anderson mounts a sweet romance between Sam and Suzie, as well as a wickedly entertaining manhunt as his scout leader (Ed Norton), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), Suzie's parents (Francis McDormand) and his old scout troop scour the island to find him, all with the spectre of an incoming storm looming (thanks to Bob Balaban's foresight-filled exposition).  Eventually the kids are found and torn apart, but in the process, exploring these troubled children's past, there comes a greater sense of understanding, a reason to why they run.

There again is the undercurrent of sadness and pain that frequently find their way into an Anderson picture.  Sam is an orphan whose foster family have turned their backs on him, meaning he will be lost to Social Services.  Suzie has her issues and has found her parents' book on dealing with a disturbed child, but it's obvious she's reacting to her mother's infidelity and her father's depression more than anything.

It's not that Anderson sweeps these things under the rug.  They wouldn't be there at all if they didn't have a purpose, but they're such subtle background elements to the events on screen.  They shape the characters but barely the story at hand, and I can see how some might have a problem with this penchant of Anderson's.  The events of the story pull the characters through, but how they handle them is as a result of the people they are.

Moonrise is probably the least opulent of Anderson's movies, in that he strips things down more on screen with more basic imagery and style.  The camps are designed with minimal details (though each detail has its place as always) and the film spends most of its time outside, in fields, woods, on the water and beaches.  Even still, some of the outdoor scenes seem so surreal in the Anderson way that they seem more of his design than mother nature's.

The summer was filled with a tremendous amount of highly entertaining blockbusters which satisfy my "geek tooth" so sweetly, it was indeed a year of riches.  And even though it came out far earlier in the year, I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel in late June and it beats out every nerdy summer movie by some margin as the one I enjoyed the most.  Moonrise Kingdom I sat on for far too long in watching, and had I sat down to watch it before Grand Budapest I would probably like it even more than I already do, but comparatively it just isn't on that same scale, but it's more than worthy, a genuine great movie that precedes an even greater one in the director's oeuvre.

For those who care, Wes Anderson's films in order of appreciation:
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2/3. The Life Acquatic With Steve Zissou/The Royal Tenenbaums (it alternates)
4. The Fantastic Mister Fox
5. Moonrise Kingdom
6. Darjeeling Limited
7. Rushmore
8. Bottle Rocket

(It think Bottle Rocket is the least Anderson-esque, while Rushmore I just didn't *get* when I watched it)

I Saw This!! List It Getting Long

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013, Peter Jackson -- download
The Lego Movie, 2014, Phil Lord / Christopher Miller -- download
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Kenneth Branagh -- download
Dead Man Down, 2013, Niels Arden Oplev -- Netflix
The Amazing Spider-Man 2, 2014, Marc Webb -- download

There is a balance required, between watching movies and writing about movies. One has to learn to not consider the first purely as fuel for the second. The second should remain a by-product of the first. This is not a show of consumption, proof that I watch more movies than you. This is not about me knowing more about movies than you, but a desire to share with you what I am enjoying, and sometimes, what I am not. But, sometimes all of these impact this blog.

I feel I should be watching less, so I can can write more regularly. I feel I should be watching better, so I have some veritas behind the words. I feel I should be writing longer, so there is proof I have thought about what I have watched. And with the weight of these vagaries, I let the list get longer and longer.

Good thing we have I Saw This!!

The Desolation of Smaug will definitely have to come back as a Rewatch when I get around to watching the Blu-ray I bought. I am rather ashamed to say I skipped it in the theatre, unable to find a non-3D viewing, but still on a big screen, that fit my schedule before I gave up and waited for the download.

I can say, from vague memories, I enjoyed this one much more than the first. It dealt with all the cliches of the Lord of the Rings movies in the first, and this one is a pure romp. We go from the Misty Mountains through the Mirkwood to an unseen Elven realm and then over to Laketown. And we even get to peek inside the Lonely Mountain and at the all seeing eyes of Smaug, which rhymes with cow not cog.

I still am not sure if I am onboard with taking the light feeling children's tale and making it a much more epic tale of legacies and lands lost to great evil. Sure, the dwarves remain a bit of comic relief, while others are youthful heroes, but there is always a weight of Thorin's desire to regain his realm. I think I am more attached to my fond recollections of this book than the LotR.

Still, I loved Laketown and I cannot but enjoy the winsome elf lady played Evangeline Lily. And I See Fire is still on my frequent replay list. THIS is where I am quite happy to feel the anguish and pain of Thorin.

Ditto for rewatching The Lego Movie though I have no good excuse for not seeing this in the theatre, nor for falling sleep about 3/4s way through the downloaded movie. I was enjoying it but my "I am my father" syndrome has gotten out of hand lately, finding me regularly snoozing with my head on Marmy's lap when we are supposed to be watching a movie / an episode of something. I am very very good at establishing and maintaining ruts that I am not particularly happy with.

I knew it was going to be brilliant, partially confirmed by Kent's review,  but also because I love any sarcastic rendition of The One trope. But, as I vaguely remember, there was so much to pay attention to I expected a rewatch was going to be required anyway.  And yet, so very little has stayed with me, even before my head began to droop and entire scenes were washed away in a "i'll just close my eyes for a second". Let's hope that was more me, than the movie.

I do not need to rewatch Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Oi, Kenneth what are you doing to my respect for you. At least you climbed back from pudgy Kenneth, but really, I did not like Thor much and this was only minutely above being a run of the mill thriller. In fact, it was actually your own villainous character that made it bearable.

This is essentially a reboot of the Tom Clancy character focused series that started back in 1990 with The Hunt for Red October. Back then, the CIA analyst dragged into the field was Alec Baldwin. Then came Harrison Ford for two, and though they didn't mean to start a James Bond style replacing of actors, it seemed to go that way with Ford being followed by Ben Affleck.  By the time this one was coming along, amusingly enough they subbed Kenneth Branagh as director, when Jack Bender (a TV guy) dropped out. And after all that, with this being the first not based directly on some Clancy story, I don't think they were intentionally rebooting the series, just ended up that way, with all the delays.

So, this brings us back to Jack Ryan prior to the CIA, not even an analyst. He's a soldier who is severely wounded in Afghanistan and is recruited, during recovery, because of his brilliant analysis skills. Flash forward to him embedded on Wall Street. Wikipedia says 10 years, but really, 10 years? I get some years for training and some years doing smaller jobs, but was the doctor who helped him through his recovery (Keira Knightley) really going to hang around for more than 10 years before the tension of "are we getting married" got to this level? This is Hollywood folks; nobody waits that long.

The rest of the movie is him being coaxed out of his comfy Wall Street job into the field, the field being Russia, by his handler Kevin Costner. Russians are doing bad things with money, so he goes to Moscow to play auditor but ends up playing Bond / Ethan Hunt with car chases, gun fights and terrorist chasing. Its boring. Its exciting. And and AND, never again ever never should Keira Knightley attempt an American accent. Nope. Plenty of nopes.

I like Colin Farrell. He plays good beardy anti-heroes. Yes, I have beard envy (shaddup Kent) and Farrell even makes good with the barely ever shaves look. In Dead Man Down, the first for Niels Arden Oplev since he did the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he brings Noomi Rapace along again. Its a cute little crime thriller with some twists and  turns, which will probably lend itself as one of those Sunday afternoon movies you turn on mid-way, but get caught up in.

It was not bad. It was not spectacular but it was solid crime. Noomi Rapace is wonderful, Farrell is Farrell and the plot is enjoyable if not predictable.  Colin plays a bad guy working for Bad Guys. Noomi lives across the way in a grotty tower complex and sees him murder someone, Rear Window style. She decides to blackmail him into being a Bad Guy for her, to kill the rich man who got in a drunken collision with her, leaving her with numerous (but not that bad looking, IMO) scars, and got away with it. They build a relationship and we learn of Farrell's past. Things get, violently, resolved.

Meanwhile The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was as bad as I expected it to be. Its not as bad as Spider-Man 3 from Sam Raimi but who could ever do as terrible a Peter Parker as emo Parker? But it draws from the same playbook of tossing in too many signature villains, and having no real cohesive plot. One, maybe two if the latter is a henchman, is enough for me. But as with the first, the terrible plot is at least led by some incredibly charismatic leads. Andrew Garfield is wonderful as Ultimate Spider-Man, a brash, courageous pithy kid swinging on the webs. Emma Stone is, well, very Emma as her version of Gwen Stacy. And that's all that is worth remembering for me.

OK, I do recall thinking of the PS3 game InFamous (which is amusing unto itself considering I said the first one ripped off a video game as well), being a fun inspiration for Electro.  Better a hoodie villain than a green jump suit and headdress. Jamie Foxx was wasted but the visual effects were incredible. I just didn't buy into the motivations, along with manipulations of Harry Osborne / Green Goblin. The whole movie ended up feeling like a set up for another movie. If the Marvel movies have done something well, it is showing a complete, enjoyable movie while using it as the introduction to a character and world that will be used again. This, not so well done. And don't get me started on the uselessness of The Rhino.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Runner Runner

2013, Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) -- Netflix

I admit, the only reason I decided to watch this was because Gemma Arterton is in town and this is the closest I will get to her. Too bad her role is basically non-existant. She is the sexy voice in the pretty dress who seduces yet elicits sympathy. Not much there. Which pretty much describes the whole movie. Damn, it looks pretty but just beneath the surface, there is nothing solid. And amusingly enough, that is also what the movie is trying to present about the idea of online gambling and the billions of dollars behind it.

Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is Princeton Masters student and an online gambler, but more than that, he works as an "associate" for online gambling sites. Essentially he suckers people into signing up, by making it look sexy. Most people lose their shirts. Thus Princeton looks down on his activity, not technically gambling but just as dastardly in their minds. But he needs the money he makes to pay his tuition. He is forced into gambling away whatever money he was making in one big shot, but is hustled out of it by a player who cheats the online system. Richie's next gamble? Take his proof right to the top of the website, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) -- the boss of this offshore online gambling site (i knew it was considered shady in the US, but is it actually illegal?) won't like knowing there are cheaters on his site, right? Yeah, uh huh.

But the plot then dumps us into some sexy, fabricated world on untouchable online gambling in Costa Rica with women, money, cars, boats, corruption, seduction and booze, It lays out the glamourous but less than legal life of online gambling moguls, with Block a thinner, more attractive version of Kim Dotcom. We never quite see how it is illegal, but the FBI want him shut down at any cost. We never quite see how they are duping their players; the phrase Ponzi Scheme is tossed out so we get something. We are never sure how Block is stealing from his own company, but that he has done it before. And other than a USB key full of fast pop-ups (how do people read those, let alone get anything from them?) we are provided no data. Money is handed around, seedy things happen but all the real stuff seems to happen off camera.

All the classic elements of a bait & switch racketeering movie are there, but just the surface of them. It is sexy (I use the word over and over again because I imagine that is how the elevator pitch went), and well paced and very well spoken. In latter days Leonardo Dicaprio would have played Richie, but now he is too old and too fat. Affleck plays scuzzy very well, but Timberlake is too slick to be "beer & pizza" guy from New Jersey believable. Maybe that is a point somewhere. And Gemma just looks pretty, damn pretty, but never really has a point other than being that. Oh yes, and Anthony Mackie (Falcon in The Winter Soldier) is the angry FBI agents who has to take down Block. The USB key is for him.

Friday, September 5, 2014

What I Am Watching: The Last Ship, True Blood, Doctor Who

One has just started, one has just ended and the other is moved just beyond its premise.

Doctor Who, season eight, the Peter Capaldi years, are just beginning. The young guys Matt Smith & David Tenant are behind us and someone older than me is putting the coat on. And already they deal with the weird relationship the Doctor has with his companion, whether its romantic or just friend-zoned. Does Clara have a crush on him? Can she deal with the new face? What about him and how does he deal with new old & wrinkled guy? This first episode, which tosses a giant dinosaur in Victorian London along with the return of Pasternoster Gang. The second episode, which picks up the Dalek storyline and the Doctor's murderous relationship with them.

This season is going to be more about the inner turmoil that is the Doctor. "Am I a good man?" is what he is asking. Has any season other than the first of this new era ever not been about the Doctor looking inward? He has guilt over the loss of his homeworld, he has pangs of regret over his genocidal wars against the Daleks and the Cybermen, he has anguish about what he subjects his companions too. But he so very rarely ever, truly deals with it. He is still running, as he has been for hundreds of years. So, how will we present this season and his inner troubles? His intentions are always to Do Right but his actions often involve massive amounts of destruction and death, on both sides.

Clara is out by mid-season end, which is actually rather appropriate. We found out why she is the Impossible Girl which leaves her just another mid-twenties girl romping about for a bit of time travel fun. I guess after he develops more of what their relationship will be, she will be off to have a real life. I never got that; if you can leave and return pretty much always at the same time you left, you can always continue on as per normal. Yes, even with his mess ups. The only thing you end up having to deal with is all the horrible things you experience, but the companions always seem rather immune to that. Clara is my favourite of the companions, but really its about those dimples and that smile, not whether she plays a good companion.

As for Capaldi, I am still on the fence. I like the actor but I am not sure I like his Doctor. In only two episodes we are establishing his lack of empathy, but that may just be post-regeneration trauma. I doubt it. I think this guy is going to be cold, detached, uncaring. And that is what is going to drive Clara away, as she gives up being his emotion attachment. But do we need a Dark Doctor? Considering his timeline in the Line of Doctors, I suppose it is appropriate.

With Capaldi beginning his reign, Vampire Bill ends his. Well, technically, he hasn't been reigning over anything since the end of last season on True Blood. Godlike Vampire Bill has gone back to being plain ol' Bill Compton. Super Fairy Vampire Warlow was drained to temporarily give a bunch of vampires sun immunity but that soon faded and Bon Temps (and the world) was left with the legacy of HepV, a virus that kills the vamps but not before they go mad with blood lust, even more so than usual.

Knowing this is the final season, all the stops are out. This is balls to the walls, off the rails, <insert third catch phrase> story telling. We have two things to truly deal with -- HepV and the primary storyline of Bill & Sookie. Nothing ends a series better than a full circle turn as Bill and Sookie kind of make up, well, as soon as they forget about Werewolf Alcide dying an ignoble death from a bullet. People come and go in this town, often in horrible ways, which everyone just reacts to by getting drunk at the local watering hole, Merlotte's now Bellefleur's. We even get a slight commentary on that from Sam Merlotte's wife who freaks out on everyone and demands her & Sam leave. They do.

The season does some cleaning up. Tara and her mother reconcile, post mortem via vampire blood induced shared hallucinations. Lala meets the boy of his dreams, Jessica's rocker boytoy. Hoyt returns to remember forgetting about Jessica. Jason's dominatrix girlfriend freaks out and has to be put down. Nobody really liked her anyway. Viking Sex God Eric and Pam find Sarah Newlin who turns out to be the cure to HepV and they have some tussles with the Japanese manufacturers of Tru Blood. Jason has a sexy dream about Eric, which is never mentioned again, but I imagine fueled a lot of fanfic. So much happens but really it is circling around Vampire Bill and his final days, infected by a super strain of HepV, contracted from Sookie.

Bill wants to die. He has had enough of pain and anger and violence and ill fated love. Its his time to end so he can go back to his original family whom he still misses. Screw Sookie and her need to have an ill-fated lover. There are hints that maybe, just maybe, Sookie's super strain might make Bill human again and give us a Happy Ever After, but no, we end the series with Bill convincing her that her only happiness can be from being away from all these vampires, even ignoring the fact that werewolves, fairy-vamps and other such folk haven't helped much either. But she succumbs to his desire and SPLOOSH, no more Vampire Bill. Fade into.... ludicrous ending scene of everyone with kids and happy and la tee dah, Sookie and an anonymous bearded human baby daddy. Not a graceful ending to a roller coaster of a series.

And then we have the very sobre, very stable, rah rah America (!) show called The Last Ship.  It is post-apocalypse, post world ending plague, with a lone american battleship cruising the waters trying to find / develop a cure for said plague. Yes, they actually have a credible scientist on board and yes, they are aware there is not much of a world left to save, especially not much of a US of A. But they are focused, dedicated and disciplined in doing what needs to be done. Its actually rather admirable despite the Michael Bay-isms of choral music over melodrama. Yes, really Michael Bay, as one of the executive producers.

But surprisingly, I am rather enjoying it - a lot!!  Its not quite a small story, but it has such a laser focus on what it wants to accomplish. Of course, they deal quickly with the crew's desire to leave the ship and find out if their families are alive. They quickly establish why they exist, as a crew with a sole focus. Of course, many acknowledge that there isn't really an America left to be defending. Of course, there is an adversary. And of course, they are running out of supplies & fuel. But the first couple of episodes deal with that so we can focus on curing the plague.

And, by the end of the first season, we are done with that. Wow. They actually found a cure; not just a vaccine but a cure. Even the scientist seems surprised over that. So, they return to the US, to find a facility capable of mass producing, and find... what's left of the US in turmoil. New Leaders, corrupt leaders, rebel leaders, sealed New Best Race people, etc. All the dystopia you would want. Its actually a rather brilliant way to play out the new world, instead of just constantly having the Cure storyline fail time after time. And it has me in its grasp.

I don't usually pay attention to acting in a TV series, as it rarely does anything impress me. But in a focus on four main characters, you get so much range.  Eric Dane is Commander Tom Chandler, is direct, focused, lacking emotion (while boiling inside) and the moral compass the ship needs. Adam Baldwin is his XO, your typical rah-rah American soldier, pretty reflective of Adam himself, but falls under the charismatic leadership of his captain. Rhona Mitra is the civilian CDC scientist, arrogant, assured but terrified at the responsibility on her shoulders. And then there is odd man out, John Pyper-Ferguson, the proto-Canadian actor playing Tex, an American "contractor" whom they pick up in Guantanamo Bay. He is brash, cheerful (where none should exist) and utterly, cutely crushing on Mitra.

I am looking forward to see if they can spin the show into a couple of seasons before they inevitably lose steam. Post-apocalypse, with an agenda, is hard to maintain once that agenda is dispersed. They will have to be pretty creative to keep the audience.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Raid 2: Berandal

2014, d. Gareth Evans -- redbox

My wife came home about an hour into the film, sat down next to me and patiently tried to ignore the film and read her book.  I, meanwhile, was making those kinds of "ssssssssssss"/"oh hohohohoooo"/"oooooooh"/"chhhhhh" type sounds one makes when it looks like someone is getting hurt real bad.  A lot of people look like they're getting hurt real bad in The Raid 2.

My wife, having no investment in the film, stated that it was silly and not something she was interested in.  "It's like porn," she said, "but with fighting.  It just gets monotonous after a while."  I tried to defend the film to her, as she once had quite the strong draw towards kung-fu films.  She replied that kung-fu was never this egregiously violent, bloody or gory.

She's right, though, the Raid 2 is in some ways (most ways) just "fight porn"...high-minded fight porn, but fight porn nonetheless.  I recall David having a much similar reaction to The Raid: Redemption when we saw that together in our first (and, sadly, last Double Header).  Again, I also know David to be an admirer of the Shaw Brothers and their kung-fu ilk, so it astounds me that the admiration/appreciation doesn't extend far beyond the Chinese border.  Is it a theatricality thing?  Wardrobes, costumes, setting?  Camp factor?  It's not for me to say.

The story of the Raid was perilously thin, about a swat team of Jakarta cops assailing a slummy apartment tower to take out the drug kingpin on the top.  These types of "tower climb" scenarios aren't new (they've been a video game staple since the 1980's), and within the same year the exact same story was repeated in Dredd 3-D.  There were family ties involving our main character, and some mentions of police corruption and the crime syndicates, but overall it was a tightly executed film showcasing the tremendous fight choreography.

The Raid 2: Berandal endeavours to be something grandiose, the fighting equivalent to Godfather 2 or Infernal Affairs 2, but it's too jumbled, unfocussed and doesn't come close to reaching its goal.  It picks up mere hours after the end of the first film (not that the first film matters too much it's all recapped in the opening minutes) with rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) taking his corrupt police Seargent to the small anti-corruption task force.  Rama is basically bullied into joining the task force, going undercover to infiltrate the main crime family.  This involves getting put into jail and chumming up to the Boss' son, Uko.  After the first act and two rather incredible prison fight sequences (a super-impressive dozens-on-one fight in a bathroom stall, and a brutal and muddy three-sided prison-yard melee) the film almost drops Rama completely as the POV character, and chooses instead to focus on Uko, his strained relationship with his father, and his desire to prove himself worthy as a successor.

While well-produced and solidly acted, it's formula crime drama stuff, and it plods.  The Raid 2 is over 150 minutes long, and it could really stand to tighten it up by at least 45.  As much as sequences elaborating on assassins like Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Guy, and Prasoko are really fun, eclectic diversions, they are fully extraneous to the plot and serve only to undermine the story at hand and push Rama even further into the background.  Again, though, it's like porn, where a film will cram in so many different asides just to see different people getting it on, this film does the same with fighting.

The ambition though is not lost on me, and the execution of its 19 fight sequences are indeed top notch.  Having seen so many polished, American big budget action movies where the fighting is so squeaky clean and so orchestrated to the nines, it's honestly refreshing to see the brutal, down-and-dirty fights that continually pop up in this film.  The fight sequence in the elevator of Captain America: Winter Soldier is definitely one-upped by the bathroom stall fight.  The Nick Fury car chase sequence of that same movie tops the car chase sequence in The Raid 2, but only by a hair.  The big axe fight in Snowpiercer has a definite rival in the prison courtyard fight.  Kill Bill's Crazy 88's are showier, but Prasoko's big one-on-dozens brawl is crazy.  And Rama's final assault has no less than three different fight sequences, one where he uses his car as a weapon, another squaring off against Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Guy in a wonderfully shot glass hallway, and culminating in a big old John Woo-style shoot out.

It's a crazy, brutal film, tiring and exciting in equal measure.  I can't say I would sit down to watch the whole picture again, but I would certainly come back to watch almost any of the fight sequences (afterall, who really watches porn for the story, nevermind re-watches) multiple times over.  Your mileage may vary.

(Just to give you a hint as to just how much action is in The Raid 2... this absolutely brutal and incredibly well-crafted gunfight sequence was cut from the film... not for the squeamish and definitely not safe for work)
You've been warned.