Friday, January 29, 2016

I Saw This!! Action Heroes

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?

It often contains that opening paragraph, edited so slightly that you didn't notice. OK, you didn't care, but you also didn't notice.

Ant-Man, 2015, Peyton Reed (Bring It On) -- download
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, 2015, Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) -- download
The Man from U.N.C.L.E., 2015, Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Swept Away) -- download
Hitman: Agent 47, 2015, Aleksander Bach -- download

Dash colon dash dot dot dot dot dot colon. Footnote for making action movies -- add in a punctuation mark, so your audience knows you are serious.

I am kind of ashamed to say I didn't see Ant-Man in the theatre; I have been onboard with seeing all the Marvel movies first run. But this one crept by me, escaping from the theatres just as I was ready to see it. Insert usual rant about how I just don't get out as much. Insert further rant about my visual requirements now buggering up my enjoyment of cinematic visual spectacles. Pun intended.

The only black mark against this movie is that it was taken away from Edgar Wright. Despite him getting writing credits and everyone saying the skeleton of the movie is still his, I still wish I had seen his movie and not the only other major movie done by the guy who did a (still, rather funny) cheerleading movie. Yeah, dis. Nobody is really talking about why he is gone but its rather disheartening since he was working on the tale since 2006. Marvel has a vision blah blah blah, Disney controls things bleah bleah bleah. Our loss.

And yet, I still rather enjoyed the funky, funny film. Of course, the toy train scene is great, if a little absurdist, but for me the comedic weight came from Michael Pena and the supporting crew of robbers. As Wright had wanted the movie to be a heist movie, I now in hindsight even more wished he had had the chance. Oh the heist is there, but the movie is dominated by the insertion of the SHIELD and Hydra conflict. I enjoyed watching, and a rewatch is due, but the strongest memories of the movie, the most fun bits are just around Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his buddies.

MI5 is how these movies are now dubbed. Minus colon dash. It wasn't that long ago since I saw the movie but whoosh, it has flown from the coop. I have no idea what the plot was, other than the stuff embedded into my head by the trailers. So, the MI crew are being framed for ... bad behaviour? Don't all extra special spy teams cause inordinate amounts of collateral damage? But is the whole Doctor Who thing --- do they cause it, or are they just there when it goes down? Either way, they are fired, disgraced and once again Ethan Hunt is on the run. Wasn't he on the run in the previous movie? Don't remember that plot either.

What I do remember is how much fun Simon Pegg's character is. He is back working for the CIA but seems to spend much of his time playing video games and helping out Ethan from behind the scenes. Were the other members of the  team even in the movie? I don't remember. And there is Tom Cruise on the side of a plane -- meh, I just shot down fighter jets while standing on top of the same model of plane, in Just Cause 3. And there is Tom Cruise in a centrifuge. And a British undercover agent.

There is something that needs to be said for these kind of action movies. I can understand the popcorn mentality of watch it, burp it, forget about it. But that is about letting yourself move onto the next one, not actually forgetting any plot elements of it! A spy thriller should have a tightly invested plot that is engaging as well as fun to interact with. It shouldn't be so fragile as to fall apart in your memory almost immediately.

Taking an entirely different tactic on the spy thriller, along comes Guy Ritchie in a not very Ritchie, yet familiar feeling, take on the 60s TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  By not very Ritchie, I mean we are out of the gutter of London. Some of the most fun bits in his previous signature films have been the street characters and all their disparate accents. But here, we have dashing rogues in nice suits in fancy locations.

Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is Napolean Solo, the best spy name ever, outside of my James Bond RPG character -- Smythe Corona. Armie Hammer is his partner/nemesis Illya Kuryakin, in a thoroughly engaging role. Even if the plot was a little light on engaging (bad guys, nukes, beautiful foils, etc.), Armie and Vikander (oh yeah, they two spies are babysitting Alicia Vikander) really dove into their roles. Meanwhile, I was amused how every time I saw Cavill on the screen, I was mildly shocked it wasn't the other Superman Brandon Routh, whom Cavill seemed to be channeling. Routh just looks good in a suit while Cavill seemed squeezed in.

So, three block busters and a tired resurrection of a video game franchise! Hitman: Agent 47 is the re-visioning of the 2007 Xavier Gens / Timothy Olyphant movie. Both are related to the Hitman video game franchise from.. a while ago. The first wasn't very good but was very Hollywood. The second is very, what I call "European Inflight Movie" genre. I think Uwe Boll popularized the idea of cheaply made, often set in Europe/Asia action movies where everyone speaks English. They aren't expect to make cinema money but will kill it in the after market.

This was much much better than Boll movie, but was definitely of straight-to quality. An Agent is a ruthless killing machine bred by a gene splicing scientist to be the perfect killers for hire. Agent 47 breaks from the ranks to stop a ruthless Singapore company from attaining the knowledge to create their own Agents. They are seeking the daughter of the lead researcher and its a race, kill-fest to get her.

Its not a terrible movie, and it has some decent effects. But watch, yawn, go to bed and forget. I was in the mood for exactly that, so it fit the bill. I could play games on my phone when I was bored.

Friday, January 22, 2016

I Saw This!! (2015 Unreviewed) - summery blockbusterish

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our 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, four films from the Summer of 2015

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Ex Machina (2015, d. Alex Garland) - in theatre
Jurassic World (2015, d. Colin Trevorrow) - in theatre
Trainwreck (2015, d. Judd Apatow) - in theatre
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015, d. Guy Ritchie) - in theatre

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A science fiction film starring Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac that I've seen five times?  Yeah, it's called Star Wars: Episode 7: The Force Awakens... I don't really need to see it a sixth, but I most certainly will, and probably countless times beyond that.  There's this other scifi film starring those two actors (much more prominently, I might add), a wonderfully tense psychological drama called Ex Machina that I definitely need to see again.

The crux of the film finds a reclusive billionaire tech genius Nathan (Isaac) pulling from his vast stable of employees (via an in-company lottery) a young, intelligent designer Caleb (Gleeson) to his remote estate for what promises to be a life (and potentially world) changing week-long private engagement of the minds.  What Caleb finds out is that he's to be one half of a Turing test (the testing of a machine's ability to think or behave in a unquestionably human capacity), as he's introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander) a robot in a sleek female form with a decidedly beautiful face. 

As the tests persist, questions arise as to who is controlling the test, is it Caleb, or Ava, or is it Nathan behind the scenes.  The more Caleb engages with Ava, the more it seems she passes the test, to the point that he starts developing feelings towards her...whether romantic or sympathetic...either way, he begins projecting human emotions upon her, as he perceives human emotions emanating from her.  But Nathan is a wild card in the process.  How much is he manipulating things, not just the tests, but Ava and Caleb as well. 

The end result of the film isn't some "shock twist" meant to put it in that category of film, but rather yet another reveal that is meant for us to question what we saw and the motivations of those involved.  The film wisely never settles on conclusive answers but provides so many clues, overt and subtle alike, that one can make up their own minds about what transpired and not be wrong.  But the seeds of doubt about what's really going on is the true genius of Alex Garland's directorial debut.  Garland's written many a great features, some outright, others in a cult fashion, but this is nothing short of masterful.  The cast is primarily the three leads in a secluded environment (with Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko as Nathan's mistreated, foreign help) and are all beyond excellent.

This is the film that gave us this, so we should be forever grateful:


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I've come to learn that amongst many Millennials Jurassic Park is their Star Wars, by which I mean it's the series of genre films with which they have strongest attachment because of their childhood association with it.  Star Wars was virtually a dead entity when Jurassic Park emerged, having been 10 years since the last film, and many years since the dissolution of the toy line and comic books.  The time was ripe for a blockbuster film that catered to both kids and parent, presenting a world never seen before.

Over 20 years later, Jurassic World arrived in theatres like a freight train run amok, an unstoppable juggernaut at the international box office that would be challenged by only one other film (unsurprisingly, it's Star Wars).

I'm quite clearly a Star Wars kid, and a bit of a fanatic at heart.  That doesn't mean there's not room in my fandom for dinosaurs, but the truth is I've never made the space.  I don't hate Jurassic Park (or The Lost World, its sequel) but I care so little about it I never bothered with the third movie, and actually had planned to skip World altogether.  It was only a childless weekend and a need for utterly mindless entertainment to distract from work-related stress (and a heap of affection for @PrattPrattPratt) that brought me to the new Jurassic age. 

And rather mindless entertainment it is, but enjoyably so.  It strives for a commentary on how terrible events always tend to repeat themselves when money is the primary motivation, and perhaps a restatement of the old JP condemnation of the hubris of man.  It tries for these statements rather minimally.  Overall it's more interested in cool things happening with dinosaurs and displaying some protofuturism.

The further I get away from this film the less it matters to me and the less I really have to say about any of it.  Chris Pratt made a surprisingly convincing badass, Bryce Dallas Howard was fine in a role that was very confused about what it wanted to say about this woman (running in heels, people), and the kids...well, the film could have done without them as they served little purpose in the end.  I most enjoyed Irrfan Khan's billionaire park owner who was unafraid to get his hands dirty, and B.D. Wong's minimal part as nefarious scientist/middleman was about as close to intrigue as the film got (obviously setting up the sequel).  Vincent D'Onofrio does "creepy, sweaty guy" practically every other role, so he's naturally pretty good at it, while Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus provide out of left field, unnecessary comic relief.  Oh, then there's Judy Greer in her second of three "tertiary mom roles" of the summer (see also Tomorrowland and Ant-Man). 

Like the other Jurassic films I've seen, I was entertained, but I have little desire to see it again.

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So powerful is Amy Schumer's voice imprint on Trainwreck that I completely forgot who directed it.  I mean, I knew Judd Apatow was involved in getting Schumer to writer her own script for a feature but I forgot that Apatow had actually directed it.  This is an Amy Schumer movie, not an Apatow picture.  If that means anything to you.

Schumer has exploded in recent years as a comedian and comic performer thanks to her sketch comedy series Inside Amy Schumer.  It's a series that treads water in crude vulgarity just as much as observational irony and comedic sincerity.  Schumer wrestles with her pseudo feminism on the show, wanting to bring issues about women in comedy and entertainment as well as systemic sexism to the forefront but also sometimes unassredly playing into a ditzy blonde role.

With Trainwreck, Schumer reinvents the romantic leading woman as well as the romantic comedy, creating a tremendously funny (and occasionally touching) movie about the confusing and complex nature of love and sex.  It's a film that points out to a barely exaggerated degree just how much we overanalyze relationships, and the exterior and interior pressures we put on them.

Schumer, playing Amy, was raised by her father to believe monogamy is a false concept, and in her mid-30's somewhat enjoys her life of frivolous casual encounters and open relationships, with the lens projecting nary an impulse of slut shaming or finger pointing.  It's not judging her actions in isolation.  The film doesn't say there's anything wrong with her behavior until Amy herself acknowledges that she feels something is wrong with her world view, and starts to examine her behavior.

Trainwreck doesn't so much as subvert cliches as avoid them.  There's a formula for romantic comedies and while this follows the ABCs, it's all MQXs outside of them.  The cast is ridiculously winning, with Bill Hader making an unusual but agreeable romantic leading man, especially with LeBron James as his wingman (James doesn't just steal the show, but runs it to the net and dunks it).  Not to be outdone, Pro wrestler John Cena puts in a shockingly against-type performance playing Amy's sensitive, casual boyfriend. The film bolsters Shumer's life with family: Colin Quinn as her ailing father, Brie Larson as her buckled down sister, and Mike Birbiglia as her so-square-it-hurts brother-in-law who plays step-dad to her nephew).  And so chameleonic is Tilda Swinton that it took more than half the film to realize she was Schumer's magazine mogul boss.

What Apatow brings to the movie is the smarts to not get in its way.  He allows for improvisation on the set, which assuredly results in some great comedy, but he also trusts the script, its structure, and its density to deliver not just a funny movie, but something relatable and tangible. Schumer's script is definitely a character study, not just a series of vignettes, allowing for a few quieter moments amidst its many, many laughs, and Apatow invests in them fully.  With his clout, he's been able to deliver a 2-hour comedy, once unheard of, now almost a mainstay in cinemas.  The terrible secret is few films ever earn that run time, but this one absolutely does.  2015's best comedy*

*right next to The Martian.**
** coff

(what's most remarkable is how Trainwreck managed to be marketed, in the summer, with only one poster!  Who does that in this day and age?)

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With the exception of the 60-something crowd, the property Man From U.N.C.L.E. holds no sway.  It hasn't stayed in the pop-culture conversation at all since it went off the air over 40 years ago.  Only fans of the superspy/espionage genre bring up its name with any familiarity. 
As a moderate fan of the superspy/espionage genre, I wrote about the original Man From U.N.C.L.E. pilot episode before, having acquired in late 2014 the complete series in a handy dandy briefcase-style box.  I managed to make it four episodes in before all the other pop culture of the time took priority over it, relegating the case to a top shelf to collect dust waiting patiently for some sick day binge watch.  That said, even in those four episodes I managed to become quite fond of the series already.  It's a 1960's superspy series that, at least in its first season, took itself seriously as a counterpart to the early Bond films.  Word is that in later seasons it steered more into the gadgets and broad villainy as Bond did, and then fell straight into Batman-style camp.

Guy Ritchie comes to the property with very little expectations set before it.  In fact, I'd wager to say the filmmaker comes with more expectations than the film matter.  Ritchie delivered massive successes with the Robert Downey Jr.-led Sherlock Holmes movies but those films, and his original pictures that surrounded it (Revolver, Rock'n'Rolla) didn't quite have the same panache, style, fun and cleverness as his sophomore effort, Snatch... a film which remains Ritchie's high watermark. 

With Snatch, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels before it, Ritchie was expected to be the next Quentin Tarantino, a student of film with a knack for witty banter and no shortage of ingenuity.  But Ritchie fell into a hole with Madonna and has been seemingly clawing his way back to filmmaking relevance ever since.  My expectation for the film was that it would find a happy medium between big-budgeted action of his Sherlock movies and his more quirky storytelling tendencies from his earliest films.  To be honest, he came pretty close.

The film takes place in the 1960's, hot in the middle of the cold war.  Superman Henry Cavill plays American super-agent Napoleon Solo, while Lone Ranger Armie Hammer plays Russia's top man Illya Kuryakin.  The two should be natural foes, and in fact the film opens up with a brilliant cat-and-mouse chase sequence between the two in East Berlin, but a plot by a third party to acquire and use nuclear weapons has force the two together, one-time only.  In between them is mechanic Gaby Teller (a most welcome second appearance from Alicia Vikander this summer) whose estranged father is somehow involved in the warhead exchange.

In this regard the film follows the TV show's format, finding the two agents helping out a civilian who must become part of the proceedings at their own risk.  Though Cavill, as the American character, is clearly the story's lead, the romantic subplot unusually (and I think smartly) occurs between Gaby and Illya, with Solo maintaining a rogue-ish playboy image.  The villain plot isn't quite as convoluted as a vintage James Bond, nor are the villains as colorful, but Bond movies are generally about a single agent making his way through tricky situations with wits and gadgets, while this film is more about two supposed foes learning to rely upon and trust each other.  It is a noticable difference in the execution of the two properties, though the distinction in story is a little harder to discern.

Ritchie does bring a fair amount of visual pop to the film, with eccentric split screening being the most notable flourish.  The 60's aesthetic is recaptured quite well though a modern lens, the mod style looking even more appealing than it probably did back then.  There seems to be a focus on practical action over big effects sequences, and though everything is executed well, it's really only the first sequence that stands out, and the final sequence doesn't quite feel satisfying.  I was hoping for a more engaging soundtrack (Snatch's song selection seemed integral to the emotional execution of the story) but nothing quite stands out in that fashion.

The trio of Cavill, Hammer and Vikander are winning, and the tense dynamic between Solo and Kuryakin was one of its best features.  But if The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had a main flaw it would be staging it as an origin story for the U.N.C.L.E. agency, rather than it already being an established thing.  It seemed to diminish a film called "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." when there was no U.N.C.L.E. for a man to be from.  I would love to see a follow-up from Ritchie and this crew, a little bigger, a little more eccentric.  While the latest Bond and Mission Impossible movies have managed to veer away from the super-seriousness of the Bourne movies, there's definitely room for a lighter, more retro action-espionage.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Saw This!! (2015 Unreviewed) - Kidstuff

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our 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?

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Watership Down (1978, d.Martin Rosen, John Hubley) - Criterion blu-ray
Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen) - in theatre
The Book of Life (2014, d. Jorge Gutierrez) - Netflix
The Peanuts Movie (2015, d. Steve Martino) - in theatre
The NeverEnding Story (1985, d. Wolfgang Petersen) - Shomi

Tomorrowland (2015, d. Brad Bird) - Netflix

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I place Watership Down in the category of "Kidstuff" because everyone I know who has seen it first saw it as a child.  The film was released in an era where "animation" meant "cartoon" which meant "kidstuff", a perception which still hasn't quite left the general consciousness today (in spite of 20+ years of Simpsons, Adult Swim, and countless not-for-the-younger-set television counterprogramming).  Also, everyone I know who saw it as a kid said it left a lasting impression, generally in the form of a traumatic scar.

I never saw Watership Down as a child...most likely because it was released when I was 2 and didn't seem to have much of a life on weekend television where kids would see most older movies.  I imagine the more mature nature and shocking moments of violence would be rather jarring to a younger viewer.  It's not gratuitous violence, mind you, but more natural, real-world violence, as the hares in the film get caught in traps of square off in territorial conflict.

It's been almost a year since I watched it for the first time, the particulars of the story are quite faded, but the imagery of the film, the hand-painted animation, has stuck with me.  It's a gorgeously illustrated film, designed with a naturalistic brush, rather than brighter, more vibrant tones seen in most other children's animation.  Elements of the film feel a bit dated, like the timbre of the voice cast (which at times makes the film feel like it was animated to an audio drama) and the necessary animation tricks to keep budgets down (which lead to repeated cells and cyclical movement).  But the reputation it has earned as a classic in animation (as well as being at times dishearteningly severe) is well deserved.

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Those jarring moments in Watership Down are definitely a large part of what make the film memorable, just as all the great kid movies tend to have something within them that elicit a strong emotional reaction.  Disney often treads in this water, straight back to Bambi where the titular deer's mother is gunned down by a hunter.  When the harsh realities of the real world creep into fantasy, it's almost too much, but I think it's rather vital.  Pixar at its best (which is almost always) has these types of moments, starting with Buzz's realization that he is indeed just a toy in the first Toy Story to the heartache of the first ten minutes of Up

2015's Inside Out, however, is a fantasy fully designed around creeping reality and it's brilliant.  The film creates a fantastical world out of our minds, a vast storage repository of memories as influenced by our emotions.  Those emotions are distilled down to five primaries, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.  In the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, Joy rules all.  But when Riley's life is uprooted as her family moves from Minnesota to California, Sadness begins to unintentionally intervene, turning happy memories into bitter ones, and uncontrollably tinging most new experiences.  The film posits that there are a few fundamental memories that make us who we are, and when Riley's fundamentals get accidentally dumped, her very nature is threatened.  Joy and Sadness venture through the recesses of Riley's mind to find those core memories, and in the process Joy comes to understand that sadness is as important an emotion as happiness.  It really is a long-form story to say it's okay to be sad, and it's beautiful.

As an adult, the film effectively captures the spirit of youth, of those final days where you're still somewhat oblivious to the realities of life, but also shows us the difficult transition that takes place when the awareness of those harsh realities comes crashing in.  It helps connect adults to the challenges of childhood, challenges which we all too often dismiss, and have lost our frame of reference for (that Riley's dad's inner emotions have all taken the form of Anger is quite telling).  Nothing represents the loss of childhood more than Bing Bong, Riley's imaginary friend, left hiding in the shadows of Riley's inner recesses, mostly forgotten, but not yet completely gone.  At first blush Bing Bong appears as ill-conceived comic relief, but he very quickly proves to be something other.  Bing Bong's journey in this movie is perhaps as heart-wrenching as those opening ten minutes of Up, but it hammers home the film's point about how essential an emotion sadness is. 

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Outside of the majority of Pixar's rather stupendous 20-year output, there hasn't been a tremendous amount of animated films that stack up.  Dreamworks' Kung-Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series have built exciting worlds with characters easy to connect to, but they tend to avoid emotional gut-punches.  The Lego Movie succeeded in bringing reality crashing down upon the fantasy in brilliant meta fashion.  Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs doesn't have the creeping reality, but is one of the best comedies of the past decade.  Japanese animation has long been granted acceptance in its native country as a viable storytelling format, and many of the films of that country, like Tokyo Godfathers are all beautifully stylized crashing reality, but the wares of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki tend to be the equals or betters of Disney and Pixar's best but lose just a little in the translation. 
 
There's never a lack of trying anything different in animation styles, which is something I respect about the medium, and The Book of Life takes pains to bring many traditional elements of Mexican folklore to the big screen, including a respectful reverence of death and the Dia de los Muertos festival, through a bit of Telenovela melodrama.  The animation style of the film is easily its standout feature, exceptionally lush and colourful without leaning too heavily on primaries.  The character design, emulating wooden puppets, is unusual but wonderful, adding unique texture to an already lavish film. 

I like that The Book of Life employs a cultural distinctness that works in its favour, as well as deals with death in a much different manner than most films (not just animated or children's movies).  And yet, it's an eminently forgettable film, with no standout characters (for a film with such a decidedly unique background, the characters feel so stock), no standout moments that continue to resonate with me many months after watching.  It's effectively a musical but, like the recent Strange Magic, it largely utilizes popular music rather than original compositions to almost an annoying degree.  Covers of Radiohead's "Creep", yet another iteration of "Can't Help Falling In Love", and an ill-advised rendition of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" are all to the film's detriment. 

The animated musical, at this point, seems a hokey cliche.  The success of Frozen should denote that what people want is to hear something new, not just a recycling of old pop tunes.  Frozen's song structure isn't even that innovative, it was just surprising and unusual to hear something fresh, and, moreover, have the words of the song have direct (rather than vague) relevance to the character and his or her emotions at that moment.   The Book of Death would have benefited from either a fully original roster of songs, or just avoided the songs altogether.

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The Peanuts Movie mercifully never has its characters bust out into song, but when the film is at its worst is when contemporary music breaks its way in.  It only happens twice throughout the film, but in both cases it destroys the wonderfully tranquil illusion that the movie otherwise creates.  Despite Charlie Brown's seemingly ever-perpetual angst, there's a serenity to animated Peanuts that popular, uptempo music just has no place.  For decades Peanuts was animated to the soft jazz stylings from Vince Guaraldi, and it's as integral to a moving Charlie Brown story as anything.  Composer Christophe Beck effectively emulates Guaraldi's style, bringing it bigger with orchestral overtones, but still retaining a peaceful delicateness.  When Meghan Trainer's "Better When I'm Dancin'" ramps in over a montage of Charlie teaching himself to dance, it's constantly at odds with the visuals on the screen.  Likewise a track from Flo Rida seems to be more about trying to establish Charlie Brown and company as having some modern relevance rather than be meaningful to the scene of the film.

Despite these two rather rude interjections, the film manages to avoid most of the deadly trappings of modernizing an older property.  I was worried that merely being CGI-rendered would take something fundamental away from the Peanuts aesthetic.  Charles Schulz's designs for the characters lasted 65 years relatively unscathed, so I was anticipating globular, three-dimensionally animated figures tarnishing what was so effective for so long.  But much credit to Blue Sky Studios for figuring out a way to digitally render these figures so that they held true.  Beyond one notable exception, the figures never seem like they're illustrated in a way that would compromise their two-dimensional background... it's like Blue Sky studied the comics and cartoons and figured out all the angles that Schulz and prior animators had ever used and didn't want to break outside that.  On top of that, while the CGI allows for a wonderfully vibrant and complex color palette, Blue Sky doesn't try to make the world realistic.  They brilliantly still used hard lines for their figures and still had those stark black exclamation lines emanate from the figures, a trope of cell animation but something you haven't seen in CGI before. 

The world of Charlie Brown (outside of two invasive pop songs) remains relatively unscathed.  It's still feels like 1950.  Technology hasn't advanced, phones still have circular dials and cords, and school desks are still suitably old-timey.  Like any Peanuts special or feature, it's largely made up of vignettes, circling back regularly on certain topics or character journeys, with the central one being Charlie Brown's crush on the Little Red Haired Girl.  Peppermint Patty gets some focus time in the third act and is really the highlight of the film, while Sally gets some quality Little Sister/Big Brother moments in, and Snoopy has his own side plot that pits him against the World War I fighting ace in rather spectacular fashion (adding some not necessarily needed but welcome fantasy action and excitement to the film). 

If The Peanuts Movie falters it's in sticking the landing, providing a finale that sees poor old Charlie Brown not only befriending the Little Red Haired Girl (who gets a name and a face) but also momentarily gaining the respect of his peers.  Charlie Brown's triumphs have never been this big, and given his continued state of misery through much of the movie, it goes too far in the other direction in its conclusion (for old Charlie Brown, it should be the little victories that get him through).  This is a film that teaching audiences about soldiering through disappointment, with the lesson that in the end there is a reward, which wasn't exactly what Schulz generally preached.  But still only the most hardened of Peanuts purists will dislike this film, it overall captures what has made Schulz's world so distinctive and inviting for so long.

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Fantasy was never my bag as a kid.  Star Wars was (and kind of still is) king and everything else was measured against that.  Fantasy never had the same draw for me as science fiction.  Fantasy never seemed to escape the terrestrial.  Magic always seemed to be bound to the land or the seas or sky.  There always seemed to be a sense of longing for medieval-style adventure, free of technology, free of the comforts of modern day.  I found that unappealing and regressive.  So even though I saw a bunch of fantasy movies as a child, The NeverEnding Story most certainly among them, few, if any, stuck with me.  So rewatching The NeverEnding Story was pretty much like watching it again for the first time.  Certain visual elements were familiar, certain characters, but the overall story was rather fresh and unfamiliar.

The film is a curious meta-tale about a young boy, Bastian, his mother recently deceased and a neglectful father, who happens upon the book of the NeverEnding Story.  The story he finds terribly engrossing, a little too much, as it seems his emotions have an impact upon the tale.  The tale within the tale is that of Atreyu, a youthful but fabled hunter in the land of Fantasia, who is sent on a dangerous mission to find the cure crucial to saving the ailing, age-appropriate Empress from death.  As with most fantasies it plays out from set piece to set piece, magical land to magical land, strange creature to strange creature, only the NeverEnding story continually checks in with Bastian as he reacts and influences the events he's reading.  Inevitably Bastian is the key to saving the day, sucked into Fantasia himself.

The film is a mixed marvel of astounding practical effects and a few that have aged poorly (poor Falkor).  It's the effects of the film (Wolfgang Petersen's first English language production, despite being German-produced) that intrigued me the most as the film is almost perpetually rife with some effect or another.  Despite the fantasy trappings, I found myself rather enamored with the design and execution of the world of Fantasia.  After I finished watching it, I wanted to watch it again almost immediately, only with my kids to see how they would engage with it.  Sadly I've yet to do that.  I'm less curious about the sequels, though I suspect the second (starring Jonathan Brandis and John Wesley Shipp) is the one that would play more frequently on television as a kid and thus the one I'd be more familiar with. 

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Tomorrowland got pretty dire reviews when it arrived in theatres mid-2015, and certainly didn't perform as well at the box office like that other Disneyland attraction-turned-blockbuster Pirates of the Carribean (but then, neither did The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears or Tower of Terror).  With much distance from the reviews (having just watched the movie this past week) I don't recall off-hand what the main criticisms were, but I suspect much of it was about it being less adventuresome, less "Tomorrowland"-filled, and ultimately the first disappointment of Brad Bird's immense filmmaking talent.

I think David nails it in his review: "...once they actually get to Tomorrowland.... then the movie seems to fall kind of flat, with a destiny to be fulfilled, worlds to save and hand wringing bad guys to be defeated".  All that, plus it gets pretty darn preachy about how terribly we have treated our Earth, how little we respect the scientists and inventor that try to understand and better our world, and that very Disney-fied message of it only takes one person to make a difference.  Not that the messages are at all wrong, but they seem to come into relevance almost too late in the film to be anything but preachy.

 I imagine had I went to see this in the theatre, brimming with Brad Bird love and enthusiasm, I would have been disappointed too. Though there's lots of fun little gadgets and kooky contraptions throughout, I would have thought the film should have largely been set in the titular land, rather than having the characters talk a lot about it and attempt to find their way to it.  It's not that grandiose exploration of a retro-futuristic domain that it should have been (a live action story taking place in Bruce McCall's Marveltown would be so cool), an effectively sugary piece of old-timey nostalgia for a future that never happened.  But the writers and director had something else in mind, a message movie rather than a straight up blockbuster.

Like David, I too rather enjoyed the film.  Going in with the expectation of being disappointed, I found it to have a rather likeable cast, plenty of suitably weird events and images, as well as containing an engaging journey, even if the final destination is a little tepid.  We get a sense of Tomorrowland in its prime, with an introduction to Frank Walker as a child in 1964 visiting the New York World's Fair to show off his rocket pack and earn a $50 prize, only to find his way with the help of Athena into an alternate dimension where science rules.  50 years later we meet Casey, a genius-level student whose engineer father is on the cusp of losing his job with NASA as a result of defunding (point being as a culture we're losing our sense of adventure and fascination with the world and universe around us).  Casey's efforts at extending her dad's job's lifespan winds up getting her arrested (but also getting her noticed) and she winds up with a fantastic pin that very near kills her three times over, as it seemingly transports her into Tomorrowland.  It turns out it's pretty much just advertising, and that something has gone wrong. there  Athena, unaged all these years, recruits Casey to seek out Frank and get to Tomorrowland.  They are the last hope.

Frank, meanwhile, has grown into George Clooney, a reclusive, antisocial tinkerer whose reluctant to listen to Casey or adopt Athena's mission.  It's not until Frank sees a glitch in his prognostication machine (one which foretells the end of the world) that he associates with Casey that he finally sees hope, that with positivity we can change our destiny.  Upon entering a virtually desolate Tomorrowland they're greeted immediately by Hugh Laurie's Nix, the man in charge of the once great city of science.  Nix rails on them with a speech about how humanity has embraced nihilism, they revel in doomsday stories and apocalyptic tales, and how that acceptance of an inevitable end is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will see it happen.  It makes people docile and ineffectual, and Nix is using Tomorrowland as the last refuge for humanity, but only on his terms as he's in charge (as David said, he turns the corner into mustache twirling rather quickly).

I'm wondering if Tomorrowland would have been more effective if it embraced the positivity of the idealized future of the 1960s, if it hit home on what we lost in reality by becoming so cynical and disconnected from our environments and each other by showing us what the glorious world would be had Americans embraced their destiny as scientific pioneers instead of consumers and self-righteous, warmongering, industrialized hoarders.  The film could have shown a leader like Nix infecting the populace with negativity and distraction, and how quickly people are willing to accept it.  There's definitely a more exciting, visually stunning film to be made out of much the same concept.

One aspect I truly loved was George Clooney's performance, how as a late-50-something year old man he was so able to convey his youthful love for Athena (as portrayed by a pre-teen actress) without making it creepy, and also without making it chaste.  He manages a tenderness of emotion that implies fondess and youthfully innocent romance, avoiding any gross undertones and also not going paternal.  It's quite a fantastic tight-rope-wire walk he does amazingly well.

I Saw This!! What I Have Been Watching (Pt. 5)

Britishisims!

OK, let's cover the one I completely forgot to cover, and should have.

There is very little of the TV I watch that I would qualify as "good". Some I enjoy immensely and constantly marvel at exactly how much, such as iZombie. Some I just enjoy despite being very aware it's not very good, such as Marvels: Agents of Shield.  Most is just OK but that is never very much the ringing endorsement. So, I should commend great shows when I see them!

Humans is an AI story done originally in Sweden. This is the British remake. I should have reviewed this during my spate of AI movies, but I watched it not long after. Not sure why I didn't review but likely because I was just not ... writing.  At least digitally.

The setting is a "20 minutes into the future" world where the latest, hottest home appliance is a human replica. These are not clunky machines, but perfect renditions of a human. Every home that can afford one has one, as maid, as caregiver, as sex toy. They look perfect if but for flawless skin and just a bit too blue eyes. The usual robot laws apply and despite pretty decent programming, they are easily identified as not-human.

But our story is about the next-steps, the ones the inventor of this technology created before he died -- his pseudo children, his perfectly sentient and independent replicas. Of course humans would be fearful if their appliances became self-aware, or at the very least, were capable of it. So, a squad of shadowy government figures is hunting down these rogue bots, and their older human brother Leo. But one of them is missing, and Leo is desperate to find his sister. She has been mind-wiped and ended up in the household of Joe & Laura, a couple with marital issues around her secrets.

The series introduces synths through Anita, the new addition to Joe & Laura's household. Through this we are introduced to how some people feel about them, how some people are creeped out by them, what they are capable of, what their roles are and their 18+ protocols. Yes, you can use your housemaid bot as a sex toy, should you want to, as long as you accept the proper User Agreement. All of the uncomfortable viewpoints of AIs, robots as people, robots as creepy surrogate humans, etc. are covered in this series and surprisingly with some forethought and weight. There isn't a lot of judgement but the show is very clear on one thing -- that synths are capable of becoming people, though the code is complicated. The opinions on the ramifications are left to us.

Speaking of great, you have seen Luther right? It started in 2010 and when I  heard Idris Elba was doing a crime show in his native UK, I was on board. Immediately. And it didn't disappoint. I briefly covered the first three series here and Kent not long after; Netflix encourages such.

This is Series 4, if you can call two extra-long episodes a season. I hate to say it but this all felt like a cash in. There didn't seem to be a point of revisiting John Luther after they tossed his overcoat into the Thames. Ruther (Did i just type that or is Kent messing with my drafts?) Wilson is busy doing The Affair with Elba's The Wire alumna Dominic West so didn't show up for the investigation of her own murder. Rose Leslie joins with a very very tossaway role. The funny thing, is that even with all the disappointments, it is still so very compelling to watch Elba do Luther. I would watch that hunched over massiveness order a curry.

The crime they investigate in the two episodes, is rather creepy. A hi tech killer, who has left trojan horses on the computers he repairs, allowing him to observes and become obsessed with his victims, has gone off the rails. John is impressive as before he left the force, maybe even more so.  And yet, it was over when it only seemed to be starting. Poo.

From heavy & grim to downright endearing. In a fit of "what do you wanna watch" I clicked on The Detectorists. Oh, am I glad I did. Detectorists are the people who claim detecting for metal as a hobby. You know, wand waving over the ground beep beep beep. Mackenzie Crook (you know, the wooden eyeball guy in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) and Toby Jones (the Hydra scientist from the Captain America movies) are best friends and detectorists, members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club. This is small town England, rural countryside with not much going on but endearing, quaint streets and lovely open farmland surrounding. So, lots of land to detect on. Not much else to do.

This show was brilliant! Endearing! Charming! Sweet! Laugh out loud droll! Andy (Crook) and Lance (Jones) spend as much time as they can detecting, interrupted only by work (as to which Andy is a day-worker type and Lance drives a forklift), DMDC meetings (7 members?) and friends at the pub (trivia night!). They have never found anything (valuable) but have dreams of finding a Saxon ship. Apparently there was a historical trend of burying Saxon kings, in their boats, inland. But is the act of always seeking that seems to drive them on, despite finding mostly nails & pull tabs from 80s pop cans.

Shows like this always take some time to establish, for us, the basic tenets of life of the mains. The most defining quality for these guys, is sitting under a tree, talking about the quiz show from the night before, eating their lunch while on break. "What did you find?" or "Did you find anything?" is the inevitable question and the answer is always disappointing. These scenes were done so perfectly, so mundane, so boring and yet I was immediately attached to these two guys. The antics of the rest of the season were just plot points around which these two guys orbited. Andy is over 40, never a real job, meek & mild and dominated by his girlfriend. Lance is over 40, louder and a bit of an ass, but obsessed with his ex-wife, who takes advantage of it at any turn. And yet I found both these guys charmed and smiling whenever they interacted. Good friendships are like that. I appreciate good friendships.

Mackenzie Crook is writing and directing the series, which is going to require me to find whatever other creations he may have. I like this guy's mind.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

3 Short Paragraphs: The Visit

2015, M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) -- download

Shyamalan gets a bad rap these days. With disappointing followups to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, people got on his case about every movie requiring a reveal. I considered myself an apologist and big fan, believing he could shed the memories of twists & reveals and do what he does best -- cinematic direction in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock. Yes, I went there. And then he went with The Last Airbender. Not only did he bastardize a very popular animated show but it was rather terrible. Money, producer meddling, bad script, etc. All can be blamed but he shoulders the burden. The following After Earth, was more a Will Smith production than anything and abandoned everything that was Shyamalan, but for close up shots with long stretches of dialogue. I recently rewatched; it is still not a very good movie.

Meanwhile The Visit is a great suspense thriller! This is Shyamalan sliding in beside the current horror resurgence I have mentioned a few times, where they abandon most of the current tropes, reaching for design choices and understated plotting stylized in the 70s. There is nothing sweeping or epic in The Visit -- it is a quiet, chilling focused movie. Becca and Tyler are sent by their single mother to get to know their grandparents, from whom she ran away in her teens. There is baggage, the kind that their mother cannot easily dispense with. It is necessary baggage, so we have context in which to place the parents. Instant unease.

Oh the unease. From almost the get-go, the kids are weirded out by their grandparents. They are nice enough folks, if a bit back woods, but it is.... the back woods. The kids are trying to make do, but things get weirder and weirder and then downright eerie. There is an immense strength exhibited by the kids as they deal with situations few would, all for the sake of their mother, her history and potential reconciliation. Everything about the movie is figuring out what the fuck is going on and where it will take the kids. Not a Shyamalan reveal, for any horror movie watcher can guess the ending, but it's the details and the road we take to get there that makes this movie so grand. Great horror movies always leave with a sense of distrust of misty woods, old houses, quiet country roads, cabins in the woods, etc. This might leave you looking oddly at your rural living grandparents next time you visit.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tomorrowland

2015, Brad Bird (Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Incredibles) -- download / netflix

Fuck it. I have/had to rewatch this to fully remember it. Which is neither here nor there, just a statement of time, not of fondness, because I rather liked it, despite it lacking in many areas.

Of note: I initially typed The Impossibles, which I guess would be a version where a family makes up  the Impossible Mission force. I'd watch that.

Retro future. The idea of The Future as seen through the eyes of people behind us. Rocketships with port holes & bright colours. Vacations on the moon and space suits with fishbowls as helmets. Personal jetpacks. Robot butlers. Raygun Gothic design choices, as William Gibson penned it.

I love this aspect of pop culture, though strangely enough not so enamoured with its most popular iteration -- steampunk. I don't dislike Steampunk, I just don't care for it as much as I thought I would. It may be more the steampunks themselves, as I find myself rather dismissive of their dressup as a fashion choice. Getting old, get off my lawn.

Anywayz, love retrofuturism. Still love rockets and laser guns and jetpacks. And the idea of a future that would be enhanced and improved by technology indistinguishable from magic. Focus on improved. We should be vacationing on the moon by now, or more accurately, I should be reading with envy, about people's trips to the moon. I still am yet to take a proper vacation.

We are briefly introduced to the retrofuture Tomorrowland when young Frank Walker talks his way into the 1964 World's Fair to showcase his jetpack. While dismissed quickly because it only mostly works, he catches the eye of a young girl who gives him a pin and some instructions. The pin triggers his entry, from the Disneyland Small World pavilion, because this movie is the latest adaptation of a Disneyland ride, in case you didn't know, to Tomorrowland. Athena, the young girl, thinks he really belongs here. Aaaaand fade.

Casey Newton, played by Britt Robertson (who has previously been a witch in The Secret Circle) is the daughter of an engineer watching his time at NASA wind down. His last job is to participate in the dismantling of a launch facility. Casey is doing her best to delay that by sabotaging the deconstruction equipment. Her dad is not impressed. But someone is; a young girl observing Casey's actions slips her a little pin of a stylized capital T (the same one Athena gave Frank 40 years before, and yep Athena is the same girl, but not at all aged) and when Casey touches it, poof, she is in Tomorrowland. Well, she can see Tomorrowland.

OK ReWatching as it just showed up on Netflix. Being reminded of actually how much of this movie I love.

Casey is given a time limit to see into Tomorrowland, but is desperate to know more. That takes her to Texas, to a retro collectibles store. Once she confronts the salesfolk in the store, she is drawn into the odd conspiracy behind Tomorrowland, which Athena desperately wants her involved in, and the legacy of Frank Walker and his time there.

My gawds, I love that store and the evil robots who run it. There is Keegan-Michael Key (i love that name) as the paunchy bellied, be-dre(a)ded nerd but actually evil robot. Once Casey escapes their clutches, with the help of superheroic roboto girl, we meet some REAL evil robots. Brad Birds movies might feel very very PG but he always reminds us of the stakes, as the smiling evil robots dust the bystanders.

The movie is like a ride. With brief pauses for some comedic drama, it jumps from bouncing, exploding, running, riding and flying all over the place. Clooney is incredible as the older Frank, a disillusioned, cranky old coot (though its hard to take him seriously as a "coot"; its Clooney!) who was kicked out of Tomorrowland when things started going odd there.  Britt is wonderful as the equally cranky, but doubly optimistic young girl who is the destined Last Hope for Tomorrowland... and our world. I am not completely onboard with the destiny idea but I love the idea how boundless optimism can affect the world in the greatest of ways. Its Brad Bird after all, and he is all about the feels.

Frank's house, the quiet countryhouse with all the hidden tech, is why I love Brad Bird's mind. Frank was kicked out of Tomorrowland but that didn't make him any less the genius, just a whole lot more cynical.  I get that. The movie is so much about losing your dreams, giving into apathy and mundanity. The world needs as many dreamers as it can.

There are little details that define why I like Bird's direction so much. When Casey steps on Frank's doorstep demanding his attention, he has a non-lethal countermeasure that blasts you off the stoop with sound or air. It tosses you ass over tea kettle, and when she lands ten feet away you are not so much as hurt, as intimidated. It just looked so.... appropriate. Frank's not a bad guy, just a guy who gave up.

P.S. Also have to mention --- the Eiffel Tower is a launch platform for a Tesla Rocket. Of course it is, why didn't I see that before ?!?!?

The only problem is once they actually get to Tomorrowland.... then the movie seems to fall kind of flat, with a destiny to be fulfilled, worlds to save and hand wringing bad guys to be defeated. Third acts are often set in bigger worlds, wider sets, larger ideas, but I didn't fall into it the way I hoped I would. And yet, I am not completely sure where I would have taken it myself.

Part of why I didn't like the third and final act was that Tomorrowland seemed to be empty. If evil Governor Nix was allowing Earth to be destroyed so Tomorrowland could prosper. But where are all the people? Tomorrowland 2015 is all dusty and dirty, empty and silent. Why? Some details would have been nice.

Frank and Casey are set up against Governor Nix, an ageless meglomaniac who has been broadcasting the apocalypse into the minds of we on Earth. I guess I am one of those who Frank complains about it, because in the preachy dialogue where he outlines why he gave up, I am highlighted. I am one of those guys who sees the end of the world coming, and buys into the packaged, pop culture versions of it. Gamma World, Mad Max, po-ap Teen Fiction, etc. I love that shit. But I also get how seeing that as our only future is not exactly life affirming.  It is up to people like Casey to help us out, a teenager who still has boundless affection for the world and what we can become. Now, if the tech of Tomorrowland can just help her help the world along.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I Saw This!! What I Have Been Watching (Pt. 4)

For each post I put into this long running "What I Have Been Watching" I remember another show I completed in the past year or so, since I "regularly" updated what I was watching on TV. Some are things I have been watching forever, like Supernatural and some are astounding shows I am surprised I never covered, such as Humans.

But, for now, let's cover a couple of One Episode(s).

Colony, not the, is the new alien invasion show over on USA Network, starring Josh Holloway. This guy is good and deserves something stable, but he keeps getting put into sub-standard genre attempts. This one could be a good one, but I doubt it, as it had quite the lackluster first episode. Lackluster is actually pretty standard these days, as I am not sure what standard TV premieres now hold themselves to. Not everyone can have the wow factor of Mr. Robot had in their first.

The trend right now is to leak, or more accurately, show early. So, while I am still the downloader, this was not a under-the-table thing but fully supported by the producers. They are still figuring out the whole digital age thing.

Josh is an ex-military guy trying to survive in the oppressive post-invasion regime. Things are not horrible Falling Skies alien invasion bad, but more an Orwellian, occupation state. Some foodstuffs seem scarce and there are curfews and stories of the disappeared, but generally people live their day to days. When the aliens came, sections of the world (well, at least LA as its the only part of the world of which we know) were subdivided behind massive walls. And people are rarely allowed to pass from one to the other. Anyone who was in a section when the aliens came, has to stay -- Josh and his wife have lost their youngest son and Josh is obsessed with finding him. He doesn't get involved with the resistance (of course, there is a resistance) but he is using them to make headway into the other zone, to hunt for his son. And things go wrong.

Josh is caught and given an ultimatum --- help the puppet human leaders find the resistance and get his son back. Or take the fall for an attack and be disappeared along with all his remaining family. Seems like an easy decision to me, for you can accomplish more alive than you can thrown away in a hole. But his wife is upset, pissed he has agreed to be a collaborator. She has her own more personal reasons.

The drama was pretty standard fare, and the world being built reminded me very much of the original V series, but that may just be the whole LA vibe. We don't know who the aliens are, what they want or how things are going go, so there is lots left to explore. But I will leave it up to a couple of more episodes before I decide.

The Magicians (and the the is correct this time) is the adaptation of the popular series of books by Lev Grossman, another of the books that all my fantasy reading friends have commented about on Facebook but I never got around to reading, nor even finding much about. I believe it was compared to as the 'adult Harry Potter' but that is probably disingenuous.

So, there is another world of magic just out of our sight. Its not so much as hidden but highly managed so average muggles don't see it. Quentin Coldwater is nerd boy who doesn't fit in, has the perfectly lovely best friend whom he isn't sleeping with (but probably wants to), and an unhealthy obsession with some magic filled books from his childhood -- think Narnia.

Paths cross and suddenly he is made aware he has magic potential. And he has to write an entrance exam into Brakebills College, the Hogwarts of upstate New York? I assume it's on the same location as the Xavier School for the Gifted in this reality. He gets in, his friend doesn't, she gets depressed while he stresses out from studying.

The first episode was very very unbalanced. It was done as if they wanted to get quickly past the whole introduction of magic school idea and quickly into the Potter-esque plot of Quentin being the kid destined to fight the returning evil. We are given clues of how hard learning magic is, but never actually experience the difficulty, just Quentin twisting up his nose and whining while others around him seem to play with magic as a past time, very easily. And there was something very CW channel about all the kids, all being very stylish and very sexy, even the nerd girl was stunning and put her outfits together perfectly. Quentin himself was not so much as nerdy, as he was Brooklyn alterna-kid, ever so stylishly awkward.

I will watch the series if but for enough episodes to see where it is going. And two thumbs up on the number of pairs of thigh high socks. I hope they are a sign of their return to fashion.

So, from urban fantasy to straight up classic fantasy. The Sword of Shannara was the followup book for all Lord of the Rings fans to read.  It was Tolkien-light, borrowing most of the fellowship tropes but creating its own world that became very very popular in its own right. I believe I never got much past book... 3 ? I don't remember but I am sure I have one of those boxed sets of paperbacks on my shelf, from back in the day when those were a thing for Xmas gifts.

The Shannara Chronicles is that adaptation of the series come to TV, very loosely and not starting with the first book but with the latter two. We are following Wil Ohmsford and Elven princess Amberle as they try and stop the magical Elven tree from dying, releasing demons back into the world. They are being assisted by ancient druid Alanon, the patron saint of family drug recovery.

One thing I remember in reading the books was my annoyance at the merging of post-apocalypse science fiction with fantasy. I have always been perturbed by the blending of the genres, except when done from a pulp perspective, such as John Carter. But this show is going to just throw in with the current popularity of teen po-ap fiction and litter the visual countryside with fallen Seattle Needles and ruined buildings leaning against each other. And trolls that wear gas masks and armor made from.... street signs? How very Gamma World.

If The Magicians can be mocked for their pretty characters, then people are going to giggle at the Elves of this world. But for me, its always been the perfect way to depict the unearthly beauty of Elves -- make them 20sumthin super models. How else can you depict perfect beauty unless they are cast ever lovely, ever made up and always in the perfect clothes and of the perfect (??) weight? So, the Elves play out well for me, if they are a bit teen angsty.

Its a by the numbers low man against the evil magic of the world story, and not whatsoever the fellowship of the first book, so no LotR comparisons of yet. The lovely eared Elves are there, no Dwarves of yet and the only real monster was the demon lord Dagda Mor, and a few of his minions. Alanon was great, another perfect rendition of a character I would play in D&D. I will definitely be returning for more, but as for quality?  No, not really there. This is purely genre fodder for me.

Amusing note. I watched it on CTV which so very obviously blurred out the implied nudity from a couple of scenes. Marmy missed it, so she downloaded from the MTV source, and yes, the ever so faint hint of nudity was there --- making it ever so obviously blurred on Canadian TV. Ain't that the opposite.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

I Saw This!! What I Have Been Watching (Pt. 3)

Space Opera!! I loves it. It is my favourite kind of science fiction: spaceships, battles, epic plots and ensemble casts. There hasn't been a defining movie for the genre, outside of the Star Wars movies, yet the genre regularly rises up from the dust of Firefly. Unfortunately, most of it is bad bad bad. Sometimes just Canadian bad, but often just bad.

Canadian bad? Yeah, that sub-genre of genre TV made mostly in Canada and starring a regular familiar cast of Canadians and limited budgets. Remember Kevin Sorbo's Andromeda? That was classic bad Canadian scifi, despite its popularity.  More recently there was Dark Matter, a comic book adaptation about a crew of a spaceship that awakens from cryo sleep with no memory. There is the tough chick, the smart chick, the nice guy, the asshole, the exotic guy, etc. etc. etc. Boring boring boring. The ship designs were boring, they set every fucking planet inside an abandoned warehouse and the plots were familiar. I gave it barely two episodes. Maybe it got better? Doubt it.

But then there was Killjoys, which I rather enjoyed but also barely crept above the bad moniker. Killjoys are bounty hunters, licensed by the corporations but standing apart. There is the usual rich planets vs poor planets and a small crew of killjoys as the main characters.

I loved the main cast: Hannah John-Kamen as Dutch, the sexy, grumpy leader of the team, a seasoned killjoy with a secret past and connections to the wealthy elite, Aaron Ashmore as John, her mechanic, pilot and crushing (on her) partner, and finally Luke Macfarlane as D'Avin, John's brother, new killjoy recruit with his own dark secret. Dark secrets are what these shows are always about.

The world building was great if a little limited. They kept on flying between the same three locations but as the season went on, they added some massive spaceships and other offworld locations. The corporate control and the tensions between the haves and have-nots were familiar but for me, it was direction and characters that kept me coming back.

More exciting to me is The Expanse. a spectacularly built world but cheating because they have a popular series of books to draw upon. OK, not cheating but easier for them than Killjoys. Earth, Mars and the populated outer belt of asteroids. Earth is short on resources (thought I am not sure which resource, as they keep on talking about oceans -- desalinization anyone?), but still green (again, comments about us paving Eden and yet all the shots are loverly) and beautiful for the wealthy who can afford it. Mars is mysterious and angry. And the mining colony on the Belt where all the fun takes place is gritty, reminding me of Mars in the Arnie version of Total Recall as well as any other space station movie.  The beleaguered living there are played against their loathing of the Earther elites and their fear of the oppressive Martians. The show likes to play with the little details, like the body shapes of those born to generations in lower gravity, or the pidgin language spoken.

I'd watch this only as a noir detective show for corrupt cop (Thomas Jayne) hiding his Belter heritage behind Earth clothing, but its shaping up to be a political story of the tensions between the three "worlds" with characters from all walks of life on each -- politicos on Earth, cops and bad guys on the Belt and the remaining crew of an ice hauler getting mixed up with Martians and a mysterious, technologically advanced third party.  And its balancing the time until Killjoys returns.

On break, but returning soon, is season 6 of The Walking Dead. I had let the show slide for a few seasons, only grabbing it in bunches when the whim hit. But with some coworkers watching it faithfully, I was inspired to return to it. This season, as well as the last, has felt like one long one -- all taking place in the too-good-to-be-true Alexandria Free Zone. This neighbourhood made compound has been basically zombie free since the beginning of the outbreak, when an industrious leader put up walls and established rules on who comes in and who doesn't. Paradise always falls.

The season began with an explanation of why there were so few dead around the town -- most had wandered into a quarry some miles away and had been penned in by unknowns. Thousands were contained. But Rick discovers that cordon is failing and will leave a massive herd on its way to Alexandria. Finally people are trusting him again, as he devises a plan to lead all the walkers away from town. Of course, the plan fails (not Rick's fault, just circumstances) and it is aggravated by an attack on Alexandria, by the horrific Wolves.

This season is supposed to be about pulling back from the focus that Rick is all, Rick is god, scary Rick can do no wrong. Even his own people are realizing that they cannot always do things his way, if they ever expect to have some semblance of normal lives. But that is Rick's point, that there is no "normal" anymore and believing so is foolish. Life is now about being smart, being ruthless, being safe. His people. His people only. But his people now consider themselves part of Alexandria, so that is creating tension. They wonder what happened to Old Rick, who gathered all of them and kept them (mostly) safe.

When Alexandria almost falls to the Wolves (I am not sure if this is a toss-away group, or more is yet to be explained) and is surrounded by the remaining herd, one cannot help but think Rick is right. Is he?  Somewhat. I have always felt the ideal of a zombie show should be how people retain their humanity even in the light of all that loss. But the crux of the series, the comics and show, has always been that humans will always be much much worse than any monsters can be. How do you retain your humanity when humans won't? I side with the Alexandrians that you just do.  Foolish? Naive?  Probably but Rick's crew used to be that, and now they aren't. Or have not been able to be, of late.

For once, I am playing right into the debate the showrunners are having with the audience. The questions I have are the questions they want me to have. The horror I feel watching them fake us out on the death of Glenn is exactly what they wanted. "Fuck you Walking Dead, fuck you," was what I said when that episode happened. They can kill main characters, and often do, but no, not him. Not yet.

The season returns soon bring a new enemy with it.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Sidebar: A quick ranking of Quentin Tarantino's films

The Hateful Eight is quoted in the poster as QT's eight film.  It obviously discounts any of the films he wrote the script for but didn't direct (From Dusk 'Til Dawn, Natural Born Killers, and True Romance) and it seems to ignore Four Rooms since that was an anthology, as well as counting Kill Bill as one movie (since it was the Weinstein's decision to split it in twain).

So let's list them all out in my preferred order (with any of his written or anthology efforts getting a .5 ranking where they fall)

1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
The film that spawned a thousand imitators that couldn't even come close.  Still utterly unique, a masterful blend of 1930's noir, 70's pastiche and 90's "extreme", with a soundtrack that made soundtracks cool again and a script I still regularly quote from.

2. Kill Bill (2003/2004)

Surprisingly, for as much as I love it, I don't own a copy.  I'm still waiting for the two halves to be joined as the director intended.  Back in the mid-1990's, in part championed by QT, America was introduced to Jackie Chan, John Woo, wuxia and the whole genre of "Asian Action".  Adopting aspects of those film styles into his own common formula, QT created a unique but potent Americanization of the genre tropes packed into an epic Western-style revenge fantasy

3. Django Unchained (2012)
QT had been dabbling with western tropes for some time, with Kill Bill and even From Dusk 'Til Dawn, but this is his first.  But as much as it toys with Western tropes, it goes on further to pull from the near-forgotten slavery subgenre of 70's Blacksploitation pictures, delving deep into America's incredibly racist past (reflecting somewhat on its still very racist present), and providing an incredible catharsis for that seemingly perpetually percolating (and justified) angst.

4. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
 Yet another part of QT's "revenge" cycle, this time the director tackles World War II as a band of Jewish soldiers make a mission out of revenge attacks on the Nazis.  It's his most visually stunning film to date, and full of incredible peaks of tension.  It notably toys with reality with its denouement but is all the more satisfying for it.

5. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Basically the template for all QT films to come... great soundtrack, out-of-step dialogue, shocking violence all within a normally well-tread subgenre.   As a teenager this was, next to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one of the first word-of-mouth experiences where more and more people started talking about it.  I didn't see it until after Pulp Fiction, but then I saw it *right* after Pulp Fiction.

6. Jackie Brown (1997)
Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, if this doesn't rank as high in QT's oeuvre it's not for lack of being an excellent film, but more to do with not being the purest QT movie of the bunch.  As a result of being an adaptation it loses some of the more famous QT elements, and winds up a bit more of a steeping experience than a roiling boil of one.

 - 6.5 - From Dusk 'Til Dawn (1996)
 This was the first collaboration between QT and Robert Rodriguez, two very different directors sharing an eerily sympatico mindset.  Rodriguez's fast and loose style shouldn't compliment QT's meticulousness as much as it does here, and it works incredibly well.  A two act film that starts out as a Cape Fear-style dramatic thriller and winds up a schlocky, bloody monster movie with an incredibly game cast who navigate the transition perfectly.  It's a fun ride, but feels kind of low brow compared to most of QTs output (staging much of the film in a Mexican strip club will do that).

7. The Hateful Eight (2015)
 As mentioned in my review it's not a bad movie by any stretch, but it's not as focused nor as rewarding or outright enjoyable as most of QT's earlier efforts.  The second act starts to run out of steam when it should be revving up towards the finish. 

 - 7.5 - True Romance (1993)
Director Tony Scott does an excellent job of making a Tony Scott film out of a QT script.  Had this been a QT directed feature it would likely rank a few more notches higher on the rankings.  It's a tremendously enjoyable movie, but I can see the cast being somewhat different, the soundtrack being quite different, and the look of it in a 1970's style instead of Scott's neon-'90's aesthetic.

8. Death Proof (2007)
I don't want to say this is QT's worst film, so let's just say it's not his best.  As part of his unprofitable Grindhouse double-feature experience with Robert Rodriguez, Death Proof feels like the one-note endeavour that it's actually meant to be.  It's a 70's schlock movie done through QT's lens, focusing on the 70's fascination with muscle cars as machines of murder.  The delicious table flipping makes this a film a worthwhile watch every time, but as far as QT's pictures go, this is just the thinnest entry, such that one could often forget it was even there.

 - 8.5 - Four Rooms (1995)
An anthology of four loosely connected films set in a single hotel, QT's entry comes in after shorts from Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell.  Something in general just doesn't work about this anthology, whether it's the setting that's holding its storytellers back or Tim Roth's virtually intolerable bellhop as the connecting thread, I can't say.  QT's entry feels kind of tossed off, as an example of the kind of dialogue writing he can do in his sleep (and still be more impressive than almost every other screenwriter out there), but it does have an experimental charm, as if QT pushed himself into making something quickly (and doesn't care for it).

nil - Natural Born Killers (1994)
Both Tony Scott and Robert Rodriguez both managed to direct QT scripts and make the films their own, but in doing so showed that they understood the script they were shooting.  It's evident Oliver Stone went into Natural Born Killers assuming he understood it, and came out so far off the mark producing one of the most distasteful, aggravating, and unwatchable films of the 90's.  Where it's supposed to be a commentary on the preoccupation with violence in the media, it simply becomes a celebration of violence in the media.  It's attempts at creative flourishes create a headache-inducing, manic picture that seems to aim to sicken its audience if not through its misguided storytelling than its ugly, awful aesthetic.  Just one of the worst experiences I've ever had in the theatre.   

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Hateful Eight

(2015, d.Quentin Tarantino) - in 70mm

I'd been watching little else than Star Wars movies and TV shows in the 6 days prior, so I needed an adjustment to my brain, and figured a 3-hour, closed room, experimental western would do it quite rapidly.  It's definitely a shock to the system, but then, regardless of the situation, a Tarantino film always is.

Tarantino single-handedly made me a cinephile with one movie.  Pulp Fiction exploded my brain out of an adolescence of consuming little other cinema than '80's science fiction, comedies and kidflicks.  With one film I was introduced not just to one new language on screen, but hundreds.  I owe the man a great deal of thanks.

In recent years I've sort of receded into my comfort zone once again, my cinematic consumption little else than modern blockbusters and sci-fi and kid-related pictures (to tell the truth, this golden age of television we're in has taken most of my movie-watching time away), and I was kind of hoping a new Tarantino picture would once again explode my brain and kickstart a desire to love the languages of film again.

So, yes, I give Tarantino a lot of latitude when making a film, but I also have expectations, not necessarily in what it will be, but in how it will impact me...how I will feel after.

The Hateful Eight is an experience picture by design.  It was shot in now obsolete Cinemascope 70mm, and for the die hards, screened as such.  If a city didn't have a 70mm theatre capable of projecting it, well the Weinsteins have put on a road show (of course the film is competing for 70mm screens with The Force Awakens right now).  Living in Toronto, a filmgoers mecca at this point, we assuredly have at least a few 70mm screens, but only one of them is showing the film.

The structure of the presentation borrows from epics past, with an introductory overture, (allowing Ennio Morricone's Oscar-worthy score it's solo moment to shine) and an intermission between acts.  This really demands and old school single-screen cinemahouse setting, somewhere where the score kicking back in will signal the audience to return to their seats (I have to admit that the break period was definitely welcome ... it's the demands of big cineplexes in the recent past to cram as many showings in a day that has forced lengthy movies to be bladder endurance tests...but with all the home video/VOD alternatives, perhaps the intermission will make a comeback as a unique aspect in cinema).

We suffered our coldest day in Toronto this day in which I saw the film (a suddenly blistering -24 degrees Celsius in the wind) which made for a fairly immersive viewing experience of a film in which many travelers of questionable origins are trapped together in a drafty and remote Wyoming haberdashery, a raging blizzard outside.  The audience (quite sizable for a Monday matinee, post-holidays) largely kept some of their protective outdoor gear on...a hat, a scarf, a coat over the legs.  If the gusts of cool circulating air in the theatre were intentional as part of the screening, it's both cruel and brilliant (though I doubt it).

The film, as noted, largely takes place indoors, but its use of exteriors really hit home the glory of 70mm... unfortunately the format tends to get lost, or even prove itself excessive and extraneous with the majority of indoor sequences.  It's hard to really pick out what it actually contributes to most shots.  It seems like a joke, to shoot a film in ultra widescreen just to do so in one singular, very confined setting, but I bet from a creative standpoint the director enjoyed the challenges thereof... though that creative enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into something much meaningful for the audience.  Some of Tarantino's other enthusiasms, like his love for Morricone and letting his stars show off a little (like Jennifer Jason Leigh strumming a morose tune on a guitar) translate a lot more effectively.

Tarantino is most widely known for his dialogue, and while the conversation here is quite endless, the dialogue at times feels weak (or, rather, plain).  At other times, it's quite the opposite, hitting too extensive heights of floridness, providing too much casual profanity and racial epithets.  Being sensitive to such things in a Tarantino movie seems like a "well, what did you expect?" situation,  but I honestly felt certain exchanges bandying about the n-word ad nauseum were done so just as a middle finger from Tarantino to the people who keep telling him he shouldn't use it (or isn't allowed to use it).  I honestly find his use in many instances character or scene-accurate (not just here but in many of his films) but also I see many uses of it as weirdly self-indulgent and he hits all sorts of uneasy lows here.

As for the story at large, it's decent, a slow burn introduction to a cast of unsavory characters, no real idiots among them, all with a potential stake in the Maguffin... that Maguffin being Leigh, whom Kurt Russell's impressively mustachioed bounty hunter is in the process of dragging in for a $10,000 reward, of which he does not want to share.  Everyone he views as either a co-conspirator with Leigh or against him for the bounty.  As each cast member comes in, the stakes are raised a little more, but who is who, and what's their motivation?

Through 90-plus minutes leading into the intermission it gets tense, right up until the intermission when that tension snaps.  After the intermission things go off the rails... not quite to the same extent as From Dusk 'Til Dawn, but that's a fairly apt comparison for how two distinctive acts of a Tarantino-infused movie can go.  I don't object to the violence, it's kind of expected...but perhaps that's just it...it's Tarantino formula to go there, in that way.  I wonder why gore, not syrupy red spaghetti western blood spatter?

There are elements here that feel like a first draft put to screen, clever aspects like second-act narration (from the director) that feel like they belonged in more spots, or even certain stretches of dialog which just don't sound polished to Tarantino's usual standards.  Even the length feels excessive.  This is really a 2.5 hour movie (less overture and intermission) that could've been pared back at least another 20 minutes, but Tarantino had something he was going for, a feeling, an experience, which I agree he accomplished, but not to its utmost effect.

If I sound disappointed it's because this is a Tarantino film that delivers little more than a Tarantino film.  One always expects gratuitous and shocking violence, provocative dialogue, top notch acting, and snappy banter out of his efforts, but usually there's something more, the truly unexpected.  It is a solidly enjoyable motion picture but beyond Morricone's tremendous score, there's little here truly unexpected.