Wednesday, August 16, 2017

20/20: #12 Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days...
...Well... 10 days with a 20 day break then one post and another day break.  Sigh]

2017, d. Luc Besson - in theatre


It's been said that this is the film Luc Besson has been wanting to make his whole life.  He's been an unabashed fan since childhood of the Valerian and Laureline series of comics (popular in Europe but barely known in North America).  His 1997 somewhat-classic The Fifth Element was in many ways an homage as well as perhaps a proof-of-concept for a Valerian film.  It took him 20 years, but with a massive number of commercially successful productions under his belt (most as producer, but a few genuinely great directorial efforts as well), and technology finally at the state that it is, Valerian could be a reality.

Now you know at this point I'm a big time comic book nerd, and I have to be absolutely honest in saying that not only have I never read a Valerian comic, I've never even heard of them.  It's been said that they are quite influential, even upon Star Wars, which makes me wonder how I've never came across the name or thought to seek them out.  Sci-fi and comics, big space epics, things that influenced Star Wars... those are, like, my things, man. 

It's unfortunate then that Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn't feel like the influencer, but rather the influencee.  It feels at time partly like Star Wars (more the Phantom Menace than any other entry in the series) and Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy and a multitude of other stories which are probably the bastard descendants of Valerian's influence.   It unfortunately never feels innovative.  That's not the worst thing in the world.  Countless films, even really good ones, emerge without innovating strictly by telling a fun story with likeable characters.

So is VatCoaTP a fun story with likeable characters?

Sure.
It's fine.
Really, it's just fine.

The story is kind of classic 1960's-style pulpy sci-fi.  There's space faring and aliens and action and romance, all wrapped around a mystery (that's not really much of a mystery... conspiracy, perhaps?) that plays out engagingly enough over it's two hours but doesn't seem epic enough in scope to really justify the nearly 200 million dollar expense.  The story is more like a mid-level Star Trek adventure, and never feels sweeping or space operatic.

It's visually fantastic, suitably overloaded with details really dazzling the eye.  The design juggles the beautiful with the chaotic on a regular basis, and there's regularly something curious to behold.  Yet, there are still moments where it feels, spartan an low budget.  Hallways which should be bustling with people and creatures are empty and one big set looks exactly like an airplane hanger that's been converted into a film studio...as if the visual effects people forgot to busy it up.  For the film's rather grand big budget, Besson's all too frequent dabbling in modestly budgeted action/adventure films (Taken, Lucy, The Transporter, etc) has given him an eye for shooting economically, not extravagantly.

This is never more true than in the casting, which is probably where I should have just started and stopped when talking about this film.  Seriously, Dane DeHaan?  He's supposed to be the handsome, upright, swarthy, intergalactic playboy leading man?  The guy with the baggy eyes and sickly gaunt face.  I don't want to be too harsh on him because he's a decent actor, but he's not even close to being Han Solo, or Peter Quill, or Captain Kirk (either Shatner or Pine).  He's not unlikeable, but he's not 10% as charming or charismatic as this film absolutely needs him to be.  He's not as tough or handsome, he's not as convincingly resolute in his duty as the character's defining trait of the comics. Cara Delevigne holds up a little better in the charm department but her role as Laureline isn't the equal of Valerian here (though it should be), and so less rests on her shoulders.  The chemistry between the two is adequate but it should be much steamier.  DeHaan just doesn't have "it", and the film's lack of success rests almost solely on that casting decision.

Really. 
Because even with DeHaan in the lead, if another Valerian film was made, I would be there in a heartbeat.  This film isn't an origin story, but rather feels like a part of a larger series of standalone adventures.  A more inviting, attractive, charming actor would make people desperately want to spend more time with Valerian (same with Laureline), but, I have no such desperation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

20/20: #11 The Leftovers, Season 1

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days...
...Well...
After a 20 day break, I'm back to fulfil the last 10 of this failed 20/20 run.] 

I don't remember where I read it (probably the AV Club), but there was a poll of prominent TV critics, reviewing the 2016/2017 television season, and listing out the best/favourite of the bunch.  The Leftovers made the top of the list for its third and final season.

I had heard about The Leftovers from a bunch of different people and sources, but David's review had always influenced my impression of it.  Heavy and depressing were most often the terms I heard referencing this show, set in a world where 3% of the population one day just disappears, and what follows after.  I was expecting some Rabbit Hole or Manchester By The Sea-type heaviness, but finally launching into it I was instead faced with a weird sci-fi-esque alt-reality, where there's two very different kinds of cults (one which follows a sort of faith healer, the other a group that take a vow of silence and poverty and absolution from all feeling) and numerous people just trying to figure out how to cope in this world, including the sheriff of Mapleton, NY, his daughter, his stepson, his wife, the town reverend, a woman who lost her entire family and a few others.  I found it far more intriguing than depressing.  There's some world building at play, things that would or could only happen in a reality like this, but also things that are logical extensions of how our world operates today.

Symbolism abounds, much of which makes more sense emotionally than logically.  Religious symbolism particularly has a strange place in the show, as it's quite clear this wasn't "the Rapture" but some other phenomenon.  There's no easy answers, to be sure, and certainly traditional religion tries to help but it can't ease troubled minds.  Psychology fares no better.  The show strives for you to understand all the main characters' viewpoints, to empathize with them if not always maintaining your sympathy as a result of their actions.  There's a lot of lashing out, a lot of displaced anger, confusion, hurt, and especially guilt. 

If anything, it seems remarkably clear that the show is a metaphor for depression, in its many different manifestations.  Everyone in the show is afflicted with it in some form or another, manifesting in different ways, dealt with (or not dealt with) in different ways.  As David said in his review, the show just provides a trigger for it, but not necessarily a cause.  If the flashback episode 9 shows anything, it's that the melancholy was there even prior to the event.  The Leftovers provides an outlet for the purveying sense of existential dread, and doesn't seek to provide answers for getting past it.  If anything, season one shows that it's always a struggle, there are no short cuts, no easy answers, but that the possibility that it can get better does exist.

This is a fascinating show, amazingly acted (Ann Dowd is the MVP as Patti, leader of the local Guilty Remnant), clever and complex.  Season one leaves a few threads dangling, but I hear that the first episode of season 2 is where the show goes from being fascinating to essential viewing by taking off into drastically divergent terrain.  I'm looking forward to it.

I'm just hoping we don't get a flashback episode explaining where Chief Garvey's big back tattoo came from (this being a show co-created by Lost's Damon Lindleof, afterall)


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Cleaning the Slate: TV (Fortitude)

Making a decision. As I watch too much TV, I have too much to comment on, some great, some good, and mostly only meh. As I always have a massive backlog of movies and TV, and even some video games, I am going to pare that down. Only four five remaindered TV shows will get posts, and after that, only things that leave a great impression will end up here. Well, maybe if I actually clean house on the Movies, I will do the occasional What I Am Watching post.

Fortitude, 2015-2017, Sky -- download

Svalbard, an island off the coast of Norway in the Arctic Circle. Mining and research are the primary things going on there. Technically its not part of Norway, but they run the show. Now, add the fictional town of Fortitude, populated by an international group of hundreds but only four cops, and introduce a murder. And something more than just murder.

One of my fondest regrets was a logical choice I made in my youth, when I was offered a 6 month position in Alert, Nunavut. I was working for the Dept of Defense then, and they are always looking for short term computer nerds; nobody is allowed to be there for more than 6 months. The money would have been incredible, but I was at the beginning of my relationship and I don't deal well with unknowns and loneliness. Imagine the isolation, being trapped with the same people day in, day out. And the fucking cold. I sort of fantasized bringing a giant box of BFFs (big fat fantasies) with me, and teaching all the military types how to play D&D. But I chickened out. I still think about it to this day.

That memory attracted me to the show.

The show begins with a bear mauling and an accidental shooting, that is quickly covered up by the Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer; Beric Dondarrion on Games of Thrones). Not long after, a local scientist (Christopher Eccleston) is horrifically murdered, slashed and stabbed. As the investigation continues, an American detective based out of London flies in, Stanley Tucci. Friction between competing investigations is escalated by the presence of a mysterious ailment, one that drives people mad and is connected to the original murder. On top of this, the Governor of the community is doing her best to keep alive her dream of setting up an ice hotel, to prop up the failing mining interests. Murders and primeval diseases don't make good PR.

The mixture of standard British procedural with plague story is enhanced by the myriad of different cultures interacting with each other. Brits, Irish, Americans, Russians, Norwegians and even local Sami folk are all tossed together in close quarters in cold weather and the ever present fear that a polar bear may wander in and eat people. Flawed characters are the norm, as no one comes to Fortitude because their lives were going well elsewhere. It makes for grand drama.

The most chilling part (pun intended) is the virus. And not just virus but the transmission method, a parasite that inhabits wasp larva that have been frozen in a mammoth graveyard under a glacier, for millions of years. Hundreds of thousands? The virus/parasite forces the infected to attack someone else, and expel more maggots/parasites into the other person. Aspects of The Thing creep in, and we don't know who is infected and who might turn at any moment.

Season One ends with a climax but very little in the way of answers. The infection has been identified, the infected caught before they can do more harm and a a woman has been eaten alive, from the inside, by wasp larva. Horror has supplanted procedural. But Fortitude has survived, as it is a town of survivors.

Season Two picks up weeks, months later. The WHO has come in, cleansed the infection vector and isolated the surviving infected. Dan Anderssen has disappeared and his second is barely hanging on. While the season begins with a murder, there is no procedural here at all. This is all thriller tension and mystery. The plot of the infection has altered much the way the infection does itself, and there are scifi aspects of the infection leaving some of its hosts with miraculous powers of regeneration. There is political intrigue, betrayal and again, aspects of horror.

Dan was and still is my focus of attention. Is he a good sheriff or a bad sheriff, is a line that describes his whole character in the show. He's a good cop, skilled and even toned, supportive of his staff and protective of Fortitude. But he's also obsessed with Elena who works at the hotel, in a rather scary, stalker manner. And we find out he's a murderer. When Season Two comes along, Dan has lost his mind, survived his own infection and we are even more unsure of whether he is Good or Bad. But damn, is he compelling. He does this tilt of his head, not a cute dog "baroo" at all, with a Cheshire smile that could eat your whole head. The infection has merged with folklore, and Dan becomes the Demon that threatens the whole town. And yes, he is still here to save it, as more of its inhabitants are taken by the chaos.

Another aspect that I loved about it, may just be inherent in its Iceland shooting locations, but so reflective of the character of a town on top of glacier, is the architecture. There are the expected corrugated metal shacks, built quickly and reflective of a place that wants cheap and quick. And there are old structures, that must have been built by the original inhabitants, the Norwegians. And then there are these crazy, ultra modern structures with massive glass windows and cold concrete walls, that I could only conceive reflect advances in environmental technology. How else could they stay so warm in the -50 C weather outside at all times?

Again when this season ends, we sum up very little and leave a lot of open wounds for the viewers. Beloved characters have died, the plague is expanding its impact and Dan Anderssen is once again Sheriff. I cannot wait to see what happens next.



Wednesday, July 26, 2017

20/20: #10 Kong: Skull Island

2017, d. Jordan Vogt-Roberts - in theatre

Well, comedian Paul F. Tompkins ruined this movie for me before I even saw it with this tweet:

(Video is supposed to embed, but you may need to click the link)

Not that it actually ruined the movie, but I literally couldn't get the song out of my head throughout watching the entire picture.

Anyway, Kong: Skull Island is a silly, yet exciting picture about the giantest of giant apes on a mysterious island (some might say it's a "skull" island, not sure why), and his encounter with a group of scientists and military types (and a mercenary and photographer) in the mid-1970s, just as the U.S. was pulling its forces out of Viet Nam.

The cast is stacked starting with Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson, onto John C. Reilley, Toby Kebble, Shea Wingham, and a bunch of young character actors and expendables (and Chinese superstar Jing Tian in a meaningless background role)...not that it matters who is playing whom and for how long, they're all rather expendable, and their characters are thinner than cheese cloth.

Really, the cast is poorly developed, with the exception of John C. Reilley's character, a veteran of WWII who was stranded on "Skull Island" in the opening pre-credits flashback sequence.  So when we meet him later in the film he's bee trapped there for 30 years, living with the indigenous tribes-people there but going a bit loopy over missing home.  Had the whole film been told from his character's POV (it could have happened exactly as it did, but if it just used him as the centerpoint) it would have been an amazing movie.  As it stands, we get a puzzling motivation for exploring the island in the first place (secret government stuff, scientific research, "Monarch" tying it into the secret monster tracking organization of Gareth Edwards 2014 Godzilla feature), with Goodman leading the pack... only once they get to the island suddenly it's Hiddleston and Larson who seem to be more important without any real explanation as to why.  It's confused, almost amateurish storytelling, but when that big, huge, monstrous monkey (cough, *ape!*) shows up nothing else matters.

It's about 15 minutes in when the troops make their way through the chaotic fog and storm clouds in their helicopters, everything looking dicey instantly, until suddenly they're through and it's an unsullied paradise in front of them.  And, of course, being Americans, they instantly start blowing shit up, dropping concussion bombs to map out the terrain, which awakens the angry beast, and then the shit goes down.

Seriously, that opening Kong vs. helicopters sequence truly is worth the price of admission. Even with the muddy script and uneven storytelling that follows, they nail that damn ape.  Kong is the genuine presence and draw of the movie and the whole team seems to get that.  I believe it's Kebble doing the motion capture for Kong (while also having his own on-screen role), which he's had experience working alongsiedAndy Serkis on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The 70's setting allows for a thoroughly 70's soundtrack (getting in on some of that sweet 70's soundtrack action that Guardians of the Galaxy has been pulling in), which is almost a little too overbearing, often times too on-the-nose.  I swear the film would be 30% better if they had more restraint soundtrack wise.  It's in the mid way point between Baby Driver as top-of-its-class for soundtrack integration and Suicide Squad at the bottom.

It's a fun movie.  Not great by any stretch, but it had the potential to be much, much better than it was.  If I had to hazard a guess, it was that it was a rushed script, it certainly feels it. A post credits teaser hints at the Godzilla ties even stronger.  I guess we'll see how that shakes down when King Kong vs Godzilla hits in 2020.

[Read David's take - to summarize: "Now that is how you do empty spectacle !!" We Agree!]

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

20/20: #9 Tour De Pharmacy

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days.  Oops, I missed a day, so double dipping today.  This one in 20 minutes for sure]

2017, d. Jake Szymanski - HBO


I wrote last year about the HBO Sports talking heads mockumentary 7 Days In Hell , quite enjoying the short, under-an-hour production which lays the gags on as thick as the stack of celebrities appearing in it.  In fact, I've watched it at least three times since I first saw it, and likely will see it many more times in the future. Tour De Pharmacy is 7 Days In Hell's de facto sequel.  It's not really a direct sequel, but the next entry in what is hopefully an annual series at HBO for some time.

Once again starring Andy Samberg (co-created with writer Murray Miller) these two short films are almost exactly the same as the Lonely Island feature-length Popstar: Never Stop Stopping  which I literally just wrote about.  They're using the exact same formula for producing, for cutaway gags, the exact same structure of storytelling, both admiring and razzing their subject, and, yes, numerous celebrity appearances (both as themselves and in character, both self deprecating and celebrated).  I think Tour and 7 Days work better, if only because there's more characters in play, where the Lonely Island (Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Shaffer) were the primary leads of Popstar, what with it being their film and all. 

The sheer diversity of goofy characters is what really drives Tour De Pharmacy.  The film keys in on five cyclists in a spectacularly ridiculous (and fake, natch) Tour De France in 1984 where all banned substances were made legal.  The riders are played by Samberg, Orlando Bloom (with a marvelous French accent), Daveed Diggs, Freddie Highmore and, best of all, John Cena (put him on a racin g bike and that alone is comedy) in 1984, but a completely different set of actors in their 30-years-later talking heads appearance, which is best left as discovery, but all utterly amazing. 

A couple of stunt casts in Mike Tyson and Lance Armstrong, but at the same time they are used to tremendous effect.  Armstrong is lampooning himself here but it's still taking the piss out of him.  It while it may be distasteful that he gets to capitalize upon his own illicit deeds, but it's sometimes hard to argue with comedy.

I can't really say if Tour De Pharmacy is better than 7 Days In Hell.  The surprise of 7 Days, the trailblazing path it took, the formula it sets up, it kind of wins out for that..and yet, I think that Tour is even more clever, a bit more audacious, and even funnier.  What the hell, they're both winners.  They both are goofy as fuck, but tell really hilarious, engaging stories (much better ones than Popstar, I should say).  I'll be watching them both, probably back-to-back for some time to come.

20/20: #8 Popstar: Never Stop Stopping

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days.  Oops, I missed a day.  Damn, well obviously this isn't doing it's job very well.  I started the first few days getting out of bed at 7:30 and barfing one of these out.  Then it was 12:30, and then late in the afternoon, and then, not at all.  Now it's late and I'm trying to barf out a few before I fall asleep.  Habits, man, they're hard to start and hard to quit.]

2016, d. Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer

Comedy is about the hardest thing to be successful with in film.  Senses of humour can be based on influences that are regional, national, continental, racial, generational, sexual, even denominational.  People's senses of humour can be based on their intelligence level, their EQ (aka "emotional intelligence"), their exposure to the greater world (pop culture or current affairs or politics).. our senses of humour can mature as we age or it can remain stunted.  One person's funny is not always going to be someone else's.  Making a comedy to appeal to all of these broad spectrums (and so many more left unmentioned) is an impossibility, and the more you try to broaden the appeal of your comedy the more you dilute the humour.

With stand-up, you're dealing with a specific point of view, and that perspective can be alien, alienating, or alluring (or varying mixes therein), but it's relatively pure, the product of one mind, honing and crafting a set over time, through repeated trial and error.  With movies, though, you have so many variables, starting with writing then casting and directing and finally editing (with a couple dozen other variables tossed in the mix).  So much can go wrong, and with filmmaking time is money.  It can take so much effort to make something spectacularly unfunny.

Then again, it can take so much effort to make something spectacularly unfunny to one person, but uproarious to someone else.  Context, as well, can matter.  One comedy film seen with a large audience in a theatre can be an amazing time, while that same comedy in a nearly empty theatre or alone at home or watching on the bus on a phone it could seem like a dire production.  Laughter is infectious.  It's why sitcoms still use laugh tracks, some even with studio audiences, to guide the viewer along --  home alone or a small family -- towards the laughs, even if it's not particularly funny, at least to give the impression of humour.

All that said, I don't understand how Popstar: Never Stop Stopping -- the first full movie from the "Lonely Island" trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer -- cost $15 million to make but only grossed around $10 million at the box office.  The trio have had platinum-selling albums, Saturday Night Live "Digital Shorts" which received tens of millions of views on youtube, and Samberg has been all over the television spectrum, from the popular Brooklyn 99 to successful gigs hosting award shows and even producing short sports mocumentaries for HBO.  With all that at their backs, how did Popstar not at least make it's modest budget back?

Really, it's a bigger question than 20 minutes will allow ... time is already up, but I'ma keep going.  The answer is a lot of what I was speaking to above.  It's about the audience you're trying to get.  The title, Popstar: Never Stop Stopping is supposed to invoke the vapid documentaries of inexplicably popular musicians like Justin Beiber: Never Say Never, so on the one hand is it trying to attract the people who like those types of musicians, or are you trying to draw in those who don't?  Marketing for the film tried to have their cake and eat it too, when the film is more clearly on the side of making fun of these self-important, over-entitled trashbags.

Likewise, Popstar isn't a direct parody of any particular artist (and having not seen any of these kinds of documentaries, I can't really say if it invokes them) so there's not something tangible or instantly recognizable to grab onto as a lampoon or satire.  Unlike a Spinal Tap which has aged like a fine wine documenting the journey of a popular band having spectacular failures on tour and whose members are dim or eccentric, Popstar doesn't know what to make of its star - Conner 4 Real - and his catalog.  On the one hand they proclaim that his defunct white boy hip-hop crew, the Style Boyz, is beloved and legendary and dearly missed, but on the other hand the music we see doesn't quite bear that out.  We're supposed to believe that Conner's first solo effort was a global sensation, a smash hit that broke every conceivable record, but again, the music doesn't bear that out.  Then the film posits that his latest album is a travesty, a mindless hot garbage fire, but it honestly isn't that different than anything else we've heard from the previous album or from the Style Boyz.

The problem is the Lonely Island is famous for their music, which is always part genre satire (like "I'm on a Boat" or "Dick in a Box", but with a defiantly silly lyrical bent.  They tend to come together exquisitely well, with catchy hooks and often a big guest artist like Rhianna or Justin Timberlake or even Michael Bolton.  These music videos and sketches are their lifeblood and they couldn't get away from making good crappy songs or goofy good songs enough to service the needs of the film.  They were looking for another platinum record methinks.  Unfortunately, the songs on Popstar are some of the weakest they've written in that regard.  Oh, there's some real gems, but most of it feels a little like filler.  It's their version of "Weird" Al's UHF, not one of Al's strongest albums.  So the fact that the album which should have sold the film was one of their lesser efforts probably didn't do their box office any favors.

Putting the music aside, getting back to target audience.  The Lonely Island's target audience is used to consuming their stuff in bite-sized chunks, digitally, and largely for free.  Asking them to pay for it or go out of their way to get it, like in a movie theatre, was probably too much to ask.   They could have had better success producing a sketch comedy film (though, those types of film tend to flounder at the box office too) which would eventually be dissected across the internet but would have tremendous longevity.

All that said... and that's a lot said, in double the allotted time... I freaking loved the film.  It's a true-on mocumentary, following Conner as his latest album flounders, his celebrity starts to fade, and his ego takes a sever bruising.  It's such a perfunctory fall-from-grace plot, but the cast, which extends to Tim Meadows, Chris Redd, Sarah Silverman, and a veritable legion of celebrity cameos (I mean Seal gets mauled by wolves... I don't wish the man ill will, but that's just frickin funny, and even funnier in context).  I fully admit that it won't be to everyone's tastes, but if you generally find the SNL "Digital Shorts" funny, it's more of that, you know, largely silliness and absurdity, with some clever sight gags and sharply timed editing, as well as some savvy lampooning skills (like the "Equal Rights" song below).  Those songs that don't play so well as a soundtrack album actually start to pop (no pun intended) in context in the film, becoming more memorable, even entering my Spotify playlists.   It's not quite Spinal Tap but it just may have some legs.    I'm more than likely to give this another couple of viewings over the years.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

20/20: #7 Rewatch: Spider-Man (2002)

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days.  My backlog is vast and 7 articles in,  my memory is about as bad as I expected.  Back to some older superheroes]

2002, d. Sam Raimi

The notorious original teaser poster, which
was recalled after 9-11 because of the reflection
of the twin towers in Spidey's mask.


After watching Spider-Man: Homecoming, my 8-year-old daughter expressed her interest in seeing all the previous Spider-Man movies.  While I'm not the biggest Spider-Man fan (as established, repeatedly), she spends a lot of time watching the various Spider-Man cartoons, from the most recent Ultimate Spider-Man, stretching back to Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends from my early childhood.  I used to watch the vintage 60's Spider-Man cartoons (which famed animation director Ralph Bakshi had a hand in) when my daughter was a baby, screaming for whatever reason in the middle of the night.  I would lay on the couch with her on my chest, cradling her, singing lowly along with the theme, or humming along with the monotonous, soothing, ominous soundtrack.  Maybe Spidey got kind of imprinted upon her that way?

Anyway, memories of the Sam Raimi Spidey films haven't been kind. The last time I watched this first one was about five or six years ago when I came across it on a midday television airing.  It was during the 4th of July sequence (is that what they were celebrating?  I think so) just after the Macy Gray concert, where there's big parade balloons and a massive crowd gathering, and Spider-Man has to square off against the Green Goblin.  Everything looked so fake.  The crumbling balcony was so obviously a staged set, the CGI of Spider-Man swinging and the Goblin Glider flying was so hyperanimated, and the on-the-ground fighting exposed the garishness of both that era's Spider-Man costume (with raised silver webs, for some reason) and the Green Goblin's shimmering shamrock-coloured suit.  It didn't look good, and I've held that against it for years.

What I realized upon re-watch is that it is garish, and fakey, but where out of context it seems like flaws in the production and design of the movie, taken in context with the rest of the film, it plays rather well.  The whole production is vintage Raimi, it is the product of his influences.  He wasn't interested in making a Spider-Man movie for the children of the year 2000.  No, instead Raimi was making a Spider-Man movie for the little Sam Raimi who would have read Spider-Man comics in the late 1960's and early 70's and seen the old Grantray-Lawrence Animation Spider-Man cartoons.  In that regard it's a fairly faithful recreation.

Raimi loves pulp, he likes things broad and large.  He's earnest enough to avoid camp, but never too serious as to get too heavy.  His style, especially for Spider-Man is what people would have then referred to as "comic booky".  Melodramatic to the Nth degree, chock-a-block full of hoary old tropes, and playing with practical physical effects, wherever possible, no matter how corny they may look.  In fact, at times, Raimi just fully embraces that corniness, using his vast arsenal of camera techniques to mask pr distract from any major flaws.

What I marveled (no pun intended) most about Spider-Man this time around was how unique it felt, even compared to Homecoming.  It's Raimi's skilled tracking lens, his penchant for following a character from behind or in front and swooping the camera, twisting and turning the lens along with the figure as it moves... he used this to tremendous effect in the Evil Dead  franchise, but he finds a natural home for it here, creating a dynamic visual style for Spider-Man's nimble movement, both swinging and wall-crawling, that honestly is 10 times more exciting than anything in a comic book movie since (strictly speaking about camera work here...the action sequences are decent, but very pulpy and have definitely been surpassed).

Overall, there's just a retro cinematic tone to Raimi's Spider-Man, one which I never clued into before, almost as if it were for a 1940's nickelodeon matinee.  Now that we have the note-perfect Marvel Universe Spidey, and we've had the overstuffed, overserious Andrew Garfield Spidey, I'm able to move past what I normally want out of a comic book movie and to see just how well crafted this one actually is.

And that upside down kissing scene in the rain...still so damn sexy.  Still not a favourite movie, but I definitely appreciate it more now than ever before.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

20/20: #6 American Gods season 1

2017, Bryan Fuller (Amazon Prime)
OMG

Since David literally *just* tackled it, I figured I'd weigh in on American Gods too.  It sort of fits the connective thread of comic books, superheroes and stranger things that have been the norm for 20/20 so far.

Like David, I too am a fan of Neil Gaiman...well, more a lapsed fans since Gaiman has been writing primarily prose and not comics any longer.  I don't read a lot of prose.  I get bored reading prose, my mind gets distracted and the experience of reading puts me to sleep.  It's not just Gaiman, but pretty much anyone.  On top of that, there's little reward for me reading prose, since I tend to forget the bulk of what I read, to the point that my brain has devoted absolutely zero space for American Gods.  I have no recollection of anything about the novel.  This is my status quo.  Strange, then, that my wife, a voracious reader with amazing recall of the printed word, also has next to no recollection of American Gods (or its follow up Anansi Boys).  Adding David to that pile, you have three people who should be the target audience for that book not connecting with it to any great degree.  There's no ill will towards it, but no fondness either.  That bodes ill for adapting it to another medium...as in, what's the point.

Bryan Fuller...Bryan Fuller is the point.  Fuller, death-obsessed Fuller, darkly comedic Fuller comes at American Gods with a vision.  Having just come out of three remarkable seasons of Hannibal severely underappreciated by the masses, and unceremoniously cancelled by NBC (though cudos for them for daring to even run it for three seasons, I suppose), he carries over much of the same crew and directorial talent, so there's a vibrant darkness to American Gods which it shares with Hannibal.  It takes about three episodes for American Gods to shake its Hannibal-ness and feel like its own thing, it's heavy shadows with vibrant colours, dark and grainy hard-to-watch scenes contrasted with bright and welcoming ones.  All the while that underbelly of sick, wry humour pulsating.  It's got its shocks, but its got a sense of humour about it too.  Some Fuller staples from as far back as Dead Like Me just persist.

American Gods' first season is surprisingly only 8 episodes long, and is all set-up.  While this could prove infuriating, it's so brilliantly put together it's hard to damn it for any of the choices it makes.  Old god Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) is readying for war against the new, and with his new associate, ex-con and widower Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) , they travel across America attempting to recruit other old, forgotten gods.  Meanwhile, Shadow's dead wife has returned from the grave (Emily Browning is a slow-build tour-de-force) and the new gods seem all too keen to have Shadow on their side.

There's a definite heightened reality to this show, one which is set in the opening moments depicting Vikings landing on a hostile terrain. Their leader faces a barrage of arrows, in fact, every single arrow hits him and only him.  In that instant, this brutally comic moment, one realizes this show is striving for something different.  This is a show afterall which features a montage of one god absorbing her worshipers into her during intercourse (and, as David noted, one of the most gorgeous, affecting, sensual gay sex moments in mainstream media ever... as you might expect having sex with a genie to be)

The casting is impeccable.  Those mentioned above, along with Orlando Jones, Cloris Leachman, Pablo Schreiber, Omid Abtahi, Peter Stormare, Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, Demore Barnes, Yetide Badaki, Kristin Chenowith and more putting in some infallible performances.  It's rare to see this level of talent buy into the conceit of a genre program so fully.  The show seems to encourage, not just accommodate scenery chewing.  The gods, afterall, should be grandiose, larger than life.

The first season doesn't end like a typical season finale... at 8 episodes it just feels like a break.  I have a feeling Fuller can tell this story in 3 8-episode seasons, 4 at most. But what we get is its own thing.  It's challenging, it's entertaining, it's glorious and memorable in a way the book wasn't. 



10 for 10: the "stuff I watched last year" Edition

[10 for 10... that's 10 movies which we give ourselves 10 minutes apiece to write about.  Part of our problem is we don't often have the spare hour or two to give to writing a big long review for every movie or TV show we watch.  How about a 10-minute non-review full of half-remembered scattershot thoughts? Surely that's doable?   ]

In this edition:
1. The Martian (TMN on demand) - 2015, d. Ridley Scott
2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (in theatre) - 2016, d. Taika Waititi
3. Midnight Special (VOD) - 2016, d. Jeff Nichols
4. The Big Short (Netflix) - 2015, d. Adam McKay
5. Sleeping With Other People (Netflix) - 2015, d. Leslye Headland
6. Admission (Shomi) - 2013, d . Paul Weitz
7. Elstree 1976 (Netflix) -2015, d. Jon Spira
8. Mascots (Netflix) - 2016, d, Christopher Guest
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Netflix) - 2016, d. Dan Trachtenburg
10. ARQ (Netflix) - 2016, d. Tony Elliott

aaaand...go

---


The Martian should have been something I saw in theatres, but it wasn't a big tentpole sci-fi, superhero or fantasy movie, and Ridley Scott isn't one of our "always see" directors.  Also, I've realized Matt Damon just isn't a draw for me.  I like him just fine, but he's never going to sell me on a movie on his own.  Sooo, it kind of languished, not for anything other than lack of time or access.  When we got the movie package last year for Game of Thrones, well, The Martian was there waiting.  And hey, it was good.  Entertaining, full of "Fuck Yeah, Science" moments (what was it?  "I'll science the shit out of this"? Eh, I don't recall).  It was a nice story of survival, but it was trying for a lighter, feel good tone, and a such there wasn't a terrible amount of drama.  I mean, we're not talking Castaway isolation (in terms of not having any other cast to cut away to), but for height of the stakes for ol' Matt Damon, there wasn't a lot of tension.  I think it may be a plausibility thing, the fact that we haven't actually landed anyone on Mars yet.  Sure, there's the potential, but we're just not at reality yet.  I liked it but it hasn't stuck with me.  And I couldn't help but think of this as related character to Matt Damon's role in Interstellar, and there's a lack of consistency between the two characters (both stranded on planets) that just bugged me.

(David has a great write-up from long ago...and also mentions the Interstellar thing)
[8:58]

---

The Hunt For The Wilderpeople  is now on Netflix, and it probably deserves a rewatch.  Any of Taika Waititi's directorial efforts do, in fact.  His first effort, Eagle vs Shark, was very much the Napoleon Dynamite of the New Zealand set, while the mocumentary What We Do In The Shadows has become an evergreen favourite because of its genre trappings.  Hunt For The Wilderpeople has a title that insinuates genre trappings, but is actually an exceptionally enjoyable, warm and funny (with a sombre undercurrent ) comedy about a young orphan boy, Ricky (Julian Dennison), in New Zealand who has behavioural problems, but is taken in by the sweetest, kindest-hearted woman anyway.  Her husband, a staunch, crotchety Hec (Sam Neill), doesn't really want much to do with the kid, and keeps to himself most of the time.  But the new surrogate mother figure suddenly passes away and Hec finds himself in a position he never wanted to be in, a mentor and father figure, and it a role he resoundingly rejects.  Faced with returning to state custody, realizing he's had his last chance at finding a home,  Ricky runs away.  Hec knows where he's going, and reluctantly sets out to bring him back.  In the trip on return, the two, as expected, bond, but in ways unexpected.  It's themes are well trod, but it's the way in which the story is told, Waititi's wry yet uproarious humour, and a very deliberate pacing and film style which make this one worth not just watching, but treasuring.  Waititi's next venture is Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel, which should be amazing.

[19:28]

---

I just wrote about Stranger Things, FINALLY,  and how spectacular it was, in large part due to its  1980's sensibilities.  Not just homage, or attempting retro trappings, but achieving a genuine sense of the era, a sense of belonging, of being of the '80's.  Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special strives for much of the same, and achieves to a certain extent.  There's the definite sensibilities of 80's genre dramas like John Carpenter's Starman or Spielberg's E.T., the type of movie that doesn't want to wow with special effects or any genre trappings, really, outside of one small conceit.  Here, it's a young boy who has a supernatural ability, an inner light that can manifest itself in both helpful and destructive ways.  The boy's father (Michael Shannon) has to extricate him from a cult-like religion and the pursuing governmental forces, both of whom have ill designs for the boy.  The chase is a fraught one, and seeing the lingering impact of the religious teachings on both the father and son is much of the meat of the story.  It's a sombre road movie, with Shannon's expert brooding carrying the bulk of the film on his shoulders.  I'm still not certain the retro 80's aesthetic (despite being modern day) helps the story much.  It's a pastiche for sure but using it would imply that it was more exciting or fun.  It has a pretty distinct ending, one which a viewer could go either way on (it could be too much, or make the viewer wish there were more of it).  It's a sad film, overall, but worth the journey.

(David watched it too and remembered far more details than I did)
[30:31]

---
I like the composition of the arrows but
there's just too much white space here.
I think the fact that the top and bottom
arrows are longer than the left and right
arrows is also part of the problem







The 2008/2009 housing crisis was a real shit show, and it had been brewing for years, due to a lack of regulatory oversight or industry foresight.  It was also the product of immense greed, the brainchild of the richest of assholes trying to get more money for the rest of the richest of assholes.  The fact of the matter is, the stock market is lost on the layperson for the most part, which allows the people that work in the industry, and the government agencies that oversee it, to do whatever the fuck they want to manipulate it to keep the money flowing in from ignorant investors and circulating among themselves.  The Big Short is a big-name cast movie (Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, among many many others) that dives into what actually happened, and expresses it in a way that may still be a little too inside baseball for some, but with enough entertainment value that you'll get the gist if not the specifics.  Frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay does an impressive job with this dense and dry topic, presenting it in such a way that you get angry but are still engaged with the story and the characters.  At the time, it was a fairly important movie, but important movies usually only get seen by people who already know the topic.  I don't think the Big Short reached enough of the laypeople audience to really measure an impact. People just knew they got screwed, and for a lot of them it was such a sore subject they just didn't want to know how.  They would rather be distracted.

[39:13]

---
Man, it is really hard to sell a comedy, even
a romcom with a poster.


The main flaw with Sleeping With Other People is the inference that ex-SNL star Jason Sudekis and then-Community/Mad Men star Alison Brie were the same age, the story involving the fact that they first hooked up in college.  There's a very noticeable 7-year-gap between the two of them.  Sudekis has looked to be pushing 40 for over a decade while Brie was playing a teenager when Community started.  Even with a real-world 7-year-gap, it's still hard to reconcile how they could have met in college.  The movie pays it no mind, and carries on, and delivers an enjoyable, yet unassuming, and ultimately unmemorable romantic comedy.  But I just couldn't get past it.

The comedy is light, though the cast is talented, including Amanda Peet, Adam Scott in full dickbag mode, Jason Mantzoukas playing against type as a nice guy best friend, sharing a delightful relationship with Andrea Savage.  It's a solid watch but no real standout comedy bits, and neither the characters nor plot will stick with you.

[47:14]

---
Like, I mean, really hard to sell comedy
with a poster.

Another romantic comedy, Admission, is equally as unmemorable.  Paul Rudd and Tina Fey are a great comedic pairing, both immensely likeable alone and together, but something about this film just doesn't click.  The conceit of the film is a light expose of the rather political and jaded admissions process for elite universities.  Not only do they rigorously screen their applicants but they also scout for applicants, looking for the best and brightest, which may seem noble, except when you understand that it's all done for the prestige, to maintain the reputation, to keep the elite status, all of which keeps alumni and donor money coming in, as well as allowing the school to charge more for tuition.  Fey plays the head of admissions at one such prestigious school, but when an applicant coming from a troubled alternative school run by Paul Rudd shakes up her worldview, (plus a romantic connection with Rudd) will her staunch adherence to customs and rules override her conscience as it always has.  You know it won't.  Rudd's far too charming, and his whip-smart kid who takes such a shining to Fey couldn't help but sway her.  It's a sweet film, and the usual charismatic schtick from Rudd goes a long, long way in watchability, but it's so by the number that it's almost painful.  You've seen this type of story a dozen times, if not dozens upon dozens of times.  Depending on your preference for romcom, it may be comfortably familiar, or it may be monotonous.  If you're not into romcom, take a hard pass, this isn't the place to start.

[57:01]

---

I probably shouldn't have even bothered watching Elstree 1976, a documentary featuring a few of the peripheral faces (or masked faces) from the original Star Wars series.  I'm not sure that the film does much in the way of enhancing the Star Wars experience, beyond going into the minutiae of how the film's success has affected a handful of the lesser-known performers.  The journey it takes is from the modest, British backgrounds of the actors, and onto the stage of Elstree studios.  Their seemingly well-honed stories at this point tell of their feelings about the film before they knew what it would become, which honestly could be just as much fabrication for "good" storytelling as actual recollection.  The Star Wars nerd in me was hoping for some unseen goodies, some trinkets of Star Wars that only the people on the inside would have had, some insight into things that could have been but weren't...but this isn't the doc for that.  It's not even really a "making of" which the title would almost imply, but rather the journey of the people involved.  There's a large portion of the film spent on fandom, how these performers capitalized upon it, and the politics of being a convention attraction.  It gets rather petty, and silly, and would make a pretty funny series, actually (note to self... how do I watch Con Man: The Series).  The people all seem nice, but this doc is inessential at best for all but the diest of die hard Star Wars nerds.

[1:07:38]

---

Speaking of conventions, Mascots takes us into a behind the scenes look at the people who participate in an international mascot competition.  [Okay, yeah, a competition is not a convention.  It was a shitty transition and I'm sorry.]  This mocumentary comes to us from Christopher Guest, because it obviously comes from Christopher Guest.  In fact it too obviously comes from Christopher Guest.  In fact it's almost a knock-off, for so middling are the results that there's not much about this film that doesn't immediately make the viewer wish they were watching Best in Show instead.  It's loosely the same story/plot, only with a somewhat different cast of absurd characters.  Really, had all of guests movies just been that same variation of formula, this would just be another in a tired line at this point, instead it's a disappointment that Guest would return to the same well.  What Best in Show had going for it was the plausibility.  There may be mascot competitions out there, but where best in show was sending up the people an personalities behind an analog Westminster Dog Show, a fairly well known event facilitated in Madison Square Garden in New York, Mascots isn't replicating anything familiar to the audience.  As such the competition that is being put on feels absurd and unbelievable.  Maybe I will see a mascot competition someday and marvel at how absurd and unbelievable it really is, and maybe I'll cut Mascots a little slack for it, but until then it just feels overboard, too broad.  It really wouldn't matter if the film were funny, and it is in fits and starts, but it just never clicks.  It feels rushed, the characters don't feel as fleshed out, and it's hard to care too much or invest in any particular person's chance at winning.  I would have preferred a mockumentary about furries to this, to be honest, but that seems to ribald for Guest these days.

[1:18:17]

---
erm, spoiler alert?

I have to wonder why the tenuous "Cloverfield" connection.  Overtly I realize that "Cloverfield" is now a brand for the studio, and one that's making them some nice coin, but in-world, in-story there is literally no crossover, so why?  I would actually like a for-real sequel to Cloverfield, one which does not use hand-held camcorders and so much nauseating shakey-cam to see the monsters mash NYC, but that's not this film.

No, 10 Cloverfield Lane is instead a smart, taut thriller that has you guessing through to the third act.  The fantastic Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, run off the road and awakens to some serious injuries inside a bunker.  Her captor is an equally fantastic John Goodman as Howard, who claims to have rescued her. Something bad has happened outside and they can.not.go.out.there. lest the bad things come find them. There's a third party in the bunker, the defiant Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who confirms Howard's story, to a point.  Howard is gracious to his "guests" so long as they obey the rules.  The bunker is homey with a 1970's vibe, and everyone gets along, until they don't.  Howard is explosive when he feels challenged, or violated, and Goodman as ever uses his stature and presence to scary effect.  Invariably all is not as it seems, or is it?  The question of Howard's honesty ebbs and flows, and even Emmett is a constant unknown.  Are they good men?  What's really going on?  Things erupt in the third act and where the film could have gotten really mean and not provided answers it instead opts for a big budget Twilight Zone-reveal that is equally out of place yet thrilling pay-off (but still no connection to Cloverfield).  This one's rock solid.

(Here's David's take)
[1:30:35]

---
He really doesn't wear the gas mask that much
in the film to frame the poster around it

I could have made 10 Cloverfield Lane #10, but I chose not to, just to drive some people mad.  If you're driven mad by the fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane is not #10 for no real reason, then mission accomplished.

Arq is a fine little time travel thriller, which has the feeling of a small-scale Edge of Tomorrow [aka Live.Die.Repeat] or an English Time Crimes, or a bigger budget, more mainstream Primer or a non romcom Groundhog's Day.  In other words, it's in good company, carving out its own place in the living-things-over-again market.  As with some of those other films there's no real scientific rationality to why someone is living their life over and over again, but the fun is not in the reality of the situation, but the rules that the plot establishes.  If there's an apparent defined set of rules to how the time reset works, then it's all good, the audience can invest.  I love these stories, as they explore one event from a whole bunch of alternate possibilities.  It's tremendous fun, but Arq actually builds a story, a purpose to it, and even, in the background, a whole other world (which we don't ever really see or interact with).  It's quite great though, real pulp sci-fi with a winning couple of leads in Rachel Taylor and Robbie Amell. It teases bigger things I certainly would like to see and know more about and explore, but it's plenty satisfying on its own.

(read David's take)
[1:42:06]

-FIN-

Friday, July 21, 2017

Cleaning the Slate: TV (American Gods)

Making a decision. As I watch too much TV, I have too much to comment on, some great, some good, and mostly only meh. As I always have a massive backlog of movies and TV, and even some video games, I am going to pare that down. Only four five remaindered TV shows will get posts, and after that, only things that leave a great impression will end up here. Well, maybe if I actually clean house on the Movies, I will do the occasional What I Am Watching post.

2017, Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls), Starz -- download

While I am rather peeved Fuller left Star Trek: Discovery to focus on this show, I am also glad he did this show. But first, full disclosure. While, I am and will always be a mega-fan or Neil Gaiman, this book never left much of an impression on me. I keep on saying I need to re-read it, but I never pick it up. I am also not very fond of taking an entire season to set things up (I am glaring at you Preacher) but as I just said, sometimes it is the journey, not the destination. And oh my, what a journey this classic road story takes us on!  Fully engaged, full onboard!

Shadow Moon is in prison, or more accurately, just about to get out. With a name like that, you know something is going to happen to him. Rather horribly, a few days before he is due to be released, he gets a, "I've got some good news, and I've got some bad news." The good news is that they are letting him out early; the bad news is it's because his wife was killed, with his best friend's cock in her mouth. On the plane flight home, he bumps into con man Mr. Wednesday, who offers Shadow a job, one connected to Shadow's shadowy past. Mr. Wednesday is a jerk, a downright charming asshole, but Shadow is expectedly off kilter and ends up accepting the role.

And that is what the entire first season is about -- Shadow Moon tagging along with enigmatic Mr. Wednesday while we get introduced to a world a lot more broader than he ever suspects. All around Shadow, the old gods of mostly dead religions are playing their modern parts. Mr. Ibis and Anubis run a mortuary, Bilquis seduces men in night clubs, Vulcan runs a munitions factory, Czernobog works in a slaughter house. The gods are everywhere, but few take notice.

Fuller is a visual wonder. He builds these incredibly wonderful backdrops that just draw us into the world. He gives us vignettes of the world of the old gods, the most startling being African god Anansi in the hold of a slave ship, decked out in 21st century finery, telling each and every slave their lives are fucked. The dialogue is horrible, gut wrenching and utterly compelling. And it establishes the gods, and our place in their world. Or their place in our world? That is sort of the problem they face, that they have been shaped by us.

Other aspects of this show also make me mourn Star Trek: Discovery's loss of Fuller. He does a few episodes that completely knock down boundaries that even cable TV has up. The magical sex scene between a Muslim man and a Djinn is the most graphic, the most erotic sex scene I have ever seen  between two men. And especially since this is not demographically a gay TV show. On the other end of the spectrum, our female lead (Shadow's deadwife Laura Moon) is utterly sexless, a full alive zombie desperate to get back to Shadow, as death has proven even she could love. Her purging scene, after awakening from the embalming needle, is so revolting, I am not sure I can look at Emily Browning the same ever again. But damn, its a captivating episode.

As I have already said, I am not fond of the idea of taking an entire season to establish a premise, but damn just watching Fuller do it, makes it worth it. Every episode is lush, full and captivating. And of course, ever since Ian McShane was Swearengen in Deadwood, I can listen to him talk for days. Ricky Whittle, whom I know from The 100, is a powerful Moon. And we also get Gillian Anderson is Media portraying herself as David Bowie, Lucy Ricardo and Marilyn Monroe. And Orlando Jones is Mr. Nancy (Anansi) and Peter Stormare is Czernobog and Pablo Shreiber is the ever expanding character, a leprechaun tied to the deadwife via his lost magical coin. I cannot wait to see what he does next, even if the plot doesn't drag me in.

20/20 - #5 Stranger Things season 1

2016, d. The Duffer Bros.

It's been a year...a whole year since Stranger Things debuted.  Hell it didn't so much debut as catch fire and roll screaming down the hall.  This thing was H-O-T hot a year ago.  Early notice from the Weekly Planet podcast had me on the lookout for the show's arrival, and when it came I couldn't trumpet its praises higher.  From the opening title sequence, with it's John Carpenter-inspired theme pulsating and thudding as it reveals its retro-Stephen King bookjacket font (ITC Benguiat), an ominous red radiating mutely against a stark black backdrop, I was in.  Then title cuts over to the chapter heading, again a stark, but solid, red font against the same black backdrop, only the red drops out, revealing an image behind it, as the text floats forward, larger and larger, revealing more and more of the image, the text becoming too large to be contained on screen, until its gone altogether.



The rest of the show could have been complete dross, but I would have still loved it for only these few touches.  The evocation of the 1980's is the intent of this opening sequence and it achieves it irrefutably.   It's strange to be so in love with the opening credits of a TV show, but really, I can't remember any TV credits sequence that enthused me to this degree where I don't want the credits to end.




With most shows, when binge watching, the credits become a hindrance, a time suck, they just get in the way of watching more of the show.  With Stranger Things they're chapter markings, a stopping and starting point.  They are an essential tone setter (and resetter).  If you've stepped away then you're instantly transported back into the mood of the show with the credits.  If you've just completed the previous episode then this acts as an interstitial, the chapter title providing a little foreshadowing and the zoom in setting the scene for this next stage.

Beyond the credits is one of the best TV experiences I've ever had.  It's a nostalgia bomb, sure, but even if you weren't a child of the 80's it's so true to the era that it feels of the era, not retro.  The details seem so precise (though I'm told a couple of the songs on the soundtrack are anachronistic, debuting after the time setting of the show)... the wardrobes are garishly spot-on (not so flattering as "retro" shows tend to make the style of the time), the living spaces are absurdly busy with meticulous details (very little of which seems incongruous to its environment), and technology is right where it should be.

The King/Carpenter vibe permeates the show, it fuels it.  It's the perfect homage-slash-mashup of the two gentlemen's works in the 70's and early-80's, and yet it does it with such a modern sense of pacing and storytelling that it's totally of-the-now.  The Duffer Brothers don't just look to their primary influences, but outside ones as well, there's aspects of James Cameron, John Hughes, and certainly others I'm not even cluing into.  As a result, we have a nearly perfect show (#justiceforBarb) that I have a feeling will actually be timeless.  The acting is superb, the effects are utterly effective, and the nuances are note perfect.

The only problem with Stranger Things might be it becoming a victim of its own success.  So hugely popular the first season became, that the worry is a follow-up tries too hard to replicate it or tries too hard not too.  Expectations are high for Season 2, probably too high, which may lead only to disappointment and dragging down what has already come.




[read David's take ]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

20/20 - #4 Doctor Strange

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days.] 

2016, d. Scott Derrickson

Doctor Strange is good.  It's got good performances, it's got good visual effects, it's got a good origin story... it's just...good.  But it's also so very status quo for a Marvel film, it's so very safe, for the most part.  As entertaining as it is, it's not terribly engaging. There's no real feeling of any stakes at play.  What does Doctor Strange risk, really, at any point?

The film is basically a rehash of Iron Man, where a rich, cocky dude gets humbled and then fights something that could destroy ...something, realizing for the first time that they actually care about...something other than themselves.

It's like how Star Wars:Episode 7 recycled the plot of the original film, somewhat, to create a new path forward.  But Doctor Strange doesn't feel like it's forging new ground, but more acting as a placeholder.  It's the cinematic equivalent of a pylon reserving a parking space.

Oh, it's certainly watchable.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a good actor, who seems to be having a good time in the role.  It's got Tilda Swinton who, stepping beyond the whitewashing controvercy, always delivers (think of how much better the film would have been with Swinton as Doctor Strange instead though).  Mads Mikkelsen is always awesome, and does what he can with his very generic bad guy here.  Oh and Rachel McAdams is in the film for some reason (in a role that doesn't even measure up to the Jane Foster or Pepper Potts equivalent in the Thor or Iron Man series).

There is some good fun to be had throughout, with some good trippy Inception/M.C. Escher inspired warping of reality the good highlight of this good picture.  There's a bit of a Shaw Bros kung fu vibe it could have leaned into more had they thought about it.  It just could have tried harder to be weirder than  it was. 

The consensus among my nerd circle of comic book movie lovers mirrors my own.  It seems much of the critical and online reaction says the same.  It's good.  I don't really know any big fans of the comic book Doctor Strange (I may have purchased one Doctor Strange book in 35+ years of comic reading so I'm certainly not one to measure) so I can't even gauge it as an adaptation against the comics.  This is factory-churned goods, consistent, unremarkable, just above average enough to inspire a pleasant reaction.

It was good enough an experience in the theatres, and I'll probably watch it again, but it's quite low in my rankings of Marvel movies.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

20/20 - #3 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days.  My backlog is vast and my memory is shit, we'll see how it goes.] 

2017, d. James Gunn


That the first "volume" of Guardians of the Galaxy was a hit was a genuine surprise, largely because the characters are (or, rather, were) pretty small time in the Marvel Comics.  I mean, you have a talking raccoon and an anthropomorphized tree as main characters.  Studios typically underestimate an audience's ability to buy into such weirdness.  Likewise, the director was not very widely known, and what he was known for was some pretty weird, small-budget, genre-flavoured stuff, so to plunk a 100 million dollar movie into his lap was quite a gamble.  But the combo of weird plus weird equaled gold, and propelled Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot, Gamora and Drax into the big-time, jumping up from the D-list to the A-list of Marvel superheroes.

A second go around was hotly anticipated but there was almost no chance that another film wouldn't disappoint in some way.  The first Guardians was a tight movie, giving all the main characters their due (the villain and some side characters were may a little short-shifted), and leaving enough mystery to tease the audience and desire a second film.  The main tease was Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord's parentage.  It was noted that Peter was something more than human, and his kidnapper/role model Yondu (Michael Rooker) described Peter's dad as a dick...or an asshole...one of those two.  You get the gist.  It was obvious the story of Peter's dad would be the thrust of the second film.

No surprises there.

Enter Ego, the Living Planet (Kurt Russell).  Yes, Peter's dad turns out to be an entire planet, one who sends spores across the galaxy who look like handsome celebrities of the native planet, mate with the locals, spawn an offspring so that Ego can find not so much an heir, but an accomplice.

The film splits the team off into groups, with Gamora (Zoe Seldana) having captured her adopted sister, Nebula (Karen Gillen), while Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu find themselves in prison with Baby Groot (Vin Diesel).  All the while the team is being chased by both the Reavers -- who have ousted Yondu as their leader for his lack of desire to bounty hunt the Guardians -- and the Sovereign -- an alien race of golden people who act all erudite but turns out they're a society of juvenile frat boys and stuck-up frat girls -- who the Guardians (well, Rocket) screwed over on their last mission.

It's not the movie I was expecting.  The fact that the team spends so much time apart gives it more room to explore the characters individually, to deepen them as characters.  But as good as that is, it was the team dynamics of the first film that drew people in, and the film is the lesser for having less of it.  It's still a thoroughly enjoyable romp, with a talented cast, amazing special effect, more than a handful of eye-popping scenes, and a bouncy 70's soundtrack that is only slightly the lesser of Volume 1.  There's plenty to enjoy but it truthfully doesn't quite live up to the original.

Cleaning the Slate: TV (The Leftovers, final season)

Making a decision. As I watch too much TV, I have too much to comment on, some great, some good, and mostly only meh. As I always have a massive backlog of movies and TV, and even some video games, I am going to pare that down. Only four five remaindered TV shows will get posts, and after that, only things that leave a great impression will end up here. Well, maybe if I actually clean house on the Movies, I will do the occasional What I Am Watching post.

2017, Damon Lindelof (Lost), Tom Perrotta, HBO -- download

The Leftovers had quite the impact on me; it showed a malaise, a lingering grief that mirrors what I often feel, a deep disconnected sadness that cannot be put into words. The first season focused on this emotional state, and the damage it did to the world. The second season was about a desperate need for meaning in the mystery. With an opening song, that was both uplifting and dismissive, the season went headlong with more mysteries, rarely explained, in Lindelof high fashion.

Season three, the final season, begins after the end of a few things, and kind of abruptly. The Guilty Remnant led by Liv Tyler are taken down by a drone attack, along with Evie, the daughter of John & Erika, who are the neighbours of main character Kevin Garvey, and instrumental in his path. Three years later, Kevin is now police chief of his adopted town in Texas, Erika has left John, who has connected with Kevin's ex-wife Laurie. And the adopted baby that Kevin & Nora took in, has been given up. Life is normal, as normal can be with a seven year anniversary of the Departure coming up.

Recaps are not easy in this series, as anyone who watched Lost would know. So much happens, so much big and small, so much unexplainable and easily described. But the season moves towards something, very tangibly this time. Much of it takes place in Australia, to where a number of destinies lead people. Much of the story centres around the Gospel of Kevin, wherein Nora's preacher brother Matt has come to believe Kevin to be a new Bible figure, a post Departure disciple important to the coming date. With all that has happened: his visiting of a parallel world, his miraculous resurrections, his continuous paranormal experiences; well, it cannot be denied he is ... different.

**SPOILER**

You would think that a show which has a great mystery at its centre would try and explain that mystery as the series closes. But no; remember, Lindelof. If ever there was something more about the journey than the destination, it was this series. It does end, again abruptly and honestly too abruptly with an explanation of sorts. This explanation is given to us as being possibly truth, or possibly misdirection. Its up to us, like Kevin is left, to either accept or deny. I chose to accept, because I love scifi explanation.

And I love parallel world theory. Its in the forefront of my brain right now, part of much of the flash fiction I write in my multitude of notebooks. So, 2% of the world disappeared on October 14, 2011. In fact, they didn't go anywhere. One world was split into two. One world got 98% (the one in the show) and another was left with only the 2%. Now, imagine that. If the world of the 98% was so damaged from losing only 2%, imagine the real impact, the utter destruction by losing most of the world's population. No explanation is given as to why or how it happened, or even scientific evidence. But as an explanation it is given, and if you think about it, could be comforting (they didn't die outright) or it could be horrific (many that disappeared were children, infants even). Again, we are left to process. But like the world(s) leftover, it is up to us how we come to terms, with the end of the show, with the explanations given.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

20/20 - #2 Wonder Woman

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days.  My backlog is vast and my memory is shit, we'll see how it goes.  This is is a bit easier, since I saw it twice. Also, think I'll probably be clearing out all the superhero things from my backlog first, since that's what I enjoy writing about the most.]


Thus far the DC Cinematic Universe has been woefully disappointing.  Man of Steel. Batman v Superman. Suicide Squad. The 2011 false start that was Green Lantern.  Not a real solid movie amongst them.  All troubled and thoroughly flawed with moments - sure - little glimmers of what might have been or what could be, but overall just grimdark brooding overproduced underwhelming disappointments.

Wonder Woman, which you know by now was a resounding smash hit, wasn't just a necessity for the DCEU, it was necessary for fans of the DC characters who wanted to see them treated right on screen.  It was a necessity for female superhero characters to show that they could hold a film of their own (as if even long-running series like Underworld or Resident Evil didn't already prove such a thing).  It was necessary for a female director to produce a top-tier superhero/action movie.  It was necessary because it was a good-if-not-great superhero film about what it means to be a hero and to sacrifice for the greater good.  It's not just fighting and not just cool set pieces, though it has those two.

Wonder Woman, above all, is an engaging, charming movie, with an immensely likeable cast, a thoroughly engaging plot, and set in a context that actually has meaning to the audience, and not just the characters.  I've often said superheroes are best done in period pieces.  It gives the audience a frame of reference within which to put themselves, to detach from the present day and give into the fantasy of the film.  I guess that's why it's disappointing that the film opens some time shortly after Batman v Superman as a wholly unnecessary framing sequence.  It's the edict of the studio for sure that it needs to somehow tie into the larger DCEU, but it seems utterly forced.

Getting past the framing sequence, we enter into Themyscira, aka Paradise Island... home to the immortal Amazonian warriors, where we encounter Diana as a child, the first and only child of the island.  She is precious to Queen Hyppolita, kept safe and sheltered, but Diana sees the fire, fury, nobility, bravery, and strength of her sisters and wants nothing more than to be just like them.  After a montage passing through the years of secret training, she is the best of them.  Then a plane finds its way through the Islands magical cloak, bringing the first outsider from man's world to their shores.  Steve Trevor, he is just a man, but not an ordinary man.  He brings with him war, as a ship full of Germans are on his tail and there's a spectacular beach-front battle sequence showcasing just how incredible the Amazon warriors are in battle.  The Germans, despite advanced weaponry, had no real hope of winning that battle.  But still, the losses are bitter wounds in their victory.

Steve tells them of war in the man's world.  Diana is convinced that it's Ares of legend, the God of War returned to wield his influence on man, and it's Diana's sole mission to fight him.  Hyppolita knows it to be true, but rejects it for her own selfishness and disdain for the world of man.  But she cannot deny her daughter her destiny.

What could have been a groan-inducing fish-out-of-water scenario, Diana's venture into man's world sees her charging head first.  Naive, sure, but confident, and assured.  She advances quickly, makes her presence known, and doesn't shy away from her opinion.  What she's not used to is man, especially the men of the 1910s who don't see women as equals (nevermind superiors) and are unwilling to listen to them.  Even Steve Trevor who very quickly learned to respect the capability of women after seeing the battlefront, still has a hard time stowing his chivalry and letting Diana take the lead.

The film does end in a bit of a messy special effects climax, but it's rather a quick one, thankfully.  It's that revels in the journey so the destination is more or less an inevitability and not the real highlight.  Diana turning the tide of battle, stepping out onto a vicious battlefield, drawing all the fire, is one of the most spectacularly rousing sequences ever put to film.  The sheer glory of bravery and confidence, of fearlessness and sacrifice, courage and honor... Gal Gadot powerfully struts and even more powerfully forces her way across the frontline in a hail of machine gun fire.  It gave me butterflies and brought a tear to my eye.  Finally, she's here, done right. Justice.

Loved it.