Monday, December 19, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

2011, Tomas Alfredson

More than, I think, any other genre, I'm fascinated by espionage stories.  Not playboy spy stories, which is what the Bond films have largely pushed the public perception of the genre into (though I like those too), I'm talking about stories of secret agencies (largely British ones) and the people that work for them, the intricate inner workings of these organizations and the political landscape that surrounds them, set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the heated paranoia it led to.

Beyond simply an awareness of its existence I have no familiarity of the 70's BBC mini-series (starring Sir Alec Guinness) spawned from John le Carré's novel, but during the first half of Tomas Alfredson's cooly adapted big screen version of the story I longed for the decompression that I know a BBC production would provide.  That's not to imply anything negative about Alfredson's deliberately-paced, and highly intuitive picture,   except to say that the material could use a bit more time to breathe and allow the many players involved a bit more time to gel with an audience.

As it is, the director of "Let The Right One In" affirms his assured directorial hand by providing another film that rewards the audience's intelligence rather than insulting it.  For much of the film, as with his last effort, Alfredson trusts his actors to, well, act, rather than exposit.  The script from Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan uses language in a natural manner, characters having conversations with each other rather than explaining things to the audience.  As such, attention must be paid to both the words, finding subtext within, as well as looks, glances, reactions, and lack thereof.

Set firmly in the early 1970's, the film stars Gary Oldman, always a most understated leading man, perfectly cast as George Smiley, a disgraced veteran agent forced into retirement after an operation gone wrong, but secretly called upon once again to investigate the claims of a mole in the bureau from an active agent  returning after a long, mysterious absence.

The film has numerous flashbacks woven into the process, all relevant to the task Smiley has been charged with, but also, in many respects, relevant to the profile of his own character with such subtlety that it can easily be lost amidst all the chill.  The production team recreate the early 70's aesthetic beautifully, the visual impact of "high-tech" 70's spy organizational procedures, providing its own curious allure.  Along with the details, Anderson's frosty lens breathes life back into the Cold War.

The cast is rounded out by a veritable "who's who" (or "who's that") of UK actors, including Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kathy Burke and Tom Hardy, each bringing something decidedly unique to the proceedings.

The film is a complex array of characters, names, details, actions and reactions, thus immersion is a must.  This isn't passive viewing, but it's told smartly enough that even if you can't process all the details as they're introduced, you eventually come to see how all the pieces fit.  It's a success in storytelling, but easily perceived as a flaw to a modern audience not used to being challenged.

Ultimately the only real flaw of the film stems from the nature of its story, which revolves so intently around deducing the identity of the mole that once revealed it potentially depreciates the film's rewatchability (and yet, my desire to view the BBC series now is pretty high, so perhaps not).

Friday, December 9, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: Rare Exports

2010, Jalmari Helander

So, you have seen these Rare Exports video shorts, right?  This one and this one?  If not, give a few moments for them and then be tremendously amused that they gave the idea a feature film.  Yep, the hunting down and capture of a "father christmas" was made into a full length movie.  And if this doesn't qualify for being an Xmas movie, I don't know what does.

So, the premise of the movie is that some Evil Americans are digging in a very unnatural mountain in northern Lapland, seeking something ancient buried below.  I am pretty sure the mountain is a very real one but it does look incredibly manmade.  What they end up releasing is the source of modern Santa Claus, or at least the hundred or so, thousands of years old, naked old men that are purported to assist Old Saint Nick. Our group of heroes, seasonal reindeer hunters, realize the danger of these creatures, as well as the incredible danger of their 20' leader, and make to capture them all; and to make a profit from it.

You know about Crampus, right?  Google it.  When I was a kid, we had a few stories of Black Peter, Santa's European helper who captured kids in his sooty old sack and punished them.  I was from a coal mining town so that mineral wasn't really a punishment, was it? Anywayz, apparently Crampus is the source of him, a nasty looking GWAR (again, google it) like monster that not only punishes kids but eats them. They actually have Crampus parades, like we have Santa Claus parades, only not as many crappy floats.  So, in the movie, I am pretty sure the nasty 20' creature frozen in the ice is an original Crampus.  Unfortunately, we never really see it get fully released before the Laplander reindeer hunters blow it to bits.  Still, given my love of origin stories and mythos, even twisted, creepy versions, this movie was a heck of a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

Pure Henson magic.  I have always been fond of detailed environments for small talking animals.  The Richard Scary books were some of my favourite as a toddler and when I first saw the commercials for this special coming out, I was enthralled, despite probably being far too old to be of the age market for it.  I  think.

This was one of Henson team's few attempts at doing full puppets instead of focusing on our favs, the muppets, with marionette and bunraku style being used along with the traditional hand puppet.  i would have thought, after all these years, the magic would be taken away as I could see the strings. Nope, I was just as enthralled and wrapped up in the story. As well, these were some of Paul William's best songs for a Henson production making me giggle and listen intently.

As a Christmas story, it just works so well following the Gift of the Magi (O. Henry) story as the crux of the tale of selflessness giving.  But really it is the characters and the songs that make the show.  It really warms your heart to watch such nice little creatures doing their best for each other.  Yeah, I am a softy despite all my grumpiness and this one just did it for me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: Eureka and Warehouse 13

Nothing like the two shows you watch, which are on hiatus, each having an Xmas special !  I think the idea was stolen from Doctor Who which has an Xmas special every year since 2005, despite the wonkiness of British scheduling.  And with American shows adopting the same wonkiness (Community anyone?!?!) I think they are more than making up for it with an Xmas special.

Eureka calls this one the first episode of the final season, season 5.  Some of the gang have gone into space, on their way to Mars, while the rest are left in Eureka in the same altered timeline with which we started season 4.  Now, to start we have the night before Xmas and Jack wants it to snow.  Wait, isn't this Oregon?  I thought it snows everywhere in Oregon?  Only the mountains?  Poo.  Anywayz, while Jack is trying to get snow again, the kids hack into a power source for a holotoy and BOOM, all of Eureka is a cartoon.  And not just one cartoon but many styles!!  From Hanna Barbera with talking cars (Sheldon's a jeep?!?!) to stop-motion animation (Taggert should have been a yeti not a polar bear) to anime, it was all hilarious.  Most of Eureka is like eating too much candy but this one was peppermint flavored and perfect!

Meanwhile Warehouse 13 took it's cue from It's a Wonderful Life or more accurately, The Greatest Gift, the original story by Philip Van Doren Stern.  Pete is replacing an artifact in Aisle Noel (Christmas Island?) when he gets wammied by a brush from the origin story.  He is effectively wiped from reality. And the rest of the story is him grabbing all the regulars of the series together again for a touching reminder of what they mean to each other and what they do for each other, and the warehouses. Of course, I imagine Pete's ego was pumped up by the idea that without him, things pretty much fell apart.  Great episode but I definitely need an itemized list of artifacts in that aisle.  I suppose zuzu's petals would have been too obvious and probably copyrighted.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: Gremlins

1984, Joe Dante (Piranha, The Howling) -- download

Yes, Gremlins is definitely an Xmas movie.  It takes place during the holiday period and the whole point of the arrival of the mogwai was as a present for Billy.  So yes, this fits in perfectly.  But I completely forgot how complete the slaughter of the town was in this movie.  Well, at least the downtown core.  Not a movie for kids but more one for teens and up.  And surprisingly, it actually still stands up today.

Don't expose them to bright light ("light bright light bright"), don't give them any water (so, the beer and booze they drank didn't count?) and definitely don't feed them after midnight (but until when? isn't every minute of the day technically after midnight of some day?) are the three mantras of owning a mogwai.  Other than that, the progenitor mogwai is still the cutest thing ever but child mogwai are troublesome bastards. They sing, they speak to you (man, do they learn English fast, considering it was raised on a Chinese dialect) and absorb whatever is going on around them pretty damn quick. I actually think they were intelligent enough to be a completely sentient species that we, well we treated as a pet.  Oh... humans.

So, while I think the cute animatronics of the mogwai stood up to the CGI cuteness of today, there are so many other things that they did so badly.  It's winter in a mid-west town, right?  So why are all the trees deciduous with full heads of leaves?!?  They just took whatever California backlot it was filmed in and spray-snowed the bejeebus out of the town.  It looks soooooo fake.  There are also some scenes with the gremlins themselves which look like rubber toys on strings but considering the chaos of those scenes, I don't think we were supposed to notice.  And don't ask me about the stop motion, crowd of gremlins scene.  Of course, that is all made up for by the fact that the little buggers were able to find tons of clothing that fit them, to be worn in the bar scene.  Heh.

Inception, briefly

2010, Christopher Nolan -- DVD

I spilled a few thoughts about Inception back when I first watched it and have had a debate or two with friends over it in the interim.  I won't staunchly defend the film because I don't love it like I love some movies (it's far too cold and calculated a film to fall in love with) but I enjoyed it the first time around and I believe I enjoyed it even more the second. 

To my surprise, it holds up incredibly well upon second viewing primarily because the Nolan brothers have crafted a labyrinthine story, like a maze made out of a spiral.  It walks you through the puzzle, and even shows you how it was constructed, but for all the conceptualizing (and it's a seriously hard sci-fi concept that's actually deceptively simple) the journey working your way through it is remains thrilling.   I want to say Nolan's films -- Following, Memento, Batman Begins, the Prestige, The Dark Knight and this one -- are thinking-man's films, but that's not exactly accurate.  They are instead just incredibly and thoroughly well thought out films, calculated and calibrated like a Swiss watch.  They may be a little cold, emotionally, but they're exciting and engaging.  Even though I have the least fanboy reaction to Inception, after rewatching it, it might well be Nolan's best film, technically and conceptually.

3 Short Paragraphs: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

2002, Chris Columbus -- download

This one is my least favourite of the series, and the last one by the director of the first.  It is also the most stand-alone of the series, following on the coat tails of Harry's first defeat of "he who cannot be named" and during a short period when Harry believes he must be destroyed.  But of course, the legacy is still there and the danger very apparent.  The movie is really about adding to the milieu of the series, introducing us to details of the story that will continue for the rest of the films, but without much explanation. While I love the elements, I found the directing lackluster and was glad it was Columbus's last one on the series.

At the beginning, Harry is shown back at his Aunt & Uncle's house but now he actually has a bedroom.  I guess his muggle family is a little worried about pissing off the new wizard in the family, but not so much to stop treating him like a servant. Then we meet Dobby, an elf (man, this series does not treat it's non-human species prettily) who wants Harry to not return to Hogswart.  It's dangerous y'know.  Of course Harry refuses which causes no end of trouble. Of course he goes back to Hogwarts and of course there is danger and of course Harry and his friends cannot help but get mixed up in it.

The "episode" is all about the danger that lurks within the halls of Hogwarts, something that is presented not only in the lurking shadows of Voldemort but also in seemingly random elements of the school itself. Magic, whether light or dark, seems to come with a dangerous element that cannot be avoided. Things are discovered and deemed dangerous, but not destroyed or removed, just controlled and/or hidden. Also, this movie introduces the idea, which gets worse and worse, of the political involvement in Hogwarts and wizard affairs. Not shown as dark or light, they are meddlesome, controlling and insidious in only a way politicians can be. It seems, even in a world where Dark and Light can have capital letters, politics is its own form of evil.

Monday, December 5, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: A Pinky and the Brain Christmas

1995 -- download

Narf !! 

Well, I think so, Brain, but 'apply North Pole' to what?

Heh heh heh, I loved Pinky and the Brain when it was out.  I can honestly say that the show was one of the best things that had Steven Spielberg's name on it.  From Edward G Robinson "Brain" to the inexplicable british accent on Pinky, the show made me giggle constantly. So, in this one Brain's latest take-over-the-world scheme involves getting a toy made for every man, woman and child in the world. Who better to manipulate into doing it than Santa's elves?  Of course, getting there is half the fun. Pinky and Brain pretend to be Canadian elves and infiltrate the toyshop, getting caught almost immediately but leaving the plans to the nefarious Noodle Noggin toy behind.  In the end the toy is delivered and Brain is ready to hypnotize them all into submission when suddenly he is moved to tears by Pinky's incredibly articulate and moving Letter to Santa, shelving the plan for an Xmas wish. Sheer giggly brilliance.

P.S. Yes, we are including Xmas specials in this watching affair because, well, there are so many good ones and also because we do need the occasional evening free to actually do Xmas stuff like decorate and buy presents and such.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: The Santa Clause

1994, John Pasquin (apparently he is Tim Allen's director) -- download

When I was a kid, I loved any movie that explained more of the mythology of Santa. Give me more details on how he gets around the world in one night.  Explain the flying reindeer and sleigh.  How long has he been around? Chimneys? Fireplaces? Store bought toys vs toy making elves?  Explain everything to me!!  And as Kent knows, I am still pretty much that guy, loving all the background details to any fantastical story.

The Santa Clause asks the question you didn't know had to be asked, "What happens if Santa falls off your roof?"  You figgered  they would have covered that decades ago and given the jolly fat elf a bungie cord or something, but alas no. If he does and you are present, and you are nice enough to put on the suit, you are then bound by honor to be Santa.  What happens to the disappeared guy?  Honestly, I think that is how they get off the hook.  Been doing it for a few decades?  Fall off some poor slob's roof and this is your get out of jail free card.

So he falls off Tim Allen's roof, a single dad with the initials SC working for a toy company.  Scott Calvin is a bit of a dick pissed off at his ex-wife, neglectful of his son and a downright ass to his ex's new beau. When he assumes the mantle of Santa Claus he finishes the night with his son, who downright jumps in joy for the job.  From there a trip to the North Pole is made where things are explained. The elves (elfs?) are minute ever-children probably older than the last SC. They set the new SC straight and send him home for a year of ... evolving. Jelly belly, white hair and beard and an innate ability to know nice from naughty (wink wink) is his legacy but also his detriment because, you know, Santa's not real and Calvin must be going nuts. But of course, he begins to accept his new role and rebuild his relationship with his son and by the end he is SC for real, even being acknowledged by a whole neighbourhood of passersby. I would have loved to seen the news reports after that eventful Xmas eve.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: Love Actually

2003, Richard Curtis -- Netflix

This movie makes even the old curmudgeon on me smile, laugh and actually shed tears.  I would say it's one of my favourite holiday movies but really, it's not Christmas themed -- it just happens to take place during the season. But we are including that concept in our choice, so it was an expected re-watch on my part. On that note, we are not including movies just because they happen to have a scene during Christmas, unless it plays a significant part in the plot of the movie.

So, this one is about love, actually, in all it's various forms. There is familial love, sexual love, obsessive love, romantic love, unrequited love, blossoming love but mostly, it's romantic love. It is set up as a bunch of interweaving stories where characters' paths cross and bump into each other, all as they prepare for the holiday season. The movie is charming, loveable, goofy and disarming but really, if you are a curmudgeon when it comes to romantic love, you should probably avoid.  It is a schmooshy gooshy lovey dovey flick.

My favourite two of the stories are: the Daniel (Liam Neeson) / Sam step-dad & son story and the Prime Minister David (Hugh Grant) / Natalie budding attraction story.  Daniel and Sam have just lost Sam's mom at the beginning of the movie, obviously from a long illness, a death they were prepared for. Rather unrealistically, Daniel is more focused on his son's feelings, setting his own grief aside. I say unrealistically because he is rather heroic in keeping his son's emotions bolstered, which of course is helped by the fact that Sam has a crush on a girl at school and Daniel is doing his best to assist in getting them together. As Marmy pointed out, either Sam's real dad was a dick or also passed away, as Daniel is given uncontested guardianship of Sam, making his role even more heroic. Meanwhile, David the new Prime Minister, is almost instantly attracted to his staff member Natalie. He knows his role is VERY public and the idea of a love affair in the household would be a bad idea but he cannot stop thinking about her. The American President tosses a wrench into the mix but in the end, it all works out, very publicly.

Friday, December 2, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: Scrooged

1988, Richard Donner -- download

Yep, one of my favourite Xmas movies of all time.  The Bill Murray take on the age-old Scrooge story is a mixture of fear, farce and holiday message, as well it should be.  We all know the story, about the business mogul who cares less than nothing about the "message of Christmas" and thus is visited by three ghosts (prompted by his dead business partner who knows what has been lost) who show him stories about Christmas past, present and future, hoping to stir his stoney heart.  This time we have Murray as a  TV network executive planning his own Scrooge story, to be aired worldwide on Christmas Eve. His idea is to make it so enthralling that no one would dare be attending family events for they would miss this once in a lifetime TV event.  The Ghosts interrupt this production.

I probably have watched this a half dozen times since it began airing on TV at this time of the year. While a little dated, there are so many things about that stand the test of time. Bill Murray seems to be ad-libbing most of his lines and reactions and carries off the half-mad mogul very well. Watching it this time, as he does his dab of Tab (does anyone remember that particular soda?) on his tumblers filled with ice & alcohol, I kind of wondered whether this whole movie was a massive alcoholic hallucination.  He has to be hammered through 75% of the movie.  But still, as he is able to see things that he would not have seen but for the intervention of a manically, cheerful and violent ball-breaker fairy (she strikes me as possibly being Luna's mom, from Harry Potter), there is some truth to his visions.

Along with the hilarious antics of Murray, there are some appropriately scary or touching scenes. The frickin' Ghost of Christmas Future in the elevator still creeps the bejeebers out of me.  And the final scenes with Grace's son still touch me as well as his speech to the world.  The idea of just calling some old friend or relative out the blue, on Christmas Eve, is a good idea.  And the idea of wanting the feeling we are supposed to have this time of the year, wanting the feeling to happen all year, is a good message. Of course, as I am always wont to say, having the funds to dedicate to being charitable all year is always helpful as Scrooge is in the position to do once he has his revelation.

3 short paragraphs: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2010, Michael Apted -- Netflix

I know I read some Narnia back when I was a kid. This back in the days where we still said the Lord's Prayer after the National Anthem and pocket bibles were still distributed to all the kids in the school, so in that context where Christianity was somewhat thrust upon the us as youth, I doubt I realized the vague parable that the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe was playing at. I didn't really stick with Narnia once in my teens, or at least I don't recall the series at all very well, so I'm not really sure if the book version of Dawn Treader hammers the Christian analogy home as hard or as bluntly as the film does in it's waning moments, where Aslan the lion tells Lucy in her world "...I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

So, essentially the whole point of the Narnia series is to recruit kids into Christianity... Like any kind of advertising aimed squarely at kids, I don't like it, but even from a story standpoint, it's unnecessary, hokey and overwrought. Not that the film was terrific already, but it certainly didn't do it any favors. I do enjoy a voyage, a quest, the journey of a group who must accomplish a series of tasks in order to achieve their ultimate prize, and this hits all the cliches (hell it's a 50 year old story so it may have invented some). It feels too compressed though, obviously not having the time or budget to accomplish the novel in it's entirety, it feels like it squishes bits and pieces together, rather unnaturally.

The big-budget "Disney" (this one was distributed by Fox) Narnia film series, as a whole, has been kind of a bust, with Prince Caspian working the best (plus, Peter Dinklage) but still deeply flawed and financially succeeding the least. This, of the three is the weakest structurally, lacking a strong or even definitive lead will do that. Even as an ensemble it strains to work, the acting is not terrible but blandly adequate, as kids movies so often are. Narnia is a series that takes place across multiple eras with a disparate cast of characters, which makes it hard for an audience to connect with two hours at a time. I'm not certain the novels are unfilmable but perhaps they just shouldn't be filmed. Some stories are meant only to bet told in the medium they were created in.

The Dana Carvey Show

1996 -- DVD (2009)

If you look to the right-hand side of the screen, you will see the list of podcasts I regularly listen to. Most of those are comedy podcasts, if you didn't know already, and over an intensive 2+ years of listening to them I went from being an avid fan of comedy to an outright comedy nerd.

As a newly crowned comedy nerd, there's certain due diligence that must be done, and slowly I'm resolving those. I'm pretty well versed in the television comedy front but there are still a few nuggets that are out of my frame of reference. Besides the State and Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the most frequently mentioned titles on comedy podcasts that I have little to no experience with is the Dana Carvey Show, a short-lived, 8-episode (7 aired) ABC early-evening sketch/variety show which was home to some of the biggest names in comedy of the future.

Created by SNL veterans Dana Carvey and Robert Smigel, it housed over its short tenure Louis CK as head writer, Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert as writers and performers, and writers like Jon Glaser (Conan, Delocated), Dino Stamatopoulos (Conan, Letterman, Starburns), Spike Feresten (Letterman, Seinfeld), Robert Carlock (Friends, 30 Rock), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), and even Charlie Kaufman

Of course, despite all the talent behind the scenes, it was a show built around the guy in the title. Carvey is best known for his impressions, and a few notable characters like Hans (or was it Frans) and the Church Lady, all of whom are drummed out here like a modern day freak show. It's easy to understand the intent behind it, especially early on in the show's run, as it helps ease the audience in by providing them with what they're familiar, but as a whole package years later, it just seems awkward and a little cheap. It's certainly not the left-field late-night-comedy-in-primetime feel Carvey says the show will provide.

Much of the show, from a 2011 standpoint, is bogged down by it's "topicality", covering then-current events like the dissolution of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's marriage (including a downright misogynistic portrayal of Charles which obviously in hindsight is in incredibly poor taste, but I'm not so sure it wasn't in bad taste at the time) as well as coverage of the Republican primaries, and the Clinton v. Dole campaign, covered ad nauseum. There's a reason why shows like Python, Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show remain standard bearers when it comes to sketch comedy... topicality doesn't age well.

Sketches that included Carvey's impressions of broadcasters like Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, Marv Albert, and political figures beyond Clinton, as well as any celebrities like Paul McCartney, Regis Philbin or Charles Grodin, often seemed in place merely to have Carvey do the impression, less with a comedic idea or any kind of joke, leaving it to Carvey to sell it, which across the 8 episodes was about a 50/50 proposition. (That said, Smigel sold Bob Dole as well, if not even better than Norm Macdonald did on SNL at the time)

A lot of the sketches as well hinged around a single idea, frequently they weren't fleshed out or honed, so they were toss aways. Certainly there were good ideas in many of them, like the "After Dark" Discovery Channel, Food Network, and C-Span which got in the requisite sexual allusion and got out. Something to be said for brevity in execution, but when the joke is so obvious from the on-set it needs to be pushed to another level.

A couple of reoccurring sketches were good ideas, but drilled into the ground. "Stupid Pranksters" found Carvey and Carrell paying for goods or services then running away before receiving them, laughing maniacally about their "prank" was funny the first two times but didn't have enough self awareness to remain funny long (the final one in episode 8 provided a nice capper to it). "Germans Who Say Nice Things", featuring again Carvey and Carrell found the two shouting in bad German accents kind phrases. Over and over again. It was SNL-style drilling-it-into-the-ground comedy.

From a modern perspective, each episode is about an even split of funny to not, and a lot of that hinges on the modern viewer having a familiarity with the people in question whom Carvey impersonates. The standout skits are those that can distance themselves from headlines or are even weirder now that they've aged.

Under 5

Grandma the Clown

Waiters Who Are Nauseated By Food

Episode 7 was probably the best episode start to finish. Having dropped the "sponsored" title sequence and opening song and dance number (which were actually kind of cute) and minimizing the "host introduces the show/audience questions" it left more room for breathing. The opening sketch featured a Carvey impersonation of Newt Gingrich, but the joke is about the "practical modifications" to things like the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which holds up today and stands fine even if you don't know who Gingrich is. "World Leaders and their Baths" is a so-bizarre-its-funny idea while the epic NBA Finals Bulls vs. Heat is a spiralling array of impersonations, characters, set pieces and basketball jokes. Though the "Wizard of Oz: On the Cutting Room Floor" deleted scene and "Kennedy Memorabilia Auction" fell flat on their face, "Heather Morgan's FamousFirst Ladies as Dogs" is perhaps the funniest thing on the entire show, and the "Anonymous Interviews" is a brilliantly vague and madcap sketch that is perfectly executed. With this episode, one could see the direction the Dana Carvey show was taking, and I'm sure that had it had a full season it would have come into its own, and become something more akin to the legendary sketch shows.

The DVD features a good retrospective with Carvey and Smigel discussing what worked and why, ultimately it failed, as well as a host of deleted scenes, some of which were the funniest thing the show produced. I imagine a segment like Rockefeller Institute Animal Research Division wasn't cut because it was censored but rather because it was for a subsequent episode. While the "Onion News" (which was Colbert hosting a fake news program with stories pulled from the Onion newspaper) was most likely cut because it was an extended pot joke.

Fairly enjoyable, but certainly not essential.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

31 Days of Xmas: A Christmas Story

1983, Bob Clark -- download

People like this movie ?!?  I have been seeing bits and pieces of this movie for years, on TV and in reference to holiday film lists.  Everybody seems to have a favourite part or goes on about the bunny costume.  But I never saw it.  Even as a teen and young adult I avoided it, once it became a holiday TV staple, just because the kid annoyed me so much.  Then as I got older, I avoided it out of pure curmudgeon.  But with  this latest movie-a-thon of ours, it had to be part of the list.  Just like Die Hard has to be.

So, a movie made in the 80s about kids being brought up in Indiana in the 40s. Focusing on the narrator's retelling of how Ralphie got his BB gun, we are presented with a picture of the holidays almost completely from his perspective.  It's actually done pretty well, a warped viewpoint from the mind of an 8 year old. Too bad the 8 year old is an annoying little git. People like this kid?!? I guess my younger self saw what would annoy me about Ralphie my entire life.  The weird thing is that it actually hit holiday cult status when I was an adult, in the 90s.

The acting is so bloody atrocious but at times I was not sure if that was intentional, to show the skewed child viewpoint again, or just the directing of the movie.  The kids are bloody damaged with their neuroses and daydreams that probably would have been medicated today. The plot is jumbled, going from Xmas vignette to childhood vignette and back again. The parents are warped, from Dad's obsession with an ugly lamp to mom's enjoyment of her son's piggy antics.  If you don't want the dogs in the house, don't open the fucking door to them !!  And dad struck me as perpetually drunk but we didn't see him take a single nip, though once again if that was intentional (as the kids might not have caught it either) then kudos.  Only two scenes made us laugh out loud.  First there was Randy falling on his back in reaction to the bullies, because that was his only defense instinct.  Second was a reference to Ralphie sleeping, "next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty." I giggled madly at that one as I doubt an 8 year has his blue steel yet.  Blame the lingering virus I have.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Super 8

2011, J.J. Abrams -- download

Once again we see a movie, that based solely on the marketing campaign, might be seen as a completely different movie.  In fact, in the normal hands of Hollywood this movie would have been a completely different flick.  We have the setup of a bunch of kids making their own film, for entry in a local contest.  While on set at the local rail station, they see a derailment of a military transport train.  The train was purposely derailed by a man who knew there was something else on the train's manifest.

In normal Hollywood, the movie would have been completely focused on what was on the train, the military response and the terror and chaos that happens. Oh, we have all of these in the movie but at it's heart, it is really about these kids. We are seeing the alien monster movie mostly from their perspective and are as much wrapped up in their lives as they are in the events happening in their small town. And these kids are such great characters! Not Goonies or Stand By Me exaggerations of childhood, they are toned down in reality. The leader is the fat kid and the leader is not the main character. The nice guy likes the pretty girl and the pretty girl actually responds to his kindness.  It makes all the heroic decisions these kids make all that more heroic.

The movie is also just shot plain beautifully.  Set in the 80s, I immediately noticed the elements that define a big Hollywood movie for me -- how they can dress a scene completely in the period. The movie doesn't focus on small tight shots where we can see the dressed up product of the period, we see wide glorious scenes of neighborhoods and businesses so complete in their transport back in time. We watched it on a great Blu-Ray rip so were able to enjoy the fine details we missed from the theatre.  While defining myself as a pseudo-film geek, I don't often pay attention to the cinematography of movies where it isn't completely meant to be obvious but in this one, I just kept enjoying so many of the full, lush scenes, understanding that this is where budget should go, not just in the few short scenes of CGI.

Monday, November 28, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Drive

2011, Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Bronson) -- cinema

Refn is known for his crime movies, his movies of violence but with a flair of style, of ... art.  In Bronson we have a character who is inspired by the righteous violence of his taken name but has no real vengeance to be sought.  Thus he just takes on the violence seeking it in and out of prison. In Valhalla Rising we have a viking warrior taken prisoner but who becomes a symbol of supernatural violence to his captors. The latter is much more art and style than it is a violent action movie.

Drive introduces a very sedate, quiet character in Ryan Gosling's driver, known by little else but that name.  He is a stunt driver & a car mechanic but known in the criminal underground for his skill and code of conduct. He drives spectacularly but only for a set period of time, and then you are on your own. Screw things up and you are on your own. But really, this nothing but a set piece for the control of the character. Driver is completely withdrawn, an almost damaged feeling in his quiet, emotionless carriage. But when introduced to single mom Irene, and her son, he starts to slide out of his shell. Perhaps his shiny 80s driving jacket is his encasement of chrysalis? Unfortunately the metamorphosis we experience is not what he hoped for.

As Kent said, this movie stirred up some grumpiness in some mainstream viewers.  Blame the people responsible for the trailers again but this is not even trying to be Fast, Furious' artsy little brother. As I mentioned, the driving is just a setup for the character, a trapping to introduce us to his control.  It's not an action movie in the least, maybe a bit of a thriller but more about our characters in the stylish world that Refn has given us. The music, the angles and the lighting all add to the style Refn is creating. I rather loved the feel, almost as much as I was disappointed by Valhalla Rising and it's failed attempt to add art to sword & shields violence.

3 Short Paragraphs: How to Train Your Dragon

2010, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders -- rewatch / Blu-Ray

When I first saw this movie in the theatre, I adored it.  I also knew it was going to be added to my collection of re-watchable animated movies.  But since acquiring the PS3, I have drifted to only buying things on Blu-Ray.  But I also normally refuse to buy movies full price so I spent the last year or so watching the re-sale bins at all the major sellers.  Finally, I found it in someone's bin and watched it that night.

Why do I love this movie?  It's not really about the dragon himself.  The Night Fury is beautiful in flight but really my soft spot is for the vikings.  These tough summabitches, who have established a way of life fighting off annoying dragons as if they were just the season's may flies, are both hilarious and inspiring.  I imagine they put no time at all into raiding the coasts of their nearest neighbours having to spend all that time on re-building their homes or ... well, making babies.  Cute movies don't mention the fact that people are eaten by the dragons, as much as the sheep, but really it has to happen. They are a tough, industrious folk with completely misplaced Scottish accents that just make me chuckle.

The movie is also very very dramatic.  The dragons, while comical in their cartoony look, are also pretty scary in what they can do. I very easily fall into the awe that they strike on the vikings of Berk. When things shift to the part of the story about the grand-daddy of all dragons, the sheer size of the beast is just staggering. I love watching the battle as the courageous vikings & dragons swoop and swipe at the nasty creature. The heights reached and the sheer destruction of the island they are on hits me on all the points where Michael Bay's movies never do.  I am not sure why it works so well for me but yeah, it must just be the D&D player in me.

The Muppets

2011, James Bobin -- Theatre

For people of a certain age, let's say those currently aged 30-39, the Muppets are iconic. The Muppet Show, which ran for 5 seasons from 1976-1981 (and in re-runs for years afterwords) and the Muppet Babies cartoon (which ran even longer from 1984-1991)were defining products of our generation. The Muppet movies, TV specials, and records/cassettes all contributed the overwhelming imprint Jim Henson's not-quite-puppets had on young minds around the world. Henson was a man of magic, and since Henson's death in 1990, it goes without saying, that a large part of that magic has been lost, much in the same way that the magic of childhood dissipates as one ages.

The awe and wonder of the Muppets has waned dramatically since their heyday in the early 1980's, to the point that children these days are only familiar with the characters by way of their parents keeping the nostalgia alive. Every Muppets endeavour over the past 20 years has been a product of nostalgia, even (or especially) the award winning Muppet Bohemian Rhapsody.

But if the numbers on that youtube video (over 23 million strong) speaks to anything at all, it is the potential for the Muppets to continue to attract and entertain an audience, even if it is an aging one.

The Walt Disney Company purchased the Muppets in 2004, and the cynicism of fans was palpable especially given the name shift from Jim Henson's The Muppets to Disney's The Muppets. The expectation was that the Muppets would be commoditized and commercialized as if it weren't a commercial commodity already. At the same time there was at least some hope that perhaps Disney could do something to make the Muppets relevant again.

As the years dragged on, with only the amusing (and successful) youtube video series and a few lackluster TV movies, it seemed there wasn't much to hope for if you were a fan of the Muppets, that you'd have to take what you could get and a full-on revival/restoration of your youth was out of the question.

In 2008, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the latest success in the Judd Apatow-produced lineup, emerged and was a fairly big success and its writer and star Jason Segal emerged from it with a surprising amount of clout. Within the film, Segal's character discussed, and realized, his dream of making a Muppet-style Broadway show out of Dracula. As Segal promoted the film he expressed both a deeply-felt love for the Muppets and a deep desire to make a new Muppets film.

With a successful sitcom (How I Met Your Mother) and another successful feature (I Love You Man) in his repertoire, as well as his earnest love for the Muppets, Segal was granted an audience with Disney to pitch a new Muppets film, which has led to the emergence of Disney's The Muppets in theatres this weekend.

With such passion, these kinds of projects can either be naturally successful or deeply misguided. I think most Muppets fans (of the 30-39 age group variety) could see the synergy between Segal, an accessible actor and a well-observed comedic writer, and the beloved characters of their youth. But the hesitation from some, given the nature of the work of most Apatow proteges, or even cynicism still stemming from the "Disney" acquisition is natural.

Segal as star and writer of the new Muppets feature, I am pleased to say, gets it. He understands that what this film needs to be is both a reintroduction to fans of old and an introduction to a new generation. It needs to be familiar without treading the same ground as films past, adhering to formula but without being too formulaic. It needs to be more comedically savvy for a modern audience without alienating children. It needs to acknowledge nostalgia without succumbing to it. It needs to be self-aware without being too arch. It needs to be both character-driven and comedy-driven. A film like this had a lot of demands upon it, and Segal adeptly rose to the challenge. It's not perfect, but it's still a pretty terrific and entertaining movie.

The Muppets is more mature than any Muppets film ever has been, yet is still exceedingly innocent and accessible in that maturity. The main players in the film are Gary (Segal), his girlfriend of 10 years Mary (Amy Adams), his brother Walter (the Muppet Walter), and Kermit, with all the other Muppets rounding out the supporting cast, and Chris Cooper as the villain of the piece.

Gary, Mary and Walter live in a small, stagnant small Pleasantville-esque town where style and etiquette haven't evolved much since the 1950's (even if gender politics and access to later-generation television programmes have) and where a song and dance sequence isn't out of the ordinary. Through a flashback montage sequence narrated by Walter, we learn how he discovered that he wasn't exactly normal and how he became one of the biggest Muppets fans ever, connecting deeply with them for obvious reasons.

Gary and Walter are as tight as brothers can be, which gets in the way of Gary and Mary's relationship, to the point that Walter somewhat shanghai's the couple's trip to LA leading them to a life-altering trip to the desolate, decrepit Muppets Studios where Walter hears the plans of an Oil Baron (Cooper) to tear it all down and dig. Naturally this leads them to seek out Kermit, who has become somewhat reclusive (though not in the overtly crazy variety) in his grown-over estate home. Upon hearing the fate of his studio, he decides to get the gang back together for a last-ditch effort to save their old home.

The meat of the film is not in the story, but in the character details, the parallels in the relationships of Kermit and Piggy and Gary and Mary, as well as Gary and Walter's familial bond. Everything, naturally turns out as it so obviously is orchestrated to, to a degree anyway, but the journey is no less affecting and effective.

The third act, consisting of a Muppet Show telethon revival hosted by a reluctant Jack Black, is the films nostalgic highlight, capturing much of the gleeful, whimsical magic of the original Muppet Show, but also adding in the behind-the-scenes walk-and-talk of a Larry Sanders Show or Sports Night (without being all that dramatic about it).

The original musical numbers, largely provided by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, aren't perhaps as infectious as Paul Williams' classics, but they're both wry like Conchords tunes and accessible, with "Muppet or a Man" being perhaps the comedic highlight of the film (for some perhaps because of, or for me in spite of Jim Parson's involvement). I'll even go so far as to say it has Oscar-winning potential.

There are aspects of the film I'm less than impressed with, key among them being the short shrift given to most of the other major Muppets in favor of Walter, Gary and Mary. Walter, more than Segal or Kermit, is the film's center, and in introducing a new Muppet of such prominence, I would have hoped for something at least more visually distinctive, more marketable. I just don't see Walter being a big part of the Muppet pantheon in the future. He's at best Scooter-level, but even then not likely to be as popular. I'm also disappointed for the film not breaking out a "Trololo Man" homage for the big finale, which would have been absolutely perfect. There are other smaller elements, like some awkward cameos (also some great cameos, what would a Muppets movie be without cameos? Zach Galifianakis as a hobo anyone?), and Chris Cooper's rap (which may be parodying this video, and if it's not let's just pretend it is), but the entertainment and warmth of the overall film makes up for the few gaffs

Yet, despite this, Segal's greatest accomplishment with the film isn't in bringing the Muppets back to big screen in a big way, but in bringing the Muppets back in the hearts and minds of the audience. Only the most jaded Muppets fan won't feel the swelling warmth as the Muppets come together, as the telethon builds, and the film's sweeping climax (Yes, that means you Frank Oz). Yes, certain key Muppets players weren't involved in this film but at the same time, this is the first step in "Disney's The Muppets" (even though I still long for it to be called Jim Henson's The Muppets for infinity), the Muppets for a new generation as well as the old generation. (The whole cynicism around the "big company" acquiring the rights to the Muppets and turning them into something else is even addressed head on in the film... Meet the Moopets, everyone).

The film puts the best case together for a Muppets Show revival, a Saturday Night Live for the entire family, one that entertains on all levels. There's likely a long list of celebrities that would clamor to appear on it. That is, of course, if the Muppets is successful (but that won't likely be decided until it hits the aftermarket. It did respectable numbers this weekend but was still overshadowed by Twilight, though if it has strong legs throughout the holiday season it may be a solid hit).

Disney, to its credit, promoted the film smartly, with a healthy build-up using parody trailers emulating hit films rather than relying upon peoples' fondness for Kermit and co. They also kept rather quiet that there was a ridiculously entertaining Toy Story short before the film, another property which has proven increasingly enduring and endearing (but I'll have more on that soon).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

3 short paragraphs: Backwash

2010, Danny Leiner - Netflix

It's quite remarkable the amount of original product there is available on the web, and not just shit youtube videos of teenagers practicing their backyard wrestling moves, or 50-year-old casino owners trying their hand at rap videos, but honest to god talented individuals putting a lot of time and effort into creative endeavours for very little money. From Crackle comes Backwash, the brainchild of actor/Aaron Sorkin regular Josh Malina, and directed by Harold and Kumar's Danny Leiner.

It's a 13-part series (currently available on youtube in piecemeal (for Americans only) or on Netflix (for Canadians) as a 90-minute feature that attempts to revive post-Vaudevillian the Marx Brother's style of verbal witticism (and its cadence) alongside the Three Stooges-style of physical comedy. Malina is the Groucho stand-in, Michael Panes taking on the dull-witted, clumsy Curly-type, and Michael Ian Black rounding out the trio with a knowingly over-the-top flamboyance. The three are on the lamb after they perpetrate an accidental bank robbery, so it's a total road trip scenario. Loaded with absurdity and fast, wry patter it's generally amusing, but it's perpetrating a style of comedy I've never taken to.

Each of the thirteen acts is bookended by a minor celebrity intro/outro, Masterpiece Theatre style. John Hamm, Sara Silverman, John Cho, Michael Vartan, amongst others, actually provide the highlight for the series, generally acting as if they're cashing in a favour and subverting the series itself. Though generally entertaining, like a most web series (or most TV shows in general) it's forgettable.

3 short paragraphs: Skyline

2010, The Strause Brothers

The thoroughly enjoyable podcast "How Did This Get Made" first talked trash about this film a few month's back, and then had the chance to interview the film's producer (at the end of their "Wicker Man" episode). Without repeating everything they say there, let's first start with this is a terrible film.

An alien invasion happens shortly after an L.A. penthouse house party in a totally underpopulated apartment building. The stragglers from the party and their hosts are awoken with not just a massive hangover, but the threat of mass alien abduction. They witness huge clouds manifest underneath massive hovering ships, then thousands upon thousands of people hoovered upwards into the sky.

The film's protagonists (used loosely) spend a lot of time arguing amongst each other about whether to leave the building or just hide, eventually settling upon a plan to leave, being unable to do so, and returning to the same apartment. This happens at least twice, losing members along the way each time. It's very silly. There's poor characterization, almost nonexistent story, and the invariable sequel set-up. It does, however, look terrific. It's essentially a special effects showpiece and it's impressive (and actually watchable) in this regard, there's just a lot of laughable script getting in the way. In some respects it's a companion piece to the equally (and IMO unfortunately) maligned Battle: L.A..


2002, Curtis Hanson - DVD

While having dinner with the neighbours a few months back, we got on the topic of films and somehow onto the subject of 8-Mile. I had explained that, despite whatever accolades it may have received, I could not get past the Eminem barrier, since I've always found him to be unlikeable, unsympathetic, and, frankly, I don't like his flow. He was -- alongside Biggie, Tupac, Snoop and Dre -- a herald of the hip hopocalypse which saw "gangsta" and "hardcore" rap push consciousness hip-hop out of the limelight, and the mainstream rap world has largely since devolved into lowest common denominator music glorifying money, drugs, crime and sex over anything resembling actual moral integrity or values. Long story short, my neighbour told me to give "8-Mile" a shot, saying she was honestly surprised by it, and appreciated both the examination of a decaying Detroit and the rap-battle underground. Thrusting a copy of the film in my hands, I promised I would watch it, and here we are.

8-Mile was the third in a trilogy of unsuspecting, yet higher profile "thinking" films from director Curtis Hanson. In the 5 years prior to deciding to work with Eminem on a quasi-biographical film, he had adapted James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential to screen followed by an adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, both of which were well received critically... plus I liked them both quite a bit as well, so I knew if 8-Mile would have a saving grace it was that it was in the Hanson's hands.

In watching the film, I tried to be as objective as possible, letting any of my past preconceptions of Eminem: rapper/obnoxious personality slide away and instead take in "Marshall Mathers: actor", and to his credit he wasn't all bad, a little stiff at times but he surprisingly held the film. However I don't think he brought enough of an emotional core to the film, thus matching the film's rusted and gray, washed out visual aesthetic.

The rhythms of the story, based on the old "Great White Hope" formula, so it's rather contrived but a well-weathered trope to still be engaging in the hands of a good filmmaker. To Hanson's credit he does what he can with what he has, which is a middling script, a non-actor as a lead and a Detroit backdrop. The latter is the most potent element of the film, the unheralded supporting player, a depressed shithole populated by ex-cons and gangs of 20-somethings looking for any way out. In another movie, the "way out" would be boxing, or basketball, or football, or a math scholarship, or whatever maguffin the characters all chase. Here it's a recording contract, a chance to be heard. Here it's winning a rap battle and proving that you are worthy of freedom.

Eminem's Rabbit (that's his character's name) seems almost singularly focussed on himself despite having a drunk mother, a neglected little sister, and a pack of well-meaning but ill prepared for the future friends. He receives a love interest by way of Brittany Murphy (RIP), who apparently is on her way to model in New York, which I assume means either stripping or American Apparel ads by her usual disheveled crack whore appearance. They have a torrid romance which consists of sex behind some factory machinery and an unexpected drop in at his mom's trailer.

His mother, meanwhile, is a mean, mean drunk, sleeping with a kid Rabbit knew from high school in hopes that when his accident settlement money comes in he'll taker her with him to an easier life. Her story ends with her hitting it big at Bingo, showing that a little luck is all it takes for life to turn around and is the hoariest cliche of them all.

The rap battles are quite entertaining, though at no point do I actually believe Eminem is the best of the best. They hype it up so much in the film that there's really no way he can be, right? Well, yeah, but the film still tries to make you believe that the kid is by far the brightest star in the city and it's almost insulting in doing so.

The only positive element is the ending (and no, not because it ends) but because it ends on the message (although it's in stark contracts to his mother's reversal of fortune) that life doesn't just hand you a victory, but you have to earn it. And to succeed, you have to work hard for it. So, that's something at least.

Ultimately, it was as I expected, well made, passably engaging, but not great.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone

2001, Chris Columbus -- rewatch; download

Yes, Philopher's Stone, not Sorceror's Stone.  The name change for the US book, carried through with the movie, never made much sense to me. I guess it comes down as simple as, "Why would a philosopher do magic?"  At least when we found downloads, we got the non-american version.  We are watching the movies again because we missed the last three in the theatres so decided to catch up in full.  And I am also preparing to read the books for the first time, now that things are fully completely over.

In some ways this is my favourite movie of the bunch, basically because it is the one that introduces the muggle in me to the universe but also because it's one of the few in the story that is so wrapped up in its English setting.  The whole gist of the first story is not only to introduce us to the Harry Potter vs Voldemort mythology but also to the world of magic.  We get the idea of how the magic coincides in our world but is hidden from us and are tossed a few of the trappings in their world like wands and brooms and magic spells.  Add to that the very british idea of living at your school, bureaucratic ministries and the Edwardian & Victorian aspects to everything wizardly and I just loved rewatching this movie as much as I did the first time.

Hagrid was once again my favourite character, the gigantic groundskeeper and specialist in all things monstrous. Like the big bear of a uncle that we all wanted growing up, he dotes on Harry and speaks plainly to him like no other adult ever did before.   I am also rather fond of Dumbledore, the not quite doddering Gandalf-Merlin analog who always seems to carry an innocent air of knowing completely what is going on around him.  The last and possibly best character is Hogwarts itself but really, she isn't seen in her full glory until the third instalment.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Sea of Love

1989, Harold Becker (Mercury Rising, Malice, City Hall) -- Netflix

I am not sure why we watched this again but I think it had something to do with the mistaken memory that it took place partially in New Orleans. We were still on our Treme kick so an old movie with John Goodman and Ellen Barkin would be appropriate.  But the New Orleans movie with them is actually The Big Easy.  But Goodman was a cop in both so I can see where the memories merged.  Strangely enough I also remember Barkin being extremely sexy in this movie with her natural snarl.  But now, I don't really know what my young self was thinking.  I didn't like big hair then and I still don't like it.

This is one of those sexy thrillers that cropped up all over the late 80s and early 90s where the roguish cop gets mixed up with the sexy suspect and/or potential victim.  Al Pacino plays the drunken divorced unconventional (any other standard tropes I should add?) cop who gets assigned to a case regarding the classified ads.  I am surprised Craig's List hasn't already had a movie made about it leading to a serial murder.  Maybe already done on a TV crime show?  The movie alternates between him picking up clues in the old fashioned cop way, by gut feeling and a little leg work but ignoring all the CSI shit.  Oh it's there but it's barely supporting the cops.  I am glad for a little change from the tropes of today that are all about The Magic of Science or The Magic of the Insightful Cop.  He doesn't look at a scene and pull out all the needed variables like a nouveau Sherlock, he just reads the scene and tries different solutions till he hits the right one.  From what I hear, that is Real Police, as The Wire would say.

It's fun looking back at John Goodman and realizing how much you like him throughout the years.  Even when he only has a small sidekick role he carries a lot of (don't say it) weight to it.  It's also a lot of fun to watch a movie from two decades ago and notice all the things they have to do differently which the kids of today would marvel at the inconvenience.  But when it comes right down to it, the most noticeable and prevalent are (the lack of) cell phones and the internet.  But then again, people are still seen doing research via microfiche. In the end, while being distracted by all the nostalgia and uncomfortable not-so-sexy sexiness, we still guessed who the killer was in less than 20 minutes but I don't think it was the same bad guy from The Big Easy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Fall 2011 (pt 10)

Why do I get the suspicion that Grimm was devised earlier on as the Dylan Dog series hoping the movie would be a big genre hit. Alas, that movie didn't so so well. Grimm is a monster of the week show about a mystical family who is tasked with policing the evil creatures of the world. As is the usual for such fictions, he is already an adult and doesn't know about his legacy but suddenly through unfortunate circumstances the role is thrust upon him.  The connection with the faerie tale tellers of old is tenuous so it will have to establish something else if it is to last.  I doubt it will.

Once Upon a Time is the other faerie tale story of the season, this time being much more blatant.  The Evil Queen casts a curse that tosses all of the faerie tale kingdom into our world but without their memories of who they were. They live in this picture book perfect town in America but still playing the roles they had in the stories. The Evil Queen is the Evil Mayor, Snow White is a lovely school teacher, Rumplestiltskin is a pawnbroker, etc.  One might make comparisons to Fables, the comic book series from Bill Willingham and one wouldn't be far off the mark. But other than curiosity, I am not sure what would keep me watching it for it is very standard TV story telling.

Hell On Wheels comes out of the blue on AMC as an old west story following the creation of the cross country railway. It is going to be a story of the hardships, corruption and rough life of making the railway reach the west coast.  It focuses the plot on Bohannon, a southern soldier on a path of revenge against the northern soldiers who took away his family.  The first episode is grim as expected, introducing the main characters and the world they are in. It was capable and well designed but I guess I was hoping something would jump out at me.  I will watch for a few more to see if it grabs my attention.

Monday, November 14, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Fall 2011 (pt 9)

OK, this really seems to be the season of redefining what Men are supposed to be. We had the abysmal How To Be a Gentleman which I am pretty sure got pulled before episode 4 aired but now we have two other sitcoms, each with their own approach on it. In the standard running is Last Man Standing, the latest vehicle from the 90s Man's Man, Tim Allen.  This time round he is the director of catalog marketing for an outdoors-men store, sort of the MEC of hunting & fishing.  His job of traveling around with a camera crew taking delicious shots for the catalog comes to a halt when they decide to focus on the website. So he is now stuck at home with his 3 daughters while his wife returns to a big promotion. This is actually a kind hearted show where the big bravado of Tim's character is meant to be stymied and tempered by the women in his life. And despite his Male Buffoonery, he is still a nice guy at heart. I liked it but still railed at the 1% nature of his lifestyle.

Meanwhile, with Man Up!, we have the other format of sitcom where we have three manchilds who feel they need to be more Real Man. They replace machismo with first person shooters and spend most of their time being ruled by women. This show insults everyone, from the men who think they are standing up to their wives & girlfriends to the women who are walking all over their men to the kids who show less machismo than they do. It is one of those shows where we really are not supposed to like the main characters but I didn't find them funny enough to laugh at.

Enlightened is completely another spectrum of people who annoy the fuck out of me.  It's about Laura Dern who goes batshit insane after sleeping with her boss and then being turned down for a promotion. There could have been more to it but that is all we are shown. Suddenly its months later and she is experiencing New Age-y bliss at a retreat in Hawaii swimming with sea turtles and collecting shells.  She returns to LA to take back her job and renew relationships. This shows shares my annoyance with people like her who think that just because THEY figured out their issues, everyone else should just fall in line and hug it out. She exchanges one batshit for another as everyone proves to not give an iota that she went to Hawaii and swam with a turtle. I am sure the show is about how she becomes tempered in her emotions but she annoyed me so much in the first episode, I will never give her another chance.

Bonus premiere!! And while not purely in the Fall 2011 release schedule, as it started in the summer, I watched it now so why not mention?  This is wacky.  Pure wacky. A man who really wants to committ suicide because his life is drab meets his next door neighbor and her dog.  Well, dog to everyone else because Ryan sees him as a man in a dog suit.  The american remake of an Australian comedy series starring the same dog as the original completely side steps the questions you might have. Like why doesn't Ryan mention this to anyone or does the owner notice that one of Wilfred's toys is a bong?  Let's skip the questions and just play into the wackiness as Wilfred helps Ryan through his issues while doing typical dog things and typical guys in a dog suit things as well.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Ironclad

2011, Jonathan English -- download

OK, the setup for this movie is a spotlight on a small but famous point of English history.  In the early 1200s King John (yeah that King John) was forced to sign the Magna Carta, to give some rights to the people he taxed the hell out of to fund the crusades led by his brother Richard.  Please, someone with more of a grasp on English history, add some reality in the comments.  The little window we get is just after the signing, John raises a Danish army and begins an invasion of his own country. The way is blocked by small Rochester Castle, key to the road to London.  And our main characters hole up in there to start a siege movie.

James Purefoy is Marshal, a Templar knight who is a little run-down from his time in the Crusades.  He is returning to the Church for one final act before he becomes a free man. Unfortunately he gets caught up in Albany's (Brian Cox) attempt to stop John and his mercenaries from taking Rochester.  Albany adds Marshal to his old gang, which in a quick montage he gathers together again ala a heist movie, knowing that Marshal's brutal skill will be required here. And thus begins a movie that if seen on PBS as part of a saturday night movie fare would have lit my young self up. Unfortunately, while I still gravitate to these swords and shields fare, I now recognize the unbalanced natures of most.  I read that English suffered immense budget problems on this movie leaving him his two main actors (Purefoy and Giamatti) and very condensed battle scenes so I have to commend him for that skill but it did not capture me.

Ironclad is a bloody movie, as mentioned in the tagline "blood. will. run." on some movie posters. With the mass CGI battle scenes unavailable, English went for the blood & guts splat and chop.  Men are dismembered and literally cut in half by two-handed swords. This was the heart of the movie as our grizzled knight shows us exactly what has him brooding. But all the real dramatic license goes to Paul Giamatti and his angry role as John who is completely pissed that England would take away his God-given right to rule exactly as he sees fit.  He doesn't play John completely as a petulant child nor as a brilliant misguided leader but the fact it is not one note tells us how Giamatti is carrying it so well.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

2010, Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Leon, The 5th Element) -- download

This movie is based on a 70s french comic book series from Jacque Tardi, a contemporary of Mobius.  In a time when Barbarella was the height of female comic stars, Tardi wanted to do something for female empowerment without the heightened sexuality. The stories are about a female fiction writer and investigative journalist who gets mixed up in mystical mayhem with a wink-wink-nod-nod to historical events.  From pterodactyls to egyptian mummies to demonic cults, she does have a knack for finding the weird.

Luc Besson, who these days is normally playing producer for things like The Transporter and Banlieue 13, directs this cheerful flick that most will dub as being Amelie meets Indiana Jones but that is a little disingenuous as I am sure there was more tomb robbing going before Indie.  As for the Jean-Pierre Jeunet comparison, that is a little more apt as the crazy characters and whimsy the movie carries makes us smile like Jeunet does. Besson just has fun with this movie, drawing a thousand connections between characters, delivering CGI and exaggerated makeup in droves but without depending on it to attract the viewers.

The heroine Adele is trying to revive her sister from a coma that came about during a feverish game of tennis and an unfortunate encounter with a hatpin. Of course, where else would you look but in the skills of the mummy of a doctor that served Ramses II ?  Add to that a friend who can revive the dead with psychic capabilities and an unhatched egg of a pterodactyl and she causes quite the stir in early 20th century Paris.  Louise Bourgoin as Adele is absolutely enchanting and I admit that fully as I would have probably been as smitten as Zborowski was upon meeting this confident, adventurous woman that it seems only Paris can create.  Le sigh.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Contagion

2011, Steven Soderbergh -- cinema

Ever since I read The Stand by Stephen King I have been fascinated with the idea of plagues. Fascinated might be too strong a reaction, probably more like thrilled by the fear it instills in me. Like zombies, the idea of something that we truly have little control over doing such harm scares me. Add to that the idea of human nature making things worse and it unnerves me even more. But the failing in most disease ridden fiction is that they never go far enough. Few are like King's novel in that the sickness is just a prop for the end of the world. Most are about the fear humans will encounter and the brave souls who will do what needs to be done to end the plague, but without losing their humanity. Most isolate the outbreak and have the cure found after only a few dozen or maybe even a few hundred succumb.

Contagion was almost an emotionless depiction of a disease that ravages the world, starting with the literal first case and ending with the vaccine.  It's clinical in its depiction, reserved in its drama. but it is also relentless sparing few, even award winning actors.  At its start the fear is heightened by the speed of the disease, the quick road from cough to death. This is no story about the rush to a cure but more the rush to containment and, when that fails, the slow plod to stability.

The movie draws more upon what we have been experiencing for the last few years, than from fiction like I mentioned.  SARS, bird flu, etc. are all things we have seen happen around us whether on the news or across the street, as I did when SARS was in the pubic view.  The combination of heightened nervousness and placid apathy is there as cities depopulate, governments impose draconian measures and sensationalists cash in. Is it completely realistic?  I am not sure as no matter what we have really experienced, we have never seen hundreds of people dying around us. The movie ends with an explanation settling in a fear that no matter how much we sanitize, something could just ... happen.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Cinderella Man

2005, Ron Howard -- Netflix

Click click click click the Netflix, saturday morning and I am in the mood to watch a movie and have nothing downloaded.  Hey, this one was filmed here in Toronto and I like Russel Crowe so why not.  I also enjoy period pieces for their costuming and the creative ways they hide the 21st century amidst the dated set dressing. I also walked past the set a couple of times so I thought it worth seeing.

Ron Howard is one of those capable directors with a stable full of accomplished, popular movies. But one wonders whether the fact that because they have the full brunt of Hollywood behind them is the reason they are accomplished.  Sometimes the machine can make decent results despite the lack of skill on the creator's part. I am not saying that this is Ron Howard, as he is the man who did Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind but sometimes I wonder.  And considering how many people hate Spielberg as much as like him, it's a valid wondering.

And this movie leaves me wondering again.  It was decent, it was capable, a good story with good acting about a boxer in the Depression era who loses it all but gains it all back.  But nothing was outstanding, nothing made me feel the era or the people or even cheer for the Braddock like the generation did.  That is the thing that has always bugged me about the Depression, it is depicted as if everyone lost their job and their money, when there were plenty of people who had the money to bet on boxing matches and drive around in fancy cars. Disparity of wealth is always there no matter how romantically tragic the circumstances. And this movie was definitely about the romance of the situation, about a man too proud to ask for help when everything was gone but who becomes an icon of the working class who he was part of. Compelling yes, but not a KO.  Ba-dump bump.

Monday, November 7, 2011

We Agree: The Divide

(read David's take)

2011, Xavier Gens -- cinema

I cannot honestly recall the last time I entered a movie with no preconceptions about it at all. I have usually seen a trailer, a review, a poster, a commercial or heard someone talking about a film before I've managed to see it. More often than not, I anticipate seeing a film (or, in some cases, dread it). So it's kind of refreshing to come into a movie I know nothing about, have no familiarity with and get to watch a film unfold with no expectations.

The Divide could have been that movie, if not for the fact that I watched it at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival where the film was preceded by a quick interview session with cast members and the director of the film. It was only about four or five minutes of somewhat labored questions and answers (before a veritable packed house at the Toronto Underground no less) but it was enough to thrust me into viewing the immediate film with what was spoiled for me before hand (and also putting upon it expectations after revealing it set off a bidding war at SXSW from distributors).... but close enough you know.

The Divide, as David described in his review, opens with a bang -- chaos -- and the gathering of our cast in a bunker beneath an apartment building. David described it beautifully about watching a group of people who don't like each other much to start with continue even more darkly down that path. It's an ugly, brutal, and punishing movie, but it's also far better than it had any right to be.

Director Xavier Gens lenses his film beautifully, making excellent use of his confined quarters and equally excellent use of his cast. It's not a powerhouse group, and there's no clear star (though Lauren German as Eva is clearly the focal point, but she's a relatively pacifist character, reacting more than acting), instead rounded out with a motley crew consisting of 80's SF stalwart Michael Behn, Heroes star Milo Ventimiglia, Law & Order: Criminal Intent's Courtney B. Vance, and Rosanna Arquette as the familiar faces, while Michael Eklund provides the CanCon (the film was shot in Winnipeg) and Iván González some european flavour.

After the filming, the director and cast noted that even though the film was scripted, they largely improvised around that framework. Gens gave the actors the freedom to develop their characters withing the context of the story, and it leads to some surprising, and for the most part, damn strong work (Behn is at times the weak link, getting laughs with a hammy performance where I don't think they were actually intended). Gens did create an actor's film and Eklund is the easy standout, though González puts in a brilliant turn as the percolating-yet-powerless lesser half to Eva). Ventimiglia does get downright despicable and commits to the character, showing his teeth early on, then provided a moment of redemption (in an excellent sequence where he leaves the confines of the bunker into a maze of plastic tunnels erected, I guess, by the government for... some purpose), but ultimately succumbs to his darker instincts.

There's a lot to admire about this film. Chief among them are the little details Gens pays attention to, such as the effects of radiation poisoning on the characters over the few weeks they're trapped, and the general degradation of the living conditions. As well, Gens' sense of light and shadow, the color pallet used throughout, the practical special effects all lend a certain natural beauty to the grim setting. It's an incredibly good looking film.

Alas, it's also an utterly predictable film. The rhythms of the character development have all been seen before in apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic films time and time again. From 28 Days Later, to the novel Blindness (never saw the movie), to the Walking Dead comics (I don't watch the show), they all exemplify the decline of civility, of kindness and compassion for the primal urge to not just survive but conquer. When the women get raped and people are killed over a can of peaches, it's bleak, sure, but it's also what's expected, as if it's the only option. Yes, the film is hard to watch because of where its characters go, but it's also hard to watch because we've seen characters go there so many times before, and it's not all that surprising.

The decision to make Eve the audience surrogate, the observer, the watcher, was an interesting one, as it thrusts upon the viewer the role of sympathizer for her. But Eve, though never physically confrontational and often conciliatory, is also a terrible manipulator, which I guess is reflected both in her relationship with the other characters and with the audience. She's certainly not innocent (I think, really, González's Sam is about as close to remaining innocent as they come by the film's end).

So, as David put it, Gans did take a novel approach to the apocalyptic story, but there's nothing new as a result. It's not a bad film (perhaps overlong and tedious at times, but generally quite watchable) but given the genre potential it just doesn't contribute enough to outright recommend it.

*note, "The Fallout" was the film's original title.