Thursday, September 29, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Rendition

2007, Gavin Hood (from Tsotsi to this to Wolverine; in'trestin) -- Netflix

We live in a scary post-9/11 world, not that our respective governments didn't do scary things before that day in 2011, but because they probably ramped up activity. The tossing of human rights for the sake of security is nothing new but something in the last decade made us more aware it was happening, but probably feeling just as impotent conerning it.  The governments state they are performing these heinous acts, in our name, because they say they have to.  If they didn't, we might not feel as safe as we do in North America. And really, we still do feel mostly safe compared to other countries where bombings & street fighting has become a way of life. But questions remains --- is it self-fulfilling prophecy or even just manufactured fear?

North Africa, a bomb is set off near a cafe killing almost everyone in the square, as well as mortally wounding a CIA operative driving past in his SUV. Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal) is sitting next to the man and ends up assuming his role.  Meanwhile a man of Egyptian descent gets on a plane in South Africa, returning home to the US from a business trip.  His wife (Reese Witherspoon) waits at the airport for his arrival.  He never does. He has been intercepted and whisked away to that North African country to be "interrogated" by local officials and the CIA.  This is one of those countries that has a deal with the US, where torture is sanctioned and people disappear.

Meanwhile we see the love story between a girl and her boyfriend, she the daughter of the interrogator and he, a terrorist in the making. Well, I guess he is already a terrorist but is more a bomb in the making. This story parallels the story of the actual torture with each plot escalating to a ... well, rather twisty conclusion. SPOILER: Parallels become leads as one story actually becomes the precursor for the other, the daughter & bomber actually being the pair who exploded in the square. It was a fascinating twist, but I was really left wondering why it was even used, as it contributed nothing to the dilemma of torturing an innocent man.  In the end, the man is let go and we are left with no real answers, as I imagine, there are no full answers in these times.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: The Switch

2011, Josh Gordon, Will Speck (two directors? never bodes well...) -- download

This chick-flick was actually not downloaded by me but when Marmy asked if I wanted to watch, as she was starting, I sat in. I like Jason Bateman a lot more of late so I was willing to sit through, for at least some material to add here. I also needed to separate it in my mind from the other Bateman vehicle involving a switch, but a body switch.  The funny thing is that I ended up really enjoying the movie with Bateman's ever-sweatered & neurotic Wally Mars re-creating an About a Boy vibe but without being the self-serving ass that Hugh Grant was.

Wally loves his best friend Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) and always has. They tried dating but it didn't work out. She moved on, he didn't, typical story. But she doesn't have Wally's excuse for never solidifying a relationship and so now finds herself of an age where she is considering having a baby sans-daddy.  Well, not biologically sans-daddy (different movie) but relationship wise and chooses a Mr. Wonderful to ... er... seed her.  Add in one "insemination party" where a plastered Wally accidentally spills... the seed and has to replace it by... well, spilling his seed and you have the movie title.  You would think that would be the focal point of a movie that was supposed to be called The Baster but in fact, its a setup for the rest of the movie -- fatherhood.

Time fast-forwards and Wally & Kassie's son (she doesn't know; still thinks Mr Wonderful helped her out) ends up having to hang around Wally a lot more.  The best part of the movie is watching their relationship build. OK, almost the best part.  That really does fall to the hilarious scenes with Jeff Goldblum as Wally's boss, ever dispensing no-nonsense advice that Wally has probably ignored for years. But watching Wally & Sebastian interact with snappy dialogue capturing what must have come from  the short story, is delightful. Considering all the genre violence and darkness I watch, it was a nice break.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Midnight in Paris

2011, Woody Allen -- cinema

When I was younger, I was one of those guys who felt out of touch with the era around him.  I wasn't sure when I should be but sometime.... past. And if you added my D&D addiction, I often ended up desiring life in a pseudo-medieval period.  Once I started to pay attention to what I would lose, such as toilet paper, Tylenol and socialized medicine, I dropped those fantasies.  Maybe a time machine visit but with an easy out. And that is what Owen Wilson's Gil is given -- a time machine style visit to the period (and people) he loves the most.

Gil is a screenwriter, but a romantic who loves the idea of walking around Paris in the rain to look at shops and taverns and architecture and people and .... atmosphere.  His fiance hates it all, seeing the city as just a place to say you've been and to buy some great antique deals.  I despised her.  Her every opinion set my teeth on edge. She wanted him to dump his dreams of the Great American Novel and stick with his lucrative screen writing gig. She couldn't imagine living anywhere but California, for any reason.  We won't talk about her parents. So, I was relieved and completely with Gil when he set off on his own walks and ends up in a car with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then quickly mixed up with all their friends and fellow artisans.

At first you think this is about Gil realizing how much better he would be in Paris of the 20s, as he gets grand reviews of his novel and has a great time drinking with Hemingway and Dali.  But the movie does a lovely evolution as he begins to fall for one of Picasso's girlfriends, seeing in her the girl he knows he should be with, not Inez the annoying git. And as he he adds in her layer of love for the 1890s, he realizes his folly at living in the past, literally and figuratively.  You can have Paris in the rain, you can have wine and art and writing and music but you can find it now, as long as you are willing to accept it.  Lovely flick.

3 Short Paragraphs: Fall 2011 (pt 3)

Prime Suspect was not on my expected-to-watch list despite a fondness for crime shows and not for the reason it was expected to be the terrible remake of the british series with Helen Mirren. In fact, it took a bit of googling to convince me it was a remake. From what I have seen, the only thing in common is the title and a smart dress suit that Maria Bello's  Det. Jane Timoney wears. I know I have seen that on a DVD box cover. But this one, with Timoney as the only female detective in a squad full of the best of the gravelly NY-accented actors we have on TV, looks like its going to be spectacular. She just has edge and carries the role as well as she wears that hat. Drinking on the job, sexism bordering on misogyny and little details you don't see anywhere else (the coffee truck at a funeral for a cop) makes me feel this show might be cut from the same cloth as The Wire but will skip the depressing reality.

Speaking of skipping reality, how about Charlie's Angels ?  The only saving grace from this series is the fact that they didn't make it from the same pattern as the spoofy movie remakes. This one tosses us full-fledged into the Townsend agency that uses pretty girls who have made mistakes. Really? Mistakes? Isn't a dirty cop, dirty for a reason? Can she really be reformed with some nice clothes and a yacht? I wouldn't be surprised if Charlie manufactured each of their downfalls just to net himself some skilled young things.  Anywayz, bleah, set in Miami so very pretty and glossy with production values just shy of canadian spy thrillers like Nikita but with plots expected to be easily digested and probably swiss cheesed with plot holes.  For example, why would a white-slaver guard the majority of his stock with only 2 or 3 thugs?  Seriously? And finally, do women actually relax while wearing evening outfits when there is no one around to impress but themselves? Sure, we all like dress-up but I am sure you don't need a dress on to drink champagne on a yacht.  I am surprised it wasn't superfluous bikinis.

Person of Interest is on my list of to-watch and not for the Lost connection but because I do like the client-of-the-week motif and because the idea of probability prediction in crime always fascinated me. Jim Caviezel is the skilled soldier with a dark past, living on the streets in order to forget something he let happen. It involves a girl. Mr. Finch, played slickly by Michael Emerson, is our hobbling genius with enough cash and cool toys to bank role Reese (Caviezel) in tracking down people in trouble, essentially stopping an event before it happens. Of course, there will have to be an underlying plot and constant flashbacks to Reese's past but handled well, this could be fun for a couple of seasons.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Fall 2011 (pt 2)

Kent says he cannot stand shows with laugh tracks,which I am pretty much immune to, and that there are no more shows done "in front of a live studio audience."  That sounded wrong to me but then I listened to a couple of the ones I watch and, he was right, obvious laugh tracks. And then I heard the words at the start of Whitney and I... could... not... stop... noticing... the audience. I wasn't sure if it was the volume of that crowd or the fact I am now noticing it... all... the... time. Anywayz, sitcom about a girl who writes something and shares the name of the girl who actually writes & produces the show -- and she is the girl who also stars as said girl. She is loud and has a nice BF and annoying friends, but strangely enough, I didn't hate anyone. And once again, thought maybe not said here in this blog, I do like shows where people crack jokes so the other person in the scene laughs, not just for our sake.

So, on to the other two non-laugh track sitcoms we watched this weekend (not as they aired, because, well i download just about everything) and they are about people roughly my age who I cannot relate to whatsoever. First we have Up All Night where Christina Applegate and Will Arnett are new parents. New parents and highly successful & wealthy -- two shots against my lifestyle. From their work hard play hard lives they are now adjusting to parenting. She's back at work missing the baby and taking care of a different set of kids; he's at home playing challenged daddy and both of them are attempting to survive the subject of just about every conversation around the lunch table at work -- sleeplessness, poop, crying and never going out again.  And like work, I will probably just end up nodding & smiling should I ever watch the show again.

The other side of the adult-not-like-me fence is the newly divorced, highly successful main character.  But Free Agents is going to be less about a person's lifestyle and more about Hank Azaria's Alex and his work & his love life. It's a workplace sitcom but whoah, does it have a budget. I have to say that I watched the layout of the show as much as I chuckled at Azaria's witty asides.  Where is this shot? Some small mid-west city? It just seemed clean and crisp and fresh. Yeah, this is the kind of stuff I think about when I watch sitcoms I wouldn't generally watch even if I have nothing really to complain about. But I wonder... is this a romantic comedy or a workplace comedy? Is this about the two mains interacting or more about the crazy boss, the vicious EA and the nerdy assistant? Hmmm...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Fall 2011 (pt 1)

The police procedural with a gimmick, i.e. Bones or Castle or The Mentalist, follows the basic idea of solving murders but with something else to catch your attention. This particular one, Unforgettable, has the idea of a cop who remembers everything about her life -- everything.  She has hyperthymesia, or the perfect personal memory.  So she thinks back through a scene and then, with us in tow, walks through the scene again paying attention to details that were not prominent the first time.  Poppy (Petal ! Hee!) Montgomery is the Australian actor with decent charisma if we are not distracted by her botox upper-lip and the occasional slip-through of her australian accent. But for the show to not become (wait for it...) forgettable, she will have to step up her likeableness.  I will give it a few more to see if it develops some character beyond the fuzzy walk-throughs of her memory.

As Marmy tweeted, the first 30 seconds of Raising Hope was more of a laugh than the entire half-hour of The New Girl.  And that was even ignoring her normal dislike for Zooey Deschanel. I like shows about quirky people but i do not like shows about completely uncomfortable people and situations. Zooey is the dumped Jess who has to find an apartment quickly so she can get over her ex via a week of watching Dirty Dancing. So she checks out the Craigslist (we're CURRENT!) ad from The Nice Guy, the Douche and The Black Guy. She is awkward, emotionally unstable and seemingly completely neurotic but she knows models so the guys let her stay. In any other world, this whole bunch would be overweight, badly dressed nerds considering their inability to interact socially with anyone let alone each other but in this comedy world, they are the main characters with money, i.e. quirky.  I knew it wasn't my kind of comedy immediately but crawled my way through it thinking it might have some charisma near the end, which was then blown out of the water with an ear-splitting song.  Yes, t'was the point of the scene but I didn't have to like it, did i?  Buh-leted.

But then we have a comedy that is more my style, if a little formulaic and standardly formatted. 2 Broke Girls is a situational comedy set in a diner in Brooklyn where Kat Denning's hard working character is set up to work & live with a down-n-out socialite. I will admit I have a thing for Kat so I even forgave her Thor but I did find this little sitcom charming and it even elicited a few overly loud guffaws from me. It has a gimmick where the girls are going to try and save enough to start up a cupcake shop.  Amusing how so-5-years-ago trends like cupcakes still make it into scripts.  And somewhat novel how they have made the unlikable fish out of water actually somewhat likable.  Watch again!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fall Pilots 2011: Up All Night/Free Agents

NBC, Wednesdays 8:00, 8:30

I rarely spend much effort looking over the debuting shows each fall.  I don't tend to follow what's coming up, and I rarely actively seek shows out.  But if a commercial interests me or I read an article about a show that piques my curiousity or I hear that an actor or creator I like is involved in the endeavor I'll check it out.  Usually these new selections wind up staying on my radar only so briefly.  The last weekly show I stuck with after the pilot was "Community" and I don't recall which show would have been before that.  I came to most of my current viewing late.

This year, I can't say it'll be much different except that I plan to check out a few more new shows than usual, but I don't expect to be watching many of them week to week, or for much longer than a month.  There's not a lot of shows out there that can fill up a full 22-to-25 episode order and sustain my interest.

This weekend my daughter was on a play date and my friends told me they liked Up All Night, a new comedy with Cristina Applegate and... that guy.  I recalled reading about it, also starring Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph, produced by Lorne Michaels (so it's got a solid backbone).  I looked it up on "On Demand" (which makes watching TV so much easier), and found both of NBC's new Wednesday night comedies there.

Up All Night looks like the latest in a spate of "new parenting" shows, following in the heels of successes like Modern Family and Raising Hope, only this is about "cool" parents.  Successful upscale, urban dwellers who work and party hard... real douchebag types, only softened into viewer-friendly, warm, intelligent, thoughtful people and how they must adapt from their old lifestyle into responsible parents.

It's a dual purpose show with Arnett and Applegate having an incredible chemistry, and Arnett's usual severe or ostentatious personality transformed into an outright likable, affable guy.  Once a high-powered lawyer, he's taking on the stay-at-home dad role, with Applegate returning to her executive producer role on "Ava", an Oprah-meets-Ellen-style daytime chat show starring her best friend (Maya Rudolph is a natural as Ava).  Applegate is described as the only competent person working on the show, and it looked to be falling apart without her presence, especially with Rudolph adopting the diva attitude and running ramshackle over everyone else.  There's a bit of a disparity between the histrionics at the "Ava" workplace and the natural, lower-key atmosphere of the homestead, so there's either going to be a nice polarity or a jarring one as the series progresses.  It's currently up in the air.  It was a cute pilot, but not a necessarily strong one. 

On the other hand, Free Agents was both cute and strong.  Exceptionally strong.  The same idea applies as Up All Night in that the main characters are very well grounded while being surrounded by a workplace full of off-beat caricatures, but the difference is the workplace is only somewhat askew without getting too loud about it.

Newsradio just popped up on Netflix Canada, and there's a remarkable parallel between the first episodes of that show and this one, with Anthony Stewart Head taking on the Stephen Root role as the somewhat aloof head of the PR agency where Dave Foley and Maura Tierney stand-ins Hank Azaria and Katheryn Hahn work.  Jo Lo Truglio takes on the "oddball outsider" role that Joe Rogan played, while comedian Al Madrigal takes on the loveable goof that Andy Dick did and Nataha Leggero is elicits the exact same dry smarm that Vicki Lewis did.  But this isn't a knock.  Archetypes are what every comedy is built upon, it's how you differentiate them that decides whether you succeed or fail.

Here, there's a hard focus on Azaria's literally just-divorced Alex, a self-described terrible liar (who works in PR?), former rock journalist who doesn't really understand how he came to be where he is.  There's an equal focus on Hahn's Helen, a ballsy PR rep who's proven herself as tough as the guys, whose fiancee passed away a year ago and she still hasn't dealt with it.  They naturally wind up in bed together, in fact the show starts with them in bed together.  The tryst is obviously an unfortunate one, and neither is in shape for a relationship, yet they're both so very alone.

What I like about the show is how real both Alex and Helen come off, they're complex, at times they say things that sound less like a script and more like actual conversation.  They have logic but they also have emotions and are often conflicted between the two.  What's even more evident is the show may be flinging them together sexually but it seems to be building a friendship, going in the opposite direction that most do.

The supporting cast is great, with Head playing well against his usual stoic, prim/proper, fatherly, bureaucratic type into a bit of a free-thinking, does-what-he-wants showboat.  Madrigal is effortlessly charming and Leggero is nasty in an amusingly dismissive way.  Lo Truglio should make a great odd duck and an effective one if kept in a limited role.

Apparently this one's based off a British series which explains its tone and appeal.  I'm not sure if it can pad itself out over lengthy seasons effectively but it'll be interesting to see if its successful in trying.

3 Paragraphs on: Private School

1983, Noel Black -- Netflix

It's rare for me to watch a film and feel so completely ashamed for having watched it once it was over.  It's even rarer for me to watch a film and to feel so completely ashamed for watching it so soon into the film.  Ten minutes into the film and we have three horndog private school boys standing on each other's shoulders so that they can photograph the, yes, exceptionally attractive Betsy Russell getting out of the shower, then going so far as to reach in the window an rip her towel off her.  Oh, the 1980s, where sexual harassment, groping, molestation, date rape and whatnot were all considered good clean fun.  The internet is keeping a lot of perverts at home methinks.

The basic plot of the film (and I do mean basic as it's about, at best 15 minutes worth of script) finds Pheobe Cates agreeing to go all the way with Matthew Modine and the road to getting there, which is interrupted by scene after scene of Betsey Russell trying to lure Modine into her ...self by exposing herself to him, and far too many scenes of Michael Zorek in constant search of ogling and fondling private school girls.  Oh, and there's far too many music sequences which would normally be a montage but instead are usually lingering and leering shots of girls doing aerobics or somesuch.

The film's central commentary seems to be that is a complete and utter pervert unable to control himself, as every male character in the film is lecherous, including the visiting fathers and, oh, poor Ray Walston.  This film tarnished so many good memories I had of that charming actor.  The film even tries to make a point that kids should use condoms with an entended sequence starring Martin Mull helping Cates and Modine purchase prophylactics, only to have the two ultimately wind up spur-of-the-moment doing it bareback on the beach, From Here To Eternity-style.  This film is a frequently disgusting, pointless, and ineptly made to boot, with only a brief soft-focus, almost lovingly (instead of lustily) shot topless horse riding sequence having any class to it at all.  Seriously.

3 Paragraphs on: Megamind

2010, Tom McGrath -- Netflix

Given the group of people involved, Megamind should be a far, far better film then it is.  With a voice cast top loaded with Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill and David Cross, and Guillermo Del Toro and Ben Stiller attached as producers, and hell, even Hans Zimmer as composer, all these parts should have made a pretty great whole.  Where it falls apart -- and don't get me wrong, it's a Sky High-level amusing take on superhero conventions -- is in design and soundtrack.  Its these two aspect that could have lofted it to near-Pixar level entertainment, but instead casts it down to the morass of also rans, which it is largely somewhat better than.

Megamind, voiced by Ferrell, has been at odds with Metro City's protector Metro Man since each were rocketed off from their respective doomed planets towards Earth.  As if fated to be adversaries, Metro Man lives to satisfy his ego of being the greatest hero ever, while Megamind lives to be Metro Man's perpetual nemesis.  When one of his death traps finally succeeds in killing Metro Man, both Metro City and Megamind are beside themselves in despair.  Megamind, using Metro Man's DNA concocts himself a new adversary who turns out to be so much more a villain than he ever was, and thus he must be the difference maker.

It's a fun story with some charming performances, especially as Megamind, in disguise tries and succeeds at wooing the "Lois Lane" of the picture, Roxanne Ritchie (Fey), only to obviously lose her when she discovers his secret.  The character designs are of the typical over-sized head, exaggerated-features variety, a cartoon flourish which seriously needs to go away, while the environment, sets, background are all oversimplified in a way that makes the entire movie seem far too cheap a production to start Will Ferrell and Brad Pitt.  As well, despite having the phenomenal Zimmer available to score, the film is over-saturated with ever goddamn cliched, over-used, hack musical cue (Highway to Hell, Bad to the Bone, Lovin' You, Crazy Train, Welcome to the Jungle, and on and on and on) which, even more than the animation, drags the film down to a patronizing, "yeah, we get it" level.  As well, Metro Man, designed to look, I believe, like Bruce Campbell as Elvis, should have been voiced by Bruce Campbell.  Brad Pitt, for all his talent, isn't cut out for voiceover work.

3 Paragraphs on: Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

2002, Peter Jackson -- DVD

My wife generally goes through the Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended editions) once a year, usually when I'm not around, as I don't really dig those films like she does.  I find them tedious and quite dull at times.  It's twelve hours of film making concentrated into three parts, but it's only the middle act, The Two Towers, which feels like a complete experience.  The Fellowship of the Ring is like a four hour introduction, with only the final act having any real excitement to it.  Return of the King I recall liking more than Fellowship but it's first hour and a half is like biting through a lot of gristle to get to the meat.  The Two Towers, though, is almost all meat, and it's falling off the bone.

Obviously the battle at Helm's Deep is  the most intense and spectacular fantasy battle sequence to be put to film, a bewilderingly captivating forty minutes of grueling assault and an almost no-win situation for the good guys.  Yet, it's still loaded with personality as Gimli and Legolas compete to kill the most Orcs, and Aragorn struggles to lead when other cannot.  My personal favourite moments involve the revelation and exploration of the Ents, an obvious inspiration for the Parliament of Trees from Swamp Thing, and a visually striking image when they, and the trees, decide to revolt and fight.

I've watched The Two Towers full through at least three times, and I know only one full viewing (in the theatre during their original run) of the other two films, so I remain lost about the symbolism in the film much of the time, but the fact that there is deeper meaning to what is displayed in almost every sequence gives the film a nice gravitas beyond just the excellent build to the big battle, which is what so many of the LOTR imitators are missing.  But the balance of intrigue, revelation, exposition and action seem to be what LOTR is missing in its first and third installments.  As is, it is pretty close to being the perfect film.

3 Paragraphs On: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

1972, J Lee Thompson -- DVD

After watching "Rise of the..." I decided I needed to revisit its sister movie from the original Apes series.  With the exception of the final chapter ("Battle for the...") I'm actually quite fond of the series, genuinely appreciating how each film extended and built upon what had come before it, in a way that sequels today don't really do so well.  With diminishing budgets each subsequent film looks a little worse that the previous yet with the limitations in technical challenges, the films instead do what good SF is supposed to, build upon themes that reflect society at the time, whether it be socio-political issues or fears about bombs or genetic tampering.

"Conquest of the..." isn't a great movie, it's barely a good movie, but it's an interesting product of its times, in a heavy-handed way commenting on civil rights issues of the time by way of a talking ape, Caesar, the offspring of two ill-fated, backwards-time-traveling apes in the previous film, protected from civilization in a circus by Ricardo Montalban but then brought to the city for the first time where he witnesses the enslavement that's befallen his ape brethren in the wake of the sudden extinction of cats and dogs.  Caesar hides in plain sight, begins organizing an underground revolution, and conspiring against the very oppressors who fear their uprising.

The film's script is surprisingly keen and also surprisingly slight.  Its short run-time (88 minutes) is eaten into greatly by the revolt, an intense (if limited) half hour sequence of apes fighting humans.  It's not a big budget battle scene like "Rise of the..." had, but rather a very 70's melee of bodies hitting the ground.  The rest of the script largely consists of the stern use of "NO!" and "DO!".  Although it really feels like an excerpted episode of a television show, it's still engaging viewing, as much marveling at it's speculative-future 1991-setting (which has a lot of great monochromatic sets and some wonderful tunnels) as the story it actually tells.

Monday, September 12, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Captain America

2011, Joe Johnston (a mish-mash of hollywood standards including one of my favs, Hidalgo) -- cinema

Once again, I am somewhat befuddled as to whether I can  say what I liked about this comic book movie, even though I am confident I did enjoy it immensely.  Even having the strong impression of having enjoyed the movie thoroughly, I am still badgered by the feelings that it could have been more.  It could have surpassed it's comic book roots and become an icon of adventure movies for this generation.  But it didn't.

Ugh, why is it so easy to point out things you don't like rather than the elements you enjoyed without using the word rollercoaster or just having the praise fall flat?  Seriously, I really did enjoy how they presented Skinny Steve establishing a truly outstanding character full of strength of character and fortitude. I love how that strength carried through into the confidence of the superhero who just progressed forward even though there was no way he learned enough about combat in those few short months to become the leader & warrior he was. This is the character that America wants to mirror itself in, the man with the best sense of right and wrong and the balls to enact it.  It was not difficult to cheer for him as he progressed from Skinny to USO Buffoon to Super Soldier.

But then why is the break-neck speed of his heroics also so prevalent in my mind?  Why is the, as Kent mentioned, fact that the whole movie is a setup for another forthcoming movie so apparent? Vikings and Gamma Rays and Cosmic Cubes?  From the origin & setup we actually rush through his discovery and combat against the villain of the movie, The Red Skull. We didn't even take the time to name his fighting compatriots while jumping through one Hell-Boyish combat scene to another, blowing up the bad guys with their own magical-mystical-super-science weapons. Then suddenly we are at the end, defeating the bad guy and rushing into the next century for the setup for The Avengers.  I can only state that there was some charisma to the presentation that had me enjoying everything despite the flaws that lingered in the back of my mind.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: X-Men: First Class

2011, Matthew Vaughn (first comic flick Kick-Ass is one of my favourite adaptations) -- cinema

It's funny, if I bounce this off of Kent's review it will come out as We Disagree, but in general I enjoyed the movie.  It just seems that with the exception of one thing, we liked different things about the movie. He was able to pull out the comic (book) elements and structure from the movie where I only saw annoying sub-plots and elements. But, before I get into that let's cover what we agreed on -- the lack of 60s spy plot. When I saw that this was to be a movie set in the 60s, I was really hoping for a stylish look to the movie built upon the eurospy genre that James Bond started back then. From clothing to architecture to attitude, this movie could have been a lot of fun. Alas, very little was really used.

But divulging myself from the 60s and back into the movie, I rather enjoyed the origin story of Eric/Magneto and his revenge trip around the world hunting nazis (for some reason, I almost typed zombies, which would have been a whole other movie, which I would have probably enjoyed) in contrast with the silly college hijinx of mind-reading Charley Xavier. I also rather enjoyed the sibling nee love-connection between Charles and Raven, amused by the fact that a man who reads minds cannot read body language so obvious. The story then led into the CIA tracking Shaw, played wonderfully wink-wink evil by Kevin Bacon, and the inevitable creation of a US mutant weapon force. But then the movie began to lose me as we lose the newly acquired mutant buddy squad almost as quickly as we got them and jump over to a connection with the (then) current event missile crisis.

I guess the whole Cuba part kind of lost me, not only because I really know nothing about the events then, but that I would have preferred the plot stick as a mutant vs mutant story.  It would have been fun to see a CIA backed mutant team fight a Shaw backed Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (twisty moustaches required by all) ending in a betrayal by the government, leading to Magneto grabbing the remainders of both sides and separating them into the new Bad Guys. Alas, the betrayal fell flat for me and just had me wondering why nobody was rushing to get Charles to a doctor.  Pulling a bullet out of his spine with your power was probably not the best way to go about things; no wonder he ends up in a wheel chair.

Bonus Paragraph!  Best. Line. Ever.  Wolverine's reaction to being recruited.  Hee!!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: The Lincoln Lawyer

2011, Brad Furman (only a straight to video action movie called The Take from a few years ago??) -- download

If you take the time to browse back through these postings, reviews or whatever you deem to call them, you will notice from time to time there are the toss-aways.  These are the movies that I DLed or rented or Netflix'd on whim but they never made much of an impression on me. It is these movies that return me to the days when I called myself a movie fan. When I saw every movie on the shelf at the local video store and usually every movie at the cinemas in town. That I would see the movies I knew I would like was a given, but I also gave time to other movies, as I just enjoyed the watching experience, seeing the emergence and evolution of certain directors and actors and screen writers. It was all source material for that persona within me, he who called himself a Film Buff.

I like Matthew McConaughey, a man's man actor of good looks, sly wit and confidence. His roles have varied from suit-wearing professionals to action heroes to good ol'boys. I like him, not for any real tangible skill in Hollywood, but because he is competent and always true to himself, no matter what role they toss at him. Simultaneously, he could disappear from acting and I probably wouldn't notice.  I know nothing about Furman and the writers were just the usual capable stock but it was based on a popular novel and that usually means at least a chance at something unique.

Strange how these 3 paragraphs are not really about the movie, one where a cocky lawyer to scumbags gets mixed up in a case that should be above his pay-grade but a sense of misplaced honor within him forces him to right a wrong.  It's a competent movie, like McConaughey is a competent actor, but it really drops the ball on what it could have been and what I suspect made the novel popular. It is not really about the lawyer driven around in his caddy, because he was kicked out of his practice -- that is just the prop for the character and never enjoyably explored.  The real story is a murder-mystery, decently executed, decently acted and given enough style to probably rent out enough to make the director some money.... if renting movies was still a revenue stream anymore. So, no not really about the movie at all but about the act of choosing, watching and dismissing movies.

Treme (1st season)

2010,  David Simon & Eric Overmyer -- downloads

Have you ever lost everything? I mean, all worldly possessions, your home and your way of life? No, I haven't either nor anyone I have ever known. If you turned on the news in the last few months, you saw many examples of such with the tornado belt being hit again, fires currently going on in Texas and the less-than-spectacular but still devastating to some hurricane. Of course, Japan's earthquake and tsunami still haunts many despite it leaving the news. But have YOU experienced it?

Katrina was expected to be just another hurricane to hit the Louisiana coast and turn at the last hour, like it had so many times before. Like the residents of New York City recently, most packed up and left but expected to come back to their homes after it passed.  Again, like NYC, many also stayed because  they couldn't leave or because just because they were tough mofo's toughing it out. Then the levees broke and up to 80% of the city was flooded. Many of those who left lost their homes, their neighborhoods and many of the friends who stayed behind.

Treme picks up almost six months later, with a view from a small musically & culturally rich neighborhood called the Tremé, and on the musicians, business owners and colorful characters that live in the neighborhood and surrounding area.  The show begins as a combination of love story to the music and lifestyles along with laser focus of the political situations cluttering the rebuilding of a beloved city. But as the season progresses the music becomes second nature and the political commentary drops away as we see more and more how people were just affected. We begin to share with them.

Take John Goodman's character Cray. He's not directly affected by the damage of the flood, being from a nice upscale white neighborhood obviously inland and high up. But the institutional failures have him ranting on YouTube when he should be writing his novel. His city was hurt and failed by every body of government and that pisses him off even though his personal stake was very little. We, as most likely outsiders, feel his anger with him but also his sense of wasted effort. But as time passes, as episodes fade into the next, we see his malaise settle in, the depression of knowing that no matter how much you care, it happened and so much was lost.

We also have his wife Toni, an attorney fighting a handful of battles against the corrupt and inept legal system that mishandled everything about the policing and control after the hurricane. Sure records were lost and computers fried, but she gets to experience just how the system did not care one iota for the folk left behind, whether criminal or family member. Yeah, she obviously has money but I don't think we see her take one dime from anyone through the entire season. But again, this is her city and she is fighting for it, case by case.

In contrast we have Antoine Batiste, the itinerant trombone player living with his latest baby mama in a crappy apartment on the edge of town. He goes from gig to gig playing where and when he can for whatever money is offered, stiffing the cab drivers for a few bucks each time. Through him we experience the music inherent to the city, that the hurricane couldn't take out. He doesn't have a home or a car or even a job, but he has a lifestyle. He literally lost everything but his trombone and his people.

That brings up the music.  While the commentary on the politics gives way to the personal stories, the music is inherent to each and every episode.  As in, every fucking episode has a gig or an extended pause where we sit and hear people playing New Orleans music. I won't even attempt to say I know the music or comment on what is real or not but let me say I got the impression, from character comments and such, that this was the real music of NOLA. This wasn't the Disney dixieland and gospel that we know from TV and movies. I also know nothing about jazz so I won't comment on style but the raw music being played by dozens of musicians who all know each other in dingy little clubs all over town just felt authentic.  I am sure that to an aficionado of the scene, the faces and names dropped are astounding. And even I could tell that even the background characters dripped authenticity.  This show wanted us to know how ingrained the music is in NO's life and how important it is for the country to treasure it.

It wasn't just the music we heard,  but the culture of NOLA that we learned about. I do mean learned. Have you ever heard of Mardi Gras Indians? Do you know what a Second Line is?  These are things I never conceived of let alone heard of. We know Mardi Gras costumes are elaborate and colorful but did you know one group merged them with native american cultures not only creating the prettiest costumes you have seen but also adapting the severe reactions to authority? You've seen the somber funeral marches where brass bands play slow tunes and people walk slowly behind the casket. But have you heard the more joyous ones where people celebrate life while dancing & shimmying their way, sometimes having them emerge spontaneously without even a casket to follow. By showing us these elements found no where but in NOLA, we can can be led to understand the value of saving a city that, for the most of us, might be know for drunken college kids and beads for tits.

That was season one, the introduction to the city and it's people. We experienced the joy of the music and the tragedy of what they went through. We saw the black hearts in politics and systems and how most people just rolled their eyes and got on with  their lives. We were given characters to care for, to mourn with and some who you wanted to fucking shake. I wonder what season two will bring us?

And yes, I am still craving a beignet.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: The Warrior's Way

2010, Sngmoo Lee (seriously, his first movie?!?!) -- download

Or, as I have been calling it Cowboys vs Ninjas but really, it's Korean so not strictly ninjas.  And where I may have been complaining about the other cowboy movie being a little lacking in the memorable state, this one was waaaaay more memorable than I expected it to be!  This was really a wow-ser for me.  Think of a chinese wireline wuxia movie mixed with the stylistic elements of the best violent period anime mixed with... well, mixed with the visual styling of Jean-Pierre Jeunet.  This movie is just style mixed up in a tight genre movie of it's expected ilk.

Tough sword fighter wanders around Asia killing anyone who believes they are better than him, on a stereotypical revenge trip -- family & puppy killed but that's beside the point. And as he kills his last enemy, he finds himself confronted with a remainder -- a baby girl. Rather than kill her, he picks her up like luggage and heads off over the ocean to America, to hang with his laundryman buddy.  Alas the laundryman is dead and has left his abandoned shop in a town quickly being lost to sands and evil cowboys.  There he gets mixed up with the local circus... yes, a no-longer traveling circus and sideshow complete with a bearded lady and the creepiest clowns I have seen outside of It.  For the sake of the town he confronts the evil cowboys but then attracts the attention of his assassin warrior trainer who doesn't like he left the little girl alive. Confrontation and walk into the sunset.

This movie had a standard plot with expected threads and direction but DAMN did it have style.  From the decaying clapboard town that would make sweeping an act in futility to odd surrealist circus folk to not-ninja assassins lighting on rooftops like crows of dark fortune!!  It's very odd to see a director reaching backward to Tarentino for tips on laying out a martial arts action scene but I could not help but think this, as the quirkiness blended with the stark seriousness of the sword fighting.  I cannot wait to see the next movie -- Eskimos vs Ninjas.

3 Short Paragraphs: Cowboys vs Aliens

2011, Jon Favreau (Iron Man dude) -- cinema

Its weird, but I am not sure what to say about this movie.  It's what I call a popcorn movie, in where you can be full up on expectation and spectacle, but *BURP* -- it's all gone.  It's not that it is a bad movie but that it doesn't leave you thinking much after the movie is done.  I guess all I can say for any movie that falls into this trap for me, is that they should try harder to be one thing or another -- try for a definitive style and ambiance OR just go for the cheese factor.  Don't try and be so middle of the road attractive to all audiences because you chance not being all that attractive to any.

So, you have cowboys -- Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Sam Rockwell; and a cowgirl -- Olivia Wilde!  And we have aliens; grey slimey bug-lizard warrior aliens with no clothes on.  Do any intelligent species wear clothes besides us?  And we have aliens in the old west, no not Battle Deadwood but more nasty corporate mining aliens who see us as just another animal life-form to be utilized while panhandling for gold.  Aliens attack an old west town, kidnapping and probably probing and doing some bug-zapper experiments on us. But they pick on the wrong cowboy and he starts blowing the shite out of them with his laser-Pip-Boy.  And the aliens lose the ROI as the cowfolk fight back, along side Daniel and Harrison, and run away to the stars.  Kinda.

That's it.  Zap zap, pow pow, BOOM.  No commitment to much anything else.  The cowboys are Saturday morning western cowboys and the aliens are just there to be ugly and gross.  Not even the sexy cowgirl in the thinnest old-west dress I have ever seen commits to her sexy character.  You might get distracted by her skin-tight dress and expect (SPOILER!) just a little more from her as she walks naked from the bonfire but no, there is convenient PG-13 lighting.  Insert joke about her possibly popping my corn.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Wire (complete series)

Last night we completed my (mostly) re-watching of The Wire, the acclaimed crime series out of the shared world that is Homicide: Life of the Street, the Law & Orders and any of the other series that Detective Munch crossed over onto.  This one brings us to Baltimore with a view from many sides: the drug dealers & criminals, the police fighting "the war", the schools trying to educate, the families living in "the projects", the addicts suffering from the product and the politicians mixed up in it. It was not a procedural with weekly or even seasonal crimes but followed all of the above through 5 or so years of their lives.  And at the end, we see Baltimore and its people irrevocably changed... but not so much.

The Wire tries to be about just that... the wiretap. It wants to show a police department just going through the motions, barely fighting crime and just putting out the stats.  But then someone stirs up shit and they have to pay more attention.  So, here you have a bunch of under-motivated cops, homicide detectives and drug squads, forced to build a case bigger than their apathy.  From fighting with type-writers (even I had a PC word processor before 2002) and archaic surveillance equipment, they have to learn how to build a case listening into phone calls.  It's depressing seeing how backwards these cops are after watching years of magic & scifi in shows like Law & Order and CSI.  But it's also heartening to see how some characters can do so much with what little they have on pure wit of mind.

But really, its not about the wiretap so much that this is the torch they carry through all seasons, increasing technology entering their lives and criminals catching on and foiling those techniques. It becomes more about how the squads of police have to become creative to survive the dysfunction of the system they work within and the ever changing technology they have never heard of. From payphones abandoned for disposable cell phones (burners) vs film cameras & phone company based wiretaps abandoned for digital surveillance equipment and computer software.  These are the trappings of the plots given to us each season, and while not being the succinct focus of the show, their presence are almost metaphors for the increasing passion key characters have for changing the system.

It really is more about the social commentary. This show tackles a whole lot of issues that would often be the single focus of many shows. Season one gives us the institutional dysfunction of the police departments vs the masquerading glamour of the drug crime life.  Season two gives us the death of the working man culture and the ingrained corruption of big business. Season three attempts to tackle the futility of the "war on drugs" and how much the war itself is as damaging as what they are fighting. Season four shows how everything is politics as well as the effect all of this has on the kids growing up, and trying to be educated within it.  And season five shows us that even the most nobles acts can be dragged back down into the morass of corruption & futility that the rest of the series has shown us.

Characters. The Wire is ever about it's characters. These are the kinds of characters that people sit around in bars and relate stories about. There is McNulty, the bitter angry drunken Irish (really, but is he any more Irish than his love of Jameson and The Pogues?) cop with a definite skill at solving murders and stirring up shit. Bunk Moreland is a smart-suited completely aware but often drunk detective who gets the idea of working within the system. Carver & Herc, the thick-headed street police who you just want to yell at.  Daniels, the politically minded officer who cares more than he wants to. Lester Freamon, the seasoned, brilliant detective working on dollhouse furniture. Jay Landsman, the fat fuck of a squad commander who occasionally lets his true nature shine through the greasy politico he is. Stringer Bell, the business minded gangster who wants more than making drug money in his life. Proposition Joe, the last of the old school drug kingpins. Bubbles, the drug addict on a roller coaster ride to redemption. Omar, the robin-hooded stickup man.  I could go on and on.  They each have a place in the show, criss-crossing from story to story, in and out, till their end or the end of the series.

And the language! Oh I do like me some fine dialogue. You really do have to pay attention to the conversation in this show. This is where your partner, only half paying attention on the sofa, needs the annotated read-along book. Yes, look away for five minutes and you are that person. This show often requires subtitles-for-the-stupid as well as straight-up subtitles for the thick accents. From the dialects of the "corner kids" to the systemized terms used by the "real Poe-leese" to the Bah'more slang, language just drips from this show. Try relating a conversation between two drug dealers to your co-workers the next day when you are as white-guilt as me and it will so fall flat. And what the fuck is Snoop saying when she shouts out that bird call like greeting of hers?!?!  The political talk often had my eyes glazing over but simultaneously fascinated with the knowledge they must carry in their head. Though not as dense as Deadwood,  the skill it took some actors to carry this off is impressive.

The best & worst part about The Wire is that it had to end. It had to end. Reality shows us that the more  things change, the more they stay the same. If the show continued, it would have had to depress us about how little things change or start creeping away from the realism we were presented with. The final montage of the last ten minutes of the shows gives us all we need in laying our favourite characters to rest after five seasons, some redeemed, some laid in the earth and some just pulled away from it all and on to new lives.

Friday, September 2, 2011

We Agree: Attack The Block

2011, Joe Cornish

Graig: Before I tell you what Attack the Block is, let me tell you what it isn't. It isn't the best movie ever made, and it's not the best movie released this year. It won't be winning any major awards, and it's not setting records at the box office. But Attack the Block is an exceptional genre film and, point blank, a great film. It is a film that may not find its full audience this year, but will continue to attract more and more fans in the years to come. The film, it has legs. Out of the gate it's a cult film, the kind of film that, five-to-ten years down the line, will receive a big-budget sequel because there will be the support behind it to warrant it.

David: I agree and throwing back to my thoughts as I left the cinema, "This is a perfect movie." For me perfection is not in a movie rising from its genre into a broad spectrum of appeal but in embracing what it is, understanding its audience and being true to those who you expected to like the movie.

I do wonder how well it will do in the US, as it took a few minutes to decipher the various accents the kids used. Deep London mixed with the origins of the kids' parents was a little thick until you got the hang of it. In a land that subtitles its own regional accents, I imagine the movie will be relegated to the Foreign Section of a DVD store... wait, do those even exist anymore?

Graig: Director Joe Cornish makes his cinematic debut behind the lens, but the man is not unfamiliar with the process, coming out of the British TV comedy scene at the turn of the millennium, as well as being the current writing partner with Edgar Wright. If the strong visual element to ATB is any indication, Wright has doubtlessly had an impact on Cornish. Cornish uses shadows and colour in active and remarkable ways throughout this film, betraying its modest budget and helping mask any flaws there may be in the special effects. There are more than a few stunning, extraordinarily well-composed shots in this film that have been etched in my brain, and few movies have ever that kind of visual echo (Scott Pilgrim... and The Assassination of Jesse James... were the last two I can think of to do so).

Yet, it's not just a film with visual flair, it's also got a fun story that's a throwback to the 1980's style of "creature feature" like Critters or Ghoulies, the type that features teenaged heroes facing off against invading hordes of unknown thingies, geared towards a similar-aged audience, yet at an R rating. They're not straight-up horror movies, and they tend to have a sense of humour, but it's more in the characters than ironic. While many creature features of the era are beloved (sometimes earnestly, sometimes ironically), few would be considered classic, so what sets ATB apart is a redemptive character arc which is about the best I've ever seen on screen.

In the opening scene we're introduced to Sam, a nurse, walking home from her job where she's accosted by a quintet of teenaged thugs in a lower-cost tenement neighbourhood, aka "the Block". The thugs are 15-years-old, at best, led by Moses, who's generally short on words but has a face full of meaning. Their mugging is interrupted when a meteorite crashes into a nearby car and Sam runs away. Investigating the crash, Moses is tagged by a mysterious creature, whom the kids chase into a playground castle and pummel to death. What seems for a short while to be an isolated incident turns out to be much more as the kids, asking their local drug maven, Hi-Hatz, to hide the creature's carcass in his weed room, witness a meteorite shower close to their neighbourhood. Full of gusto fresh off their first kill, the gang quickly discovers that these new meteors contain much larger, far more vicious creatures than the first, hulking, 6-foot, pitch black rodents with multiple rows of glowing emerald teeth (a curious but brilliant combination of the Rat Creatures from Jeff Smith's Bone comics and Giger's Alien). The aliens are seemingly attracted to the teens and soon the whole block is under siege, where it turns out Sam actually lives, and she comes back into the lives of these kids who assaulted her, and is stuck helping them out.

David: Emerald? Weren't they blue?

Graig: Nope, must be your color blindness tricking you.

David: I love the comparison to the rat creatures from Bone as I always sort of imagined those things having glowing-almost-plastic eyes. Luckily the monsters in ATB were not as loquacious as our rat creatures. I loved the style he chose for these monsters -- they were simultaneously scary & tough but still mortal, being killed by kids with swords when needed. Typically of me, I started pondering in my head what sort of D&D monsters these things would make. Low level most likely but with a lot of damage capability and a great stealth measure. Its not that they were the toughest monsters to fall from the sky, its just you didn't want them to get the drop on you, in the darkness. Sort of like the kids themselves.

Graig: Moses, whose staunch, hardened-beyond-his-years face is occasionally betrayed by softness, enters the film at a turning point, just as he's being pushed by Hi-Hatz to peddle his wares on the street, pushing him deeper into serious criminal activity that, until recently, was just a juvenile game between his friends. They were playing at being gangsters, but a quick, and brilliantly constructed glimpse into all of their family lives showed that Moses was the only one who had nothing to lose by going deeper, and certainly had no one looking out or caring for him. He was on his own, and therefore capable of taking all the risks, thus appearing to be the bravest or scariest and most impressive of his friends.

For an older audience, this film starts out wanting to trigger the classist and/or racist and/or age-ist tendencies of the audience. Cornish wants you to kind of want these alien creatures to get those punk-ass, annoying, no-good teenagers. But I can also see kids of a certain age somewhat identifying with the teens almost from the get go, so it has its cake and eats it too, because it allows you to at first understand the kids, where they're coming from, what's against them socially (without getting all preachy about it) and then actually begin to like them for their humour and their bravery and, eventually, sympathize with them. It's such an incredible arc, especially for Moses who seems so assured and, well, wicked, that to ultimately find out he's really just scared and alone is brilliant character execution.

David: When I saw the trailers and read the buzz about the movie, I sort of envisioned the rough & tough kids who lived in tenements but were not true criminals. I imagined that their no nonsense nature would lead them to be the heroes. But i was not expecting the more realistic depiction of true thugs in the making. Like the depicted kids in HBO's The Wire, these kids probably didn't have much else left to them in life so ambition attached itself to the local weed baron. But even with a less than stellar life ahead of them, they have a chance to be heroes. And also like The Wire, the redemption arc is given to us to show they can be more than what life has left them with.

Graig: The aliens, their origins, and their tendencies are speculated upon by the characters, the film's closest concession to giving them an origin story, and it's a fairly good one. Some may not find it satisfactory, but ultimately you either buy into the conceit of attacking giant alien rats or you don't. Speculating on their origins and why they were there, though, is part of the film's "take home assignment" and should be part of the fun.

David: I still like to ponder origins of monsters but these kinds are the easiest to imagine. There are no spaceships landing, no invasion force, just floating rocks in space. Where did they come from? Who knows & who cares -- the universe is probably more scary and weird than we can ever imagine. It probably produces stranger life forms than these. But of course, i did envision them as the preceding release to a true invasion force, maybe dropped from orbit by malicious aliens, to cause chaos and even possibly deplete an existing populace. Thanks for the homework Mr. Kent, do I get an A ?

Graig: Yes, that's an "A" worthy prediction, sir.

The acting, especially from John Boyega as Moses, is in part from a talented group of mostly unknown actors (Nick Frost is the only recognizable name among them) but also shows the strong leadership of Cornish to elicit such great performances from them.

Cornish can, assuredly, be added to the top of the list of directors to watch, hopefully doing his own thing, rather than as a work-for-hire in Hollywood. I'm sure if Tin-Tin (which he co-wrote with Wright) is a success he can (literally) write his own ticket for his next project (did I use that euphemism right?)

(click link for the making of the monsters for ATB)