Tuesday, January 31, 2012

3 short paragraphs: Shutter Island

2010, Martin Scorsese -- Netflix

I'm not well versed in Martin Scorsese's oeuvre... for no particular reason other the subject matter of much of his work is generally not of interest (organized crime) and the featured players he likes to work with (Dicaprio, Pachino) are not actors I particularly enjoy. 

But what I recognize from the opening half hour of Shutter Island is how strong and assured Scorsese's direction is, working with some pretty, shall we say, corny material, but making it work.  The setup is a loaded, hoary cliche of 50's post-pulp psychodramas, a "closed room mystery on and island" (see also Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), yet Scorsese's lens captures an intimidating location, with a genuine air of mystery and deception.  An initial flashback seems perhaps too loaded, too on-point, but Scorsese commits the use of flashbacks-turned-fever dreams-turned-nightmares as they quickly become part of the film's suspenseful landscape. 

The story itself isn't great, but the mystery at least has a streak of logic (far-fetched as it is) from which the director and editor never deviate.  There are no cheats here protecting the mystery, which is refreshing, actually working in the film's favor once it starts revealing its disappointing endgame.  The honesty of the film and its characters means that there isn't a big twist, just a slow unveiling, which makes it more satisfying than it should be.  Again, I chalk it up to Scorsese's skill and restraint, there's a wisdom to the storytelling if not the story itself.  Don't get me wrong, Shutter Island is not a good movie, but it is an incredibly well-made movie and I'm quite impressed with it, even though I didn't really like it.

3 short paragraphs: In Like Flint

1967, Gordon Douglas -- Netflix

I had heard the phrase "In Like Flint" sporadically over the first two decades of my life (having actually mistaken it for "In Like Flynn", thinking it was a Tron reference) before I learned that it was a film, discovering that tidbit of information from the audio commentary on the Austin Powers laserdisc (yeah, that's right).  I don't recall if it was director Jay Roach or Mike Meyers who cited In Like Flint as primary influence on the cheeky, sexed-up spy spoof, but I honestly had never heard of Derek Flint, nor either of the films starring James Coburn as a hyper-intelligent, independently wealthy, dramatically sexualized free agent in the spy game.  It still took another 15 years before I even came across Derek Flint, having never seen it in a video store or on television or on line in reviews, on chat forums, or anywhere for that matter.  Frankly, until In Like Flint popped up on Netflix, I pretty much forgot Flint existed (as it seems most do).

After having watched it, I understand why it hasn't remained in the public consciousness... it's not very good.  Moreover, the character of Derek Flint, at least in this film, is only on screen, it seems, for about 1/3 of the screen time, almost like an ancillary character in his own picture.  Even when Derek Flint is on screen, he doesn't have much going for him in the way of discernible character.  He's smart, which we learn from his awareness of super-science like sonor and cryogenics, but even saying the words, Coburn doesn't seem convinced of what he's saying.  Flint also a renowned lover, having three ladies happily cohabiting at his pad, all deifying his sexual proclivity, yet Coburn himself has exceptionally little in the way of sexual charisma or charm.  I actually laughed out loud upon Flint's first appearance in the film (which doesn't happen until about the 15-minute mark) mainly because I had no idea what to expect, certainly not this tall, lanky, gaunt-looking fellow.  To top it off he's introduced "talking" to a dolphin making dolphin noises, and if anything's going to kill someone's reputation as a Lothario, that will do it.  Coburn's general performance as Flint seems to be with a bit of a chuckle, but from the actor, not the character.

The "case" of the film is pure novelty, with a women's coalition making a play to take over the world, and by the time their grand scheme is revealed to Flint (because he never really figures it out for himself), it actually sounds kind of progressive and positive for 1967, but then Flint chuckles it off, dismissing it in an shocking display of sexism that is about the only thing in this film that raises any eyebrows.  It's a tepid, plodding, boring movie, with a modicum of titillation in its opening theme sequence that promises more than it actually delivers.  It should also be noted this is the second of two Flint movies (the first: Our Man Flint) and it plays like we already know all about Flint and his reputation and takes no effort at elaborating or developing it any further.  I have to wonder if, even in 1967, people were all that aware of who Flint was.  He's certainly not as cool as James Bond, and he's far more ridiculous than Austin Powers.

Four Lions

Chris Morris, 2010

For the longest time I thought "spoof" and "satire" were interchangeable, taking me well into my 20s before I came to understand the distinction. While the former tends to be frivolous and lighthearted, satire typically abandons humor for bite, working on a more conceptual and intellectual level. A spoof's purpose is to gently poke fun at something, almost in tribute (versus a parody or lampoon, which are mocking instead). Satire, on the other hand, actually has something to say about it's subject, though it can often get lost in the maze of metaphor.

Four Lions is a biting satire of terrorists, people who blindly take up a cause they don't necessarily believe in, and even more apparently don't understand. It's about a group of young men that don't have much, are torn between worlds, and are looking for something meaningful in their lives, often ignoring the real meaning that they already have. Their planned act of terrorism is born from a foolish ideology, ignorance and a desire to be a part of something, to make their mark. It's not a film universally about Muslim jihadists, per se, but about disenfranchised, lost youth. Here they're not even angry, just in need of something to make them feel important.

Its a heady subject matter, but the film approaches it's uncomfortable topic in the surprising form of a broad, almost slapstick comedy. And it is frequently hilarious.

The characters are built largely of the Three Stooges ilk, a group of men who aren't terribly bright and in way over their heads. Yet there is a heart brought to the characters, and an understanding of who they are and why they're doing what they do, even though they don't seem to realize their own motivations. They have devoted themselves to a cause but are oblivious of what the cause actually is and how their excessive familiarity with and reliance upon western society is at odds with their supposed beliefs. Better yet, "the cause" has rejected them, but they proceed with their folly of a grand terrorist scheme in hopes of making a good impression and being embraced by the cause, albeit posthumously. as martyrs

I can't say the film goes so far as to root for the characters at least not in their objectives, but it certainly casts them in a sympathetic glow, despite their failed and tragically flawed understanding of their goal.

To make a broad comedy out of a terrorist plot had to be a dicey proposal for any production company (though about what you'd expect from the mind of Chris Morris, perhaps Great Britains' most subversive humorist). Morris taking his hand at directing a feature for the first time pulls off an interesting visual sense, cheap looking, but methodical in its editing between cameras from different angles and sources, like home video cameras, security cameras, and in one instance, a drone bomber plane camera. It's an assured work and Morris seems confident in both the material and the style he's chosen to work with it in.

This one has cult classic written all over it.

3 Short Paragraphs: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

2011, Michael Bay-splosion -- download

Really?  It wasn't called Dark Side of the Moon ?  Go figger. Pink Floyd must be happy.

OK, disclaimers.  First, yeah, one line is the bonus paragraph. Second, I don't really care for Transformers, not the toys nor the cartoons nor the comics.  Third, I hated the first movie but the second one amused me. I don't really have any reason for not liking the franchise, it just never appealed to me, but might stem from the snobby kid I was, who decided that if all my friends liked Transformers, I would like Micronauts instead. Now, if Bay-splosion did a Micronauts movie, I would be all squeeee and debating who would be the best voice actor for Acroyear.

So, the main reason I hated the first one was two-fold: first, Shia LeBoeuf's character annoyed the living frick out of me.  Whine whine, yell yell. I get he was supposed to be the nerd but he would have been the nerd the other nerds avoid because he would just embarrass them.  Second, considering the destructive power of the autobots and decepticons, they did a glorious job of not hurting anyone.  It is not that I get glee from body counts but it does add weight, no pun intended, to a movie about giant destructive robots who want to hurt people.  This movie?  Body count galore.  Finally, the decepticons start shooting people left, right and center. In an effect that smacked of the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds, the blasts hit a running person and *poof* dust and bones.  The destruction of Chicago at the hands of the evil robots is stirring in its statement of how the deceptive source word of the decepticons is not just a cute name.  Still, once again humans need to be picked up and shaken by Optimus Prime, with a, "Don't you get it?!?!  They are LYING !!!  They will BETRAY you !!"

I caught a snippet of this the other day in a Futureshop, on a giant hi-def screen.  One thing can be said for Bay-splosion -- his movies are meant to be seen on the big screen.  It looked incredible, the special effects fitting seamlessly into the human element. Despite his reuse of The Island effects, the man does know how to build a CGI battle.  The collapse of the building onto another is a great scene especially with the wiggly worm robot chewing up the scenery, literally.  But, and there is always a but, once again we sunk back into the Shia-annoyance factor. He was back in his prime irritation mode in this one, which begs a question -- how the fuck does he hook up with a supermodel, at least one who didn't see him save the world a couple of times?  She might know that but if all he does is whine and can't keep down a job, why would she like him? Mary Sue that Shia's character is, he cannot do anything but get wrapped up in every world saving event or get the real doll.

Monday, January 30, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

2011, Rupert Wyatt -- download

Like Graig, I was somewhat surprised to find out this movie was being made.  I am sure it was sold to the studios as an attempt to wipe out Tim Burton's place in the film chronology with a reboot in mind. Reboots are in dontchaknow.  I am actually somewhat of a fan of the Burton piece but more as a standalone post-apocalypse movie with Tim Roth being as nutty as ever.  The 12 year old in me also loved he original movies and especially the series, which amused me even then by being shot in an area of California that also had dozens of other TV shows and movies being shot -- that BC was used for this movie, considering the province's place as backdrop currently, is strangely appropo.

The Rodman character, the scientist seeking a cure for Alzheimer's played by James Franco, bothered me even if it was all intentional. He knew he was creating a very very intelligent ape but his agenda was testing the cure for his dad's disease.  He knew he was saving the baby from being put down by taking him into his home.  But I don't think he knew he was also introducing Caesar into an emotionally intelligent state.  There were so many times I wished Rodman would have just explained to Caesar what was going on. Human beings can be quite shitty to each other as well.  It was all as if Rodman hadn't quite realized that uplifting an ape would create a person.

While the movie seems to have been advertised as a setup for the breakout, and thus the probably much more action oriented sequel, this one was really about the middle act.  This movie was about Caesar realizing exactly how shitty humans can be.  The fact that Rodman didn't know that the apes he used in research came from the same place he was dropping Caesar off at, just added to his willful ignorance.  But the whole section in the cages, the prison drama amongst his lesser brethren, is compelling and dramatic. I would have liked to see more scenes of Caesar wandering around between the conservatory and the lab, to establish he is seeing more than the three worlds he knew but it really did want to rush to great apes pushing buses and knocking helicopters out of the air.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

2011, David Fincher - Theatre

I have to wonder how many people have attended this film without the spectre of rape looming large over it.  The purportedly graphic sequences in the book and the Swedish film adaptation have made the title almost synonymous with the act, and until it actually happens within David Fincher's recent adaptation of Steig Larsson's novel (and it happens just as uncomfortably and as brutally as you didn't want to imagine) it sits like a pall over the film's build-up.  But I should say for as sickening as the acts it shows, it intones so much more of the violence and, to its sincerest credit, doesn't shy away from the unseemly and gag-inducing after-effects of what occurs.

But Fincher's Girl it isn't a film about rape, instead it is largely that of a "closed room" mystery, although in this case the closed room is an island, and the mystery is that much tougher a nut to crack, since it's a 40-year-old cold case with seemingly not a lot of untouched terrain left to tread.  Still, the mystery itself is upon which the story hangs its theme, one of predators and prey, and how one can become the other, and vice versa.  Its a well orchestrated theme by Fincher and co, but a the cost of sub plots and character diversions that would bolden the mystery which were eliminated to focus more upon the idea of hunters and the hunted.

Passing through an opening sequence with an industrialized/Reznor-ized rendition of Led Zepplin's "Immgrant's Song" that's like a nightmarish counterpart to a traditional James Bond titles, Fincher proves he's still got a gift for music videos, though largely irrelevant to the lengthy feature that comes. Perhaps the abrasive, jagged track accompanied by a torrent of black-on-grey visuals is just the director tenderizing the audience for what's to come (a total Gaspar Noe tactic).

The gothic Bond allusion, isn't too far off either, as there's a lot of high tech gadgetry employed, even more subterfuge, sinster ass-kicking, chase sequences and more than a few wry lines tossed around (and even a bit of globe trotting and bed laying).  It's of course a much different tone, and in almost every respect more thought out and character-centric than your average super-spy action-thriller, and yet, by the end, Rooney Mara's Lisabeth Salander became as much a spook archetype as Bond, Bourne and the like.

The predator/prey theme hits from the onset, as Daniel Craig's magazine entrepreneur Mikael Blomkvist emerges from a courthouse where he's just lost a libel case against one of Sweden's richest moguls and has to pay restitution of 600,000 kronor, and also faces losing his journalistic credibility and Millennium Magazine.  Though convinced he was set-up, he knows he's defeated and without options, and more than likely facing even further attacks from his wealthy nemesis.  Where once he was hunting, he's now the hunted, but the figurehead of a prominent Swedish family seeks to employ Mikael, officially as his biographer, but unofficially to look into the 40-year-long disappearance/suspected death of his beloved niece.

What then unfolds is yet another hunt which weaves, innocuously at first and then firmly, in with the events of Lisabeth, a troubled ward of the state (though in her early-20's), hyper intelligent, and an off-the-books/by-any-means investigator for a prestigious firm.  In her status as ward, she's preyed upon by her new guardian, but she cycles back, relentlessly and fearlessly, victimizing him in equally (but justified) brutal ways.  Lisabeth is recruited to help Mikael research other murder that might fit in with the cold case, told he needs her help to catch a "murderer of women".  Though perhaps innocent, it's yet another predatory tactic.

Mikael and Lisabeth unravel the mystery both together and separately, becoming lovers in the process (that may be mutual predation), and upon discovering the predator the cat and mouse game really begins, with Mikael definitely the mouse... but it's Lisabeth who is the hawk.

Though actually glossing over the "most detestable collection of people you will ever meet" (including a Nazi or two, speaking of predators), the mystery is a satisfying one and it's ultimate reveal is perhaps expected but still executed with a plethora of suspense. 

It does drags in it's epilogue, a lengthy sequence involving Lisabeth becoming that super spy-type which stretches the credibility of the film's reality, although it's certainly not outside the capacity of the character.  In the end there's perhaps the ultimate reveal that Mikael preyed upon her, to an extent, and she went willingly.

Fincher's direction is icy, holding fast with blues and greys, making even summer in Sweden seem like a chilly place.  He conveys both the modern and the historical architecture of the land, as well as hinting at the cultural landscape, both past and present, particularly the neo-conservatism as it recalls the Swedish Nazi sympathizers, though I can only imagine this plays a stronger part in the novel as it's relatively scuttled here.

The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is bracing, constantly ratcheting up the tension and lending an ever-present sense of dread and foreboding.  There's also a devilish use of Enya's "Orinoko Flow" that'd should be eye-rolling but is pitch perfect.

Every actor involved brings their A-game.  Christopher Plummer provides the foundation for the murder mystery and delivers countless lines of exposition like it was natural dialogue, with equal amounts of charm, pain and a hint of (red herring-laced) malice.  Daniel Craig works Mikael with subtlety, full of frustration, but equally beaten down by his recent failure, he's far from the everyman but even with his plentiful investigative skills still out of his depth.  Rooney Mara has, this awards season, already been recognized for her committed performance, and for all the hype surrounding her take on the role, she still surpasses expectations.  It's a highly nuanced and naturally handled, conveying an awkward confidence that transitions to full-bore malice when the demon is let loose (an even more dangerous counterpart to Ryan Gosling's driver in Drive). As intense and convincing her performance is in the rape sequences, one can't overlook the actor who had to play the role on the other side. Yorick van Wageningen is so disgustingly convincing as a barbaric pig of a man, that you have to wonder how it will affect him in his private and professional life (there's reports he had a small breakdown after filming the sequence). It's a dark and extremely effective performance and a thankless one but worth singling out.

Having managed to avoid the phenomena of "The Girl..." movies and books until now, the film had much to live up to, and also to live down.  It's not the perfect movie, nor the perfect story, but there's an exceptional level of craft that draws the viewer in and holds them through to the finale... well, almost.

Beats, Rhyme and Life: The Journeys of A Tribe Called Quest

2011, Michael Rapaport -- DVD

After Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys hit, but before Puffy, Biggie and Tupac rose came the golden age of hip hop.  Creativity in the medium hit its apex, sampling became an artform, production became as important as the rhymes and the emceeing enjoyed a whole new versatility.   Something about that time and the music resonated with me, such that during my formative years, that time where I started establishing my own independence and developing my own tastes, hip-hop wasn't just my primary musical interest, but my only musical interest.  De La Soul, Erik B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Das EFX, and dozens more.  Hip hop was already born but this was when it came to life.

As actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport's documentary makes a strong case,  A Tribe Called Quest are, perhaps, the Beatles of hip hop, having pushed the boundaries of what can be done with the form so broadly that so much of what came after them was so obviously derivative of or influenced by the group.

Also like the Beatles, Tribe survived for just under a decade before calling it quits, largely due to in-fighting and long-brewing contention between it's figurehead members, Q-Tip's John Lennon to Phife Dawg's Paul McCartney (and typing that out I realize that it does sound kind of ridiculous, but at the same time I can't deny some of the parallel).

Rapaport's passion for that era of hip hop shines through in Beats, Rhyme and Life: The Journeys of A Tribe Called Quest, and it so clearly mirrors my own, and we're not alone.  The film kicks during a much hyped reunion tour in 2008 (ten years after throwing in the towel), with a selected scene of the fallout of a fight between Tip and Phife, and Rapaport asking whether Tribe will ever perform together again, and works back from there, with a series of interviews with the band and with a plethora of hip-hop industry stars and legends, including ?uestlove and Blackthought of the Roots, the Beastie Boys, Pete Rock, De La Soul, Ludacris, DJ Red Alert, and more, all clearly in awe of what Tribe accomplished and the impact they had, individually and as part of the Native Tongues movement.

What the documentary conveys well is the status of Tribe within the industry and even though they're mostly defunct, they remain a relevant part of the conversation.  Also by delving into the history of the group, their shaky roster and the personality conflicts between Phife and Tip, probing the past as it resurfaces in a more recent context, it provides a satisfying story arc.

The film by a fan for fans, not necessarily of Tribe itself but of hiphop itself, it doesn't touch on every facet of the groups past that the hardcore Tribe fan might want.  It glosses over the album which gives the film its name, easily their least impressive effort (yet one that's aging surprisingly well), and certainly most exemplary of their problems.  It came following Q-Tip's conversion to Islam and  Phifes move to Atlanta which saw him shut out from much of the production effort, Tip's aspiring cousin given nearly an equal emcee spotlight to Phife.  The film also skims over tips beef which saw him in a face mask for the video for Hot Sex from the Bulworth soundtrack.  Both of these topics I imagine were nixed by Tip in his producer role, and despite the band's theoretical interference in the final product, there's still a surprising depth and honesty to it all and not just a rah rah puff piece for any one member.

Q-Tip is quite clearly shown as an obsessive, a perfectionist, and a bit of a control freak, and also a bit oblivious to his own true nature (no matter how much it's pointed out to him) whereas Phife is seen as somewhat stubborn and prone to walking away than standing up.  Ali Shaheed, the group's producer/DJ, is pretty much caught in the middle, and doesn't seem to want to take sides or act as moderator, while Jarobi, the group's occasional fourth member comes and goes as he pleases but is obviously completely invested in Phife's well-being (particularly once he was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes).

It's not going to be a general interest feature, but anyone interested in the music genre, or even music in general would certainly be rewarded with exposure to the group and its story.  Rapaport's film is strengthened with some incredible accompanying animations by Double Triple, which act as chapter markers and transitions (there's a great featurette on the DVD with the animators showing how it was all done), as well as an awesome soundtrack arrangement from Madlib.

Beats, Rhymes & Life: A Tribe Called Quest Documentary (Unreleased Trailer) from Matthew Beck on Vimeo.

3 Short Paragraphs: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

2007, David Yates -- download

This movie begins the part of the series where I began screaming at the screen like an old man telling it to get off my lawn.  No, not the kids turning into annoying teenagers but at the lunacy of the Ministry of Magic.  This is the story where the powers that be are in Harry (or is it Big V?) denial.  That plot element, while I completely get it from the bad guys seed-dissent idea, frustrated the hell out of me.  The series has spent the first couple of movies establishing a destiny, a prophecy that everyone is buying into.  And with this one fell swoop, it all seems dissembled.  "If you bunch of magical wizardly types all believe in prophecies and the like, why do you need to suddenly discount this one?!?!" screams the old man in the bathrobe.

Then, of course, we also cannot dismiss the overt Dark activities of Dolores Umbridge. From her scratching lies into Harry's hand to her interrogation of Cho, she is going far beyond political evils and into the realms of pure darkness.  The fact that this steels Harry and the kids into creating Dumbledore's Army, which in the long run helps the lot out, always made me wonder whether there were further machinations I was not aware of.  She is maneuvering to take control of Hogwarts but I never got whether she was doing it for personal gain or Big V manipulating or just to lend more political power to the Ministry.  Whatever the motivations, it confounded me that she got away with her obvious tactics while  the wizardly newspaper smeared Harry for acts in a prophecy completely out of his hands.  More cane waving.

This is the ramp up of the dark nature in the films, in the story.  The Death Eaters, introduced in the previous, escaping from Azkaban are no longer questionable.  Harry, and his slithery connection to Voldemort, is all Dark Side of the Force with him fighting to control it lest it control him. But anger seeps through affecting his relationships.  Umbridge's acts were just horrendous, especially when she forces Cho to betray her friends. Strange that all the darkness leads to a definitive reveal of Voldemort, which gives Harry back his credibility and the support of the Ministry.  The world is a darker place, now that everyone admits Voldemort is doing his best to return.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

2005, Mike Newell -- download

Here we are at epis... er. movie number four already.  By now we are finished with hinting at something going on in Harry's life, a conspiracy or destiny involving He Who Cannot Be Named, but constantly does get named.  It's outright, since the attacks of the death eaters have become overt and deadly. I never understood why the attack on the Quidditch World Cup didn't lead to definitive agreement that Big V was back, or at least people were working to get him back, and cause a reaction against any hint of Dark Arts. Alas I guess they have their dark fingers in the politics already and have to hush up the actions of their ... more obvious brothers.

This movie also ended the attempts to have any style & art to the movies (well, at least until the last two), settling into the familiar look present through the rest of the movies.  But it does do a bit of world building, when they introduce the Triwizard Tournament.  So there are other grand schools in other countries, hmmm?  I would love to see the American school with it's addiction to pop culture and marketing.  We get a weird concept in that the wizards are expected to take part in dangerous and potentially deadly competitions just to be named champion and the school will get a ... trophy?  The only way it settles in my mind is that we are seeing this from the kids' point of view, in that the is deadly serious and they have to be careful. But the teachers and parents are aware that all challenges are monitored and the kids are never really in danger, especially considering some of the kids are used as bait.  Or, if taken at face value, it is done to remind even children that the world of wizardry is fucking scary and you should be prepared to die, anytime.  Nice.

As a result we get our first death in this movie, a death seen as so tragic that it lends to my thoughts about the challenges being monitored.  Even in the wake of the controlled danger that are the challenges, Cedric's death is a wakeup of exactly how deadly Harry's destiny is.  I suspect V spent a lot of his energies simultaneously enhancing his infamous reputation while doing the Devil Convinces World He Doesn't Exist thing. But this death is a brilliant setup for the remaining movies, showing us that grim things are coming and that Harry is not going to be allowed to be a kid for very long.

Monday, January 16, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Bunraku

2010, Guy Moshe -- download

Bunraku is a type of puppet show originally from Osaka, Japan.  It is a complicated form of art that involves puppets manipulated by multiple puppeteers, dressed in black cloth and where the heads of the puppets are designed by artisans. A chanter performs all the voice parts, changing tones and range to represent the different characters.  Themes focus on the story as opposed to the performance, and where other puppetry of the age just had simple stories of myth and monsters, bunraku told tales of high drama.

Bunraku the movie is spaghetti western, martial arts and post-apocalypse high fantasy all tossed into one glossy, high-style presentation.  Think Kill Bill but more fantastical, think Kung Fu Hustle but a little bit more outrageous.  Think Suckerpunch but less CGI-y and which Kent might not dislike as much.  Think Sin City but bright colours instead of black & white.  It really is hard to accurately describe without all the comparisons.  There are garish colours and mixed era costumes, there is noir mixed with kungfu action, there are fedoras and samurai.  There is even a little bit of a graphic novel feel.  And there is Ron Perlman as the villain.

So, it's a future world where guns and bullets were abandoned and banished. Oh there are still bad guys and warriors but they all use fists and swords and medieval weapons.  Josh Hartnett is the drifter who comes to town with one agenda, kill Nicola the Woodcutter, Perlman's character.  Perlman is a gang leader and the evil ruler of the town and abuser of prostitutes.  Hartnett is a mystery but one that the town needs, skilled in combat and not afraid of Killers numbered 2 through 10.  Along with the samurai played by Gackt, the tale of high dramatic revenge and freedom is played out.   Now you would think with all these elements, drawing upon SO MUCH source that is brilliant, I would love this but it unfortunately just went together with too little heart.  It was so well put together but lacked something essential.  It wanted to become a cult classic but it would need a cult following first.

Winter pilots: Alcatraz

Mondays at 9 -- Fox

J.J. Abrams name has a lot of cachet amidst the geek circles thanks to a largely remarkable track record of genre T.V. shows and movies that he's had a hand in creating, but let's be honest, it was Abrams' involvement with, and killer pilot for Lost that got him where he is.  Now, as a producer, his name is bandied about with more and more frequency and the quality/success levels haven't necessarily held up to expectations that Abrams' name elicits.  Undercovers last year fizzled quickly, and Person of Interest got off to a slow start but is finding its footing on some still-shaky ground.  For some reason, expectations are higher for Alcatraz, I guess because of the "mysterious island where weird shit happens" connection and the expectation of a grand mystery to explore (302 people disappeared from the prison in 1963 and now they've returned).  Unfortunately expectations aren't met... at least not at first.

Tonight saw two episodes air back-to-back (rather than a two hour pilot), which was actually a smart move on Fox's part, as the first episode is pretty dismal, while the second actually recovers the fumble rather than losing possession altogether.

The pilot fails by spending too much time on the story-of-the-week figure distracting from the mythology it's trying to build and the characters that it's centering on.  Once it finally succumbs to actually administering the set-up with some revelations (in the last 7 or 8 minutes), it rushes through them awkwardly.  There are some great concepts at play here, but they don't get the time or attention they deserve, likewise some of the character aspects aren't handled very strategically, such as the revelation that the man who killed Detective Rebecca Madsen's partner was her own grandfather, one of the inmates from Alcatraz. 

They spend so much time on Jack Sylvane's story, which comes across as a plot-of-the-week-type structure, that they don't really get the opportunity to develop the primary characters, certainly not their personalities or any distinguishing traits.  Madsen (Sarah Jones), meets Doctor Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), author of multiple books on the titular prison (as well as a comic book series prominently promoted in his own comic book store) and enlists his help in unravelling the mystery of Jack Sylvane's reappearance, encountering and then recruited by the feds, led by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill).  Despite these sweeping gestures, it still felt like a mid-series episode rather than a pilot.

The pilot is serviceable but unimpressive.  There's plenty of weirdness that is far too understated or not even called into question, all of which should be the meat that the series is hanging upon.  The direction and visual style of the pilot is lackluster, and Michael Giacchino's score in the first episode is overbearing, at times overwhelming and inappropriate for the scene.

The second episode, fares far better, hinting at a bigger world within the show, establishing a sense of community (under a dictatorship) within Alcatraz of 1960, and a sense of connection between the story-of-the-week each episode, as Jack Sylvane appears again, facing a whole lot of questions that he's unprepared to answer.   The connectivity of the show happens a lot earlier than other Abrams-produced series, like Person of Interest or Fringe did from the onset which I think is a learned lesson.   It can't be easy to launch into the major series arcs while still finding your footing as a cast, crew, writing and production team, but it's, I think, necessary in order to hook fickle viewers at this point. By acknowledging the obvious questions that the first episode hinted at but never took the time to address, the second episode is the lure that hopes to hook the fish.

It's not as immediately addictive as some shows, but it has potential.  Late in the second episode there's a nice moment between Madsen and Soto that hints at a charming partnership, like a weird cross between Castle and the X-Files (though it could stand a little more of the humour of those).  Both Jones and Garcia are appealing in their roles, but are hindered by a lack of recognizable character traits.  Garcia's Soto at least has a home base in a charming-looking comics shop, but Jones' Madsen has no place to call her own yet.  Their personal lives don't need to be a major focus, but glimpse early on would help provide a nice hint as to who they are.  Neill's Hauser is supposed to be hard to read, and Neill plays it well, with a bit of a mischievous glint in his eye.

What they do with the next episode could tell a lot about the direction of the series.  If it's just another "prisoner-of-the-week", then the show's more interested in establishing its formula than its underlying mythology.  If it really delves into the world of Alcatraz in 1960 via the characters of modern day (giving them, and not just the audience, more insight into what they're actually there to do) then it will show the level of thoughtfulness and consideration that was put into the show and its structure.  Of course, it could land somewhere in between and wind up being like the radically uneven first season of Fringe.  At the very least it's worth checking out again.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

3 short paragraphs: The Brothers Grimm

2005, Terry Gilliam -- Netflix

There's a reason I put of watching this movie for over 6 years, and it's that I don't trust Terry Gilliam as a director anymore.  There was a time where I was a loyal supporter, where I worshiped blindly at the feet of Python and everything they did was genius, but the reality is no creator is infallable, and it's rare for there to be any creator -- whether actor, painter, writer, director, whathaveyou -- that doesn't drop a deuce as part of their oeuvre.  Moreover, in some cases it's rare that brilliant works are consistently made by the same person, and as I think back through the work of Gilliam, I can point to three, maybe four specific examples of great works (Fear and Loathing, Twelve Monkeys, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Brazil), and the rest range from middling to messy to god awful.

The Brothers Grimm is certainly a mess, and at times it's pretty awful.  It's a film thinks it has an approach to Grimm's Fairy Tales, only to find out, about halfway through, that it really doesn't.  Heath Ledger and Matt Damon are terribly miscast as schyster brothers who con countryfolk of 18th century French-occupied Germany out of their money and possessions by first perpetrating elaborate hauntings upon them and then charging a service fee to exorcise their town of the demons.  They are arrested by French military, as they believe them to be responsible for a series of child disappearances in another town, but offering them a chance at freedom if they uncover the real culprits.  Of course, the real cause is indeed mystical in nature and the brothers are ill prepared to handle it, thankfully a tough, humourless, sexy, and cursed maiden (played by Lena Hedley) is there to guide them through it, while also causing tension between the brothers as each fancies her.

As with practically every Gilliam film, there's so much more drama behind the scenes than there is on-camera, and though its problems are many, chief amongst them is Matt Damon, who is a man out of time and wholly inappropriate for the role he plays.  Subconsciously my desire was to see Johnny Depp in the role opposite Ledger, and it turns out it was Gilliam's original intent but the producers wanted Damon's starpower (which Depp received shortly after production began).  Even still, the problems with the movie are vast beyond the acting (Ledger, Hedley and Peter Stormare are always reliable), ultimately it's an unsure story, which waffles in tone and sensibility.  It is neither high fantasy nor naturalistic, leaning more towards the former but constantly trying to inject aspects of the latter with it's French occupation subplot.  It never reaches any level of seriousness and yet it's never playful either.  It just doesn't know what it wants to be.  Gilliam's preference for practical effects are endearing to a degree, but he's never truly learned how to mask fake props and sets with lighting and composition so as to not make them look like props and sets, it's like a cheaper-looking Tim Burton production.  It's ultimately far too difficult to invest in the film's reality as it never seems to know what it wants to be.

3 short paragraphs: Pandorum

2009, Christian Alvart -- Netflix

Pandorum is not a well-liked film, at least not by general critics, and I can kind of see why.  It's an incredibly derivative work borrowing from nearly every closed-ship sci-fi movie, including but not limited to 2001, Silent Running, Solaris, and, of course Alien, amongst others.  It also feels like a space version of the cannibalistic creatures film the Descent, and liberally influenced by such hunter/hunted movies as Predator and Pitch Black. In spite of this, the film, swollen with ideas, actually is quite rewarding in its own way.

Christian Alvart isn't a Quentin Tarantino figure who can mash and rehash countless "seen it" scenes but portrayed in a new context, but he does manage to build an effectively dizzying world aboard the spaceship Elysium, wherein two figures, Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid, awake from hypersleep to find that they are, seemingly, alone, and that their prolonged sleep has rendered them with temporary (hopefully) amnesia.  As they start to unravel the mystery of exactly what their mission is, a second puzzle plagues them... what happened to the rest of the crew?  Searching for the ship's generator to manually power it back up to full capacity, Foster trucks through vents and cable shafts --  with Quaid at a monitoring console guiding him.  Separated, Foster encounters an ass-kicking woman (Antje Traue) who refuses to cooperate with him, but finds she must as there's predatory species aboard the ship now hunting them both.  Quaid, meanwhile, fights delusions, perhaps the onset of Pandorum, a sickness found in deep-space voyageurs, as well the unexpected arrival of a crewman from the previous ship who already seems deep in the throes of the affliction.

The film also delves into some more philosophical territory, explaining the mission as the last hope for humanity's survival, with Earth having blown up, and all.  It's an additional, unnecessary layer, but it adds to some interesting set-pieces, particularly the reservoir of every DNA sequence, and the finale.  A quick skim through wikipedia finds that the script actually existed as two separate scripts which were then amalgamated and bolstered, which makes sense as there is definitely two or three, perhaps even four different types of movies clashing with each other here, and yet it's not as big a mess as it could have been and is enjoyable in its own regards.  Alvart's visual sensibility is quite sharp, and the set design and practical effects are very well devised with a heavily industrial aesthetic.  There are moments where the digital effects don't work but they're actually not as prominent as one tends to expect from sci-fi these days.  For genre fans, this won't be an instant favourite but they should find something to enjoy out of at least one of the plotlines, while the casual SF viewer might just find it confusing or tedious.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

David Yates, 2009 - Blu-Ray

The last Harry Potter film I saw was "...and the Order of the Phoenix" in the theatres in 2007, which marks about a 4-year gap between viewing the chapters.  That should really hammer home exactly how invested I am in the whole Harry Potter phenomena.  I mean, I tried... I tried to care.  I read the books, up to the fourth volume during which I got quite bored of reading about Quiddich and put it aside, never to read again.  The film series equally never quite excited me, the fourth chapter, which breezes over the Quiddich stuff (compared to the book, at least) I found insultingly patronizing, and I only have the vaguest of recollections of the details of Phoenix (wasn't Gary Oldman in that one?).

I'm just not that excited by magic, event though, early on, I did get wrapped up in the wonder of Harry Potter exploring his new world much in the same way I think a child would.  But as the innocence and ignorance was stripped from the stories, I think my enjoyment was as well.  Conceptually I think that the idea of crafting a story that ages and matures alongside its viewers and readers is a brilliant idea, the intensity of the shift between the Philosopher's Stone and even Phoenix makes them seem like almost two different worlds.

In the sixth chapter, Half-Blood Prince, very little actually happens, the story of Harry Potter, the chosen one, progresses only in a miniscule way, and in almost all respects, this isn't a very fulfilling story, definitely not one that works as a stand-alone film.  But it actually is the most episodic of the films, investing more into Harry, Ron and Hermoine's personal and emotional landscapes, and taking great measures to establish where their lives are at, at this moment, as it all builds towards the final confrontation between the good wizards and the disciples of Voldemort.  In this respect, it's the most satisfying chapter of the series.

Director Yates does a phenomenal job capturing a specific mood for the film, a sense of foreboding looming over everything including the tumultuous teenage romances which wouldn't be out of place on  Degrassi.  The pacing here, once again covering another full year at Hogwarts is still as choppy as the other films, having to condense a lot of J.K. Rawlings' prose into a short time frame doesn't make for a great 3-act structure (plus there's still some Quiddich nonsense and that whole "half-blood prince" mystery that culminates in a seemingly pointless revelation), but the third act is given a lot of breathing room and dominates the film in its favour, climaxing in the most dramatic of fashions.

I still have the two-part Deathly Hollows to delve into, however unlike the ending of Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince actually leaves me wanting to watch more.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

2004, Alfonso Cuarón ( Y tu mamá también, Children of Men) -- download

Let's do some catch up.  After a month & half of a lung infection and the sudden the slam-down of the holidays, I didn't have much time for writing on this lil thing.  So, with a few back dated final attempts to do the 31 Days of Xmas (alas, life took it away from me), I also need to complete entries for those before December and a few during.

This, visually, is my favourite of the series.  That is kind of a turnabout as when I first saw it in the theatre, I was not that fond of the look, as it left the charm and light heartedness of the first two, when viewing magic and Hogwarts and went for more of a grand scale awe.  It was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, known for the incredible visuals in Children of Men.  What?  You think I remember him for Y tu mamá también? Nah, that one was about sex and the single-shot sequences in C of M, especially the one around the tank, just blew me away.  So, he knows how to build a scene and how to make it awe-striking and beautiful.  Also, the creepy introduction of the dementors still makes me shudder.

I also just loved Gary Oldman and David Thewlis.  They are two men I usually associate with intensity and challenging drama but to see them here as two sweet, yes sweet, good guys just out to protect and nurture Harry makes me smile.  Actually when I look at the entire cast, I realize how quickly I dismissed all the names being dropped (Julie Christie, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, etc etc) and just got wrapped up in all their characters.  But Oldman and Thewlis carry off the werewolf and the shapechanger, old buddies and loving guardians, with such charm.  Besides, if I was going to be a wizard I would want to look as cool as Oldman.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol

Brad Bird, 2011 -- IMAX

Though I don't really have any affinity for the Mission Impossible series or Tom Cruise, I've been an admirer of director Brad Bird's animated efforts for years (from Family Dog, to Iron Giant, to the Incredibles), so I was quite keen to see what he did with a big budget and live cast.  As well, the supporting cast on the film includes two actors in Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner who have made tv programs (Spaced, the Unusuals) which have given them a heavy cache of goodwill credit in my books.  So there was a draw for me for MI4, but the biggest draw for me was the 5 minutes of The Dark Knight Rises that were to precede the film in select IMAX theatres in North America.

It's telling that for all the wow and spectacle of MI4, of which there was plenty, those 5 minutes of TDKR were the most memorable and most impressive.  But this isn't a review of 5 minutes of the latest installment of Christopher Nolan's incredible Batman franchies, but for the latest Tom Cruise actioneer.

MI4 is, to be blunt, empty calories. The story is threadbare and the characters are husks.  Everything in the film exists to serve the numerous action set pieces.  The movie is pretty close to wall-to-wall with action -- fights, chases, all kinds of new timey derring-do -- in its 2+ hour running time, with little to no motivation for the good guys or the bad guys, aside from well trod "we're the good guys" and "I'll save the world by destroying it" respectively.  Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, was never all that fleshed out to begin with, but here there's literally nothing to the character beyond Cruise's natural charm, physical agility, and star power to make him compelling.  But the fact of the matter is, Cruise's boundless charm and almost ageless appearance and physique continue to carry him.  He's perhaps not a greatest actor, but he does have tremendous presence and a likeability that only the seriously jaded can ignore.  Since there's next to no emotional core to Ethan Hunt, it really is just a vacant role for the Cruise charisma to shine through.

Equally the supporting cast is given little to work with in their characters so they must rely upon their natural abilities as actors and performers to serve the role.  Simon Pegg is affable and funny as a somewhat overwhelmed tech expert, Jeremy Renner seems at ease playing remorseful, secretive and skilled, while Paula Patton plays against her natural beauty almost too much and is narrowly convincing as a vengeful and ass-kicking tough gal, though her sequence with Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor plays off that juxtaposition well.

Brad Bird's live-action debut is a seamless transition from his animation career, as he negotiates his 145 million dollar budget with an assured lens, and there are moments where his directorial style come through loudly (most prominently the chase sequence in the sand storm comes to mind where Cruise chases the camera rather than filming from behind, much like the Dash running sequence in the Incredibles).  Bird builds his action sequences in layers, compounding them, escalating them in an almost cartoonish manner.  At times it's closer to being comedic than dramatic or intense, but in any respect it's really entertaining.  At the same time he frequently seeds in some natural elements to keep it grounded, the fighting taking an actual toll on those involved, for instance, rather than just being complete superheroes.  Some of the actions the characters perform seem unrealistic or super-sciencey, but there always seems to be a consequence or a bit of human flaw built in, which actors convey well.

Bird also has a photographers eye, and has taken every opportunity to capture the landscapes and architecture he's afforded the opportunity to play in, particularly the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building in Dubai, something, as David noted, can only be properly shot in IMAX.  

As with any empty calories, MI4 tastes great, certainly satisfy a craving for action, but also doesn't leave much of a lasting impression.  For all the spectacle it presents, it's lacking in anything resembling a connection with the characters or engaging story and thus it has next to no resonance.  I can't really see repeated viewings being desired, certainly not required.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Across The Universe

Julie Taymor, 2007 -- Netflix

Back when this film debuted in the theatres in '07, I asked my wife, a near-lifelong Beatles fan, whether she wanted to go see it.  She replied that she had no desire to see Beatles songs bastardized so as to try and string them into a cohesive narrative.

I remember years ago I took an ex, a Nina Simone fan, to see a Nina Simone documentary which was followed by a live jazz band performing Simone songs.  She enjoyed the doc, but wanted to leave quite early into the noodling-heavy live performance.  She clarified that she liked Nina Simone as an artist and not someone else's interpretation of her.

Personally, I've long had a fairly healthy appreciation -- attraction, even -- for cover songs.  I've frequently enjoyed cover versions of songs more than the originals.  I think being a hip-hop fan in my formative years, I was constantly exposed to remixes and variations of the same songs, so I'm often eager to hear how a certain song is interpreted by someone else.  I'm also not a purist when it comes to music, so no song and no band is sacred, at least when it comes to remixing or covering.

At the same time, in recent years, the proliferation of Broadway musicals based off of the works of popular artists, from Queen to Green Day, has turned the concept of "covers" on its head, as these stage performances make desperate attempts to string an unconnected sequence of songs from a single artist into a cohesive narrative (and let`s not get starting on the homogenization ray that is Glee) .  Akin to how most of Hollywood`s big budget output is derived from known commodities (books, toys, comics, tv shows), the same lack of imagination has struck Broadway`s big budget output, only they`re turning to the collective works of various pop musicians.

Across the Universe is, essentially, a cinematic version of one of these Broadway plays, which makes complete sense as it`s legendary Broadway director Julie Taymor lensing the project.  After making an audacious big screen debut with a daring adaptation of Shakespeare`s Titus in 1999 (having come off the stunning development of the Lion King for Broadway), and followed that up with the widely heralded Frida in 2002, Across the Universe was quite heavily anticipated in some circles, and certainly had earned any buzz that preceded it, but ultimately it was a box-office disappointment and critics were underwhelmed.  Catching up with it nearly 5 years later, it seems to have found a following of its own, but the critical response still seems spot on.

The film doesn`t have just one grand design, stringing Beatles songs into a 2 hour feature, but a second wherein it attempts to capture the progression and essence of the entire decade of the `60`s within its time frame.  It doesn`t outright fail on either attempt but the results are, as one would expect, awkward, often times forced, and occasionally very, very painful.

Like many a Broadway show, the script doesn`t just follow the cliched story of two star-crossed lovers, but thrusts them into an ensemble.  The boy and the girl are named Jude and Lucy, naturally.  Jude leaves Liverpool for America to find his estranged father, finding fast friendship with Lucy`s brother, Max, and falling into a communal apartment situation in New York with an aspiring singer, Sadie, and a shy, abused lesbian, Prudence.  Eventually Lucy joins them in their little commune, and Sadie meets the Hendrix-like Jojo who helps rocket her to stardom.  It`s through the many characters that Taymor takes them through a highlight reel of the 1960s, starting with the transition from 50's suburban innocence, to the Detroit riots, to psychedelia, to Vietnam, to the Weather Underground, to the Beatles' rooftop gig.

To simplify the timeline of the 1960's into one narrative is exactly as clunky as one would expect.  To do so while also pigeonholing Beatles songs into the works, acting at times as both an emotional trigger for the events on screen as well as character beats for the figures involved, it's a true mess.

There are a couple instances where the performances are inspired covers ("Why Don't We Do It In The Road", "Oh, Darling"), and as one would hope for from a Taymor production, there are some exceptionally compelling visuals that accompany some of the songs ("I Want You").  However, many of the songs are dull, soulless renditions that feel completely wedged into a situation they weren't actually meant to represent ("Hey Jude", "Dear Prudence", "Strawberry Fields Forever"), and still other songs are abject failures.  Bono's performance of I Am The Walrus is a self-indulgent, labored effort that visually plays like a rejected Zooropa video.  Many of Taymor's visual flourishes here are straight up cornball, or the visual inventiveness struggles with the literal interpretations of the Beatles' lyrics.

At 2 hours and 8 minutes, it definitely feels bloated, and despite the rapid progression through the decade, it still feels exceptionally slow.  Much of this falls on the lack of character development (the film generally relies on the songs to build their personalities and traits), equally making it difficult to connect to the characters, to care about them and their stories (some, like Prudence and Jojo disappear and reappear, rarely ever feeling necessary for a scene other than for a song). Despite being a journey, it's ultimately an unrewarding and (considering Taymor's prior work) disappointing experience.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Snuff Box The Complete Series

(2011 - DVD, 2006 - Series)

I've been many kinds of nerd, geek and wonk in my life.  Star Wars obsessive, comic book fanatic, movie buff, indie music snob... but it's only in the past two years that I've discovered, truly, that I am a comedy nerd.  I love things that are funny, but moreso I love the exploration of what makes something funny, where the funny comes from.  The recent surge of comedy podcasts (primarily Marc Maron's WTF, Chris Hardwick's Nerdist and Scott Aukerman's Comedy Bang Band nee Comedy Death Ray) have provided not just an inroad, but absolute immersion into the world of comedy and the minds of comedians.  In large part we're talking stand-up comedians and sketch performers here, but stand-ups frequently transition into acting, writing, directing, producing, songwriting/performing and pretty much every role in every form of media out there.

I have great appreciation for the craft of "funny".  It's not an easy thing to do, and certainly not a easy realm to innovate in.  Humour can stem from many sources -- wordplay, situational, character-based, physicality, and just straight personality amongst many other thing --  but what's funny is such a subjective thing, and no two people will consistently laugh at - or be amused by - all the same things.  Comedy is so often relative to someone's frame of reference or experiences, and sometimes depends on the communal nature of laughter in order to come across as funny, rather than sad or lame.  It's part of the reason situation comedy has become so reliant on laugh tracks to sell their jokes.

Snuff Box certainly doesn't sell its jokes, and much of the humour within is next to impossible to relate to, and it treads a fine line between innovative and incomprehensibly absurd on one end, and innovative and immaturely inane on the other end.  In the end it is the product of its creators, Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher, an uncommon comedic pairing of a British and an American, but to say it's got a British or American sensibility (or some combination thereof) would be to say Berry has a British or Fulcher an American sensibility, and these two writer/performers are so far beyond that type of classification.

Debuting on BBC3 in the Winter of 2006, the six episodes of Snuff Box played late at night and to no fanfare, an oddity buried away to be forgotten, except by those comedically like-minded who embraced the show and spread the oddness across the internet.  As I believe Paul Rudd described the show on one of the bonus features on the DVD, "It's comedy for comedians", the type of stuff that makes people who make comedy laugh.

This same description has been used to describe the legendary HBO sketchcom Mr. Show with Bob and David, and my initial reaction to both shows was the same... remarkably underwhelmed.  At first.  With Mr. Show, I came to appreciate it more upon listening to the audio commentary tracks on every episode, featuring most of the writers/performers on the show, sometimes delving into characters as they discuss (and fabricate) the creation and history behind the sketches (very much the atmosphere of many podcasts I listen to).  The humour of Mr. Show doesn't rely upon knowing the background of the sketches, but it's not a face-value show, and for all its funny at face value, it's at the conceptual level that it achieves its brilliant reputation.

In that same regard, through two episodes of Snuff Box I could see where the outright jokes were, but the show is not a joke machine, it's funny comes from concept and performance.  I paused from watching the episodes to watch the first feature "Taking Control of Your Body" which was equal parts testimonials from semi-famous fans like Rudd, Simon Pegg, Weird Al,  origin-talk from Fulcher and Berry and a bit of shop talk from their friend/Mighty Boosh creator Noel Fielding.  It was from their appreciation (and a bit of a peek at what else the show had to offer in the remaining 4 episodes) that I started to understand the draw, and moreover, the impetus for the show.

It is, indeed and original, unique work.  Barry and Fulcher are two diametrically opposed voices, Barry's sloppy, cavalier bellowing cuts sharply against Fulcher's sniveling, juvenile, socially inept, curse-laden persona, to the point that one has to wonder how they can possibly work together at all.  It's within this conflict, with the characters of Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher constantly at odds with one another, rivals yet friends, comrades who completely disdain the other's existence, that the show lives.

It's definitely not a sit-com, it's not really a straight-up sketch comedy either, although it does have plenty of those, it's an nondescript hybrid of both, a singular entity in the world of comedy existing in its own space.  The characters of Barry and Fulcher sustain throughout the 6 episodes, and there's an almost-narrative that strings throughout, mainly addressing the contention between the two characters, while the sketches sort of weave in, sometimes starring Barry and Fulcher as their namesakes, and sometimes as completely other characters.  There's a hefty dose of repetition, with sketches repeating themselves, but not in the SNL vein where reoccurring characters spout familiar catch phrases to familiar and expected laughs, but rather complete sketches which repeat almost verbatim, beat by beat, as before yet somehow building upon the idea in each iteration.

It's not a show for everyone.  It's not a show for most people.  It's for people who genuinely like to see scripted and sketch comedy push its boundaries.  It's a level beyond Tim and Eric, who have a much more visceral comedic sensibility.  Snuff Box burns, slowly, and it moves at its own pace without any expectations to live up to, not serving any distinct audience beyond Barry and Fulcher.  I'm not even sure I find it all that funny, and yet I'm utterly impressed by it.