Thursday, August 30, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: The Awakening

2011, Nick Murphy (British TV guy) -- download

The last British ghost story I saw disappointed me, not in execution but in completion.  It just didn't end as well as I hoped.  This is another British ghost story with familiar British faces and an interesting premise -- what if an Edwardian age debunker of ghosts and mediums is presented with a real ghost?  Its a great premise, but one that the movie surprisingly didn't build on.  Once we are in the actual ghost story, we are all transported to a very real, very confirmed state of "there is a ghost and we should be scared."  There is no need for debunking, I guess.

Florence Cathcart is much like Arthur Kipps from The Woman in Black, in that he lost someone close to him and has been desperate to somehow reconnect with them.  Unlike Kipps who just runs from one charlatan to the next, Cathcart is pissed.  As the movie opens, she is working with the London police force exposing a medium for what she really is, a fraud using all the latest tricks to fool broken-hearted people seeking some connection to a lost loved one.  And then Cathcart is approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) who needs her help at a boys' school he works at.  A ghost, or the belief there is one, has caused the death of a child at the school and he wants the ghost revealed as fear, and nothing but fear.  The weird thing is that he actually believes there is a ghost.  She reluctantly goes.

This is not really a scary ghost story, almost having the tone of The Orphanage, sentimental and sad, focused on the emotions of broken, lost people.  Cathcart needs to find some way to reconnect with the lover she denied who then died at war.  She wants to believe in an afterlife where her lover is at rest, but is caught in a malaise of atheism.  Mallory is a war survivor, guilty and haunted by the friends he lost in battle.  We find out exactly how haunted he is.  The tale goes from chilling, but mostly lacking in the cliche jumps, to mournful to strangely even more haunted but I was morosely satisfied with the ending.  Are there ghosts to be dealt with? Yes.  Do we put them to rest and remove the danger?  Yes.  But not as you would have expected.

Monday, August 27, 2012

What I Am Watching: The Newsroom, Longmire and Wallander

A new segment where I blather on about three TV shows I am most likely downloading.

I was sitting in a hotel room in NYC when HBO was advertising the forthcoming show The Newsroom every ten minutes.  Even then, they were going on about the rant.  That rant, that opened the show, set the tone of the show, a wakeup call for not only television viewers but also for television news folk.  The setting is simple -- an evening news show. But due to an attack of brutal honesty, a popular and populist anchor is forced to face his beliefs and is given almost an entire new crew to do it with.  And thus we are given possibly the most idealistic TV show I have ever seen.

This is the new machine by Aaaron Sorkin and love him or hate him, the Internet currently does hate him, liberal or conservative, Sorkin is an intelligent and thoughtful writer.  Think Moneyball, think The Social Network and think what most people remember him for, The West Wing.  He isn't writing credible situations, he is writing like a novel on the screen, where words and actions and meant to make you think.  And laugh.

In The Newsroom, and we have some background here, we are not given a realistic TV news production.  People are far too intelligent, far too willing to stand up for each other and very very quick on their feet.  Oh, there are explosions of personality and conflicts of interest, but everything is presented way way too thoughtfully to be real.  But I don't care !!  It is just so fucking incredibly entertaining !!  This is how news should be done, how news should be told. And, well, that is sort of the point of the whole series.

Jeff Daniels plays something I didn't think he was capable of, a well rounded incredibly intelligent anchor who claims to be Republican, wants to be unbiased and about truth but is unabashedly idealistic.  His arrogance and real power has told him he can be the one to bring back intelligence to America, bring back accountability and bring back truth.  Emily Mortimer is his ex-girlfriend and the source of his greatest failing.  She is also his new Executive Producer, and the heart of the news show that is created.  She is neurotic, forceful of personality and very very good at manipulating a situation to her advantage.  Did I mention a bit neurotic?  And supporting these two, we have the crew: Jim the Producer who backs every play Mackenzie MacHale (Mortimer) makes, Maggie (Allison Pill) the intern *poof* executive assistant *poof* associate producer who Jim is falling for, Dev Patel as the not-the-IT-guy journalist who writes Wil's (Jeff Daniel) blog and is passionate for the new technology, there is Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, a 3 Phd awarded economist who yes-she-is-gorgeous-and-that-helps has astounded me with her acting range.  And finally there is Sam Waterson playing the delightfully light hearted shark of a news division president.

The show started in the past, with their first big news story being the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and is quickly catching up. I thought the show might falter in having to portray a big news story each episode but it has so quickly surpassed that judgement that I am staggered.  Sure, the news of the day happens on the show as it tackles the Tea Party question, Fukushima and the political changes in Egypt, but it also so sweetly dances around the personal stories and makes you care for each character.  The dialogue is very very Sorkin, which can take some getting used to, but I sort of like listening to people say well thought out sentences in an articulate manner.

On the lighter side of things is a new crime show from A&E, set in the rural Wyoming landscape -- Longmire.  Sheriff Walt Longmire and his new deputy Vic Moretti (Katee Sackoff) set the bar for law enforcement amidst rednecks, indian tribal issues and old school cowboying.  Longmire is typically the grizzled cop with something dark in his past, his recent past actually, dealing with the competition (who also happens to be his other deputy, running against him in the next sheriff election) and a strong willed daughter (who also happens to be sleeping with said deputy; no not Sackoff).

I like my cop shows simple, with novel settings, likeable characters and a strong, capable lead.  Longmire gives me the beauty of rural America in cowboy land, wide open vistas below mountains where you just know it takes them a long time to drive anywhere from A to B.

Sheriff Longmire is obviously veteran, the man of few words and strength of character who would be just as comfortable in a noir movie, if noir movies had lots of cowboy hats.  His best friend Henry Standing Bear, played by Lou Diamond Philips, is as strong of character but in an incredible articulate and outspoken manner, tempering his opinions on native politics against Longmire's sense of right and wrong.  Listening to the two of them talk is a joy.

And Vic (Sackoff), well Vic is just fun.  She is from Phily, a detective now deputy, all flirty and strong in a way not all the guys here get.  She followed her husband to Wyoming, but you get the idea she is also running from her husband, who is rarely in the picture.  She challenges Longmire, whose knowledge she acknowledges, with some skills only a big city could have taught her.

The crime tales are typical of the genre, twisting and turning, with more and more locals (it's a big county) getting mixed up in things they shouldn't.  But even Longmire notices his county is changing as more murders happen. But he is not ready to retire yet, he has a lot of responsibility to his county.  Well, at least until  the dark past catches up, as the cliche goes.

And then you have Wallander, which I am re-watching because I found out they did a season three.  BBC that is, as the original Swedish TV series ran only two much longer seasons.  Based on a very popular series of books about the depressive, morose police detective at odds with his own personal failings (divorce, ill father, angry daughter) as well as his place in the police world.  The key to his character is his faith in whether he is doing anything useful, as horrible event after horrible event happens in the small Swedish town of Ystad and its surroundings.  Is he making an impact, does his work matter.

Kenneth Branagh comes to us a little older than I remember, a lot heavier than I remember but as full of wisdom and a kind smile as I ever remembered.  Surrounded by a bevy of familiar British faces, one more so since he became Loki, but the actual Swedish countryside, we get a quiet composed crime show with beautiful panoramas and tight closeups of grizzled tired faces experiencing loss and horror.  But really, its all about Branagh as Wallander.

What gets me about this show is the underlying current of what the man is going through.  Sure, he may have screwed up his marriage and is struggling even to keep a basic relationship with his daughter, but he seems like a decent sort of cop respected by his peers and is definitely the go-to guy in the small Ystad station.  We are presented with three stories about large arcing crimes, crimes that have an impact on all of Swedish society: a dark society of child abusers, a cyber-crime that could destroy the European economy and the seemingly random acts of a serial killer.  Wallander breaks each plot but we see how the collateral damage take its toll on him.  The suicide of one of the victims of the abuse plot, the murder of a young girl mixed up in the cyber-crime and the horrible death of a girl at the hand of the serial killer, immediately after Wallander connects with her and promises to protect her.  Each is a victim that reflects his own daughter, whom he almost lost to a suicide attempt.  Each death weighs on him till we see a strong man broken by his own grief and failure, surprising the people around him with the depth of his feeling.

As I get older, there is something about seeing crime shows starring men older than me that connects indelibly with me.  I get to see that no matter how much I kick myself for a lack of life experience, a lack of wisdom and a lack of hard earned accomplishment, even the skilled and full of wisdom can be damaged by life.  You never stop absorbing that information, never stop learning those lessons and you really, never stop making mistakes. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


2012, Ridley Scott

[there will be spoilers]

With the work schedule being as demanding as it is in recent months, as we as the black hole of time that is having children, my internet trolling time has been reduced to, oh, I'd hazard a guess at about 75 minutes a week (take looking at naughty gifs on tumblr out of the equation and it's probably more like 45).  I tend to use what little non-work related computer time I have to write about the entertainment I'm consuming, rather than fall into the social media trap, or enter the rabbit hole of, say an Onion AV Club or other entertainment reporting/reviewing site.  Point being that if it's not on a podcast I'm not really hearing about it.  So my exposure to Prometheus has been limited to the reactions of Doug Benson and his guests on the Doug Loves Movies podcast.  And that limited exposure was intentional. 

I was super jazzed to see Prometheus before it arrived in theatres.  David and I were planning this as our inaugural Ultra AVX experience film, but schedules really didn't align for it to happen (and I'm not terribly sure it was screened in the Ultra AVX theatre anyway).  As excited as I was to see it, I just couldn't get it together to see the film (especially in trying to coordinate schedules with the wife who, upon learning Michael Fassbender was in it, suddenly expressed a deeper interest in attending with me).  As the weeks passed, I tried as hard as I could to keep myself in the dark about it, and given my limited net time, it wasn't that difficult.  The spoilers offered up by DLM were as follows: there's a vomiting sequence, there's an "abortion machine" (as Doug called it), it was an "origin of humanity" plot and that people were really disappointed that it wasn't a proper Alien prequel or questioning why it needed to be one.

With this limited knowledge (and next to no exposure to the trailers or commercials or posters or really any advertising... and now that I look the many, many, many posters are all astonishingly cool) I could enter the screening with nearly virgin eyes.  I did know that the film was originally not supposed to be an Alien prequel, and then was rewritten to be so, and many such sordid details surrounding its inception I had read about last year when the film was in production, but even still... I was going into it mostly fresh.  And I fracking loved it.

First off, I know people were disappointed because it wasn't an Alien movie, in the sense that there weren't all the expected bits that go along with the Alien franchise.  Those aliens are damn scary, and it's a brilliant concept, and when done right, tremendously thrilling to watch, but I've been so steeped in Aliens for the past 20 years from repeated viewings of the "Quadrology" to the many, many, many comic book stories, I know what to expect out of an Alien story all too well.  With Prometheus, I had no idea what to expect.  It didn't match the rhythm and beats of any of the Alien films to date and, in fact, toyed with them even a little bit.  Hell, I wasn't even so sure from the start that Prometheus was supposed to be a horror, or at least suspense movie.  One of the great things about having next to no preconceived notions of a film is the sense of discovery.  At first, I thought, given the tidbits about it "not being an Alien movie, but set in its universe" and an "origin of the species" film, I thought it would be more along the lines of Mission To Mars, only done right.  The first act pretty much held firm that.  Unlike Scott's first tale in this universe, which was ominous from the beginning, this film was a bit brighter, more optimistic. 

But quickly it ratchets up the tension, in the second act and it continues to do so throughout the film.  I loved that it very quickly introduced the idea it had about the origins of humanity rather than tried to keep them as a reveal for later in the film, or even as a Macguffin for the characters to chase after throughout the movie.  No, rather than discovering where we came from, the film tells us flat out from the beginning that we know where we came from, the question instead is why.  The crew of the Prometheus is in search of an answer (or so they think, but there's other things going on in the background that toy with it).

The film introduces (or re-introduces) the "space jockeys" as seen early in the first Alien movie, and extrapolates on who they are... somewhat.  They are indeed the creators of humanity, referred to as the engineers.  They design life, not just human life, but life across the galaxy.  But, as we quickly learn, they've also designed death, biological weapons, killing machines, and there are a few examples of many creatures that are "Alien-esque", like rough drafts or mock-ups of what we've come to know, love, and fear. 

The question of why "we" were created is never explicitly answered, at least not by "our" creators, but as the various biological weapons of the Engineers escape (as well as we learn the true nature of the Engineers themselves is revealed), it would be my best guess that humanity itself is yet another biological weapon.  A warfaring race intent on destroying itself and everything around it.  That's my inference, at least, and it's great for a film to give you that leeway rather than spelling it out for you.

Scott's direction here is masterful as always, but even more entrancing was the visual design of the film.  It takes much of the aesthetic of Scott's 1979 film but manages to punch it up to our expectations of blockbuster movies today... puch it up, but still feel at home in the universe he first built.  The film looks fantastic.  The sequence of the holographic Engineers is one of my new favourite sci-fi movie moments.  It looks incredible and stirs a feeling of glee inside me just watching it.

The cast, including Noomi Rapace, Fassbender, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron, are uniformly great.  Guy Pierce as old man Weyland is a bid of an odd casting choice, caking him in make-up and providing him minimal screen presence (but notable billing) but again, he does everything he's needed to do.  Everyone is committed to the film and buying into what's happening.  There are nods, overt and not so, to Aliens films of yore, and your mileage will vary on how much you like it depending on how obvious they are to you.

If there's any complaining I have about the film, it's that the final sequence with the Engineer and the life pod, seemed to be completely studio mandated and tacked onto the story in a logic-less manner.  It's a cool sequence, but purposeless except to tie in some more Aliens allusions.  Beyond that, nothing but pure thrills for me.  It's set up for a sequel but doesn't demand one, but I do want one.  To be perfectly honest, I believe I like this even more than any of the Aliens features (although only repeated viewings will tell for sure)..

(P.S. I have a theory that the Engineers ship full of biological weapons of death is responsible for what's lurking under The Cabin in the Woods)

Monday, August 20, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: The Woman in Black

2012, James Watkins -- download

Daniel Radcliffe suffers from the unfortunate role of being the guy who was Harry Potter.  He will be in that role for a good amount of time, no matter how much he shows his buttocks on stage.  I think it will also be some time before we even see him older than he was in the primary movies, despite him being almost an adult by the time the series finished.  It is thus in this movie, I was glad he was given the chance to be out of the norm, playing a family man & lawyer trying desperately to care for a son while still suffering the grief of losing his wife.  These are the Edwardian times, around the beginning of the last century, when even a young man carried a lot of responsibility.  Arthur Kipps has been through a lot, caring for a dying wife, losing her and having to raise his son on his own. But does that dismiss him from the work he must do?  No; either he succeeds at this assignment or he loses his job. It's a straight forward one, at least, having to go to the estate and sort out the paperwork that was left after the owner died.

The movie looks absolutely wonderfully creepy.   The Eel Marsh House is situated on an island in the ... well, the eel marsh.  And when the tide slides in, the house is cut off from the mainland.  It is a grand old haunted house, full of creepy over-filled rooms, dusty hallways and a nasty weed filled yard.  The figure haunting the house, Arthur discovers is not only causing the deaths of children all over the village (thus forcing them to shun him, for they fear he will lose people too) but also is keeping him from completing his work.  He discovers her history while reading the papers he is sorting, obviously a pragmatic man used to difficult situations and rather in tune with the dead, considering how much he wishes he could contact the soul of his wife.  Arthur soon realizes that the only he can complete his task and make sure his own son is not taken by this vengeful spirit, is to soothe her.  The problem is that she is not so easily soothed.

I really enjoyed the way this movie played out, good sound, good visuals, creepy atmosphere great performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds.  But for me it failed in the ending.  It was trying for a twist, a bending of the traditional ghost story, but just ended up not ringing true.  This was told as if a tale from the memory of an aged man, but was not.  I won't ruin it for you, wikipedia can tell you that, but it just concluded unsatisfactorily for me.  Sometimes the cliche endings are done that way for a reason, a formula in story telling that pull things together well and if you are going to abandon that, you better have a ending more decidedly different than ... it's not what you expected !

Thursday, August 16, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: The Hunger Games

2012, Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) -- cinema

About two years ago Kent asked if I had heard of The Hunger Games, a post-apocalypse series of teen adventure novels with a Battle Royale sense about it.  It actually took me a while to get myself e-copies of the books and sit down and read the first one.  I liked it, I liked the style and the sense of responsibility it played up the heroine with, instead of focusing on the battle, as the Japanese story does.  But when the hype of the movie started coming out, I was a bit confused.  The books are for teens with a definite sense of maturity, but the marketing of the movie seemed (at least in the media) focused on a younger audience, with retroactive attention to the books, as if they were the next Harry Potter, when they should have been marketed (again, retroactively, as the books were already a phenomena on their own) as the next Twilight, thoughtful adventure books with strong characters instead of melo-romantic vampire pap pumping sexual repression at us.  You can guess what books I prefer.

So, that said, the movie is definitely not for the pre-adolescent set, even less so than the books.  No, not so much in the visual representations of the violence, but really in the style and direction of it.   This movie has a lovely, mature directing sense about it, with loving close shots of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and a reserved nature to the violence.  And where the movie has to be grand, it is so, depicting the wealth of the capitol in all its stolen glory.  Genre movies don't often get this attention to directing, all too often falling into a series of wide shots, so we see all the lovely dressed sets and action, connected to inventive quirky shots to show off the CGI.  But this is a story ultimately about a girl who has to has to make difficult decisions in order to save her sister from an uncaring government.  The director cares for Katniss and we see that in the shots.

Only one thing bothered me about the movie, as a comparison to the book, in that it tried to be more science-fictiony in its depiction of the arena.  I always had the impression that these were not so much fully man made facilities but more, areas of their own world reconstructed and edited to be self-contained environments capable of being manipulated.  Sort of like a nature reserve but with more technology.  But in the movie it all seems a bit more like a giant Star Trek holodeck with the ability for techs in a control room to alter anything at will, adding in monsters on the fly or inserting geographical elements as needed.  While I accepted that the arenas were definitely manipulated by a superior technological society, as in the genetic engineering of the tracker jacker wasps, I did not like the idea of designing a mutt on the fly to have him appear like tea, earl-grey, hot on the arena floor already chasing Katniss and the other tributes.

(And Kent said....)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

3 shrt pgrphs: Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked)

2009, Richard Curtis -- netflix

I remember thinking -- this was back in '09 when the trailers hit -- that this film looked weak, a barely-comedic tale about pirate radio stations set up on anchored ships off the British coastline in the '60's.  How do you really make a movie out of that?  It's barely a story.  I mean, there is a little more to it than that, as in the 60's at the height of the British rock-and-roll invasion, British radio had no popular music stations, and the new music was restricted to only a few hours of broadcast in any given week, and these pirate stations were able to operate outside the government's control in international waters, gaining dramatic popularity over their government-run counterparts, thus prompting the stiff-upper-lippers to find some means of shutting them down.  And that's it.  When I said there was a little more to it, well, that was it.

This film is not in any way biographical.  In some respects it's a farce, particularly in the purely ridiculous government bureaucrats whose task it was to rid the airwaves of this polluting music and discus jockeys.  Kenneth Branagh is the head cheese -- staunchly named Sir Alistaire Dormandy --  and plays the role as if he studied nothing but early John Cleese stuck-up stickybeats in preparation for the role.  His accomplice is Coupling's Jack Davenport, who completely unselfconsciously goes by the name Twatt.  That's the level of humour the film aims for.  The rest of the film, when not dealing with the cartoonish inner workings of the government, takes place aboard one of the many off-shore floating radio stations, and suffers from any uniform perspective or focal viewpoint.  At first, we're introduced to the crew of the ship and cast of on-air personalities by way of an 18-year-old whose mother thought it would keep him out of trouble -- and oh ho boy, was that the wrong move? You bet it was -- but he's not the central character.  This film has none.  It tries to put Philip Seymour Hoffman, the station's top DJ ("the Count") at the center, but he's on screen for maybe 1/6th of the film.  Instead the large ensemble, including some great talents like Chris O'Dowd, Katherine Parkinson (both from the IT Crowd), Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Rhys Darby (from Flight of the Conchords), and Nick Frost is cycled through in a series of vignettes that have no greater impact or importance on the film at large.  It's truly like Curtis had created a WKRP in Cincinnati-style sit-com and consolidated a whole season's worth of episodes into a fitfully overlong two-hour movie.

The film, because of its great cast (and in spite of yet another loathsome performance from January Jones), has some charm, but it's a simple charm that outstays its welcome before the end of its tale.  It's Time-Life Hits of the '60's soundtrack is steeped in nostalgia but the songs are so ubiquitous that they have about as much impact as the limp humour the film tries to hit us with.  The bureaucrats win the battle in the end, but obviously not the war, and the film's coda is dripping with so much undeserved and overconfident meaning that it's spoils even what meager enjoyment there is to get out of the movie.  It's not terrible, but there's absolutely no point to it all, and it's really not worth the time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Midnight In Paris

2011, Woody Allen -- netflix

I'm two years out on my "year of Woody" where I attempted to, on a weekly basis, view a Woody Allen production.  I crammed so much Woody into my head in such a concentrated period that I became a little neurotic myself, practiced my own Woody impersonation, and for a short time, took up the clarinet (one of these three things didn't actually happen).  I came to some conclusions about Woody but I'm not sure I effectively captured them.  In 2010 I took a break from compulsive blogging and though tracking my every consumption, so my records are sparse on the matter.  To summarize what would sure be a much bigger conversation in a few short words, Woody's early career was incredibly interesting, his humour was more appealing when he was younger, and he's actually an incredible visual filmmaker.

I kind of stopped my Allen cycle towards the end of the '80's, which many say is for the best.  His output in the new millennium has been, critically, poor, with one out of every 3 or 4 productions getting positive, if not always the most favorable reviews.  With that in mind Midnight In Paris is, as the critics have implied, his best film in recent years, and easily one of his best films ever.

It's the story of Gil Pender, a Hollywood hack desperately trying to find his authentic voice as a novelist in Paris who gets transported, literally, back to the 1920's heyday of the Parisian artistic and literary movement, where he encounters Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter and a veritable who's who of cultural legends.  They help guide Gil and mold his artistic vision, both directly and not.  The experience, which repeats itself night after night, awakens Gil's creative spirit which has been stymied within the Hollywood system and a stifling relationship (the ol' Allen special).

Given the setup, the film could have bee outright ludicrous or terribly pompous, but Allen centers the film around the theme of nostalgia, and explores it exceptionally well, especially when the time-travelling starts eating itself in a conscientious, clever and amusing fashion.  He uses his famous personalities as both caricatures and characters, eliciting some marvelous scenes from Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali (*pop*). These larger-than-life character sketches could have taken the movie away into both hilarious and unnecessary, eventually overstretched directions, but Allen does just enough with them.  He gives them their cameos and their moments but they don't outstay their welcome, and it all stays on track, nicely condensed.

The film overall was a huge surprise.  Not that I'd written Allen off altogether, but I'd grown tired of his voice after hearing so much of it in 2010 and began to hear the repetition within it.  Equally strained was the Woody-impersonation that his leads constantly seem to want to invoke.  In this regard, it was a brilliant move on Allen's part in casting an actor like Owen Wilson for the lead, a man whose voice is so distinctly his own that there's no chance he's going to do a Woody impersonation.  I doubt he could if he tried.  In this regard, Wilson is free to inhabit the character as he sees him, not as some Allen stand-in and he gives Gil charm, self-consciousness, a bit of a laissez-fair demeanor, and a boyish sense of awe, wonder and excitement that don't typically scream "Woody".

Top five Allen, easy.

(now read David's take)

The Dark Knight Rises

2012, Christopher Nolan - in theatre

I can see why some fanboys are reacting negatively towards The Dark Knight Rises.  After all, here's a Batman film where Batman is in costume for maybe 30 minutes of a 165 minute feature (and that's a very liberal estimate).  The movie, all told, is more of a movie about Gotham City than it is Batman, and unlike The Dark Knight, which is largely upheld as the Godfather 2 of superhero movies, it doesn't stand alone as a great film.

However, it is, I would concede, a good final act to the overall Christopher Nolan franchise, truly bringing various story and character elements introduced in Batman Begins and its sequel to a head in a massive spectacle that at once seems immense and quite contained.  It's a bloated film, not unlike the last Batman film to feature Bane as a protagonist, yet unlike Schumacher's horrifically neon-soaked, fetishistic, camp-throwback Batman and Robin, all the cogs are working together to form the singular timepiece instead of against each other to form a nightmarish clockwork fun-time monster.

The Dark Night Rises is epic, a rare third feature that not only justifies its existence with quality storytelling and production values, but actually makes itself essential to the development and understanding of the characters over the entire trilogy and bringing closure to the series as a whole.  Where many trilogies have little in the way of characterization to offer an audience by the time it reaches it's epilogue, this film actually tells you more about the quality of character of these heroes, and their increasing shades of grey.  While there weren't exactly plot threads dangling from Batman Begins nor The Dark Night, at least none that detracted from the enjoyment of either film, Nolan's latest mythologizes both films and steeps itself in their minutiae.  8 years following the end of the last film (in timeline, not real-time), Bruce Wayne is still reeling from the death of his boyhood love Rachael Dawes and has gone into hiding, and the Wayne Foundation has suffered an incredible blow after Bruce shut down a revolutionary energy project after learning it had the potential to be weaponized. Batman remains in hiding following the death of Two-Face, and the city has prospered in his absence with the enactment of the Harvey Dent Act permitting the police unprecedented powers to incarcerate criminals and tear down organized crime.  But an international masked terrorist named Bane has set his sights on Gotham, drawing Batman out and crossing paths with a cat burglar named Selina Kyle.

And it just gets more complex from there, as lies are exposed, prisons are torn wide open, Batman's secret identity is discovered, the city is cut off from the rest of the world and threatened with annihilation, and Batman is broken by Bane.

Batman fans, at least those that were around in the 1990's, should be familiar with some of these things.  Obviously with the inclusion of Bane, the "Knightfall" storyline was one inspiration, and with the city cordoned off by military action, others should recognize the "Cataclysm/No Man's Land" influence.  And naturally, with a beaten, bruised, and retired Batman, there's obviously a few nods to "The Dark Knight Returns" in there, for good measure.  As well, there's some general Batman mythos being played with, especially the "League of Assassins" (as it's known in the comics, "League of Shadows" in the film series), the secret society led by Ra's Al Ghul in the first film, and now Bane here.  (I think everyone was wondering if Ra's was alive, or if Nolan would employ the Lazarus pit at all, and there's more than a couple of fake-outs within the film in this regard).

Then there's John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, it becomes quite apparent is the Nolan-verse version of Robin.  There's a lot of focus on Blake, a GCPD officer who becomes Gordon's right hand man, and is naturally set up as either a sidekick or replacement for Batman.  He's an original creation, but in this regard, Nolan (with his brother Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer) form him out of bits and pieces of not just Robin's past, including Jason Todd and Tim Drake, but also Terry McGinness, Bruce's replacement in the Batman Beyond cartoon.

I quite liked, to my own surprise, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle.  She had a wonderfully dual carefulness and carefree attitude that played well against and among the seriousness of Bruce Wayne and the crumbling Gotham.  There was a delightful amount of chemistry between Kyle and Wayne, both in costume and out, rivaling any other pairing previous.  The only downside was there wasn't enough of it within the film.  The demands of the larger story, kept the pair apart for much of the running time, and the film, and series as a whole would have benefited from much more of their rooftop shenanigans.

I suppose that's where the true disappointment would come in for a Batman fan.  After getting a really kick-ass, full-on Batman experience with the Dark Knight, and with Bruce's return to the costume here, one gets a real sense of the comic book Batman come to life, as if we're one step away from him swinging from the rooftops.  Had there been two other, more adventurous Batman films between The Dark Knight and this finale, I think the fanboys would be placated in a way they're just not going to feel here.  One does have to wonder how if Heath Ledger were able to return as the Joker just how different would be.  There's was the Batman: Gotham Knight animated anthology that padded out the Nolan-verse slightly between the first two films.  I've heard no rumours of a follow-up but a second would be welcome, or even a "sequel" with more of John Blake.

I do say though that I did enjoy The Dark Knight Rises overall, fully admitting there's some clunky dialogue throughout that made me actually wince a few times, and also not discounting its quasi-failure as a proper "Batman" film.  That said, it tweaks the mythos of Batman quite nicely, so much so that it compensates for its moderate shortcomings. 

I will see it again.  I will own it on some form of digital media.  I will watch it in a marathon with its forebears.  I may grow to like it more, I may come to like it less.  In such a way, upon repeated watchings, the film and the series' true qualities will, ahem, rise. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

5 Seasons of Mad Men

The first episode of Mad Men I saw was the Season 4 Christmas episode my sister was watching on Netflix.   It wasn't terrible but it didn't captivate me either.  I just felt rather lost.  

Mad Men has a reputation as one of those "great shows", addictive television like the Wire or Breaking Bad, that has achieved both commercial and critical success, yet seems to retain a tight artistic focus that was once rare on television, (though, in the wake of Mad Men's surprising popularity, seems to be as prevalent as network-driven programming).  I didn't have a tremendous interest in watching it initially, yet with the critical acclaim continuing through its fourth season, I thought I should at least give it a shot.

The first season, to be honest, was a bit of a slog, not nearly as immediately captivating or addictive as I was led to believe.  The wife and I watched a half dozen episodes over a month's time and then left it for a while... at least half a year before resuming.  It was around episode 9 of the first season that the switch was flipped, however, and the addictive nature of the show kicked into full gear.

There are many facets to Mad Men that contribute to its appeal.  It's very soap operatic, meaning there's a lot of romantic entanglements to deal with, a tremendous amount of infidelity and relationship drama.  It's a nighttime soap, like Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, amongst others, that long ago went out of favour (replaced by teen-geared soaps), yet more mature, less tawdry.  With its early-1960's setting, it's impeccable set dressing, wardrobe and styling, it's visually striking, refined and very stylish.   There's an investment in production value, and a palpably high level of research into the advertising game, the culture and the zeitgeist of the '60's. 

What really makes Mad Men tick, however, is its characters.  It's evident from its slow-burn beginnings that creator Matthew Weiner wasn't interested in shorthanding his characters by archetyping, instead they come fully formed and it does take over half the first season for the audience to get to know them and begin to understand their motivations.

Weiner also created a storytelling language for Mad Men that makes it distinct from almost every other program on television.  Besides Don Draper, no other character's story carries on from episode to episode.  They're generally all present in the community of Sterling-Cooper, but the focus shifts around the large cast, and it can be 3 or 4 episodes (or more) before focus falls back on one of the supporting players, picking up their story in a "real time" sense.  This means, typically, that much has developed off screen since last their non-professional life was followed.

Then there's Don Draper, the show's centerpiece, it's ace in the hole, an instant classic character that has transcended the show, to the point that I'm sure as many people know of him that don't watch the show as those that do.  Don Draper begins as a bit of a mystery, but a man of ultimate cool:  composed, suave, dapper, talented, respected, even a little feared.  He's part James Bond, part Wolverine for the dramatic set. It's evident early on that nobody on the show really knows him, and the show parses out bits and pieces of Don's surprising past across the first three seasons in flashbacks and fever dreams.

Don's character constantly pulls at the seams, in surprising ways.  When Don has a breakdown, or is stymied, or becomes Dick Whitman, you see the facade drop, chipping away at his mystique, if not his appeal.  Yet, Weiner always has a restorative bullet in the chamber, something that, once fired, immediately brings Don back to his god-amongst-men status.  Jon Hamm is fantastic in the role (and so goddamn handsome, you want to hit something), and it's his ability to show those fractures in the mask that the show is hinged upon.  Without it, Don Draper would be too perfect, perhaps unlikeable, callous even.

The show is typically exceptionally well written, and it constantly defies expectations.  Unlike most nighttime dramas, Mad Men rarely takes you where you think its going to go.  We've trained ourselves as a viewing audience to look for foreshadowing and to get wrapped up in the build up of drama, and as such Mad Men is constantly setting up paths in that regard.  Yet it rarely follows them, as it seems doing so would be far too easy, too "TV dramatic" and less interesting than the road it actually does wind up taking, those which are rarely foreshadowed.

The show's involvement of the events and politics of the '60's is one of its weaker traits, though valiant in its efforts.  As often as it handles these well, it doesn't.  It's use of the Kennedy assassination was brilliant, especially in how it interrupted the drama in everyone's life, an even that united people in shock and sorrow.  Conversely, its handling of era's race issues is quite often clunky, as is it's pointed use of smoking, big tobacco in advertising, and things like shock therapy or even littering, which are displayed in a manner like "look how ignorant we were".  It's a little too flagrant and could've been incorporated more organically or not at all.  It handles feminism and gender issues far, far better.  The diversity in its female characters, how they view themselves and their roles within their professional and personal lives as the sixties barrel on is one of its strongest facets.

That said, weakest element of the show is, hands down, January Jones.  Devoid almost completely of any charisma, she's unappealing in the role of Betty Draper, Don's somewhat depressed suburban housewife.  Prudish, sour-faced, and neglectful, she's a thoroughly unlikeable, and with Jones in the role, mercilessly unsympathetic.  I have a feeling that the audience is supposed to feel something towards her other than pure detestation, alas, Jones is unable to elicit anything resembling compassion or affection. 

Mad Men's first four seasons are exceptional, with the fifth season only slightly less so.  The latest season suffers from, primarily, the distance to its beginnings.  It's pretty much exhausted the drama of Don Draper's origins, which means as the central figure to the show, he's marginally less engaging, and largely demystified.  As well, the transition from the buttoned down, conservative style of the 50's into the mod-influenced mid-60's (including a set change between the 3rd and 4th season for the advertising agency) greatly impacts the overall feel of the show.  The fifth season is a little too bright, a little too showy, losing some of its subtlety.  While still good, with some of the show's most shocking and depressing moments (and, finally, a scene the focuses solely on Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks, which is so much concentrated attractiveness that your TV set might overheat) it also features so much infidelity (a show staple) that the affairs have become tiresome and uninteresting. 

Next to Don Draper, infidelity is the show's center point.  The characters seem to constantly revolve around it, but there's little exploration of what it actually means to these people, why they all do it (and they all do) and I find it even harder to believe that the 60's are accurately represented by its prevalence within the show.  The closing scene of season five had me throwing my hands up.  We will see where we are when season six hits, and apparently there's another season to follow before the show runs down, but by then I'm wondering if it won't have overstayed its welcome.

Monday, August 6, 2012

3 Shrt Pgrphs: Ronin

1998, John Frankenheimer -- DVD

Ronin is one of the best films of the 1990's, and is also one of my favourite films.  I don't think this often, except when I'm watching the movie or immediately thereafter.  It's a rare and special film that can suck you in with each repeated watching, but even more rare one that can evoke a sense of discovery every viewing.  I've seen Ronin over half a dozen times now (I haven't really been keeping count) but each time I'm just as mesmerized by the nuances and intricacies of the plot and stimulated by the vagaries therein.  It's not that the film is incredibly dense, nor exceedingly complex, but what makes Ronin so provoking is how little exposition it contains.  Frankenheimer leaves almost all the heavy lifting up to the actors, and there's as much said in the quiet moments as there is in the dialogue.

The cast of Ronin is astounding.  This is one of Robert DeNiro's best on-screen performances, bolstered by the international supporting cast of Jean Reno, Natasha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgars, and an exceptionally twitchy Sean Bean.  Together with Frankenheimer they capture the spirit of sword-for-hire samurai films of the 60's and 70's replacing them with stoic, mysterious mercenaries, united for a task they're committed to by both money and pride, having to rely upon each other, but never fully trusting.  Though shot in the late-1990s, the film retains a quasi-timeless feel.  Frankenheimer's old-school directing style is far more patient than the majority of action filmmaking today and it lends the film a '60's sensabilty as much as a '90's.  Shots are held and the editing is minimal and purposeful.

My strongest recollections of the film were always of the spectacular chase sequences, a Frankenheimer specialty, but in this latest discovery I found the chases to be less impressive.  With the budgets being placed behind action films in the past decade, chase sequences have become even more elaborate and mesmerizing.  Ronin's are still fantastic, but are no longer the centerpiece of the film.  Taking the `wow`factor out of the action leaves all the many other exceptional elements of the film to bubble to the fore. 

Friday, August 3, 2012


2012, dir. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell

With the exception of the Cars franchise I absolutely love the Pixar films.  The fact that my 3-year old is a huge fan of their catalog and seemingly endless repeated viewings has only deepened my appreciation for the craft and creativity that went into the story and visual representation of these films.  Films I didn't care all that much for at first, like Monsters, Inc. and A Bugs Life have become favourites, and even the first Cars film I've kind of warmed to, if only slightly.  Their track record in recent years (Cars 2 excluded) has been phenomenal.  Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 were all highlights in cinema in their respective years, and some of the best films ever made. 

I was wary when Pixar announced their major slate of sequels, with an even split of the surprisingly phenomenal Toy Story 3 and the commercial cash cow of Cars 2 eating up the Pixar release slots for the past two year not exactly assuaging my concern that Pixar was more concerned with selling toys and maintaining the prominence of licensed properties than telling incredible stories.  With Monsters University on the schedule for next summer, Brave was the great hope for an original tale and a reminder of what made Pixar the company that changed animation forever.

The previews for Brave were exciting, revealing that the film, for the first time in Pixar`s history, would feature a female protagonist.  Of course, in true Disney fashion, this protagonist just had to be a princess, but the lengthy sneak peak that cropped up before many movies showed her to be strong-willed and action-oriented, which I hoped would lead to an exciting and grand adventure centered around this Celtic royal.

Instead, we got a film about mommy issues, a slapstick bear, a trio of mischievous siblings, a less inspired protagonist and a much smaller-scale adventure than I had anticipated.

I can hardly express my disappointment with this movie.  I was completely blindsided by the mother-daughter storyline, not that I was abject to it, as I thought their strained relationship was handled well early on.  But once the Queen was turned into a bear and the pantomiming began I couldn't help but groan at almost every turn.  I did not like that story element, and given as it's central to the film there wasn't much else to focus upon.  I never warmed to it, because that damn bear-mom never ceased to be ridiculous.  That Princess Merida's younger triplet siblings also become adorable swollen eyed bear cub, even more precocious in their transformation, it was almost too much to handle.  Wasn't this roughly the plot of Disney's flop(ish) Brother Bear at the tail end of their traditional animation days?  (I don't know, I never saw it).

Brave might not be as terrible as my initial disappointment has made it out to be in my head, and I'm sure that my daughter's Pixar fascination will no doubt lead me to repeated viewings of the movie to make up my mind further, but it really did leave a sour taste in my mouth.  It's pedestrian story certainly didn't live up to the standard of Pixar that I've held the company to.  In my unofficial rankings of the company's product it's actually sitting behind Cars and just ahead of Cars 2 at the bottom of the list.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


2010, Jeff Malmberg - 2010

Back when this documentary hit the indie-cinema circuit in Toronto in 2010, I took note of Marwencol, given that it seemed to be about a dude playing with action figures, something I've taken a pretty keen interest in over my life (action figures, not dudes playing with action figures) though definitely not to the same extreme.  I didn`t really know the finer details of the documentary, so beyond the action figures it was quite the revelation.

Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten, unprovoked, outside a bar in his hometown by five men, putting him in a coma and causing permanent brain damage.  After his rehabilitation therapy is cut off, Hogancamp finds his own therapy in the town of Marwencol, a 1/6 scale WWII village populated by a bevvy of soldiers and civilians, many of whom are based off figures in Hogancamp's own life.  Having developed a rich history and storyline that's equal parts Casablanca and facets of his own life story, and perhaps a little ersatz Tarantino, Hogancamp takes to documenting the meticulous details of Marwencal's story through photography.

As it turns out he's a prodigy in photography, and, championed by an art magazine, earns his own art exhibit in New York City.  Malmberg's film brilliantly juggles Hogancamp's history and recovery, dealing with the lasting effects of the beating on his life, the story of Marwencol both in its inception and the story that is told within it, and the artistic awakening.  There's an additional revelation late in the film that sheds dramatic light on Hogancamp's character, the incident that brought him to where he is, and how he presents himself in New York.  It would be easy to sensationalize the reveal (which I'm intentionally being vague about, because in many ways it's feels like such a natural thing once it is revealed).

It's an exceptionally powerful character study, one that isn't directly tragic, nor profoundly uplifting, but with elements of both.  It would be easy to paint it as a curiosity or freakshow, but it's such an impeccably well crafted film, that it's sharply affecting, and decidedly memorable.

There's a website for Marwencol, with pictures of the town and details for buying Hogancamp's artwork, plus the news of a new storybook which tweaks the comic book geek in me.  Marwencol, the documentary is a fascinating story, but Marwencol the town is a fascinating place all its own, and done right, it could make a remarkable fumetti.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

2011, Constance Marks - Netflix

This was an irresistible documentary for me, even though I'm not a huge fan of Elmo.  The little red monster that's a merchandising juggernaut and, for a time in the late '90's became pretty much the sole focus of the beloved institution Sesame Street, has long annoyed the piss out of me, to be blunt.  Yet, since I've become a parent, and watched how my daughter responds to the first-person-talking, goldfish-loving, Jingle-Bells-riffing Muppet and I've softened my view.  The real attraction, though, was the implied behind-the-scenes look at both what it takes to become a muppeteer and a look inside the Muppet studios.

Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, it might surprise many to learn, is an imposing-in-size-only black man, with a kind smile, an obvious connection with children, and an incredible passion for puppetry.  The film immediately pulls the curtain back on Elmo to reveal Clash as the puppet master, and then dives into how this man coming from extremely humble beginnings became one of the top children's entertainers in history.  The answer is, quite simply, an impressive amount of hard work, devotion to his craft, and a deep love for what he does.  It's not a wildly dramatic story, but it is exemplary of what it takes to be successful.  Clash, starting at quite a young age, got into puppetry, both the art of entertaining and the art of creation.  He got noticed on a local level, honed his talent, grew his exposure to a regional and ultimately national level, before apprenticing with a puppet godfather, and coming into the dream role as a member of the Henson stable.

The story of Elmo and the character's escalation to superstardom is equally drama-less.  Elmo was a monster character that other puppeteers just couldn't make work, gaining no traction on the show.  It's a testament to Clash's vocal abilities and his puppeting skill that he turned Elmo into what he ultimately became, an international superstar.  As the man behind the scenes, he's perhaps the biggest international superstar nobody really knows, and the film shows not only how capable a performer he is, but how revered and preeminent he is.  He trains other puppeteers on the international Sesame Street programs, he's a major executive in the brand and obviously one of the most in-demand Muppet-masters in the world.

The toll of his immeasurable success on his personal life is touched on but brushed by, as it's not dwelt upon but he sacrificed his marriage and much of his daughter's formative years to get to where he is.  There's a rather telling moment, an unexpectedly telling moment I should add, where Clash throws an extravagant 16th birthday for his daughter which is almost embarrassingly Elmo-centric.  His daughter seems good natured about it all, perhaps respectful of what it was that affords her family such extravagances as personalized sweet 16 messages from Jack Black. 

For all Clash's demureness, to see him in a business sense, training the other muppeteers and his executive role on Sesame Street, and the awareness is he's still not that shy reserved boy playing with puppets.  He may prefer to stay behind Elmo and let the puppet get the attention and glory, but he's proud and confident in what he does, and has grown beyond the timidity into someone sucessful, and, in a way less rateable because of it. In all, it's an interesting, yet slight documentary.