Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dollhouse (S1)

2009, Joss Whedon -- Netflix

This, of course, was my second time through Dollhouse.  The first time through the series, I wasn't completely sure.  As a concept, it was fascinating.  BTW, I will speak as if you did not see the series. It is LA and there exists a technology that allows you to be imprinted with an entire separate personality and set of skills.  This is not Total Recall with a supplied couple of weeks of memories but still being essentially yourself.  It is truly a replacement of everything: memories, personality, skills, etc.  You become that person. But it cannot be done to just anyone, only a person who's had their brain tinkered with.  And according to the propaganda of the company who provides it, everyone volunteers to become one of these dolls.  Of course, what are these dolls most often used for?  Yes, "romantic engagements".  Basic premise?  Someone knows how to make living love dolls.  And our brave FBI agent  Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is trying to find this dollhouse.

What I was not sure about was how long the premise could be carried.  The show could have been about the simple truth that Ballard believes most of these dolls are there against their will and are being "forced" to do things they would never agree to, should they be fully aware.  That would be the simple moral of most TV shows and the series did start at that.  Its quite a complex moral by itself.  The western world gave up slavery decades ago. But many of us still wish for the idea of someone who completely knows us, who bends to our will, willingly.  Slave & Master exists out there in the kink world. But this is done with the illusion that they are not slaves but doing it entirely of their free will instead of the illusion of being slaves.

Expectedly, the show displayed mostly the most innocuous engagements: men who wanted to meet the girl of their dreams on their birthday, people who had regular rendezvous with someone they had been in love with forever, etc.  The purely sex-slave stuff was left to the imagination.  And the show also showed what else the tech could be used for, such as hostage negotiation or in even seedier than sex, victim for a hunter.  It was all presented to give us a moral morass where we could believe what Ballard believed -- they were slaves who needed to be freed or what Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the LA house director believed -- they were fulfilling a need that society did not want to acknowledge.  As long as it was all done according to contract and dolls left the house with the money they wanted, at the end of their contract, why should anyone argue?

Like all Whedon shows, it is a fun ensemble cast of characters.  We have the FBI agent, all skills and black & white morals.  We have the director, very slick, calm and sure of what she is doing. We have an ex-cop handler (each doll has a handler) not completely sure of the morals of what he is doing but protective of his doll. We have Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) , the brilliant scientist responsible in some part, for the creation of the tech. And we have the dolls: Echo (Eliza Dushku), Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman), the main characters of our attention. Each is just brilliant in their own way, some humorous some humourless, each complex in opinions and motives.

But really, this was just the base of show.  Where it shone, and this is very apparent when you watch it again in compressed format, was in the overall story arc.  Right or wrong, the technology exists and what exists can be abused, even beyond its original intent.  The true plot to the show is the intrigue behind the mega corporation who came up with this technology and what they actually intend on using it for.  The dollhouses are just one layer, a money making layer.  Down the rabbit hole is something more insidious -- control of the world.

This is where the characters really come out, as layers of the onion are pulled back, so are layers of the characters.  Is Ballard just a fool to believe saving them from the dollhouse is bettering their lives? Is DeWitt so blinded by her loyalty to her bosses she will forgive what she sees in front of her? Is Brink, completely amoral and convinced of his own independent brilliance, willing to let the tech be used for anything? And the dolls; what of the dolls?  What is Echo's true purpose in all of this?

The season ends with a near-future apocalyptic vision of what can happen, what will probably happen, when things go awry.  The corporation has domination plans but what if it all just goes fucking sideways?  What if the tech gets out and anyone, anywhere can be wiped, swiped and altered in the span of a breath?  What if a psycho releases personalities best left hidden into the general populace? What happens?  The world ends, is what happens.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Puss in Boots

2011, Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) -- download

The Shrek movies are inoffensive, occasionally funny CGI movies about the faery tale land.  That a single character voiced by Antonio Banderas (no, Antonio, it's too sexy!) would spin off into his own movie is not surprising.  The part that confuses me, despite acknowledging he does a brilliant job as the alluring musketeer, is that he is Spanish and musketeers are French.  Also, not a lot of the reworked faery tales, as displayed in the Shrek movies are historically or even really Earth-based, as long as you ignore the anachronisms given for humor's sake. So, it must have been a stretch to come up with a background to do an entire movie for this character that felt separated from the original movies enough to stand alone.  And given this one was not straight to video, it still felt ... stretched thin.

The original Perrault Puss in Boots (actually Le Chat Botté) was set in Renaissance France and the main character is a trickster cat who plays humans to better his kind master.  A talking cat who is happy to have a pair of boots tricks villagers, the King and an Ogre and ends up having his master rewarded with a title and a princess.  Thus goes a very typical Mother Goose tale; Perrault was the real name of Mother Goose.  This movie has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

This is faery tale Spain or Mexico or both --- does it really matter when it has to be set in the land of the Shrek movies?  I imagine, if this land is anything like the stories from Fables there are many realms all dedicated to the faery tales of the region the tale originates from.  That there would be a Mexico or Spain is not surprising.  That Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill would be there is a bit more surprising.  This is an origin story for a cat in boots who grew up in an orphanage as brother to an egg. We get a convoluted tale more likened to an indie movie with guns and Tarantino violence, with heist elements and revenge.  We don't get an explanation of why he is a musketeer but they do try to connect it to Zorro, which did have fancy hats and swords.  It has some cute in-jokes and some great animation, but the whole Jack & Jill as homicidal crime lords seemed.... misplaced and unfortunate.  The best part is the use of a giant goose as a Godzilla style kaiju.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Mirror Mirror

2012, Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals) -- download

There were two Snow White movies out at the same time, one (Snow White & the Huntsman) dramatic and one comedic.  I knew I would see one in the cinemas and I was curious about the other one.  There were a few jokes in the trailers that made me chuckle but for the most part it seemed... tired.  But, it was TARSEM !!  Yes, that Tarsem responsible for visually stunning movies such as The Cell and Immortals.  What the fuck is he doing here directing a by-the-book comedic adaptation of a faery tale? Sure, directors should be allowed to stretch their abilities with other material but his strengths obviously focus around set design and costuming with dramatic flair.   The only director I know who can merge comedy and those traits is Tim Burton, but he has had that distinct motif for his entire career.  Anywayz, that is what I thought going into this movie.  And guess what?  That is what I think coming out of the movie.

This movie, as I imagine lots of producers and executive producers demanded, wants to be The Princess Bride and Ella Enchanted, a sort of Disney-fied faery tale full of anachronistic references and situations but full of beautiful costumes and magic, which I guess is where Tarsem came in.  So, they gave him two rote screenwriters that dish up a story that I believe I actually shouted at the screen about, "Seriously?  That is where the story is going to go?"  And yes, once again I blame the money-bearing Hollywood support for a movie, not the creative involved.  I don't think Tarsem makes a lot of money when he follows his vision but maybe he made a deal in order to get Immortals shot, as he wanted it.  I am sure there were some crossroads dealing in his career that led him to this crappy movie, a crappy movie that Kent cannot accuse me of liking.

What was it about?  I suppose I don't have much more to say that a brief description of the plot.  Lilly Collins, who does bear a stunning ressemblance to the Disney cartoon Snow White, is the daughter of the King (Sean Bean; uh oh) who has lost her mother in childbirth and gained a stepmother.  He dies early on, in great Beanean tradition, and she is left with beautiful stepmother Julia Roberts.  The Queen has driven the kingdom into the ground with her lavish balls and spending. She needs a new man in her life and he happens to be wandering the wood.  Unfortunately, so was Snow White and you know how it goes when Prince meets Princess.  Thus we are led through plots to have Snow White killed (no huntsmen, just effete Nathan Lane) and thievish dwarves (bumbling tumbling little people of course!) and some ludicrous spells (seriously? puppy love?) but it all works out for the happy princess and all ends with a Bollywood number.  Get it? Tarsem is Indian so he is good with those!!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

3 shrt pgrphs: Shut Up, Little Man: An Audio Misadventure

2011, Matthew Bate -- netflix

There were memes before the internet.  They didn't spread nearly as quickly, and as such they had a longevity that memes today don't enjoy (I've almost forgotten Gangnam Style already).  Memes back in the old days were spread physically instead of virtually, largely as a result of tape trading, whether it be VCR or audio mixtapes.  To wit: "Shut Up, Little Man", a subculture phenomenon from the mid-1980's that resulted from two friends moving into a thin-walled, dive apartment in San Francisco that was directly beside two (allegedly platonically) cohabitating men, Pete and Ray, who were like Bert and Ernie, if they were in their 50's, drunk all the time, and arguing incessantly (okay, that last one's exactly like Bert and Ernie).

The two friends, after a frightening encounter in which Ray threatened to kill one of them, decided to start recording their neighbour's arguments.  The recordings were played to the amusement of friends, copies were made, and excerpts wound up on mix tapes.  It started getting around, and eventually became a phenomenon in the underground counter culture of zines, audio verite, way-off-broadway, indie comics and the like.  There was even a record deal.  It was big, but not all pervasive, and this film serves as yet another continuance of a meme that won't die.

This doc finds the original recorders, Mitchell D and Eddie Lee Sausage reuniting to track down Pete and Ray's surviving sometimes-roomate in order to discern the true nature of their relationship.  The film also delves into the fact that D and Sausage have never quite abandoned their involvement with the distribution of the recordings or anything off-shoot related (including a potential Hollywood film), and more seem interested in the commercial side (and protecting thier "creation" from poachers) than any sort of creative expression or sense of Creative Commons/public domain.  The whole scope of the picture is actually quite astute, as it takes this fun, amusing tale of youthful adventure, and then carries it forth through the decades showing how the fun gets sapped out of it when mired in legalities and monetary considerations.  It's especially damning when Pete and Ray become humanized (Pete especially as a video interview made late in his life kind of showed that he didn't really appreciate the joke).  Pete and Ray remain fascinating, through and through, but Mitchell D and Eddie Lee Sausage go from goofy punks in the early telling to douchey guys who want to get rich off of something that they didn't create, so much as facilitate, in all it's legal shades of grey.  That the entire story goes from amusing to pathetic (both for Pete/Ray and for Mitch/Eddie) is at once a satisfying and somewhat sobering arc. 

3 shrt pgrphs: The Importance of Being Earnest

1952, Anthony Asquith -- netflix

I should know better than to hold a film made in 1952, based on a play written in the 1890's, to modern standards, and yet, I find myself judging older movies against the experiences I have, the stories I've been exposed to, and, oh yes, the cliches I'm potently aware of.  I don't always have difficulty judging things in context, but sometimes, even context can't overcome a fatal flaw in storytelling.

That said this mid-20th century production of the Oscar Wilde play is actually quite delightful.  Wilde's breathlessly brisk dialogue remains sharp-tongued and captivating.  The Michaels Redgrave and Denison handle Wilde's wordiness with aplomb, creating charming if not always convincing upper-class rascals who are best friends and stark nemesis at the same time.  The set-up of the story finds Redgrave's Jack Worthing owning up Denison's Algernon Montcrieff that he has a dual life, acting as his own nonexistent brother name Earnest in the city and Jack in the country, but plans to kill off his alter ego in order to marry Algernon's cousin.  Algernon decides to throw a monkey into Jack's wrench by visiting him in the country, as Earnest, and immediately falls in love with Jack's teenaged ward. 

So both men find their true love, but under false pretenses.  Oh what a pickle, especially when they're both found out.  It's at this point that the farce comes to a head, and a step beyond, when through highly convoluted circumstances (and a dose of quasi-deus ex machina) Jack's mysterious origins as an orphan are revealed, and it turns out he's Algernon's brother, which would mean his true love is his cousin, which he doesn't seem phased by a bit, which I guess was acceptable back in the 19th century?.  It's a fun tale that gets mired in too many levels of happenstance at its forced conclusion to really make it's mark.  Obviously it lives on, and lives large, because of Wilde's great wordplay, but story-wise it's a lark then a groan-inducing let down.  This telling is filled with great over-acting from the leads, and some delightfully hammy performances from the supporting players.  The set design and costuming is vintagely busy, in effort to make up for the fact that there's only a half dozen sets in the entire picture.  It's a winning piece with a losing finish, but hey, chalk that up to a man whose been dead for 112 years.

3 shrt pgrphs: Ip Man

2008, Wilson Yip -- netflix

Contrary to popular belief Ip Man is not a film about a superhero lawyer defending the layman from intellectual property thieves, but rather a quasi-historical martial arts film about the Wing Chun master who went on to train many masters, most notoriously Bruce Lee.  The film has, for some time now, been listed at the top of "What's New on Netflix Canada"'s "Highest Rated of All Time" list (which I think is decided as a result of the user "star" ratings on the sit).  True, there's an unhealthy 2:1 ratio of shit-to-good product on Netflix Canada, but I find it hard to believe that Ip Man, at best a mediocre production is the best film of all time on the site.  (I note that Ip Man 2 is second highest rated).

The film takes place during the late-1930s in a popular martial arts school region.  Ip Man is established as a retired wealthy master, also a loving father and husband, who has earned the respect of everyone in town despite his refusal to train anyone else.  When a stock 1960's thug and his gang of goons come to town, easily beating down every other master in a convoluted get-rich-quick scheme (which involves opening up a school in the very same town and steal all the business from the other school as a result of his display of dominance) it's up to Ip Man to drive the ne'er-do-wells from town, which he does, achieving infamy amongst the locals.

Then the Japanese invade, the town is thrown to ruins, all the schools are destroyed, everyone's wealth is taken from them, and they have to work in the coal mines for food.  Select volunteers are taken to participate in bloodsports to earn more food, most wind up beaten bloody, or dead.  Ip Man takes exception and, at first, refuses to fight the General that now runs the town, but then, of course does, and wins, triumphantly.  It's essentially a souped up version of early 90's Van Damme fight films, equally poorly acted (save for the always congenial Donnie Yen), although the Sammo Hung guided choreography is quite swell.  It's so wildly fabricated and so blatant in its attempts to mythologize Ip Man into something he really wasn't that it damns the film, and the man's legacy, with ridiculousness.  Apparently Wong Kar Wai has a long-in-production Ip Man feature called The Grandmasters, to be released in China at the end of the year.  That I would like to see.  This one, not only is it not the best film on Netflix Canada, it's also entirely skippable. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Safe House

2012, Daniel Espinosa -- download

Espionage movies have been rebranded since the Bourne movies.  Paul Greengrass introduced a couple of style elements into a genre that had become lazy and unremarkable at the time.  Swedish director Daniel Espinosa picks up on those visual cues with this Tony Scott-style thriller starring Scott's go-to guy, Denzel Washington.  We take the tightly packed situation rooms of Greengrass, sleeves rolled up and young, bright eyed & nervous CIA analysts reacting quickly to standing, suited, older senior agents.  We add the over saturated, film grain added to digital camera work of Tony Scott.  Both were familiar with the tight action scene, up close, bodies slamming, dust flying, crunching and grunting. Together we get a familiar, enjoyable action flick, exactly what Hollywood ordered.

I grieve the loss of Tony Scott.  I liked what he did with a movie, because despite him producing easily digestible action movies, he was sincere to his own style and esthetic, and it was one I enjoyed.  I won't deny Espinosa being a good craftsman, for it takes effort to see something and reproduce it faithfully.  But I still would prefer something original.  I accept that there is never really anything new these days, and that Hollywood wants you to see something you already spent your money on, but still.... try.  I truly need to see his Swedish films before I dismiss him, but this was your typical gift-from-Hollywood vehicle, to test him out in that environment.  And interestingly enough he is directing a new movie that was originally given to Ridley Scott.

Washington is second runner in this movie, the supporting character Tobin Frost to Ryan Reynold's Matt Weston.  Weston babysits a CIA safehouse in Johannesburg and gets wrapped up in a plot when Frost escapes into an American consulate in the city.  He was a top CIA man before he went rogue, for reasons no one ever really knew.  He has important data and people want him dead.  Weston wants him alive to secure his career and reputation.  Young ambition vs older experience.  We have Washington finally playing someone a little older, a little more tired but still charismatic and capable.  There is a small exchange between Villar (Ruben Blades), an old contact and forger, and Frost where they chat about getting older, where your life becomes more about the past than what is ahead.  That could have been a chat about aging actors.  How much longer until Washington is that suited senior agent standing in a room manipulating the scenes, instead of being right in the gun fights?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Man on a Ledge

2012, Ager Leth -- download

How do you review or even comment on a very very average movie?  Oh, you can complain about it and review it as a terrible movie, but that is  too easy.  But what if it has decent acting, likeable cinematography and a compelling, if absurd, plot?  How do you give it more than a few lines of text or a yawn and a "moving on..." ? I guess this time I will actually have short paragraphs.

Man on a Ledge is a thriller about a ... wait for it.... not a man on a ledge.  That's your misdirect.  Just like the fact that Sam Worthington is a man on a ledge distracting us from the jewel heist going on kitty-corner (to my American friends, this means the diagonal corner on a street intersection) to the building Worthington's Cassidy stands on.  The ledge standing is seen as a bid for attention, as he is a wrongly-convicted cop who was looking at 25 years, no parole.  He escaped during his father's funeral and came to the ledge.  Meanwhile his brother and his brother's too-hot-for-him girlfriend are doing a mission impossible across the street.

I like cop dramas, especially NYC cop dramas.  I like the tough guy attitudes and the boys-in-blue camaraderie.  This was directed with that feel, with the typical elements of a disgraced but capable cop, a by-the-books cop and an obvious dickhead cop.  The addition of heist movie elements are exciting, in a completely unbelievable sort of way -- no way he could pick up that expertise in two years in a jail cell, even if they didn't check his internet downloads.  I think Ethan Hunt must have been his cell mate.  And of course, they accomplish their goal and of course, there is a last act where things are foiled and there is a cop bar scene for them to celebrate coming out alive.  Sorry, I guess the only way to review a very average movie is to complain about it as a terrible movie.  Too bad I actually had some fun watching it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Sleeping Beauty

2011, Julia Leigh -- download

I used to watch a higher calibre of movie, on a regular basis.  I was a veritable film snob but for the simultaneous love with what Hollywood gave us, in particular, the blockbuster.  But really, it was symptomatic of accessibility and time. As places and situations changed, so did I.  So, to be quite honest, I am quite surprised when I see what is generally considered a good movie.  Sorry, let me clarify that --- I rarely find myself seeing movies that are critically acclaimed, sober dramas where script, acting and cinematography are a key design.  The other side of the coin with this is that I also used to see quite a lot of foreign movies and art films, purely because I believed they were supposed to be good.  They often were not.

Sleeping Beauty is a small arthouse flick that I saw the trailer for on IMDB.  I was actually more drawn to the alluring poster, with a nearly nude Emily Browning looking over her shoulder.  I had last seen her in a pseudo-alluring role in Sucker Punch, the movie which I believe inaugurated the raison d'etre of this blog. In this movie, Browning is a young woman drawn into the sex trade world, but one of high class and high money.  Will it be any better than corner work?  Can it be glamorous? A movie like this is going to definitely say no, especially when written and directed by a woman.  Is that a challenging statement?  I am not sure. That we could actually have little sympathy for her, as presented, is more challenging.

Lucy doesn't seem to have a very happy life.  Diner job, office job, dependant mom, suicidally depressed friend and lots of meaningless sex, sometimes with the hint of being paid.  Each is more empty than the last.  Each scene is presented in almost single shot, static camera work done in muted almost, vintage color. Very art.  When we are led to her sex trade life, where she is chemically put to sleep to have old rich men... partake of her. Not really sexually. But it is money and it is easy for her. Bad choices seem very easy for her. What is the writer/director saying?  I guess I am not that viewer anymore who reads what the creator is giving me for all I saw was a sad movie about a sad girl, shot somewhat lovingly but without much depth.

Friday, September 7, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: The Avengers

2012, Joss Whedon (writer on Roseanne, screenplays of Titan A.E. and Toy Story) -- cinema

So, you have already seen Marvel's The Avengers so I am not going to write as if you didn't.  You are really just perusing my "review" to see what I thought.  So, let's talk about my love of superheroes and Joss Whedon.  If you haven't seen the movie yet, there is a good chance you are not interested in movies about people in costumes, with superpowers fighting aliens no matter how well written and directed and popular it is.  But you obviously know I care about these things, so thanks.  And please, tell me why you have not seen it, rather than let me assume.

OK, a lot has already been said how they brought the director/creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and Firefly onboard to direct the movie Marvel and Paramount have been building towards for years.  Whedon is known as a good guy for an ensemble cast, one of the few who can effectively make a group of people into a single character, the star of his vehicles, while still allowing singular voices to ring out.  Whedon is also great with world-building and continuity.  Whedon loves, and has written comic books.  But Whedon is also known for not playing well with the big boys of Hollywood, not a child of temper tantrums but in staying true to his vision.  So, it was with this in mind, I went in pretty damn excited but also tempered, perhaps expecting Whedon himself to be tempered by bucket loads of offered money.

No worries.  It was spectacular.  You can probably choose one or two of the other movies that you actually loved.  Iron Man was great, Captain America was fun but disjointed. Thor was painful. And The Hulk was almost not part of the cast entirely given the star didn't come along.  But Whedon does really take the best from all the others and fits them into this summer blockbuster machine so incredibly well.   Superheroes are not used to working together, not interested in sharing limelight or responsibility or tempering their egos.  The story plays on that and well. They fight, they argue, they bump egos and they all try not to piss of the Hulk.  In the end, they put the differences aside to fight something that is beyond what the normal world can take care of, and then it is the best thing to piss off the Hulk.

And Kent's view.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

3 shrt pgrphs: Burning Love

2012 - Yahoo! Screen

It amuses me to think that there might be, somewhere, a group of people who mistake this easy, yet hilarious riff on The Bachelor and its ilk as, well, earnest somehow.  Of course it's satire status should be evident to most when Ben Stiller appears early in the first episode.  Reality TV is such an easy target to mock, because it is, at its core, absurd in its "reality".

For a TV show or movie or comic book or web series to ape reality TV for laughs or a quick premise threatens to be overplayed, but there's still room for fun, if not exactly fresh parodies to break through. Featuring a who's who (and "who's that!") of B-list celebrities, (but A-list comedic actors) like Michael Ian Black, Janet Varney, Natasha Leggaro, Malin Akerman, Ken Marino, Carla Gallo, Ken Jeong, Kristen Bell, and many many more, Burning Love could easily coast on its easy set-up and gifted improvisational actors, but it replicates the Bachelor so faithfully that it manages to continuously be funny by underplaying the absurdity of reality-TV dating as much as it overplays it.

Each episode is a tightly packed 8 minutes, across  14 episodes, which makes you think that if the Bachelor were equally condensed into a movie run-time and smartly edited it would be just as funny, though unintentionally so.  The series is breezy, not overstaying its welcome, with comedy always being center focus.  Every actor brings it, reigning in their performances and playing it as straight as possible in spite of their broad and ridiculous personalities.  It's a quick, fun ride which fans of comedy will enjoy but actual viewers of reality TV may get even more out of it.