Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What I Am Watching: The Glades, Continuum, Ray Donovan

The Glades is a light, couple fare procedural. The premise, which was probably dispensed with by episode 3 of the first season, of a cop from Chicago forced to move after a scandal and a large legal settlement. He ends up in Florida where he can buy a cheap but snazzy house and spend his days playing golf, cuz y'know, what can happen in non-urban Florida?  Well, it wouldn't be a show unless the answer was A LOT !

Jim Longworth is the cantankerous cop with a knack for pissing people off -- asking too many and often offensive questions until he figures out the murder. And he is as often annoying his coworkers as he is the suspects. Because, well, everyone is a suspect until he knows otherwise. But on the other side, when he gets a crush on a local nurse, it is entirely sweet. His job is his job and he is actually a pretty decent guy.

I just like watching the way his relationship with Callie grows, as there is no aspect of "will they get together" as other shows do. By season 4, he and Callie are engaged. There have been some rough spots but the relationship is so sincere, its a joy watching it grow.  See what I mean? Couple fare.

The crime aspect is actually pretty milk toast but the fun is in how much of a tourism commercial for southern Florida the show is. We can ignore the product shots, but we get so much exposure to different areas, people and history of the area. Jim is ever the visitor and his coworkers are constantly educating him to the highlights of Florida life. Meanwhile he continues to grow his reputation as a spectacular cop which just gives him the needed leeway to act the ass, when investigating.

On the other end of the spectrum is a typical scifi Canadian production. Continuum is a time travel series, so of course I am watching. Kiera Cameron is a cop from 2077.  She is assigned, as we are reminded every episode in the opening voiceover, to the execution of a captured terrorist group. But something goes wrong (actually, quite as planned) and the cop & criminals are transported back to 2013 Vancouver. And yes, this is set in Vancouver not just random unnamed US city pretending to not be Vancouver.

The premise is very solid and straight forward -- Kiera has to stop the terrorists from manipulating our present day so their future agenda is played out, all the while trying to figure out how to get back home to her son and husband. She has to work her way into the Vancouver police force, using her magic technology to play the part of a secret American task force member, sent to Canada to assist with these terrorists that just appeared out of nowhere. And she has to build a relationship with a young techie, who happens to be the leading technologist of her age, albeit when he is much older.

There is little play on the typical concepts of time travel fiction. Its hinted at, as the goal of the terrorists is to play with their future, but we never focus on it to any minute degree, i.e. we are not playing with the butterfly effect where we see the dire consequences of any minute change. Kiera messes with history all the time not worrying too much how things will affect the future. And she never experiences any altered memories. Its kind of refreshing, not really having any of the consequences shown to us.  At least, not until the end of season two when an alternate group of time travellers appears with an agenda to protect the time stream. How? We have no clue until next season.

Finally, we have something I have only just started watching, Ray Donovan. Again, a simple premise, a Boston gangster transplanted to LA where he is a fixer for the stars. He deals with scandalous situations, stalkers and the like. He has an ex-boxer of a brother and another one who is a recovering addict. And thennnn there is his dad, a scuzbag of a criminal who just got out of jail and has come to LA to rebuild a relationship with his family. But there is a darker unrevealed connection there that has Ray hating the old man... utterly.

It's the cast that brought me to the show. Liev Schreiber is Ray, Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok are his brothers. And Jon Voight is the scuzzy aging gangster dad. So scuzzy. I am not one attracted to shows with only reprehensible people but something about this will probably keep me coming back. The setting? Hollywood seedy is expected. The acting? Incredibly strong so far.  We shall have to see how it goes.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: After Earth

2013, M. Night Shyamalan -- cinema

Right out of the star port, I have to state I am a Shyamalan Apologist.  I have enjoyed, to some degree, every movie he has done, including The Last Airbender. I list Unbreakable in my ever changing, as they should always be, Top 10 Movies list. I even enjoyed The Happening despite the terrible acting by all involved. I don't subscribe to his described need to have "a twist" in every movie in order to stay popular. Alas, I have to admit that this movie is not very good.

Will and Jaden Smith are two soldiers in a distant future where mankind has abandoned the Earth. In a too-little-explained prologue, we learn humans left the earth a thousand years ago and settled another planet. But aliens arrived soon after and a war begins with the S'krell using big nasty monsters who sniff us out via our fear. I could go on for a few more paragraphs adding to this largely useless back story (layered but not explaining much) but suffice it to say that while Will and Jaden are transporting one of these alien beasties, their ship crash-lands on the abandoned but now rejuvenated Earth.

This is a beautifully shot movie, with grand Avatar style vistas and a keenly designed technology. But really, what isn't these days. Crash-landed Jaden has to get from point A to point B and recover a MacGuffin so he can call in the cavalry to rescue him and his dad. The movie is a journey of survival and self-enlightenment -- Jaden's Kitai feels he can never live up to his dad's legacy as General Cypher Raige. So, the story is just the two of them.... and the monster. Not only is Earth a dangerous place (ignore the whole "evolved to kill you" tag line) like any planet with predators would be, but the monster they were transporting is loose and wants to eat Kitai. You would think that in such a small story, we would have a focus and be drawn to the battle of wills between man and beast. But no, Kitai is whiney & annoying and Raige (*rolls eyes at lame name*) is just an absentee dick of a dad. Tell me how a video game (The Last of Us) with an anti-hero male lead and an annoying 14 year female lead can be more compelling and emotionally engaging than a massive budget movie by a gifted film maker? I was truly disappointed with this movie.

3 Short Paragraphs (We Agree): Much Ado About Nothing

2013, Joss Whedon (The Avengers) -- cinema

When I first heard the rumours that Joss was working on a Shakespeare adaptation, it just sounded right. Why was a modern representation of Shakespeare's popular comic play just so right in the Whedon-verse? I am not sure completely but it may be connected to Whedon's love of language and a good ability to mix pathos and comedy. But dispensing with the analyses, it just felt right. Strangely enough, Shakespeare is also a rather geeky concept, having just as many frothing fanboys as superheroes and Firefly.

Alas, I am not one of the Shakespeare geeks. I have never seen a play live, never been to Stratford and it always takes me at least ten minutes to catch the cadence. Yes, in the movies. I am a rather big fan of the Kenneth Branagh adaptation, it emerging right at the height of my Branagh fascination and my Kate Beckinsale crush. That one was set in period so I was really interested in seeing how they would place a story about a Prince and his soldiers returning from war, in contemporary times.  We are not given many details, but the two Dons, Pedro and John, are likely crime bosses and have come to friend Leonato's house to escape some drama in Los Angeles. And it is in this great house party that Claudio falls for Leonato's daughter Hero and Beatrice & Benedick are setup for a hookup.

We have much of the motley crew of the Whedon-verse, some from Buffy, some from Doll House and some from Firefly as well as a few fresh faces to round out the crew as they drink through the night and next day in the house that is actually Joss's. Almost everybody is spot-on with their characters but some are downright outstanding!!  Reed Diamond just falls into the role as if this was the way he speaks everyday... he just was his character. Franz Kranz dispenses with his usual dotty act and is splendid as the besotted Claudio. I wasn't as enamoured with Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, as the rest of the world seems to be and I was as equally cool with Alexis Denisof as Benedick -- he just didn't seem invested. But I must admit, if I don't hear with him with a soft british accent, he just seems off, even though I know that is not his background.  All in all, its a great little movie but a part of me wonders why I didn't find it astoundingly wonderful. I think I might have to ask a Shakespeare guru if there was something flat about the production.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: This is the End

2013, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg -- cinema

I was nervous about this movie for pretty much the same reasons as Graig was, with one additional nag -- while the crowd of "Apatow Kids" are good in their own right, often the people they surround themselves with (as actors and creators) are far away from the type of comedy I like. I like Rogen when he is reigned in, I like James Franco in his non-comedy roles, I tolerate Jonah Hill and I outright cannot stand Danny McBride. While I loved the premise and the trailers made me giggle, I worried it would quickly degrade into fart and dick jokes. It did but it also surprised me with some of the depth it had. So excuse me while I do a weighing the scales thing with my hands while making a whiney, "Ehhh uhhhh ehhhh," sound when asked if I liked it.

The premise is The End of the World. From the trailers, we couldn't tell if it was ecological or aliens or an asteroid or all of the above. But, no, its Biblical -- The Rapture. Yes, we are taking a bunch of narcissistic amoral comedians, playing extreme versions of themselves, and presenting them with Christian salvation or ... doom. The movie works around a surprising main plot of Jay Baruchel coming to see Seth in Hollywood, as Seth is the guy who moved there and Jay still lives in Canada. Jay doesn't like the Hollywood lifestyle or Seth's Hollywood friends and feels they are drifting. So, he is not fond of being dragged to the party at James Franco's new house. He is even less fond of being trapped in the house when things fall apart around them.

Its kind of funny but the characters are pretty much played as guys like me believe these actors to be. Franco wants everyone to love him but is a bit of a stoner dick, with delusions of how great his "art" is. Seth is losing the war between embracing Hollywood while maintaining his Canadian stable outlook. Jonah Hill is a conniving little weasel and Danny McBride is just an all around terrible person. Baruchel sees himself as the even tempered fair guy but how long can you maintain that with giant swing-dick demons walking the earth? I know very little about Craig Robinson so no comments. The movie was able to give humor in these exaggerations (which I was not always fond of) but maintained a decent plot of how these people deal with a Christian End of the World scenario. I laughed but I also rolled my eyes a lot.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

d. Joss Whedon, 2012 - in theatre

Since I met my wife, my Shakespeare IQ has gone up 500%, in that I knew next to nothing about Shakespeare 7 or 8 years ago and now I might know maybe 50 things.  I obviously got exposed to the Bard in high school, as most of us do, but it was only Romeo and Juliet and a half-assed attempt at King Lear that I truly witnessed.  Beyond that Julie Taymor's fantastic Titus and... hmm... Dune?  That was Shakespeare right?

Anyway, I've been to the Stratford Festival a half dozen times (the first time was technically the first date with my future wife to see Coriolanus, I believe, starring Colm Feore), and we've watched a couple of cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare since, a lot of them full-on modernizations, or that old chestnut of keeping the dialogue pure but re-contextualizing the setting. 

What we all know about Shakespeare is that olde-English he wrote in is quite difficult to penetrate without some level of study. Like any dialect one needs to attune their ear, but even still it's a challenge as some words come off as gibberish and others don't mean the same thing anymore.  What I've discovered is that it's the performers, not the setting or the props, but the individual actors who make all the difference.  It's up to these actors, whether on stage or on screen, to intellectually understand the material and be able to convey, both through physical presence and verbal inflection, the meaning of the words, when they really don't make sense otherwise.

When Joss Whedon -- beloved nerd demi-god and creator of the geek gospel such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, not to mention writer-director of Marvel's The Avengers --  brought together a group of his loyal acting familiars to his home to stage a production of Much Ado About Nothing over 12 days, there was a definite cry of "whaaaa?" from both geek circles and the theatre crowd.  It's not that anyone doubted that Whedon couldn't wrangle an ensemble (it's what he excels at afterall), but as far as anyone knew, his cast were all, at best, minor TV personalities with few or no major stage credits, and little sense that they would be credible in a, what seemed to be, tossed off Shakespeare production.

But there's a few things going for it, first that Much Ado is perhaps Shakespeare's most accessible story (maybe second only to Romeo and Juliet), secondly that it is a comedy and Whedon has a masterful sense of comedic timing, and thirdly that Whedon has an extensive and intimate familiarity with his cast.  With the latter, that sense of ease and trust and fun all appears on screen.  The cast seems to be having a great time, and they're given the freedom from intricate sets and extensive lighting preparation and makeup and all the usual filmmaking business to explore the words and the characters, investing well within them.  Whedon dispenses with any notion of a period piece, but also scales back the modern elements, allowing for a production liberated from the modern day without ignoring it completely.  The cast explores the grounds of a seemingly palatial estate (though likely smaller than it appears through expert blocking) but the setting never overtakes the performance.

The actors all, save one or two roles, deliver outstanding performances, most notably Amy Acker as Beatrice.  Acker was a prominent figure on Whedon's Buffy spin-off Angel and Dollhouse as well as a villain on CBS's Person of Interest, and she's always appealing to watch, but she commands the screen here and owns the picture.  It's an amazing performance that had me in awe of her ability, and wanting to see more of her as the lead in a production (while I'm happy her role on Person of Interest has been expanded to series regular, she really deserves her own show).  Likewise Fran Kranz is shockingly good, sloughing off his stoner/nervous tech geek ty
pecasting as Claudio and showing an incredible depth as the enamored, then wounded Claudio. 

If there's a weak spot, it's unfortunately in the counterpart to Acker's Beatrice, and that's Angel veteran Alexis Denisof's Benedick.  Of all the actors, Benedick has the most tricky lifting to do, and fumbles it the most often.  His uneven performance doesn't go so far as to ruin the production, and quite often he delivers a bravura physical performance, but of all the cast he has the most difficult time making the language flow naturally and meaningfully.  Even still, his physicality goes a long way (if perhaps too far sometimes) in making it an excellent comedy, but the true comedic heroes are actually the intended comic relief.  Whedon stalwarts Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as the bumbling security team oblivious to their own nature get exactly the desired effect they're supposed to and do so without any hint of irony.  A very Mel Brooks-esque gag is pulled with Fillion's tie appearing awkwardly different in every scene.

Shot in black and white, quickly, cheaply, and largely with hand-held cameras, it's a distinctive picture to get its widest release during summer blockbuster season.  To be honest, though, I enjoyed it more than almost any other major multi-hundred-million-dollar picture this year.  It's a warm, charming, and engaging production of, naturally, a timeless comedy.

Monday, August 12, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: This Is The End

d. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, 2013 -- in theatre

I was nervous about This Is The End, nervous that it would be a film too "inside baseball" as they say, a film for the fans of the "Apatow Kids" from Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, 40-Year-Old Virgin onward.  I don't think Apatow has inspired the frothing fandom of a Kevin Smith, or even the more erudite geek fandom of Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg, and so I was worried that a film like this, which appeared to be banking on a general audience being fans of the actors, rather than their acting ability, would be a later-day Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, a movie solely reliant on in jokes and understanding fourth-wall-breaking references.  I don't know why I was so worried, after all, I genuinely loved the Rogen and Goldberg scripted Superbad, and Pineapple Express was a blast, so why shouldn't I have faith that they could pull another great comedy out?  *cough*Green Hornet*cough*.  Oh, right.

But it was a concern easily dismissed.  The film begins with Rogen picking his friend and fellow Canadian Jay Baruschel up from LAX for a solid week of catch up, and bonding over weed, snacks and video games.  Rogen drags a highly reluctant Baruschel along to a party at James Franco's new place, where Rogen's new, non-Canadian friends will be, friends whom Baruschel can't really tolerate.  During the party, the rapture happens (nobody at the party notices) and the apocalypse begins.  Chaos and mayhem and dead celebrities abound as the grounds open up and the sky rains fire.  It's all very Biblical, with a lot of blaspheming coming out of the actors mouths.  The party and the subsequent dissolving of the party is epic satire, with a clever bit of celebrity lampooning and piss-taking of Hollywood egos, but for all the hype it's remarkably short.  It's a judicious cutting, keeping the movie at a reasonable time, but I'm looking forward to DVD extras of all the deleted scenes that there must be nonetheless.

Left alive in Franco's fortified bunker of a home are Franco, Baruschel, Rogen, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride.  The sextet, largely appearing as friends, are quite clearly realizing that "Hollywood friends" are not quite the same as real friends.  The film is about them relating to one another as people as much as it's about them surviving the apocalypse and the numerous dick and fart jokes that you can draw out of such a scenario (and it's a remarkable amount).  Rogen and Goldberg seem to (generally) excel at drafting these kind of male-bonding experiences and doing so in an entertaining way.  The film succeeds in establishing these men as people and not just relying on their celebrity status to do the heavy lifting, and it's effective in getting you to care for them. or at least their relationships with each other, even if you dislike them.  The film takes aspects of the primary actors and exaggerates them for its own comedic purpose  - such as Rogen's cowardice, Hill's duplicity, and McBride's selfishness - and gets a lot of mileage from it.  It's not necessarily against type for any of them, but it plays with what's expected and pushes them to extremes.  Ultimately, This Is The End succeeds because it's damn funny, it can be silly, honest, scary, gross, bizarre and touching all at once.  The "inside baseball" jokes are there, but it's not the focus of the characters, the story or the humour, it's just one small facet of a surprisingly robust apocalyptic comedy.

3 Short Paragraphs: Enemy Mine

d. Wolfgang Petersen, 1985 -- netflix

I had, for some time, considered Wolfgang Petersen to be an arty film director, one of those European types who could come onto a big American production and class up the place.  I remember when he was in discussion for a Batman/Superman movie earlier in this millennium, and I thought "Oh, he might be a decent choice."  But looking back on his IMDB profile, he's totally a Ridley Scott, he's an above average, populist movie maker.  He's not an auteur like an Aronofski or Anderson (Paul Thomas or Wes) with a distinctive, trustworthy voice.  He's just a guy who makes mid-to-high budgeted films with big name actors.  Looking at his work from the past while, Poseidon, Troy, The Perfect Storm, Air Force One, Outbreak and going back to the early 1980's not one of these films could be considered anything truly artistic.  I guess just having an exotic name and Das Boot under his belt (a notorious television mini-series set on a submarine which I remember fondly as "the non-English show with the dicks" [full frontal male nudity that is] that my dad watched and had recorded to videocassette when I was a kid.  I never watched it, because the tone of the piece unsettled me).

When I popped in Enemy Mine, and the opening title cards announced Petersen as director, I was hopeful that this would be more than a largely forgotten 80's sci-fi story.  None of my geek friends throughout the years have ever spoken fondly of this film, and really, outside of long-time curiosity, I've had nothing pushing me towards seeing it.  I have a soft spot for pre-CGI sci-fi, and was doubly hopeful for a unique 80's-style sci-fi experience... but the opening space dogfight sequence was absolutely dire.  Not only does it look worse than Star Wars -- which, really, very few films ever lived up to the craftsmanship of that series -- it looked worse than most sci-fi TV shows that preceded it.  How does a major motion picture in 1985 look worse than Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers from five years earlier?  The models looked like models, the starfield they were operating in front were terrible, the costumes (and performances) of the actors were not even laughably bad.  It's ridiculous how terrible it looked and there's no excuse for it in a post-Star Wars era.

The crux of the film finds an solitary Earthman and an enemy alien pilot both trapped on a desolate planet with environmental and native animal hazards.  They soon realize that they need to put their hatred towards one another aside and cooperate for protection.  An unlikely but undeniably strong domestic partnership forms.  The Dracs are hermaphrodites and the alien gives birth to a baby Drac but dies shortly thereafter leaving the human to raise the child on his own, taking his tolerance for Dracs to the next level of parental love, and protecting the child from the threat of slave mining.  Despite the terrible special effects, the clunkiness of the execution, and the always predictable nature of the story, there's a heart to the film which makes it watchable, but it never comes off as anything more than, say, an extra-length Outer Limits episode.  Both Louis Gossett Jr. and Denis Quaid commit to what their doing, and it saves the otherwise terrible production from being a direct-to-video, mostly unwatchable product.  I think if you make this with a bit more of a love story between the human and the masculine hermaphroditic Drac, it would be a far more interesting picture.

Friday, August 9, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: World War Z

2013, Marc Forster (Stranger Than Fiction, Quantum of Solace) -- cinema

OK, let me get this out. This looks like a good movie -- its well shot, its built around skilled actors and performances and has exciting locales. You get the reminiscences of Contagion, obviously for the plague elements, but also the intrigue and suspense of military movies like Green Zone and The Hurt Locker. That it also smacks of The Bourne Identity is not surprising as that was the intention of the original screen writer, J Michael Straczynski. But the obvious meddling of producers and financiers in re-writing the script (it was not even finally accredited to JMS as anything other than story) is so heavy handed, I came out wondering what the point of the plot really was. After a while, I realized that half the production staff must have played the stellar zombie video game, Left 4 Dead, as they were almost rebuilding key scenes from that movie, minus the mutated creatures. Combine that with the plot holes you could enrage a tank through, I gave up trying to see the movie for what it was supposed to be and just settled in on it being badly, badly done. I could watch it for its decent crafting but that was it.

I also have to get out that I was not too bent out of shape that this was not going to be the book. The book is a series of remembrances, during interviews. They are over a vast swath of time and geography with countless characters. That is not a movie, but JMS at least attempted to capture the feel of the book, along with some key moving scenes, but hinged it around a character who would travel the world -- Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane. That was a good idea. But as production steamrolled on, all aspects of the book were dispensed with. There are the occasional reference, here and there, like those that pop up in mockbusters but nothing smacks of the original story. Sure, there are zombies and it is happening world wide, and that is about it.

The zombies themselves were impressive in a predatorial fashion, more like a hive mind of bestiality than zombies. Other than a few hints that it was difficult to put them down, we don't even really see them as the undead, more just infected people, like 28 Days Later. That is OK, but for the use of zombie and zeke in the movie. And PG-13 ?!?  Seriously?? All zombie attacks take place off camera or in the blurry distance?!?! The ant piles are fun to look at but lose their appeal, considering they were the main element of the trailers.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs + A Couple More: Doomsday Book

2012, Pil-Sung Yim, Kim Jee-Woon -- Netflix

This is a trilogy of science fiction stories from Korea, well made and incredibly well told. All three stories involve the possibility of complete destruction of mankind, via familiar speculative fictions means: zombies, the emergence of robotic intelligence and alien intervention. Each story has a distinct style and tone that lend themselves well to the story being told.

The first is Brave New World, a zombie origin story that starts with rotting apple in a research scientist's home. We follow the apple through the compostable waste system all the way to its re-feeding to cows. We the viewers know a virus is travelling with it and back into the realm of human consumption. As an analogy for Adam & Eve in the brave new world, its kind of heavy handed but as a generic zombie ground-zero story, its brilliant. As we follow the main character, the inadvertent source of everything, we are bombarded with the news flashes and responses by the media to what is happening, in all its lunacy. There is a tinge of farce and comedy as Korea quickly dissolves into a zombie state. Is there hope when Eve gives Adam an apple? Who knows as the point of the metaphor is lost.

Next came Heavenly Creature, a 20 minutes into the future story where household robots are common. It's obviously inspired by the Alex Proyas I, Robot movie as well as real robotic inventions this last decade. A repair engineer is brought in to inspect a servant bot at a Buddhist Temple. The bot has basically become the Buddha, a state of perfect enlightenment. The engineer believes it to be a fault in the electronics but cannot find anything wrong, but still believes he should bring the thing back for repairs. His further investigation is stymied by the arrival of the founder of the company that manufactures the robots. He fears what will become of humanity should they accept the bot as Buddha and suddenly the engineer is set between his own company and this enlightened (but soulless?) creature.

The final story is lighter, if the end of the world can be lightened. A comet is streaking (they always streak don't they) towards the planet and there is little time left. Our family is stocking the bomb shelter hoping to live out the terrible times after the comet strikes. But when the scientists show, TV up to the last minute of course, that the comet has an eerie similarity to an 8-ball from billiards, the young daughter is stricken with fear. You see, not so long ago, in a fit of rage she destroyed her father's cherished 8-ball, as the family runs a billiards hall. In desperation she ordered it online, but by chance a UFO was passing over at the same time. So, the nice aliens are sending what she asked for, if a little too big for the table. And the order cannot be cancelled.

As all anthology movies should be, the stories entertain and leave you pondering a bit. Considering we spec fic fans are fed an endless supply of short films via YouTube, it was nice to see some of the short ideas expanded upon as proper movie elements.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: The Next Three Days

2010, Paul Haggis (Crash) -- Netflix

Is Russell Crow aging well? As a man or as a career? He is a few years older than me and while we live in completely different worlds, I still wonder and compare. He has not really been the purely heroic action hero but he has always played strong men, manly men. But he is hitting that age where he is more likely to play family men, unless he wants to be typecast as the grizzled veteran cop. He no longer has to check his body weight for the role. But he continues to work steadily, if not frequently, living as much in Australia and playing music (with Allan Doyle of Great Big Sea) as much as living in Hollywood and making movies. I think his next ten years are going to be much more interesting.

Paul Haggis is a Canadian screenwriter and director, known more for what he writes than what he directs. He's written everything from The Facts of Life (yes, the 80s show) to Walker, Texas Ranger (yes, the Chuck Norris series) to Casino Royale and Million Dollar Baby. Much of his life he was a Scientologist but he escaped the cult. He's received a lot of awards and nominations but I wouldn't really say he is a household name. This movie will probably be a footnote in his career, not being splashy or outstanding in any right, but you can see a skilled craftsman in its making. I have an urge to pay much more attention to him and his creations.

The movie has Crowe married to a woman convicted of murdering her boss. We are introduced to her as a volatile woman, of strong opinions. We can believe she did this but at no point does Crowe and he works tirelessly, while raising the kids and teaching, to free her via legal means. When the law fails, he has one option -- break her out of prison. The plan never goes smoothly for he is not a man familiar with the criminal element he require, and his wife is not sure she wants him to sacrifice everything. But Crowe is perfect here, relentless and quiet, determined and focused. Its heartwarming to see a man so utterly in love with his wife and family, convinced she can do no wrong. Unfortunately, everyone else is riding Crowe's coattails, giving mediocre performances best left for straight-to-<insert the current media>.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Jack the Giant Slayer

2013, Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) -- download

How do I change these "reviews" up? They never ended up what they started as, the premise of Graig and I arguing or disagreeing about movies or TV, in a back and forth single post nature. They evolved, into Graig doing proper long format reviews and I doing hackneyed attempts at summations. But really, if anything I did want each entry to be more blog post than true review of the movie. Thus, whenever possible I tend to bypass the staples that all "how to write reviews" demand, but they usually weave their way in. I don't know what purpose all this is supposed to serve, whether it is evolving into "proper writing" or not, but I continue. And occasionally the review is less about the movie than about me writing about the movie; like now.

But seriously, either I cut some movies out of the entire mix, which I loathe to do, or I am left saying only, "Well, I liked that one."  Sometimes that is all there is to say about a movie. "I enjoyed it." Often, the more frustrating a movie is, the more there is to say about it. I suppose that would apply to loving the movie as well, considering how much I went on about Pacfic Rim. So, I enjoyed Jack the Giant Slayer. The giants look great, the supporting cast (Stanley Tucci, Ewan MacGregor, Bill Nighy) are incredibly entertaining. The story is feasible and the mains are likable. It looks great. But that is all the passion I have to say about it.

What is it about? If you do not know the plot of the faery tale, basically Jack gets conned into taking beans instead of coin while selling the horse in town. The beans are magical and when they get planted, they grow into a great big ol beanstalk that reaches up high into the land of the giants. In this one, angsty leather hoodie wearing Nicholas Hoult (previous the zombie) has to go with the heroes into the giants' realm and rescue the princess. But Tucci the traitor leads the giants back and there is a rousing battle between the people and the CGI until Jack recovers the magic giant-controlling crown and wins the day. That's it. Its passable D&D-ish fantasy fare with some great acting and incredibly well done digital giants. Honestly, I would have been more intrigued if they had gone all CW and set it in modern times, lending more credence to Jack as the heroic hoodie-wearing rundown youth, with the giants attacking New York instead of fantasy England née Cloister.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Defiance is both a SyFy Channel TV show and a massively multiplayer game. They were advertised as being tied together, in plot and character, and that each would influence the other. The plan is that each released game is to be a single season of the show, instead of the normal monthly cost or free-to-play model. I started downloading the show almost immediately but was not interested in the $60 ticket for the game, until it came down to $11 on a recent Steam Sale. And for the past few weeks I have been playing and comparing.

The show takes place in a near future after an alien invasion. Several races of aliens from  the same system all came to our world on great Ark Ships. At first they presented themselves as potential allies and were even given lands to settle, in South America. But racial tensions arose and led to the Pale Wars. While most of their people slept in the great Ark Ships, many fought against the humans for land. Suddenly the war is brought to a halt by the Arkfalls, as the ships in orbit exploded and began to crash to Earth. The Votans blamed the humans and the humans said Votan experiments went afoul. It didn't help that the crashing ships had vast terraforming technology that began to radically change the Earth. We are talking planet changing alterations -- new mountain ranges, collapsed areas and entirely new biospheres. The war continued a bit longer until both sides ran out of resources and a tense peace was established.

This is the post-apocalyptic world the game and show are set in. The show takes place in a mostly buried St. Louis while the game starts in San Francisco and the surrounding lands. The plot of the show follows Nolan and Irissa, two "Ark Hunters" (scavengers and treasure hunters who raid fallen ships) seeking their great windfall, so they can retire to tropical Antarctica. Their trip is interrupted when they get mixed up in the lives of the people of Defiance, once St. Louis. The town needs a lawkeeper (sheriff) and Nolan just needs to slow down for a bit. Irissa is his adopted daughter and of the Votan race Irathients. The game also has you as an Ark Hunter, but one working for a megacorp seeking a similar windfall from a fallen ship. Nolan and Irissa appear in the game and some of the plot lines cross over. And that is where it gets annoying.

The first thing that is incredibly annoying is the radical departures each has from the other. What little technology Defiance (the town) has is all backward but even the most remote and run-down zone in the San Fran zone has tons of high tech and alien toys. Everything in the game just looks more science fiction. It even starts off with a crashing Earth spaceship though we got the idea in the show that things were not much more advanced than now when the aliens arrived. When did we get the time to invent helicarriers?

Secondly, the story connection between show and game is tenuous at best. I don't mind that we meet Nolan and Irissa at the beginning of the game, but if that takes places before they run east to Defiance, it is fine. The trouble is we continue to bump into them when events are meaning to parallel events in the show. WTF ? Did they just pick up and drive west for a bit of plot and then run back home? It just makes no sense at all -- terribly sloppy story telling. It makes B-level TV look like Shakespeare.

The show is meant to be a bit of Firefly, with a frontier feel mixed with typical SyFy shows -- a multitude of characters, some obvious bad guys, weird aliens and convoluted but very basic plots. The acting is middling but the show is still decent; as usual, I will watch almost anything scifi on TV.  The world building is nicely done, giving us tons of interactions between the different races, with their cultures clashing and also trying to leave an amount behind, and just become Earthlings. It has some good post-apoc vistas and decent CGI. I still do not understand why it is so difficult to just do something not middling but good. Aforementioned Firefly is still the best scifi show in over ten years, with BSG a good runner up. But the rest are so afraid of standing out, they just churn out the same familiar feel show after show. Does mediocrity really breed ratings?

The game is also a terrible example of mediocrity, the typical example of what MMOs are these days in a world where it doesn't pay to charge and free-to-play makes the money but skimps on the design. The missions are so boring, I never read their text. Just rinse and repeat the concepts of either getting stuff or killing bad guys or both. Essentially all missions involve running (driving) somewhere and holding the E key a lot of times, to activate something, and then kill the spawning bad guys. And all the bad guys (no, they don't deserve capital letters) are so familiar and boring -- infected mutants, Road Warrior ripoffs, the big green (blue here) guys from Fallout 3, big bugs, etc. Its all terribly boring, but like Minecraft is sort of zen in its repetitive digging with pick-axes, there is something relaxing about shooting the constant spawns.

So, soon the game will finish the "story line" for me, probably reaching some sort of show season ender connection.  The show already ended the season; probably the reason the game was so cheap. If the game isn't just killed outright I will rinse-repeat my strategy next year -- maybe. But I will watch the show next season, if but for Irissa the wild girl.

3 Short Paragraphs: The Possession

2012, Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch) -- download

Originally called Dibbuk Box this movie is a respectable example of a possession movie, but twists the spine by being a Jewish demon instead of a Christian one. Considering they are supposed to be sourced from the same god, you would not think demons would care which worshippers believed in them. A dibbuk box is actually not an old Jewish legend but something quite recent, a "wine box" being sold on Ebay and garnering a legend for being haunted by an evil spirit, a dibbuk. I cannot find any information about what a wine box is but that could just be the internet not being interested in non-urban legend material. But still, the movie just has to bill itself as a "true story".

In The Possession a young girl buys a creepy old box from a guy at a garage sale and proceeds to get weirder and weirder the longer she owns it. Her divorced dad, the typical jerk of a dad somewhat oblivious to the needs of his daughters has purchased a big empty suburban house because the girls cannot continue to stay with him in a ratty apartment. But quickly on he realizes his daughter has an unhealthy attachment to the box and brings it to a Jewish scholar to translate the characters. Throwing caution to the wind, he tries to separate her from the box and ends up eliciting the help of a group of Orthodox Jews from "the city", including the rapper Matisyahu.

What raises this a step above all the other possession movies is the well hinged characterization in play. We believe in the characters. When Jeffrey Dean Morgan throws himself into the belief that his daughter is being influenced by a nasty spirit, we believe he will do anything to help her. Even during the Exorcist scene of blowing winds and people shouting at the demonic force, his caring is palpable.  I admit, I kept on grinning and wondering when Sam and Dean would show up (he played the father on the monster hunter TV show, Supernatural) he was still pretty damn good here.