Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What I [Graig] Am Watching: Mockingbird Lane/Hemlock Grove/Black Dynamite/TableTop/NHL Playoffs

Having shied away from news and rumours sites for the better part of two years, I was completely unaware that Brian Fuller was retooling the Munsters for a modern era.  The Pilot for Mockingbird Lane hit television sets just before Halloween in 2012, though NBC had already passed on taking it to series. which is too bad.  It wasn't a ratings phenom, but it did well, and it was well received.  I missed it, of course, but in the digital age, the only way you can miss something is by not looking for it.

Fuller's morbid sense of humour, which was used sparingly in Dead Like Me and took a rather twee spin in Pushing Daisies here is as broad and lively as can be.  The pilot is occasionally surprising and just as occasionally clever in its use of humour, and sometimes it's just outright cheeky, shamelessly so.  Even the tired riffs on monster cliches (not all that dissimilar to Hotel Transylvania) are so earnestly projected that they come off as charming rather than groan-inducing.   There's very little of the gothic sensibilities of The Addams Family, instead it applies a modern spin on a retro-'60's aesthetic, and Fuller's usual bright and glossy production values keep the show cheery and playful.

The cast is remarkably solid.  Jerry O'Connell made for a solid father figure as Herman, more of a normal-looking patchwork man (assembled of various parts) than a Boris Karloff Frankenstein.  Portia di Rossi as Lili gets vamp it up and look absolutely amazing doing so.  As a vampire she looks ageless, and her wardrobe is incredible.  Mason Cook is incredibly natural as Eddie, who, in the pilot, is unaware that he's the warewolf that terrorized his scout troop.  British actress Charity Wakefield plays the "oddball" of the Munsters, since she's, by all appearances and attitudes, normal.  Finally there's Eddie Izzard made up to look like Paul Williams as Grandpa, a centuries old vampire who doesn't feel that he should have to hide his true nature from anyone.  

It's a great ensemble with good chemisty, and it's unfortunate that this pilot is all we will see of them in these roles (I wonder if NBC would consider annual Halloween or seasonal TV movies? Networks don't do TV movies anymore).  But if I had to choose between Mockingbird Lane and Fuller's latest show, I'm glad Hannibal went to series. But I also have to wonder why more pilots don't make the light of day like this... surely the networks could fill their dead zone (say Friday @ 10:00 with a weekly "Pilot series" showing nothing but pilot episodes they bought but elected not to take to series.


In a just world, we would have seen 13 episodes of Mockingbird Lane on something like Netflix (13 episodes would have been a satisfying amount) but instead we get Hemlock Grove, which is not all that dissimilar to Mockingbird Lane (both even open with werewolf attacks, but this one opts for cliche and gore instead of originality), except it takes itself far, far too seriously. Hemlock Grove is like a Bizarro World/cracked-mirror version of Mockingbird Lane, where instead of being a comedy it's trying to be... I dunno, dramatic maybe?  A mystery?  Scary?  Odd?  Whatever it's trying to be it's just, frankly, painful.  It's garbage television, except it isn't television, it's a Netflix original (in the structure and style of television).

It's trash.  But if people in droves watch terrible programming like the Kardashians or horror shows starring Adam Levine then they will surely eat this crap up. It's so poorly made: terribly structured, awfully acted, shoddily visualized and it's sold as some new landmark of serialized horror (primarily by treading heavily producer Eli Roth's name) but then it doesn't have much to compete with (American Horror Story... ugh) ... except Hannibal which makes it look downright shameful.  (You getting the sense that I like Hannibal.  Because I do.  Like Hannibal.)

The first episode of Hemlock Grove opens up with a sexual rendez-vous in a sporty little car, complete with topless nudity, indicating that it will be "that kind of show", you know, the "adult" kind, except there's nothing mature about the show.  It's hammy at the best of times, with Famke Jansson finding the top within seconds and hurdling well above it.  She seems to be in her own world, turning in a performance that seems to be largely for her own amusement.  Dougray Scott, on the other hand, couldn't appear more bored with his role, the ever present look of "what am I doing here?" in his eyes.

I can't even begin to attempt to explain what the story is, since the show does a lousy job of doing so itself in its first two episodes.  The creators don't present a world for the viewer to invest in easily, they don't set out any rules and they don't provide any clarity on just exactly what type of supernatural is happening in this show and who in this cruddy town actually knows about it.  That would be all well and good if it were a mystery worth revealing, but we're thrust into the fray like we should know what it's all about, and they give us very little reason to care.  Gypsys and mutants and werewolves, and probably some other supernatural crap... and here it's really treated as crap.

I'm trying to decide if it's so bad it's entertaining, or if it's just bad.  I'm leaning far more towards the latter, but I'm certain most who become fans of the show will delight in it in the former.  I'm curious who will enjoy this in earnest, because it's a bewildering possibility.

From TV downloads to Netflix to Android/iPod apps, there's a multitude of ways to get one's entertainment than from the television itself, even though television would be my preferred method of delivery.  The unfortunate thing about television, though, its you can't always get what you want when you wanted.  It is becoming more flexible, but not flexible enough for my liking.  What's more, distribution rights and regional restrictions frequently make it very difficult to watch the things you otherwise only hear about.

The 2009 motion picture Black Dynamite is, perhaps, my favourite movie of the past dozen years.  It's an on-point homage to Blaxploitation films, satirizing their low production values and sometimes less than professional acting, while at the same time embracing the extreme zaniness that low-budget action films frequently diverged into.  Most of all, it's incredibly funny, conceptually and in execution, in script, in action and in performance.  Everything clicks, everyone involved is in sync and seem to know what is being achieved.  It was an instant underground success, transcending cult, instead becoming pop-cult.  That it branched out into comics, weird web vignettes and animation oddly seemed natural, but I worried that the film was lightning in a bottle, unable to be recaptured twice.

The Adult Swim animated cartoon was announced shortly after the film was released and over the subsequent years I would see the odd article in a magazine or on-line about it's progress, occasionally seeing some test footage, and finally a preview prior to its release on Cartoon Network in 2012.  But, here, in Canada, we don't get the Cartoon Network, which means we don't get Adult Swim, which means we don't get some of the edgiest and wildest television comedy being made.  We have channels here that filter some of it in... Eaglehart, NTSF:SD:SUV::, Delocated, Superjail and the like have made it here, though definitely not at the same time as their airing in the US and definitely not repeated with the same frequency.  And no Black Dynamite as of yet.

But there is an app for that.  A very flaky Adult Swim app which has only five "pages" to look at which are switched out weekly, offering clips and "premium" videos (for US cable subscribers) and on occasion "5 FULL EPISODES" of some of their series like Children's Hospital or Loiter Squad. It's all welcome, but it was when Black Dynamite showed on the App that I did a little happy dance.  The happy dance was short lived though, as the (as mentioned) flaky app for some reason couldn't make it past the commercial that preceded the episode it was trying to show.   Finally, 6 days later, a Saturday if I recall, it was working, if only sporadically (it would crash every so often).  I managed to watch 2 full episodes and 2/3 of two other episodes before the App switched out its offerings later that day, and it was glorious.

The animated series is its own beast, treading in Blacksploitation tropes once more, but going well beyond that into ridiculous high-adventure, ala The Venture Brothers.  It's beautifully animated, perhaps the best going right now, capturing it's day-glo 1970's atmosphere with wondrous effect, and it's damn funny.  A handful of characters from the film are back and they're so on-model with their cinematic portrayal (with the actors reprising their roles), that it's a reminder of just how cartoony and silly the characters were to begin with.  The animated Black Dynamite takes its actions to the extreme, is rife with sexuality, drug use, swearing, and all those things those warnings before TV shows always promise you but rarely deliver.  It's also rife with pop-culture, the first episode I watched hinged around Black Dynamite taking out Mr. T who's still fighting a one-man-war in Viet Nam a few years after the war ended.  Another had Black Dynamite being chased by the IRS for not paying his taxes, and taking a security detail job protecting Richard Pryor.  It's everything I wanted from the Black Dynamite and so much more... all I could ask for is more of it (second season is coming, but that's not what I mean... where's the DVDs?)


And finally, there's YouTube original programming, by way of their partner channels, all of which seems to be the anti-television.  The only obvious restriction for YouTube seems to be overt nudity and pornographic sex.  It's a different beast to create quality programming for YouTube due to budget limitations, so programmers get creative and they get very niche.  Often YouTube channels come out of the "cult of personality" model, where one prominent celebrity (or ce-web-rity) anchors the entire lineup, and the other shows hope for spillover.

TableTop comes from Felicia Day's Geek and Sundry channel, created by Day (who made her name with the impeccable gamer comedy The Guild, the preeminent web-serial success story) and Wil Wheaton (ex of Star Trek The Next Generation, having rebuilt his name as geek icon over the past decade or so), taking the form of "celebrity game show" in a manner of speaking but instead of having one game to play, Wheaton and his guests play a different board game each week.

It's a show for anyone at all into board games, even if you haven't heard of the game in question.  Wheaton and his production crew do a remarkable job of explaining the game mechanics as well as booking a group of players (pulling notable personalities from comedy, acting, web, and gaming circles) who are enticed participants (if not keen gamers themselves).  I frequently use the show as shorthand for understanding the rules to a new game when playing with friends (I'm a terrible reader so instructional web videos are very helpful) and it works well in most cases.  Every episode isn't always great, sometimes the game doesn't interest me, or the guests don't gel together in the spirit of gameplay, but it bats about 90% winning ratio and Wheaton is a fun, competitive, but also helpful host, out to win but also to ensure everyone has a good time.  The only thing better would be playing one's self.

The latest episode sees Felicia Day and three other actresses back (for a 3rd time I think?), playing Resistance (a spy game in which two of the 5 players are anonymously trying to stymie the others), and it winds up being a rollicking good time.  It's in many ways like watching poker, only with the people involved far more lively and engaging one another with an eye towards being entertaining for the viewer.  While it may seem that one or two players have the spies in their midst all figured out, and that the spies have tells that are giving them away, by the end nobody is sure of anything.  This is easily the most enjoyable episode of TableTop, but I might be biased towards "Team Ginger" (I want a T-shirt!)



Oh, and I'm watching NHL Playoffs... without getting too deep, let's go with predictions:

EAST
Pittsburgh Penguins - New York Islanders => Pens in 4
Montreal Canadiens - Ottawa Senators => Sens in 7
Washington Capitals - New York Rangers => Caps in 6
Boston Bruins - Toronto Maple Leafs => Bruins in 6

WEST
Chicago Blackhawks - Minnesota Wild => Hawks in 5
Anaheim Ducks - Detroit Red Wings => Ducks in 7
Vancouver Canucks - San Jose Sharks => Canucks in 7
St. Louis Blues - LA Kings => Blues in 5




3 Short Paragraphs: Branded

2012, Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn -- download

It seems I am not the only one who fell for the advertising of this full of itself movie about the power of advertising, post cold war idealism, allegorical destiny and pretentious nonsense.  We all saw the trailers and posters on these specfic blogs, showing weird wibbly-wobbly creatures growing out of people's heads, that nobody but the main character can see, and it is some how connected to advertising.  Nouveau They Live indeed.  Yeah, but that is not this movie.  That was just the shill.

OK, it is  about the power of advertising.  Misha is a genius ad exec in Russia who lives by the core ideal that Lenin created advertising, in its modern conception. He is wrapped up in a skinniness-sells TV show that goes wrong and puts the contestant into a coma.  But really, what is happening behind the scenes is that Big Burger (you know, like Big Oil) has hired a James Bond reject-villain (Max von Sydow) who will manipulate the world sentiment and not only return us to eating burgers, but flip the tables so soundly that we will eat nothing but burgers will suffice.  It is not about eating what you want, but embracing gluttony.  And it works.  So our hero runs away to the countryside and ritualistically kills a cow.

That was the first half of the movie.  When our hero returns we get the wibbly-wobbly alien blobs attached to heads.  Apparently they are doing the burgers-are-good-for-you convincing, or at least he thinks.  We never really know.  Surrealism?  Maybe.  Absurdity?  Really.  As a hero it is now his job to again flip the table (but fast food tables are secured to the floor you say?) and find some way to make burgers Evil.  He is an advertising genius who sacrificed a cow, so he is ready.  It works, and really don't whine about spoilers because you will not / should not see this movie.  It works and villain-reject is killed by a spear of destiny come lightning bolt.  Poof.  Dust.  Gah, what clap trap.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tom vs Tom, Jack vs Jack

Oblivion, 2013, Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) -- cinema
Jack Reacher, 2012, Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun) -- download

A lot of people dislike Tom Cruise, but do they hate crazy dance-on-a-sofa Tom Cruise? Hate Scientologist Tom Cruise who took the sweetheart from Dawson's Creek and implanted her with his alien symbiote?  Or is it his one-note heroes, all confident smiles and set jaws? I think it is those exactly one-note heroes that makes him so good in so many of his roles, where he saves the girl or saves the planet or at least saves someone.  Where he is the effective man, in control and very good at what he does.  Skip the man of Scientology and see the hero who fits into the roles that make women swoon.

Jack Harper is a soldier on post-apocalypse Earth, likely the last capable man on the planet.  He and his equally effective team mate live in a shiny-glossy-clean penthouse tower overseeing the defence of big machines sucking the remaining oceans to be made into hydrogen that will fuel the ships heading to Titan with the rest of humanity.  You see, we lost the war.  Technically, we won the war, beating the invading aliens who broke the moon, but in doing so we lost the planet.  So  the mostly irradiated, wrecked ball of (eerily beautiful) mud and scraps is abandoned. A few alien scavs are left behind causing trouble for the ocean suckers so Jack and Vica monitor and repair the combat drones, and their lovely baritone bassoon voices, that defend the ocean suckers.  Soon they will be done their tour and will join others on the big tetrahedron satellite, to prepare for the journey to Titan.

The setup for this movie is absolutely lovely.  The wide, open spaces that Jack surveys in his almost-dragonfly flying ship, the wrecked canyons of old cities with their waterfalls and ice crevasses, are just enthralling, supported by ethereal M83 music and smooth, grey tones.  Jack likes to get dirty, get down there on the planet and see what he is leaving behind. Vica will not even consider the idea of leaving her pristine, extremely designy bunker.  They are supposed to be an effective team, but she sees Jack pulling away when she feels they should be pulling closer, to ride out their final two weeks. It doesn't help that Jack is dreaming of another woman, a beautiful woman he meets on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.  But that doesn't make sense, as that was over 60 years ago, before the planet was wrecked.  And thus the hint that things are not what they seem.

Jack Reacher is the ex-military man hiding in plain site, invisible to the trappings of modern life.  He is recounted as a brilliant investigator for the military police that disappeared after a case went horribly wrong, after an iron clad sniper crime collapsed in a scandal of systemic rape.  Another sniping reaches out from the headlines with one phrase "get Jack Reacher".  This new case is also iron clad, all the evidence at hand, thumbprints and shell casings. But why ask for Jack?  So Jack suddenly appears, also curious.  And again, it all begins to unravel.

Who is Reacher?  That is what everyone, including us, is asking.  He is off the radar, off the grid, hidden in society that relies on credit card statements and cell phone records.  Why?  We never really know but it adds to his mystique as the very effective man.  This role, for Cruise, is all Mary Sue with brilliant deduction, effortless combat and a relentless swooning from every woman in the bloody movie.  I thought it was producer / Cruise intervention but apparently it was present in the novel the movie is based on.  Jack Reacher is a hot capable man.  I admit, Cruise pulls this off for the character has a not-take-advantage aspect that is admirable and focuses his character.  There is something going on and only Reacher seems to actually care and to be capable of pulling the details together.  This is prime pulp crime book fiction.

Oblivion has been compared to Wall-E, unimaginatively because it is about a lone guy left behind on the wrecked earth to repair things.  But really, if you want to compare the movie to something, try Moon, the Duncan Jones indie scifi movie about a guy doing a three-year stint on the moon, mining and repairing.  Its about longing, and isolation.  It is about style and mood.

The opening act of the movie is all what makes good scifi, a slow burn of setting and story, but I admit to not being as fond as the latter parts, the canyon battles and "this is what we have to do" climax.  Oh, the twist (not Shyamalan twist, but still, a direction I wasn't expecting the story to take) was intriguing but it was not the focus of my after-movie pondering.  I won't spoiler you, you can find that on the rest of the internet.  Or see the movie.

Jack Reacher starts with potential as well, but slides very very quickly into a trope-ridden action conspiracy movie.  It even has a climactic battle in a construction / mine site with automatic weapons and knife combat in the slip, sliding rain.  The villain is villainous and the mooks die quickly.  The effective, enjoyable parts of the movie are about a very, very capable man at the extent of his limitations but knowing he has to do this.  And as mysteriously as he appeared, Reacher wanders out of the movie without getting the girl and not likely getting a sequel, unless Cruise's alien overlords bankroll the next movie.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Men in Black 3

The recent trailer for R.I.P.D. made me quip, "So, it's MIB but with the dead??"  That does say something, in that back in 1997 (!!!) a micro-genre was established.  I think that we can forgive a creator for using a comic book based plot device, almost twenty years after another comic book based plot device set the bar.  It's not like the predecessor did much else with the privilege.

I did not like MIB2, in that it was a tired recycling of the elements that made the first one fun but nothing original.  I was glad they waited a few years to make the new one, hoping the sour taste would leave my brain.  I guess it did for I was not overly annoyed by the new one.  But nor was I impressed. You would think that a timeline reset would give them a chance to introduce an entirely new MIB agency to play with, but no, it does the sequel two-step as well and rehashes what we chuckled at in the first movie.  Where it shines is when J is forced to time jump (or leap) back to the 60s to save K.

Its a rather charming romp into the past where J realizes exactly how much of a connection he has with K while trying to stop one of the best villains in the series, Boris the Animal.  Its what you need in these movies, a monster serial killer who creeps you out while chewing up the scenery with a mouthful of alien teeth, and crawling claws.  But the brilliance came with the question, "Who would we get to play Tommy Lee Jones as a younger fella?"  And the answer is Josh Brolin.  Heh.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What I Am Watching: Person of Interest, Doctor Who, Sons of Anarchy

I admit, I actually only watched the premiere episode of Person of Interest and then dropped it. Not sure if I remember actually why, considering this could easily be my new The Equalizer.  Good Guy with a dark past works with skilled assistants and helps people in trouble.  This time the want ads are not helping out but a really nice computer software system is.  And considering how many times Kent has recommended the show (he's batman!!), I am somewhat chagrinned to say it was actually a recent single episode that clinched it for me -- the episode where Sara Shahi plays Shaw, a killer for the other side of the coin that works for the The Machine.  Yep, I like her but damn that was a fucking good episode, possibly the best thing I had seen on TV this year.  So, back to the torrent-machine (another machine that probably knows a lot about me) to get all of first season.

What I am truly, completely enjoying is the evolution of the supporting characters. Fusco may have been the easily manipulated corrupt cop but he is actually, without a hint of overeager plot development, redeeming himself. He actually seems to be remembering why he liked being a cop in the first place.  And Carter is not just the cop grudgingly trying to figure out a case, but actually quickly realizing she respects what Reese and his accomplice are doing.  And helping where needed.  All that is missing is the too curious guy who works in the morgue.  That['s alright because we do get a rather brilliant scene in a morgue involving an immigrant surgeon and a bag of money.

There is that thing about money.  Good Guys always seem to need and use money but with no source.  But this show actually did two episodes where money is generated and stored, to be used quietly and unspoken of for what I imagine is the rest of the show.  That is the kind of stuff I enjoy -- supporting details that don't need to blatantly played with.  I am somewhat aware of where the show will go, with other supporting people and a full blown antagonist, but until I get there I am enjoying the progression.

And then we have Doctor Who, the latest season.  My favourite, until now considered irreplaceable companion Amy Pond, has been supplanted by Clara Oswald.  Oh, those big brown eyes and eager excitement for the unknown.  But another companion with a dark secret, one that we were introduced to long before she ended up in the blue box.

I am rather fond of a Doctor who is not currently haunted by his completely nasty history-future.  He really is trying to recapture his joy of doing the travel to rare and wonderful places and times.  Unfortunately, not much of this season has truly shown that.  There was that trip to the planetoids circling the monster-sun but that was about it.  But the rest have been random pops into British history.  Meh.

Speaking of that alien planetoid, I was left with an odd thought -- if the TARDIS does all the translating he needs, why were some of the aliens speaking in chirps and growls when the rest spoke the Queen's english?  Some beyond even the TARDIS's capabilities and since the Doctor seems to speak their growls and barks, its OK ?

Finally, we are climbing into the fifth season of Sons of Anarchy.  I avoided this show in the past, simply because the idea of idolizing a bunch of bikers didn't appeal to me.  But we were slipping into a mid-season rut of downloaded things to watch so Marmy snagged it.

For the first couple of seasons, I was rather impressed.  We got an appealing protagonist, a pseudo-Hamlet in a story where his mother married the best friend and nemesis of his deceased father.  Jax is the attractive young heir to a motorcycle club legacy in northern California.  The Sons of Anarchy run a repair shop but really do a profitable job of gun running out of the small town of Charming where they pretty much run the town, funding who they need to fund and keeping the bumpkin of a police chief in their back pocket.  They are a likeable if sleazy & violent bunch, where family is everything and the rules of the club are all.

That is what kept me going for a couple of seasons.  Oh sure, they are all pretty nasty, sleazy types with weird predilections and dark connections but they also have a rather charming (excuse the pun) love for the fellows.  Really, they have no issue saying they love each other with hugs and kisses; not what you would expect from big hairy bikers. And the violence that comes their way seems to be out of the ordinary, not in the norm for them but bad cases of circumstance.  So, we forgive the criminals because we like them and the completely deplorable choices are not their own.

As the seasons progress and the likeable characters make bad choices, because really there are no good choices in crime, we stick with the bunch of thugs because we are now invested.  We care what happens to them; they are our bikers now.  We want Juice and Opie to win and we want Clay to fall, and fall hard.  Jax is learning the ever elusive truth and we want, need, him to get to it.  But... but, they are murderous (yeah yeah, code only murders) gun and drug runners.  But they hug and kiss and are the teddy bears of crime.

But, and yes another but, for fuck's sake, we know that a popular show has to be extended. And while I get that the idea that it is about the road to hell being paved with good intensions, but does everyone have to fall ?  Sure, Hamlet is supposed to be taken over by his desire for vengeance against the man who led to his father's death.  But by season four, the ghost of John Teller is already faded and any reference to the Shakespeare story is gone. We just have things going wrong, and wrong and wrong and wronger.  Now getting into season five, I am not sure exactly why I am sticking with it.  Must be just to see what Tig would be willing to fuck this season.


Double Oh...14: A View To A Kill

d. John Glen

A View To A Kill Preamble: By this point I'm tired of Roger Moore, who himself looks quite tired.  He was getting too old for this shit, and he knew it, but they kept offering him the role and the money and he kept coming back.  I thought I knew this film from my childhood going into it, turns out, not so much.

Villains: A View To A Kill is a spotlight movie for Christopher Walken as Max Zorin, a psychopathic millionaire industrialist, and (besides Grace Jones) the only prominent villain in the piece.  Coming out of Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate and The Dead Zone, Walken was a prominent figure, but still not a star, certainly not to the level of notoriety he's received over the past decade as a cult figure.  But it's in that context as cult figure that Walken's performance here truly shines.  I'm sure it was notable at the time, but even more so now it's evident that Walken relished the role unfettered with scruples or sympathy.  Part of his backstory/psychopathy is only narrowly explained, that Zorin was the result of a steroidal experiment whilst in the womb, and also trained by the Russians but never a true soldier.
   The ex-Nazi doctor who performed the experiment, Dr. Carl Mortner, is now Zorin's trusted aide, and doting parental figure.  Mortner is also responsible for the design of the microchip Zorin uses do dose his horses with adrenaline boosters as they run.  The ultimate plan Zorin has is to agitate the Hayward and San Andreas faultlines so that Silicon Valley will be destroyed, and his microchips can flood the depressed market to grand riches as well as backdoor exploitation.  It's a rather cool, intricate, Lex Luthor-level scheme, the unveiling of which was the highlight of the film. Although I've never seen Luthor with a semi automatic gleefully chuckle as he mows down all of his hired help in the mines.
  Russian General Gogol returns once more as a background character, his fifth appearance in 5 films.  He's never much of a villain, just as often a collaborator with MI6.  Here he's as interested in Zorin's activities as anyone, especially when Zorin falls out of line (Dolph Lundgren makes a very brief appearance as one of Gogol's KGB security detail).

Bond Girls: May Day, Zorin's right-hand aide, lover and sparring partner is simultaneously scary, intimidating, and striking.  Model Grace Jones has a very ominous, stern presence which makes her quite memorable, unfortunately her acting chops aren't quite so impressive as her physique and editorial-model looks.  At times she lives up to her role, other times it's quite apparent she's a model in a film (line delivery foremost).  She goes out like a boss thought.  An astounding exit.
  Faring no better, Tanya Roberts (later Midge in That '70's Show) is about as convincing a geologist as Denise Richards is a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough.  Perhaps I still see too much Midge in Stacy Sutton to give her more credit, but it's a thin role largely of clueless victim that she plays.  She is the heir to land that Zorin needs in order to execute his plans, but in refusing his offers, he tries to dispense with her other ways.  Bond naturally comes to her rescue, already bounding on tip-toes towards her Pepe Le Pew-style since meeting her at Zorin's soiree.  It's an eye-rolling pairing as he should truly be a surrogate father figure to her rather than lover.
   Pola Ivanova is a Russian spy who Bond once seduced, played here by the buxom Fiona Fullerton.  Pola comes back into Bond's life as they cross paths sneaking around the docs where Zorin has a drilling operation set up.  They help each other escape and fall into bed together (well first splashing around a hot tub together).
  May Day also has a couple of trained assassins on her side, Jenny Flex (played by Allison Doody) and Pan Ho (played by Papillon Soo Soo), who serve as little more than eye candy and a temporary distraction in Bond's endeavor to stop Zorin from destroying California.  Their death also serves as an agitator for Mayday to turn on Zorin.
   I should also note this was Lois Maxwell's last appearance as Moneypenny.  The film should have ended with her and Bond in retirement together, as she seemed to be the closest flirtation to Bond's actual age.

Theme/Credits:  The first Bond theme to be a #1 hit, Duran Duran's "Into The Fire (A View To A Kill)" is a full on 80's pop-glam explosion, the bombastic horns make the song, and if anything undercuts it it's Simon LeBon's whine.  The lyrics, I have to credit them, are aptly Bond-ian.  The neon-blacklit ladies emerging from fire and smoke are perfect Bond opening credit moments.  The silhouetted skiers, less so, but they reflect the transition from the rather limited opening sequences of the past to a more animated or technology-aided openings of the future.  Not the best song, or the best credits sequence, but both quite good.




Bond: So old, this Bond, so obviously old, yet, the age so ignored.  Skyfall dealt with a Bond in far better condition and about 12 years junior dealing more responsibly with the question of capability given his age.  It would have been rewarding to have it addressed, even minimally in A View To A Kill.  But Moore's Bond was always questionable in his methodology and egocentric in his perception of himself.  Where Connery might have a bit of a sweat over a predicament he finds himself in, Moore calmly and casually faces death's door with the attitude of "yeah, right".  Moore's Bond here excels at the social side mingling at a soiree or engaging with contemporaries.  It's the physical side, including sexuality, which are the furthest fetched and most challenging aspects of the character/actor at this point.  I just kept waiting for an "oh, my knees" comment.  The only thing that makes Moore look young is by partnering him with The Avengers' (the TV one) Patrick McNee.  Bond has a sommelier's senses, a refined knowledge and appreciation for wine as well as an expert horse rider. One gets the sense that Bond comes from an elite background (which is exactly what he wants to project).

Movie: Unlike a few other entries in Moore's Bond oeuvre, A View To A Kill actually fares better in hindsight.  I don't think I enjoyed watching it much at the time, but as I think about it, it certainly seems more favourable in my head.  Realistically, though, it's not a terrific picture.  While John Glen made an auspicious debut with For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View To A Kill reveal some tendencies that are downright silly (the opening skiing sequence, for instance, finds Bond snowboarding before snowboarding was really a thing, and playing California Girls overtop, just to hit home that it's like surfing on snow, dude).  There's a great chase sequence that finds Bond's compact car becoming even more compact, after riding on the top of an open-topped double-decker bus, it loses it's roof, then get's bisected, but, front-wheel drive, Bond keeps going.  It's really a cool sequence, if not for the fact that it's played more for chuckles.  As is the fire engine sequence through the streets of San Francisco (Tanya Roberts shrieking "James" constantly wasn't any more endearing to the scene).  It's pre-Die Hard, post-Indiana Jones action and suffers for its influences and lack thereof, filled with cheap fights and 80's-style rescue sequences.  Pretty much up until the mine sequence, it's quite a low-key affair, the stakes don't seem quite so large until Zorin's masterplan is revealed.   The last 25 minutes or so are popping, however, it's unfortunate Moore couldn't put on as good a show as the fight atop the Golden Gate Bridge deserved.

Q-Gadgets: Q toys around with a surveillance robot (that looks kind of like K-9 from Doctor Who).  It doesn't serve too useful in the film.

Classification (out of 01.0) - 00.4 watchable, but barely.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Catfish

2010, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost

Since the film's auspicious debut a couple years ago Catfish has permeated the public consciousness in a way few films do, in such a regard that far more people know about the film than have actually seen it, also in such a regard that knowing what the film is about seems to diminish greatly the necessity of seeing it.  "Catfish" is used as a metaphor in the film (as one interviewee states, a catfish is used is the tank hold on cod fishing ships to chase the cod and keep them vital and fresh) but in real life, because of the film (and the MTV series it spawned), catfish has become both a verb and a noun, both relating to false identities on the internet (the verb catfished meaning being fooled by the noun catfish meaning the person adopting the false ID).

The film is at once a love story, a suspense mystery, a human drama. a little bit of horror (curiously enough) and possibly a bit of subterfuge.  It involves two filmmaking partners turning their camera on Nev, one of the filmmaker's photographer brother, as he begins an on-line correspondance with a young artistic prodigy.  This leads to Nev interacting with the girl's family extensively, soon developing a crush aw ultimately a long-distance relationship with the girl's older sister.

But things start to look suspicious when an innocent YouTube search turns up the first sign of deceit.  The more Nev and the filmmakers probe his online friends' claims the more he invalidates their authenticity.  Rather than fully disconnect Nev and friends decide to confront, though without malice, the perpetrator(s) of the hoax he's now certain he's a victim of.

What builds suggests an intense 3rd act to come, horror and danger lie around the corner. It is a clever bit of filmmaking, constructing real world elements into cinematic tropes as to emulate conventional fiction storytelling.  However where the 3rd act would normally be loaded with action and conflict what instead Catfish provides is a potent dose of sympathy and pathos as the perpetrators lies shield a difficult life, and present an escape from an everpresent, crushing reality. 

Catfish is an incredible experience if not altogether believable.  Oh for sure Nev was being fooled but the act of discovering the fraud seemed staged (or reenacted) rather than fully authentic of-the-moment reactions.  As well I have my suspicions that the filmmakers weren't already somewhat wise to what was really going on before they put it to film.  Even still, the storytelling craft is remarkable (is this real or a mookumentary I asked myself constantly during the first two acts) and and the final act is an engrossing and surprisingly compassionate exploration of motivations.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Queen Of Versailles (2012)

d. Lauren Greenfield -- netflix

North American culture has become obsessed with affluence.  It's the natural byproduct of a consumerist culture.  It's not longer enough to just have stuff, but you have to have the best stuff.  As a result, people are driving themselves deeper and deeper into debt in order to have stuff, and to project the appearance of affluence.  We're now in a new era of feudalism, the divide between the have and have nots, the 99 and the 1 percent, where the all-having 1 percent are basically guiding the bulk of North American culture and spreading it across the glove.  The haves cannot seem to have enough.  They want it all as long as there's any left to get.

Popular media is run by the haves, and since the moment they realized that millions of people at a time enjoy watching spoiled, nasty, talentless people behave rudely in public with a general disregard for common decency and civility, and a total disrespect for everyone (including most often themselves), it's flooded our society.  We've idolized the rich and famous in the past, but generally when celebrities or the "elite" society behaved badly in public, it was severely frowned upon and potentially career-killing.  Today, we celebrate the awful, starting with Paris and Nicole, making way for Kim, and busting the doors open for Snooki and an endless parade of "Real" Housewives and predatory Basketball Moms.  It's the new American dream, to have more money than you can possibly spend and not have to give a crap about anyone or anything anymore.  Popular media would have us to believe this is reality, and we can all have it all.

The Queen Of Versailles started as a documentary about a family who have it all, and want more.  David Siegal brought himself up from nothing, his beginnings were extremely modest, but he was frugal and shrewd, and when the right opportunity came up he started what became an empire of time shares, Westgate Resorts.  His wife, Jackie was also from humble beginnings, but after struggling to achieve an engineering degree and through an abusive marriage, she made it big via Miss America pageantry, where she met David (some 30-ish years her senior).  David's empire is so lucrative that he played kingmaker and takes personal credit (repeatedly) for winning George W. Bush the presidency ("I'd rather not say, it may not have necessarily been legal"), a decision he does have some apprehension about in hindsight .

The film follows David and Jackie, (and their 8 kids, their nanny, their limo driver and David's adult son who's general manager of Westgate Resorts) through their affluent lives, with a keen focus on David's two biggest projects, his new PH Towers Westgate building, a 52-storey blue glass monolith in Las Vegas, and one of the largest mansions in America, Versailles, a 90,000 square foot dwelling backing onto Disneyworld, modeled after the French Palace of Versailles.  The excesses of David and Jackie's life, and especially their plans for Versailles are so extravagant, so unreal, so inconceivable that it verges on nauseating ("This is what five million dollars worth of marble looks like", Jackie exclaims as she shows their documentary crew their garage filled solely with crated stone).

It begins a story of excess, and then November 2008 occurs, the housing bubble bursts, the mortgage backed securities are seen for the sham they were, and the stock market crashes.  Suddenly Westgate is forced to lay off hundreds upon hundreds of employees, David's refusal to turn over the PH Towers Westgate building to creditors threatening to take down him personally and his entire company (even the rich still want more than they can afford).  It then follows the family and the people around them as they struggle to cope with having to struggle, something which their clearly not used to. 

There's an element of schadenfreude to the Siegal's story, a tantalizing look at the felling of the mighty, but it's still not easy to watch, especially as they struggle to maintain some semblance of their own normality.  Their nanny's story is the most painful, separated from her own family for more than a decade, having missed out on her son growing up, sending all the money she makes back to the Philippians (and one can surmise she's not rewarded for her dedicated and tireless service particularly well), straining to find some comfort in the family she's made having taken the lead in raising the Siegal's kids (Jackie is not an absent mother by any stretch, but even she acknowledges that she wouldn't have had more than two had she not had nannies).  Other house staff are not so lucky, as the Siegals pare back 3/4 of their home crew.  The most noticeable effect is not on David, Jackie or the kids (forced to attend public school), but the many, many pets they have.  Lizards die of starvation or dehydration, fish go belly up, and dog crap is, quite literally, everywhere.  More collateral damage from their descent.

During their hardship, only David (and his son) seems truthfully aware of their situation, something Jackie laments late in the film.  "I kind of wish I was more involved, because I'm not a stupid person," Jackie notes, upon learning from the crew that Versailles in foreclosure, "but when you don't have the information, it makes you look stupid."  If not told outright, Jackie is made painfully aware that things are not good, yet she proceeds to spend excessively, if only at Wal-Mart.  She buys with reckless abandon, four shopping carts full of duplicate products for Christmas.  When she arrives home, the crew makes a point of showing the new bike she bought carried through a garage filled with other bikes. 

The Siegal's don't seem like bad people, and they seem to have an awareness of how lucky they are to have achieved affluence (despite hardships).  Jackie and David's relationship (as well as David's relationship with the kids) is strained incredibly by Westgate's misfortune and while you don't ever feel particularly bad for them, you don't really feel as good about their situation as you'd think. Yet, I was kind of rooting for David's business to tank completely.  I think Westgate's business practices are at best distasteful and at worst aggressively predatory.  Their tactic is to sell average people luxurious time share properties they can't afford to buy and likely will be unable to use most of the time.  They sell themselves a vision of "helping" these people, but realistically, they're praying upon their desire to taste a bit of affluence they really can't achieve even in this limited regard.  Where a company like Westgate can default on loans and work tricky magic like buying back their own overdue credit for 15million less than it was initially worth, the people who buy into their time shares, the suckers and the rubes who are even more harmed by the recession, are still on the hook, and you can bet Westgate isn't going to let up.  A large part of the company's value is in the "balance owing".

The coda to the film still inferred the Siegals were struggling, but a web search shows that Westgate has recovered, turning record profits, and that David is pursuing the completion of Versailles (as well as a couple of lawsuits against the filmmakers).  It's a fascinating doc, a rich character study, as well as a unique perspective of the 2008 market downfall and its aftereffects.  The doc originally started out as a borderline Real Housewives/Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but it transcends its vapid origins tenfold into something brilliant.




Red Dawn vs Tomorrow, When the War Began

Red Dawn, 2012, Dan Bradley (stunt man, first time director) -- download
Tomorrow, When the War Began, 2010, Stuart Beattie (writer, first time director) -- Netflix

Red Dawn is the remake of the classic 80s movie ("Wolverines !!") about teenagers in a small American town reacting to invasion by Russia and their Cuban allies.  Tomorrow, When the War Began is the recent movie, based on a series of teen novels, about small town Australia being invaded by "the coalition of three countries" -- Korea and allies.  Neither are very good.

The original Red Dawn was not very good either.  But it was a classic adventure story where teenagers and young adults stand up to oppressive authority and overcome the odds.  And unrealistically defend their town against trained soldiers.  As a kid who "played guns" I was convinced (at 15-16) that we could have done the same, with no problem.

The remake is a patch-work of all the sentiments and ideas from the first movie but blandly updated to the current age.  It was supposed to be China, but China is an American economic ally so it had to be Korea, with some backing from ex-Russia special forces.  You might even assume they are related to the Russians from the first movie.  By patch-work, I am not kidding.  It literally pieces together a bunch of rah-rah patriotism scenes with combat scenes under a non-existent plot.  The dialogue barely serves any purpose, the acting is unfocused and shouty and the villains are disposable.  Hell, even some of the main cast are disposable as, when two youngsters died, it took me ten minutes to determine which ones were killed.  You could see the way this would have been story-boarded with connector arrows on a giant white board, but the stunt man now director assumed the suits meant for him to do it literally.

Bad movie.

And yet, would you expect the movie based on teen novels to be better?  It was, but not by much.  This was CW (the TV channel) style of casting and production where we have the average girl, the pretty girl, the Christian girl and the chubby girl.  We have the pretty guy, the dumb tough guy, the sensitive guy and the stoner.  Once again, we are given the plot where they are away from their small town when the Bad Guys invade.  Subjected to the capture and/or death of family and friends, they have to figure out what to do next -- hide or fight back.

There is a primary difference in these movies and it really highlighted the difference between American and Australian ideals.  In both movies, the kids are overwhelmed and frightened by a situation they didn't think they could happen to their country.  Red Dawn quickly moves onto the patriotic decision to train and fight, moving through montages of learning to shoot, guerrilla tactics and finally expertly defeating (seemingly) badly trained enemies.  Its all about raising the guns over their head and shouting "Wolverines!" while ignoring any ramifications kids-becoming-soldiers might have. At least the first version showed the toil it took on their young psyches.

Tomorrow, When the War Began really focuses on the fear and trauma the kids are going through. That they have to fight back is overshadowed by the fact they are about to kill people.  They know they will have to but it is considered reprehensible.  The main character Ellie even asks, "Really, it just comes down to the fact that I valued my life over theirs, doesn’t it? How many people is it okay to kill in order to keep me alive?"  There is the knowledge they are fighting for their families and there is the knowledge they will have to kill people, some who are not much older than they are.  Even the Christian girl, with her "thou shalt not kill" is put in a tough situation.

Unfortunately, even with these challenging topics posed, the movie is not very good.  Why would they be having boy-talk conversations in the middle of "an operation" ?  And there are too many Baysplosions and too few skilled soldiers.  There really is only one operation against the invaders, but it is supposed to be the first in a series of movies, so that is (thankfully) understandable.  As I said, it is meant to be teen-novel / CW light so it is forgiven its naivete and it is leaps and bounds ahead of its American counterpart.

We Agree: Roger Ebert

I have delayed in writing something about Mr Roger Ebert; it's been too raw.  Seriously, I have not been so affected by the death of a celebrity since the passing of Jim Henson all those years ago.  I don't look up to celebrities, I don't care how good of an actor or writer or director they are; they are people of the limelight and so outside my life, I cannot raise the effort to grieve their passing.  I may be bummed, but never suffer true loss.  Ebert was different.

I am a geek, a nerd, an introvert (a loud one, admittedly) and of the socially confused.  We don't often have Heroes, at least not non-fictional ones.  If we do, they are people who do what we would really want to do if not for our day jobs.  Ebert was that for me.

I never really found my passion, my drive.  I will never ever do "what I love" because I never truly believed you could do what you loved, and get paid for it.  But every so often, I do something and realize that if I had understood the get-started-early philosophy, at an early age, I would probably be living a different life.  I would probably be a graphic designer.  Or a proper movie journalist.  I look back at Ebert's life, being exposed to so so so many good articles over the past week, and see a man who just dove into his chosen path.  I am sure his early stuff was not that good but to have produced THOUSANDS of reviews, just led to an extremely well polished skill.  It shows the proof in perseverance to what you love.

Even beyond writing about movies, he was the first influence on my love of movies.  In the 80s, during my absorption of videos from the local stores, I was pretty non-critical -- I would watch anything.  But as time went by and Arnie movies proved to be terrible, a little bit of a snob grew in me.  I wanted more out of my movie watching.  By the time I was in university, I was reading as much as I could about movies I would never see in the theatre and rarely find in the video store. And when I left university, I got access to rep theatres and decent video stores.  And I had the battery of review books from Ebert, and the show to watch, to become more discerning.

But it was more than his choices of what to watch; it was in the way he said it.  He, as a good writer always should, spoke to me.  Even when I didn't agree with him, I understood and respected his view.  I remember when I began to be tickled about his biases, about his fondness for certain pretty girls and how he would forgive them a crappy movie and write a decent review, despite the one or two stars.  He taught me that snobbishness was not the way, but truly knowing what you liked and what you didn't --- and WHY.  It was about this time that I realized I had a hero, someone I wanted to emulate.  And then he joined the Internet.

This man entered the Internet when the rest of us were inventing blogs and joining fledgling social apps.  He was writing truly journalistic articles on a medium that was assumed to be for amateurs and geeks only.  He joined Twitter and found an extremely prolific voice in 140 characters.  He became my hero again and again.

...

I have never really tried to invest myself in much (of anything) to any great degree.  I have been a jack-of-many-trades for all my life, losing interest and passion as often as I find something else to spark my interest. But in the past few months, I have been thinking about this blog and what I want to do with it. I want to do more.  I want to learn a craft. I want to read more and learn more and really develop my voice.  But the more how do be a movie reviewer I read the less I enjoy what others tell me I should do.  But Ebert reminded me how you could write an entire review that was so much not about the weak plot of the movie, but about the fleeting elements you so enjoyed about it.  He could do what I would strive to do --- just write about the love of the art form.

I will struggle to live up to his ideal.

It makes me sad that the world does not have his voice, albeit a purely typed one in the latter days.  I absolutely love that what we got from him in his post-cancer days was a man who focused, at least publicly,  on what he knew he could give to the world.  Even if he was hurting from what he had lost, he didn't let on... loudly.  Again, heroic.  Fucking heroic.  But in the end, he was tired and I am glad he was at least able to pass on in an alert mind frame, when he was aware of what he had done, if not being able to accomplish more of what he intended. But damn, I miss him.

Last night, a large crowd gathered in Chicago to talk about Roger Ebert.  Would that I could have been in that audience, to smile and wipe away tears.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What I Am Watching: In the Flesh, Vikings, Orphan Black


Some would say zombies are played out.  I would say that is used as an excuse when they meant to say they are bored of typical zombie fiction.  They want to see something new, beyond the usual running and getting caught. The Walking Dead added the soap operish, the humans are worse than the dead, concept but for the most part, zombie fiction is B-grade typical.  So, along comes this British series which is post-apocalypse, as in after the zombie apocalypse.  The dead have been fought and the dead have been.... well, treated.

When I first heard about this, I was rather annoyed.  You see, I am tired of zombie fiction that is about infected victims of a disease, not the walking dead.  Oh, 28 Days Later did it well with their ultra-angry fast zombies and the game Left 4 Dead is still the most compelling zombie game ever created, but in general I prefer my dead, dead.  But what has wowed me about this series is that they were truly dead, in the ground, dead.  And yes, they are being revived.  If the virus or whatever is raising the dead to a walking growling state, then the drugs the British government are using return the zombified dead to a more living state.

But the series, at least in the first episode I have seen, is about the extra bits around zombie fiction: what happens after, how do people return to "normal", if the dead are back in society, how does society feel about that.  There are the vigilante zombie fighting Human Defence Force, finding it hard to adjust to their previous lives and retaining a deep seated hatred of the "rotters".  The sufferers of the PostPartially-Dead Syndrome are not quite the living they once were -- their bodies have rotted, their skin is pale and their eyes are completely fucked up.  So, they wear makeup, contacts and take daily injections of a drug that keeps their brain in a human state.  But it also reminds them of the atrocities they committed.  And thus, in rural England, everyone has to learn to live together.  We shall see if they can.

On the other end of my favourite genres, we have the swords and shields of Vikings.  My first assumption was that it was going to run along the lines of Spartacus: Blood & Sand or as we called it, Blood & Boobs.  Luckily, I was wrong.  Its a rather small story (and you know how I like compact story telling) about a Hold in Scandinavia that has been raiding the east (Poland, Lithuania, western Russian steppes) and pretty much playing the area out.  But Ragnar Lothbrok has other plans -- the west, England and the European states.

The other Holds have not gone west because they don't actually know the secrets of sea travel, having probably just run their longships along the coasts of the countries they raid.  But Lothbrok brings forth a rough sundial / compass, rumors of lands of riches and a little bit of magic in a "sun stone" that can pickup the sun even in the darkest of skies.  But before he can go, he has to either convince his Earl or complete his own ship.  And gather a crew.  And overcome their fears that there is nothing but dragons and the edge of the world out there.

I rather like this show, with its grim Skyrim feel (well, duhh) and honorable protagonist.  But remember, they are vikings so it is about killing foes and stealing their riches.  Still, Ragnar's sense of honor is the key element as he stands up to his corrupt Earl, defends his family and even treats his English monk slave with some decency.  And then there is that haunting opening, tuned to "If I Had a Heart" by Fever Ray, of an obviously failed raid with burnings longships and sinking bodies.  Foreboding is the least of it.  No boobs yet.

Orphan Black is from BBC but a Canadian-American co-production, meaning we get it aired simultaneously in all three countries, eliminating the need to torrent it the next day.  Its obviously Canadian (for better or worse) and actually set in Toronto.  And its about cloning though the first episode basically only hints at it, assuming you have seen enough scifi to fill in your details.

Sarah arrives in Toronto on the train and immediately sees something strange -- a woman who looks exactly like her.  Then the women steps in front of a train.  So that was the Go Train delay that month.  Sarah is not the most honest or likeable person, so she grabs the dead woman's purse and breaks into her house.  Sure, she's curious as to why the woman was so familiar but really, she just wants the money and nice clothes.

I am not sure yet.  Sarah is fascinating, the product of the adoption system with her flamboyant token gay "brother" and abusive boyfriend, who actually seems to be a character instead of a cliche.  I am pretty sure the series is going to be another character making bad choices, currently in vogue in almost every show, but it has a tenuous possibility of transcending the typicality of most Canadian productions.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: John Dies at the End

2012, Don Coscarelli (The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep) -- download

John Dies at the End is one of those science fiction movies hoping to be the next pop culture phenomena.  In fact, I assumed it was going to be so, considering all the positive yammering on about the novels, which happen to be on my To Read list.  From web-based story to published novels, the movie actually bears little ressemblance to the summaries I have read of the serial novel.  Oh, it attempts to capture the strange world and disjointed stories but really rides its own feel.

The story is being related through the recollections of not  asian David Wong to Arnie the reporter.  David, meanwhile, is under the influence of soy sauce but not the kind from the chinese restaurant he happens to be in relating his story.  This sauce is alien and gives, as pure side effects, psychic and extreme perceptive abilities.  It also gives you the ability to experience Things Not of This World.  And that is what David and John are mixed up in, dealing with strange otherworldly invaders and alternate realities.

SCHPOILER !! The surprising thing is that John does not die at the end.  He doesn't really die at all.  He kind of dies, but not really.  And the dog helps him out of that one.  He actually goes on to save the world, or at least save this world.  And maybe the next one.  Its that kind of movie.  Lots of wonky lack of assurances about anything.  It leaves a lot of gaps and ambiguities either leading to a sequel movie or a TV series but more likely, to solidify the idea that so much about reality is left unexplained.  There was a theme somewhere in the movie and that is as close as you can get to it. The other surprising thing is that I am not sure I liked it, more enjoying the independent bits and pieces but the story as a whole never comes together.  Wonky for the sake of being wonky is what I am left with.  While I love what Coscarelli has done in the past (seriously, I liked The Beastmaster) this one needed a firmer hand at the rudder.

Hannibal - Apéritif (2013)

d. David Slade

The serial killer/murder-of-the-week genre of television has become so utterly formulaic and stagnant that I literally cannot stand to watch it.  NCIS, CSI, Bones, Castle, The Following, and all the countless others that have come and gone in the past decade all seem to be replicating the same two or three formulas hoping to draw in the same audience of consumers who seemingly uncontrollably lap it up.  The most intriguing of these shows for a time was Dexter but the silliness and improbability of the character and his situation overrode any meaningful drama and character development by it's fifth season.

Hannibal enters the fray from Bryan Fuller, whose previous beloved but short-lived series Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me explored death with a sense of purpose and meaning for the characters involved.  One gets a sense that, week to week, all the murder and  depravity on a CSI or Profiler have little impact or consequence on the show's characters, that each subsequent week their threshold for the morbid resets (much like that of the viewer). 

Hannibal carries on Fuller's intrigue with the impact of death primarily with its main character Will Graham.  Graham is a professor of profiling at Quantico, though never an FBI agent himself, the barrier being his self-identified form of aspergers which gives him heightened empathy towards others.  In your average of-the-week show this would be celebrated gift, a super power that allows the show's protagonist to understand the killer and his/her motivation and triumphantly capture the bad guy.  Here it has a definite and cumulative toll on Graham's psyche, something his faculty adviser at Quantico warns FBI Agent Jack Crawford about when he enlists him on a multiple missing persons case they can't crack.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter comes into the fold as a special consultant when Graham can't seem to completely crack the psyche of the killer.  Lecter takes an immediate interest in Graham, whose ability and condition are psychologically unique and fascinating to him.  The show doesn't dance around the fact that Lecter is a murderer and cannibal, and uses it wisely here as Graham observes one of his victims bodies and can barely trace any emotional connection to the death beyond the cannibalistic desire and the lack of pathology otherwise.  Later Lecter kills another, mimicking Graham's active case but in a manner that allows Graham to see instantly that it's a copycat killing and that it's flaws in its replication allow him to see what he couldn't in his case before. Lecter is in essence mentoring Graham through murder.  It seems to me that Lecter is playing with Graham in order to see if he has what it takes to figure him out, thus a psychological chess game begins that Graham has no idea yet that he's playing.

I'm not exceptionally well-versed in Thomas Harris' novels, although I've seen The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal once a piece.  Manhunter, Michael Mann's moody adaptation of Harris' Red Dragon, is a particular favourite, and as such I can't help but compare Hugh Dancy's Will Graham to Willaim Petersen's from the film as in both cases they play a character traumatized by his work.  Dancy measures up, and in the context of the show's characterization of Graham, he excels.  Dancy captures the apprehension and nervousness that Graham has about engaging in profiling killers, already too aware of the toll it has upon him and the nightmares that plague him.  He finds respite in rescuing stray dogs, which is his oasis from the darkness he faces (Manhunter's Will Graham had love for his wife to hold onto, which is something this show's Will Graham may be incapable of). 

Though unused in Manhunter, Harris established in Red Dragon that Lecter and Graham were partners of a sort working together to solve crimes before Graham found Lecter out.  Though Harris has explored Lecter more extensively in earlier and later iterations, he's never gone back to this pairing.  In many ways this Hannibal TV series serves as a prequel to Red Dragon.  Equally, if not for the decades between them, it tonally feels like a precursor to Mann's film.  The show is moody, a prominent but spare soundtrack exacerbating this effect.  When Dancy's Graham goes into a sort of trance as he assesses a crime scene and a murder victim, the show visualizes his mental process in a reverse and slow-motion technique.  It teeters on gimmick but ultimately lands on the favourable side of stylistic choice.  

The show uses what you know about the characters already, respecting the mythology of Harris' characters, but isn't bound by it completely.  Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (best known perhaps as Le Chiffre from Casino Royale) brings a less jubilant performance to Hannibal than what Anthony Hopkins ultimately wound up delivering in later films.   Mikkelsen's curious Danish accent, his glossy, unflinching poker face, and very prim posture bring a nefariousness that's subtle, in contrast to Hopkin's increasing overtness from film to film.  Mikkelsen and Dancy together make an exceptionally compelling odd couple, precisely because Graham cannot figure Lecter out and he's so unaware of how Lecter toys with him, and although the audience knows he's doing it, like Graham, we don't understand his motivations.

The pilot, Apéritif, introduces all the primary characters for the series, but it doesn't given them much other than an introduction.  Laurence Fishburne's Jack Crawford isn't given much other than framework to start with, but he has a commanding presence nonetheless... it's what he does.  It will be interesting to see how (or if) he develops further.  Hetienne Park's forensics expert Beverly Katz also stands out, strikingly, as Katz is a beaming, excitable character all too in love with her job (perhaps a pointed commentary on all the wisecracking crime scene investigators on other programs?).  Yet she brings a sense of life to the show without being an utter cliche.

I'm fascinated with this show, partly because it's playing with familiar characters in new ways, and also because it's taking the genre on a much needed ride.  It's doing so in a stylistic manner that almost guarantees it won't meet success on network, because it's too different.  The series' 13 episodes are already complete, but even if that's it for the show, if it continues to transcend formula every week as the pilot does, I can be happy with just that.

Friday, April 5, 2013

On Roger Ebert

Anyone who has decided to do reviews over the past 40+ years, whether for a living or for personal edification, has done so in the shadow of a giant.  That wasn't a fat joke about Roger Ebert but rather a trite metaphor for just how influential, respected and talented a critic and writer he was.  There have been and still are a lot of great critics and film reviewers out there, but few of them have the open-mindedness that Ebert did.  With most critics, after a time, you begin to understand their prejudices and their biases.  Not to say that Ebert did not have any, but Ebert was able to process film outside of his own preconceptions, able to assess film against any measure of criteria (against standards of filmmaking, against other films of their kind, against his own values and morals, against the social/political/technological landscape, etc) as such he could appreciate any genre equally.  If he had a bias towards any type of film, it was never apparent.

Roger Ebert was the prototype for the cinephile, the uber-film fan who thinks about film constantly, from all different approaches, from the technology in making a film to the technology in projecting a film, to the people that make them and the people that watch them.  He'd long been engaged in bringing film into social conversation, through "At The Movies" with Gene Siskel to his newspaper columns like "Ask The Answer Man".  Long before the internet, Roger Ebert wanted people to discuss film and film culture writ large.  In fact, Ebert was integral to the establishment of film culture.  He didn't care about celebrity, he cared about performance.  It didn't matter how famous someone was, all that mattered was how they fared in the roles they were playing.  If a personality were so pervasive outside of the cinema that it influenced the experience of watching them perform, you can bet he would comment on it.  He didn't care about box office, so much as he cared about how the masses were responding to a film, though he could often tell when a film he didn't like was going to connect with the general public, and he was often disappointed when a film he loved was ignored (Ebertfest was just one of his small ways of trying to give exposure to his favourite movies).

One got the sense that Ebert would watch any film (and do so objectively), so long as it was in theatres (he didn't delve so much into direct-to-video or made-for-TV movies... he had to cut things off somewhere in his hundreds of reviews per year).  One also got the sense Ebert loved the experience of film and the cinema, the escapism of it no matter what the subject matter.  As such, a horror film could be as beloved to him as a western, a period drama as much as a futuristic sci-fi.  He had geek leanings, a strong dabbling in comic book culture as a youth, and an understanding of cultural movements of the 20th Century, which would inform his reviews when necessary, but there wasn't anything in Ebert's knowledge base that one could point to as a trademark skew.  He may have tired of trends but he still gave each film an honest and earnest shot at currying his favor.

Reading thousands of his reviews over the decades, Ebert came off as intelligent,but not an intellectual.  He wasn't showy or pedantic (unless it was to make a point, or for comedic intent) in his reviews, he wanted his dialogue on film to be shared with everyone, from pre-teens to 80-year-olds.  But his reviews were so often illuminating, not just about the film at hand, but about film in general, or society at the time, or the nature of people.  He had insight and was thoughtful about the human condition, as well he also liked the explorations of surreal and supernatural concepts.  Whenever a film could engage and provide an experience all its own, pull you out of your body and make you feel like you were somewhere else, Ebert loved that.  Conversely, he hated films that made you painfully aware that you were in a theatre, mainly by not engaging or deterring you so much from engaging with the screen.  He also hated 3-D, and not just cynically, but with logic and thought and armed with an understanding of the technology and how it, by and large, did not enhance the cinematic experience (again 3-D so often reminds you that you have glasses on your face and that you're watching a movie in the theatre... 3-D calls attention to itself more often than it serves any storytelling purpose).

The bane of Roger Ebert's existence (yet, I bet, a secret delight) was the star-rating system.  The star rating is used as shorthand by people to judge someone's reaction to a film, more over judging the quality of a film based solely on a few little dots (or absence thereof).  But Ebert would hope (and implore) that people read his review, and not take the star-rating on its own.  He's given 3-star ratings to films he didn't really like all that much, and 1 and a half star ratings to films he quite enjoyed.  It's the words he wrote that were important.  I like to think that  Ebert used the stars as his own way to keep track and remind himself of the best and the worst of what he'd seen, and oh how he delighted in writing a no-star or half-star review.  I think he liked writing about the bombs and the most provocative of cinema almost as much as he does about the best it has to offer.  Of course, he would continue to write and discuss the best whereas the worst were generally reviewed and then done with.

Every Roger Ebert review was worth reading.  The man had a way with words.  Even his worst reviews were on par with the best of the best.  He also had a killer sense of humour, something too many critics lack.  Ebert loved films, but realized you didn't always have to take them so seriously... it's primarily entertainment after all.  I laughed out loud often at an Ebert review, there aren't many other reviewers out there whose wit is as finely honed as his was.

I didn't always agree with Roger Ebert's assessment of films.  I'd say half the time I was in league with what he was thinking, and maybe a quarter of the time I was diametrically opposed to his position on a film.  But what I could always trust from a Roger Ebert review is that it would be well thought out, and there would be no question as to why or how he came feel about a film the way he did.

I took lesson from Roger Ebert constantly.  He was a faraway, secret mentor.  I'm not even a half a percent as good a reviewer as he is, but from him I will continue to learn.  There are thousands of his reviews I haven't read, and rereading his reviews and commentary archives proves just as rewarding.

Late in his life, cancer took Roger's physical voice, and at 70, his life.  But he left behind a legacy of words, a written voice that will live on.  His reviews for the many films he did see in his lifetime will continue to be the go-to resource for critical thought.  For the films he won't ever see, we're all the less for not having his insight.

Roger Ebert passed away April 4, 2013.
You're a legend Rog.  I miss you already.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

3 Short Sentences on Roger Ebert

Kent is writing his piece as I write this.  I will do something longer later. Mr Roger Ebert was my first influence to think about the movies I was watching and the sole reason I ever wanted to write movie reviews.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-roger-ebert-dead-20130404,0,602338.story.

Monday, April 1, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs on 3 Animations

Wreck-It Ralph (2012, Rich Moore) is the latest Disney animation, a hero's journey story set inside the video games of a small, mostly retro arcade.  When the doors shut and the quarter junkies go home, the video game characters go home as well.  But life is work and work is life.  And Ralph is not happy being just a villain, abandoning his Donkey Kong clone for a better simulated life.  Amusingly, this movie started life in the 80s when video game arcades were actually full of life, explaining the plethora of video game in-jokes that only people my age would get.  I would have liked to see a few Japanese games appear but was glad they didn't try and shoe-horn in console or PC games, just because they are known and popular.  Leave those for the sequel when someone brings an Internet attached modern game to the arcade.

Hotel Transylvania (2012, Genndy Tartakovsky) was the one I was least interested in viewing, but, the Internet allows for that, kind of like the cheapo rentals we used to get at the mom & pop video store.  Surprisingly, it was actually enjoyable.  But not whatsoever for the story, more for the supporting gimics and gags.  Drac is a misunderstood monster in a world where torch wielding villagers are the terror and the cute & fuzzy creatures are the regular visitors to his no-humans hotel.  Of course, a (most likely toke smoking) human backpacker shows up and changes everyone's minds.  I was able to ignore my Adam Sandler hate and enjoy the slap-stick, the gimmicky jokes and great supporting characters even as I completely forgot what the story was about.

Finally, we saw Rise of the Guardians (2012, Peter Ramsey) which was the one I was most keen on seeing, mainly based on the pseudo-Russian Santa with his nice & naughty tattoo sleeves.  Santa needs to be portrayed as badass more often.  In this world Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, the Easter Bunny are the imaginaries who kids still believe in, thus maintaining their roles as protectors of children.  In opposition to them is the ever-fading Boogieman, or Pitch, who has been losing believers (and power) as the modern age dampens their fear of the dark.  But as the villain, and he really should have been played by Tom Hiddleston, he has more power in mind and it involves the newest risen Guardian, Jack Frost.  Really?  Jack Frost?  Did kids ever believe in a such a figure?  But never you mind, for this is a grand, exciting adventure story with great, fresh animation!  Easter Bunny with a (battle) boomerang!  Dual-sword wielding Santa!  Jack with his +2 Staff of Winter!  I will have to stat these demi-gods for my next D&D game.