Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I Am Watching: True Blood, Luther, Under the Dome

SPOILERS.  You are warned.

Yes, we are still watching True Blood long after having given up on it. Why? Because of the train wreck appeal (forgive me that phrase considering the news of late) the show currently has, as if they were writing the show to elicit outrageous, over the top internet reactions and spawn terribly funny recaps. Consider what is going on this season. Werewolf Alcide, when not selling ice cream, is now full-on angry wolf leading his pack and being an asshole, Sookie the Half-Faerie is still fucking anybody who comes around the corner, this time being Ben, the Faerie-Vampire who happens to be the oldest vampire on earth and the alluded Big Bad of last season Warlow. Meanwhile Vampire Bill drank Lilith's blood (yeah, that Lilith) and has become some sort of uber-vamp. Meanwhile the Governor of Louisiana is on a rampage, tossing vamps into concentration camps, where they have them concentrate on fucking and killing each other. Meanwhile Terry, the damaged war veteran, got himself murdered and the 4 faerie daughters of Sherrif Andy got themselves eaten by Jessica, after having grown to teenager age in a few episodes. Annnd breathe.

Those are just the story lines I care to talk about. Its all a chaotic mess of intersecting plots with no attempt at order. Internet ready taglines and common phrases, ready to be shouted at the screen, are the norm for this season. They pick up and drop story lines sometimes in less than an episode. "Its the merkin queens !!" when Lilith and her ghostly, always nude, entourage shows up. "Faerie vaginas glow when they are aroused ?!?!" But will I stop watching? Nope. LaLa still rocks.

Ending its three series / season run this year is Luther. The show stars Idris Elba, the coolest guy on big and small screens these days, as a cop working the serious & serial crimes division. We were introduced to him as a man of extremes, letting some criminals die instead of bringing them to justice, and just not dealing well with his breakup. But a series of unfortunate deaths and a cat & mouse game with a sociopathic suspect tempers him as the show progresses. At first he is all about anger, and he scares those around him, but he is always a skilled investigator, if a bit unorthodox.

This unorthodox but always productive nature is what almost brings everything down around him. He is finally getting over the death of his wife, at the hands of his best friend & partner, and is dating Mary. But a previous colleague, at odds with his brusk attitude and that unorthodox behaviour is working her own investigation, trying to pin all the world's woes on him. She does have a point though, as numerous people have died in his presence, from suspects to friends.

Elba is incredible as John Luther. We all know he is a big man, but in this series he looms over all the supporting cast, even as he constantly slouches under his tweed coat. I want to describe how compelling his character is as an investigator, instinctive and resourceful, but its not about being all Sherlockian, its about the nature of his approach that is appealing -- that and the equally compelling villains. The whole show started with Alice, the sociopath in love with Luther (if she can even feel love) and there was the dice rolling twins, obsessed with playing a real life RPG, killing people to earn experience points. This season the killers are secondary to his own investigation, but the lynch pin remains a vigilante who is killing those who escaped justice and presenting it to the world via the Internet. Luther should be his peer, so everyone thinks, but this is an evolved man who understands the murderous crusader has to stop.

On the lighter side, I am compelled to watch Under the Dome but really, I should have listened to my burbling gut. Anytime Stephen King highly recommends a screen adaptation of his story, we are in for trouble. He just loves the TV and film production process so much, he never seems to notice how much crap has been produced from his work.

In the book King takes a small specfic premise, of a town that is suddenly trapped under an invisible dome (no not perfectly half sphere) with no explanation, and expands it into a Lord of the Flies analogy. What makes the book so good are the characters, who are often brought into the show in name only. So much has changed, I don't find any characters interesting or sympathetic. As expected, acting is middling and since they wanted to extend this into a full blown series, not even a short-life mini-series, they are stretching plot ideas very very thinly into episodes. I am still watching but I am not sure for how long.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Haywire

d. Steven Soderberg, 2011

I would definitely site Stephen Soderbergh as one of my favourite film directors, but as I look through his repertoire, I notice that I've not watched one of his films since 2009's The Informant, and before that, 2006's the Good German.  I'm woefully derelict in my fandom.  I've missed some big pieces: Che, Contagion, and Magic Mike, not to forget the recent HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candleabra.  Given these rather prominent features, Haywire seems like a minor work, one of his of-a-whim productions that combines the impetus for The Girlfriend Experience with the somewhat murderous mood of The Limey, but it's doubtless a Soderberg piece.

The director took inspiration after seeing MMA champion fighter Gina Carano rise in the sport, noticing both her ferocity and attractiveness, and decided to frame an espionage-based film around her.  Carano's character, Mallory Kane, is an ex-special forces agent working for a black ops contractor, but finds herself betrayed by her employer, set-up for a politically sensitive kill, and targeted herself for termination.  Joining Carano on the peripherals is an incredible supporting cast in Ewen McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton and Channing Tatum, all in small but pivotal roles.

The story is fairly straightforward but assembled in a jumbled fashion so as to add a bit more intrigue and allow some of the reveals to unfold in a less conventional manner, but it's really a story constructed to showcase Carano, looking both deadly and stylish, and moreover highlighting her formidable fighting prowess.  The sequences are expertly framed to show their movement and physical punishment, a stark and intentional contrast to the quick cutting of Greengrass' Bourne movies, and they're choreographed in a logical manner to imply that for someone of Mallory Kane's size to take on men with 20 to 60 pounds on her, not to mention added reach and height, she has to work quite a bit harder and take a few more lumps to come out on top.  Carano's acting is certainly serviceable, better than anticipated, even, while the film makes a concerted effort to minimize her necessary lines, she physically handles the focused screentime with ease.  She has a definite presence and charm, but time will tell whether she becomes a major action movie presence or b-movie, direct-to-on-demand star.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Pacific Rim

2013, Guillermo del Toro (Mimic, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) -- cinema

Squeeee!!  OK, this is not one of the requisite paragraphs but I had to get that out.

Yesterday I saw it as I had hoped to see it, in AVX with good sound and a great big screen. But not 3D; I am not a fan of 3D and really, it makes me uncomfortable after about 20 minutes as the signals get scrambled going into my damaged eye, i.e. kaiju sized headache. But finally, after some false starts and reschedules and misprinted times and another weight that kept on interfering with my excitement, I got to see it.

Squeeee!!  Yes, there it is, I was extremely excited to see this movie, like a 14 year old on his way to see the big blockbuster based on his bestest, most favouritest cartoon. But am I really that kid? I was never really a Godzilla fan, being cheezed out by the rubber suits and thin plots. I often felt I was the generation after the proper fans, sort of like kids of today roll their eyes at Star Wars. But the idea of giant monsters tromping about smashing things, fighting other monsters and making a nuisance of themselves, well, THAT always interested me. From anime to remakes to Cloverfield, I enjoyed the spawn of the original kaiju flicks. I was probably one of the few who enjoyed the terrible American Godzilla and yes, I do own Cloverfield.  So, it is not surprising this movie is the singular bigsillygrin movie of my summer watching.

Did I enjoy it? Was I disappointed? Was it what I expected? Yes! No! Pretty much! More!!

OK, this movie won't be for everyone. But, really, you should give it a chance! Summer blockbusters should be about over the top heroics, big sounds and bright colours. If you are already going to give The Wolverine a chance, considering how lame the first was, you are ripe to come into this one and have a great time. This is well paced, exciting and engaging giving you characters to cheer for despite the limited (character) development and almost non-stop focus on the action. Del Toro does have a knack for the well rounded movie, something I feel is lacking in most blockbusters these days.

OK, so what is it about, in case you have not seen the trailers and over-hype? Simply, it's about a world not long from now, where a dimensional rift forms in the Pacific Ocean releasing big monsters (called kaiju in Japan) that wreak havoc on the coastal cities. We are able to fight them with conventional means but the cost is too high and it just takes too much time tossing planes, tanks and bombs at them. Something new was needed. The Jaegers (hunter in German) are created -- giant humanoid robots piloted by two people linked through a neural bridge; a single human brain could not withstand the scale. The Jaegers are successful but costly (collateral damage and building) and as kaiju get bigger and nastier, funds are shifted to building a wall. The Jaeger Program is being mothballed.

This is the world we are dropped into. The attacks are currently only on coastal cities but are escalating and its only a matter of time before they overrun the defenders and make their way inland. But something else is going on, something more dire. And that is the plot of this movie, apart from the world it has established. The Jaegers have one last chance to do their part in saving the world before all the money goes into building walls that people will hide behind.

OK, by now you have realized I am not getting away in only three paragraphs.

This movie has the classic elements of a hero story -- the damaged veteran scarred by his past, the incredibly skilled recruit who has to prove herself, the aging leader filled with wisdom but a sense of mortality, his own and the world's.  Sure, these are all melodramatically presented, occasionally cheesy and over the top, but it just works here. Charlie Hunnam is surprisingly not channeling his biker anti-hero from Sons of Anarchy but playing a fresh, truly heroic character haunted by his past.  Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost is already bigger than life, based on his roles in The Wire and Luther, but here he sits upon the Jaeger Program throne with a heavy crown and an unyielding agenda. Charlie Day (Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Burn Gorman (Torchwood) are the comic relief, dueling scientists each with an idea of how to finally defeat the monsters. Rinko Kikuchi is Mako, Pentecost's adopted daughter and the perfect Jaeger pilot, despite her sensei's misgivings.

And this movie just looks good. From the soaring heights of the wall being built in Anchorage to the grungy, wet decks of the Shatterdome in Hong Kong, I was taken by a tingle of a thrill for the practical effects del Toro used. Think of a key scene in Avatar when Jake Sully leaves the shuttle and rolls across the tarmac of the base -- its all CGI, the background, even most of the movement and characters in the background. When we see Raleigh leave the helicopter, upon arriving at the Shatterdome, there is a sense of tangibility to everything he passes -- dirt, oil, wear & tear. Sure, Hong Kong in the background is digital but there is so much he has to pass that is real. And that is just one example of the sweet sweet use of practical effects, with the interior of the Jaeger heads sitting on the mountain peak -- everything in there is tangible and interactive. Incredible!

And the battles? Wow. The sense of weight and speed and destruction is incredible. We saw Superman bash through buildings in Man of Steel with a sense of dread at the collateral damage that was intense. But here, we don't suffer that, perhaps because the buildings stand mostly unoccupied, citizens evacuated to shelters, but more its because the world is on its last legs and the heroes must defeat the creatures despite the cost. So, shiny beautifully lit Hong Kong gets quite a wallop as Gipsy Danger has a knock-out brawl with the kaiju.

I am sure this movie had its flaws, but to be honest, I am not finding them yet. Most of what people would complain about -- cheesiness, melodrama, pseudo-science worked completely for me.  Completely.  Time to see it again.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Monsters University

d. Dan Scanlon, 2013 - in theatre

I didn't become a Pixar fan, really and truly, until I had kids in my life.  I enjoyed some Pixar movies, but thought they were a little juvenile for my sophisticated Tarantino-saturated tastes.  The Toy Story films particularly tweaked my interest as a late-teen and 20-something (then still an avid action figure an toy collector) while some time later WALL-E and Ratatouille came along, showing me that Pixar were capable creators of instant story-driven (less merchandise-driven) classics.  But I had glossed over a few of their features, Monsters Inc. being the first, mainly because of my snobby hipster attitude about Billy Crystal.

Shortly after turning two years old my daughter watched Monsters Inc. for the first time, and I'm not even sure if I had seen it prior to that event.  I was nervous that she would find it frightening in parts, but (as I later discovered) she loves being scared, and she loves Monsters Inc.  I too came to appreciate the film immensely upon a second or third viewing, (while she's watched the film about three dozen times, if not more) and when I caught wind of the new Monsters University, her excitement was palpable (about 15 months of "when's new Monsters Inc. coming?").  I, on the other hand, was kind of disappointed with their next feature being yet another franchise-expander (sequel or prequel), the third in four years.  While Toy Story 3 was a surprisingly beautiful swan song for that series, Cars 2 was a merchandise cash grab (by all accounts, I couldn't even bring myself to see it) and last year's Brave was a massive let-down.   Monsters University has a lot to live up to, particularly when the previous film's most beloved character (the human intruder Boo) obviously doesn't make the transition back in time, so while I remained hopeful, expectations were kept pretty low.  It met my expectations.

Monsters University is not a bad film, but it is a lesser entry in the Pixar portfolio.  It's a child-friendly take on 1980's frat comedies, a genre of film that relied heavily on nudity, sex, swearing and drugs to scandalize the old folks and draw a young crowd.  Obviously a Pixar movie can't have any of that (but what a bizarre thing that would be if they did) so what's presented instead is a chaste emulation of Animal House and any of the dozens of frat and camp movies (Ski School, Up the Creek, Meatballs etc.) where the crux of the film is one group squaring off against one or more other groups in a series of challenges.  It's actually kind of clever, since it's a formula that's been generally absent from the screens (or more likely direct-to-video) since the '90's, as a result it captures a nostalgia in parents of the kids in attendance, and at the same time presents to the kids a well-tested and appealing formula which they've not seen before (giving pre-teens and grade-schoolers a goofy and unreal look at their improbable future scholastic life).

Of course, beyond the nostalgia, it is a tired, tired formula, that isn't really given much new life in the way other Pixar films reconstruct genres.  Instead Monsters University tries to distract us from formula with charming characters (their specialty) and a hate-to-love bromance between beloved characters Mike and Sully.  Really they could have done anything for a Monsters Inc. sequel or prequel and as long as it contained Billy Crystal and John Goodman doing their thing, they would succeed.  These are two characters who just click with each other, instantly taking the view to a place of warmth, even when they're fighting on screen.  It's especially that reason, knowing that they become BFFs later on, that the audience invests in them so hard to stop fighting and support one another.

It's slight, sure, but it's got a lot of charm.  With voice talent from Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi and more, there's just a lot of pleasantry going about, even from the characters who are less than pleasant.  It's bright, colourful, inoffensive, and just damn likeable, if not in any way surprising, or innovative the way we would like Pixar to be.  It'll be going on the shelf, it'll be watched dozens of times, but it's a lesser-than, which I guess is better than an also-ran.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Warm Bodies

2013, Jonathan Levine (50/50) -- download

I don't understand the need to do the "alternate" zombie movie. Sure, I get the idea that they are pretty much played out as a genre monster, despite there not being a large number of actually reputable movies. But with The Walking Dead continuing to do well, there are shiny suited execs out there demanding scripts of a different sort, zomething that will keep the audiences coming in. So, why not "zombie love story" ? Umm, perhaps because it is necrophilia??!?!? Whatever; take some pretty young people, one dead, one not, and see where it can go.

Don't get me wrong, this is a fun little movie. I like the fact that Nicholas Hoult is the kid trapped inside the dead body -- yes, dead; these guys are grey skinned, no-beating-heart walking corpses that, for some reason or another, are not rotting away. Most of the time they wander around more like people with a bad hangover, going slowly about the lives they once had, vague thoughts going on in their heads about what they once were and what they are now. Yep, we have the narrator from somewhere deep in the zombie brain. Speaking of brains, when humans come near the zombies, their noses start a'twitching and they NEED TO EAT. If they eat brains, they get euphoric from the memories of the person they ate. Some nice world building, if a bit silly. The story gets going when Nick eats the boyfriend's brain and gets a lil dead guy crush on the cute girl, all drawn from the memories of a sweet romance.

Trapped inside a wall around The City, which happens to be Montreal to anyone with a sense of skylines, the humans are living out their last days. Not only are there slow shambling walking corpses but there are the Bonies, further decayed, maddened creatures without any semblance of what they once were. How they are faster, tougher and meaner after having eaten most of their own flesh and muscle is beyond me. But that is zombie movie science, along with the Love Gets the Heart Beating Again premise of the whole movie. So, what? The heart beats again which would push decayed sludgy blood into an animated corpse -- one would think whatever forces kept the guy from decaying would suddenly kick in and he would slip into a coma and quick death. But that wouldn't make for much of a (not icky-kinky) love story would it? No, instead they are "cured" by love and everything gets better as the RomCom Virus spreads from zombie to zombie.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Spring Breakers

2012, Harmony Korine (Gummo, writer Kids) -- download

Harmony Korine is a highly lauded indie director and writer, most known for his writing of the skaters meet AIDS movie Kids. The followup cult movie Gummo was equally panned and raved about by critics for being idiosyncratic and / or indecipherable. Trash Humpers was at the TIFF, and yeah, that is enough said about it. He is the kind of art-trash indie director that your hipster film school ex-boyfriend goes on and on about when he is stoned. Think Gregg Araki for this generation. But me? I don't know, this was the first movie of his I have seen. I read some good reviews, but I admit, part of the reason I wanted to see it was dirty old man voyeurism. What? Shoot me.

So yeah, this is really a movie about the current generation of sex fueled wild teenagers, the kids who grew up exposing themselves in digital cameras or smart phone selfies and non-stop 24 hour free internet porn. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine (yes, his wife) are four post-high school girls in Kentucky -- the bored bad girls smoking, drinking and doing cocaine. OK, Selena is the good little Christian girl but these are her BFFs. They want to do Spring Break on Florida but barely have enough for the bus ride. So, three of them rob the local diner armed with hammers, squirt guns and gangsta rap inspired foul mouths. And off they go.

This is the post-Girls Gone Wild world where kids trash the cheap Florida hotels doing drinks, drugs and sex to excess. We are presented with over-saturated montages filled with beer bongs, boobs and big booties all the while listening to Selena's good girl dialogue about how they are here to find themselves. This is what makes a 20 year old desperate to go there for Spring Break and a 40 year old wonder why his youth missed all that, for better or worse. OK, mostly for worse -- these kids would make my parenting peers hide their daughters away forever. Things actually only get worse for the girls when the police raid a party and the creepy, ever fascinating Alien (James Franco) shows up to bail them out. Presented with real bad behaviour (guns, violence, etc.) some of them fall into it naturally and some of them realize the spring fantasy really cannot last forever. And Alien? Alien realizes life is not Grand Theft Auto. Is it a good movie? No. Is it fascinating? Yes, oh yes, and I am sure that is all Korine committed to.

Another Earth

d. Mike Cahill, 2011 - Netflix

If I were to be perfectly honest about my favourite kind of movie, it might be discovery documentaries (the sort that reveal a world, or a personality, or environment I wasn't previously too familiar with) but would probably low-budget, dramatic science fiction.  Oh, I do love blockbusters and big budget action and askew comedies, those are the films I obsess over and watch again and again.  But it's stories like Another Earth that resonate far more within me, that are far more enriching, as they tend to explore the human experience of fantastical situations rather than just visually bringing a fantasy to life.  It's just that films of this sort, ones that are emotionally complex, are a lot harder to revisit, but seed enough conceptual elements that stimulate a whole different geek sector of the brain, rathe than just the empathetic, emotional ones.

Another Earth follows the story of Rhoda Williams (in a wonderfully understated performance from Brit Marling), a once promising MIT student who faces life after parole, having emerged from multiple years in jail after killing a woman and her child while driving drunk.  The night of the accident, and the cause of Rhoda's distraction, was the sudden appearance in the night sky of another Earth.  As Rhoda readjusts to civilian life, living with her parents, working as a janitor at her old high school and otherwise keeping to herself, her guilt overwhelms her frequently.  She decides she needs to face the man whose family she killed, and finds John Burroughs suffering physically and mentally from the aftereffects of the accident.  His home is in shambles, and his pain evident on his face, not just from the many pills he takes.

On his doorstep, Rhoda can't face her guilt, and standing in her janitorial coveralls, lies to John, offering him a free cleaning consultation.  This small lie brings Rhoda into John's life as his house cleaner, and naturally the chemistry between these two lonely people is close to unbearably awkward, but writer/director Mark Cahill never takes it to unwatchable extremes and constantly finds the humanity in the situation.  But, this isn't a feel-good romance/redemption story.  Though Rhoda never outright lies to John, her withholding the truth is just as severe.  It's a fascinating journey, as Rhoda brings John back to life and vitality, a small consolation for having destroyed it years before.  The emotions of her relationship with John are never anything less than complex, and in Marling's performance, Rhoda is never not aware of the damning truth.

In the background to all this is the other Earth, another place where, perhaps things were different.  There's a discovery of this other planet through excerpts of television news specials or radio reports  (some of the most naturalistic news coverage I've seen in a film) that gives a slow trickle of information about what it may be and the possibilities it contains, but at the same time, there's little true knowledge gleaned about it.  This sets up Rhoda's B-story, that of the contest, set up by an eccentric, Richard Branson-esque billionaire, to be the only civilian member of a privately-funded journey to the other Earth, which, obviously (yet believably) Rhoda wins.  The contest provides Rhoda the option of escape, of leaving her tortured existence behind, but it also gives her the ability to retain a little distance John, giving her an excuse to engage him, to even love him, knowing that she will be leaving.

The physics of the other Earth are obviously impossible (as the pull on the planets' mutual gravity would be devastating and they wouldn't be able to share the same solar orbit either, certainly leading to drastic differences in climate and solar radiation) but the conceit exists not as a scientific exploration, but an emotional one.  In that regard it retains a believability that could otherwise sink the film.

The ending to Another Earth left me with a bounty of questions and a certainly level of both admiration and frustration.  It's one of those "what does that mean?" conclusions that has a half-dozen or more possible explanations.  From my own perspective, I think it would have been better served with a 2-minute (ish) news montage reporting from the ground the journey of the shuttle to the other Earth, while still leaving questions open and the ending ambiguous (just a little less ambiguous and slightly more enriching in exploring its conceit).  I'll detail my thoughts in the comments on how this could have played out, so as no spoilers up here.

Searching for Sugar Man

d. Malik Bendjelloul, 2012 - Netflix

The "unknown musicians getting their due" is fast developing into a familiar, if not quite yet formulaic, subgenre of documentary.  It's a subgenre that has legs, however, as there's a lot of great music that goes unnoticed.  Today those overlooked gems are a result of the sheer glut of music being released, itself resulting from the ease of access to both recording and distribution resources.  Prior to the "digital age" -- which was only a dozen years back but feels like an eternity ago -- the channels for production and distribution were further out of reach (at the very least, far more costly) to the average hungry troubadour.  Step even further back to the 1960's and 70's, where there wasn't really even any independent distribution system, where the major labels and radio industry controlled what got released and what music was heard, and if you weren't producing hits, you weren't anything.

Such was the case with Sixto Rodriguez, an urban folk singer from Detroit who wowed producers at random live appearances around town in the late-60's and quickly found himself with a recording contract.  Unfortunately, after two widely ignored records failed to gain any domestic traction, Rodriguez disappeared into civilian life, unaware that he had reached infamy in South Africa.  What the distribution model at the time always failed to take into account was bootlegging, and from one or two copies of the records, hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of South Africans found a voice that echoed their disenfranchisement.

This documentary starts in Cape Town, with a music aficionado discussing his unending fascination with this cult figure Rodriguez, who, despite being easily in the top 3 of the all-time favourite/famous recording artists in South Africa, remained an utterly mysterious and unknown figure.  With no press material, no documented interviews, no magazine articles of any importance, Rodriguez's legend grew, as did the myths surrounding his death.  Director Malik Bendjelloul takes us through a journey of discovery, to Detroit to explore the history of this otherwise unknown folk music hero, and how he came to be such a critical figure in South Africa's musical landscape.

If you've heard anything about the Oscar-winning film, or watched the awards ceremony last year, then you've already had the film's great surprise spoiled; the revelation that Rodriguez is still alive in Detroit, living a pauper's life, having lived the life of a local activist while raising his children, working construction and verging on destitution, all while somewhere in South Africa, someone has made millions off the hundreds of thousands of records and CD recordings sold.  It's a twist that, even if spoiled, does not diminish the impact of the story.  Rodriguez seems a quiet, largely solitary man, humble and grateful for the life he's led.  His music is raw and forthright, and he seems to have continued to live the life he sang about 40 years ago.  His producers from long ago were heartbroken by his lack of success in America, and wonder, at least on camera, why he didn't hit the same heights as Dylan.  The simple answer being he clouded nothing in his songs, there was no shielding his message in metaphors.  His music was an exposed nerve that could have easily connected with the social movements of the time, but there was no way, in that era, that music that primal was going to achieve airplay.  But in the context of South Africa, Rodriguez is sandwiched between the Beatles and Rolling Stones as one of the all time greats, and the film's exploration of his overseas infamy, moreover his reaction to it, is what makes it remarkable and rewarding.

It's a beautiful documentary that earned all its hype, and lives up to it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Redemption

2013, Steven Knight (writer, Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) -- download

Redemption (in the US) or perhaps Hummingbird (in England) or perhaps even Crazy Joey (France) is the directorial debut of screenwriter Steven Knight, known for Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. This just seems right to me, as both the movies dealt with an exposure to violence and the place of immigrants in an urban society. That might be smelting the characteristics down too easily, but let me say, all three feel like his movies. And that is a good thing, meaning the directors of the other two felt respectful enough to retain the tone he had written.

This movie, when read off the back of a video box, is your typical Statham vehicle. Joey is an ex-special forces, sorry, Royal Marine who is suffering PTSD from his tour in Afghanistan. He is living on the street, preyed on by thugs. "Don't hurt them!" cries his girlfriend Isabel. Instead Joey takes a terrible beating and while escaping, falls (literally) into the expensive flat of Damon, who is out of country for the season. Joey takes the opportunity, and yes it is an opportunity of theft, to clean himself up living in the flat, wearing Damon's clothes and driving his car. And a cleaner Joey is an employable Joey but still a violent Joey thus he ends up working for chinese gangsters, all the while trying to avenge the murder of Isabel. But Sister Cristina, who tends to the homeless in the area, believes he can ultimately redeem himself, fully.

For the first time, in a very long time, I sat watching a movie utterly undistracted. I cannot say for sure why it sucked me in, but it did. It was as if they took a character that Jason Statham plays so well (I often wonder what Statham would have been like if he carried on with the type of character from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), the violent very skilled warrior with a dark past, and just played out the other aspects of his personality. Oh, the violence is there but what drew me in were his quiet interactions with the nun Cristina, their budding "romance", if you can call it that, but definitely a respect & support that grew between the two. While there is an attempt at redemption, the summer plays itself out for both characters and leaves them more or less who they already were, but with a bit of self-revelation.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Oz the Great and Powerful

2013, Sam Raimi (The Quick & the Dead, Spiderman) -- download

Pretend you don't know anything about movies. Pretend you are one of those people who only downloads blockbusters or, in the day, only rented videos. Perhaps, as one of these people (and yes, you may visualize me as the film snob, tweed jacket and turtle neck) you believe that this movie must be done by the same people as the Alice in Wonderland that came out a few years ago. They are both brightly colored, mostly CGI and filled with fantastical characters that are not even there for the actors to work with. The tie actually lies in the production designer Robert Stromberg. Known in the visual effects world, he recently came over to production design with Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, which is not surprising coming from the world of computer graphics. But it was with each film's director, this man stood out capturing the dark mind of Tim Burton in Alice and really going with Raimi's overly saturated story telling in Oz.

You might also be that guy who never remembers that the wizard of Oz was never really much of a wizard, but more the charlatan behind the curtains. OK, maybe not you but I was that guy. Take away my turtleneck now. Raimi decided to tell the story of the man behind the curtains, from his oafish magic act in Kansas all the way past the tornado to rule the Kingdom of Oz. Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) ends up in Oz (he really should be more impressed they share a name) partly because of his escapades and partly because of a prophecy (we really cannot discount it, can we) where he will defeat the Evil Witch and become ruler. For the people, its about a benevolent leader. For him, its the dragon's hoard of gold. And the cute girls. Apparently, witches are not all / always green and ugly.

And it is with these witches, we get the true main characters. He first meets the adorable (forgive me while i swoon) Theodora (Mila Kunis) when he arrives and she is all about the prophecy, and his role in it, thus immediately falling in love with him. In another movie he would have slept with her, the cad, but in this one he is her first dance. Her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) sees him as a means to and end, prophesied wizard or not. And poor misunderstood Glinda, the brightest of the three and dubbed the Wicked Witch, when really she is just sweet and smart. She makes good use of Oz, despite his failings. And poor little Theodora is just used, used by Oz and used by her sister, to end up transmogrified into the worst that Oz can give, out-evilling the evil Evanora. Poo. And she doesn't even have a chance to be reverted and rescued before Dorothy comes along and douses her with a bucket of water. OK, that is not this movie but it was all I was thinking as I watched poor sweet innocent (if a bit scary) Theodora become a green skinned evil witch. At least Evanora gets her come-uppance, or come-downance with a house on the noggin.

Graig's review is here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Star Trek Into Darkness

2013, JJ Abrams (Mission Impossible 3, Super 8) -- cinema

I have been hoping to watch this movie again, via a *shudder* downloaded cam, before I review it. There are emotions in my watching that I felt I had to address before I wrote anything down. Alas, they are all unwatchable from my standards, so lets just get this on paper. It should be easy -- its a Star Trek movie and I was a very big fan of the first, lense flairs and all. And the back of the brain feeling was that I enjoyed it while watching it, but I noticed that it did not stand up to actually thinking about it. Too many things arose in lunch table conversations that made it sound like I did not like it. But, as I said, let's get that on paper.

The new movie picks up some unknown amount of time after the first, Kirk is still captain of the Enterprise and still pissing people off. And this time he goes one step too far, saving a low tech level planet from destruction by a giant volcano.  Yes, he violates the Prime Directive and knowing Kirk, probably had sex with one of the white skinned primitives to boot. They take away the Enterprise from him but as if on cue, a terrorist attacks the Federation Council (Starfleet Council? Not sure) and Kirk is immediately sent to take down Sherlock, I mean John Harrison I mean KHAN !!! Yes, this movie, despite months of denials, ends up being a loose remake of The Wrath of Khan meets the episode of the original series where they introduce him. Or maybe that happened to another Star Fleet officer -- who knows.

I guess that is what annoyed me so much. I didn't mind at all that they rebooted Khan, but did they (jeez, do I have SPOILER ALERT you?) have to recreate memorable scenes from the original movie? My eyes were rolling so much, I couldn't let go and enjoy the kickass Spock letting his anger free on Khan, after the man slaughters thousands by slamming the dreadnought into San Francisco. Again, I was somewhat sensitive to the mass body account, still absorbing the destruction of the Enterprise for the sake of Kirk's selfish revenge.  This is why I have to see the movie again, to remember what I actually enjoyed about it, like Klingons and twins with tails and any scene with Cumberbatch in it.

3 Short Paragraphs: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

2012, Lorene Scafaria (wrote Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) -- download

"That was a sweet movie, " is something I am prone to say when a movie strikes my sentimental nerve. But to call this movie only a RomCom or ChickFlick is disingenuous. When a movie about the end of the world is actually about how two people meet each other, pigeon holing might be the thing you want to veer away from. But really, it was sweet, something that Steve Carell seems to be typecast in. Ever since The 40 Year Old Virgin, he has established himself as the middle-aged guy that people are supposed to root for.  Where the guy my age, lost in his middle-age actually comes ahead.

Keira Knightley is Penny, Dodge Petersen's neighbour. She is the dotty 20sumthin with a terrible boyfriend and a sleep disorder. On the night Dodge's wife runs away (literally) she has a fight with her boyfriend and ends up sleeping on Dodge's sofa. I should point out that the world is ending around them. This is Deep Impact if the space shuttle had not blown the big comet Wolf up. Civilization is falling apart around them but these two are more concerned with lost loves and the love of family then how it will all end. Both were a little lost in  their lives but find each other. "You were the love of my life, " Dodge whispers to Penny with days left.

I am rather fond of End of the World scenarios, since my days of playing Gamma World and imagining myself as the sole survivor having free pick of the mall bookstore and not having to deal with annoying people, i.e. everyone.  But this is not your average movie that highlights the comet and the ensuing disaster. While we do encounter other people's reaction to the End of the World: riots, orgies, parties where people try drugs they never considered before, baptisms, etc. the movie is rather calm and collected about it if occasionally farcical. What struck me was the quiet, as the two drive the countryside of New Jersey seeing a lot of people at ease with the events. And when it does end, it ends on the quietest and sweetest of moments. The survivalist mutants must come in the sequel.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Silent Hill: Revelation

2012, Michael J. Bassett (Solomon) -- download

A room crowded with decaying medical equipment and skewed, decaying nurses. Sexy nurses, in tight short uniforms like those worn in mockery on Halloween but further marred by a lack of faces. The statuesque creatures have only twisted, distorted fleshy globes above their... low cut fleshy globes.  Strapped to a gurney, Kit Harrington (yes, Jon Snow) struggles in silence. For if he makes a sound, the contorted nurse creatures will attack. And thus Sharon/Heather has to free him with as little sound as possible. All whispered demands, all cutting of leather straps, all grunting in pain causes the nurses to snap into action, swinging blades and giant cartoon syringes.

This is the kind of scene that again makes up the sequel to the video game movie, Silent Hill. We have elements from the video game(s) mixed with classic horror suspense, the kind that provides false tension as we know both characters have to survive a certain amount of time before their clocks run out. They are more compelling for their set design and decently done practical special effects. The nurses, just begging to be reproduced by booth bunnies at a horror con, are creepy, sexily well done as is the rest of the Silent Hill world, that other dimension created in response to the town founders' evil acts. But plots are tenuous and distracting in the this movie, and thus easily dispensed with.

If anything, these movies are ones where Sean Bean is a survivor. The first has him chasing his wife into the town as she becomes trapped in the Otherworld while trying to deciper her (adopted) daughter's trauma. In this movie, he has been running from his daughter's legacy while hiding all circumstances around her mother's disappearance. Again, he ends up chasing his loved one into the mists but (oddly) lives again, to perhaps be the protagonist of the next movie? Now that Sharon has absorbed her other half, the extracted nasty essence of the burned witch child Alessa, I am not sure what is keeping the dark Otherworld burning but it must be, for what would Bean be staying behind in?

Friday, July 5, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: The Numbers Station

2013, Kasper Barfoed -- download

In the days when I worked video stores, pre-DVD, families would come in and rent (many!) straight-to-video movies that starred recognizable faces but lacked full Hollywood backing. This is different from the onset of indie films where directors, writers and actors made a movie with a lot of heart, if not a lot of money. The straight to video showed in its die-hard mediocre state, a laziness in the writing and acting and that only smacked of familiarity and not true interest. But I have to say, that is pretty much all these families wanted to see. But my point is, where does this market lie now? On Demand? Download services? As a man who only sees movies in the cinema or via... other methods, I don't know where  the audience for substandard movies (non-cult, non-genre) comes from.

The Numbers Station is one such movie. You will know John Cusack, not only his name and face but his role. This is a role where the producers went to Cusack, asking him to play his character from Grosse Point Break (really, 1997 ?!?) but, "more darker, more tired."  You can see it in the way he scrapes the gun barrel across the floor, in the way he sighs and runs his hands through his thinning hair (like me, his hair line is high but not really receding much) and does such a good job as the assassin who has run his course. He works along side Malin Ackerman who I want to say actually brings something to the role, for in the few minutes before she is crying and scared, and is doing a decent job of playing the thoughtful post-college kid who thinks she is doing something useful for her government. But here we have the two, wrapped in something boring and whose entire plot could have been played out in one of my post card stories.

Numbers stations? You must have heard of them? They are one of those conspiracy theory pieces of life that do not have a good explanation but are real. In fact, when I was a kid playing with a ham radio, I heard a distant voice playing out the numbers. I assumed it was something weather or forestry related. But these numbers echo over the airwaves randomly, heard by few but picked up by the occasional X-Files or Fringe writer. In this fiction, they represent some tired instructions to government hitmen, a very lame reason for all the technology, cloak and dagger show in the movie. I think a dead drop of a thumb drive saying, "Kill this guy," would have sufficed. But "cool idea" plus two low rent actors equals straight to something movie!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Django Unchained

2012, QuentinTarantino (seriously?) -- download

That Tarantino has not yet done a spaghetti western is an odd statement. Go ahead, search through IMDB; you won't find one. Tarantino is the re-imaginer of period genre pieces, no not the current use of genre in reference to horror, scifi or fantasy, but those flicks where you can say you saw a gangster movie, a war movie or a kung-fu movie. These staples of saturday afternoon cinemas or late night TV are his bread & butter. That he did not do my favourite of the ilk is astounding.  So, here we go, Tarantino does a civil war era revenge western with Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson.  Oh, let's not forget Kerry Washington whom I believe is one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood at the moment, though, as I am wont to say, she could have eaten a few more sandwiches.

Jamie Foxx is Django (silent D) but, to me, this movie was all about Waltz as Dr. King Schulz. Sure, it's Foxx's vehicle and namesake but really, its all about the dialogue coming forth from the educated dentist now bounty hunter. This is a man of very defined, very not North American values. He completely understands where slavery fits into the economics and culture of the America he is visiting. But he doesn't care and will not have any of it. So, he buys him, frees him and takes Django under his wing, teaches him all about hunting men and promises to help Django get back his wife Broomhilda.

I cannot overlook the supporting roles of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. DiCaprio is Candie, the oh so friendly and likable plantation owner obsessed with bare-fisted fighting and the psychology of the black man, or as his shallow intellectual mind sees it. Jackson is his aged man servant, Stephen, and the real power behind Candieland. Candie is just someone you expect to fail while Stephen is someone you desperately want to just fucking die. He is evil, downright nasty, holding onto his place of power in a world where it won't really let him have any. That he can shift between the mewling old slave into the brandy appreciating miscreant is a sly grin. Jackson is perfect.  It is through them that the ultra-violence, one of the signatures of a Tarantino movie, is ignited. Candie lights the fuse under Django but Stephen is the dynamite, quite literally and he goes out with a bang.  Rim shot.

Kent's more indept review.  Poster by Mike Butkus.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Web2Movie: BSG & Halo 4

I have an odd relationship with webisodes. I appreciate them as a medium but have not really explored them as a viable outlet. I may have been tainted by some early attempts at web TV when people were producing low(er) budget specfic TV in short bursts in the early 2000s. These pioneers were seeing what you could do with a small budget, limited locale supported by a lot of CGI and PC generated backgrounds. But the plots were scant and oh so focused on introspection. They did do one thing though --- set the precedent of micro-length episodes, usually less than 10 minutes.

As supporting material, perhaps additional content for an existing show, they worked, but for new stories they were less successful. How do you keep an ongoing narrative alive if it keeps on pausing every 10 minutes... and waiting a week? And then there was the required shooting style, assuming that people will most often watch on small screens, from PC monitors to laptop screens all the way down to mobile devices. The change of focus was both the interesting choice and the detractor.  Early attempts were distracting at best?

The smaller format must influence a director or perhaps I should say should ? We can only see so much on a smaller screen, and much in the way TV is done differently than cinema, I hope a different tactic is chosen. So far, other than in those early weak attempts where the episodes were dominated by closeups of faces and very clean, empty wide shots, I have not seen it exhibited. Perhaps widescreen TVs as portals for web content has become ubiquitous? I doubt such. As we have seen, wide release (promoted) webisodes are shot like TV if perhaps with a bit more CGI but since a lot of specfic TV already makes use of that, we cannot tell much of a difference.

So, to followup Battlestar Galactica, the re-envisioned series that ended a few years ago, we got Blood & Chrome.  Technically we got Caprica as the followup but that was a straight-up TV series, where we are told the origin story of the cylons themselves, from advanced service robot to self-aware sentient.  We are also introduced to a young Bill Adama and his connection with events. In Blood & Chrome we are given the Cylon War and Adama is brought back as the cocky viper pilot, again caught up in more than he should.

The first thing I noticed is the high quality of the CGI and backgrounds, but given the backing behind this series and the already available source material, its not that surprising. Again there is a wide variety of familiar Canadian actors including my favourite stand-by, Ty Olsson, which is amusing unto itself considering he had a recurring role as a different character on the main series. But there is weight here, a momentum that carries the short choppy episodes forward.  Skilled people do help things.

The story is one long establishing scene for the milieu that is BSG, answering questions such as what was the first war like? What did the first Cylon centurions look like in the re-imagined world?  What made Adama so famous before he even became a battlestar commander? As well, we get the fan service of seeing old style vipers and raiders in the new CGI supported combat. Its all a nice re-visit to a familiar world. And, as expected, we get a few more blanks filled in about how the Cylons went from awakened robots to the humanoid bodies that like to seduce men.  Its a decent story, gritty and compelling but really just a nod and a wink for fans.

Speaking of nodding & winking, that is all that Forward Unto Dawn is. As the milieu that establishes the Halo world is almost entirely focused on Master Chief, any expansion of the story has to be separated from him but eventually connected. So, instead of his back story or anything that could be milked officially in the actual games, we get a predecessor to the whole Covenant war.  Please note, forgive me any inaccuracies because, while I have played most of the games I am not all that steeped in the world that is Master Chief's. This one is set just before the true war begins, on a training planet, a place where cadets are being taught to fight in a war against a rebellious group of human insurrectionists.  There are no aliens in their world... yet.

This is also from the production valued people that did the above, the group of specfic actors and production people in Vancouver that produce so much of the "Canadian style" of speculative fiction TV. In fact, Ty Olsson is back in a cameo as the older version of our main character Lasky. Lasky is the odd duck among a squad of capable cadets, he brings them down with his attitude and refusal to follow standard orders, believing in his own capability more than his learning. He is mostly wrong but events teach him. The story carries the cadets through training and personal interaction until the planet is attacked by Covenant forces. Its a bit Starship Troopers and a bit Ender's Game.

The story really shines in its production values, using well design sets, interiors and makes use of the familiar forests of BC. But it really gets to be enjoyable when the invasion happens, changing from annoying CW squabbling teenagers to a true life and death situation. There is one scene, where something important is destroyed and the dead fall, that is utterly chilling and really cements that what is happening to the cadets is real.  Then Master Chief shows up and saves the remaining cadets.

There is no spin off show here, no attempt to bring Halo to the small screen. This is a small story set somewhere between a proper TV series and a stand alone web series. It works as a small budget movie and really only would appeal to someone with a passing knowledge of the game. The nod & wink is required. Still, it did lay the ground work for actually exploring the universe of Halo in a proper series. It established it could be done even if the cinema released film died in its infancy.