Monday, September 30, 2013

What I Am Watching... Summer '13

Fringe Season 4 - Revisiting Fringe from the beginning has proven an exceptionally rewarding experience, particularly in seeing how the first season really set up everything else that was to come. While they didn't quite stick the landing, the build up to the final season makes for pretty incredible watching.  Fringe did a lot of things well, but it's their character and relationship building, destruction, and rebuilding that centers the show.  By the end of the third season, Peter and Walter had reconciled and secured their father-son bond, while Peter and Olivia managed to overcome the Fauxlivia scandal and connect as lovers only to conclude the season with Peter blinking from existence and restructuring the show's entire timeline.  It made for fascinating viewing the first time around, but I'm finding the second time around to be a little frustrating, since three years of the show stories are made somewhat irrelevant, at least for a little while, and the just established status quo is so frustratingly obliterated.

The first few eps of the season find Olivia, Walter and Astrid as the Fringe division team under Broyles, with Earth 1 Lincoln Lee brought into the fray.  Walter is afraid of society without Peter to ease him back into it in this timeline, Olivia being his guardian, and Nina Sharpe has somehow become Olivia's foster mother.  It shows a "what-if" aspect to the show, but, as I did the first time around, Peter's absence from the first few episodes is all too palpable.  Equally the minimal use of Earth 2 remains supremely disappointing.  Earth 2 was a fascinating place and if season 4 fails it's in not utilizing it enough after making it so integral in season 3.  When Peter does finally come back, though, the show starts crackling with great energy and tension again, as Walter refuses to acknowledge him, and Peter is all too aware that this Olivia is not the one he loved (not falling into that trap again).  How they reconnect the time-lost lovers, though is brilliant.  Season 4 also carries the Observers masterplan forward a little more consistently than season 3 did.

Season 3 was easily the show's apex, but season four is quite solid, if perhaps a five episodes overlong.

Young Justice Season 1&2 - In Canada we tend to miss a lot of great cartoons since we don't get the Cartoon Network up here.  If we're lucky our Canadian cartoon station, Teletoon, will pick up the domestic license, or perhaps YTV.  But even if they do, unless they're really, really popular, they get run once, never to be seen again.  Young Justice ran on Teletoon on Friday nights at 7ish, but as it wasn't appropriate for a 3 year old, we never watched it.  I honestly didn't think I was missing much.

When it was cancelled earlier this year there was quite the stink in the comics community because, apparently, people thought it was pretty awesome, and it ended on a bit of a cliffhanger introducing Darkseid as the big bad of the series (erm, spoiler I didn't hurt my viewing of the show one bit).  We picked up the DVDs to see what the stink was about and within three or four episodes, my wife, my stepson and I were completely invested.

DC Comics are built for cartoons: brightly colored, highly visual characters, wildly impossible powers, completely unbelievable scenarios, big concept action.  There have been a lot of great DC-derived cartoons: Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, Batman: Brave and the Bold, and honestly, I think Young Justice is the best of them.  Young Justice has everything I've always want out of a superhero cartoon, which is that it acknowledges a history and a larger superhero universe.  It doesn't confine itself to its team of heroes, it has mentors and elders and young allies, and piles and piles of villains to contend with.

Still quite unique to American animation, Young Justice runs with a tight continuity featuring an ongoing major arc that serves as a throughline throughout the series, as well as continuing character arcs which sees not just the major character growing, but a lot of the minor ones advancing as well.  Season 2, even when you're prepared for it, is a bit of a shock, as it jumps forward five years into the future, advancing the central characters from the first season dramatically, and introducing a whole new cast, most of which we don't get to know quite as well.  But season two ups the hero ante immensely, and it's glorious how many costumes and capes we get to see.

Aqualad is easily the breakout character from the show, with an insanely cool and visually impressive power, a distinct personality - the product of a foreign culture, and where he winds up in season 2 is bewildering at first.  The character designs, by Jerome K Moore and Dusty Abell, both veterans of the 90's comic scene (and personally, much missed) are sleek and modern, but also don't stray too far from the classic look and feel of the characters.

It's an amazing series, by the fourth or fifth episode I was already angry knowing that it was cancelled (apparently because the toys weren't selling well), having hit its stride very early.  By the end I was even more upset, it's 2 season run not nearly enough to satisfy my excitement and enthusiasm for the characters, their journey, and the epic storyline they didn't get to finish.  We can only hope for a comic book or direct-to-video movie finish.

Axe Cop - I don't know why I didn't think Axe Cop would work as a TV show, but I was wrong.  The idea of a 5-year-old "writing" a comic strip/book and his professional cartoonist older brother translating his script into something not only readable, but genuinely charming, frequently hilarious, and thoroughly entertaining was a winning idea.  Moving that all into a cartoon setting, I don't know, I guess I just thought it would be too surreal. But the creators of the Axe Cop cartoon weren't looking to temper the whims of a young mind into something a general audience would want to watch, instead they looked to the Adult Swim model of 12-minute episodes and embracing the utter absurdity of it all akin to Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job.

Audiences these days, after a steady diet of Spongebob in their youth are ready and prepared for absurdity, and Axe Cop satisfies any craving immensely.  With brilliant casting, the show crackles with the comedic energy of its voice talent. Nick Offerman as the titular character is the perfect choice for a nearly-psychopathic seemingly omnipowerful individual.  Offerman's reserved delivery plays into the mental instability of the character (which is completely the result of trying to rationalize a child's storytelling whims into a coherent continuity), but also his dominant alpha male nature and his absolute egocentricity.  The core cast is rounded out with great comedic actors Rob Huebel, Ken Marino and Patton Oswalt.  A short six-episode test run on Saturday nights this past summer made for perfect 11pm stuck-at-home-on-a-Saturday-night viewing  (as part of Fox's Adult Swim-inspired Animation Domination block.  The block's follow-up show, High School USA  employed a wonderful Archie Comics-inspired animation style, but leaned too heavily on supposed taboo topics as a humour mine, resulting in painfully unfunny material.  If you want a great animated high school cartoon, look back to Clone High).  Axe Cop, is proving great in every medium so far, (web comic, traditional comic, card game, animation), a video game would be incredible, and a film (with Offerman in the lead role and directed by Tim and Eric) would be mind blowing...

Pushing Daisies - Years ago, when it first debuted, I watched the first two episodes of Pushing Daisies and thoroughly enjoyed them, but for some reason never went back to them, though with every intention to return, some day.  Both episodes were directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Addams Family, Men In Black, the Tick) and established a rich visual aesthetic to the show, filled with vibrant, primary colours that are contrasted with elaborate fabric patterns or cleverly constructed (if often impractical) sets.  It's about as close to the 60's Batman style as any show has ever come, without intentionally trying.  There's definitely an outmoded sense of whimsy to the overall structure that hasn't really been employed with any regularity since the 1940's, and it's extremely rare to see shows or movies with continual third-party narration.

Daisies is the product of death-obsessed showrunner Brian Fuller (see also Dead Like Me, Hannibal), here employing the filter of whimsy and humour to the concepts of mortality and murder, but also overlaying themes of family, friendship and romance.  It is, in actuality, a romantic comedy with just a hint of supernatural elements and and surreality.  Lee Pace is perfectly cast as Ned, the pie maker, who has the ability to bring the dead back to life with a touch, and take it back with another, but if they live for more than a minute, someone else in the vicinity will die instead.  Ned's carried the secret since childhood with only his dog knowing, until Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) a private eye, accidentally witnesses a resurrection.  Cod blackmails Ned into helping him solve crimes, which adds a detective narrative to every episode.  The first episode finds Cod and Ned investigating the death of Charlotte Charles (Anna Friel), who turns out to be Ned's long-lost childhood sweetheart.  Ned can't bring himself to de-resurrect Chuck, as the emotional connection and now romantic sparks fly immediately and intensely.  But how can people be lovers when they can't touch?  The final facet of the show is Ned's employee, Olive Snook (Kristen Chenowith) who has long held a crush on Ned, just to add a romantic triangle to the mix.

The show revolves around it's of-the-week case that Emerson draws Ned into and Chuck, with nowhere else to go, tags along.  It carries the continual narrative of Ned and Chuck's complicated romance, Olive's wariness of the new girl, and Emerson's exasperation.  Olive and Chuck's childhoods, both their shared history and individual development, play an integral role in their adult lives and the formation of their somewhat unusual characters.  I was worried after rewatching the first two episodes that I would find the intentionally sweet and off-beat nature of the show to wear thin quickly, but the counterbalance of morbid humour keeps it in check.  We blasted through season one rather quickly, but a lot of distractions hit in the past little while to keep us from getting through season two as swiftly.  But the season 1 closing reveal has so far provided a lot of ammunition to keep season 2 interesting.  It's a unique show that perhaps could have enjoyed a longer life, but equally I think got a life just long enough.  Rumours have circulated about a Pushing Daisies movie this year if it could get funded via Kickstarted (but then every cult show has had the same rumour since Veronica Mars pulled it off).  It'd be nice (especially Brian Fuller's idea of making it a zombie movie), but not getting my hopes up, though I would definitely put money into it.

Low Winter Sun - We got two or three episodes into this AMC translation of the British mini-series about a police detective who is manipulated into murdering a fellow detective, and then quickly learns of his manipulation and must contend with a corrupt police department, a brewing drug war, and internal affairs investigating his victim's murder.  It should be a more compelling watch than it actually turns out to be.  Mark Strong reprises his role from the British series and is incredible to watch, so obviously comfortable in the role, but as much can't be said for the rest of the cast.  Lennie James as the manipulating detective being investigated by IA is solid in the role, but his character is tossed into certain scenes without clear motivation (or any understanding of the stakes) making for some less than engrossing viewing.  The B-plot of the series involves a group of small time drug dealers making a push for their own slice of the city, but the actors involved in the role aren't up to Strong's scene commanding caliber, their characters are generally unappealing, and their storyline seems unimportant and unnecessary.  They try to dovetail the two lines together early, but it feels awkward.

The use of Detroit is perhaps its best feature, with the set decoration of the police precinct about as grimy as I've ever seen.  The technology the cops are working with is antequainted, the plaster is falling off the walls, the paint is peeling, the desks are beaten... it's obvious that there's no money being invested, moreover there's no money to invest.  The city looks like it's falling apart at the seams, neighbourhoods are abandoned where wild dogs have taken roost, the show's producer are keenly aware of their surroundings and the part they can play.

There are some great elements to Low Winter Sun, but they're overshadowed an overwhelming amount of tediousness, and nothing really propelling the show forward other than will Strong's otherwise respectable cop get away with murder, and whether he really wants to.

Friday, September 27, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Despicable Me 2

2013, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud (Despicable Me) -- cinema

OK, this is a sequel to a movie I rather enjoyed. But I will be the first to admit that there is no reason to have a sequel beyond enjoying more minions. And, seriously, those minions could have an entire movie... actually, no they couldn't. And that is the problem with most sequels, in that they take so many enjoyable things about the first movie and just run hog wild with them, but at a lacking of depth on the rest of the movie. If the first was about a cartoon villain flipping his personality and adopting three cute orphan girls then at least this follows a logical progression in seeing how the bad guy now adjusts to living as a single dad, no longer super villain. And, add in more minion scenes.

It is not a bad movie, just a not particularly great one. And that is all I can really muster up to think about it. So, let's see what real critics had to say and react to it. Pete Travers from Rolling Stone just seems to be happy he has another DVD coming to sedate his kids with. Bruce Diones from New Yorker was charmed by the one-liners and visual gags. Even Stephanie Merry from Washington Post starts off by mentioning the minions are back. But almost everyone does a lackadaisical retread of the plot without offering much opinion. I think all these family folks are just with Travers on the whole DVD thing.

As for the minions, they do win. "Bo-tay-TOE" is another nonsense word added to my long vocabulary of nonsense. And who wouldn't want a multitude of 3 foot yellow ... creatures to do your every bidding? I am not sure what they were made of, or made from, but they are pliable and adaptable, taking to the situation as needed. They can be baby sitters, housekeepers, entertainment and taste testers. This time they are tampered with and go all Hulk (there was a purple Hulk in some version, right?) and Gru has to rescue them. He's no longer a villain so they are not disposable minions like the rest of the super villain world uses.  Yay family man Gru! Yay entrepreneur Gru! I wonder if the minions have a benefit plan? And yes, I have a soft spot for Dave but Carl is cool too.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: The Wolverine

2013, James Mangold (Kate & Leopold, Cop Land, 3:10 to Yuma) -- cinema

I am more upset by this movie's loose (non-existent) adaptation of the source material than I was with World War Z. At least I got a differently styled zombie movie out of the mix, and separated enough that I see the two as completely distinct entities. But this movie lifts all the basic elements from the comic book mini-series and manufactures an entirely different story around them. And not a particularly compelling one neither. This is not a bad superhero movie, but considering its source, it could have been so so so much more. Instead, it feels retread and long and not engaging at all.

In the 80s comic series, by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, Wolverine travels to Japan to find out why Mariko, his true love, is cutting ties with him. He finds her engaged to another man, via a powerplay by her father, a power leader of the Yakuza. Wolverine is forced to fight him, seemingly losing his honour in inglorious combat, but later regaining both his honour and the hand of Mariko in marriage. It is a grim, dark story full of Miller's shadows, ninjas and samurai. Wolverine was transformed from a raging mutant of earlier stories into a troubled ronin, seeking to control his beast within. It was a story that changed how I saw superhero comics.

As they are resurrecting the X-Men movies, this one revisits Wolvie's desire to lose his powers and has him still moaning his killing of Phoenix. But that is quickly dispensed with when he meets the frail flower (but oh so lovely) Mariko. Oh, the line from Up was never more apparent than here. I am sure I am not the only one who felt Logan would have been better suited with the wonderfully choreographed warrior Yukio, which was an element of the original story so I have to give them that credit. In an annoyingly PG romp (seriously, how could he not have made hamburger of people in those fights?!?!) he protects Mariko from assassins, falls in love with her, climbs a tower only to fall back down through its levels in a big battle against a giant samurai robot... there is a trope in there somewhere, isn't there? My only suggestion is to give Yukio her own movie.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Hell Is For Heroes

1962, Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, The Shootist) -- Netflix

Part of my movie enjoyment experience is a pondering of origins of cliches & tropes. We all know the grizzled, rebellious hero in action or war movies. These characters stand sullenly aside while others listen to orders, they buck authority and always come out ahead. They take chances, they do what is not expected and succeed where others would have failed. Often, they have a bleak outlook on things, don't really want to be there but are more capable than their reputation lets on. They are sort of an anti-hero.

In my mind's eye, I see Steve McQueen known for playing those sorts of characters. I have read he was sort of that way in his real, Hollywood life. But I also assumed that this trope emerged in later pop culture, more around the broken heroes of Vietnam or Korean war movies. I was curious to see how a WWII movie from the 60s would handle the character. It actually turns away from the current version of the character, eventually showing little respect for this type of hero. Or, more likely, showing how this kind of character is just plain dangerous.

Steve's character is a soldier with a bad rep assigned to a new squad. He holds back from his squad mates, drunken and sullen. In their first assignment, they are stuck in rough spot, with little ammunition and no reinforcements. McQueen's Reese wants them to attempt a dangerous attack on a pillbox, despite all odds being against them. With a reputation as a skilled warrior and a massive amount of self-confidence, he convinces them to join him on the attack. And it fails. He gets almost his entire squad killed. Then the rest of the company does show up and complete the attack via proper organization, following orders and overwhelming forces. Reese's final act is self-sacrifice. I saw it more out of shame than anything. So, in the end, the trope I was seeking to see an early example of, was tossed on its head.

3 Short Paragraphs: The Expendables (1 & 2)

2012, Simon West (Tomb Raider, Con Air) -- download

What? I never reviewed my watching of Expendables 1 ?? How did I get away with that? Did I actually download it in early 2011, before this blog was born? Either way, let's roll both into these short paragraphs of outrage. As I have said before, writing about a horrible, bad, stinky, terrible movie is always easier than writing about why you liked a good movie.

These movies are about an ensemble team of aging mercenaries. And that is about it. There are loose (extremely, kind of, maybe) plots about jobs they are sent on. The team is made up of older action stars from other movies. I did ten minutes of research hoping to find a legacy of a writer & director coming up with the witty idea of jamming them altogether into a movie. But it just seems to be a script pulled down off the shelf and handed to Stallone. I think it all happened in those mythical Hollywood cafe patio conversations that I so often imagine movies beginning. The concept is gold -- gather the familiar faces from two decades of action movies, along with their tropes and cliches, and have them shoot the screen up. The concept is gold. The movie is not.

I am actually not sure if it wasn't intentional. To the 12 year old, most action movies are brilliant, well scripted and the ham-fisted lines are memorable. But to the adult, they are tired and oh-so bad. These movies want to be like Pacific Rim was for Graig and I, a wash of gleeful nostalgia of good guys fighting bad guys. Unfortunately, they are just bad. Bad bad bad. The story is forgettable (already forgot what the first one was), the dialogue had me asking, "Why did they say that? SERIOUSLY, WHY WAS THAT A LINE ?!?" and the action is non-sensical (boom boom SPLOOTCH boom). They don't even have memorable villains. And the tropes and cliches are laughable, not laugh ironically with it, but laugh at how stupid it was to shoehorn in the line or scene. These are straight to stealitfromtheinternet moves with bigger budgets than they deserve, all used up to hire the actors.

Graig had a similar high opinion here.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Byzantium

2013, Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Michael Collins) -- download

I had completely forgotten that Jordan directed Interview With the Vampire. Yes, the man who brought the arguably greatest vampire story since Dracula (arguably !! ARGUABLY !!) to the screen has returned with a much smaller, original story about a mother & daughter pair of vampires. This is not for the Twilight crowd, but perhaps for the fans who have grown since the books became movies? If the Lestat novels were often considered as a trashy stepping stone into better genre fiction, I can see how Twilight could be an introduction into darker and more considered vampire stories, especially when done by a seasoned and skilled movie director.

This is another original take on the vampire, with a more European sensibility, which is appropriate considering the origins of the myth itself. Sure, we may attribute the stereotypical vampire as euro-trash, but the teen resurrection of the genre has replaced that with mopey boys full of hair product. Personally, I blame Angel despite my love for the character. Here, the vampires are born of a pact with a dark spirit, ageless creatures that do need to live on blood but it dispenses with all the other trappings. These are thoughtful creatures held down by their great age and unseemly desires. They keep to small numbers and it is this plot point that the movie hinges around.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are mother and daughter, Eleanor having been "turned" in her teen years, years after her mother had done the same. They are on the run from the male of their kind, a mysterious sect that rarely chose women and considered Clara's choice of her own daughter as a great crime. They move from place to place, Clara ever playing the part of her youth, a prostitute and grifter. Eleanor is ever the teen daughter, being cared for by her mother. After an unfortunate encounter with the male vampires, they end up back in the place where Eleanor was born, which dredges up old memories and forces her to face her own existence. I liked that Ronan chose this role, as her connection to the teen vampire fiction club, instead of a overly melodramatic, angsty story that she could have easily been pegged into.

The Last of Us and Max Payne 3

The main characters of the last two video games I finished playing, as opposed to those I continue to play (Minecraft, Skyrim, Torchlight II), are grizzled, worn men over the age of 50. Perhaps it is something I need to connect with as I approach that age (but already have the worn, grizzled down pat) and cannot do the Mary Sue characters in their 20s anymore. Are there actually any main characters, other than in J-RPGs, in their 20s these days? Nathan Drake is in his 30s, Master Chief is ageless, the men of GTA are over 30, sometimes reaching 40. The soldiers of the numerous military FPS games are probably the closest, often being your late 20s enlisted man. Either way, its nice to feel something in common with the less than spectacular leading men, however that may come across.

The Last of Us is, at heart (or more, in gut), a zombie game. The cordyceps fungus, which we know from internet articles about it (i originally typed them; how personified) invading ant brains and driving the bug to attach itself to a plant, in a spot for optimal spore production. It was also featured in the giant fungus brain episode of season 4 Fringe. In the game, the fungus jumps to human brains creating raving violent monsters, and eventually worse.

But really at heart, the game is a moving piece of interactive fiction about motivation, devotion, love, and how far we will go to protect those dear to us.

The game begins, through mostly cinematics, with a contemporary zombie outbreak story. In the chaos there is tragedy, moving tragedy that actually had me shed a tear. Then, suddenly, it is twenty years later in the post-apocalyptic quarantine zone of Boston. Our main character Joel, with his partner Tess, are ruthless smugglers. They have survived by doing whatever it takes. They are forced to take on the delivery of 14 year old Ellie, to a group of anti-government terrorists known as The Fireflies. Joel is not happy. But they have a job to do and we have a game to play. They lose Tess. Now Joel must deliver the girl on his own. He feels beholden to Tess's last wish.

Your average video game "hero" kills hundreds, if not thousands, of mooks in a game. This game attempts to deal with the toll this takes on Joel and eventually Ellie. He lives in a world where he has learned to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to accomplish his goal. Is everyone he kills a true, out'n'out Bad Guy? Probably not. Some are hungry, some are scared and some are doing whatever it takes for them to survive. But we are on the side of Joel and Ellie and we accept what is being done. Tentatively.

In parallel to the humans Joel kills, are the infected, the zombies. The fungus infected begin as a common fast-zombie, not dead but hosting the spores, maddened and mindless. As the spore grows, months and years, the infected change. For example, the blind Clicker "sees" through sonar-like clicks. The fungus has eaten most of the brain, bursting out of the forehead, looking like some sort of horrible starfish. They are tough, very tough, and you have to learn to ignore the gut wrenching feeling you get from the sound of their clicks, and figure out how to kill them. Joel doesn't feel sorry for killing the infected, even less than the humans in his way.  But Ellie, ever the conscience of the duo, wonders if there are people still inside the monsters.

In the quiet times between combat scenes, we get snippets of conversation between Ellie and Joel, learning more about the two, Joel coming out of his sullen shell and allowing himself to care for Ellie. We also get beautiful shots of the post-apocalyptic world they travel.  This is a world bereft of mankind for twenty years, overgrown and greener. Of course, it is mostly falling apart, but it carries a strange beauty with it, as any urban explorer wandering ruins knows. I really appreciate a game that takes art direction into account.

But the game truly wins because it took story and character to the forefront.  This is about these two characters, how they develop a relationship (father, daughter, you perv) and survive in an incredibly harsh world. We get to care for the two, seeing them grow to care for each other. The story direction is all about the choices they make, why they make them and the impact they have on each other. The bigger picture, the survival of the human race, is overshadowed by a deep caring between two people. It at times heartbreaking, at other times chilling. It was a game, like a really good book always is, that made me sad to end the story.

In a mirror darkly, I then played Max Payne 3. The Max Payne series came out right around the days of the Matrix movies. This gives the game's first gimmick,  "bullet time" to the gameplay. The second was an affection for graphic novels, with painted panels serving as cut-scenes. Over everything was a noir cop story about a down-and-out DEA agent addicted to booze and painkillers, completely controlled by the grief of losing his wife & daughter. It is a revenge story.

Two games later, Max is in his 50s, still a drunk, but washed out of any law enforcement, forced to take up body-guarding to make ends meet. The family he is protecting is a wealthy Brazilian powerhouse of politics and old money. Max is out of his element around these rich, pompous coked-out types so, of course, things have to go bad.

Again, this is noir. They have dispensed with the graphic novel elements and the bullet time is there, but less stylistic and more just a Hong Kong action movie choreography choice, than anything. But the story is all Max Payne, everything dark and convoluted, mixed up and extremely (!!!) violent.

This is not a deep game. But it does have some introspection, I appreciated. Max is very aware that he is a puppet, a killing machine working for an agenda he doesn't understand. There is some nudge nudge wink wink about the guy holding the controller, but more it is about Max being the effective killing machine. He isn't protecting anyone, he isn't seeking vengeance for a loved one, he is just doing dirty work for someone else. But what else can he do but follow the script presented to him? Life (and death) can sometime just drag you along with it, your input counting for very little.

The gameplay, which I suspect was a development test for GTA V, is straight forward and methodical. Some areas are incredibly challenging forcing us to take chances we probably shouldn't, but most is ... well, relentless, as Max sees his life. It was fun in a mindless way, as many games are.

Sometimes you desperately want a well thought out game, with story and character and lovely art direction. Other times you just want to shoot things. There is something to be said about that, but I am not sure what it is. I will leave that up to my (imaginary) therapist.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pacific Rim

2013, Guillermo Del Toro

Unlike David's review which was supposed to be 3 Short Paragraphs only went way long, I intend to write more but I feel like I'm not going to get far beyond 3 short paragraphs.  At this stage I've told so many people that I loved it, I've faced so many people who have exceeded my love for it, and I've challenged so many of those people who don't share my enthusiasm for it that I'm kind of exhausted talking about it.  What I really want to do is watch it again.  And again.  And again.  This is a film made for men of a certain age, by a man of a certain age.  This is a movie designed to hit said men right in the sweet spot that sends them spiraling back to their childhood, a time-traveling punch that warps them (okay, us) back to the first time they watched Ghostbusters or Back To The Future or Raiders of the Lost Arc or Star Wars or any other seminal work in the sci-fi blockbuster genre.

Guillermo Del Toro has made an exceptionally deliberate film, from his casting choices to the rah-rah bravura speeches to the leaps in logic and the comic relief.  He's presenting some very familiar slabs of nostalgia by way of screenwriting and filmmaking tropes, but on a very different, very impressive platter.  He starts with the basic concept of Japanese kaiju (literally translated to "strange creature" but commonly known as "giant monster"), films like Godzilla, Gamera and Mothra provide inspiration, but there's been less than a handful of truly excellent representations in the subgenre in all of cinema (Bong Joon-Ho's The Host the only one of recent memory, Cloverfield coming in a very distant, nauseating, shaky-cam second), so there's a lot of room for it to grow.  Secondly, Del Toro wanted to show a human side to fighting giant monsters by way of another Japanese pop-culture trope, the giant mech, or human-operated-megarobot (called Jaegers in the film).  Beyond this he weaves in about a decade's worth of faux history to the human/kaiju battle, which, unlike most monster movies where the creatures are treated as "forces of nature", paint them as a deliberate enemy, one capable of getting smarter.

The human face of the film is its weak spot, which is to be expected, but in this case it's primarily because the visual effects are so overwhelming and the battle sequences so anticipated that the human angle seems disposable entirely.  But to Del Toro, and screenwriter Travis Beacham's credit, they actually have complex characters in this film alongside a purposeful swath of the kind of stock archetypes you usually expect from these sorts of movies.  But also, it's perhaps a little hard to buy into the challenges of a man having to overcome the hurdle of losing his brother or a woman having to challenge the man who raised her when the fate of the world is at stake.  Either it's time to step up or check out with everyone else.

Though I loathe to admit it, I saw and genuinely liked this film in 3-D (IMAX please).  Del Toro and company made exceptional use of the depth of 3-D particularly in the hanger sequences where you really get a sense of both the size of the place and the Jaeger's within it in perspective with real people.  The opening history lesson, however, didn't work well in 3 dimensions as it was difficult to shift one's focus rapidly between foreground and background and mid-ground text and images.  I think as well the monster IMAX screen I watched it on compensated for the usual discomfort of 3-D.  With a screen that huge, it's easier to escape into a picture which the still-annoying 3-D glasses try to drag you into.  I'm almost tempted to go 3-D on Blu-Ray I liked the experience that much but I'm well aware of how different it would be at home.

Pacific Rim is, to me, what a summer blockbuster should be: inventive, engaging, original but also slightly familiar.  It surprises with what it presents that is new, and surprises even more with how it recontextualizes what you think you know.  It starts with presenting a world rather rapidly, and then inhabits it for two hours before successfully bringing it to a rewarding close.  There's no need for a sequel, and there's no built-in intention for one, which far too many blockbusters attempt to seed these days.  The film stands on its own.  If anything, with the quick-moving images at the beginning, this film is ripe for one or two prequels, showing the first incursion of the kaiju and the building of the mechs to challenge them.  It's covered in Pacific Rim, but it could definitely use room to breathe.

The 13-year-old kid in me, though, loves it for what it is.  That 13-year-old remembers what it was like when sequels weren't automatic, when you just appreciated what you got, over and over again.  In fact, forget 3-D blu-ray, give me Pacific Rim on VHS.  Give me the novelization and the comic book adaptation.  Give me a pencil case and a plastic lunchbox with Alpha Cherno on it.  I'm a kid again.  I want to soak in its every detail and know the Jaeger and Kaiju names like the back of my hand.  It may not be the highest accomplishment of cinema, but it's definitely something special.

Monday, September 9, 2013

3 short paragraphs: Bernie

2011, d. Richard Linklater

Set in small-town Carthage Texas, Bernie is the story of Bernie Tiede, an undertaker at the town's mortuary.  He is a kind and giving man, compassionate and empathetic, and exceptionally well-regarded around town.  He seems a man not completely devoid of ego, but certainly unaware of it.  He's selfless to a fault, which is how he winds up being the devoted companion to Marjorie Nugent, the widow of the town's most prominent businessman, and a complete and utter bitch of a woman.  She is universally reviled around town, disliked by her own children, and if she cares at all about how she's perceived she never lets on.  Only Bernie is able to crack through the facade, or so he thinks, until he learns that it's not a facade at all, she's really that mean, bitter, angry and selfish a person.

It would be lazy to say that Jack Black plays against type, because Black has shown this kind of range before.  He's a skilled and thoughtful performer, and typically every move and gesture he makes seem intentional.  Here he inhabits Bernie's reserved, charming persona, speaking gently and sweetly, building layers into the character, most of which remain hidden but definitely there.  He has a very specific physicality and deliverance that he never breaks, the comedy/musician Jack Black is never revealed.  He even sings sweet hymns without a single trace of scatting.  Shirley MacLaine, meanwhile, is thoroughly unlikable as Marjorie, but it's fairly easy to play such a role.  It's the moments where Bernie tries to unveil Marjorie's inner beauty that MacLaine excels, momentarily letting just a hint of softness show in the lines on her face, just to reset and steel themselves again.  Matthew McConaughey gets a plum minor supporting role as the popular town sheriff who decides to take the unpopular opinion and ride Bernie and his inevitable crime hard.  It's just one of the many roles McConaughey has taken in recent years to reset his career, and be seen as something other than the jokey, shirtless, drawling stoner.

Director Linklater seems utterly fascinated with Bernie's story, and his obvious interest is the true draw of the film.  It's a rather slight story that could be presented any number of ways, but Linklater delivers it even handedly.  He's quite obviously charmed by Bernie Tiede and wants the viewer to see that too.  He also doesn't seek to excuse Bernie's crime, or to say that he should go unpunished, but instead present that he was treated unfairly by the law in the severity of his punishment.  Linklater uses a talking heads testimonial device, interviewing actors playing the townsfolk to give their generally favourable opinions of Bernie.  For the most part these talking heads are amazing, to the point where I was wondering if they were actual townsfolk of Carthage (that is until they started appearing in other scenes).  It's a gentle movie, that despite it's darker third act, is still somewhat uplifting.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

1 miserable paragraph: Turbo

2013, David Soren

Turbo is a major studio release with some solid names attached as voice-talent (Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Giamatti, Snoop Dog, Luis Guzman, various SNL alum) but it's strictly a direct-to-video-level effort, painfully so.  Truth is Turbo is a Dreamworks product that wishes it were a Pixar release (with both Kung Fu-Panda and How To Train Your Dragon being premiere-level successes for Dreamworks, I don't know why they're still aspiring to emulate Pixar).  It takes the bugs-eye-view of A Bug's Life, the animal-human interaction of Ratatouille (not to mention the fantasy idol sub-plot), and the never-inspired humdrum of auto racing like Cars, and seems to make no effort to disguise it.  There's the hint of originality in the parallel of older brothers trying to keep their dreamer younger brothers grounded in reality, but one pair are snails (one of which dreams to compete in Formula 1 racing) and the other are taco stand/truck operators (one of which dreams to enter his pet snail in a Formula 1 racing competition).  The ludicrousness is inescapable.  The multi-ethnic cast is admirable, but wasted on, frankly a boring, unfunny, entirely predictable story that will likely entertain only the most inexperienced of movie goers.

3 shrt prgrphs: Horrible Bosses

2011, d. Seth Gordon (King of Kong)

I'm finding so often that the Hollywood system has very little to offer in the way of meaningful comedy these days.  They can assemble all the right parts, but they all too rarely wind up being fairly homogeneous, if not outright disasters.  Comedy is best suited for short bursts -- set-up, build, punchline -- not 90 minutes to 2 hours.  Television is ever doing better with comedy because it's allowing comedy to live and grow unfettered, to have an unedited voice by way of liberated venues like Adult Swim, FX and IFC.  The success of Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Louie, or the creative triumphs of the 15 minute format in Children's Hospital or Eagleheart make the traditional 3-camera laughtrack/studio comedy somewhat embarrassingly puerile.  There are exceptions both on network and on screen, but they are just that, exceptions.

Horrible Bosses, on paper, appears to be a good farce, but the problem it has is it doesn't really know what it wants to be.  Is it trying for the Judd Apatow bent of believable and relatable characters,  is it looking for the outrageousness of the Hangover, or is it looking for the Mike Judge-esque skewering of everyday life?  It's got a solid cast of talented performers with Always Sunny's Charlie Day, SNL's Jason Sudekis, and The Hogan Family's Jason Bateman in the lead and some surprisingly and adeptly outrageous performances from Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Ferrell as the titular bosses, but the performances aren't the problem here.  They're all uniformly solid, great even.  The material just doesn't have enough punch, the predicaments the characters find themselves just never makes the leap to suspension of disbelief.  It's not smart enough to play it naturally and still be funny, and it never pushes it far enough to be farcical.

Director Seth Gordon spent a few years directing comedies for television -- Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family -- so he has definitely had a taste of how comedy is done and done well, but he just cannot elevate a mediocre script.  The comedies that seem to be most successful (if not necessarily commercially so) all seem to be driven by a unified creative team with a singular vision, whether it's Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, or Adam McKay/Will Ferrell, among others.  Having the focus of a writer/star or writer/director is, for the most part, what is making the most memorable comedies these day.  Horrible Bosses isn't terrible, but in a decade it won't be memorable like Anchorman, Tropic Thunder or Bridesmaids will.

3 Short Paragraphs: The Host

2013, Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time) -- download

Stephanie Meyer wrote the Twilight series but she also wrote a book about an alien invasion and, as books directed at the teenage girl market are wont to do, overwhelming love. Having not read either, but at least having The Host, in my Kobo collection (not sure what that says, perhaps just that I do not dismiss the writer outright), I cannot say if it is Meyer leading to the long empty glances or just an element of the Twilight movies that producers have decided has to remain in all further adaptations of her work. But yes, long loving glances, often filling the scenes with great silence. But not weight; no, any weight in the scenes comes from the setting, where the world is depopulated of true humans leaving grand vistas no longer full of people milling about doing nothing. There is something to be said about the great emptinesses this movie portrays. But actually little to say about the love stories.

Aliens invade, not only the planet but also the body. They are ethereal little silver fish that inhabit a body and control it, the human psyche slowly fading from existence, sort of like William Bell inhabiting Olivia Dunham in Fringe. But in some rare instances, and if we take the gist of the movie at face value, the human mind inside the body can be so desirous of surviving (say, in the case of being head over heels in puppy love) that the two live together. Melanie Stryder is that human and she lives in the head of Wanderer, the alien now controlling her body. Wanderer is not a bad "person" per se, perhaps a little tired of "her" long life and questioning the moral validity of being a species that can only exist at the death of another. Loosely veiled comment on being a carnivore? Who knows, who cares -- not the point of the story. The point is that Melanie is so strongly connected to her lover (romantic love) and her brother (familial love) that she can survive to influence Wanderer to do the right thing.

That right thing, which flies in the face of common sense, is to get back to her BF and brother. Why? Not really sure, but it is the mind of a teenage girl. She knows other aliens are after her; Hell, Wanderer knows this implicitly. But both make it to the desert hideout of the last few surviving humans, a hapless bunch of young adults, and a few wise old people, playing the part of WB-style resistance fighters. But there is an entanglement -- Melanie's BF does not believe he can have her back and is upset at Wanderer. Meanwhile one of the boys has a crush on Wanderer, on the personality that inhabits a pretty human body that is Melanie. There is something in the story that lends credence to the triangle here, with the characters actually weighing their feelings vs the reality of the situation. But is faint and gets lost in the silent glances. I just wish the alien invasion story had been better laid out, that there was more to it than a Red Dawn style resistance against a force that has pretty much already won. In the end, I cared very little about either.