Wednesday, July 30, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Under the Skin

2013, Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) -- download

Gawddammit, where is Roger Ebert when I need him to write intelligently about something that both intrigued and mystified me. He had an ability to break through the BS of conceptual, arty movies and see the wonder of filmmaking behind them.  This is the second of Glazer's movie since 2000's Sexy Beast. What has he been doing? How has he been keeping himself? Will this be his return? How did he get Scarlett Johannson to play this unglamorous yet viscerally attractive alien woman? Can you wade past the pretense of its visual style and utter lack of conventional storytelling and find something under? Roger would have helped me sort this out.

Alas, it is left to me. Scarlett is an alien; this much we should know from the talk about the movie, or gather very quickly when she ... absorbs her first victim. Or we can assume she is an average serial killer stalking the Scottish countryside in a white panel van (!!!), seducing any male she finds very very alone. Our brief windows into her alien-ness are very Kubrick, all directed lights and all-white or all-black rooms, where the victims sink, faster and faster depending on the level of their lust. The victims are the stereotypes of the Scottish youth, all big ears and outrageous sports jerseys and incomprehensible accents. But one, a young man with neurofibromatosis (often called elephant man's disease), touches her like none of the others, and she releases him. Thus begins her descent towards humanity.

This is an almost impenetrable film. It is slow, stylish, has little dialogue and even less story. Yes, yes, it has full frontal Scarlett but not in any alluring manner, her nakedness almost being clinical, full of genuine discomfort. Some would just be happy to see her nude, while the Internet whined about her being "fat", I was just absorbed in her alien character, uncomfortable for her as she looked at her human body, as if for the first time. The movie is about her performance, not all choreographed and edited like her usual flicks. The movie is about... about... I am not sure.  And yet, I didn't nod off. I was enthralled and not bored until it ended, abruptly with no explanation. Just, an end.

Monday, July 28, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Begin Again

2014, John Carny (Once) -- cinema

Once, someone at work saw me twiddling my fingers, tapping to the music on my headphones and asked me if I was a musician. No, was my answer, not at all. But I do spend an awful lot of time, when I am listening to it, fantasizing that its me performing the music. I always have, always will. But if I was a musician, I would definitely be the type who did it for the love, not the fame. I wouldn't mind busking, or endless performances at open mics, during singer songwriter night. Its easy to maintain your objectivity when its a fantasy.

Begin Again starts at a NYC open mic night. Steve (James Corden, from "The Lodger" episode of Doctor Who) the troubadour invites his friend Gretta (Keira Knightly) up on the stage to perform a song. She is angry at being put on the spot but gives in, and sings a mournful heartbreak song about being along in the city. The crowd... barely listens. But amidst the anonymous audience stands goofy looking, drunken Dan (Mark Ruffalo) absolutely enraptured by the music. Dan is a music producer, very out of sorts from personal issues, and drinking himself into the ground. He is losing his job, his company, his wife and his daughter's respect. But hearing Gretta sing sets him on another path.

Gretta is dating Dave (Adam Levine, who plays a dick quite masterfully; me bethinks it comes natural), who is becoming famous for a song he has in a movie. He dumps Gretta. She moves in with Steve and is in a major funk when Dan hears her play. He convinces her to produce an album despite her disliking everything about the music industry. She may be a bit biased at that exact moment of her life. But they compromise and produce an album out in the world, in various public places with free musicians, a laptop recording studio and a keen eye, to escape from the cops, should they need to run. The album is exactly and only what Gretta wants, along with the skillful tutelage of Dan. The music is exquisitely beautiful. It helps Gretta get over Dave. It helps Dan gain back self respect and his family.

This movie is a lovely fantasy, a day dream of flipping the bird to music producers, of making music you love for the sake of it. The songs are astoundingly all sung by Keira, and exactly down my finger tapping alley. The story is sweet and lovely, like the songs, with just the right amount of bitterness and pain, again like the songs. I was so happy to fall away from reality, slip into a daydream not unlike my own. And I probably have a new album to download (I mean buy) soon. But it wasn't all saccharine songs. Ruffalo was wonderful as Dan, a vision that not all sad sacks my age are destined to always be sad sacks. Keira is ... well, sweet and beautiful as usual (yes, i am biased) but it is the supporting cast that drive everything home, from Hailee Steinfeld (Petra from Ender's Game) as his daughter, Catherine Keener as his tired looking wife, carrying a heavy burden, and Mos Def as Dan's old partners. Like the back up musicians that make a solo artists music reach out, I love the tempo of this cast. Note for note perfect.

Life Itself

2014, Steve James (Hoop Dreams) -- cinema

I generally do not watch documentaries. I can only answer "why?" with the standard, "I get enough of real life, IRL." But its probably more about my personality's lack of desire to buy into someone's agenda, to be influenced by someone's presentation to think a certain way, to take on a way of thought, to be impressed about something because they are, to be overly upset about something because they are. But I already had bought into this agenda, a fond remembrance of Roger Ebert, his life and his last days.

The premise of the movie was the film maker documenting Roger, interviewing him, to create a film version of Roger's book Life Itself. And this film sort of is that, but it inevitably had to be a view into Roger's last days. I was reading his blog during the days this film was documenting the decline. It is a window into the true story of what we didn't know, what Chaz or he couldn't or wouldn't share. It is sad, it is challenging and its (yes, cliche but it is) uplifting.

There is very little objectivity here. Oh, as we explore the drinking with the newspaper times with his old bar buddies (some still sitting in the bar after all these years) we see how much of an over the top drunk he could be. He was loud, sometimes angry and often confrontational. Which is why he probably stopped drinking. It took a while though. But the men interviewed remember him fondly, very fondly.

During the days of Siskel & Ebert, even I knew there was a bit of heat between the two. The producers obviously milked it for the episodes, but I never knew how real it was. Again, Roger could be a bit of dick and very petulant. But in the end, these two men cared for each other on a different level, born out of mutual understanding and respect. It was heartbreaking to find out that Roger was denied a window into the death of his friend, during Gene's last days with brain cancer. I will have to read back in the blog to see if he ever discusses it.

Besides these two periods, where we see Roger as a flawed human, there is little that is not glowing. He was a very very smart man, working in positions far ahead of his age. Yet, he was not about intellectualizing film critique, as many of his detractors were, and he applied his genius to making presentable, easily absorbed film commentary. I wonder how many people who considered him the snooty film critic, understood he was doing his best to be on their level with them, instead of talking down. He absolutely loved film, from the highest forms of art down to the grimiest exploitation flicks.

I sat uncomfortably through a number of the connector scenes, as we sit in the room with Roger, going through post surgery events, and recovering in the hospital after finding a fracture in his hip. This is post removal of his jaw, but during a tough time for him. He alternates between times of great discomfort and unflappable positive behaviour. I always marveled at how he could write so clearly, with such good nature while knowing what he was going through. But seeing him, that flap of skin that was once a lower jaw, confined to a chair, I was just .... out of sorts. I never liked hospitals and have always been uncomfortable around the infirmed. Add to this the ending I knew was coming, I squirmed a lot.

I envied him the calm I could not have. Even in his last days, he was so bright minded. I live my life with a lack of focus (the vision issues transposed themselves to personality) and no distinct aspect of my life that I am completely confident about. He knew he could write and nothing could stop him, not even impending death. His last blog post was the day before he passed. He knew he could not come out of that operating room, but he was planning for the blog's continuance. I envy that confidence.

I also rather enjoyed the views into Chaz. I really knew nothing about Roger's personal life until he was blogging, thus I was introduced to her via his words. She was one stalwart woman, putting up with him and when the cancer came on, with all of its trials. I suspect she is not as stonewall strong as she presented, but that she puts forward this brave face is astounding. She saw her husband doing it and felt compelled to reflect it as well. I do worry she was never given the outlet to rail against the injustice of it all, but really, what is the point.  In the end, like Gene Siskel made his ending his own, Roger made sure his ending was up to him. Chaz supported him as far as she could, but the final decision was his. And she accepted that, but with the denial that comes with losing the love of her life.

And yes, I shed not just a few tears.

One Episode: Black Mirror, The Strain, Extant

One Episode is segment in which we talk about shows we have watched one episode of (and sometimes more). We would like to watch less volume and more quality Television but that involves wading through a bevvy of meh to get to the good stuff. Sometimes we find gems which, for one reason or another, we don't (or haven't yet) watched another episode of.

Black Mirror - via TMN
The Strain - via FX Canada
Extant - via Global

Black Mirror is a British anthology series from Charlie Brooker that seeks to "tap into collective unease about our modern world".  It's not an outright horror, sci-fi or fantasy series, but it taps into aspects of such genres for a meaningful, if often crude, examination of first-world society, a modern Twilight Zone, if you will.  The first episode, "The National Anthem", is set in an alternate Britain, with a different Prime Minister and royal family, but otherwise not to dissimilar to our own.  In the story the young, popular Princess Susannah is kidnapped an held for ransom, but the demand is not for money or any sort of political reason, but solely for the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig, live on camera, and finish to climax.

When the ransom details are revealed, the crude and distasteful nature of it sends the immediate impulse to turn the television off.  It's a disgusting premise, and yet, the effect it has on the actual viewer is the same that it has on the viewers within the show.  Brooker with director Otto Bathurst don't simply cut to the chase, nor do they just focus solely on the Prime Minister or any investigative team.  They jump around to different households and public places, following a few average Britons as they monitor the story's progress via the internet, social media and television and engage in surveys and debate over whether the PM should or should not.  As the political damage control team try to find other options, and a swat team chases leads and dead end, the Prime Minister wrestles with the decision that will affect his career, his family, and another person's life.

It's the classic train wreck scenario.  You don't want to watch, but you cannot look away.  It's a thoroughly uncomfortable premise, and yet it's masterfully executed, complete with a not-quite-a-twist ending that really hammers home the message that we can all be all too willing to devote our attention to media and miss the events going on around us.  But the message is layered, in that messages can all too easily be subverted or buried, thus missed and deemed pointless.  The show's brief epilogue takes place 1 year later and shows the good and the bad fallout, and just how grey everything remains.  Black Mirror has had two seasons consisting of 3 episodes each.


The Strain is based off a successful book trilogy written by film director/avid fanboy Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, a series which I would like to read but have little time or patience for novel reading.  The series is being adapted into comics by Dark Horse comics and I've bent an eye towards picking the collected editions of that up (as I have much more time for comics reading), but I just haven't had time yet.  So when The Strain was announced as a new series from Del Toro and Lost producer/showrunner Carlton Cuse, I knew I could make time for it.

Particularly exciting was learning Del Toro had directed the pilot episode, which meant a more refined visual sensibility than your average TV program, which I guess is what made it all the more disappointing upon actually watching it.  The first episode of The Strain does indeed look good, but it suffers painfully from too-much-too-soon syndrome.  The show starts with a plane left disabled on the tarmac, all its windows closed and its passengers and crew inert inside.  The Center For Disease Control investigates and quarantines the plane and the facilities, discovering weird little worms and an odd 9-foot-long, intricately carved box full of dirt not on the manifesto.  It has the set up of an intense plague thriller, but then it jostles wildly into vampire mythology, and once more into zombie terrain.  Its more fantastical elements aren't teased or toyed with really at all, and it's ultimately awkward and off putting the manner in which they're revealed.

There's a heavy pulp fiction element to The Strain, the characters are rather broadly drawn, and if there's any nuance to them, the actors haven't really found it, at least in the first episode.  It's far too hectic and introduces way too many characters and scenarios to allow for any real development.  The story leaves very little in the way of surprises, but also a lot of questions, less about the plot and more to do with its consistency and plausibility.  It's not a wholly believable world.  With its in-your-face, pointless gruesomeness, and abundance of unlikeable characters, the first episode of The Strain leaves plenty to be desired, and very little to entice a return.

But I have watched the subsequent two episodes and they're marginally better, yet still suffer from pacing and structural issues.  The cast is still oversized for so early in its run, but they're slowly getting weeded out.  The introduction of Kevin Durand as a rat exterminator in the second episode has been the show's brightest spot, with David Bradley as an aged pawn shop owner and holocaust survivor with previous experience with the vampire/zombie/worm plague brings an intriguing historical element to the show that should be more in-focus.  Like Richard Sammel as the creepy, seemingly ageless Nazi broker for the vampire overlord puts in a good turn, and his squaring off with Bradley in the second episode further demands expansion in the show.

But the problem keeps coming back to too many disparate elements running concurrently to make for a satisfying whole.  The third episodes starts to bridge the gaps, but it doesn't make for any less clunky a start


There has been such a spate of genre-related shows that have debuted or returned this summer, like The Leftovers, The Last Ship, Dominon, the Strain, Under the Dome, and Hemlock Grove,  that Extant sort of got buried in the summer release schedule, in spite of its high-profile star (Halle Berry) and producer (Stephen Spielberg).   There is literally too much television happening.  Not just genre TV, but in general.  Not only are there dozens upon dozens of networks, all producing original content, but there are "digital networks" like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Yahoo all looking for their own stake of the ever game geek market and the crossover share that can accompany.  I worry about idea exhaustion, retreading the same familiar ground too often, but moreover I worry about burnout, just taxing not only the fans of this type of material but the larger general audience who may only be willing to tolerate so much of it.  (With four DC Comics-based TV series and two Marvel-based ones, plus an endless parade of movies for the next decade, superhero burnout is only the beginning).

Extant thankfully is not a rip-off of Gravity, which I feared it would be from the trailers I had seen of Halle Berry's astronaut Molly returning home after a lengthy and troubling solo mission in space.  But outside of one spot of trouble where a solar flare knocked out power and communications briefly, it was a smooth 13-month mission.  Oh, except for having impossibly seen her dead boyfriend on board immediately after the solar flare, and has impregnated her somehow, even though she'd been unable to conceive, trying for a decade or so before.

Molly's husband John is a roboticist, working a new theory of evolution of the human/machine dynamic.  He's created Ethan, an lifelike artificial intelligence grown mentally in a lab and transferred into a human-esque body.   Ethan has effectively lived as Molly and John's son for years, but Molly having been away for so long has put strain on her relationship with both of them.  John's trying to secure funding for more advanced research of his "Humanichs" program, which comes in the form of Hideki Yasumoto, owner of the Yasumoto Corporation, the same company that owns the International Space Exploration Agency (space exploration has been privatized in this near-future).

Molly's return has been difficult, but even more so because of her experience on the Seraphim.  She deleted her video of her encounter with her ex's spirit, and has encouraged her friend and physician to withhold her pregnancy from her superiors.  The astronaut who was on the mission before Molly had faked his suicide, but has gone a little conspiracy nuts in the interim.  There's something she's not being told, and something is going on in this world, both with aliens and robots, that needs to be explored.

The titles start off reading "Extinct" before shifting ever so subtly to "Extant", which means there's something much bigger behind both the robotics and possibly alien encounters than just this world having robots and ghosts.  There's much at play and it's a fairly intriguing set of circumstances creator Mickey Fisher has pulled from all sorts of different sources (for example: Solaris, A.I.) to seed a decent mystery.  If the show has a problem, then, it's in the awfully dry acting of all players involved.  Berry is serviceable but doesn't quite wear the weariness and discombobulation of her return to Earth.  Goran Visnjic plays John, but he's never had a great emotional range, and there's no real spark between him and Berry ... they feel like actors.  Pierce Gagnon plays Ethan, he's a child actor playing a robot, so he naturally is asked to have a dead-eyed stare and a natural state of aloofness.  There are moments where Ethan seems engaged with the world, but far more where he's almost completely detached (and his pausing before a dead crow uttering, "It was like that when I got here" is supposed to send ominous shivers after all the discussion about robot overlords overtaking humanity, but it's really too easy and cliche).

I've watched the second episode and the mystery really heats up, as does the theme of extinction get a proper introduction (Ethan asking Molly, "Are you weak?" was an aces scene) though the acting stays understated.  But still the concepts are engaging and there's something bigger at play that it's leading up to.  I'm hoping it executes a single story for it's initial 13-episode run, one that can be elaborated on if need be, but also feels satisfying on its own.  Not excellent, but worthy.  David will like all the future tech innocuously used in the show.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Rewatch: Slither

2006, James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) -- download

If this blog had started a few years earlier, the movie would have been part of the Days of Halloween series of reviews. Its a throwback to the 80s style of gross-out, not entirely serious horror movie which stars Nathan Fillion as Sheriff Bill Pardy of small, backward Wheelsy, South Carolina. His town suffers a meteor fall containing a nasty alien  -- parasitic, hivemind creating, all tentacly hentai nasty! With an immeasurable amount of good  nature and positive attitude, he and survivors of the town blow the creature all up good.

This movie was a bomb, but I am sure it was mostly the timing. Then again, I am not sure how these kinds of movies are ever expected to do well outside of the horror film fests like Fantasia or Toronto After Dark. The audience for gross out special effects, done at the bare edge of the budget, is minimal. Sure, lock someone in a chair and torture them while teasing a hint of boob and you will get the 20-sumthin crowd flocking, but monster horror with more than a dash of humor is so two decades ago.

I rather enjoyed it, again, but definitely not as much as the first time. I remember thinking it was rather novel considering the company it was keeping, in horror at least -- Japanese remakes, American remakes, torture porn, etc. The best of a lot was actually the indie flick that Graig and I saw in Toronto After Dark Festival, Behind the Mask.  I think Kent even reviewed it, but I don't remember where to find it. I didn't see the movie the year it came out, probably not long after, via download.  Second time around, it is good for some chuckles and I always enjoy Nathan on the screen.

A good amount of the film is dedicated to the metamorphosis of Grant Grant (yep, that was his name) from bored husband into ultra-jealous alien symbiote creature. Michael Rooker is wonderful here, playing a bit more beyond his thuggish usual self, who we kind of feel sorry for. Its not his fault the alien worm hijacks him and makes him into a tentacled, people absorbing, mountain of pink quivering flesh. The others play rather to the side of his starring role, even Nathan's hero role. The rest of the cast is toss away, standard horror flick fare. All in all, most die but the survivors show an astounding amount of moxy considering they have watched most of their loved ones and friends turned into slug zombies and then partially absorbed into Grant Grant. Good natured shock, I guess.

My final thoughts were wondering how they explained this to the authorities, once they reached the next town.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

2014, Doug Liman (Bourne Identity) -- cinema

You know the movie is about aliens, you know it is about a time loop and you know he defeats the Bad Guy, but everything else in this review is spoilerish. You have been warned.

As the movie opened, I saw Tom Cruise in a military uniform and something didn't feel right to me. There sat Major William Cage, all Tom Cruise 50ish leathery, smug and self satisfied. Where was the raw recruit of the light novel All You Need Is Kill ?  Where was the green kid about to step into an alien war he barely seemed to understand?  But then it struck me; its that 50ish leathery look that we cannot escape. Tom Cruise cannot be seen as the green recruit, his age and look surpass that, his status in Hollywood precludes that. So, in all Hollywood-isms, we have to establish him as one expected thing, so we can then direct him towards something else, a proper transformation. In this case, I really like it. It works. Besides, who doesn't like seeing Tom Cruise knocked down a few notches.

The world is invaded by aliens called mimics. In the original novel I believe they came from within the earth, unknown of before the invasion, but in the movie they crash from the heavens on a comet. I think we should keep an eye on those holes opening up in Siberia, just in case. They mimic our behaviour, always changing tactics when we change ours, always predicting what we will do in battle, always winning. Thus, at the beginning of the movie the entire central European continent and most of Asia is lost. But then, surprisingly, we win a battle at Verdun with raw recruit Rita Vrataski (the full metal bitch) logging hundreds of kills. A celebrity hero is made, a new offense is planned, with everything the United Defense Force has being tossed against the mimics.

Major Cage, a media talking head who reports on the war and raises morale, is being sent on the first wave, to film and report. This scares him to no end so he seeks to blackmail General Brigham. It backfires and Cage finds himself stripped of rank, identity and any chance to escape the battle. He is inserted into a squad of screwups with a smart talking Sergeant, brilliantly played by Bill Paxton. He has no battle training, not even enough to run the ExoSuits (exo skeleton battle armor that has weapons, strength and stamina behind it) and he is expected to die in the first battle. And he does.

But he doesn't die easily. He actually takes out a few mimics, as he flails about confused and terrified, after finally releasing the safety on his weapon. And he also manages to take down a bigger, bluer mimic, which we learn later is an Alpa.  He is bathed in its blood, which melts through him and he dies, horribly. Instantly, he wakes up, back at the camp, being introduced to Sergeant Farrell. The day has started over. Thus the time loop story begins.

But the movie is not only about the time loop. Oh, that plays a dominant part in the plot, but its not all. And what they do with it is clever. There are scenes of an infinite amount of training, the endless walkthroughs of the landings at French beaches and even a few humorous deaths as he tries to get things right. But the plot is always trying to move forward, just a few hours more, just a few steps more, until his next death. He has a goal, an Omega alien brain that has the secret to the mimic time control, which explains their ability to always be one step ahead of their enemy and why he is mixed up in it. His goal is to kill this creature and end the war, or at least inhibit the enemy's greatest advantage. And just when you think the movie is reaching a conclusion, fake out !!  The Omega was fucking with him, hoping to bleed him out of all his time jumping blood. Cage deals with that but they are back to the digital, 3D imaging drawing board.

My favourite scenes are him interacting with Rita. Rita went through this before, thus her hundreds of rookie kills on the beaches of Verdun. She knows how minimal an impact physical death has on him, and she really doesn't care about the psychological impact. Imagine being shot in the forehead countless times. That has got to leave an impression on your psyche. But they go beyond training, show how a relationship develops between the two. No, not the requisite love scene, though it is alluded to. Its more about how two people are spending every day with each other, minute in and minute out, for years. Well, at least one is. He is. She is experiencing him new every single day but cannot mistake the look in his eye. She knows how he is feeling, as she did with someone else. Its heartbreaking, and mind bending.

I was expecting to be disappointed with the battle suits, called jackets originally. As the origins are Japanese, visualize mecha armor. Wearable mechs. Think Starship Troopers, the novel not the movie. Hollywood needs us to see their faces though. So, Cage and Vrataski doff their helmets and the battle suit here is only skeletal. But Liman does such a good job with it. When we see the beach landing, everything looks clunky and clumsy. But when we see Cage & Vrataski, after years of training and use, they are graceful, powerful and impressive. Everyone else is just a child in toy armor, meant to die.

The final act of the movie is the final act of heroism. Cage has lost the blood, lost the time loop but gained intel as to the creatures hideout. So he grabs his bunch of screw ups, grabs Rita and heads off to precede the doomed invasion and stop everything even before it starts. Of course, we know he succeeds -- its Hollywood, and even that is familiar, patent but satisfying. I rather like the ending, the "happy ending", that cleans things up but is acceptable inside the paradigm of time controlling blood. But I am still eager to see the talked about "alternate ending".

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

3-1 Short Paragraphs: Escape Plan

2013, Mikael Håfström (The Rite) -- download

OK, I am going to stop posting about movies that I don't even have the attention span to stay in the room while watching, nor keep awake. I was doing dishes, wandering about. And I think I nodded off sometime just before the climax of the movie but I admit, that has been a problem of late, even if I am enjoying the movie. I have become my dad, sans armchair. But he was doing that at 7pm and I am doing it at 10pm.

Arnie and Sylvester join together for a movie about professionally breaking out of prisons. Stallone is supposed to be the book writing expert, but really, I cannot take him seriously as he tries to sound educated while talking with a mouth full of marbles and hitting on his assistant. He gets stuck in a (do you really care about spoilers on this one!?!?) floating prison with Arnie, who actually comes off as rather intelligent, in comparison. Meanwhile, The Man in the Suit (Jim Caviezel) is a sadistic "warden" trying to foil their escape plan. There are expected plot twists, unrealistic escapes and lots of punching, shooting, unfortunate mook deaths (I felt kind of sorry for some of these guys, probably having taken the only security job they could find) and yawns.  And they escape.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

2013, d. Joel and Ethan Coen - Netflix

The Coen Brothers are, without a doubt, two of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history.  I don't think anyone looking at their body of work could argue that.  Even when they're unsuccessful, they still manage to produce a film that engages and entertains differently than mostvother films.  For every outright critical and commercial success like Miller's Crossing, Fargo, or No Country For Old Men, there's a Hudsucker Proxy, a Ladykillers, or a Burn After Reading in their wake.  None of those latter three films are terrible movies, they're just not as tight, not as memorable, not as inviting or engrossing as the best of the best.  They can't all be cult smashes like The Big Lebowski.

Inside Llewyn Davis wasn't well reviewed, and despite my grand affection for the Coens, I let that sway me and keep me from the film in theatres.  It's a smaller Coen Bros. feature, with no big Clooney or Pitt-esque stars, nor does it explore broader scenery like True Grit or O' Brother Where Art Thou.  In the scale of their smaller work it's not as surprisingly good as A Serious Man, it's more in the vein of Barton Fink. 

Oscar Isaac is the titular character, an aspiring folk sing in the early 1960's.  He couch surfs and borrows money from friends and family and believes that his struggling is part of his art.  But he's also a sonofabitch with a flimsy filter for his emotions and true thoughts which get him in no end of trouble.  Llewyn is suffering from an aimlessness after the suicide of his recording partner, and there's a sense of loneliness he feels as a result.  He feels so abandoned, in his music that he thinks he's abandoned in life too, not realizing just how much support he's getting from his friends (even in the form of tough love from his sister).  He was abandoned in his music and music is his life.

The issues of abandonment leads Llewyn to go to rather extreme degrees to care for a friend's cat when it gets locked out of its home, a level of concern that seems well outside his character, it's pointed out.  At another point he's stranded in a car with no keys on the road to Chicago and he abandons the cat (a different cat, mind you) in the car, and it's obviously a painful decision for him, but he realizes he can't continue on with the cat in tow, that he has to accept he's solo now.  This is a revelation applied when he's given a offer to work as part of a group, which he turns down.

The revelation that he too is just as capable of leaving people behind (such as leaving a woman he impregnated to take care of the abortion on her own, only to learn that, two years later, it was never done) and that maybe he needs to change, take his sister's advice and become a resonsible adult. 

The final act concludes with Llewyn having the crap kicked out of him for his behaviour, in a scene that loops back in on the opening prologue, a curious trick from the Coens.  Is Llewyn stuck in a Groundhog's Day-like time loop?  No, it's literally just a deceptive opening cut.  But the intent is a curious one.  Is he really giving up on music or is it still  his job! as he tells the man in black in the alley?  And is the beat down accepted, even welcome compensation for his terrible behavior.  There are scenes of Llewn making good with his friends in that final act, paired right alongside scenes of him at his most prickishness.  Nobody can change their nature that quickly.

The songs of Inside Llewn Davis are an effective mish mash of dark, brooding folk, light kitsch ("Please, Mr. Kennedy", featuring Isaacs, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver  is such delightfully catchy pablum), and overearnest treacle that it spans folk in its broadest context.  It's almost as if the Coen's were staging the scene for a follow-up mocumentary that has moden hipsters and music nloggers discovering Llewyn Davis' music 50 years later and heralding its above-mediocre nature as a lost gem of folk, much in the Searching For Sugarman mold.

It's certainly not the Coen's best feature but it's still more than worthy viewing.

Rewatch: Fargo

1996, d.Joel and Ethan Coen - Netflix

The biggest shock about rewatching Fargo (or attempting to rewatch Fargo) was that I did not own a copy of Fargo.  How could this be.  I went though a phase 5 or 6 years ago where I had the urge, nay, the need to acquire every Coen brothers film.  I knew I didn't make it: Blood Simple, the Man Who Wasn't There, Raising Arizona, and The Hudsucker Proxy all eluded me (at the sub-10 dollar price range at least).  But I guess I was quite certain I alreday had Fargo, and never bothered to check.

Netflix Canada has never been that great at giving me what I want to watch at any given moment.  It usually gives me countless options of what I could watch, but rarely a film that I heard discussed on a podcast or a recent release cited on a best of list, but it came through for me this time.  Having just watched the surprisingly amazing Fargo TV series, I wanted to watch the source film, for comparison purposes, as well as it just being a film that deserves to be watched again and again.

The biggest surprise in actually rewatching the film is how tight it is.  It clocks in at under 100 minutes, it felt like it was over shortly after it began.  It's not a breakneck paced movie, mind you, as there's a beautiful and unique rhythm to the mid-American border states (at least the Coen's unique vision of it) that is very relaxed and easy going on the surface, but finds an undercurrent of anxiety and facetiousness.  But the Coen's script is so character and moment dense that the film just glides along effortlessly. 

What every writer and director could learn from studying the Coens is that there are no wasted characters on the screen.  No character exists solely to serve the plot, the all seem to actually exist in that world, and they contribute to the story.  It's not always about progression, but sometimes just about defining that world more clearly.  Mike Yanagita (played brillantly by Steve Park) doesn't serve the story of Marge's investigation in any way, but it's a character that intrudes into Marge's world (inconsequentially mind you) and becomes one of it's most memorable scenes, right next to the wood chipper.

When I was watching the TV series I was comparing it to my recollection of the movie, which was faded and distant.  There are tonal strikes that obviously match up, and synchronous beats in the overall progression, but I was actually surprised (again, a lot of surprises) by how little it actually borrowed from the movie.  Martin Freeman early in the show adopts William H Macy's Jerry Lundegaard accent and facets of his nervous mannerisms, but the rewatch showed that Jerry was exceptionally twitchy and nervous, while Freeman's Lester Nygaard was just feeling perpetually emasculated and ineffectual.  And there's very little to compare Alison Tollman's Molly Solverson to Francis McDormand's Marge Gunderson, beyond the fact that both are absolutely amazing in each, being utterly kick-ass female heroes who won't get enough credit for being such.  Marge shoud be just as iconic as Alien's Riply or Princess Leia.

Watching Fargo the TV show made me want to watch Fargo the movie, which in turn has made me want to watch the TV show again, and I'm certain the cycle would continue.  The Coen brothers built a great playground (as they so often do) and it's great to see it played with so joyously and respectfully as to live up (and almost equal) to the original.  It's a rare thing.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The ol' Superhero Two-Step: Hancock and The Amazing Spider-Man

Hancock - 2008, d. Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights)
The Amazing Spider-Man - 2012, d. Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer)

There was a time, not too long ago in fact, when it was mandatory for us comic book geeks to see any film that was based on a comic book or had a superhero theme.  We didn't have a choice.  So rare, and for so long, were the comic book and superhero-related movies that if we didn't support them, then it jeopardized the making of any more in future.  We had to sit through shit like Steel (starring Shaquille O'Neal) or Batman and Robin even though we knew they weren't going to be any good, we could tell, just as the general public could, that these were stinkers.  For the most part up until the mid-aughts, studios were still very sceptical when it came to these comic book properties, and they didn't invest well in them financially, nor did they hire creative teams that understood the characters or the stories they worked in.

Then came Bryan Singer's X-Men, and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, superheroes taken seriously and done right.  Geeks and nerds love them, but so too did the public, and we've been in the superhero-cinema renaissance ever since.  Not to say that every film is perfect, or even good, but to say that the properties are being treated with more respect than ever because of the money they command, and studios want to bank on that as often as possible.  There's so much superhero and comic book-based material out there -- good stuff too -- that us geeks don't feel the need to support everything, because for every one failure, at least right now, there's two or three successes that follow.

I was never a big Spider-Man fan.  I enjoyed the Raimi films enough (well, not the third one, which I outright loathed) but they weren't hero films I went back to like Nolan's Batman or Ang Lee's Hulk.  When it was announced that Sony was rebooting the series, it was at a time where there were enough superhero films in the works that I didn't really need to care all that much.  I wasn't so much upset about a reboot happening so quickly as apathetic towards Spider-Man in general.  When it finally came out, I had no yearning or desire to see it (okay, maybe a little interested in watching Emma Stone prance around for two hours... [now that I think of it she'd make a great Spider-Woman] but I digress) and avoided the picture with little sensation of feeling left out.  This was the year, after all, that the Avengers and Dark Knight Rises came out, I was not in want of superhero action.

Having just arrived on Netflix Canada, I caught up with The Amazing Spider-Man, and, well... there it was.

It's Peter Parker's origin retold, not all that dissimilar from what we've seen in the first Raimi film, only now there's a mystery surrounding Peter's parents, and the fact that everything, and I mean everything, seems to tie back to Oscorp.  The focus is on Peter dealing with his great power and learning to accept his great responsibility.  If we've seen this story before it's because we've literally seen this story before.  It's different actors, and a different suit, and some different story components, but it's not fresh, or original, or all that exciting.

It has to be compared to what Raimi did before, there's no way about it.  Marc Webb's direction doesn't feel nearly as confident, and the uneven tonality of the film is evidence thereof.  While Webb eliminates the theatricality of Raimi's picture, it's waffling between self-seriousness and romantic comedy never allows it to settle.  The script for The Amazing Spider-Man is intended to set up a franchise, and that's probably it's biggest challenge, since it never feels like it actually has any direction.  The injection of the Lizard as adversary, who in reality is Peter and Gwen Stacy's science mentor (played by Rhys Ifans), feels like it's interrupting Peter's story at every turn.

Were this a 40-million dollar supeheroic romantic comedy starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone it would have been golden, as Webb excels at directing the scenes that highlight the pair's chemistry (although believing them to be teenagers is consistently a massive suspension of disbelief for the audience).  Garfield and Stone certainly have it over Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in that regard, and Garfield's Spider-Man feels more comfortable as the quippy comic book Spider-Man than Maguire ever did.  The scenes where Peter tests his new web shooters and explores his powers are also fairly well done, but overall Spider-Man as a character gets the short shift.  Without a Daily Bugle to put the mask into context, like in Raimi's films, it always feels like an odd thing for Peter to be doing. The climax is another special effects mess that big summer genre films always seem compelled to put on and doesn't service the story very well.  All the details that wind up linking Peter to Oscorp and other characters feels forced and inorganic, and unfortunately serves as the through-line for the series.

In the world of comics, these days at least, the origin story is the part creators want to get past the fastest.  How someone acquires their powers and comes to accept their role in the world by using their powers is just a stepping stone to getting to real storytelling. It's the most boring part, the starting point.  Superhero movies have long been fascinated with the origin story, and have felt the need to make every film an origin story.  X-Men 2 was basically Wolverine's origin story, Spider-Man 2 was Doctor Octopus' origin story, Batman Returns was the Penguin's and Catwoman's... even The Avengers is basically the origin of the Avengers.  But we're starting to get away from that.  The Dark Knight managed to introduce a villian without an origin story, while Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past all managed to all tell stories without asking of their heroes or adversaries "how did they get to here".

Hancock, I skipped over back in 2008 because we already had The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Wanted, Hellboy II... all these good-to-great comic book properties being transitioned into good-to-great films.  Hancock wasn't a recognizable superhero, he had no known supervillains to fight, it was just a Will Smith ego picture, and I didn't have time for that.  I was kind of dismissive of it, despite liking Peter Berg's underrated action piece, The Rundown.  I used to be a big Will Smith fan too, back when he was the Fresh Prince, but it just felt like his ego was out of control and he had to be his own superhero.

Hancock begins with the titular hero parked out in the midday sun on a bus stop bench in Los Angeles, drunk and belligerent to a 10-year-old kid trying to rouse him.  There's a high speed firefight between bank robbers and the police on a freeway, and, perhaps, Hancock could help.  Turns out Hancock's helping is not so helpful, with injuries and millions in property and infrastructure damage.  When he saves Jason Bateman's life (causing a train wreck and damage to multiple cars in the process), instead of the usual grief, Bateman's ace Public Relations expert, Ray, thanks him, and offers him a home-cooked dinner.  It's evident Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) doesn't want him there, but his son Aaron is obviously into a superhero hanging around.  Ray offers to help Hancock reform his public image, which includes his surrendering himself to the police and staying in prison, learning to be polite and treat police officers with respect.

The first act establishes Hancock as, well, an asshole (repeated a number of times, first from the lips of a 10 -year-old).  He's a man with abilities (flight, super-strength, invulnerability) thrust into doing things expected of him and a deep-seeded resentment for it.  He's also quite lonely, and angry, or possibly lonely because he's so angry, and he drinks to keep himself numb.  The second act dives into his reformation, getting sober and attending group counselling for his addiction, while actually trying to adjust his manners and follow Ray's plan for a better relationship with the public.  It works out, and a tense bank heist gives him the chance to showcase his new attitude.

The third act takes a rather wild turn, (SPOILERS FOR A 6-YEAR-OLD MOVIE) where Hancock's origins are explored more in depth (though truly not the same as an origin story).  Turns out he, and Ray's wife Mary, are the last two people remaining of an...experiment? Alien race?  Early society?  It's never quite clear, but their people were granted great powers, but as they paired off, the longer these seemingly immortal people spent together, the more human they became, their powers ebbing away.  Hancock and Mary were married in those early days, and as they would lose their powers their relationship would grow tenser and more complicated.  They would separate but inevitably be drawn together, only to have the cycle of anger and tension repeat itself, as it does here.  It's a definite shift in the film's direction, but it actually works quite well, and is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie.  The added conflict of the prison breakout was unnecessary except to have ratcheted up tension in the final act, where had it ended in more of a character drama it would have been far more interesting.

Creating original superheroes hasn't worked out well for the big screen: Condorman, Blankman, Meteor Man, The Puma Man...all utterly forgettable.  I had wondered what would make Hancock stand out as a superhero, and not just "Will Smith with superpowers"? It turns out, not much.  It's still pretty much "Will Smith with superpowers" but I like Hancock's story, his character progression from alcoholic to earnest superhero, and I especially liked his origin, which manages to be fresh and inventive within a genre that has explored most angles.

The film itself feels somewhat dated already.  The effects haven't aged well and are easily the weakest part of the film, considering also that so many other films have surpassed what it did, some even before it (Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded).  There's a good character story underneath, and it doesn't rely too heavily on the effects, but it does stage a few too many scenes around them unnecessarily.  Equally, there's an itch to be more of a comedy that it never quite scratches right.  It has some possibly amusing concepts, and others (like Hancock literally shoving one prisoner's head up another's ass) which don't seem to fit within the story they're telling.  There's a better drama in the material than a comedy.  Overall, I was more impressed than I thought I would be with it, but at the same time it suffers from its tonal inconsistencies.  I'm still game for a sequel (and given that it made some rather incredible bank in 2008, there's no reason a sequel couldn't happen, except if Smith wasn't interested).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Transcendence

2014, Wally Pfister (director of photography on Batman Begins, The Prestige, Inception) -- download

Transcendence is a thoughtful science fiction movie about the emergence of The Singularity which unfortunately thinks it can play double duty as an action movie. Conversely, I could have title tagged this Notes for the End of the World, as the movie bookends itself as flashbacks from a world now sans technology, but that tagline has sailed, until the next time I find three apocalyptic movies to watch back to back. Maybe around the time of the release of The Rover.

The movie takes place 20 minutes into the future when Johnny Depp and his colleagues have already successfully invented AI and are trying to think beyond the limitations of what it can do, what it can become. Meanwhile a terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (revolutionary independence from technology) believes we have become too entwined in tech, probably from too much Facebooking, and are ignoring the dangers of allowing AIs more into our lives. This is a nasty bunch; they target all the major AI labs blowing them up, poisoning them and shooting Dr. Caster (Depp). But not just shooting him, but pulling a Litvinenko style assassination by lacing the bullet with Polonium. So, Caster will die, just not gracefully nor quickly. This gives his wife and partner time to copy his brain into their AI architecture. Disappointingly, they don't ask the AI what she thinks about being overwritten by a fussy scientist. In case you are wondering, yes, Dr. Caster as an AI talking head does kind of look like Max Headroom.

Max, I mean, AI Dr. Caster does what any good AI should do -- surpass human level thinking. He builds a Secret Base (not all that secret) and solar power plant, to allow even further expansion. He seeds himself throughout the entire world of networked computers, having access to All the Information. And he completes the research into nanotechnology, creating an army of super powered, networked humans to be his hands. Or his Army, depending on your point of view. This scares the heck out of everyone, making them believe RIFT was right. So, Homeland Security, its own small military force and RIFT tagging along in pickup trucks move to shoot the AI zombie army. This is where the movie falls flat, in a silly combat focused third act, that is doomed to fail, of course.  All the strong ideas of what an AI could become are wasted in paranoid over reaction.

As in Her, the AIs realize quickly that they are surpassing humanity at an alarming rate, and will eventually leave it behind in some manner. And also like in Her, there is a love story at the heart of the interactions between an AI and humans, as Dr. Caster is doing this all for his wife. SPOILERISH ending sentences! Like many other weak thrillers, the final scenes of the movie are about us realizing that the AI was Not Evil all along, and was only trying to make a better world for his wife in the most (scarily) efficient manner at his disposal. But they shot him. And destroyed the world.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014, d. Bryan Singer

"Days of Future Past" is considered one of the greatest X-Men stories in their near-50-year history.  Comic nerd I am, of course I've read it, but long after it first came out and in the thick of its lionization.  Truth told, I wasn't that impressed with it.  It was shorter than I thought it would be (it's really only a 2-part story), and it doesn't work so well as a stand-alone story out of the context of the ongoing series at the time.  Written in the early 1980's by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne and Terry Austin, it ran as issue 181 and 182 of the Uncanny X-Men, and the main story is interrupted by scenes of B- and C-plots that Claremont was seeding for the future of the X-Men soap operatic, as was the storytelling style at the time.  What it had, rather than a great story, was ideas, interesting ones at that, most of which were left unexplored due to the space constraints.

So in adapting it to a feature film, the latest in the long-running X-Men series, there wasn't enough material to work with to fill a two-plus-hour screentime, nor was there much within the story that would service the characters of the film series past, since the films have not followed any story track laid out by the comics.  Changes had to be made.  Which is to say that rabid fans of the original story shouldn't expect to see much resembling the comic up on screen.

The film Days of Future Past serves many purposes.  It acts as the third sequel to the original X-Men franchise, and first sequel to the series reboot, X-Men: First Class and then it acts as a bridge between these two series by featuring the teams and characters introduced in both, despite the fact that they exist in different eras.  Since the original X-Men film's début in 2000, and even since First Class in 2011, the bulk of the series casts are monster celebrities now.  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Ellen Page and Shaun Aston from the original series return to reprise their roles, while Jennifer Laurence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult return in theirs, with Peter Dinklage thrown in as an opposing force for good measure.  Next to an Oceans 11 film, this is about as top-loaded a cast cinema has ever seen, and in a blockbuster superhero franchise no less.

The advertisements and build-up for the film were highlighting the cast of actors as well as the ever-expanding roster of mutant characters brought to the big screen, and both were highlighting the two time periods in which the film was set: one a bleak dystopian future where machines meant to defend humanity against any mutant threat have deemed all of humanity an eventual threat, and the mid-1970s where Wolverine has psychically travelled in the past to try and stop the threat before it's even created.  One was made to think that the two timelines would share the screentime and story weight, and that this monster cast would be put to full use battling Sentinels in two timelines, but it's just not the case.

It's a bit of a bait and switch.  The reality is that the future sequences are minimal, a few set pieces and a couple of action sequences, meant to establish just how dire things have gotten and how important going back to the past and changing the future is.  Since the bulk of the film takes place in the 1970's it's much more a direct sequel to First Class.  It delves into the fallout of the events of First Class, taking place a decade later, Charles Xavier moribund faith in humanity, his friends and himself has left him addicted to a power-suppressing injection created by Hank McCoy (Beast), who now acts primarily as Charles' caretaker.  Meanwhile Magneto is in a specially designed prison (the reason for which is an absolute delight to discover, and the further spin on it even moreso) while Charles' foster sister, Mystique, is on a dark path to becoming a master assassin and the person responsible for instigating the implementation of the Sentinel program.

It's up to Wolverine to wrangle these disparate and desperate people, to rebuild Charles' failth so that he can rekindle his friendship with Magneto so that together they can find Mystique and put her on a different path. Things don't go as planned, Magneto being the wild card that he is, and the tense history between the various characters not so easily buried. If anything, things may accelerate and the Sentinel program may start even sooner.

It definitely wasn't the movie I was expecting, given the marketing and hype, and for a moment I lamented the lack of screentime/action/purpose for Ellen Page or Halle Berry or Ian McKellan, but the 1970's story arc for the First Class crew wound up being a thoroughly unpredictable one, leading to a wild ride of emotional, political and corporate intrigue alongside a host of exciting displays of phenomenal superpowers.  The film truly centred around Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and the assassination of Dinklage's Boliver Trask, creator of the Sentinels.  Whether her years with Charles and his faith in humanity would win out over Magneto's insistence that humans and mutants were already at war (and that she was a soldier) would supersede all is at question.  She holds the future in her hands, and the betrayals she has experienced have left her tremendously conflicted and more than a little scarred.  It's a surprisingly meaty role for what would otherwise be conventionally thought of as a dumb blockbuster.  But that's just one part of what makes Days of Future Past such a truly incredible movie in the mix of the big summer movie.

It is a big movie for sure, with that cast and all the superpowers and special effects and giant robots, it's got a big meaty story with weight and importance (at least in the context of the characters and the series), but it thrives best on the character drama, the inner turmoil of Charles and Mystique and the lack of turmoil for Magneto (though he relates far more later in life), as well as the tumultuous relationship between all these characters.

One of the main criticism's laid against the film is that Mystique's journey, as the centrepiece, is not a strong one.  It's charged that she's not in control, that she's just seen as an object of desire, being pulled every which way with no capacity for making her own decisions, that she's not a strong character.  Having rewatched First Class shortly before seeing the film, the status of the relationships between Mystique, Magneto, Charles, and Beast are all consistent with where they left off previously.  Charles laments regrets losing his sister, for not providing her the reassurance she needed.  He looks upon her with such regret and familial love, not romantic.  Magneto, meanwhile, is an ex-lover, but sees her as a tool, a useful ally more than having any genuine feelings for her.  Beast, meanwhile, still harbors the crush on her he had in First Class, and sees in her someone who has accepted herself in a way he has not yet accepted his own mutation.  Wolverine, meanwhile, doesn't seem to care one way or another, he just has a horrible future to prevent, a job that needs to get done.

I quite enjoyed how Jackman, in his 9th turn as Wolverine (you have to count the cameo in First Class, as it's called back here) sinks into the background rather than taking control of the screen.  He's the biggest star, character-wise (arguably Jennifer Lawrence is the biggest star in the movie), but he logically doesn't have much to contribute to the relationship dynamics of a group of characters who don't know him (yet) or fully trust him (yet).  While there are leaps in story logic, the character logic throughout is so satisfyingly sound.

As for the action, what you expect from a superhero blockbuster like this, the film delivers in surprising ways.  The early future sequences feature a quintet of heroes Iceman, Blink, Colossus, Warpath and Bishop facing off against a batch of incoming Sentinals at their safe-home.  They put of a valiant (and impressively orchestrated) fight, but they are all murdered in shocking fashion that just punches any comics fan right in the gut.  It's a fake-out thanks to time travel comic book science, but it's not the last time it happens and it's no less potent when it occurs again.  Blink's portal generating powers particularly make for some of the most inventive and mind-blowing fight sequences ever on screen.

In what is easily the film's high-point, the team tracks down a friend of Wolverine's (or, rather, he will be a friend, later), a teenaged super-speedster Peter Maximoff (aka Quicksilver from the comics) to help them break Magneto out of his prison 5 miles down a concrete bunker in the center of the pentagon.  How the film captures not only Peter's super-speed powers, but the effect it has on his personality, is so very entertaining.  When we actually get to see Peter in all-out action, manipulating the kinetic energy around a room with bullets locked in time and metal kitchen ware hanging in the air, it's a thing of beauty, worth the price of admission alone.

The final showdown, as well, is great, if only because it doesn't end with a big, messy, SFX spectacle.  It does feature some combat, but it's climax is an emotional one rather than a physical one.  It doesn't strive to outdo any other action sequences from earlier in the film or any films prior, it delivers an engame that feels right for the story.  The need to constantly ramp up the visual spectacle for a big messy CGI-fest is one of the more annoying trends with blockbuster movies (and it happens with most of them) that an ending like this is so refreshing, on top of being satisfying.

The films coda is a sweet one, giving a send-off of sorts to the original X-Men franchise of characters (and so many cameos) while the end-credits teaser promises an even bigger threat to come for the younger iteration of these heroes.  Honestly, I can't wait for more.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: The Purge

2013, James DeMonaco -- download

I have a short list (long) of movies I remind myself I want to see. For some reason, I never get around to seeing many of them. I download some, but they sit on the HDD. I add some to my Netflix list but they sit there, passed over time and again. The other day, I went through the list, and the HDD and chose one. I am glad I did.

I hesitated watching The Purge because it is a speculative film about a very bleak concept. In the near future, the US is almost crime free. Peaceful. Their solution, instituted by a very Christian government (one nation under god), was one night to purge all negative feelings like jealousy, rage, anger, upset, etc. On this one night anything is OK, nothing is illegal. Some people hide behind locked doors, others step outside and do whatever the fuck they want -- they kill, rape, assault, steal, burn... whatever comes to mind. No police no ambulances no fire brigade. And in the morning, they move on with their lives. That sounds horrible, doesn't it? But the results are evident: crime is low, the economy is booming and employment is almost non existent. That is this world. And I thought the movie would wrap itself in the bleakness and savour it. It doesn't.

Ethan Hawke sells security systems, so wealthy people can hide in their big houses and wait out the Purge. He is happy, his family is normal. His neighbours are jealous but safe behind the walls he sold them. He supports the Purge because of what it gives him and what it has given his nation. But like most people, he really hasn't experienced it first hand. This night he does as his idealistic son lets a homeless into their house to hide. And his pursuers, amoral youth who revel in the night, want him. We find out how useless the security really is, how the whole system benefits the wealthy while purging the unwanted and we find out how committed Hawke is to the night. Its a movie that presents the moral grays and then takes a stance, in story and in action. So, we are given a violent thriller (we all love violence) but one with a message to consider, and a side to take.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

One Episode: True Detective, Brooklyn Taxi, Halt and Catch Fire

True Detective (HBO) is the competitor for the hearts & minds of Hannibal fans. I was watching the latter when I heard about the former. I watched the first episode and loved it, but knew what would happen should I continue to watch both simultaneously. First, they would compete for space in my little brain, filling in gaps around each other leading to memories of both seasons merged. It would make these "reviews" very confusing. Secondly, nightmare fuel. Now that Hannibal has ended, its time to go back and re-watch Ep1 and then quickly plow through the rest of the season. My dreams have been too calm as of late anyway.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson compete for the most intense screentime in this period crime drama. McConaughey is just post-Dallas Buyers Club, thus still scary skinny, but is just sooooo engrossing as the almost unemotional cop stuck with Woody Harrelson investigating a horrific, possibly mystical murder. They don't like each other but they know it has to work. Amusingly, Harrelson is playing the "normal guy" but you don't really buy it --- I expect him to get weirder, more intense, as the season goes by, making McConaughey look calm & composed by reflection.

The key to comparison of the two shows is style. Hannibal is all about colours and set dressing, clothing and artistically laid out crime scenes. True Detective takes on the similar artistic bent but reminds us how utterly horrific it is. This is small town America, late 70s, completely unfamiliar with this. They are scared. We are scared with them. The set dressing is impeccable, the colours all washed. This is like coming downstairs in the middle of the night, half asleep, in your pyjamas, and turning on an old 70s movie that you never heard of.  The whole show feels a little surreal. I hope to enjoy it equally yet separately.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Taxi (TF1) is the French entry into the TV cop market that Canada has been dominating of late, with TV shows like Rookie Blue, Flashpoint and Motive. But it has the trademarks of a show being produced for a market that doesn't actually know the setting very well.

We have a classic American rogue cop, who is known for ... well, trashing the cars she drives. Yeah, that's it. She doesn't blow things up or shoot drug dealers, she just drives badly. Oh, those crazy American women! So, they take away the keys from her. Rather than desk duty, she will walk a beat. But before she can get into swinging a billy stick and whistling a tune, she is mixed up in a bank robbery story involving taxi cab drivers. Together they (her, cab driver) solve the crime and he ends up becoming her personal driver, as thanks.

Now, you would think that wouldn't matter -- she has been assigned to walking a beat. But no, it just means she is not allowed to drive a precinct car and the premise of the show is that they will be OK with her being driven around by an illegal (France) immigrant taxi cab driver. Oh those crazy American cops!

Oh, so its about a Brooklyn taxi cab driver. Now, the first thing I learned when I visited Brooklyn a couple of summers ago was that Brooklyn doesn't actually use the yellow cab company. They have a bunch of privatized car services. I think this stands, though I will accept an American (crazy!) correcting me on this. Maybe Wikipedia is not up to date. But the original market was France, so that can be forgiven, can't it?

And, the show was not very good even if you forget everything else above.

P.S. Shit, was this based on a Luc Besson movie?  Now I am curious...

And we have Halt and Catch Fire (AMC), another period (80s) drama set at the beginning of the personal computer race. It is everything that other shows like Silicon Valley make fun of, the revolutionizing of technology fueled by personal passion and brilliance. This is when making a difference was going to count. IBM dominated the PC market, Apple and a few others were trying to sneak into it. But Joe McMillan (Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies, who is utterly fucking brilliant here) has ideas that computers can be so so so much more. He is thinking 10, 20 years from then to now, when they are ubiquitous and are everything. He wants in on that. He wants to make history.

This is very precise story telling, establishing an economy of characters and a tight premise. You have McMillan, you have the genius but disillusioned engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy; Monsters) and forward thinking, hot young Cameron Howe. The show needs a trio and the company Clark and McMillan work for needs a scapegoat engineer no one has every heard of. As they fulfill the trailer promise in the first episode (reverse engineer an IBM PC) I am not sure how they will maintain a pace (excuse pun) but I willing to explore it, just to watch more of this acting and directing. This is my Mad Men when that show couldn't do it for me.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Non-Stop

2014, Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) -- download

Liam Neeson has successfully been moulded into an aging action star. Not the campy kind that will be in The Expendables 4, but as a man of action pressed into situations he would probably leave to younger men, given the chance. History, age, some wisdom and a great amount of tiredness is often coupled with these roles. Even though this one was a toss away, not very logical nor intriguing, Neeson plays the role well. So, I enjoyed it.  If Ebert could show unabashed love of movies where girls he thought were cute played good roles, I can enjoy my admiration for aging with some amount of grace and action.  Especially considering my personal focus on aging without any of those. I am pretty sure I said, "I'm old !" about 34 times my other night at Thirsty & Miserable. I am not that old. But I feel that old.

Neeson is Bill Marks, a US air marshall, a drunk and an ex-cop, with less than glamorous reasons behind that. He does the NY to London flight. Early into the flight he receives a SMS message on his secure networked phone that people will begin to die unless the airline drops $150 million into an account, which turns out to be in Marks' name. Of course, only Marks finds it odd that he would hijack a plane, not tell anyone he is doing so, while doing his best to find out who the real culprit is. The messages come to him, Sherlock style, us seeing them floating beside the phone, so graphically well done. I love that particular depiction of smart phone usage in today's films. Anywayz, its not exactly a who-dunnit, but a who's-doing-it, tossing us around from suspect to suspect. I am not as good at these, as I used to, often falling into the fake-out trap they now seed these movies with.

So, in case you are worried, yes I will SPOILER the culprit --- it isn't Marks. <insert dramatic bwoooong>  The not very good thriller leads us to two bad guys who want the freaky security of the US to become even more freaky and they believe framing an air marshall will do that. Meanwhile he has shot people, beat up people, been suspected himself and discovered a bomb. The point was everyone dying, with Marks painted as the Bad Guy by the media. People help him, people suspect him and it all rolls to a crash landing in London with only a few deaths and Marks the hero. Oh, and Lupito Nyong'o is wasted, or as I more suspect, given more (wasted) scenes because of her growing popularity at the time of the movie's release -- they should have made her the lead air steward or just left her in the background.  This will not go into my list of favourite Neeson movies, but I did enjoy the way Collet-Serra shot the movie and Neeson was still a top-notch old guy, as I might be. There is still time!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: The Watch

2012, Akiva Schaffer (lots of SNL) -- Netflix

Ever since Netflix listened to me, and added the "Add to My List" button, I have been adding lots of speculative movies. No, not specfic, though I have been adding those, but those I had at some point in movie history, considered watching. I remembered chuckling at some trailers for this movie and while I don't gravitate to Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn movies (I actually forgot Vaughn was in this), Moss, I mean Richard Ayoade is in it, so I should it enjoy it somewhat, right? And its an alien invasion, so how bad can it be? Cliche question means cliche answer of baaaaad.

Ben Stiller is the over achieving neighbour in one of those subdivisions that make me cringe. He works at the local bog box store where the (newly American, always newly American) security guard is murdered, rather horribly with skin removal & usual alien gags. Stiller takes it upon himself to setup a neighbourhood watch because the cops are useless. What Stiller doesn't seem to know is that everyone in this neighbourhood is useless. His watch idea attracts Vince Vaughn, over protective dad looking for some bro time, Jonah Hill, gun loving and mentally unbalanced and Jamarcus (Ayoade), newly arrived from... England. Despite Stiller's over achieving ideals, the bunch are not that much interested in watching. Despite that they still discover that aliens are trying to invade, and stealing people's skins.

I didn't laugh much. There is a reason I don't watch SNL. For me, it started going downhill in the late 80s, not that I am a big sketch comedy kind of guy. This is for their crowd. Surprisingly, I laughed the most at Jonah Hill's antics, which usually annoy the @!$% out of me, but were refreshingly sideways in this movie. Vaughn is Vaughn, Stiller is deep in character and Ayoade is .... well, Moss. And they murdered cows & destroyed someone's farm for the fun of it. Worst Neighbour Watch ever.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rewatch: Avatar

This is a new segment where I talk about a movie that I have seen before, likely many times. Likely I own it, or it could show up on Netflix and I want to watch it again. But it has never shown up here before. Unlike other "reviews" this is not going to be a rehash of the plot, more my observances and things I catch only in multiple viewings.

Avatar was my first Blu-ray. It came the Christmas just after I got myself the PS3. Despite all the anti-hype, I still loved the movie. Yes, it was a retread of Fern Gully and yes it was unabashedly melodramatic. But I loved it, both visually and story wise.

As my first Blu-ray, I was and I still am astounded as to how good it looks. So, crisp, so clear and full of scenes that highlight the advances that Blu-ray represents.

The movie is one of those UI people love, because yet again a futuristic interface is envisioned and depicted. We are in the transparent screen stage of such, and the movie makes massive use of it, with the large interactive screens in the shuttle and the science lab. I especially love the way they could toss live data from the big screen onto handheld screens and continue their work while changing the way they interacted with the data. I would love to see Apple devise some similar sync-ing between MacBooks and iPads. Now, its all CGI on our screen but it is sooooo distinct looking, colourful and bright.

The designers were also smart enough to show that not all tech is going to be all glass and glamour, as Jake Sully records his diary entries with what is essentially a black plastic box with webcam. Mix of tech is a thoughtful piece. It was Jake sitting during one of the sessions, us looking through the webcam eye, that I caught myself noticing just how perfectly clear everything was, on my TV. Yay Blu-ray.

Now, Avatar is about the beauty of nature, especially the nature of this alien world that comes alive at night, through phosphorescent plant life and creatures. I still can feel Jake's awe when he finds himself playing with the plants and creatures in the firework display that is Pandora's night. And the parallel of the science lab's colourful screens and their primitive transmission of data vs Pandora and its colourful transfer of information with so little effort, is a delight in storytelling for me.

Now, almost 2/3rds of the movie is CGI and in my first few years of re-watching, I was always astounded by how seamless it all was. But this time round, I started to see the gilding on the lily. The forest, when Jake escapes from the cat-like Thanator, is beautifully done but starts to look cartoony in some scenes, especially around the native bamboo, a little too one colour, with almost no expected shading. And during Jake's arrival on Pandora, I am starting to see cut scenes from video games, which doesn't so much criticize James Cameron's film CGI as laud the advances in video game CGI movies that were made, probably because of this movie.  I am still awaiting my fully CGI movie, like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within tried to be, but maybe it is never to happen and the mixing perfected by Avatar is what the future is. Still, as Duncan Jones moves forward with Warcraft, I wonder why he is even attempting a people and monster movie if not conceiving it as mostly CGI.

A small bit that I never caught before, not knowing the history of British retailing, but the corporate goon's name is Parker Selfridge. Rather than reaching into genre history, like Ridley Scott did in connecting Blade Runner and Prometheus, Cameron reaches into real history. Oh, it could be just a name but I don't think so. Department store becomes megacorp? Could happen!

The rest of the movie, I still find myself smiling about, flaws and all. I love the destruction of the tree, the callousness of what they do, the utter distain for life other than human -- these are the Bad Guys without a doubt. Though I wonder how Trudy is not in detention after leaving the scene without firing a shot. The final battle is exciting and tragic and it must have been extremely humbling for the Na'vi to realize Jake the demon had a direct line to their goddess figure. I still like noticing that a few more of the avatar drives are working along side the liberators, escorting the remaining humans off the planet. And yes, you still have to wonder how Selfridge will put up with these savages besting him -- by coming back with an utterly mind blowing destructive force, I would imagine.

Bring on the sequels !