Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (SPOILER FREE)

2015, d. J.J. Abrams - in theatre

I'm not necessarily an apologist for the Prequels, as I will fully cede that they are not great movies, but I don't hate them.  They were technically well accomplished, densely universe-expanding, and at times sumptuous visual spectacles.  However, they not just failed to meet fan expectations but in many cases demolished that fandom altogether, and I understand why.  Stilted acting stemming from poor direction, continuity gaffes that took endless "Expanded Universe" novels and comics to rectify (for only the die-hardest of fans) and George Lucas' unchecked level of storytelling freedom all led to a product that was less than satisfying.  Beyond that, three immensely expensive films were constructed to get the audience to a conclusion they already knew, and in the end it didn't tell that story very well.  Yet, when you look at how rich the universe of the prequels is in characters, settings, mythology and history, and that depth is extrapolated over a six-season animated cartoon, countless novels, comics and video games, it is impressive and, in some respects, defensible.

But, as much as I can extrapolate some enjoyment out of the Prequels, they were not what I -- nor anyone else I know who grew up a lover of Star Wars -- wanted for the next Star Wars movie.  We didn't want to go back, we wanted to go forward.  We wanted more Han, Leia, Luke, Lando and Chewbacca.  We had waited 16 years for another Star Wars movie when The Phantom Menace arrived, and we continued to wait for another 16 years for the one we wanted. 

I'm so happy (an understatement) to say that with the arrival of The Force Awakens, that film is here. 

Let's get this right out of the way first: The Force Awakens is not a perfect film.  It's not even a perfect Star Wars film.  But if you look back, none of them are.  Fans have nitpicked through Star Wars from day one, in some respects it is the flaws that help make the great films of this series even more memorable.  But if there's one major criticism about Episode VII, it's that it mirrors too conspicuously the rythms of Star Wars ("A New Hope") and borrows too liberally from the original trilogy serving up a bit of a "greatest hits" medley that's not from the original artists.

It's a fair gripe, as this "medley" is so utterly evident in the first viewing.  When the opening title card "Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." pops up, and the opening horn blast from the Star Wars theme erupts, one is faced with the unknown for the first time.  With the established "Expanded Universe" of stories from the past 20 years largely discarded, we enter The Force Awakens with no idea about where our beloved characters are in their life, or the events that have happened to them since we last saw them, nor do we have really any insight into who the new cast of characters that have been thrust towards us ad nauseum for well over a years.  It's an exciting moment, especially for Star Wars fans.  But as the film plays out the sense of familiarity in plotting and structure help ground us in what we know so that all the new seeds planted by director Abrams, and writers Laurence Kasdan and Michael Arndt don't completely overtake us.

The hero's journey is familiar, the settings have definite parallels to the past, the fight between good and bad seems much the same, and even the big evil weapon recalls the Death Star.  But all these parallels are intentionally just surface, with twinges of nostalgia for the longtime and lapsed fan alike.  But beneath that surface the writers and director rebuild the Star Wars galaxy for a new generation, using the formula to do exactly what George Lucas did almost 40 years ago: establish a rich realm of unexplored potential to send the mind reeling, while still providing an immediately satisfying journey.

The biggest sign of this is in the new characters introduced.  While a returning Harrison Ford as Han Solo delivers a game performance in a meaty role (and Chewbacca is at his best here too), eliciting big dumb smiles from Star Wars fans everywhere, he's still outshone (or at least competitively illuminated) by Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is immediately ingratiating, but just has less to do in the film overall).  I can't overstate how amazing these new characters are, and how endearing they become.  They are not carbon copies of any characters we've seen in the Star Wars universe prior, and they are perhaps an even better acting ensemble than what we got in the original trilogy. So enamored was I by Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, Maz Kanata (an inspired CGI character played by Lupita Nyong'o), General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), and BB-8 that I'm ready to let go of my desire to see more adventures of Han, Luke, Leia et. al.  I want comics and novels starring these new characters far, far more.

The Force Awakens gives us a strong sense of identity for most of the new additions on screen, even though there is still a tremendous amount of mystery surrounding them and their past.  Abrams and company also fill the screen with the requisite amount of visually alluring background and side characters that make the world seem large, diverse, and lived in. 

There's a lot of questions left standing by the film's end, many having to do with the events of the past 30 years, and more still having to do with the background of the new characters we meet.  Even more questions are of the more problematic sort, ones that have you calling into question how things work or how characters do what they do.  But for every aspect that may have you furrowing your brow, there's a dozen or more that will have you smiling, cheering or laughing.  Abrams delivers on the excitement and affable charm, as well as the incredible intensity and spectacle.  Great pains were taken to disseminate what made the original Star Wars work and to repeat that here, it's both obvious and welcome.

The film was released with an unnecessary conversion to 3-D which seems to represent the majority of the screenings. I've seen it in both 2-D and 3-D and found the latter contributed very little (but not altogether nothing) to the experience of the film.  Where it does shine is in showing the depths of hallways and large spaces (such as the interior of the crashed Star Destroyer we see in the trailer) but it's such a nominal boon as to be unnecessary.

For the long time fine, this is a film that demands repeated viewings, at the very least one follow-up watch if only to get past the overwhelming experience of seeing a new Star Wars movie, and allow yourself the experience of soaking up the texture of it.  Where repeated viewings of the Prequels seemed to only amplify the tremendous weaknesses in script, performance, story and directing, multiple viewings of The Force Awakens manage to generate increasing goodwill.  There hits a point of acceptance of any flaws, favor curried by the good time and pleasing stimulation it provides.


ReWatch: Open Range

2003, Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) -- DVD

"Those of us with the knack was made into a special squad," says Charlie Waite, Kevin Costner's freegrazer character, when talking about his past. He is a man with a terrible past, a man who joined the army and discovered a talent for killing. But that was then; he put his past behind him and joined with an honourable free ranging rancher named Boss Spearman. His past still haunts him.

Charlie Waite is the classic anti-hero that became popular in the late 90s and started to fade out in recent years. We are always presented with the anti-hero during the time when he is forced to do death for the greater good, when he is doing right by people who need his skills. We don't see them when death was their mistress, when they chose the wrong side, when they did what was the easiest thing for them to do. We don't get the chance to be horrified by them, the way they are often horrified by themselves. But enough is always related so we get that hesitation, that worry that maybe the beast is still inside the reformed man.

I often think about our fondness for the anti-hero, in pop culture like comic books and games. It says something about the darkness in our own souls, how we see great heroes defeat and arise from that darkness. In any small way we fear our own failings, when we see a man rise above his great ones, to become a hero, we see that potential in ourselves. Or maybe it's just me. When I was young, I saw myself as the hero, the Paladin who would always do right when presented with the hard path. Age points out the naivete in that. While I am in no way as dark as an anti-hero, I can too quickly take the easy path instead of the right one. And if Charlie Waite can do right, maybe then so can I.

Charlie and Boss come into Harmonville with their herd of cattle and headlong into the brutal henchmen of the local rancher. Freegrazers come along with their herds of cattle to feed off land not yet owned by others -- to graze off the free land. They are not popular and the powerful rancher makes sure they know. Boss Spearman is not one to easily back down, but it costs him the life of one of his men and almost another, Button the 16 year old kid played by a young Diego Luna. So, now Charlie and Boss have to do what comes next for honourable men.

This is classic cowboy. Laws are about what is right and wrong but lawmen are as often wrong as they are right. Spearman may not be the law but he knows what is right and how he has to do right by his hurt men. It was never a question for Charlie, as he always does what Boss tells him and he also has his own vengeance to enact -- they shot his dog. You never kill a man's dog. Ask John Wick. But this familiar role is coming down hard on Charlie, who probably doesn't expect to die but expects many many others to die around him, probably Spearman. He has also become sweet on Sue, the doctor's sister and doesn't want her to see what he is under his cowboy gear. But what must be done, must be done.

The fight is both brutal and classic cowboy movie. Many shots go awry but Charlie is methodical. He doesn't get hit, taking down those he recognizes have aim very quickly. The one actual gunslinger, Butler, the man who shot Charlie's friend and Charlie's dog, Tig gets a bullet between the eyes before he can finish his sentence. Charlie isn't waiting for high noon and drawing guns. He is killing.

Cute note. Butler is played by Kim Coates, just another of many recognizable Canadian actors in the  movie, but in Sons of Anarchy, his character's name is Tig. That he killed a dog named Tig in the movie made me grin.

The other note of this movie is how the hero gets the girl. But Sue is no girl. Sure, she is a handsome woman (Annette Bening) but she is no young thing, age and the frontier having made her tired and pragmatic. This is a story of love not known these days; they will get together because they are attracted to each other and because, well, nobody will have either of them. Charlie fears how she will react to who he was, who he has had to become again. But Sue has the maturity here, the strength, for she sees who he is NOW and she is fine with that. Costner and Bening play these scenes beautifully, balancing the gentleness and resignation so well.

This is a Kevin Costner movie, not one of his grand epics that marked his other directorial endeavours. I always forget he directed it. I am surprised he got it made, after the abject failure of The Postman. And he hasn't done anything since. I wish he had done more, more small movies focused on notes he is obviously fond of.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

ReWatch: Love Actually

2003, Richard Curtis (Notting Hill) -- download

Damn, it left Netflix.

So, this has become a tradition without it becoming a thing. The rewatch of Love Actually. And I have to retract my previous statement of it not being a Christmas movie; it definitely is, as the whole "countdown weeks to Christmas" thing comes up prominently on the screen as all the stories progress.

If you don't know, the movie is an ensemble cast of characters in London with subtle connections between friends, family and coworkers showing up as they tell the tale of loves. What I love (*ahem*) about it, is that it is not just Good Love, but All Love. It's not just about things always working out for the best. Laura Linney's Sarah and underwear model (really, that's what he looks like) Karl never do get together. And Alan Rickman & Emma Thompson go through an encounter that their relationship will probably never recover from.

Laura Linney has only been working for Alan Rickman for 2 years and they are great friends, smacking each other and having true heart to hearts. He must be a nice guy which makes his downfall all the more tragic. And yes, he does sleep with his secretary -- the screen editor (and Curtis's wife) recently confirmed that.  Pig. Marmy was right all these years.

P.S. Said Screen editor, Emma Freud's live tweets of the show, are great fun.

The Prime Minister fancies Natalie right away. I get it, it is supposed to be very obvious but it shocks me every time. His sister's comment (Emma Thompson) later on makes these earlier scenes make sense, "20 years ago you would have been his exact type." But in that relationship, he may be the Prime Minister but she has all the power and confidence.

Billy Bob is quite the convincing American asshole.

The relationship between Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson (a grieving recent widower) is great; so raw and close. Friends who mock each other and can still be supportive while being brutally honest. And so is the connection between Neeson and his step-son. Obviously, both of them have been preparing for Sam's mother's death for many years but the two share each other's company of grief very well. That they have Sam's crush to distract them is very sweet.

Bill Nighy is always playing such distinguished gentlemen, he must have had a ball playing the washed up, sleazy rock star. And I am pretty sure that is Laura Vandervoort from Bitten playing one of the background singers; though maybe not, as Vandervoort has always been far more skinny than that singer.

Rick Grimes is not as scary in this movie.  Bing bing Keira, it takes you long enough. I would expect her husband to be dense and unaware of the whole attraction thing, but she should have caught on pretty quickly.  BTW, Keira Knightley is 18 in this movie. And she is marrying Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is 26. Where are her irate parents? Lynden David Hall is the singer at their wedding, and yes, we are supposed to know who he is -- Britishism.

Final thoughts on this round is that I still wish the Colin Frissell story in that Milwaukee bar had all been a dream. Its far too silly when compared to the rest of the movie and was probably only inserted to give all the boyfriends, who attended the movie as a favour to their girlfriends, something to chuckle at.

My least favourite stories should be apparent with Colin Firth's Uncle Jamie and his crush on his maid followed by the very cute porn movie stand-ins, starring the not yet famous Martin Freeman. And yes, its a porn movie, not just a movie with sex scenes. I still think his funny walk at the end of the movie (their first kiss) is a boner walk, after him having maintained decorum during all their previous interactions.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

PC: Fallout 4, Pt 1

The term MurderHobo comes from D&D. It describes a method of playing, wherein characters are the usual wandering vagrants but with homicidal tendencies. Essentially, everything they see, they want to kill for gold or experience points. Dragons, kobolds, city guards, innkeeper -- all are potential fodder for the murdering vagrants who wandered into town. Staying true to the heroic origins of playing D&D are abandoned for the fun of wanton mayhem.

When I play a video game, I always subscribe my character to the heroic quest.  Despite the freedom most games give you, to choose a path, I always end up choosing to be the hero who is liked by everyone. And yet, because video games, I have to choose to be a Bringer of the Wrath in order to be that guy. I have commented on this before, about how the standard violent paradigm in games leads you to become a mass murderer. But I continue down that path because the game has laid out before me what is Right and what is Wrong, with only a gun to differentiate between each.

And yet, Fallout 4, like others in the "open world" concept, allows you to go against the murderous hero idea and just be... murderous. To be the MurderHobo. Everywhere you look, there are encouragements to be amoral. I want that, so kill that guy and take it. Those people are annoying me (seriously, your daughter has been kidnapped 5 times? Maybe she is not so much as being kidnapped as running away with her boyfriend?) so maybe I should just take them out of the equation. I just waded through the bodies of 25 Raiders, gleefully separating limbs and exploding heads, so why stop when there are so many Settlers around me? As you get more powerful, after you have laid waste to so many hundreds of ne're-do-wells, you start to feel The Power in you. The reasons to do good are pushed to the back. Kill, loot, level up. Being Good is not always as rewarding.

Unlike other games, there is no introspection into the violence of the character. Given the already established premise of you being the One Good Man in a world gone bad, as the game again has you awaken in a vault (highly advanced fallout shelters), a man out of time, a man who remembers a less violent (50s influenced) era, it just goes with that. And assumes it is enough. There are none of the moral quandaries as presented above in the actual play or story line. Sure, you can chose to be an asshole, you can chose to run with the violence but the stories, in order to be progressed usually lead you to do The Right Thing.

By now I would have liked to see some commentary of the death in the game, other than "War, war never changes...." There are some subtle attempts, such as having the Scavengers be people not much different from you, but still marked red as enemy -- likely they are attacking you before you attack them. But like Rick in the latest seasons of The Walking Dead, we have gone beyond hoping the next humans we meet are going to be nice people. We start shooting first, wondering about motives later. If he has a gun and some armor on, he is likely seeking to be shot by your Righteous Authority.

I am about half-way through the game, a very very powerful force of Good in The Commonwealth, the wasteland that surrounds ruined Boston. I have been dragging my ass on the main quest where I seek to find my kidnapped son. I have been too busy doing sidequests and helping out every dirt farming settler who needs my help, and they never stop needing my help.

Next part, I talk about these Settlers and how an entirely new element of gameplay allows me to sidestep the MurderHobo and play The Sims: Post-Apocalypse edition.

Friday, December 18, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

2015, Wes Ball -- download

Continuing with my (forced) theme of The Post-Apocalypse, I give you the second in the trying-to-ride-MockingBirds-coattails teen po-ap series, The Maze Runner. The first had the ridiculous premise of kids running a maze to find out why the planet ravaging disease doesn't affect them. In this one, the kids have escaped the maze surrounding their idyllic country abode into ... The Wasteland. The world outside is destroyed, but I am not sure it has any impact on them, as they are all without much memory. That was part of the trials inside the maze -- that they not remember who they were nor where they came from. So, they don't know they are from a world ravaged by a disease, which apparently was able to make sand of everything and knock buildings down.

The second picks up immediately outside as the kids are rescued from the blowing sands and... fast zombies? Where did they come from?  Well, the kids are rescued by adults with guns and ushered into what looks like an oil derrick in the middle of the desert. Yay, you kids have survived the maze and escaped the clutches of the evil corporation WICKED (World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experimental Department) -- talk about a committee that starts with the cool acronym first. But kids, guess what? Not escaped yet!  Bwah hah hah hah... evil laughs and all, by the station leader Little Finger , or as I best know him, Tommy Carcetti on The Wire. The kids escape again.

So, we know a bit more about the world now. The Flare is the disease. It turns people into zombies. Or kills them. And it was caused by the ravages of solar flares, thus the ruined cities and desert everywhere. All rather neat for a po-ap background, but even stranger considering the advanced nature of the maze they used for experimentation. Anywayz, this movie was more appealing to me than the first and frankly, it felt more... real. The kids are trying to escape, basically from anyone who wants to use them. But in a po-ap world where everyone is scrabbling to survive, why wouldn't they? And considering the world of WICKED is still pretty clean, well fed and full of high tech, its no wonder not all the kids buy into hiding in a ruined wilderness. Alas, everything is a trilogy so we end on another cliffhanger as the kids find reason to return to WICKED and end their wickedness.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: Turbo Kid

2015, François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell -- download

The Post-Apocalypse. This is the future, this is 1997. That is how Turbo Kid begins. The movie is  a comedic, ultra-violent take on all those 80s/90s terrible po-ap movies. Everyone is going to attach it to something they experienced as a kid; for me, it says nothing more than Solarbabies, which in itself was a ripoff of Mad Max, full of teens. Turbo Kid himself is a teen wandering the wastelands on his BMX bike (everyone rides Mad Max-d bicycles) collecting junk and selling it for comics. The wasteland is full of perfectly fine refuse, seemingly untouched by years after some sort of apocalypse, and bright with indestructible plastic colours!

This is an indie movie just dying to become a cult classic, even more so than its influencers. From its Star Wars-ian poster to the extremely catchy new80z electronica theme music to irresistibly quotable lines, "This is my GNOME STICK !", the movie marketing just wants to be meme-d and social media shared. I am not sure it was successful as it wanted to be, but it got my attention. And wildly so.

So, like all the plots that have come before, The Kid (nameless!) is dragged into a battle against the evil overlord Zeus (Michael Ironside!) and a masked sidekick (Skeletron). He finds the corpse of his comic book hero (Turbo Rider!) and armed with his hero's pew pew fist blaster, he fights the good fight. The fighting is completely over the top, as the original short required, high on the gore factor but so much fun. Alongside Turbo Kid is Apple, a ditzy blonde with her own secrets. And by ditzy, I don't mean curl her hair on her fingers dumb, I mean forgot to take her meds odd but oh so endearing. And she has a gnome stick. There isn't much more plot than that, and really you don't need it. Now, I wonder if it will be released on cardboard box VHS.

Friday, December 11, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: The Last Witch Hunter

2015, Breck Eisner (Sahara, The Crazies) -- cinema

OMG, Vin Diesel finally made a movie with his D&D character as the main !  I always assumed the evolution of Riddick was him playing to his witch hunter Melkor but, well, this movie he actually plays a sword wielding witch hunter !  OK ok, the D&D player in me loves how Vin becomes "that guy" whenever asked by a talk show host about his D&D playing past, "Let me tell you about my character...." And he has to rein himself in from going on and on about that time when he slew that ghoul and... and... Notice the talk show host looking blankly?  Anywayz, I understand that Melkor could never be used (thanks Tolkien estate) as the character's name but the original script was actually based on Vin's rambling !! I am disappointed that Timur Bekmambetov was not part of it, as originally planned, for I love his vision but the movie turned out pretty good despite the alterations since original conception.

Vin is Kaulder, the member of a D&D party hunting down a witch queen. They look to be Norse warriors but they are led by a priest and it is the Dark Ages, so they really could be anywhere. The Queen is hiding in a massive tree, some sort of bastardization of Yggdrasil, and she makes quick work of the warriors (no +1 weapons I assume) except for Kaulder who takes her down. But not before she curses him.... with eternal life. Flash forward to Kaulder in current NYC as the immortal lead hunter of the Axe & Cross, who no longer just kill witches outright but keeps them in check. Witchery is a bloodline and it's up to them to choose dark or light; if they choose the former, they should expect a visit from Kaulder.

This movie just looks good. The design choices for the witchy ways of doing things were both wild & natural, but also corrupted and altered by magic. So much of it hinted at the choices witches have to make, and at how easily they can become corrupted for the sake of more power. Vin as Kaulder modern is classic magic realism hero with an arsenal at hand and fine tailoring. Rose Leslie (from Game of Thrones) plays the naive good witch beside him, as they seek to uncover the conspiracy raising the vanquished Witch Queen from the dead. I won't be so blind as to say this movie is wonderful, but not as harshly horrible as the critics may lead you to believe. Vin does prove he only has a limited range of emotions he can faithfully play, as some of his memories of his past made me roll my eyes.  This one will definitely join My Shelf.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


2014, Dan Gilroy (writer Real Steel, Freejack) -- Netflix

I was so used to babbling on as I did with the horror movie posts, I just skipped right past the '3 short paragraphs'.

I just finished a rewatch of The Day After Tomorrow; from my collection, but no, not garnering a ReWatch post -- not yet. The movie is dated, and not just because of the use of really old cell phone technology, but because of a baby faced Jake Gyllenhaal. That was 11 years ago, when he could still play a high school kid. In Nightcrawler he still has a sense of youth about him,  but there is no fresh faced kid in this; this kid grew up into quite the creepy character.

Louis Bloom is another example in a recent string of characters barely surviving in society, definitely awkward but more sinister than Sheldon Cooper endearing. The movie begins with him stealing from a construction site, only to pummel the guard who catches him -- he likes his watch. With metal in hand, he sells it to a scrap yard and has the gall to ask the owner for a job. He doesn't understand why he wouldn't hire a thief. On his return home, he happens across a crash and is exposed to the stringer cameramen, who wander the nights of LA, capturing & selling bloody footage for the TV news. Bloom is inspired.

The key point of his introduction is to make us aware that Bloom is intelligent, very very eager and lacking a certain ... something. Emotional quotient perhaps? That he is in his thirties and not as accomplished as his research leads him to believe he should be says that he stumbles over every interaction, that his belief in how to do something outweighs the social cues he should pay attention to. Until now. This time he discovers an affinity for horrific news footage and makes the right (struggling) connection at the right (struggling) station.

And yeah, he's a blooming sociopath who has found his calling.

Gyllenhaal really sells it as Bloom. Skinnied down, but without the "did he lose weight?" that I ask of almost every Hollywood actor these days, in these days of never-too-skinny. Bloom would be rakishly thin, never eating well, not really knowing he has to, as he moves from one obsession to another. High IQ and low EQ has him gaining knowledge quickly, applying simple social interactions from theory but not getting any real connection with anyone. He really is scary.

Of course, as we know news is cut throat, we know things have to escalate -- one more body, one more death, one more gorey shot. Bloom succeeds wildly, making money and a reputation but has to escalate to maintain it. The consequences are unsettling.

Renee Russo is the news producer desperate to make ratings and accepts Bloom's amateurish but shocking vid. She becomes his conspirator in ever escalating shots, as he wants respect & money and she just needs the ratings to keep her job. She is the aging producer, and I was glad Gilroy had her play to her age, lines and all. In the right lighting and makeup, everyone seems ageless and defiant Nina the producer appeared weighed down by it all.

This is not a movie with a definite ending nor climax, just an escalation to a resolution. We can be shocked at how things sum up or we can look to the coverage of the latest shootings and not be surprised at all.

Every sociopath has his place I guess.

Friday, December 4, 2015

I Saw This!! - Nextflix Fix

Daredevil (season 1)
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (pilot +2 episodes)
Sense8 (season 1)
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp (8 episodes)
Master of None (season 1)
With Bob and David (4 episodes)
Jessica Jones (season 1)


If we've learned anything from the past two years of Marvel Studios' television efforts, it's that it operates best when confined.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to challenge the audience to enjoy it week to week, like some sort of sick dare.  The demands of filling out a 22-episode order while dovetailing in precisely-timed plot elements from the cinematic world is definitely more hassle than it's been worth.  Even with focused story lines it seems like an aimless show, and for some time Marvel's television wing looked dire.   Then Marvel's Agent Carter came along with an 8-episode order, tightly plotted with clear focus, and was one of the most exciting and entertaining shows of the year (if not exactly a ratings blockbuster).  Daredevil season 1 appeared on Netflix in May with a 13-episode order and played out more like a mini-series or, well, 13-hour movie rather than a TV show.  It was definitely built for binge-watching, as is the Netflix way.

If each of Marvel's films are supposed to tackle a particular genre (Ant-Man is a heist film, Guardians of the Galaxy a space opera, Captain America: Winter Soldier a 70's spy thriller, etc) then Daredevil follows that lead by being a heavy, HBO-style, R-rated crime drama, and it does it very, very well.  While the first season does act, in a way, as an origin story, it's decidedly not the focus.  The first episode opens with Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) already in disguise, battling on the streets and docks of Hell's Kitchen, while trying to establish a respectable law firm with his best buddy, Foggy Nelson (Eldon Hensen).  The tagline could easily be "what he can't do in the courtroom, he does on the streets", but that's terribly lame and thankfully they didn't use it.

The show manages to worm its way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe quite easily, by noting that Hell's Kitchen has fallen on hard times once more (after years of gentrification) in the two years since the alien invasion of New York that occurred in The Avengers.  A coalition of crime lords has taken up residency and sliced up the neighbourhood, but it's a fragile arrangement which breaks easily when a masked vigilante starts to expose their weaknesses to each other. Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) negotiates these frailties and establishes himself as Kingpin, despite wishing to stay in the shadows.  The show could have so very easily painted Fisk as a larger-than-life villain, but D'Onofrio finds an extremely vulnerable core for the character.  He's a man who's doubtlessly smart and ruthlessly brutal, but he's got a tortured past, and a new love in his life who, more than anyone and more than anything, he wants her respect.  How the show negotiates Fisk, and just as much how it validates his relationship with Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) is its most deft and brilliant touch.  Vanessa is not in the dark about what Fisk does, and she's not an accomplice either.  She's a woman who understands power and is willing to support the man she loves in his misguided campaign to remake Hell's Kitchen into more than it ever has been.

Murdock and Nelson are joined in their firm by Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) as their clerk, whose own experiences with the corrupt landlords of Hell's Kitchen draws her deeper into the conspiracies of the criminal underworld.  She gets some assistance from Ben Urich (a fantastic Vondie Curtis-Hall) but knows she's way in over her head.  The show gets a lot of credit for showing Karen's resiliency as well as giving her character-defining moments that are completely separate from the main character.  She gets a really nice arc.  Foggy's character moments are more defined by his relationships with Matt and Karen, but the episode where Foggy has to deal with discovering Matt's vigilante activities, his supernatural abilities, and face a history of lies is one of the absolute best dramatic hours of the year, and certainly a trope of superhero storytelling that rarely gets explored with such depth and emotion.

The series sells itself beautifully at the end of episode two, with a knock-down, drag-out, one-take, no-cuts hallway brawl between Daredevil and a gang of thugs. I'm certain it takes inspiration from a similar scene in Old Boy, and perhaps the confined-space fights of Snowpiercer and The Raid 2.  Through flashbacks with Matt Murdock as a young boy, we learn of his relationship with his father, a boxer who wasn't the greatest but could always take a punch and would always finish a fight standing), so the Daredevil mantra is "get back up, never quit", and boy does the show ever show Matt taking a beating.

The show deals with many themes: fathers and sons, friendship, secret lives, and the power of the truth, among others, and they're all quite deftly handled.  If the show falls flat at any point, it's in its final moments, the rather unclimactic final battle between Daredevil (finally in full costume) and the Kingpin.  Its an event that seems like an afterthought, occurring in a plain back alley without much flare at all.  A big action setpiece wasn't exactly called for, but something a bit more elaborate, a bit more in scale of the show was certainly more deserved.


I have no shortage of love for stories and characters.  If I could do nothing else in life but read and watch and consume, I would actually be quite content.  I endeavor to do so, often, but as real life busies up, investing too much thought and time into a character or a world becomes more and more difficult.  So when something captures my attention and makes me not just love it, but fall in love with it, that's a pretty special moment.  I kind of had that earlier this year with Peggy Carter, which put on display the character's immense strength that Captain America: The First Avenger never truly let resonate.  The show also gave glimpses into the character's vulnerability (not weaknesses per se), showing that she wasn't Thor or the Hulk or even Captain America, but still a regular (if exceptional) person. 

Phryne Fisher is very much a character in the same vein as Peggy (or perhaps it's vice-versa), a tough as nails, whip-smart, resourceful, witty, utterly charming and disarmingly attractive (moreso because of her personality) woman who, like Peggy, exists in an era where women were almost unanimously deemed the inferior sex and could only contribute to society in a limited manner.  Why Peggy butts heads with the establishment, in no real position to affect dramatic institutional change, Phryne is wealthy enough that the establishment at least has to pay attention to her, if only to humor her (but even by humoring her, she gets exactly what she wants).

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is, on the one hand, a by-the-numbers Poirot or Miss Marple-like light detective series based off a character who originally appeared in a modern series of novels.  On the other hand, it takes place in the early 1920's in Melbourne and deals with stories that era-authentic novels wouldn't touch, such as mixed race marriages, homosexuality and abortion (that's just in the first three episodes).  It's a tad revisionist, in a way, but it's also heartening to see stories such as these which take a more liberal standpoint than society at the time was actually willing to consider.  That these stories still echo the modern day just highlights their ingeniousness in construction (if not exactly groundbreaking execution).

I would call Phryne an epic woman, not just a detective but a real Jacqueline-of-all-trades, in the James Bond fashion.  Her roots in the world run far and deep, and she can not only handle an airplane and her liquor, but she can handle herself.  She's glamorous and sexy but unafraid to get her hands (or clothes) dirty.  She unapologetically enjoys recreational sex and drugs, which implies a cavalier attitude, but the truth is she cares deeply about people and society, even when she doesn't agree with them.

Essie Davis radiates intense amounts of charisma every moment she's on screen.  She commands the screen so resoundingly that as unbelievable as Phryne Fisher should be, she makes her not only work, but captivating.  The rest of the cast is charming as well, a solid supporting ensemble to the last, but there's no doubt that Davis is the star of the show, and, along with her leading turn in the sleeper hit The Babadook, she should be crashing Hollywood any minute now as the next big bad in a Marvel movie or starting an action franchise of her own.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries only holds the barest thread of ongoing narrative, as such it doesn't command a binge watch.  It's more of an apertif, an amuse-bouche, something sweet and flavourful to savor on occasion.


When Sense8 debuted, it did so to a lot of confusion.  Advance reviews were middling at best because reviewers seemed to have been given only the first three episodes of the globe-hopping sci-fi epic, and it became utterly evident that the fourth episode was truly the series' lynchpin.  In that fourth episode the crux of the series is laid bare, the mythology explained and the threats were made real.  Even with that clarity, the show would still be a difficult one for many to grasp, as it played heavily with themes of gender and sexual identity, and asked its viewer to invest in a cast that honestly had never been presented before, all while toying with the science fictional concept of a group mind.  It's not an easy sell.  People coming into it based on the names attached -- Matrix creators Lana and Andy Wachowski, and Babylon 5's J. Michael Straczynski -- maybe were expecting something more pulpy, more space operatic, more fantastical, and surely there was some disappointment in that.

Yet Sense8 delivered roughly 12 hours of "television" (it's Netflix) that was rich and diverse in character and story, presenting an unfamiliar world (both real visions and made-up constructs) that took the viewer on a trip to different lands (from Mexico City to Nairobi to  Berlin to Mumbai) and into different cultures, which seemed just as much the point as the story it was telling.  Of equal importance was having a trans woman as one of the main characters (Nomi's story no doubt was particularly personal to Lana Wachowski).

The sexuality, particularly of the gay and trans characters, was prominently on display, almost to a point of not having much straight sex represented at all.  It's hard to say that it wasn't confrontational, showing Nomi and Amanita mid- and post-coitus, nor is it easy to think that showing an honest romantic and sexual relationship between Lito and Hernando wasn't a decided choice.  But the world is better for them, not only as titillation, but as habituation.  If we can get used to graphic violence as we have over the past few decades, then relatively truthful depictions of queer relationships should be just as easy.

For all its progressiveness, Sense8 isn't a flawless show.  There's elements of its international cast that seem reductive and stereotypical, as well, the show has a bit of difficulty juggling its ensemble episode-to-episode, while equally maintaining a consistent narrative.  Some of the characters have more engaging stories than others, though a lot of that seems to be in the eye of the viewer, as I've discovered in many conversations on the series.  But there's no doubt that by the end of episode 12, it feels like it finally found its footing, and "season 1" ends on what feels more like a mid-season break then truly the end of its first run.

Season 2 has been greenlit, and I await it with much anticipation


I missed out on the sketch comedy of The State entirely.  It was a product of the mid-90's MTV original programming push (which also saw the likes of The Real World, The Ben Stiller Show, and Singled Out come to air), filling the gap as the outre sketch-com of record between the Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show with Bob and David.  But in Canada we didn't have MTV at that time, we had MuchMusic, which was (for better and worse) not the same thing.  I wasn't even aware of The State or its 11-member crew until I started delving into the comedy podcast surge circa 2009.  Then suddenly it seemed the influence of The State was everywhere.  Reno 9-11 was probably the most prominent, but faces and names like Ken Marino, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, David Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black just kept cropping up over and over again, especially in those comedy podcasts.  I had barely, if ever, heard of these guys, and yet they were revered, legendary almost, and one of the repeated works of note was something called Wet Hot American Summer ("Wet Hot" for short).

When I finally got around to watching Wet Hot, I found it amusing, but not the groundbreaking comedy that it had been touted, and not something I went back to.  Yet, there was a charm to it -- a cast (which also included non-State players like Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce, rounded out by future celebs like Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Amy Pohler) that seemed fully invested in the bit (of 20 and 30-somethings playing high-school age camp counselors), and an absurdity that is both subversive and overt -- something that over time cemented itself in my mind as representative of the cult classic it had become.

The Netflix follow-up series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, despite all my podcast listening, snuck up on me, a genuine surprise when I caught wind of its existence only a few weeks before its release.  No only was the entire cast returning, but it was expanding, ballooning out of control almost with guest shots from some of my favourite comedic actors and podcast personalities (H. Jon Benjamin, Michaela Watkins, Randall Park, Jordan Peele, Weird Al, Kristen Wiig) .  Yes, even those big time celebs - Banks, Cooper, Pohler, and Rudd - were back in, with cast member from Mad Men (Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Rich Sommer) joining the fray too.  Even if it was a trainwreck, it would still be a sight to behold.

It's anything but.  Certainly it's not everyone's cup of tea, but nearly fifteen years after the release of the original film, for the same cast to return to the same roles, in ostensibly a prequel is a delightful slice of mad genius. With eight half-hour episodes, First Day acts as ostensibly a four-hour movie rather than a TV series proper, and it features a wealth of comedic performers, writers, and directors at the height of their ability.  Even at 4 hours, it feels even more focused than the original Wet Hot and the narrative arc is thoroughly more satisfying.  It deftly manages to speckle itself with references to the original film without lazily relying upon "remember this" punchlines or stalling the film with in jokes that stifle the comedy.  I didn't have a fresh viewing of Wet Hot under my belt so most of the references flew over my head obliviously, not as curiously stilted lines.

Perhaps the most amazing feat of First Day is the way creators Wain and Showalter negotiated the cast, where obviously many of the bigger celebrities only had limited days to work on the film.  There are times the absence of a character on screen is felt, or the continuity of the narrative as it jumps between scenes and sets feels highly incongruous, but then that's also part of the absurdist charm.  When one of the goals is to create, cast, reherse, and perform a complex musical in the span of 8 hours, logic and time get thrown out the window.  Likewise, rationalizing these largely 40-something performers playing teenage counselors is also something one has to let go of, or rather appreciate the intent therein.

I revisited the original Wet Hot after watching First Day and found it a more rewarding experience as a result.  Unlike some comedies which tend to cannibalize their source material, First Day expands and enriches the ridiculous world of Camp Firewood.  The story of Wet Hot doesn't scream for more, but the experience certainly does.  It would be wise for Wain and Showalter to find another genre worth lovingly parodying, Christopher Guest style.


Master of None creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have created the perfect anti-cringe comedy. 
After Seinfeld emerged as one of the biggest TV comedies of all-time, the language of humour on TV changed.  With peers like The Larry Sanders Show and successors like Curb Your Enthusiasm and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the genre of "cringe comedy" has become a staple of television.  At its purest it's about awful people doing bad things or being involved in bad situations, both of which they should be smart enough to avoid.  With this kind of humour there's the inevitability, that the characters are going to get found out, that everything's going to fall apart, and in that tension of waiting for it to happen they find humour.

Almost every sit com treads in this style of comedy, though it's more often than not the single-camera comedies as opposed to the traditional 3-camera, "live in front of a studio audience", situation comedies that play deeper into the genre (the conventional sitcom generally wants you to like their characters, while a single camera comedy wants you to like them too, but also hate them just a little bit).  This expectation of things going wrong, of heightened comedic situations, is the norm on TV, which is what makes Master of None so intriguing.

 It's a show about nice people living normal lives, having conversations (sometimes mature, sometimes silly), exploring ideas and being almost 100% relatable even if they're in different careers, living in different cities, and having different cultural backgrounds.  It's a show about many things, but the key is understanding, and to have a central character, Ansari's Dev, actually show an aptitude for learning, growth, and change as a person is almost shocking in a world where sitcom characters generally need to be stagnate.

Ansari is one of the biggest touring stand-up comedians in North America, and having been a fan of his for over a decade now I've watch him evolved from a comic who had a delightful skewered view on observational (and sometimes political) comedy into someone with a genuine interest in society and how it works, examining the way people are different, the same, and how they connect on those grounds, as friends, lovers and enemies.  This perspective informs both Dev and the show as a whole.  Each of its 10 episodes is themed, from children to parents, dating to cohabitating, not always original topics but explored in the most unique of ways.  The inaugural episode, for instance, opens with Dev having sex (when's the last time...or the first time've seen an Indian character on TV having a sexual relationship?) only to stop and worriedly proclaim that the condom broke.  This leads to a frank, yet funny, examination about what the fallout could be and whether taking the Plan B pill is the right decision (again, one waits for the cringe factor to arrive, never to appear).  From there Dev explores with his friends the idea of what it would like to be a dad, from the perspective of people who are in no stage of life to be parents.  The show then takes Dev and friends to a children's birthday party (where in a normal cringe comedy, the childless adults tend to make it an event to exhibit extreme self-centered behavour, here it's really an exploration of parenthood from outside eyes) and follows it up with Dev taking a friend's children out for a day around New York (again, where you're trained to wait for something bad to happen, like the kids running off, or getting hurt, here it's about Dev understanding how exhausting kids can be).  Even as the show explores this topic of kids and parenting, it's smart, insightful, but doesn't come to any pat, definite answers, but there's sincerity and some consolation in watching people explore those thoughts and ideas in an honest manner.

The show continues like this for its remaining nine episodes, exploring its themes with the same forthright nature.  The best episodes have a tremendous amount of heart, such as Dev and his friend Bryan, both first generation Americans, exploring their parents origins from India and Korea, having been afforded the luxury of detachment from  their parents hardships (Ansari's own mother and father play Dev's parents, and while they're not naturally gifted actors, they emit a tremendous amount of charm).  A later episode, titled "Indians on TV", explores the very issue of how Indian characters are portrayed on television, quite hilariously, but also with much provocation, calling out the industry for demanding any Indian-American actor use "the accent".  There's so many things happening here you just don't see on TV and done so in a manner that defies convention.

Despite tackling a new theme each episode, there is a through-line in the series of Dev's relationship with Rachel (the ridiculously adorable Noel Wells), as it goes from the inaugural episode's drunken hook-up to their fraught cohabitation.  The chemistry is amazing between Wells and Ansari, making it utterly easy to invest in their relationship, which results in one of the most rewarding romantic comedies in some time (but don't let "rom com" scare you off, it's more in the Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater style than a Katherine Heigl joint) .  At ten episodes, Master of None is too good to have this short a run.  I caught wind that more episodes are being written, and by all accounts it sounds like feedback for the show has been quite positive, so I'm hoping a second season (if not multiple seasons) is swiftly announced as this is a show with a voice that needs to be heard.  Plus it's got incredible style and great taste in music.


I brought up Mr. Show with Bob and David earlier in relation to The State as seminal sketch comedy programs of the 1990s.  The implication there is I was on top of the Mr. Show show scene at the time, but truth is I largely came at it from behind, with the DVD releases in the early 2000s.  Not only wasn't I really invested in Mr. Show when it ran, but I'm not even certain I liked the show on DVD...not at first anyway.

Mr. Show was very conceptual comedy, and not necessarily an idea that universal.  They tended to be concepts that made creators Bob Odenkirk and David Cross laugh because they tweaked their particular skewered sense of comedy, pop culture and society.   It took me multiple viewings of Mr. Show's four-season run on DVD to really get the majority of it, but even then it was in large part thanks to the spectacular commentary tracks that I actually felt a part of the joke.  In those commentaries, Bob, David and their cast of writers and performers sat down and doled out stories behind the sketches which brought them to life in a way that they didn't have on their own.

This isn't to say that Mr. Show wasn't funny on its own, because it was, but the true depth of many of the sketches would only reveal themselves if you knew the points of reference or even the frame of mind of their creators.  Without the context, Cross, Odenkirk and company come across as alternately angry or silly, dishing out skit with bite, or ridiculous skits about people falling down (or sometimes just crude, base humour put into a context where its not usually found).

The four-episode Netflix reunion,  ...With Bob and David picks up from Mr. Show as if it hasn't missed a beat.  The majority of the cast and crew has gone on to do their own things -- with Odenkirk breaking out on Breaking Bad into Better Call Saul, Cross featuring in countless movies and shows not to mention his tremendous standup, Paul F. Tompkins having become one of podcast's premiere improv and character comedians, and Tom Kenny making a mint from voicing Spongebob amongst others -- they all come together to reunite and get back to the same vision they had before.  One would think that as they grew and changed as people that their comedy would be somewhat different, but it's pretty much the same.  It's barbed and ridiculous in equal measure, the types of characters one could expect (hateful, self centric people are commonly thrust into situations which they can only make more awkward) are plentiful. 

While the majority of sketches feel like par for the Bob and David course, there are a couple of standouts, including Better Roots, a filmed piece that finds its director whitewashing Alex Haley's roots to make slaves into "helpers" and make the white farm runners look like kind, generous employers (super funny dude Brandon Johnson gets a fantastic lead role here).  Another posits what the "Jew-run Hollywood" would look like if it were "Muslim-run Hollywood" instead.  While not outright hilarious, they are provocatively funny, and somehow feature a sensibility of smart and stupid in some common measure.

The 4-episode season is remarkably brisk, an over-before-it-began kind of feeling, but at the same time it does feel quite special to get this diverse range of talents together, including appearances from most of the original supporting cast (notably missing Jerry Minor, Sarah Silverman, and Jack Black).  There's a behind-the-scenes making-of "5th episode" that, like the audio commentaries on the DVD of yore, provide a peek into the process.  In one particularly delightful moment we see Cross' interview casually interrupted by Odenkirk as  imprompteu through a sketch idea for a few minutes.  It's incredible watching them work through these things in these moments, and a delight.  To see the ideas gestate, it's almost better than the polished product (at times it is).


If you don't know Marvel's Jessica Jones prior to watching Marvel's Jessica Jones, don't feel bad.  She's a fairly nominal character in Marvel's vast comics pantheon, but giving her a spotlight in the company's "Cinematic Universe" will bolster her to superstar status, if not quite in the same range as Iron Man and Spider-Man, but certainly becoming as familiar a name as Daredevil or probably even Ant-Man.

Jessica Jones emerged as a product of Marvel's "MAX" line of comics, one that allowed creators a bit more liberty with sex, violence, and language than your average tights-and-capes book.  Like the TV show, the comic book (titled Alias, which could not be used for the Nextflix series for obvious JJ Abrams reasons) is about a private detective with a past as a short-lived superhero.  The TV series keeps the relative broad strokes of this story and character intact, including an awkward relationship with Luke Cage, but it forges its own path.  Where the comic seemed predestined to be a semi-conventional P.I. TV series, this series forgoes the "case-of-the-week" setup, instead driving forward through its 13-episode order with a stronger, singular thread.

The show finds Jessica haunted by a past trauma, having been held captive by a man named Kilgrave for six months up until he was run over by a bus.  Kilgrave had the ability to have anyone do as he wishes by simply telling them what to do, and Jessica was under his every whim, a plaything he professed to love.  Time has passed but the scars run deep and now Kilgrave has re-emerged, back from the dead.  Jessica is torn between fleeing and hunting the sociopath down.  It's only the case of another of Kilgrave's victims, heading to trial for murdering her parents, that gives Jessica the fortitude to fight.

The show does a remarkable job building the threat of Kilgrave over the first three or four episodes, with only hints and occasional visual cues of the man himself.  Even once revealed, Kilgrave is easily the scariest villain in a Marvel story to date, and the nastiest predator one could imagine.  Kilgrave is given a couple of episodes focus, even a slight moment of redemption, but the show knows well how to toy with its audience.  Casting beloved Doctor Who David Tennent, with his considerable charm, was a brilliant move as he brings that same Doctor charm, but utterly twisted.  His backstory is made clear and even provides some sympathy, but the show treads it well, saying that sympathy is not enough.  Kilgrave does what he does because he knows no other way, and he's incapable of really trying.

The intention of the show is clear though, this is a story about sexual abuse, domestic violence, and emotional abuse.  It's not the specifics that a Law & Order SVU seems to uneasily delight in, but rather the emotional impact that one has both during and after such an incident, as well as the persistent power one's abuser still has even after the abuse has seemingly abated.  We wade right into Jessica's post traumatic stress right away, but we find the hero within almost instantly in her willingness to sacrifice her own comfort in order to help a stranger who faces a similar situation.  Kristen Ritter, makes for an unlikely superhero, but a winning flawed protagonist.  She captures the attitude, the bitterness, the pain and anger, the desire and drive to do good mixed with the need for self-preservation, it's an award-worthy performance (no doubt to be overlooked because of the genre).  She's the lead of the show, 100%, and she earns it every step of the way.  She's given a love interest in Luke Cage, with whom she has a complicated back story, and their union is fraught with difficulty (it's uncannily like the story of Another Earth though I suspect utterly unintentional), but there's definitely something that works, and Ritter and Mike Colter have a crackling energy between them.

The supporting cast is largely great, and their storylines play out almost universally well.  Eka Darville plays Jessica's strung-out neighbour Malcom, who makes a pretty dramatic transition in the series (though it peters out towards the end), and Rachael Taylor is fantastic as Trish "Patsy" Walker, Jessica's best friend and media personality (Trish is the show's MVP, getting her own very rewarding storyline somewhat independent of Jessica's).  Carrie Anne Moss takes on the role of high-powered lawyer Jeri Hogarth, whose affair with her secretary turns to the messiest of divorce proceedings, all of which gets integrated into the crux of the show's first season, at times awkwardly and at times quite brilliantly.

Like Daredevil before it, if there's a flaw in Netflix's plan for these Marvel shows it's forcing them into a 13-episode format.  Both series start to wear around episode 9, and then have a rough race to the finish.  Episode 9 here borders on being a terrible episode in an otherwise great series, starting with a riling-up-the-mob sequence that's straight out of a 1930's Universal Horror movie.  The show from thereout loses its tremendous forward thrust as it starts to pad out the episode with more asides for its tertiary characters.  I think at 10 episodes Jessica Jones would have had a perfect run, but as is there's at least two "we got Kilgrave...oh, he's escaped" scenarios too many.

But that's a quibble.  It's amazing we now have at least four superhero shows with female showrunners (Arrow, Peggy Carter, Supergirl, Jessica Jones), and Melissa Rosenberg manages to acquit herself of writing the Twilight movies quite nicely, showing more of her experience with Dexter instead by heading another binge-worthy series.  Some are calling Jessica Jones the best Marvel yet, and I can't really agree, since I enjoy the big, brassy, expensive spectacle of the films fart too much, but it's certainly got a case for best drama and best series.  Not having piles of history and expectations behind her has its advantages.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Martian

2015, Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise) -- cinema

The Martian was my favourite book this year and I was rather stoked it was being made into a movie. The book read like a movie, being an incredibly lean story focused on the steps of his survival and little else. It was lauded as a love story to science, but really it is quite the fantasy, despite the hard science that is under the microscope on almost every page. For one, Mark Watney is so incredibly upbeat and positive, you think he was made of antidepressants. Secondly, the idea the world would pull together to rescue a lone man from Mars is ridiculous. Had it happened in our world they would have turned off the monitors and waited for him to die. But the fact a book was written with unabashed optimism and hope was an utter delight. I just gobbled this story up with a smile on my face and chuckles out loud on the bus.

This is not Matt Damon's first time being an astronaut marooned on a planet, as he was the asshole scientist who manipulated his rescue in Interstellar, killing a man and himself in the weak willed attempt. And let's not forget Saving Private Ryan. As the meme said, the American government has invested a lot in saving Matt Damon.

But he is perfect as Watney, quick with the smile, the crude jokes & language and believable with the science talk. He's relatable. He's just a likeable guy.

If you haven't seen the trailer, he ends up stranded on Mars when a freak storm (even freakier considering Mars' air density doesn't allow such storms) slams a communications antenna into him, knocking him out and killing his suit monitor. He appears dead to the rest of the crew and they have only minutes to escape. They do. The third mission to Mars ends on a depressing note.

But he wakes up, blood having congealed enough to seal the suit, along with the shrapnel, and he is able to get to the habitat. Alive but trapped with little food and no communication, how is he going to survive the four years until the 4th Mars mission? With SCIENCE of course! This book/movie is made for all the people who love the Internet celeb of Bill Nye, who listened to Quirks & Quarks on CBC and who loved the McGyver aspects of Myth Busters.

The story condenses down to Watney figuring out how to solve those greatest problems: food (requring water) and communication. Most other needs are filled by the redundancy of the mission and most of the equipment is made to last years. Unfortunately the only collection of music he has is disco; Mark hates disco. Ridley Scott brings the greatest of the science scenes together with great flourish, but less exposition. We get he is doing sciency stuff even if we never have it explained.

And to fill in the drama, he constantly flips back to Earth and how they are dealing. In a movie that could have been made of one star, he fills the supporting cast with recognizable faces; kind of annoyingly so in making Mindy Park white (MacKenzie Davis from Halt & Catch Fire) and Kapoor being played by (*checks spelling*) Chiwetal Ejiofor instead of an Indian actor. I would have gone with Irrfan Khan, from Jurassic World. But it works; the scenes at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Labs are enthralling, as all the alpha nerds have to band together to help plan the rescue of Watney. Of particular note, was Donald Glover as the math nerd who figures out a key calculation for getting the mission ship back to Mars in time. Scott makes all of this very low key drama, very dramatic indeed. You know the end of the movie is going to be He Is Rescued but you are still carried along with the failures and recoveries.

Also, and I have mentioned my love for it before, but again we have a lovely sense of physical design going on. From Watney's spacesuit to the rover trucks to the HUDs used in the from-the-camera-view scenes where they make use of Watney's exposition -- the look & feel of the movie is just yummy. And let us not forget Fake Mars. This is the most colourful Mars we have seen before, not all red, all the time. There are gradients to the horizons and big, massive landscape shots that are really meant to inspire us to go there. I do hope that someone's Flickr feed from Mars happens in my lifetime.

I loved this movie, if you haven't gathered it yet. From a story, its all rather simplistic and doesn't have a lot of nuanced characters, nor would it have had any time to develop any. But the blatant optimism and love of ingenuity spoke to me. Yeah me, the not so optimistic guy. Can't deny I love it when I see it, because I see so little of it in real life. Go see the movie. And read the book, yet another example of a success in self publishing, which started as a blog entry!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Double Oh...24: Spectre

Spectre Preamble:

Oh man, this is my first "Double Oh..." entry for a brand new Bond movie... but that doesn't make it all that much different from most of my "Double Oh..." entries, considering that most of them I did were after seeing a Bond movie for the first time.  The only difference this time is I don't have dozens of "ranking Bond" lists and years of reviews and other dissections as background noise.  All I really have is first impressions.

In anticipation of seeing Spectre I rewatched all of the Craig 007 films again.  I like each of them more and more each time I watch them.  There's a fluidity between them that's uncommon for the Bond series otherwise, a connectedness that the series had always tried to distance itself from previously.  Whether it was being too mired in formula, or too concerned with passing the torch at any moment, or too reactionary to the popular cinematic trends of the time, I don't know.  The novels (from what I've heard) had a strong sense of continuity, something this series of Bond films is doubling down on,

Anticipation was high, but what I had to expect, I don't know.  I've tried to avoid rumor mongering but the intonations that this would be a remake of On Her Majesty's Secret Service had reached my ears and it disappointed me.  Of all the Bond films, it's OHMSS that is least demanding a remake.  The imagery (and music!) of the trailer and TV commercials hinted at a lot of things that could be OHMSS, but seeing as that film was about Bond falling in love, then having his lover murdered on their wedding day, that arc seemed covered by Casino Royale already, and not really worth retreading.  But, thankfully, that wasn't the case...

Enough preamble, let's get to the structure.

(don't say I didn't warn you)


Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) returns to close out the arc he started in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace only here, he's no adversary.  No friend either.  He's connective thread, but wonderful connective thread, bridging the earlier Craig movies with this one.

Mr. Hinx (David Bautista) is the burly mountain of a man that's just sheer physical force, with sharpened, painted thumbnails for gouging out eyeballs.  He's an impressive physical force and an ace race car driver, and seems capable of tracking Bond anywhere he goes.  I want to like Hinx, but I think Bautista was wasted in the role.  He gets the physical aspect down pat, such as in the train fight sequence (just one of many callbacks to other Bond films, this I think mooning squarely at From Russia, With Love) where he's just a rampaging ogre (and Bond's ineffectiveness seems equally hearkening to his fights with Jaws...don't be surprised if Hinx returns in the next one)... but Bautista, who showed such incredible comedic timing in Guardians of the Galaxy has one line here, and that's a swear word poorly dubbed over to say "Shoot".  It's a shame.

Yes that's Sherlock's Moriarty, Andrew Scott, as Max Denbigh, the new dick in charge of MI5 who is give greater powers and becomes the new C (M's boss).  He's hell bent on a new coalition amid 8 other countries intelligence gathering organizations, and decommissioning the double-oh program.  It's really the latter that makes him a villain, but the plotline of the former is teased with such insidiousness that it's no surprise that he's a mole for Spectre.  I mean, anyone who watched Sherlock would suspect him anyway, he just seeps vileness.  It would have been more interesting had he been an unsuspecting patsy of Spectre's, completely unaffiliated.

And finally there's the big man himself, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who pulled a total Kahn-berbatch and kept saying "I'm not Blofeld".  Well, no big surprises, he is Blofeld.  He's kind of wasted here, teased out early on, clearly the head of Spectre, with uncanny awareness of all of Bond's actions, but later revealed to be a quasi-adoptive brother believed to have perished.  That there's an approximate familial tie between Blofeld and Bond isn't necessarily the problem, but the level of hate Blofeld has towards him is never truly realized by Waltz.  He cheerfully revels in his role as lord of an omnipresent supersecret superpowered superevil organization, but how that relates to Bond (the fact that he claims it's almost all been done to throw in Bond's face) doesn't truly play.  It's like Waltz is caught in between the old school Connery villains who like to toy with Bond like a Cat with a Mouse and the very personal villainy of Javier Bardem's Silva, and can't really pick which is priority (not that the script seems decided one way or another).
In the third act, when Bond and Dr. Swann make it to Blofeld's super-secret Spectre lair, Bond finds himself in a torture chair, about to be killed but manages to escape with Swann and blow up the whole compound with, ultimately, one bullet.  There's such a hearkening back to Blofeld's past lairs here, the monitoring room full of dutiful workers, cast in steel grey floor-to-ceiling is so retro, as is Blofeld's nehru jacket, that it's as much aping as homage. Of course the compound had to go up in flames, but so quickly after its introduction was the ultimate's a really neat set they seemed utterly rushed out of.  That Bond and Swann leave in a helicopter with no escape action sequence (the film was already long enough, yes) was also surprising.  The whole Blofeld story felt like it needed a lot more time.  Waltz's presence isn't felt nearly enough.  If Mendes really wanted to capture elements of Connery's Bond he should have presented more than a few cutaways to what Blofeld was up to when Bond wasn't around.  As such Denbigh seemed to get all that cutaway focus, so he should have been the major villain...and Blofeld only teased, spared for the next one.

Bond Girls:

Much ado was made in advance of Monica Bellucci since she's the oldest Bond girl to date (it's an dumb marker that she's been saddled with because it shouldn't matter).  Her role as Lucia Sciarra is unfortunately tiny, she's only featured in two scenes, but she's pretty great in both of them up until the make-out scene with Bond.  I just didn't feel the two characters connecting, Craig seemed like he was more going through the motions than genuinely attracted to this woman.  But then the character is all about pumping women for information, coldly, without remorse.  The scenes with her, the funeral and at her home, are the most beautifully shot of the film, keeping up with the incredible work Mendes and his cinematographer did with Skyfall, I just wish the passion that the camera implies as Bond and Lucia make out against a wall-sized mirror was actually there between the actors.

Lea Seydoux plays Madleine Swann, Mr. White's daughter and a worthy romantic foil for Bond.  She's been trained by her father from a young age to protect herself, but all to aware that her father was into bad business that she wanted no part of (despite also being keenly aware of his love for her).  Then Bond comes along dragging her (kicking and screaming mind you) into the business.  They have a connection, as she's quite keenly aware of what kind of man he is... like her father, capable of very bad things, but also quite capable of very big love.  There's a good dynamic that builds between them but it doesn't quite feel romantic.  It feels comfortable, but the romance feels like something necessitated by the script and less organic between the characters.  When Swann tells Bond she loves him, it comes out of left field.  And when she walks away from Bond it feels awkward, and not such a big deal for him.  And when Bond walks away from MI6 for her, it seems like something he's doing for himself, and not necessarily anything to do with being in love.
There's the feel of On Her Majesty's Secret Service at play.  In that film, Tracey was also a tough woman, the daughter of a criminal, and she too rescues Bond on occasion.  Blofeld kills her in the end, which this film leads up to but goes another way (again, that arc already done with Vesper).


The title song, "Writing on the Wall" by Sam Smith is, well, abominable.  It's just not very good.  It builds then falls, then builds again, then falls, and over and over.  There's no climax, or break out, it's all a long tease, and unpleasant.  It has a haunting element to it, the orchestration is superb, and Smith has an impressive falsetto, but there's no payoff, and no hook.

The opening credits, on the other hand, is the best ad for Kraken spiced rum.  I love octopuses and octopi imagery, so this opening credits crawl really, really did it for me.  They brought back the titillating silhouettes (and tossed, for the first time, a naked Bond into the mix... I keep wondering when we're going to see a title sequence with naked silhouetted men bounding about, willies flapping in the breeze) and there's a needed but somewhat ineffective recapping of the previous three films.


As I'm writing this up, I'm noticing what I hadn't noticed before, that it's failures may not be so much the script, the action, the direction, or the other actors, but perhaps it's Daniel Craig.  It's evident Mendes wanted to go for something of a more playful Bond film, hitting later Connery or Moore-style, with a bit of cheekiness in the action, gadgets, and Bond himself.  But Craig seems to be either reluctant or unable to really sell that lighter side of Bond.  Connery had that glint in his eye, a little twinkle that allowed him to be brusque but playful.  Moore was mostly playful but could occasionally deliver a moment of threat and danger when he wanted.  Craig seems to have difficultly getting out of brooding Bond, of exhibiting emotion.  That feeling of watching Connery sleepwalk his way through Diamond Are Forever seem to creep into Craig's performance here, but not always...just most of the time.  It's like he knows his character and the film is trying to push his character against type.  At times he's a willing participant, at other times it seems he couldn't be invested less in what he's doing.  When it comes to Oberhauser/Blofeld, I never felt he was moved by his resurgence, but then it could be that it was Oberhauser killing his own father out of jealousy for his relationship with Bond that steeled Bond's detachment from people.

Bond is only given a couple scenes with M, Moneypenny, and Q, and it's to the film's detriment.  There's a sense of comraderie (even antagonistic comraderie) that just doesn't have time to revive itself by the time they're reunited for one scene in the last act.  Craig and Ralph Feinnes established a pretty good dynamic in Skyfall and it feels at ease here, respectful but totally not friendly.  It should have been allowed to flourish, rather than falter.  I think had Denbigh's play for power been the main thrust as Bond rooted out Spectre in his own organization with M and  Moneypenny and Q as direct support, the film would have played a lot better, and leaving Blofeld as the mastermind of a massive criminal organization too big to be easily dismantled for another film would have been the smarter move.  The Blofeld story provided some narrative thrust for Bond's character here, but in a sense it detracted from the connection he was supposed to be forming with Swann. 

The way the film ends, with Blofeld captured, and Bond riding off into the sunset (I told you, spoilers) with Swann seems oddly conclusive for a Bond movie.  It really does wrap up this quartet of film with a little bow, and in a way leaves the series open for subbing in a new Bond in the next one with the same supporting cast.  All the delving the Craig movies did in digging into Bond's backstory and family mythos can be dispensed with, and a new Bond can get to work with his crew of M, Moneypenny and Q, in the structure of Bond of old almost without missing a beat.  It really seems fit for new blood at this point.  It's not that I don't want to see Craig in another Bond movie, but if the next one is going to be his full bore (pun intended) Diamonds Are Forever I'd just rather not.


Would it surprise you, given all my kvetching above, if I said I didn't hate this movie?  Because I didn't.  But I went into it wanting to love it.  With Mendes' Skyfall (which I still need to give a proper "Double Oh..." entry, as right now this site only holds my first review of it) being one of my favourites of the series, and without question being the most visually impressive of the entire series, I was expecting more of the same.  One of the common complaints about Skyfall was that it was teasing the old Bonds too much, that it was too in-jokey or borrowing too much from the past.  I thought that it managed to be its own movie, its own story (and a rather engrossing one at that) while still paying homage to the past in fun ways.  This one, however, felt less homage and more rip-off, really trying to capture a Bond sensibility that the Craig films shied away from unfortunately to its detriment. 

It all starts with the pre-credits action sequence in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival.  Mendes captures the glamor and revelry of the festival with extreme beauty.  It's nothing I've ever experienced in real life, but it looks amazing.  It's like being at a Comic Con on Hallowe'en.  Everyone's dressed up but there's absolutely nothing commercial about it... the skeletons and wardrobes and masks and face paintings are so individual and so diverse, despite being of the same ilk.  It's all black and white and grey with these great pops of color.  And the massive crowds, Mendes captures the scope of the festivities so incredibly well.  Then Bond goes adding a wrinkle of chaos by accidentally exploding a building and narrowing escaping death after the rooftop he's standing on collapses and a convenient sofa breaks his fall.  It is a wonderfully orchestrated action and comedy sequence, with the beats of each quite distinct, but Craig stepping up off the couch really recalls Moore for the first and only time this movie.  It leads to a chase through the crowd and ultimately a fight aboard a helicopter (I forget how many helicopter sequences Bond has had now, but this one seems to be visually alluding to the opening of For Your Eyes Only to some degree) but it's here that the film has its first falter.  That Bond keeps attacking the pilot, putting himself and the teeming masses of Dias De Los Muertos revelers in jeopardy feels too reckless even for him.  That the sequence ends with him flying off in the copter, and not returning to the woman he left in a hotel room earlier in the sequence is the most decidedly un-Moore Bond thing and was the tip off that despite his best intentions Mendes doesn't quite get that style of Bond movie.

There's a lot to like in this movie, and even the stuff I don't like I don't hate, I just wish they'd made different choices, in some cases slight ones, in others much larger ones.  There's a lot of complaints laid down on Quantum of Solace for being too thin on plot and too action focused, but it was made during a writer's strike and really works as balls out action and stripped-down Bond plot.  Here there's almost too much plot and definitely too much focus on the action, with not enough attention to relationship building, particularly between Bond and Swann, but also Blofeld and Bond.  These things do work to an extent (perhaps just conceptually) but execution wise they don't have the attention they deserve.  And when Bond winds up in the villain's lair, and that whole aspect feels entirely rushed, that's a problem.  I think about Bond at Silva's abandoned island, and the wonderful chemistry between Craig and Bardem that's allowed to breathe, while at the same time presenting two characters with familiarity with one another by sheer fact of the roles they have played in the service of M, and the way they play back and forth off one another.  In the mix of that there's moments the film gives to Craig to service the arc of the character being a bit out of condition for the job, and it all works so beautifully to fulfill the story.  Here, Bond, Swann and Blofeld share the same space, and Waltz tries his damnedest to inject a sense of familiarity between the characters, and a sense of meaning and purpose to their gathering together, but it never actually comes.  The whole arrival at the isolated base of operations, just Bond and Swann with no back-up, leaves the question dangling exactly what Bond's plan is (he says he might not come back, so is his only goal to kill Oberhauser?). 

But I'm bitching again. 

Bond's infiltration of the Spectre gathering is one of my favourite parts of the film.  The shadowy organization's nefarious dealings are driven in, highlighting exactly how deep their tentacles run in society, and the challenge ahead of Bond in weeding this organization out of global commerce and politics will take more than just cutting it off at the head.  As such, his commitment to destroying Blofeld should then be personal but Craig didn't sell that angle enough.  It's a nice touch that Bond tosses the videotape of Vesper's interrogation aside, a sign of his having moved on, but at the same time every death close to Bond (that Oberhauser has taken responsibility for) seems to have steeled him even more, such that wanting straight up revenge, rather than doing the job doesn't come across.

Bond gets an exploding watch and a really cool car with ejector seat, tailguns, flame throwers and another custom switch that's a pretty good gag too.  I have to admit, the tricked out car feels out of place in these Craig Bond movies, but also was a welcome sight.

Classification [out of 01.0]: 00.5 - This one may grow on me in time, but I feel let down right now.  I'm going to scour the reviews and read all about the Sony email leaks and studio notes and other scandalous sundries and just fill my noggin with useless trivia.