Tuesday, July 28, 2015

ReWatch: Wing Commander

1999, Chris Roberts --- Netflix

Speaking of video stores; this one was a big renter back in the day. Clunky space opera was always a good renter, whether they were Star Wars or substandard wannabes. I recalled enjoying it in the theatre despite accepting it was rather bad. But it was space opera based on a video game series I loved, so I was there. The thing is, I am kind of surprised it was 1999. That was when I was still in Montreal but it looks so so dated, I just kind of assumed it was back from my Ottawa mid-90s days.

Wing Commander grew from a desire to make Top Gun, in space. The idea of transplanting aircraft carriers and destroyers into space is a pretty standard trope, as big heavy "boats" fit into the mindset of space battles. But this one wanted the hotshots and the deck crashes and the competing egos of all the dogfight movies. And wrapped around it was a pretty decent world building of a deep space war between humans and the cat-like Kilrathi. The games were only about space bound dogfighting, so of course its not difficult to be true to the source, but the creator of the games, who also directs the movie, decided to seed in even more world building and added an additional conflict along religious lines -- the Pilgrims. They were a "race" of humans descended from the original space farers, who had warred against other humans, after they became too full of themselves. The movie uses them as an excuse for emotional baggage and personal conflict, but not much else. Shame.

The movie is terribly dated, from the washed out CGI on bluescreen effects, to the barely passable acting. You have so many familiar faces, from the edgy in their day Tchéky Karyo and Jürgen Prochnow, to the lovely mugs of Saffron Burrows and Freddie Prinze Jr. And somehow they actually made Matthew Lillard a tough guy. This is before Scooby Doo.  Despite this damning recollection, I really do believe this movie was partly inspirational for the way they envisioned the new Battlestar Galactica. There is just a feel that actually carries from this movie onto the popular TV show, and while you may say it was probably more the other way around (original series influencing this later movie), its only five years later that BSG becomes a thing.

Monday, July 27, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: The Factory

2012, Morgan O'Neill (Drift) -- Netflix

It's 2015, the Blockbusters are gone, the Netflix redboxes are gone, the corner store DVD business relies mostly on Chinatown illegal copies. The only "video stores" (I like to think that term will be used, as long as the business model lives, no matter what the media) are small, niche places catering to a select crowd. What is the next mass market model? Digital downloads, right? Sold to you by the media companies themselves, on barely capable networks supplemented by other media companies forcing you to buy the fastest, most expensive Internet speeds, in order to make it usable. Or, you have to have their "cable" service, i.e. video on demand.  Pirating? Pirating is showing a discernible decrease, as the media companies succeed in shutting down the sources -- the torrent sites. With the few who live on, you take your digital life in your hands as ads, malware and trojans dominate the sites. What is the next model? Or, what is the current model that will reach the top?

And where does the Straight to Video movie fit into this? I am from the days of renting stacks of movies on Friday nights, of wandering the shelves seeking out an interesting plot or box over, based on your genre interests. If the company had the right B or C grade actor, a decent sounding plot and familiar box art, then it got rented. There is a big difference between small, low budget indie movies by first time directors and movies that are made a certain (bad) way because it is cost effective. Not Uwe Boll bad, made for foreign markets and air flights, but tired, retread plots with boring direction, serviceable acting creating an entirely forgettable product. How are these going to be rented in the future? Video On Demand? Or like I did, flicking and flicking and flicking through the lists on Netflx, not interested in the heavy movies on My List, but just seeking some light crime fiction.

The Factory is a by the books investigation movie, as John Cusack and Jennifer Carpenter hunt down a killer who takes young prostitutes on snowy nights. But never any bodies, so I am not sure how he stretches out missing persons cases long enough to be obsessed with them. He works so hard, isolating his wife and family, and never seems to be assigned any other real cases. Weird. This is where inexperienced, and downright sloppy, screenwriters come into play. He has tons of notes, your typical connected by threads board in his shed. But when he investigates, no details he has previously connected come into play. Or barely any. A long investigation must actually have something useful beyond "dark sedan". Does anyone other than cops call a car, a sedan? Anywayz, drawing a story from that real life crime where the nutcase had the girls trapped in his house for years, we add Cusack losing his daughter to said nutcase only to find out.... well, I won't spoil the surprise ending for you. You will have to suffer life I did.

And how do you like that incredibly innovative, artistic and emotive box art? 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: After

2012, Ryan Smith -- Netflix

Remember that episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation where Beverly Crusher is trapped in an ever shrinking universe, created by Wesley? No? Just me then.  Well, this movie shares a similar idea, with two people awakening after a bus crash, in their hometown but all alone. And the town is surrounded by a cloud ("hey cool, its the mists of Ravenloft") of darkness that is ever shrinking towards the centre of town. Wesley Crusher has nothing to do with it this time. But you can still blame him if you want.

This is one of those movies where you pretty much guess the premise instantly. Remember, there was a bus crash, so, duh its connected. You are going to blurt out immediately they are either dead already (Purgatory) or in a coma. Smith knows that, so its not the explanation thats the point but the mythology of the world they are now in, that matters. One of the characters is a "graphic novel creator", dismissed by the pretty girl he is trapped with. Yes, the movie is very Mary Sue.

Its a decent enough supernatural thriller. Tension is nice, acting is capable and plotting is OK. But it focuses too much on how the characters are supposed to be connected, without either of them being, well, attracted to each other. He is a bit of a dick, and she is a bit of a "norm" who dismisses comic book artists. Yeah yeah, connection through trauma, but all that does is cement that the only way he could get a girl like her is if they go through something terrible together. I suggest people leave those kind of plots in fanfic and not in motion picture releases.

Friday, July 24, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: Monsters: Dark Continent

2014, Tom Green (Misfits) -- download

Hmm, I thought I did a ReWatch of the original Monsters, but didn't. So, take Graig's review on the first.  I love the first movie. Its slow, atmospheric and character driven. It takes two characters, not really wanting to be connected, and walks them through the concept of the movie, so we can observe along with them. In this world, microbes from a fallen satellite infect the land with alien life forms, eventually growing into massive kaiju style monsters. The US military has been busy fighting them, and Mexico has become a walled off wasteland. But people live there, doing their best to have normal lives.

The new movie, with little connection to the original, takes us to the Middle East, where the spores of the alien creatures have spread and formed into even more life forms, adapted to the dry deserts. A new war is active, again in a foreign land, replete with insurgents who don't want the American soldiers there, messing up their way of life. The soldiers, more like broken rednecks from all the other Gulf War movies, are there to have fun and kick monster ass. But like in The Walking Dead, its their fellow humans they should be more worried about.

I am hesitant about whether I felt this movie was immersed in the world of monsters, as much as the first one, or just used it as a setting for a tortures of war movie. The movie definitely wants a look & feel, almost documentary style focus on these young, testosterone laden men (look, its Gendry from Game of Thrones) who come out of the devastated, broken land of Detroit and are dropped into the devastated, broken desert. And the monsters are there, overtly so, running along side their humvees or rambling massively in the distance. But I think the schizo feel is what annoyed me the most, despite the two separate elements being done very well.

Monday, July 20, 2015

xBox One: Watchdogs

Violence. Why are video games so much concerned with vicarious violence? If any aspect of our pop culture confirms we are obsessed with the hurting & killing of each other, it is video games. And this is coming from a guy who has no issues admitting he is attracted to vicarious violence. But why? Why, when we are in a heyday of video game production, when we are capable and aware enough to create non-violent, very innovative and entertaining games, the top sellers continue to be focused on violence. Well, violence and the abstracted violence & machismo of professional sports.

Why do I always download the non-violent games, marvel at how innovative they are, and then never play them again?

Watchdogs has a plot narrowly focused on the violence of the main character -- if not for the violent actions he has taken in the past, his current history would not be now endangering his family. But if he does not take this violence on, head on, he will be left bereft of the remaining family he loves so dearly.

Aiden Pearce is a hacker and fixer, a criminal for hire with a wide range of skills and access to illegal technology. One year previous he got mixed up in something that led to the death of his niece. And he has been hunting down those responsible since. We join the story as he finds the gunman responsible for shooting the tire of his car, that his niece was riding in, that killed her. Aiden is ruthless in his treatment of the gunman, who almost immediately is shown to be a broken man, damaged by the death of an innocent. Aiden doesn't care. He only wants vengeance. But moreso, he wants answers. Who ordered this, why did they, who is at the top?

And thus it begins.

This is Chicago about twenty minutes into the future, but back in 2012. Remember that blackout in 2003? That was caused by hackers trying to show us that the convergence of networks, controlling so many aspects of our lives, was dangerous. Knocking the power out across the eastern seaboard was their idea of a wakeup call.  Almost 10 years later, not much has changed, even worse, interconnected networks have expanded with almost all city functions in Chicago being controlled by a single system called ctOS.

Aiden has access to this network, and all its resources, being able to spy on people from CCT cameras, listen in on their cell phone & TXT conversations, and steal from their bank accounts. He can control city functions, like street lights and drawbridges. He can overload things and causes blackouts. Aiden's not a nice guy so he does a lot of this, solely to benefit himself. But he tries to be a good guy, acting as a vigilante called The Fox, who uses a Person of Interest style monitoring system that tells him when a criminal act is about to happen, and if he so chooses, intervene. Do enough of these and the people will love him, and he might assuage his guilt a little.

Watchdogs is not wink wink, nod nod about the role of the character, like Max Payne 3 was. Aiden doesn't see himself as the ultra violent protagonist, just a man on a mission. Despite his sister begging him to just stop, stop the killing, stop the associations that are leading them all to danger, he just continues. He continues connecting dots and going up against various gangs led by sociopaths and pinnacles of the criminal communities. He goes up against Blume, the technology company responsible for ctOS, and the shady dealings they have. And in in each encounter, he kills lots of people. Until he gets to the end of the story and there is no one left to kill.

As a game, it actually has some fun concepts. The hacking, is basically a time-based puzzler, but the activation of various city functions via cell phone is just fun. Raising a city drawbridge as you are about to launch over it is exciting. The driving, hoping to emulate GTA V, is clunky but gives you the requisite number of vehicles to aspire to. And yes, you can car jack people.

If there was one thing that was frustrating in its emulation of other games, it was the outfits. Most games let you dress your character as you wish, from existing clothes in your closet, and that which you find or buy. Aiden could only buy colour schemes and slight deviations from his trench coat, sweater and ball cap outfit. He always looked the same. So much for trying to be a vigilante nobody would recognize. Dude, changing from a brown coat to a bright blue one, doesn't help much.

The Chicago of the game, was not really much a Chicago of reality, and I don't mean accurately representing real places. It was more like the Liberty City of the GTA series, trying to be New York. It has certain area that mimic real places in Chicago, but skewed left of centre. For example, the big shiny bean, actually called Cloud Gate, is there but doesn't look exactly the same nor does the park it is in. This Chicago has a bunch of islands, separated by canals and river ways, so you would have sufficient paths down which to drive boats or jump cars over. In fact, many places made me think the creators couldn't visualize anything but the city of Montreal. In doubly fact, I felt the game would have benefited from being set in a fictional Montreal. Alas, Americans.

In the end, this is a competent shooter, with some fun hacking sub-structures and plenty of mini-games and side missions, were I am that type of guy. It looks damn good and moves well. I would have changed the clothing options.

Friday, July 17, 2015

It Follows

2014, David Robert Mitchell -- download

The innovative horror movie. What does it take to be innovative? A unique plot? A twist that turns the genre or sub-genre on its head? An unfamiliar stylistic approach? These questions are being asked a lot in the indie horror circuit, and some just answer it --- by being really really good. No, seriously, being innovative in horror can be as simple as trying to be a good movie, instead of following the standard playbook and pandering to the familiar tropes.

It Follows presents a familiar premise of a monster haunting an individual, relentless and unstoppable, until eventually leading to their death. But is unlike anything you have seen before, a mix of supernatural creature, Japanese curse and campfire tale. The monster, when you first "catch" it, begins to appear to you -- as your mother, a dead relative, or even a complete stranger. Nobody else sees the monster. And it begins walking towards you. It will be disturbing, either horrific or uncomfortable. Who wants to see their mother naked. If it reaches you, and is able to touch you, then you are dead. You can run away, or even drive away, but it will always eventually catch up. How do you survive? Well, pass it on. Like the evil consequence of promiscuity, you pass it on by having sex with another person. And you have to pass on the story, for if this unwitting sex mate dies, the monster comes back to you. So, the idea is to just have it being passed on and on and on.

This premise is wrapped in an odd little movie set in the modern day ruins that are the Detroit suburbs. The suburbs, as well as the movie, are trapped in the 70s, in track suits and spandex shorts, in backyard above-ground pools and kids playing cards. Our characters are high schoolers, or just post high schoolers, idle and bored. They spend most of their days talking about nothing, rarely really even looking at each other, until the monster comes into play. And then there is incentive, loyalty and inventiveness.

And then there is that one girl with the clamshell shaped tablet, the alterna-geek reading poetry and philosophy, a little bit of the future dropped into their retro trap. She is not a key plot twist, more a small jarring twist to keep us from falling into the ennui these kids exhibit. The movie is also almost entirely adult-less, a bizarre Charlie Brown world where the presented adults don't contribute anything of value. There is a monster stalking these kids, and the parents seem oblivious to the terrors, the disappearances and the deaths.

As a horror movie, many will be disappointed for the lack of continuous death and a defined resolution, at least until a sequel presents itself. But this movie is more about the fear these kids experience, an allegory for the looming future with just a bit of a hammer to the head about promiscuity and the way unexpected pregnancy can force adulthood on you. As a creation, the movie is wonderful, unexpected and artful. I rather liked it.

But I cannot help but think back to a few other examples of genre breaking horror movies, such as The House of the Devil or The Innkeepers. There seems to be stylistic choice of being just a little retro, as if people my age have to tap into the VCR and late night movie airings. We associate some aspects of the 70s with horror, and by adding in those stylistic choices, we set our brain back a bit.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Series Minded: The Mad Max Quartet

[Series Minded is an irregular feature here at G&DSD, wherein we tackle the entire run of a film, TV, or videogame series in one fell swoop]

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, d. George Miller) - in theatre, twice
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985, d. George Miller & George Ogilvie) - dvd
The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) (1981, d. George Miller) - dvd
Mad Max (1979, d. George Miller) - on demand

Mad Max as a franchise was never my thing.  I was a child of the 80's but that whole trilogy never registered with me.  I remember watching (or trying to watch) Beyond Thunderdome on more than one occasion at a friend's house and finding it weird and lacking in suitable wonder and adventure.  It seemed to me (at the time it was out on video, age 10) to be a cross between The Goonies and Steel Dawn (fully acknowledging that the Patrick Swayze-starring vehicle was an obvious riff off The Road Warrior, and that Goonies came out around the same time as Thunderdome) but I wasn't terribly into either of those films either.  Even three or four years after Return of the Jedi I was still pretty much all about Star Wars, and anything that wasn't on that level (and really, what was?) was kind of garbage, or disappointing at least.  I knew the theme song, Tina Turner's title track replete with its blaring 80's sax solo, intimately from repeated radio play (I may have even had the soundtrack, or a dub thereof),  and I legitimately have fond memories of it and the music video.  But that's more Tina Turner nostalgia than film nostalgia.

Even as I grew older, I never visited/revisited the Mad Max series (I'm still hazy as to whether I've even watched Thunderdome in full), the series held no sway.  I've never been much of a Mel Gibson fan either... his status as a sex symbol for moms throughout most of my formative years certainly didn't help, and his more recent nut-job antics even less so.

So when a new Mad Max movie was first announced more than a few years ago, with Tom Hardy taking over the lead, I was with the rest of society-at-large in uttering a dismissive groan of "meh".  It was an announcement that really meant nothing.  Yet another reboot announcement amidst a myriad of other reboot announcements.  It wasn't until the first Fury Road trailer hit that I, as did so many others, sat up and took notice.  George Miller, the creator of the original series -- the guy who went on to make the Babe talking pig movies and spawn that barely  tolerable Happy Feet  series of animated features -- was back at the helm and, apparently, given unfettered control to do whatever bat-shit insane thing he wanted to do.  It's easily top ten of all time for trailers effectively selling a movie.  It made a legion of cinephiles, action movie aficionados, and even the common movie goer rub the sand out of their eyes and believe that something really special was coming to a cinema near them.

It's a trailer's job to lie, to misrepresent, to sell you on a film that's not truly there.  They tease you with information and hint at big action set pieces or really funny moments or grand costumes but so often they're only showing the briefest, best parts and the remainder (or the reality) of the film turns out to be something else altogether.  We get it at this point, we've come to expect deceit.  So when a film not only delivers exactly what the trailer promises, but delivers it in excess, that's a modern cinema miracle.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern cinema miracle.

As all that preamble establishes,  Fury Road had such a difficult path set before it.  From general apathy to utmost excitement in the shortest span of time because of that trailer, it started with lowered expectations and then pushed them to the highest.  I have to wonder if the studio was at all nervous that the film wouldn't meet such grand expectations that the trailer set? (Of course they weren't nervous, they must have seen the film and known just how great it was.)

I've seen Fury Road twice now, neither in optimal theatrical settings (for the first I was seated way too close to the screen, it literally consumed my entire peripheral vision, the second was marred by digital projector quirks -- pixellation, red bars on the screen, distortion) but the film was more than powerful enough to overcome those obstacles with relative ease.  A second viewing allowed me to settle into Mad Max's post-apocalyptic future much more than the first viewing did.  Much of the nuances and details of Immortan Joe's cult-like society were missed the first time around as I tried to take in all the visual stimulation.  The meaning behind the War Boy's flavourful dialogue ("Shiny and chrome", "witness me", "I live, I die, I live again") was lost on me, as was much of their actions that first time around, as the high-octane, highly insane car crashes, explosions, and stuntwork, largely practical, kicked in before the first 20 mintues were through.  Getting over the fact that the titular Max himself was practically a background participant until well into the film was part of the challenge, as that first viewing I was completely unaware about how ridiculously great Nicholas Hoult's Nux or Charlize Theron's Furiosa (or even Immortan Joe) were or how important a part of the story they would be (Furiosa is truly the film's focus, while Nux's personal journey is perhaps the greatest in the film).

It's a fairly relentless movie from the onset, but it's particularly once Furiosa hits the road in her War Rig -- a customized tanker truck with all sorts of additional body parts, spikes and accoutrements welded to it -- with her band of War Boy escorts, that it really kicks in.  She silently deviates from her path, her status as Imperitor has the War Boys following suit, but when Immortan Joe discovers her treachery, and his missing wives/breeders (a quintet of unfettered by nuclear fallout, model-caliber women whom he's held captive) he calls upon not just his own legion of Citadel warriors but also those from Bullet Town and Gas Town as well.  It's one rig (a War Rig, mind you) against hundreds, but Furiosa's mission, to get these imprisoned, dehumanized woman to freedom, seems like the most important thing going on in this world, a last grasp at civility and humanity which has been long forgotton under Immortan Joe's rule.

That there's a heavy excaping domestic abuse allegory at play here, and that it's in no way eploitative but also compliments the events of the film, really providing it with a genuine narrative drive, is just one of its many miracles.  While Max, and eventually Nux, help with the escape and survival, that Furiosa and the breeders are all capable on their own level (and in very short swatches of screen time are given distinctive personality attributes, rather than just being a cowering whole as some other films might portray them) is one of the most rewarding aspects of the movie.  Likewise, their discovery of the denizens of The Green Place, a small legion of motorcycle-riding, aging survivalists, all women who are no less kick-ass than Joe's War Boys is such a wonderful touch.

I know that bait-and-switch -- the supplanting of the masculine hero/protector the film's named after with a no-less-tough and yet tangibly feminine/feminist warrior -- has some peoples' undies in a bunch, but fuck 'em.  They're sexist prigs and they don't deserve to have a voice.  I shouldn't even bother to bring them up, except to point out that they're so inherently, utterly wrong, and yet another element that makes the film work so well is the audacity of George Miller to push his franchise hero down to being the third or fourth most important character in the film.  It's unexpected and it works.

Beyond that, Hardy's performance is as challenging, perhaps moreso, than his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, speaking largely in grunts, scowly nods, and hand gestures.  He's like a man who's been alone too long, too inside his own head to socialize properly.  One element of the film I'm still trying to understand is who is the psychic girl who keeps jarringly appearing before him, helping him survive (was she one of the children from Thunderdome?).  In a film that largely stands alone, and gloriously so, there are petite nods to the previous films and Max's history, stating decidedly that this is a continuation, not a reboot.

Aggressive, vulnerable, clumsy some ways and yet competent others, Hoult's Nux becomes the unexpected soul of the film.  Thanks to Capable (one of the escaped wives played by Riley Keough) who shows him compassion, mercy and tenderness, qualities it seems he's never known.  He was to be witnessed by Immortan Joe himself, escorted to the gates of Valhalla, but came up wanting, his entire belief system crashing down.  It wasn't hard for Capable to show him a new, more fulfilling path.

Meanwhile, Furiosa's quest merges well with Max's.  They both seek redemption.  At the same time, Furiosa also seeks out her past, searching to bring her childhood memories back to life.  But memories fade and time passes.  You can never go back, and yet, as Max advises, sometimes going back is your only way forward.  Furiosa, with her stark buzz cut, her grease mask, and her steampunk-like robotic arm, is one of the most amazingly visual characters in a film full of them, but her unmatched toughness and equally unmatched capability shoot her right near the top of the greatest all-time action heroes (she's easily top of the female action heroes list and very close there for all genders and species of action hero).

The visuals of the film are never not stunning.  Gorgeous desert scapes with a grand sense of scale and scope along with a few varieties of environments that make the journey that much more adventurous (a sand storme, a muddy wasteland of trees and crows hued in blue).  Miller didn't just bring his A-game, he reinvented the game.  There are more than a handful of downright masterful shots, all unique to this picture because, where else are you going to have characters swooping on a pole from one edge of the frame across to the other?  Most movies don't ever track your eyes clear across the screen, but Miller does it on more than one occasion.

This film is thoroughly genius.  I love it madly, and I yearn for the blu-ray so it can be mine for always and ever, shiny and chrome (the kid-who-never-grew-up in me yearns for action figures, vehicles and playsets).

Now, I do actually own a copy of Beyond Thunderdome, which I purchased alongside a copy of The Road Warrior in preparation for seeing Fury Road for the first time.  Bits of Thunderdome remained familiar, but others, if I ever truly did watch the film in full, my brain had long abandoned.

Beyond Thunderdome is not a great film.  It's almost like two decent, distinct stories smushed together to form a muddled whole.  The first half finds Max, after having his camel-drawn wagon bombed out from a small, single-person plane, entering Bartertown looking for a vehicle and supplies.  After checking his many, many, many, many guns and weapons at the door, he proves his toughness to the city's ruler, Auntie Entity (Tina Turner).  She offers him everything he desires if he can help usurp the Master who controls the power generation beneath the city.  Power is power in Bartertown, and Auntie is quickly losing hers.

A convoluted plan is hatched and Max is forced to square off against the dumb but brutal Blaster in the no-holds-barred Thunderdome (a dome-shaped fighting arena that sounds more awe inspiring in name than it actually turns out to be... I was probably thinking something more massive and awe-inspiring akin to the Cobra Terrordrome maybe).  I don't know if the Thunderdome fight sequence is supposed to be so funny, however  I presume Miller is a skilled enough storyteller that he could showcase it as either a brutal or comedic sequence.  Given that two grown men are bouncing around the arena fairly helplessly on bungee cords, I believe he knew that embracing it's silliness while still drawing some excitement out of it was the best possible outcome.  It's a preposterous fight, and yet, it is enjoyable.  Following the fight, Max is unceremoniously exiled in the desert, and the conflict between Auntie and the Master below appears to be left as a dangling plot thread.

Max, on the brink of death, is found by a teenage girl, Savannah who believes him to be the Captain.  She brings him back to a cave society existing solely of children and teens, survivors of a passenger plane crash years and years before.  They have built up a faith around the story of the Captain's failed attempt to bring them to Never Never Land...sorry I mean Tomorrow-morrow Land, and the promise of his return to finish the job.  Max, being an adult and the ultimate realist, tries to shatter their bubble at every turn, encouraging them to remain put, in what is as close to an idyllic setting as one can get in this post-apocalyptic future.

Their faith shaken, some of the kids take off in search of Tomorrow-morrow Land and Max is guilted into assisting in getting them back.  The journey takes him back to Bartertown, once again into the middle of the Master and Auntie's power struggle.  Following a daring, wall-smashing escape-by-locomotive, Max befriends the pilot who messed up his wagon at the start and he agrees to help the children, taking them all to a bombed out Sydney in the end, leaving Max in Auntie's clutches where they inexplicably share a good laugh.

It's a very clean movie, I have to say, with a lot of rich details that set up two very distinct cultures.  Its well-shot and precisely executed sequences hold up somewhat, seeming quite more advanced than it's 1985 release date would imply (I figured originally 1988 at least).  As Miller (and co-director George Ogilvie whom Miller brought on to help with directorial duties while dealing with the passing of his production partner) had no need to embrace the computer assisted fads that were happening at that time, the practical effects and smartly constructed sets give it longevity.  Where it falters is wholly in the story its telling.  Things come together far too neatly at the end to not feel forced, while the films two distinct realms are really too distinct so when they do collide it doesn't seem right.

It's not unwatchable, even Turner's overacting is kind of endearing, but at the same time, it's a flawed movie, hints of ideas so much better realized in Fury Road.

Having watched The Road Warrior first, however, I found Beyond Thunderdome just a tad confusing from the onset, as Bruce Spence's Jebediah the Pilot is a different character from the Gyro Captain he played in the first sequel.  So to go from Mad Max 2 to Mad Max 3 and have the same actor play a different character (and yet they act virtually the same and both fly planes) is kind of maddening to resolve.  I get the sense that Miller likes to have fun with his audience (sometimes at their expense

Up until acquiring, cheaply, the DVD, I hadn't previously seen The Road Warrior, though I thought I must have at some point, right?  Nothing about it was familiar, except that fact that countless other films had completely ripped it off in the years following its release, and many of those I had seen.

I see The Road Warrior as a first draft for Fury Road (and Thunderdome, a second draft), introducing the scavenged, spiked-out, souped-up vehicles as just a glimpse of what Miller had in mind and could accomplish with limited budget and time.  The devolving society that remains in the wake of some form of cataclysm and the desert wastes in which all survivors live both seem like fruitful conditions to tell an action-adventure story on the cheap.  Tattered scraps and patched-together leathers for clothing, beat up old cars, barren terrain all somewhat available on the cheap, but putting together those bits in such a way that it becomes a distinctive, punk-infused aesthetic helped to make it a forerunner, not an also-ran.

There's a definite craft to what Miller was doing here, a vision to both the story and the world.  There's a comment on oil as a source of conflict (still so very resonant today) and how it was what literally fuelled the end of the world, and even in this new beginning it still does.  We learned nothing.  Watching the original Mad Max a while later, it's easy to see the first three films as stepping stones as Miller figured out how to make a movie.  With this sequel he's basically taking on the origin of Max from the first and keeping the name (if for no other reason it remains tangentially connected because first one made a ridiculous amount of money worldwide off virtually no budget).  The first lesson of filmmaking Miller learned was start with what's going to make money, it seems, then working on the message and/or entertainment factor can come after.

The plot finds Max reluctantly helping a small group defend their independent oil refinery from marauders, led by the iconic Lord Humungus.  Max is a lone wolf, a sole survivor, a road warrior, and he's becomed accustomed to looking out only for himself.  He's an anti-hero, someone who performs good deeds for the wrong reason.  Of course, as this small group is whittled down in size under continuous siege from the marauders, Max recognizes they don't stand a chance in this prolonged conflict and his conscience finds him helping them selflessly.

The Road Warrior is not without its flaws, and its age shows plenty of signs of wear, but it remains a quite entertaining action movie, it's influence radiates (as do the films that influenced it, like Kurisawa's samurai films and Peter Weir's The Car That Ate Paris). Gibson turns in a remarkable performance that has you cheering for him at the onset, booing his selfish behavior very quickly after that, and then winning you back over as the hero.  The star power was overwhelmingly there even in 1981.

1979 Mel Gibson, however wasn't quite so winning in the acting ability.  He was, however, undeniably handsome in his younger years, with a winning smile that didn't turn up so much again in his later Max roles.  His starring turn in the exceptionally profitable international hit Mad Max (which grossed over $100 million off a miniscule budget) isn't exactly the greatest.  As the title character it's shocking that he's barely in the movie for the first half hour.  Miller's story instead focuses on establishing the ramshackle remains of the police force and the band of road pirates that vex them in a "near future" scenario.

Eventually, as cops are wounded, Max enters the picture, with a big chip on his shoulder.  He takes down the bad guy but then his gang come out for revenge.  After Goose, Max's partner and best friend, is taken out, Max quits the force, but is convinced to take a vacation instead with his wife and son.  Venturing along the coast Max and family are unaware at first that they are being hunted.  Max witnesses his family run down and sets out for revenge of his own.  Dressed in his iconic police leathers and driving his equally iconic supercharged Pursuit Special, he takes the gang down.

Mad Max is, frankly, a weird movie.  It's subject to wickedly uneven pacing and a decided lack of focus.  The film is named after one character but throughout the bulk of the film Max seems ancillary.  While that may work, excitingly so for the fourth entry in a series, as his first and thus de facto origin story it's surprisingly Max-light.  It feels from the get-go like a grindhouse-style ("Aussiesploitation" they call it) revenge fantasy mixed with the 60's and 70's cinema fascination with ramped-up motorcycles and cars, but the actual revenge angle doesn't set in until Max's family is killed, which is roughly 10 minutes before the end of the film.

In biding its time up until the maddening of Max, the film tries to explore its in the not so distant future scenario.  Having never watched it before, I was unaware that it was not a post-apocolyptic movie like the rest in the series, though it certainly seems to be a just-shy of an apocolypse setting.  Societal structures are breaking down, the police are a shambles, hampered by the law which criminals have learned to exploit.  The lawless don't rule quite yet, but it's certainly looking for an opportunity to take over.

There are some well constructed chase sequences here, certain facets of which I've not seen before, so there remains unique elements to this movie.  Unfortunately the most unique element to the film is its disjointed meandering which proves alternately tedious or baffling.  I spent much of the film wondering exactly where it's story was going and why was it taking so long to get there.

Having seen all four films in the series in short span of time, I've come to appreciate them for their differences and their similarities, even if I don't necessarily like them all.  I found it fascinating how the rudimentary elements of each film wound up seeding the latest in the series, a real "you wouldn't have gotten here without them" scenario.  But Fury Road is more than just a culmination of the experiences of these previous endeavours, it's more considerate, better realized, less exploitative.  That Miller developed it with British comic book weirdo (said with affection) Brendan McCarthy likely led to some of it's more outre elements, and his consultations with Vagina Monologues creator/playwright  Eve Ensler, ensuring that the wives weren't just portrayed as silent, wide-eyed victims in the back seat, but instead seen as individually strong survivors with a strong gravitation towards community.

It's not exactly a contrast point, but there's certainly issue that can be had with Miller's portrayal of homosexuals in Mad Max and The Road Warrior.  While I don't think Miller is anti-gay at all by the fact that his motorcycle gang in Mad Max and the raiders in The Road Warrior so seamlessly and thoughtlessly integrate gay males amidst the thieves, rapists and murderers, they're still the only representation of gay characters in his films, portrayed as part of the cackling crew of deviants.  It's far from the harshest depiction of homosexuality on film but it's also clearly not the friendliest (although Wez, the mowhawked warrior in Humungus' crew has a rather touching, clearly visceral reaction when his lover is killed by the boomerang of the ridiculously '80's Feral Kid.)

Where it goes from here is uncertain, save to say that given Fury Road's incredible critical success, and more importantly for some, a massive financial win, there will be more.  Fury Road and a second script, Mad Max: Furiosa, were written concurrently (and while the plan was to film them back-to-back, it seems it didn't happen that way), while Miller has stated that Mad Max: The Wasteland is next up.  Tom Hardy signed on four a four-feature stint, so if we're very lucky, and if Miller's inventiveness holds up, as well as his desire to make a not just a wonderful action movie, but a meaningful one as well, we're in for a delicious series of treats in the coming years.

[Fury Road, David's Take]

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I Saw This!! Anxiety (or, I haven't written a review here since April, so here's 8)

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all. And they can't do that, can they?

Okay, time to get back up on this horse.

Noah - 2014, d. Darren Aronofsky -- netflix
Dogtooth ("Kynodontas")- 2009, d. Yorgos Lanthimos --netflix
Zero Dark Thirty - 2012, d. Katheryn Bigelow -- netflix
Nebraska - 2013, d. Alexander Payne -- netflix
John Wick - 2014, d. Chad Stahelski, David Leitch -- blu-ray
Harmontown - 2014, d. Neil Berkeley -- netflix
Blue Ruin - 2013, d. Jeremy Saulnier -- netflix
The Scribbler - 2014, d. John Suits -- netflix


When I was becoming a burgeoning cinephile in the mid-to-late 1990s, taking note of writers, directors, actors and actresses, composers and other names on the production roster that were making the movies that I both liked and connected with (sometimes deeply, sometimes superficially), Darren Aronofsky was high on my list of directors to follow, a singularly intriguing creative person worth being devoted to.  What struck me most about Aronofsky wasn't anything he did on screen, but what he did off-screen, which was bridge the worlds of comics and cinema.  With comics obviously being a very integral part of my life, releasing a movie with a comic book tie-in (not just a licensed prequel, sequel or adaptation) was a sure-fire way of getting my attention.  Aronofsky did this with his very first feature, Pi, and I was hooked.  The one-shot comic (published by Dark Horse if I recall correctly) and the feature were both black and white art-house endeavours, cerebral and somewhat impenetrable, but fascinating and puzzling in equal, mostly good measure.

His follow-up was Requiem For A Dream (2000), one of the most profoundly disturbing and intense films I've ever seen.  It's a brilliant piece of cinema, joining the likes of Clockwork Orange and Dancer In The Dark as astounding cinema that can only be watched once.

Aronofsky went back to comics again with The Fountain (2006), his third and highly troubled feature, creating an accompanying graphic novel (with artist Kent Williams) that expands upon the three timelines presented in that film.  I owned the graphic novel for years before read it, as I wouldn't read it until I ha watched the film.  I wound up owning the film on dvd for some time before I actually watched it and subsequently read the graphic novel.  While I appreciated the entire endeavour, it left me somewhat cold.  Despite this, I would follow Aronofsky to The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) in the theatres, finding both to be great movies on their own, but again not resonating with me.  I was disappointed when he dropped out of The Wolverine, as I thought he would make a great comic book movie, particularly a great, brooding and dark Wolverine story, and even more disappointed to find out his biggest budget movie would be a biblical adaptation.  How boring.

Yet, Aronofsky's next feature, Noah, would find once more be accompanied by a graphic novel (actually an adaptation of the screenplay by Nico Henrichon) fleshing out his tale at something less directly religious and more disaster/spectacle/epic.  Even still, I waffled with seeing this production, my interest level never reaching past mild.  The graphic novel would be a pricey purchase and the film's subject matter far from enticing, so getting the full experience (as I only assume it was intended) was somewhat off-putting.

It was only its arrival on Netflix that I finally conceded in watching the film, and I found it a curious product.  I'm still not entirely sure I understand why it exists.  It's almost as if it was made in an exercise to see whether the Bible could be mined for blockbuster motion pictures.  The focus seems to be more spectacle than anything resembling religious parity.  This isn't the "true" story of Noah being told, and, not being a religious student of any sort, I'm not even sure what the biblical message of Noah is supposed to intone, but I would be surprised if the biblical moral was at all in Aronofsky's mind when putting together this production.

It is indeed epic, a sweeping tale of birthright and revenge, of fathers and sons, of obedience, love and betrayal, the temptations of evil, righteousness and the gray area between selfishness and selflessness.  Noah is a man convinced in his mission, unwavering in his belief that God has told him what needs to be done, and the climax of the film deals with exactly how unwavering will he be.  Can he perform an unspeakable evil as part of God's will?

Noah is a flawed beast, an awkward behemoth that's both awe-inspiring and teetering on the fringes of being comically laughable.  The key cast of Russel Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Douglas Booth are extremely serious minded about the events they're participating in (Winstone may be a bit more on the scenery chewing side, though), probably its saving grace from being B-movie camp.  Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah provides the film's brief moments of comic relief...or marginal levity as it were. 

It's still hard to believe this film got made.  It's not unwatchable but it's also not outright entertaining.  It has moments of action and some visual sense of wonder but the characters never settle in as believable people, nor do they reach the height of mystical figures.  They persist as figures in a tale, servicing a specific story with no will the change the outcome of the tale.  The emotion that should be wraught throughout never materializes under the weight of the expectations of the story at-hand.  That tsunami set to encompass the world sort of nullifies almost any other drama the film attempts to build.

As noted in David's take[link], there's a sense that this was supposed to be even more wondrous and metaphysical than it actually was (which perhaps that graphic novel I've yet to read bears out?), and I think the tale could have used a bit more of an alien setting to explore its characters and story, distancing itself from any form of Earth-based history (real or Biblical or allegorical)


I had come across (the just defunct) The Dissolve's best films of the decate [so far] list [link] and became somewhat intrigued with seeing all of these movies.  Melancholia, which I reviewed back in April [link], was actually the last of a small streak of these that I watched, but Dogtooth was the first.

The idea behind this Greek film is fascinating, the story of three siblings who are the subjects of lifelong social experimentation by their parent.  They've effectively been held hostage in their family home and yard, unable to view the outside world at all, except through the limited exposure to outsiders brought into the home by their father.  They are taught the wrong words to represent objects, they are told that the land outside of the fence is toxic, and that a sibiling (that likely never existed) escaped and is trapped out there in the land just beyond the fence.  They are kept placated, if not happy, by an endless stream of lies, some elaborate others simple.  Now in their late teens and early twenties, they're starting to become restless and curious, though the outisde world is still a monster.  The main lie, from which the title draws its name, is that they will only be allowed outside the compound once they lose a dogtooth (the parents more than aware that those permanent teeth aren't going anywhere on their own).

The film plays out with deliberate, observational pacing.  It's not interested in celebrating or reveling in the lies the parents are telling the children, nor is it condeming them.  There's a passivity to the camera -- it's of the handheld, mobile, sort, a seeming adherence to the old Dogme '95 aesthetic -- a watchful eye peering in unobtrusively on events with no judgement borne out for what it sees.  In every right these kids parents are monsters (even before dad's heinous act with a VCR) but they're portrayed just as carefully as the kids are.

In my anticipation for watching this film, knowing only the rough plot and a few details, I was expecting something more exploitive, a bit more kitschy or on display for laughs.  I was anticipating looking in with fascination and delight, I wasn't expecting the engrossing curiousity, disgust and intensity with which I watched.  Something like the kids being told that flying planes overhead are actually just toys (and once they've passed out of eyesight they can be found in the grass as mother has thrown a toy in the grass to be found) could be riotously amusing as, say, a Will Ferrell film, but here it's bizarre but certainly not played for laughs.  Likewise, their listening to Sinatra's "Fly Me To The Moon" in English, being willfully mistranslated to Greek by their parents could be comical but sits just as it is...something that happens in this household.  The film ceases to continue so much as it ends.  There's easily more story to be told here, as the criminality of the parents actions, or the psychological implications of what's been done to them are left unexplored.  A second feature following at least one of the kid's journey into the real world is filled with tremendous possibility (just imagine their reaction to a real plane).


Zero Dark Thirty was an Oscar winner for the 2012 cinematic year, and a resoundingly successful follow-up for its director Katheryn Bigelow after winning best director for the Hurt Locker.  It's at this point the infamous story of the intelligence tracking and death of Osama Bin Laden, and while many who have seen it focus on the gripping third act's focus on SEAL Team 6 as they invade the compound they suspect is housing Bin Laden, they tend to gloss over the rather fiercly feminist aspect of the film.  The progressively feminist story is purly by its true story nature, not so much by design, as Jessica Chastain's Maya, a recent graduate and recruit into the CIA, is thrust head-first into the war on terror and takes the lead on finding Bin Laden.

All manner of obstacles are in Maya's way, political and organizational are the tip of the iceberg.  Facing down illegal torture methods, possible threats to her life, systemic sexism, and her own novice background are all trial by fire for her.  These things harden her as they threaten to break her, but her resolve is strong, and her persistence, as well as her intelligence and dedication, is enviable.

As a "based on a true story" film, Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece.  It's equal parts military and political thriller, as well as personal drama and, in its own way, revenge fantasy.  It juggles many levels of beurocracy, international travel, intrigue, and more with a fluidity that finds no diversion it takes out of place. The story is propelled forward with increasing momentum, the audience already knows where its going but is never made to feel like it's just biding its time before getting there.  Though no doubt there are embellishment, unlike, say, Argo which took extreme (and obvious) liberties with its source material in the name of manufactured drama, Zero Dark Thirty rarely, if ever, steps on its own toes or hits its audience over the head with false notes.

The shame here is Bigelow has crafted an immensely entertaining and successful feature, award-winning and important, delivering the story of Bin Laden's death in just over a year after it happened allowing for some sense of public closure, and yet she did not become a highly sought after, in-demand director.  Bigelow's execution here is deft, navigating multiple genres and wonderful character and world building with defiant ease.  It's a film on the same scale as a Bond or Bourne movie which would make her a natural target for taking on a blockbuster franchise and yet we never hear her name in the rumour mills for the next big feature.  Is it institutionalized sexism of Hollywood studios, or is it that Bigelow is just not interesed in those kinds of films (Point Break, Strage Days and K-19 tell me otherwise).


Was Nebraska also on that aforementioned list of best 50 films of the decade so far?  Even if it wasn't, it'd been a film sitting on my "to watch" list for a long time.  I loved the pacing and light humour of Alexander Payne's The Decendents and I had heard great things about Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb's (award nominated) performances in the film, but seeing as there wasn't a single sci-fi, action, fantasy, or metatextual "gotcha" to the movie, it just took a long time (languishing in my Netflix queue for months on end) for me to get to it.

It's a simple story filled with complex emotions.  Dern is a cantankerous senior citizen who's going senile while also restless as his freedoms are stripped from him.  He's never had a good relationship with his sons (Forte and Bob Oedenkirk), and he and his wife (Squibb) can barely stand one another's company.  When a Publisher's Clearinghouse-esque letter arrives telling him that he "may have already won", he's convinced he needs to make the trip to their home office in Nebraska to claim the prize.  Everyone around him tells him it's just junk mail, but he's dedidcated to the trip.  Eventually Forte concedes to driving him, giving the two men their first ever real moment of togetherness.

It's a road trip movie and a family movie, as they stop and visit elements of Dern's past along the way.  His home town revels in his story of sudden fortune and the extended family gather for an impromptu reunion that goes about as well as any assembly of family goes.  It's frequently chuckle-funny, occasionally awkward and sad, but always rewarding.  There's a depth and truth to the story at play, particularly to the emotions, with Dern being a man who has never cared for showing his, and Forte coming to understand not just who his father was before, but who he is now, and that like most parents, despite the difficulties they have, he has done as best as he knows how.

Forte delivers a perception-shattering performance.  The weirdo/goofball/creepy characters he's played in previous films and in Saturday Night Live sketches fade away almost immediately as Forte's eyes show a knowingness, a maturity and wearyness that he's never earnestly expressed before.  Dern's Oscar winning performance is almost the easier job, being gruff, stoic, and occasionally completely unsure of his surroundings, but he delivers a character that never wavers in identity and provides the framework for everything else in the film to react to.  Squbb, meanwhile, is the overt comic releif, the Oliver Hardy to Dern's Stan Laurel.  She's mouthy, aggressive and uncensored (she even shocked me a couple of times), the perfect counterpoint to Dern's weary silence.  She didn't win the best supporting actress Oscar, but it was a likewise worthy performance.


We're not Keanu fan's over at the Kent household.  While I have a greater threshold for Keanu than the missus does, it's not really much of a qualification...it's like saying I can take  cleaning the litter box more better than she can... which is a bad example because she definitely cleans up the cat crap more than I do... but I digress.  Point being, Keanu is not a great actor, in fact he's pretty terrible.  Consistently so.  Limited facial expression, even more limited vocal intonation, the most animated Keanu ever got was in the Bill & Ted movies and the last of those was over 25 years ago.  The perfect role for Mr. Reeves would be Pinocchio because he's a little wooden boy...except that Pinocchio would demand he turn into something resembling human.  Maybe if Pinocchio turned into a T-1000 at the end of that story instead.  Scratch that, just make him a Terminator and be done with it because that's spot on the type of range he displays.


Anyway, John Wick.  John Wick showed up in last October in theatres with little hype or enthusiasm (because Keanu's last bunch of pictures were all major duds...to be clear, no, not a remake of Gerald McCraney's Major Dad) but became a rare honest-to-goodness blockbuster success through word-of-mouth.   One friend of ours love the movie so much he saw it multiple times in theatres and continually sang its praises (and waited with baited breath for its Blu-Ray release).  That David even spoke effusively aboutit [link] resonated and, with these collective signs  I began to actually want to see the film.


The wife was still far from enthused... she gets that way about things with too much hype and/or starring Keanu.  The aforementioned friend (shout out to Troy-who-doesn't-read-this-blog!) got his copy of the film on Blu-Ray, watched it a couple times over and lent it to us for a viewing.  It was a unique experience.  The wife, naturally, wasn't looking forward to it and chose to distract herself from her lack of enjoyment by live-Facebooking her reaction to the film.  I chose to turn out the lights and have a spiked refreshment at hand. 

At first we gently mocked the movie -- a few "Fuck you, Theon!" comments  (something me and the wife shouting regularly at co-star Alfie Allen's Game of Thrones character) and mimicry of Keanu's stilted acting tossed about for good measure -- but then Allen's character, the entitled son of a Russian mobster, goes and kills John Wick's puppy (after he was denied the acquisition of Wick's sweet ride), and things get goofy/serious.  The puppy was a present form Wick's recently deceased wife, so that he wouldn't be alone, and the ex-mob hitman sees only red, and we're thrust, along with John, back into the world he had hoped to leave behind.

It's this world, it's neutral ground hotels, it's secret society gold coins, and it's weird codes of honour, that make the movie.  Keanu is a vehicle for delivering both this world's nuances and it's brutal yet beautifully orchestrated violence, and the film's directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch and writer Derek Kolstad seemed to understand the exact type of character Keanu should play, and the limits of what he can play.  This was obviously tailor made for him.  He can't quite handle the sombre hurt of the recently widowered nor can he take on the deep emotion of having a piece of his wife restored with the puppy to any great shakes.  But when he's asked to be a cold, calculating orchestrator of violence, which is 90% of Keanu's role here, he nails it straight on.

The film is beautifully stylized, the fluorescent greens and blues saturate the parts of the screen that aren't bathed in shadows.  It's Michael Mann by way of modern graphic novels.  The action is top notch... it's not "another level" like the big budgets of the latest Fast and Furious or Mission Impossible or James Bond feature, but it's full of John Woo-esque gunplay and throw-down, drag-out fights are close to par with the greatest fight porn of the modern day,  The Raid 2 [link].  My favourite of the battles found John Wick taking on Adrianne Palicki's Ms. Perkins, an assassin more ruthless than Wick... but I enjoyed even more Lance Reddick's reaction to her breaking of the hotel rules.

John Wick was exactly what it should've been, only better.  It's a B-movie ratched up to A-level status thanks to savvy filmmaking and tremendous world building.  I even caught the wife, on more than one occassion, watching the movie intently, forgetting about the Facebook updating for a spell.  Though still hard pressed to admit that a Keanu movie actually entertained her, I'm fairly certain there was a begrudging amount of respect there for the end product, and that's about as big a praise for this film as anything. 



Harmontown is a documentary about the creator of the beloved cult TV show Community creator Dan Harmon, and the months following his firing from the show as producer and showrunner after its third season.  Harmon had, before his firing, started a live show/podcast that was part comedy show, part confessional, where he would ruminate with his co-host Jeff Davis about his life, his failures and successes, his frustrations, and anything else he wanted to get off his chest, most of which probably better suited for the therapist's couch than a public forum.

After his firing, at his lowest point, he thrust more energy into his podcast, and he started sensing a bit of a groundswell. Not so much a movement, but a cult of personality forming around him.  Taking a risk, he decided to take the show on the road and let a documentary crew follow him.

It's a film about Harmon, primarily, about who he is as a person, and that person is admittedly very, very difficult.  The film highlights the Harmontown podcast and the people who gravitate towards it, embracing honesty and pain and the communal catharsis it provide, but it's all centered around Harmon and his often self-desctructive tendencies.  The people along for the ride are his girlfriend, Erin McGathy, Davis, and the show's resident Dungeons and Dragons gamesmaster Spencer Crittenden, and each has naturally a different relationship with Harmon.  McGathy bears the biggest brunt of Harmon's self-destructiveness which often manifests as lashing out, while Davis more deals with pushing the show forward.  Spencer meanwhile sits quietly, uncomfortably on the outside of it, and observes.

It's with Spencer's story that Harmontown as a documentary justifies its existence as more than a piece of self-glorification/implosion.  Spencer is the fan's way into Harmontown, as he was a man on the outside who innocuously offered to run a D&D campaign and suddenly found himself a man on the inside.  Spencer is a stereotypical outcast nerd, the kind with a quiet, gruff exterior, a shell hardened by traumatic childhood ostracisation, a person who finds comfort in the world of fantasy and its nuances.  But through his role on Harmontown's podcast he's given the opportunity to have a voice in the world he never though he'd have, to be heard and seen and validated.  As he's on tour he has people, not unlike himself, awkwardly approaching him with admiration and adulation, genuine affection for who he is and what he contributes, and the film captures intimately what that discovery is like for him.  Where Harmon, a bit of a self-aggrandizer, is only marginally surprised by his supportive fanbase (there's an expectation of some level of worship going on, like how a televangelist preacher takes the worship of God as his own), Spencer is genuinely shocked.  Though in their own ways both men are grateful.  It's obvious though that Harmon needs the outpouring of support and affection, almost like a drug, for Spencer it's almost an affirmation that his place in the world is okay.

This is a film that's meant for the fans and the outlier fans, all the avid Community watchers and AV Club message boarders, the people who know what a showrunner is.  It's not that it can't appeal to a broader audience, but without having the shorthand of understanding Harmon from his work (and for sure Community is a devastatingly hilarious and often genious personal endeavour with each character a manifestation of his personality) the uninitiated viewer may just wonder "what's the big deal about this guy?"  That difficult personality Harmon displays can rub even the most ardent fan the wrong way at times.


Of all the films in this I Saw This!! column, Blue Ruin is the one I enjoyed the most, and yet, it's the one I'm having the hardest time recalling.  I have specific images in mind, a general impression of what the movie is, but a lot of the details are fuzzy.  Perhaps as I write about it, it will come flooding back.  Spoilers will follow.

The film is a low budget revenge thriller (partiall funded via Kickstarter, no less), that's less exactly a thriller, and certainly not your typical revenge story either.  Dwight (Macon Blair) is a drifter living out of a bullet-hole-riddled, tarp-covered car.  He scrounges and survives, but hasn't given up completely on civility, reading novels by flashlight at night.  The police stop by, obviously familiar with Dwight's story, and inform him that the man who killed his parents is being released from jail.  Very quickly Dwight sets up his plot to take his revenge, connecting the battery back to the engine and returning back home, a place it's apparent he hasn't been in a long time.

Where most revenge fantasies find their lead characters frighteningly proficient at stalking and murder, Dwight's plans fumble and falter from moment one.  Clean shaven, wearing stolen oversized business casual clothes, Dwight looks like a soft man, timid, bleary eyed, pudgy, completely unassuming.  He's not cut out for this sort of business, particularly when his target's family begins to hunt him down, and yet, he has no choice.  This is his drive, his mission.  His sister should be the one to talk sense in him, in any other film she would be admonishing him for what he's doing, angry abut how it impacts her life, and yet she's cautiously supportive.

I hesitate to call Blue Ruin a dark comedy, because it's a dead serious movie, and yet it's spin on the revenge tale is so fresh and about face that it's impossible not to laugh unconsciously in reaction to Dwight's failures and botched successes.  Dwight a fascinating character, burdoned by what he does and what he wants to do, but it's the only thing he has left in life to care about.  His time as a vagrant leaves him awkward in conversation, reserved... he keeps to himself, he doesn't make eye contact.  He seems to want nothing more than to slink back into that life of desperate solitude but he has his mission which he has to see through to the end.

Director Jeremy Saulnier tells his film in an extremely straightforward manner, and yet it's exactly the right touch.  There's no distraction, no flashy angles, unusual cuts, or any of the vast variety of tricks indie directors for so long following the Tarantino boom have used to try and distinguish themselves.  Saulnier instead relies upon holding shots, minimal cutting and letting scenes and actors breathe.  It's not as much about mounting tension, but about establishing the natural settings and normalicy that otherwise exists in this unconventional scenario.

Yeah, I'm remembering it well now, but it's certainly worth another watch.


And finally for today (in actuality, I've been writing this column over a 5-day period), there's The Scribbler.  I first heard about this film via Bleeding Cool (a comic-book and nerd cinema-related website I write for) as they reported a graphic novel being released for the picture.  A couple days after this report I noticed that the film was on Netflix, so I figured why not give it a watch.  If it’s bad, I can turn it off.

It’s not a bad film, per se, but it’s far from great. It has the same sensibilities of The Crow, a highly stylized, dark and gritty quasi-supernatural/quasi-superhero-esque production, replete with whatever janky emo-style music is fueling the goth teenagers as they brood introspectively in their bedrooms.  Set in a facility that’s home to residents undergoing psychological rehabilitation (long and short term residents), it’s definitely not a Cuckoo’s Nest full-blown lock-down/caged-in situation but more of a half-way home.  But it’s dank.  Extremely so.  Remember that toilet stall Ewen MacGregor dove into to retrieve his suppository in Trainspotting?  Imagine that stall as an entire building.  Yeah, it’s gross.  The city this building resides in seems to be shrouded in perpetual night, or at least whenever it is day it’s like the sun nervously shines as the darkness threatens it’s habitual take over.  Also, rain and lightning seem almost a constant, for mood you see, except when it’s more convenient not to be raining.

Our protagonist, Suki (played by Katie Cassidy) is a young woman with multiple personality disorder who comes to the building recovering from her latest suicide attempt.  There she rekindles a friendship with Hogan (Garrett Dellahunt), a gearhead who pretends to be insane in order to live in the building on the cheap, sex up its desperate/vulnerable women, and liberate their drugs for his own profit.  She also befriends Cleo (Gina Gershon) a long-term resident, who shows her the ropes, including avoiding the stairs where a crazy naked girl likes to push people down them.

The film is so aggressively in your face about how edgy it’s trying to be.  It uses all the cinematic tricks of psychological thrillers and body horror films (oh, those shadows and neons), only never to any great terrifying or suspenseful effect, it’s strictly an aesthetic choice, like it wants to be a horror movie but the story doesn’t facilitate it. The sex scene between Suki and Hogan is kind of disgusting rather than titillating because of how it was shot, edited and soundtracked.  It’s like the film wants you to be repulsed by it because of the style choices it makes, but it’s only a slightly left-of-standard superhero origin story.  It realistically wants you to root for the title character as she comes to understand who she is and how her multiple personalities help her fulfill her true potential but it’s story is at cross purposes with its tone.

The acting in the film is quite good.  I liked everyone’s performances in it (including Michelle Trachtenberg as Suki’s nemesis, Michael Imperioli as her skeevy psychologist, and Eliza Dushku as the detective investigating the deaths in the building), they truly seem invested in their roles, so it’s unfortunate that the director’s vision (which seemed to be “let’s make a Cronenbergian superhero story but with a Zack Snyder pastiche”) clashed with everything else going on.  Honestly, I probably would have liked this in 1993, when comic-to-screen movies were rare, and rarely good, but we’ve moved well past that in the 20 years since. 

Man, this took a long time and over 5000 words.  If I were concerned with page hits and visitors and any sort of monetary-earning angle to this site, I would’ve pushed each review out one-a-day. But even though they have no real connection to one another, beyond the fact that I’ve procrastinated in writing about them, they still feel like part of a whole and belong together in one fell swoop.  I’m rather impressed at my ability to recall how I felt about a film despite not entirely recalling the film (though as I write the specifics of the film tend to re-emerge).  I’m working from the top of the “to review” list with this one, but I may start at the bottom and work up from hereon out, get to the fresher stuff first instead of taking forever and having current releases wind up in yet another I Saw This!!


3+1 Short Paragraphs: The Zero Theorem

2013, Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits) -- netflix

It may be accredited to the fact I waited this long to see the movie, that my enjoyment of the movie was diminished. For the first time ever, I can say a Terry Gilliam movie really just didn't do it for me. Despite an array of visuals that were as Gilliam as ever and a plot that actually sang to my core, I was just not... impressed.

The Zero Theorem looks incredible, visually distinctive like no movie (of his) since Brazil. But where that movie was all dull earth tones, muted palette for a dull bureaucratic world, this is all colour and jazz, for a world set as an extreme mockery of our own, one of screens and advertising and the desire to be unique from the grey crowds. Computers are everywhere, but using unique interfaces much more like a child's toy, than intelligent UIs. And colour! Outrageous, riotous colour!

Qohen, played by Christoph Waltz, is a programmer with Mancom. And when I say programmer, I mean he crunches numbers. And when I say crunches numbers, I mean he wiggles icons to fit into other icons. He is the best at it, but is broken, having missed a phone call that would explain the meaning of life to him. He now waits forever, for that phone call, and has stopped living life. That makes him perfect for Mancom's management (unrecognizable Matt Damon) plan to understand the antithesis of meaning; the Zero Theorem. A man who (un)lives while always seeking the meaning of living, can be so perfect to the finding of an algorithm that proves everything is meaningless. Sorry if that hurts your frontal lobe.

And yet, despite the visuals and the current question of meaning ("waiting for my real life to begin"), it just didn't work for me. Not completely bored, but not completely bought in, I kept on waiting for something to actually happen. I kept on waiting for enlightenment. I kept on waiting for the Gilliam rush. Part of me believes Terry Gilliam was very very intentional in that, in that he needed me to find that meaning for myself, like he needed Qohen to actually find meaning, instead of just waiting for it to be explained by a phone call that would never come.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Cinderella

2015, Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) -- download

Remember Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing ? Remember how unabashedly joyous it was? It revelled in the setting & costuming and delighted in the light hearted Shakespearean tale of barbs and matchmaking. Its a movie that just makes me smile. Well, lo and behold, he did it again with Cinderella, a straight up adaptation of the Disney cartoon.

Its a magical land that is nowhere you know, but must be down the river from that castle in all the Disney openings -- you know its Cinderella's castle, right? Its also some time period between (but including all) Edwardian England and 1930s Paris, based on the wardrobes of the cast involved. Truly fantastical, as everything just looks fabulous and totally intentional.

Ella lives there with her mother and father in a grand country house. Her father is a successful merchant and everything is perfect. Of course it is, for Hayley Atwell is her mother. But it doesn't last, as Atwell passes and her father, years later, feels compelled to marry widow Cate Blanchett, a gold digger with two nasty daughters, but all of whom dress wonderfully. I couldn't hate anyone in such lovely clothing, but they were annoying as all frick. Then daddy dies, leaving Blanchett in charge, scared and totally resentful.

I never root for the princess in these movies. They are too perfect. Always a bit full of themselves. But Ella isn't. She isn't Hollywood perfect beautiful, her overbite and slightly wide mouth sets her just left of perfect. Oh, she's beautiful, but in that English countryside sort of way, not LA. As Kit (not Harrington, but his TV brother Richard Madden) discovers when he runs into her in the forest. He is taken with exactly how forthright she is about being kind and right. "Just because it's what's done doesn't mean it's what should be done!" She is worth rooting for, and the dance at the ball, where Kit confirms he has fallen for her, is again unabashedly joyous. Lovely movie and a princess for all the girls and boys to wish to emulate.