Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

2015, d. Lana and Andy Wachowski -- in theatre

The Wachowskis are intriguing filmmakers, and divisive ones.  They naturally became a "name" commodity thanks to resounding (and unexpected) success of The Matrix but rapidly ate away that goodwill with two sequels of diminishing returns (while pushing the integration of digital effects and fight choreography forward).  They followed the Matrix with the bizarre pop-art Speed Racer, a huge box office disappointment, but a film that succeeded on its own terms by presenting a very distinct vision, one that the public at large just wasn't willing to embrace.  Four years passed between Speed and their adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the multi-generational, experimental, time-sprawling epic which they co-wrote and directed with Tom Tykwer.  Again, points for vision and accomplishment but an extremely flawed movie requiring a lot of viewer patience.  With these five films (plus the lesbian-noir film Bound, which preceded the Matrix) the Wachowski name has become both a draw and a deterrent, one never quite sure what they're going to receive.

Looking over their nearly 20-year career, one can see that the Wachowskis are keen to focus on the science fiction genre and that, like many directors of that they came up with, they wear their influences on their sleeve.  But like a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, their stories bring together their influences into a new whole, rather than feel like recycled copycats.  As well, every outing, not matter how successful or unsuccessful the story may be, there's always a very assured vision to what they're doing.  It's easy to be impressed with a Wachowski film, and it's just as easy to be disappointed by one.  For their last four films, each since The Matrix, one generally has to qualify their liking of the film, acknowledging that they're extremely flawed but still enjoyable to them.  I went into Jupiter Ascending expecting to both enjoy it and qualify that enjoyment.  I mean, based on the trailer alone, there's no way someone's coming out of that film a straight-up fan, right?

Turns out, I don't have to qualify at all, I flat-out enjoyed, maybe even loved Jupiter Ascending.  I didn't think I would have this strong a reaction especially based on the trailer, which utterly undersells the film.

It's a pretty dodgy trailer, and the one I saw most often.  Most of the TV commercials were cut from it.  It's  full of epic music that doesn't quite marry well with the imagery, and full of imagery that doesn't make much sense, and by the end of the trailer pretty much the only thing you're sure of is that it's a Wachowski siblings movie.  That Channing Tatum has weird pointy ears and a bleached goatee and guyliner on all make the thing seem rather silly in spite of the grandiose music.

Now this trailer, it features the same music, but lays out the story far, far better:

Mila Kunis plays Jupiter, a Russian immigrant working for her family's housekeeping business, with dreams of a different life but the crushing reality that another life isn't really within her reach.  But, it turns out that she happens to be the genetic duplicate of the matriarch of the House of Abrasax, a family tens of thousands of years old, rich in the universe as tycoons of a rejuvenating formula that can extend life and restore youth.  As the genetic duplicate she is entitled to her previous life's inheritance, which includes the resource-rich Earth.  But the children of Abrasax each want the Earth for their own, the planet, teeming with life, is ripe for the harvesting and being turned into the valuable, life-prolonging formula.  Alien bounty hunters and assassins of all sorts descend upon the Earth in pursuit of Jupiter, but one, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) sees Jupiter as something more than just a mark and endeavours to protect her.

The film is delightful space opera bristling with ideas that show the incredible depth of detail that the Wachowskis put into this reality.  The film, without doing so head on, addresses popular monster mythology like vampires and werewolves, as well as dinosaurs, alien abduction and crop circles.  The fact of the matter is, the Earth was seeded by these higher beings. and is regularly manipulated and influenced by them   Their technology is so superior they're able hide in plain sight, becoming invisible or project a human image.  They can rebuild a destroyed city in hours and erase the memories of thousands in seconds.  When we see their factory hidden in the clouds of Jupiter, their structures are littered with statues that read Greek, Aztek, Egyptian and more but spun with alien twists (so they're evidently responsible for our mythologies as well).

I really appreciated the scale at which the film operated on.  The story is very personal to Jupiter, but it expands in scope to encompass the fate of the Earth, but beyond that, it establishes that a planet like the Earth is just a barn full of cattle compared to the larger universe, that to the citizens that live outside of the Earth its existence means nothing.  It's rare that there's a science fiction story that takes place on modern day Earth where the aliens do not feel like outsiders, where the ways of the Earth are neither strange nor foreign to them (if anything Earth is so far beneath and below them they're not at all concerned with the planet's ways).

The Wachowskis are masters of action sequences and the first big one is an eye-popper.  Caine and Jupiter are falling high above Chicago after their transport is destroyed by enemy bounty hunters.  Caine wears anti-gravity boots which allow him to hover and move in the sky, so its up to him to rescue Jupiter from her plummet while dodging the firing ships trailing them.  This sequence features so many wide, broad sequences of Caine skating the Chicago skyline at sunrise, intercut with the tenuous grip he has on Jupiter, recalling the Superman and Lois sequence from the 1979 Superman film.  It's bright and exciting, and the neon trail Caine leaves behind from his boots hearkens back to Tron.  It's the way Caine moves through the sky that really excites me, the speed skating creates a very dynamic visual, one that is unlike any other I've seen.  I wasn't old enough to first see Superman in a theatre, I can only imagine the excitement of seeing someone flying on screen convincingly for the first time was very much like the same exciting charge of seeing Caine skate the sky.  I've seen flying in film before but it's never been as exciting as this.

That tone that the trailer establishes is very absent from the film.  This isn't a dour, self-serious picture.  It has levity and is quite generally playful.  Jupiter is a bit awestruck by her experiences, while Caine feels conflicted.  Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays the most ruthless of the Abrasax siblings, speaking with a gravelly whispered hush befitting an 80,000-year-old man, and chewing the scenery, which doesn't feel out of place in this film.  Meanwhile Tuppence Middleton and Douglas Booth play much softer yet no less conniving members of the family, attempting to use business or diplomacy to wriggle what they want from Jupiter, their reincarnated mother.   The Abrasax family and their commercial interests nods towards Dune, without directly emulating it.  Sean Bean brings his usual burdened heaviness to the film as one of Caine's ex-military colleagues, but manages to avoid all of the Wachowski's traps and survive to the end (spoiler alert).  Jupiter's immediate family, a huddled mass of Russian immigrants, provide a source of levity, not by mocking them but by creating a very contentious yet close knit dynamic.

The inclusion of human-animal hybrids is perhaps the film's weirdest touch and where it might lose a great many of its audience members.  Caine is essentially a genetic human-wolf hybrid, while we also spy ferret-human, elephant-human, and mouse-human hybrids, all of whom look downright weird.  I have to guess, knowing that the Wachowskis are indeed comic book fans, that they were inspired by the great mothly book Saga (by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which features very similar human-animal hybrids among its other exotic alien designs), just as I'm certain those hover boots were inspired by Jack Kirby's New Gods (Wachowskis neeed  to do a New Gods movie)

There's so much to Jupiter Ascending that I could continue writing at length about the great many things I loved, all the wonderful minutiae that the Wachowskis seeded the film with (such the great bureaucracy sequence that was obviously inspired by Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which then goes on to feature Gilliam in the segment), but if you want me to nitpick, there's one particular point of contention, which would be Jupiter's repeated need of rescuing by Chase (including a surprising homage to the Graduate), but in the end when she actually gets into a fight she holds her own.  Too bad she didn't get her own anti-grav boots sooner.

Jupiter Ascending features a heavy Doctor Who and Outer Limits influence as well as countless others, but isn't defined by any one of them.  It takes its anime ships and its Mary Poppins flying and does its own thing.  It's not been getting great reviews (largely from those same reviewers commenting on comic book/teen novel/sequel/franchise fatigue), reviewers generally citing it as ridiculous and the plot confusing (seemed straightforward enough to me).  This is space opera, not light or hard sci-fi.  It's romantic, playful and opulent, it's weird and knowingly goofy at times, reveling in everything it is.  Everything here is a choice the Wachowskis made and not a rash of mistakes cobbled together into a 2 hour film.  It's definitely an under-appreciated film, a film which may grow its fanbase as the years forge on. It's densely structured enough that repeated viewings will yield only more insight and appreciation for the craft the Wachowskis put into it.  I'm excited that it already has a growing cult following and that its doing well internationally.  But then again, I don't need anyone else to love it.  The film exists, it ends without cliffhangers or anticipating a sequel, so whether it's successful or a failure I can enjoy it as often as I like (as soon as it's released for home viewing).  It's also only got two swears and minor rear-end nudity so it's pretty clean for the kids as well.

Monday, February 23, 2015

I Saw This!! Kids Stuff part III

(part II) (part I)
In this edition:
Strange Magic (2015), d. Gary Rydstrom -- in theatre
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), d. Steve Barron -- blu-ray
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015), d. Paul Tibbitt -- in theatre
Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014), d. Rob Minkoff -- netflix


We came to watch Strange Magic by way of a birthday party my daughter was invited to.  Now, my daughter has been nothing but reluctant, if not vehemently against seeing movies in the movie theatre after the great Muppets Most Wanted trauma of last year, but because this was one of her good friend's birthdays she was into going but only if I joined here.  I had seen the trailer, with it's plethora of pop song covers and was rather wary of the end product ("From the mind of George Lucas!" doesn't quite hold the cache it once did), but I'm always game to be surprised.

Well, Strange Magic isn't quite what the trailer describes it as.  The "goblin king" (it's actually Bog King in the movie) isn't necessarily trying to take over the forest, and our plucky heroes are necessarily trying to stop him.  Instead it's a farcical comedy about both love and a love potion gone wrong, and the Bog King's attempts at obliterating love from the dark side of the forest, if not the entirety of the forest altogether.  It's a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, so the story structure itself is quite surprisingly sound.

But yeah, there's singing.  Lots and lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of singing, all of pop songs from the 50's to the modern day, none of which are outright offensive but nothing stellar or exciting.  The songs are incessant, and at times overwhelming but never grating.

The animation, from moment one, is strikingly gorgeous, and I was almost ready to buy in because of it.  The vibrancy of the colours, the lush details of the forest and its foliage, the intricacies of the costuming and hairstyles... it's all so very impressive.  Even the choreography of fight sequences (which are in no way prolonged or egregiously violent) and the musical numbers are stellar, weaving between movement on land and in the air (fighting with wings hasn't been done quite enough).

The opening sequence features a doe-eyed, lovestruck princess Maryanne fluttering about the forest carelessly on her wedding day, singing "Can't Help Falling In Love", which immediately tore into the film's beauty with yet more stock lovelorn royalty, but thankfully, and approvingly, once she realizes her husband-to-be is a total cad, longing only for her power (and an army of his own), she rejects love and goes goth, getting edgy, learning to fight, etc.

It's unfortunate that Lucas and company opted for licensing songs rather than going the route of original numbers. I'm certain the film would have been much stronger and better received had it gone that route.  Pop songs, no matter how they're arranged, seem tedious and even corny when they're crammed into a context not originally intended.  Sure this may be most kids' first exposure to the songs here but it doesn't make it any less a grind for the adults sitting with them.

Likewise, scaling back on the number of musical numbers, and adopting a bit more of a literal adaptation of Shakespeare's original story may have serviced the film far better (had this been a direct adaptation, with the lavish animation, it would have been absolutely stellar).

It's gotten a bad rap from most critics, but it's really a middle-of-the-road picture.  It's themes about accepting people as they are and being able to fall in love with anyone are certainly present, and even I will admit toe getting sucked into the Moonlighting-esque romance of Marianne and the Bog King.   It's decent, but it certainly could have been far better (and easily far worse).


I covered "TMNT", the 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated feature in the last I Saw This!! Kids Stuff, and noted there my brief (and mostly absent) history with the Turtles.  They just weren't my thing.  Even though the Turtles are technically a comic book property and especially in the 1990s I would watch any comic book movie no matter how awful it looked (yes, even Steel starring Shaquille O'Neal), I never watched any of the live action trilogy.  They just seemed beneath me, juvenile, annoying.

When the hosts announced that they were watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as their next film one week on the Wham Bam Pow podcast, I had thought they were going to be reviewing the latest Michael Bay produced trainwreck.  But it turned out to be the original feature, which I had suspected would be beneath them.  When they (surprisingly) quite favorably reviewed it I actively sought it out, knowing that even if I wasn't that into it, my daughter would be.

Turns out, it's true, it's not so bad.  It's kind of charming in a late-80's grimy, practical-effects and restricted budget kind of way.  Following hot on the heels of the mega-success of Tim Burton's Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles indeed attempts much of the same style and maturity to an ostensibly juvenile property.  That the film, more than most comic book adaptations, remained fairly faithful to the flavour of the source material is quite impressive.

The main plot finds New York City slowly succumbing to a crime wave led by a legion of foot soldiers under the sway of The Shredder.  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles start to come out from their sewer lair to help fight this crime wave, encountering reporter April O'Neill and sports-themed vigilante Casey Jones along the way.

The thrust of the story, however, is about family, and the four brothers (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael) have very disparate personalities which often find them at odds.  There's a need to prove themselves to one another, particularly between Leo and Raph.  When their sewer lair is infiltrated, their master Splinter captured, and April's apartment destroyed by Shredder and his goons, they flee the city to regroup, train and find some semblance of the teamwork needed in order to take down their foe and rescue their master.

As far as the Turtles pantheon goes, I've long given April the short shrift, but here she's really the glue that holds the whole movie together.  Judith Hoag, with her wild and kinked-out red hair, pale skin and freckles is a bit of a startling screen presence at first, but being the primary human character she adds incredible depth, warmth and she makes you believe this world and these crazy puppets exist.  It's really all for her to shoulder and she carries the movie.  She may not be typical Hollywood attractive, but her charisma becomes undeniable.

The film is not a classic, nor great by any means, but it's truly enjoyable, and far better than it had any right to be.  Also, extra points for a very young Sam Rockwell appearance.


A decade and a half ago Spongebob Squarepants popped up on an unsuspecting television audience, delighting children, teens, college kids and some parents alike.  The culmination of outre animated comedy defined by Ren and Stimpy  and the irreverent humour just starting to catch on (via Cartoon Network shows like Dexter's Lab, Cow and Chicken), Spongebob may not have been wholly original but it was able to capture a far broader audience than any of its forbears, and become both a merchandising and comedy juggernaut that approximated the Simpsons rise to fame.  Children's animation, for the most part, has become a sea of pale imitators over the past decade-plus, almost to its detriment.  Every show aims for the same irreverence and it's diluted what made Spongebob so special in the first place.

But there have always been certain things Spongebob did that few other animated shows could replicate, particularly the show's radical inclusion of live action and atypical animation techniques.  My favourite Spongebob moments are always those where the characters break the surface tension of the ocean and wind up in a cheaply produced live-action environment as a yellow sponge on a stick, a starfish on a stick etc.  It's absurdity at its finest, the knowingly crude production values, and yet the voice acting carries on as if nothing were out of the ordinary.  The way the show pulls these out (and in moderation as well) I had high hopes for how it would manage a full feature film with Spongebob and gang interacting in a live action world.

Well, that said, the whole conceit of the film, "Sponge out of water", only comprises the last act, while the remainder of the film is an upgraded version of the traditional animation style of the show.  That the commercials (and poster) predominantly show the cgi cast, gussied up as superheroes, gives the expectation that the film will be largely comprised of this type of Who Framed Roger Rabbit animation/reality smash-up, even if it didn't seem like the best idea, it was kind of daring.  The way it's actually executed is anything but.

The film could have easily made up for this duplicity were it actually funny, but clippy irreverence over a 12-minute running time is one thing, doing it over 89 minutes is another, but it's like they didn't even try.  Every joke seems horrendously dragged out, and the pacing never finds its footing.  Each sight gag or sudden jump cut that would usually have an audience in stitches lands instead with a thud, giving itself way too much room to breathe and far too often setting itself up so that the joke is expected.

Nearly everything about this film is a waste of potential.  The plot finds Spongebob teaming up with Plankton after the Crabby Patty formula goes missing and Bikini Bottom falls into chaos without it's regular supply of burgers.  It turns out the disappearance of the formula was the work of the dread pirate Burgerbeard, a live action character played by Antonio Banderas.  Banderas kicks off the film narrating a story to a group of CGI seagulls which look like pathetic versions of the Penguins of Madagascar.  The potential of this film narrated by Banderas is mind blowing but squandered.  The book Banderas reads from had the power to adjust Spongebob's reality, a fact used two or three times in the third act, but could have been utilized with crazy results throughout the film.

While Banderas' casting is squandered genius, Matt Berry's voice work as Bubbles the space dophin, protector of the galaxy is the only oddball feat the film actually manages to make work.  It's a short sequence, 2 or 3 minutes long mid-way through the film but it's reality-bending nature and it's utter weirdness (not to mention Berry's particularly unique delivery) was the only moment that met up with my expectation of what a Spongebob story should be like.

Even when we get to reality, it seems so cheap, so manufactured, so unnatural.  It feels like very little production value went into it. which given my fondness for sponge-on-a-stick Spongebob, you would think I would like.  But it's like they were trying to make "reality" without using reality.  Had they made the film's reality exceptionally cheap, knowingly so, then it would have been incredible.  If there were nods to the props and the obviousness of its fakeness, the film would have paid off its promise.  As it stands it looks like a cruddy video game.

The Spongebob Movie could have been this year's Lego Movie, instead it feels like the rest of the barely tolerable TV movies Nickleodeon airs.


Like Spongebob, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, comes to the big screen where it started life in a much shorter fashion.  Even shorter than Spongebob's usual 11-12 minute stories, the original Mr. Peabody and Sherman stories were brief segments on the Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show anthology cartoons in the early 1960s.  Each cartoon featured Mr. Peabody, a super-genius bipedal dog, and his adopted pet child, Sherman, venturing into the past (via the "Wayback Machine") to meet a famous historical figure or witness a famous historical event.  Quasi-educational, very silly, and endlessly charming, "Peabody's Improbable History" was irreverent and enduring, much like every part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle ensemble.  The cartoons were ahead of their time, the comedy much more sophisticated than, say, the Flintstones and a product of their time at the turn of the 60's like Looney Toons was in the 40's and Spongebob was in the early years of the new millennium.

With that in mind,.the long-in-development feature film starring Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a bit of a disappointment in that it's not that funny.  However, unlike a great many kids movies that aren't funny largely because their comedy is terrible, juvenile, or ill timed, this film doesn't really strive too hard for comedy.  It's more an adventure, with a heavy dose of father-son relationship drama getting in the mix.  There are some decent chuckles (Mr. Peabody's puns are typically followed by Sherman laughing then coldly stating "I don't get it"), and the adventure leans more towards whimsical than intense, so it's not a harsh film at all, but it does take its relationships seriously.

The heart of the story is that child protective services are threatening to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody after the boy gets into a fight with a girl, Penny, at school and he bit her in the process.  Mr. Peabody holds a dinner for Penny and her family, but things get complicated when Sherman tries to settle an argument by showing her the Wayback Machine, and she goads him into using it.

The adventure finds Sherman and Mr. Peabody on a mission to rescue Penny in ancient Egypt, then losing power and calling upon Mr. Peabody's friend Leonardo da Vinci for help, getting time lost in the middle of the battle of Troy, and finally creating a time vortex by accidentally visiting a time where they already exist (sort of a Back To The Future II situation).  All of the time traveling provides for some light history lessons (filled with a lot of not-so-true-history), but through it all the threads of Peabody and Sherman's relationship is woven.  Sherman, as a son, is in part an academic endeavor for Peabody, something so irrational as emotions seem difficult for him to acknowledge.  Meanwhile, Sherman obviously has some latent issues about being raised by a dog, given his violent retaliation when he's mocked as one (but also probably not helped by Mr. Peabody's emotional neglect).  Doubtlessly the two come to common understanding and acceptance, but it still a rewarding conclusion even if it goes about it in a hammy way ("I am a dog", the crowd starts chiming in as animal control starts hauling Peabody away in their Spartacus homage).

The animation style is fair, but typical, the voice work by Ty Burrell, Max Charles, and Ariel Winter are all solid for their roles (with fun voice work from Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney Patrick Warburton and Stanley Tucci).  There's a device used early on as Mr. Peabody figures his way out of a situation (taking in all information around him and finding the best available option), somewhat akin to BBC's Sherlock or Amadeus Cho in the Greg Pak Hulk comics, but it's kind of abandoned, which is too bad because it was the most visual the film got.  The lead into the time vortex was by far the film's most playful and imaginative moment (as it struggled with multiple versions of its characters and the laws of temporal physics) but upon releasing the actual vortex it becomes less logical and weighed down by the needless "big finish" sequence (with more than a hint of Ghostbusters blazing through).

It's a middle-of-the road kid flick, but on the higher end of that part of the scale.  Not recommended for adult watching solo, but certainly not a bad thing to watch with the kids.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Big Hero 6

2014, Don Hall, Chris Williams (Bolt) -- cinema

Big Hero 6 is the perfect melding of Disney aesthetics and Marvel source material. Its not whatsoever related to the original story but only via some inspiration, and that is entirely fine. There are superheroes, there is Japanese inspired culture and our main characters or Hiro (perhaps Protagonist?) and Baymax are there. But no Silver Samurai, sniff sniff.

In some of my favourite anime, Tokyo is depicted in what I can only assume is a more realistic fashion. The radical difference-ness of the city, from the narrow back streets with park small cars, to the ubiquitous convenience stores everywhere to the familiar shopping districts full of neon signs and walking streets, I am fascinated. Big Hero 6 is set in a magical combination of said Tokyo and homey, more earthy San Francisco, giving us San Fransokyo. I watched the backgrounds of the movie as much as paid attention to the plot. So beautiful.

Our hero, Hiro, lives with his aunt and brother above a small non-franchise cafe. It is this depiction of a comfortable American-dream lifestyle that sets the tone for the movie. This is the alternate home life that movies are presenting as "normal" now. Now, don't take that as a commentary or normal vs not-normal, but more a love of how a non-traditional living arrangement -- they live with their aunt above a business -- is just soooo bloody warm, inviting and comfy. Hiro and his brother have a good life. They are loved. We don't need to see our hero in a white picket fence home with a mom & dad and suburban lifestyle.

Hiro and his brother Tadashi are pretty much geniuses, but you get the idea that kids are smarter than your average bears in this world. Tadashi goes to the local university, basically inventing super powers with his friends. Hiro makes robots for illegal, back alley fighting arenas. But Tadashi needs him to find a focus, to find some more positive direction for his obvious intellect. He wants him to join him at the university.

Hiro is inspired and brings an amazing tech to his "interview". These microbots, smaller versions of his killer fighting robot, can revolutionize building technology. No sooner than he presents it than tragedy happens, a fire in the display floor and, OMG it was tragic, the death of Tadashi amidst a heroic act. It was heart wrenching because everything we have learned about Tadashi is that he is both big brother, father figure and caring leader of his friends.

Hiro is left alone again, not truly alone as his aunt is always around, but no parents, no brother. And then pops up (or slowly inflates) Baymax, Tadashi's last project --- in inflatable medical robot. Its not a miracle that Baymax has a simple AI, but how Tadashi has had him apply the intelligence. Again, this world is already technologically fantastical so yeah, he's just trying to perfect the warm, caring nurse-bot that can help the world. It latches onto Hiro's mental anguish and helps him heal.

Then the real movie begins, the superhero action flick. Hiro discovers someone has taken his microbots and is doing something all Super Villain with them. He is not sure what, but he needs friends to help. Enter Tadashi's class and lab mates. Go Go, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and ... Fred. They build suits, test them out and head out to do battle with the kabuki masked villain in black. These scenes reminded me much of us bouncing around in City of Heroes, the game where we could make up our own superheroes and punch, zap and burn bad guys.

Its funny, but this is the part that fades the most for me, the most traditional of a comedy action movie fare. Everything, from Baymax's flying to the massive world sucking portal, is awe striking and powerful but felt a little... familiar to me.  I do need to see the movie again, to be drawn back into the story as a whole. I tend to get a little focused on character in these big, glossy animated flicks. I need a few times around the harbour to fully enjoy.

So, that said, time to grab a torrent and see if this will sit next to The Incredibles as one of my favourite animated flicks.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: Safety Not Guaranteed

2013, d.Colin Trevorrow

I don't really know how to classify this movie.  It's not a straight out comedy or romance or drama or science fiction but it has little elements of each.  It's an odd little bird that has no real home.  I guess it's more akin to the "Sundance style" of film these days, a little indie, a little mumblecore, a little of this and that but avoiding labels.  Whatever it is, it was enough to land director Colin Trevorrow the job of directing the latest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise.  I'm not sure I see the correlation but it's not necessarily a bad thing (given how successful Marvel has been at poaching indie or TV talent to direct its features).

Saftey Not Guaranteed stars Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Mark Duplass (The League, Cyrus), and Jake Johnson (The New Girl, Let's Be Cops), in a story about a Seattle magazine reporter (Johnson) and his interns (Plaza and Karan Soni) to small-town Washington state to investigate a classified ad submitted by Duplass requesting accompaniment on a time travel journey.  Johnson uses the trip as an excuse to visit an old high-school flame, leaving Plaza with most of legwork of getting the story.  In doing so she befriends Duplass, sharing a kinship with is outsider nature.  There's an undercurrent of weirdness and complexity to Duplass' story, the clear sense that he believes completely in what he's doing, but the crushing reality that he's already lost in time (his clothing and hairstyle is distinctly 1990s) and perhaps a little unhinged.  But Plaza also observes his kindness, his depth of character and enthusiasm, and gets sucked into his world.  Johnson's story, on the other hand, is far more grounded.  He's a lifelong player who still can't forget his first time, and upon encountering his high school lover (Jenica Bergere), he first feels disappointment since she no longer represents the ideal he's upheld in his mind.  But he lets go of his preconceptions and winds up finding a whole person, a complete individual who is beyond anything he could have dreamed of.  He falls quickly for her, only to find that having actual feelings for someone makes things far more complicated.

The curious thing about the film is how disparate its two story threads are from one another, like they're actually two separate, shorter films connected tenuously by location and occupation.  When Plaza/Duplass A-story reaches its climax, the B-story has already resolved, although with minimal satisfaction (it's obvious Johnson has changed as a person because of his experience, but how much is unclear).  When Johnson and Soni find their way into the final moments, the serve no real purpose, story-wise and seem out of place cheering Duplass on.  It's a curious and often enjoyable film, but also a little frustrating because of the questions it leaves unanswered.  It's a little film playing with big ideas (elements of time travel, conspiracy, heist) in a very underplayed manner, which work well, if not always convincingly.  I preferred Johnson's story to the main story, if only because I wanted more out of the time travel, the story and its history really needed to be filled out more.  It stuck so much to Duplass' outsider nature as if to say that was enough, and it really wasn't.  I liked the film, generally, but it left me dissatisfied.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Predestination

2014, The Spierig Bros (Daybreakers) -- download

'—All You Zombies—'  is a short story by Robert Heinlein, considered one of the greatest mindfucks of all time travel stories. Like all time travel fiction, it deals with the concept of paradox, but this one embraces it, wholey. The Spierig Bros again team with Ethan Hawke to adapt this story, which has to play with a few more ideas to properly present the story. You'll get why in a minute. And in case you haven't guessed, yeah, any thought of a review of this movie is spoilerific. So, if you don't know anything about the story or the hints behind the movie, but would like to see it, skip reading.

Ethan Hawke is a timecop (but without Van Damme's great hair) investigating a bombing in NYC, and trying to prevent it before it happens. The Fizzle Bomber is his nemesis, someone he has been chasing through time his entire career, and I can guess at his final success as the bombing didn't happen in our timeline. He is injured in one encounter requiring reconstructive surgery, and after recovery, is sent to the 70s to continue the investigation. This is where he has a long discussion with The Unmarried Mother, a man who writes impressive confessional stories from a woman's point of view. This meeting and the story of his past is the crux of this entire movie. The discussion begins, "When I was a little girl."

Aargh, either I cloak the rest of it in vague references to the detective story and the time jumping and the gender swapping, or I come right out. To tell you what I loved so much about this, I just have to tell you. Ethan Hawke is talking to The Unmarried Mother, who was once a woman, given gender correction surgery after the traumatic birthing of her daughter. She was born intersex, so that was indeed possible. She was impregnated by an older stranger, who turns out to be the older male version of herself, and yes, the daughter is also her, delivered to an orphanage as an infant. And yep, Ethan Hawke is the final incarnation of this single person who is mother, father and child of herself. This is a convoluted and rather pervy story of a predestined life, one that cannot be avoided because it already happened. In this extreme case, how can it be denied or avoided. Hawke's character just wouldn't be unless he played a hand in creating him/herself. And the loop, forgive me Rian Johnson, is closed to end out the movie.

So, in two fell swoops, the story accepts the concept of transgenderism whole heartedly, which is commendable, while tossing some rather disturbing concepts at us. All jokes about masturbating aside, its kind of icky to consider seducing the younger, other-gender version of yourself. Icky? Kinky? Romantic? Attach your own. I guess that blows up one time travel trope of never interacting with your past self, for fear of the universe blowing up. By the time the story (his not ours) has reached Ethan Hawke, you can understand his acceptance. He knows where he comes from, perfectly and completely.  He accepts his predestined fate.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Hundred-Foot Journey

2014, Lasse Hallström (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Shipping News) -- download

I love food movies, movies about food, about people who make food, about people who love eating good food. I am currently watching The Mind of a Chef on Netflix despite being inundated with food I cannot consume, fish and all its brethren. But I love the excitement of the show. I love watching cooking shows, whether I am going to ever attempt their recipes or not. Something about being the observer of good food enjoyed is palatable to me.

Now, food movies are often intertwined with the ideals of familial love, as if the two cannot be separated in the minds of story tellers. Think Big Night and the relationship between the brothers. Think Eat Man Drink Woman and the relationship between the father & daughters (which was also well done in the English / Spanish language remake Tortilla Soup) and of course, more recently, the rekindled relationships in Chef.

The Hundred-Foot Journey draws from the same broth. A family is forced from India because of politics; they are forced out of England because of the climate and housing. They end up stuck in a small village in France due to pure chance, circumstance or divine intervention. This is the ultra picturesque village that happens to have a 3 star restaurant run by snobby, critical, officious Madame Mallory, played by a very strained looking Helen Mirren. For at least an hour, I was distracted by the fact that lovely Ms. Mirren looked like she had work done. She just looked different. And she was not very convincing as a french matron, but the movie is so earnest in everything it portrays, I forgave her. Of both.

The Kadam family decides to stay in the village and take over "the other restaurant" and offer Indian food to the people. I never really understood how the village could maintain one extremely high end resto, but maybe I don't understand the demographics of rural France. How it was going to handle another, especially an "ethnic" one, the movie just blissfully ignores. This is a cheerful movie about perseverance and a love of food. This was not about tempered drama, but unabashed romanticism, often to the point of saccharine, and even occasionally entirely over the ledge. Of course the family gets the restaurant up and running, of course it becomes a success and of course, it breeds love between Romeo and Juliet.

But the movie doesn't stop there, it just keeps on going. Once the rift between the families is mended and evil Madame Mallory becomes a friendly matron, the movie tells a story of Michelin stars, celebrity chefs and being true to your love of food. To be honest, it was losing me at about this time, as the gentle son gets a haircut and an artful shaved scrub and a fondness for martinis in Paris. The movie was overly long and familiar. I like familiar in food movies, but sometimes the big hammer the movie used knocked me senseless.

The food is delectable, giving us views to both the incredibly refined recipes of the French, subtle flavours and ingredients with a precise attention to detail, and the exuberant cooking of the Indian family, based on generations of testing, tasting and serving. They believe that food should always be flavourful and subtlety is just a waste of time. Make it bold! In the third (maybe fourth or fifth, realistically) act we even get a commentary on new cuisine with its frozen this and extracts of that, while the kitchen staff just eats the food they bring with them from home, full of flavour and comfort.

I didn't love the movie, I didn't loathe it. Many times I was rolling my eyes and the heavy handed melodrama but that is Hallström. There were scenes and elements I did love, such as the wars between Madame Mallory and Father Kadam over ingredients. And in the end, I really just felt a craving for Indian food and a desire to thumb through my copy of Larousse Gastronomique.

Friday, February 13, 2015

John Wick

2014,  Chad Stahelski -- download

I normally only add genre flicks to my collections, movies I will watch over and over again, as the mood strikes it. But the first thing I said, as this movie came to a close, was that I would be adding it to the shelf. It was just too damn beautiful to not be seen on Blu-ray, multiple times. Beautiful? John Wick? That movie with Keanu playing a hitman who comes out of retirement, taking revenge on the men who killed his puppy? Yes, that movie. This movie is fucking beautiful to watch, and not just stylish. Oh, it is stylish, but the layout of each of the scene in 2.39:1 widescreen was perfection, often shot distantly to allow more onto the screen. The stylistic colour and design choices of this elite crime world, reminded me in turns of many of its influences: noir, gun fu, hong kong action (think of the use of colors in Chow Yun-fat's Killer) and graphic novels. Lovely movie.

So yes, they kill his dog. But its not just a simple 'kill his dog - he takes revenge' plot device. Even if it had been so, that simple concept was enough to have me cheering the trailer, for a fun brainless action thriller. But no, its more. In a very truncated opening sequence, we see Wick lose his wife (silently, via disease) and gain a puppy, one she arranged to have delivered to him after her death, so John will continue to know love. This is like a reddit post, one where a guy shares a post about the puppy he is raising that his girlfriend arranged for him to have, after she died of cancer. It would gets 10s of thousands of up-votes. The feels are palpable. Its not just a shout of, "You killed my dog, now prepare to die." This is John having his mourning tool ripped from him, like his heart from his chest.

John lives in his big, fancy house beside a lake in New Jersey. He drives his car hard and refuses to sell it to the well clad, thuggy Russians he runs into at the gas station. Oh look, its Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) -- this is not going to end well. They surprise John later, in his house, and kill his dog and steal his car. They try and get it modified at a local chop shop and Alfie just gets his nose punched for his efforts; Aurelio the owner of the chop shop knows whose car they have stolen. Of course, Alfie's dad calls Aurelio, "You struck my son?" His response, "They stole John Wick's car and killed his dog." Oh. That is the gangster's response, a simple one word answer filled with the weight of understanding. Oh. You can almost hear his blood run cold.

The rest of the movie is a beautiful ballet of ultra violence and gun fu, with a hint of video game. Revenge movies are a genre where you already know the direction taken (*ahem*), so you have no guesses as to plot. Any creative divergences from such are usually distracting. So, this one progresses as it should, with Wick shooting anyone who gets in his way. But oh so lovingly directed. From the locations, like the Red Circle club (a side reference to a fake-Buddhist quote about men and their destined convergences, from a movie, Le Cercle Rouge, that influenced John Woo and this movie) to the snazzy flat iron building Hotel which doesn't allow business on its premises, making it a refuge for underworld types. To the costuming; Hannibal would have felt good in these tailored dark suits. To the music, hard thumping electronic when necessary with one sequence reminding me of Blade and the opening vampire take-down. The movie just made good choices.

These movies are like candy to me. I eat them quick but the sugar high runs out. I forget much. But I know I want more and I will be watching this again, so I can catch more little things that will elicit smiles from me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Only Lovers Left Alive

2014, d. Jim Jarmusch

I think every true cinephile (well those fifty years or younger) goes through a Jim Jarmusch phase, usually when they're just discovering independent cinema and things other than what the Hollywood system shoves down our throats (don't get me wrong, I love a lot of that stuff too...).   The younger set are lucky, getting to consume his brief collection in short order, whereas the older set have to patiently await the next one.  His films are wondrously varied in genre but markedly similar in tone, so after consuming a certain amount of his work, it should be easy to dismiss whatever comes next. Yet, Jarmush's consistency in tone also leads to (for the most part) consistently interesting films.  The older guard may appreciate it as "more of the same" (not necessarily in a bad way) where a new cinephile will, no matter where they enter, find his films a revelatory experience.  It's easy to want more of his unique brand of low-key cinemanesthesia, that dry wit and the heady influence of alternative music that haven't wavered much in 35 years, particularly if you've never encountered it before.

Jarmusch, however, isn't a very prolific director.  On average he dishes out a new film every 4 years, and it seems like every other film of his is one of his best.  I came into Jarmusch through Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers (to me it seemed like these films all happened within a span of a couple years when it was in actuality ten years between them).  Ghost Dog was a particular centerpiece for me, the intersection of the world's sudden love affair with Asian cinema and the hip-hop reaching the apex of its silver age.  However despite being a quasi-sequel, his previous film to this one, The Limits of Control, I have yet to see.  To be honest, I thought Jarmusch had put out a sting of films I hadn't seen between Broken Flowers (2005) and Limits (2009) and even more since and that I just haven't been keeping track.  Turns out, yeah, he's done little else.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a fascinating beast.  Where Ghost Dog was his take on Samurai stories, Broken Flowers his romantic comedy, and Dead Man his western,  Lovers  is his vampire film, and it's totally his.  Tilda Swinton plays Eve, contentedly living in Tangier, embracing culture and socializing with her vampire friend Christopher Marlow (John Hurt).  Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives in Detroit, a reclusive alternative music folk hero engaging only with his runner Ian (Anton Yelchin).  Adam is spiraling into depression contemplating the state of the world, juxtaposing it against what he's known for decades and centuries past, and the increasing difficulty his people have staying hidden with the interference of modern technology has him borderline suicidal.  Eve rushes to his side, their evergreen romance helping bring him out of his darkness.

If the mere mention of Swinton and Hiddleston as both vampires and lovers doesn't seem to be the utmost perfect and obvious casting then you sir or madam have a genuine problem...because it's utter perfection.  The two of them seem like they're made for one another, natural partners that shouldn't ever be separated.  Their romance in the film is astounding, effortless even, and while it may not be as intoxicating as, say, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, it's also not that far off.  That they've been a couple for centuries is utterly believable, they have a shorthand with each other and a sense of all-knowing about the other, and yet they're still able to talk and share and experience life apart and together.  Adam takes Eve on many tours around Detroit, and this film acts as much as a vampiric love story as it does a documentary exploring the Motor City.  Jarmusch's lens finds true beauty in the wake of the city's fall from grace.  Adam's nostalgia for what it once was manages to bring life back to all the dead and run-down areas and buildings, of which there are a great many.

While the film could have easily languished solely on Adam and Eve's relationship and their tours of Detroit at night, the sudden (though not unexpected) arrival of Eve's precocious younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) propels the film forward with a frenetic energy.  Ava is a chaos agent, upsetting Adam's delicately balanced ecosystem, and Eve obviously has a hard time dismissing her family ties. It's through the opening (with Eva in Tangier and Adam in Detroit) and Eve's arrival that we learn both how the vampires live in modern society and also how dangerous and potentially "species"-threatening for them.  They are rapidly going extinct, drinkable, untainted blood becoming rare. Their survival is uncertain, with exposing themselves their last remaining option and an extremely dangerous one.

It's becoming increasingly rare to find a fresh or unique take on most sub-genres of horror, but by taking out the horrific elements and showing a more common, less glamorous and differently romantic take on them, Jarmusch has done exactly that.  I revel in the little touches, like Adam's fondness for the arcane technology (based of designs by Tesla). the grindy chamber music Adam doesn't want exposed, or the cameo role from Jeffrey Wright, which seem denser than any Jarmusch film past.  Though the pacing is totally expected from his ouvre, it's a beautiful and captivating exploration of both the real Detroit and the fiction of vampires.  It won't be for everyone but I quite loved it.

(Read David's Take here)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Pitch Perfect

2012, d. Jason Moore -- netflix

In the intervening two-ish years between Pitch Perfect's theatrical release and last month I managed to build up a huge level of excitement for this campus competitive a cappella comedy without really knowing why, to the point that when it came onto Netflix I gleefully turned to my wife and exclaimed "Ooooh, Pitch Perfect!  We need to watch this ASAP!"  And we did, at the first available opportunity.  And I loved it, as I expected to.  For what is, by all accounts, a rather mediocre film, I unabashedly loved it, logic or reasoning be damned.

This is the kind of "new wave" chick flick, equal parts romance, gross-out, and college campus comedy, with a dash of non-sport competition thrown in for thrust.  Anna Kendrick plays a freshman at the college where her dad teaches.  She could still live at home but she chooses to move into the dorm for a sense of liberation.  She DJs in her spare time, making mash-ups (remember when those were a thing back in the last 2000's?) and volunteers at the campus radio station (which, unlike almost every campus radio station I know, isn't looking for students who want to do their own programming).  She's a bit of an outsider, and seems disinterested in much other than her own interests so her dad challenges her to get out, socialize, join a club, and if she can stick with it for the year, he will pay for her to go to school in L.A.  She gets suckered into a rag-tag all-female a capella club that's fallen on hard times, and gets sucked into all its drama and competitive b.s., making friends and nemeses along the way to the big competition.

What makes the film work is not its sort of stock plot, but all the eccentric asides it has.  The competing a capella groups on campus sub in for the frats of your typical campus comedy, while an off-the-books sing-off competition provides this rather puerile recreation a comically overstated sense of dangerous cool.  At the big competition, in the front lobby, a quartet of 30-somethings set up a pop-up booth, trying to reclaim faded glory from their college days.  And then there's the weirdo characters like Hanna Mae Lee's sweetly mumbling pyromaniac (think of the offspring of Alyson Hannigan from American Pie and Stephen Root from Office Space and you'll get the idea) or Rebel Wilson's aggressively confident/clumsy Fat Amy, and even the two girls who are always there, never named, and then pointed out for precisely that reason late in the game.  It has some sharp comedic angles which get rounded off frequently, but every now and again it surprises with how clever it can be.  The singing competitions are all pop songs mixed up in varying ways, most of them palatable if not enjoyably so (save perhaps the aggravatingly sugary "I Saw The Sign", but it's pointedly in the film repeatedly for that very reason) .

If there's a major drawback to this film, it's the lead male, Kendrick's love interest, played by Skylar Astin.  As if that name weren't enough to make you want to smack him in the face, he has an unfortunately perennial smirk on his face (and upturned curl at either side of his lips that he genetically can't help) that just makes you want to hit him, repeatedly.  Perhaps it's just me.  I had a mad hate-on for Astin thanks to incessant repeating of ads (or rather, the same ad) for his atrocious sit-com Ground Floor day after day, week after week for months watching my TV programs via Canadian network streaming sites and on-demand channels.  There wasn't a moment he appeared on screen that I didn't find myself expressly resenting his presence, yet, even with that sizeable drawback (he's in the film a lot) I STILL loved this movie.  It's just good fun.  I can't wait for the sequel this summer!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Wintervision: New Mid-season TV

Galavant (Season 1) - Sundays @8 on ABC
Agent Carter (episodes 1-3) - Tusedays @9 onABC
Man Seeking Woman (episodes 1-3) - Wednesdays @10:30 on FXX
Schitt's Creek (episodes 1 & 3,4) - Tuesdays @9 on CBC
Young Drunk Punk (episode 1) - Wednesdays @8:30 on CityTV


I hadn't heard anything in advance about Galavant, a 1/2 hour medieval musical comedy that ABC was seemingly trying to bury on Sunday nights in the January post-holiday haze.  I caught wind of it only the Friday before the first episode aired on some website or another noting that Weird Al, Ricky Gervais and Rutger Hauer were all set to guest star on a, well, "medieval musical comedy".  This was most assuredly going to be a train wreck.  I mean it's early evening network television, how could it not be?  Plus, ABC was apparently trying to get rid of it quickly, running two episodes a night for four weeks.  Burning it off quickly was certainly a sign of its quality, right?

I tuned in to Galavant at 11PM for the Pacific time zone airing, as my wife had already ventured off to bed and I was reluctant (and a little embarrassed) to watch the show in front of her.  It's a medieval musical comedy for the 8PM timeslot on ABC for Pete's sake.  So imagine my surprise when I found myself rolling on the floor with utter glee for the better part of an hour.  Galavant defied even my  slimmest expectations and for the following three weeks it became appointment television.  When co-star Timothy Omundson appeared on The Soup with Joel McHale between week one and two, he created a bit of an impression on my wife, and even she was on board with it.

The show ambitiously strives to be a little bit of everything, even when it conflicts with itself: it's raunchy and kid-friendly at the same time; it's a period piece, but not outside of making modern references; it's genre busting, yet also genre embracing;  it's a funny musical, but the music is incredibly well-crafted, not dispensable.  It's a rare show that achieves everything it sets out to do, without pandering.  It's a show that toys with metatext, the characters often aware that they're in a production, but it doesn't break the wall too often that it knocks it down altogether.  And the comedy doesn't solely extend from their self awareness.  Both the plot and the characters are exceptionally playful, growing in ways that convention dictates, and in ways that wink at the convention, and then also in ways that are just out of left field.  The fact is that it plays with three genres at once (being medieval fantasies, musicals, and comedies) and so it has three different ways to toy around and play with characters, story, and song without exhausting the possibilities.

It's the show's pilot that hooked me, before it even the first commercial break by breaking the knights-and-princesses story cliche.  In the opening moments we meet Omundson, playing the giddily dainty King Richard, who has stolen legendary knight Galavant's true love Marlena, forcing her to marry him.  Played by the handsome, toothy Joshua Sasse, Galavant is dashing and charming, even when he falls prey to goofiness.  Galavant bursts in on the wedding, keen to fight for his love, but Marlena (Mallory Jansen playing a comedic iteration of Cersei from Game of Thrones) finds the wealth and power offered by Richard trumps true love and voluntarily elects to continue the wedding.

From there the plot fast forwards a number of months and thickens even more, with genuine intrigue that's funny, but no less exciting.  Galavant is in a rut, heartbroken, out of shape, drunk and broke, when Princess Isabella (the pristine Karen David) asks for his help in rescuing her parents and taking back her kingdom from King Richard.  What he doesn't know is that Richard has sent her to fetch Galavant so that he may kill him, since he suspects Marlena's apathy towards him has something to do with her residual feelings for Galavant (turns out not so much, she just despises him).

With the first two episodes setting up the general thrust of the show, the middle four jockey between establishing the status quo at the castle (Richard's search for manliness with his loyal guard Gareth [a very game Vinnie Jones], Marlena's infidelity and lust for power, some asides with the chef and jester) and the road trip taken by Princess Izzie, Galavant, and his squire Sid (Luke Youngblood, pop pop!).  The final two episodes bring the whole cast together for some really rich shenanigans that jump all over the place, potentially taking a lot of the characters out of character, but making for absolutely delightful entertainment.  The penultimate episode features the show's most riotously funny musical number as Sasse and Omundson, who have spent the majority of the series apart, come together for a little ditty about regicide.

The songs (from omposer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast) and lyricist Glenn Slater (Tangled)) of Galavant aren't particularly memorable, but they are exceptionally well executed, with the lyrics having to tow the line between genuine exposition and comedy, and faring quite well most of the time.  The best songs feature the characters singing sweetly about murder or death, or in the case of the romantic duets, mutual disgust leading to begrudging affection.  One of the smart moves the show makes with the songs is, unlike most musicals, these aren't big showy numbers.  Generally the songs remain contained to few people singing it, only occasionally breaking out into something bigger.  Beyond that, the songs act in the same way they normally do in musicals, as internal monologue, but what the show does is make them external, such that the other characters are kind of aware of what they are saying, though often not paying close attention.  It makes for a hearty giggle every time someone reacts to something in the song they're otherwise not supposed to hear.

I fell maddeningly in love with Galavant (the show, not the character).  It's truly an outstanding addition to the medieval fantasy comedy genre, that may even stack up to The Princess Bride in its ability to go for it (it will be interesting to note how well the show ages).  At eight episodes, it's really feature-film length but broken down episodically.  The cast is tremendous throughout, with Omundson the obvious breakout player, and will no doubt be seen cropping up more prominently between seasons.  The comedy doesn't aspire to be ground breaking, but entertaining, which it is, fully.  Where there's a handfull of "your mama" jokes and a play on Jon Hamm's name in the second episode that one could roll their eyes at, the show makes it clear that they know they're very silly and that it doesn't care.  It's game for anything.

Having bore witness to the majesty of Galavant, I have to wonder if the programming execs aren't actually subtly brilliant.  Burning through the show over four weeks with 1-hour blocks instead of eight 1/2 hour blocks perhaps serves the modern viewer a lot better, one more used to binge watching without waiting.  Given that Parks and Recreation is doing the same with its final season and that Agent Carter (which we'll get to in a moment) premiered with its first two episodes rather than just one, this may see a new trend on network TV.  In any case, ABC would do wise to know that too much of a good thing can spoil the soup, so the second season shouldn't go beyond 10 episodes.  Keeping the show at feature length will allow for quality songs, and tight storytelling that made the first season such a hit.  If they try to go full-season, it will burn itself out quickly.


With Agent Carter, I'm tempted to say "I love it" and just leave it at that.  But I can't.  I need to gush.

What a strange entity Agent Carter is.  Peggy Carter isn't exactly a prominent character in the Marvel Comics Universe, and I don't think there was any sort of fan clamor to see much more of Haley Atwell's character after the Captain America: The First Avenger film (as that film was more about getting people excited for Marvel's Avengers blockbuster).  But someone over at camp Marvel saw something special in Atwell and her performance as Peggy, commissioning her for a short film that was packaged as a special feature on the Iron Man 3 blu-ray.  After the short was well received, and the initial success of Agents of SHIELD, it was announced that Marvel was shopping around a Peggy Carter series.  The short helped sell people on the idea better, but even still it was met with some apathy.  Afterall, it's just Peggy Carter.  It's not Captain America, it's not any recognizable Marvel superhero, it's just Captain America's old-timey girlfriend.

It's that expectation that this series continually plays upon.  Peggy Carter, as a property and in the show, is completely underestimated by almost everyone around her.  The pilot episode goes to great lengths (and they are quite great) to show the audience, at the very least, what makes Peggy so special.  By mid-way through that first episode, I think everyone watching had bough in.  Agent Carter is amazing.

The crux of the show finds Peggy a low-level Agent at the SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve), just one notch above receptionist essentially.  The SSR primary focus at the moment is finding Howard Stark, after it's discovered he had been manufacturing all kinds of dangerous weaponry and that somehow it's wound up in the hands of the enemy, a secret organization named Leviathan.  The SSR suspects that Stark sold the weapons, while Stark has secretly asked his old ally, Peggy, to help clear his name.  The conflict is obvious.  As Peggy gets deeper into understanding just Leviathan is, the more risk it poses not just to her physical well being, but to her status at the SSR and as an immigrant in America.

There's a lot of fuel for Agent Carter to mine:
First there's Peggy's past, having lost the man she loved (and not just any man, but Captain Frigging America) and her wounds still stinging.  She has a raw spot where Cap is concerned, and it's what allows Howard to manipulate her, while also keeping her from forging any bonds with anyone else.

Secondly, there's the time, set in the mid-1940s, post-war, women having had a taste of liberation during the war are being force back into the home as the men return to their jobs.  Women have proven themselves capable but are still deemed inferior.  The show manipulates this thread expertly, allowing Peggy to both stand in defiance of it, but also use it when its advantageous to her.  Her ability to stand up for herself, to handle herself in a fight, it shows her strength, but her manipulation of the institutionalized sexism and exploitation of people's misguided expectations shows her intelligence as much as her ability to piece together clues and perform fieldwork.  Atwell is an utter genius in this role.  She able to sell Peggy's toughness at every turn, but she's also equally capable of selling her intelligence.  Most times Atwell carries herself with such incredible confidence that its easy to believe she's the smartest person in the room (which she generally is).  At the same time, Peggy isn't flawless, and Atwell knows how to leave those chinks in her armor.  She's got her triggers that set her off or leave her blind, at the same time she's also not so smart as to be ahead of the story.  She's capable of failure and the stress of the work she does, the impact it has, breaks through emotionally from time to time.  How could anyone not be utterly infatuated with Atwell/Carter after watching this show?

Thirdly, the show exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the "MCU") which allows it to connect with everything that has already gone on in both subtle and overt ways.  Naturally it's connected to the first Captain America movie, but it's also connected with the Iron Man series, since the world of Howard Stark (Tony's dad) plays prominently in the show.  It also pulls in elements from the comics that have yet to appear in the MCU, morphing them to the time period and giving them new life.  For the nerds in the crowd, it gives them the easter egg hunts they look for in genre adaptations, but it doesn't derail the show.  Unlike Agents of SHIELD this series manages to organically tie to the MCU and the source comics in a way that benefits the show, rather than being thrust upon it.

Not to harp upon Agents of SHIELD but where it faltered for so long was lack of purpose, lack of character clarity, lack of direction, and a general unease about its place in the world.  Agent Carter has none of that.  It knows where it fits, but it also doesn't seem to be as concerned (at least not yet) about fitting it.  From Peggy's first meeting with Howard in the pilot, it's absolutely clear what the show's mission statement is: find Howard's missing weapons, clear his name.  That it's also got a compressed season order -- only eight episodes -- means it's not farting around with side stories and tertiary character building.  It's story driven, almost cinematically, which most full-season shows can't sustain.  Likewise, it has an energy and confidence that Agents of SHIELD has strived for but never attained.  Weird that Agent Carter feels more like a Joss Whedon show (punchy dialogue, strong female protagonist) than the one he actually created.

I'm eager to see the series play out, but also just as keen to watch it again.  I'm an unabashed fan of The Flash and Arrow on the CW, and I even am modestly enjoying Agents of SHIELD, but those shows, despite my fandom, don't instill the craving to watch them over and over again.  Agent Carter I definitely want to go around again.  I hope that subsequent seasons run about the same episode order.  8 episodes allows for a much tighter series, and a much more enjoyable way to experience a different era of the Marvel CU.


Man Seeking Woman isn't the first comedy series about the dating life of the awkward adult male but ... wait, now that I think about it, perhaps it is.  Sure most comedies that feature single guys tend to have a heavy dating component with a revolving door of women, but those are mostly sitcoms where the situation is what the show is largely constructed around, not exploring dating and all the weird things (some) men go through emotionally and mentally throughout it.  Man Seeking Woman is a show that exclusively focuses on its lead character's dating life, much like any romantic comedy tends to do with its female protagonist.  The difference here is the show's heavy use of metaphor-as-reality to process the inner anxieties of the lead.  This may indeed be a dude's version of Sex and the City, The Mindy Project or The New Girl.

Jay Baruchel is perfectly cast as the average, somewhat awkward leading man.  I was surprised to learn that the role wasn't written with him in mind, for this is Baruchel's bread and butter (not that he can't play against type...see Goon for instance).  I was likewise fascinated to learn that this wasn't a product of the Apatow gang, instead coming from Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich, based of his book of short stories, and produced by Lorne Michaels.  It's certainly a lot sharper and more daring than your typical SNL sketch (not that I don't have much affection for SNL).  But all that known, the show certainly makes more sense.  It does have the feel of a loosely sequential set of short stories or sketches.

The show's use of literal metaphors is what really makes it stand out.  The series picks ups as Josh, recently dumped by his fiancee, is picking up the last of his things.  He's an emotional wreck but putting on a brave face for his ex.  He steps out of her front door and it immediately starts to rain.  Pan wide and we see it's literally only raining on him.  Then a bird drops dead from the tree above, bouncing off him.  In the second vignette of the pilot, Josh is set up on a date with his sister, and she's a troll... literally a troll, but Josh, to his credit attempts to valiantly overlook this fact and engage with her, but he naturally finds it hard.  In the third act, Josh is invited to his ex's engagement party only to learn that her ex's new beau is Hitler... a 125-year-old, wheelchair bound Hitler (played under gobs of makeup by Bill Hader).  I genuinely love the way the show manifests emotional stress physically but doesn't just treat it as metaphor.  Gorbachenka the troll is aware she's a troll and has no apologies for it, and the patrons of the restaurant are well aware she's a troll and don't seem to care.  It seems to be only Josh's issue.  In synergy, the same applies to Hitler, where Josh is the only one outraged by his ex's new boyfriend (is it really because he's Hitler or just because he's dating his ex?).

The second episode uses this device expertly as Josh, wanting to text the girl he met on the train, freezes at the challenge.  His over-sexed best friend Mike (Eric Andre) keeps suggesting he send a dick pic, while his sister starts off strong but then likewise comes up clunky.  Smash cut to a war room where Josh takes in a series of suggestions from military advisers (fans of Battlestar Galactica will appreciate Michael Hogan's gruff one liners), the amount of time, angst and deliberation spent over what to say no doubt familiar to the average joe.  The episode ends after a miserably failed date with a montage of Josh's sad return home and shots of all the romantic things he did to set up, all underscored by sad 4-piece chamber music.  Josh steps into the kitchen where there's the 4-piece playing said underscore, and he tells them to pack up, that its not happening.  The exchange that follows is an utter delight.

The show delightfully toys with reality and surreality, presenting it all as real, but for the most part not unnatural.  In the third episode, Mike coaxes Josh into joining him on a club outing, but Josh knows all too well it's not his scene, so he finds distractions to prevent their outing.  "First, let just pound these beers real quick then we'll go, 5 minutes...", Josh says, and there's a goofy montage of them aggressively downing the beers to krunk music (and a barely audible aside noting "this is a terrible way to drink beer").  Then, stepping up to the club, Josh says, "We need to eat something, fuel for dancing and flirting...let's just pound some mexican food.  5 minutes?"  Cue montage in Josh's apartment with bags of groceries, a mexican cookbook, a mariachi band joining them, cooking up the burritos and serving an intricate meal.  Next in line at the club, Josh stalls once again: "Wait, let's just pound a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle first."  Cut to a montage of them finishing the puzzle in rapid order, mounting it, hanging it on the wall, taking a photo, adorning the cover of "Puzzle Aficionado" (it reads "Josh and Mike put it all together").  Finally entering the club, the last ones in, the bouncer lifts up the magazine in his hands, being the very same "Puzzle Aficionado" and exclaims "Oh shit, that was Mike and Josh!"  It comments on the excuses that guys put on to not get out and put themselves out there, and then delivers the comedy via an utterly absurd trio of montages that can't really be reality, but manages to present it as the reality of the show with a brilliantly unexpected tag.

One of the immediate draws of the show was that it was shot in Toronto... I always enjoy scoping out the backgrounds, seeing familiar locations repurposed... it's like a side game to the actual show.  It's not playing Toronto, because of course it's not, but it's also not playing really another setting either.  If anything it's an as yet unnamed fictional metropolis, which is perfect given the heavy fantasy-tinged elements of the show.

It's certainly an apt comedy for the FX stable fitting well as a sort of cross between Louis and Wilfred in a way.  It has a low-key, character-centric vibe to it that allows each vignette to move at its own pace.  It's not aiming for laugh-a-minute, and generally there's at least a kernel of truth behind every aspect of ridiculousness.  It's an immediate favourite.


Canadian television has a lot of great talent, but for the most part, that talent is wasted under low production values or scuttled off to America to actually do something worthwhile.  There's the odd breakthrough here or there, an SCTV or Kids In The Hall, a show that will be able to transcend its limitations through sheer inventiveness, but for the most part Canadian television strives to play broadly without any real panache and lacking a lot of interest as a result.  It's not just all about production values either, there's a general attitude to Canadian television, a slower pace, a decided lack of heightened reality that seem almost mandated to differentiate it from flashier materials south of the border.  We're all about moderation up here.

Schitt's Creek, in its most jaded summary, is a Canadian version of Arrested Development mashed with Green Acres, the premise of a rich family suddenly finding themselves on hard times and moving out to a rural community, in this case the aptly named "Schitt's Creek", a small town that Eugene Levy's patriarch had purchased as a joke a decade earlier for his son (played by Levy's actual son, Dan Levy).

When I first heard of the premise, this father-son cast, and it's groan inducing title, I wasn't very inclined to tune in.  The elder Levy has seemingly taken any job since American Pie, so he's not an outright indicator of quality, while the younger Levy was primarily a host on MTV Canada which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for acting quality.  I had to wonder if the younger wasn't utilizing the cache of the elder in order to get himself a prominent role on TV.

Then I saw a few posters at bus stops around Toronto, and noticed a very persuasive additional cast member in Catherine O'Hara.  While Levy can't exactly be counted upon for starring in the best quality vehicles, O'Hara is nothing short of a comedy goddess and is always worth watching.  I was tentative still but I was definitely going to tune in.

The show is actually quite charming.  It's got the expected Canadian pacing but it's built more for an American cable-style audience (unfortunately it tries to pass itself off as set in America, though).  The addition of Chris Elliott to the cast as the town's mayor was a genuine surprise (most definitely a pleasant one as well).  The show wisely builds up its small town through its cast of supporting players, thus leaving the leads to their eccentricities (Eugene, surprisingly, the most straight-laced of the crew).  There are beats to this sort of comedy construct that seem almost unavoidable, such as the inevitable relationships formed between members of the upscale family and the rednecky townies, but it will be how the show handles its central characters in these beats that it can really differentiate itself.  So far it's not doing too badly.  The characters aren't horrendous people which is a good start, and the townies also aren't *that* rednecky.  I'm actually keen to watch this, so long as convention doesn't start to set in and O'Hara keeps doing what she does so well.


Young Drunk Punk is a Canadian show that makes no illusions about where it's set: Calgary, 1980.  Unlike the classic The Wonder Years, this show isn't trying for full-on earnestness.  It's a period sitcom, like That 70's Show (only more single camera, no studio audience, perhaps more akin to The Goldbergs...I dunno, I haven't seen it), taking advantage of the culture of its setting, juxtaposing, these kids deep into punk music and the aesthetic against the suburbs of Calgary and its cowboy hat-clad denizens.  

The show comes from Kids in the Hall alum Bruce McCulloch (who co-stars as the father of the main character) and it does feature a lot of his usual touchstones, although a bit more gentle.  Where his Kids in the Hall sketches that related to father-son dynamics were quite dark, here the father-son dynamic is a strained one where the two lack any real understanding of the other, it's not irreparably distant or in any way abusive.  Likewise McCulloch's sketches from his mid-20s relating to his youth featured a radical sense of anarchy and misdirected aggression, here, again, it's softer revolting, in part to make the characters not jerks and to make their antics more cartoonishly amusing.  This is not to say that the show is toothless, but rather that it's not trying to bite anything.  It's focused on being amusing, not making any grand statements or pushing comedic boundaries.  Of the Canadian sitcoms to crop up in recent years, this is the first one since Corner Gas that feels like it has any real legs.

The series opens at a fascinating point, with the lead, Ian (Tim Carlson), and his best friend Shinky (Atticus Mitchell) attending their high-school graduation, usurping the valedictorian speech for a dose of their style of anarchy (which comes mainly in the form of trying to expose their peers to greatness of punk music).  Where most coming-of-age comedies of this sort revolve around the awkwardness of high school for outsiders like Ian and Shinky, this show starts by showing they made it through, confident in who they are, but unsure of where to go from there.  In 1980, graduating high-school still primarily meant going out and getting a job, rather than considering college or university, and Ian's dad forces him out into the job market by decreeing he pay rent.  Ian's plans to go live with his sister are curtailed when she returns home after breaking up with her boyfriend (who Ian snidely nicknames "Cowboy", as he's nicknamed all her boyfriends).  The second episode finds Ian and Shinky doing pick-up manual labor, winding up working for Cowboy at a ridiculously hazardous job site full of desperate men.

The cast is quite great.  McCulloch as Lloyd is allowed to be both the authority and the oddball, playing into his strengths while also being very amusing.  Tracy Ryan as Helen, Ian's mom, is likewise given a choice role in being in charge, prim, but not your typical prude or humourless housewife (she works at Woolworths), and one has to wonder if she's oblivious or indifferent to what exactly it is her family is doing (so long as they're playing by her rules she seems okay).  It's too bad that Ian's sister, Belinda is yet another vapid, oversexed dumb bunny, but Allie MacDonald has nailed the role, and in Belinda's favour is that she's not yet a direct antagonist for Ian (they seem to have worked past that, although they're not in any way accepting of each other's lifestyle choices).  Of course it's Carlson and Mitchell as Ian and Shinky that the show hinges and both are thoroughly up to the task.  They live in the clothes like they were actually theirs and they are more than adept at delivering a well-timed one-liner as well as pulling out a physical performance.  The opening sequence of the second episode finds Ian taking punches outside a bar while Shinky watches and eggs him on (a familiar skit from Kids in the Hall) only for the reveal that they're trying out to be bouncers.  Carlson can take his lumps very well.

It's a genuinely entertaining show, upholding American-style production values and single-camera comedy pacing, but not losing any sense of Canadian-ness either.  I take some pleasure in recognizing that this would likely play just as well in the states as That 70's Show played in Canada.  It's quite accessible and fun.  I don't know if it sustains for four or more seasons how strong its legs will be, but I have no doubt that a solidly amusing first season is in store.