Thursday, March 31, 2016

I Saw This!! Two Pair, Two Pair

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. Downloads come, downloads go. They slip in and fade out. How about a pair of "kids movies" and a pair of movies in bunkers?

Inside Out, 2015, Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen (Monsters, Inc.) -- download
Goosebumps, 2015, Rob Letterman (Monsters vs Aliens) -- download
Air, 2015, Christian Cantamessa (writer of video game Red Dead Redemption) -- download
400 Days, Matt Osterman -- download

There used to be a world where we knew anything from Pixar would be great, at least in comparison to anything from Dreamworks Animation, which might be OK. As of late, I have been finding Dreamworks as often a notch above Pixar, almost a tag team event. How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind were incredible for the former, but does anyone even remember Home came out? Up and Brave seem forever ago and the rest, by the latter, were sequels. I hoped that Inside Out would be the return of Pixar, but in all honesty, found it very meh. Charming but meh.

The elevator pitch is great. You have four people inside your head, at a control room console, representing your primary emotional states: anger, sadness, fear and joy. Oh, and disgust. Is disgust even an emotional state? And no, Eddie Murphy is not one of the characters inside Riley's head.

Riley is the adolescent main (human) character who is uprooted from her mid-western home to San Francisco; Dad's new job. Puberty is coming and the emotions are having a tough time coping. There's been upgrades to the equipment and Joy does not have as much control as she once did. Then Joy screws something up and has to go on a quest to save Riley's delicate psyche.

Is this movie a metaphor for a terrible mental health care establishment?

Kent loved this movie but I never connected. For one, I couldn't sidestep my annoyance with there only being five emotions representing everything for everyone. I was hoping they might show some people who have five different primary emotions, or at least a couple of competing ones. The world building, inside her head, is quite good but since I had not connected to the main story, I wasn't as awed as I should have been.

Again, a great elevator pitch: Goosebumps is a movie about the writer of the famous children's horror book series. Yes, a movie about the writer but the twist is that he wrote the books to contain the horrors within. Annoying teen boy comes along, releases said horrors and hijinx abound.

Jack Black plays the author RL Stine, who is hiding in plain sight in Delaware. Nobody really knows what he looks like so he gets away with being weird and cranky. Until horny teenage boy Zach meets his housebound daughter and becomes enamoured. Zach thinks dad is not just weird but abusive and breaks into the house to release Hannah, but instead releases a yeti from a book. The ink is magic and contains the monsters that RL Stine wrote into existence. Then another monsters is released, and then.... them all.

It could have been a great movie if it either contained itself to a few monsters being released or had really accepted that ALL of them had been released. We only ever get to see a few, even though a horde of varied monsters is literally rampaging all over town. For some reason, there are very few casualties. I know I know, kids movie.

The movie is very forgettable, almost to the point that I have no idea how the re-contain the monsters went about. It wants to be the Gremlins of our age but really just feels like an overblown Scooby Doo episode. The best bit of the entire movie is music teacher Jack, played by the real RL Stine, walking by in the background.

Speaking of forgettable, I am the audience for those genre blog posts that promote the new Straight To movies and want their audience to be as excited as they are, but really are probably just paid-for promotional posts. Sometimes, and just sometimes, a really good underground indie genre movie only ever finds its way out via the Straight To market. But most often, it's just a very meh movie. Air and and  400 Days are two such very meh examples. Yes, word of the month. Been a long but not very committed winter.

Air is a bunker movie staring Norman Reedus, still looking and acting exactly like Daryl minus the biker vest and crossbow, and Djimon Hounsou. Holy shit, I spelled his name correctly without seeing it spelled out 5 minutes before. They are two guys doing the maintenance run in a longrun cryo bunker. Something happened to the world and everyone important is underground in cryo stasis. Every 6 months the maintenance guys wake up, check in with everyone else (via 1980s bad terminal computers), make sure everything is working as it should be and then go back to sleep themselves.  When the air up top finally cleans up, they will wake up the sleepers and repopulate the planet.

This time they fuck up. One of their own sleep tanks is burned in an accidental fire. This is the climax of some paranoid tension between the two guys and leads them to violent odds against each other. As a bunker movie, the key stress should be about what it is like up above. But this movie wants it to be between them.

A well done movie with a great script would have us on edge, dialling into the frustration and impotence these two men feel. Conversations would be tense, tight and have us choosing one side or the other. An average movie has us disliking both of them and not really care what is going on. Hounsou shows some potential but Reedus has slipped into the type casting of his most famous character, which leads me to believe he knows this, and will be be meeting Lucille very soon. If you don't watch The Walking Dead, you won't know what that means.

400 Days is just another wonky bunker movie that is weird for weird's sake. Seriously, the premise is pretty decent, as a crew is locked up under the idea of testing long term isolation for a future spaceflight by some Space X style venture. Brandon Routh, Caty Lotz, Ben Feldman and Dane Cook are the crew.  What? Dane Cook? Yes, a serious tense movie starring Dane Cook. They should have stuck to casting people from Arrow and The Flash.

Initially its all well setup, well played out. The bunker doesn't look much like a spaceship but they play it out like they are in one. They are supposed to ignore all outside interaction, but for delayed communications, as if they were really on a 400 day deep space journey. There is the usual tension, sexual and otherwise, as there is only one woman. Testosterone, loneliness and duty to the mission are the key elements of tension. Expected. Well done.

And the someone bangs on the hatch.  And then they have to go outside. That is when it just goes wackadoodle, which would have been fine if they had hinted at some sort of explanation to the strange situation into which the crew is thrust. Present ideas, ask questions, formulate conclusions. But nope, just more wackadoodle on top of more oddness with no explanation or resolution. Its like they just gave up on the story and went with weirdness. Totally pissed me off as it contributed nothing. Still makes me grumpy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


2016, d. Tim Miller

I was there when Deadpool was born.  That's an awkward way to phrase that.  What I mean is I had joined in on the big X-Men comic book bandwagon of 1990/91 that sold a bajillion copies and created a trend that virtually broke the entire industry.  Deadpool was introduced right at the precipice of that time in New Mutants #98.  To say he was unremarkable would be putting it lightly.  He certainly didn't strike me as anything noteworthy or special.  But all it takes is the right writer, or the right artist, or the right creative team to break a character out.  That would have happened in the late-'90's, long after I had jumped off that bandwagon.

I missed the Deadpool boat.  I couldn't get past the Liefeld tiny feet and thigh pouches to give him a shot.  Plus, anti-heroes aren't typically my thing.  My take was that homicidal mercenaries aren't heroes and really shouldn't really be celebrated.  I can be kind of square sometimes. 

I watched from the outside as Deadpool inexplicably grew in popularity more and more, from team member to guest star, from mini-series to ongoing, from one book to multiple books a month.  These days Deadpool comics and guest appearances are rivaling that of Wolverine back in the aforementioned 90's X-Men heyday.  Point being, I've read all of at most a half dozen comics starring Deadpool since the early 1990's and they've done absolutely nothing for me.  I don't care about the character, and, by and large, I didn't care about the movie.

I agree that Ryan Reynolds was always a better candidate for a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed mercenary than he was for Green Lantern, but that's about as many shits as I was willing to give the project.   In the wake of a botched Deadpool (also played by Ryan Reynolds) in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (as the whole movie was a botched effort) I cared even less to see a Deadpool movie.  Even after that lively proof-of-concept video was released, the ones that had fans salivating and ultimately led to the studio greenlighting a modestly budgeted picture, I still didn't care.  At all. 

Look, I just wasn't that into Deadpool.

And then, in the monor-ist of minor miracles, the movie got made. With an R rating. And the adverts for it were...promising.  And the posters and billboards and Ryan Reynold's twitter feed were all perfectly done bits of meta marketing.  Altogether, it was still not enough for me to really care all that much.  I genuinely appreciated how this underdog story actually came to fruition, even if it didn't have my excitement or overall interest.

And then it made some bank.  Some major, major bank.  And both fan and audience reactions (beyond those whose thing it just wasn't) was unbelievably positive.  At that point it went from outside appreciation to casual interest.  He still wasn't a character I was interested in spending time with, but on the word of so many friends and critics (nerds and non alike) I suspected an eventual watching when it got to the home market would be in the offing. 

But one day, I found myself rather taken aback when my wife, who gave even less shits about Deadpool than my two shits, suggested we go see the movie on one of our rare child-free evenings.  And for some reason we did.  And, beyond all expectations, we had a damn good time.

Deadpool is a damn fun movie.  It's not going to be everyone's cuppa, as it is excessively violent and excessively vulgar, but it's so extreme it's like a Bugs Bunny cartoon gone wrong... which may be the perfect analogy for Wade Wilson.  He's very much of the Bugs Bunny sort.  He's a wily trickster who makes punchlines out of creating wildly elaborate scenarios that get people killed in very dramatic/comedic extremes.  Also like Bugs, he's fourth wall breaking.  He addresses the audience directly throughout the movie, and more than a few times makes clear allusions to the fact that he's in a film, or that he exists in a cinematic franchise universe where "it's like they couldn't afford any other X-Men".

The first half of the film is one large set set piece taking place on a bridge in Vancouver (well, actually some unnamed city, but it's Vancouver) intercut with Wade Wilson's backstory about how he came to be.  The bridge fight is very clever and enjoyable in both its extreme violence and Wade's incessant dialoguing (which alternates between intentionally goofy and rather witty).  Then Colossus and his young protege, Negasonic Teenage Warhead, join the frey and things get even livelier as it loosely ties itself into the X-Men franchise while still keeping its distance. 

The flashback scenes find Wade Wilson as a mercenary for hire who finds a shared sense of humour and ultimately love with Vanessa (and utterly game Morena Baccarin, making for a winning, if twisted, romantic comedy), right up until he discovers he has five types of aggressive cancers and a short lifespan.  This puts Wade in the sights of an agency who is promising a cure if he takes part in their experiment, their experiment being extreme torture to force people to manifest any latent mutant powers they may have.  After the torture threatens even Wades seemingly limitless endurance, his power of rapid cellular regeneration (meaning he can heal any wound) appears, but it leaves him looking horrifically scarred, like a burn victim).

He can't go back to Vanessa so disfigured, so all he has is his revenge on the men who made him that way.  The second half of the film is Wade seeking his revenge (or a cure), while the men whom he's seeking revenge on are trying to proactively stop him, which brings Vanessa back into the picture, as well as Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

The plot is a little pedestrian, but it's its simplicity that works so well, especially told how it is.  Breaking the story into two halves and intercutting the flashbacks with the action allows everything to live and feel vital without slowing anything down.  It seems to always be propelling itself forward.  Not to mention Wade is always running at the mouth, and most of it is quite entertaining.  There's a spirit to the overall picture that just works and everyone involved seems to be up for.  It's light, but not without its tension or moments of weight.  Miller and company do an excellent job at making Wade Wilson a likeable (though hardly respectable) character, and even at times you have to admire his commitment even when he's outmatched.  He's not very bright, but he is kind of valiant, in his own way.

The film looks pretty great for its budget.  It negotiates its few fight sequences incredibly well, and it's through limited budget that they seemed to have innovated, making it all feel like fresh action.  It's also pretty refreshing for a film like this to have a climax that is, in most regards, small potatoes.  It's a 1980's action movie style ending, where it's the good guy vs the bad guy with some destruction around them.  It's not a save the world scenario, it's just kill or be killed.  There's no other stakes beyond that.

I was pleasantly surprised, and, what's better, highly entertained.  This is a product of dedicated vision and limited (perhaps non-existent) studio interference.  If works so well because the filmmakers and performers got to make the film they wanted to.   I'm not a converted fan of the character, but I would go as far as to say I'm now a fan of Deadpool the movie.  I look forward to a sequel.  Even though it made so much money, I hope they keep the budget tight so if forces Miller and company to stay inventive. 

Congratulations Ryan Reynolds...after four failed comic book properties, you've finally made one you can be proud of (though maybe don't show your grandma).

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Rewatch: Clash of the Titans

2010, Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) -- bluray

Another one from The Shelf. I needed some swords & sandals. I needed some mythology.

So, it is the story of half-god Perseus told through the eyes of a remake of a classic stop motion animation movie from the 80s. The original is a D&D standard, encouraging people to fight skeletons and appending robot owls to every wizard's arm. I believe it was the last of the swords & sandals staples of the late 70s, ala the Sinbad or Biblical stories. I am not surprised they remade it. I am surprised there was less discussion on the casting back then.

I get it, the ubiquitous Internet lends itself to louder outrage. And the smallest of voices can be loud if shared in the right venue. But when you compare the roars against Gods of Egypt to the relative quiet around this movie that was only six years ago, it's kind of odd. I suspect a weird aspect of white privilege is that we only really notice something as being wrong, if it's obviously wrong. We see Greeks, and Mediterraneans in general, as white, so it's OK if the mains in the movie are played by Australians (Sam Worthington), Irish (Liam Neeson), and English (Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton). Alex Davalos sounds like she has a Greek name, but she isn't. No Greeks in the cast. I would love to see reviews of the movie from Greece. I have a feeling they have been rolling their eyes for decades of movies.

Meanwhile Egyptians are most definitively brown, at least in our eyes. There are probably plenty of light skinned Egyptians out there, but when you have their gods represented by Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, it stands out as silly and offensive. To us. Us in North America. To me. It's just glaringly wrong. Again, I wonder what Egyptians have to say. How do they feel about the movie and how do they feel about the white west being offended on their behalf? I am going to see the movie, as it is Alex Proyas, and I do suspect that they separate the gods (white, golden hued, really tall) from their people in the movie but that has its own level of offensiveness.

But for now, this movie.

It's a fun movie! Perseus loses his family to the squabbles between the Gods and the humans who are deciding they don't want to be forced to worship anymore. And then he is dragged into the squabble after Hades reveals to all that Perseus is half-god himself. First he knew of it and now he's wandering off with a bunch of bitter soldiers to ask the Stygian Witches how to kill the Kraken. You see, if Argos doesn't sacrifice their princess to Hades, he will unleash (ahem, release) the Kraken on the city. If the humans won't worship the gods, they will at least fear them. Meanwhile, Hades has his own machinations going on, as he is pissed at his older brother Zeus.

The Adventuring Party wanders off through forests and deserts, with enough low level red armours (yah, mixing my pop culture metaphors) to be killed by wandering monsters, leaving the main characters (including Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Cunningham) and their immortal NPC guide (Gemma Arterton) to defeat the Gorgon, i.e. Medusa. With head in hand, Perseus flies on Pegasus back to Argos to defeat the Kraken and win the love of his dad and the people. As I said, D&D standard.

The core of the plot of this movie is that the gods need the humans, the humans don't need the gods. Without prayers, the power of the gods diminishes. Perseus and his family were just collateral damage but the reveal of his own godhood has made him petulant and bitter. Seriously dude, you are a tougher fishermen than all those veteran soldiers. It's in your blood. Accept the help of Zeus, who feels a little forced into this action by the goading of his brother, and use the magic sword. Do  the deed, impress the locals and then move on. It won't make you as power drunk as the gods, just give you an edge up on the monsters. But it takes until the end of the movie, and the death of EVERYONE in the party, for him to realize this and defeat the bad guy.

After that he has no issue accepting help, especially when it's the return of the girl of his dreams. And for once, the movie is NOT about him getting the princess.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

ReWatch: The Island

2005, Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor) -- Netflix

Yes, I rewatched the movie that if we had been reviewing in 2005, Kent and I would have been going on and on in our merciless mockery. Why watch it again? Cuz it was a post-sickie afternoon and I needed some fluff. And because sometimes you look back on light, terrible fare with a certain amount of fondness. Or you want to torture yourself.

It must be noted, that by the time the trailers of the movie were hitting the 'net, I had already seen the MST3K of Parts: The Clonus Horror so I was in the camp that Bay had ripped off someone's old, terrible movie to plot his new, terrible movie. The basic premise is that cloned people are being grown as replacement body parts for wealthy patrons. They are "raised" with a promise of nirvana, The Island for said movie and America for Parts. And one clone begins to question this setup. The creators of Parts sued and it settled out of court, so there must have been some merit to the lifting.

This was Scarlett Johannson still launching her career. Lost in Translation got her noticed and she had done enough since to become the face in a Calvin Klein commercial, which was actually cutely inserted into the movie. Ewan McGregor was airing out his last days as a young, hot action hero which he never really did get off the ground. They are both pretty clones, but I could not help but thinking, "Isn't he a bit old for her?" I ask myself that a lot lately, because we straight men are raised to worship the early 20s Hollywood beauty, even as we age past the time when that lust would be appropriate by our cultural standards. Personally, I have gone past that age-gap into the "she's young enough to be my daughter" phase. Cultural standards are weird, contradictory, doubly and confusing.

As a movie, this is classic Baysplosions. The clones are on the run and a mercenary team is out to catch them, no matter what the cost. Cutesleeze Steve Buscemi is the first collateral damage in their escape & desire to stay alive. But as they continue to run, things explode, crash and get shot to hell all around them, leaving me wondering how many die to keep them alive. You could assume that they are too young (vat grown is fast grown) to really be very aware of such implications but in a movie that is supposed to be about the desire to stay alive despite the odds, you would think it could be commented on. Nope, blow some more bystanders up so Scarlett's pout will live another day.

If you have a moment, YouTube the re-use of the highway chase scene. Bay re-used entire elements of the cars being crushed for his subsequent Transformers movie. Which is amusing unto itself, considering this chase scene is so The Matrix reminiscent.

I add a lot of splashy, glitzy explosiony scifi movies to The Shelf. But Bay doesn't get added. For some reason, while I enjoy the adrenaline rush of his movies, they don't have repeatable joy. This was an experiment to see if it  should be added, but no, confirmation made.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

I Saw This!! Spies Like These

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. Normally.  This time Graig literally just watched some of these as recently as last night.  He's terrible at reviewing things in a timely manner, and seems to do more productive in lumping films together with some kind of loose thread.  In this case, it's spies, espionage and saving the world type-stuff.

Kingsman: The Secret Service - 2014, d. Matthew Vaughan - Netflix
North By Northwest - 1959, d. Alfred Hitchcock - TCM
Arabesque - 1966, d. Stanley Donen - TCM
The Ipcress File - 1965, d. Sydney J. Furey - TCM
Spy - 2015, d. Paul Feig - Netflix
Machete Kills - 2013, d. Robert Rodriguez - Netflix


If you're not into comic books, then you probably don't know who Mark Millar is.  Count yourself lucky.  But no doubt you've seen Millar's handiwork on screen, or at least in a trailer or two; Wanted, Kick-Ass and its sequel, most notably.  As a comic book writer he's an amazing idea man, but he's also all flash and bombast, without much true substance.  He's coarse and vulgar, and plays generally to the lowest common denominator while pretending to aspire to high literature.  In public he's unsettling in his egocentricity, nobody is faster to give him a pat on the back than himself.  He's established himself as one of the elite talents in the comic book industry, despite the fact that his work is, at times, utterly unpalatable.  He is, in essence, the Rob Liefeld of writers.  His popularity has meant he's been able to work outside of licensed characters for over half a decade now.  He's published a surprising number of creator-owned projects, many of which have been picked up for film and other media.  This success has also afforded him the ability to work with some of the best artists in the business, which only serves to raise the quality of his projects and his profile.

It's these artists who make Millar's stories work, if they work at all.  By filtering his vision through their own deep talents and skill, at least an attractive looking product comes out the other end.  In the same way, filmmakers taking Millar's stories and filtering them through their own vision to the screen make them somewhat more palatable, but the inherent weaknesses still lay inside.

Kingsman is Millar's play on British espionage, and the seeds of all British espionage still reside in its 1960's heyday when Bond and The Avengers and The Saint and The Prisoner and more were all a going concern.  I quite enjoyed the structure of the Kingsmen, a secret agency where each of the members takes the name of a Knight of the Round Table.  There's lots of secret rooms and special gadgets, just shy of extreme, which seems so Millar.  If one or two is good, why not ten?

There's two stories at play here, the first is the main plot of a supervillain intent on decimating the world, and providing salvation to the highest bidders, the second is that of the main character training to take his seat as a part of the Kingsmen.  These plots aren't very complimentary, and one often exists in isolation from the other.  Director Matthew Vaughan is a pretty good craftsman, so he manages to make it work as smoothly as possible, but there's a lot of stop-starts, stories that don't go anywhere important really (the story of Mark Hamill as the kidnapped professor, for instance, is over just after it begins), and missed connections (particularly in the training sequences, the connections and conflicts between the trainees is almost non-existent...probably because any further exploration would reveal them to be the most primitive of cliches).

The cast is uniformly excellent. Colin Firth makes a surprisingly awesome superspy in the John Steed mold, Sam Jackson manages to not be so Sam Jacksony as he disappears in his lispy, gagging supervillain, while Mark Strong fills his duty to appear in seemingly every modern spy film.  Taron Egerton as (the awfully named) Eggsy is also surprisingly good, despite all the emotional u-turns the character is forced to undergo.  Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) and her sword-stilt legs is actual an incredibly clever character, one of the best and most fearsome henchmen/women in a spy movie ever.  She's super deadly but also incredibly cool (it's almost a shame she's in this movie and not an actual Bond villain).

Vaughan delivers a visually wonderful and inventive movie that unfortunately gets too mired in its "extreme" Millar-isms.  Gags like bodies being sliced in half and dozens upon dozens of heads exploding into colourful fireworks have some real visual punch, but there are more and more gags or just too extreme violence that push things too far too often.  The big reward for Eggsy being anal sex with a Swedish princess is perhaps the most Millar of all, and easily the lowest of the lowest common denominators and leaves the film on the sourest of jokes.

It's a film overlong by at least 15 minutes (at 2:09 running time), and a little too in love with itself (in true Millar fashion).  It's got its enjoyable bits but it's a toss up as to whether they outweigh the seedier parts.


When I wrote recently about The Wrong Mans, I called it the epitome of mistaken identity comedies.  I only hesitated in calling it the epitome of mistaken identity stories because Hitchcock's North By Northwest remains on rewatch every bit as amazing as the first time.  Closing in on 50 years later, NXNW plays more like a period movie, rather than something outdated.  It's crisply realized by a master storyteller such that the plot slowly opens up like a morning glory opening for the sun.  It's charming, sexy, tense, lively and exciting, without even a trace of irony.

I haven't seen many Cary Grant films in my time (probably owing to the fact that he retired from acting in the mid-1960s) but just going by this film alone his reputation as a legendary actor, and ace romantic leading man, and screen idol are well earned.  He commands attention, still dashingly handsome (he was in his mid-50's at the time), and full of charisma.  In the film he plays a Madison Avenue advertising executive, which, if I had to guess, would be what Dick Whitman modeled his Don Draper persona after.  Grants character is suave, debonnaire, well-groomed, perfectly tailored and quick-witted.  He delivers snappy lines with dry ease, without undermining the weight of his situation.  The best touch, however, was bringing the character's overbearing mother into play.  In two impeccably constructed scenes we get a sense of why Grant is still single...equal parts choice and chased off.  Nobody would be good enough for him, at least nobody he chose.  But then she didn't meet Eva Marie Saint.

Saint co-stars as the femme fatale of the picture and nails it.  Seductive, sexy, classy, alluring, elusive, she's a capable deceiver, in control and in over her head in equal measure.  Hitchcock knew exactly what he wanted out of the character and collaborated to deliver a perfect performance.  In a sense Saint's character is a damsel in distress, but she's also the rescuer.  There's maybe only a couple Bond girls that can match her empowerment, and maybe none who can match her equal measure of sophistication and sensuality.

It's the film's rather casual attention to the not just romantic, but sexual relationship between Grant and Saint that helps keep it fresh.  American cinema in the 1950's was pretty chaste, and stories of the time feel dated for their lack of real passion.  Beyond that the espionage aspect of the film is outright fun.  There's a playful danger that everyone involved just clicks with, and the phantom agent is one of the best spy tricks (somehow never repeated).  Hitchcock is a master storyteller, and this film features so many beautiful and classic cinematic moments, from the Saul Bass opening titles right up to the showdown on Mount Rushmore.  Superb filmmaking and impeccable storytelling, it's a classic worth returning to time and again.


Stepping a few years in the future, we have Arabesque, which just screams like a studio exec saying "let's make another North by Northwest".  It's the story of a layman getting involved in some high-stakes espionage, but being in way over their head.  They meet an attractive woman who isn't what she seems and they need to foil a bad guy plot.  The film is based off a novel, but the script was wrung through a mill and came out the other side like a pale knock-off.  Even director Stanley Donen admitted the script was problematic and spent a lot of extra effort in the visual production to try and keep things interesting.  It almost works.

The film is visually very clever, as Donen uses mirror and reflective surfaces throughout the movie to give us some of the most curious angles on screen.  But Donen's craftsmanship can't hide that Gregory Peck isn't Cary Grant (Donen originally wanted his Charade star for the picture, but he had retired), nor can it hide that none of its middle-eastern characters are portrayed by middle-eastern actors.  Sophia Loren plays the femme fatale in modest brown face and a curious accent.  She's a beautiful woman in almost any makeup but the put on here, as times have changed is continually eye rolling at best (offensive at worst).  It's one of the most flagrant examples of Hollywood white washing, but it doesn't amount to much given that the film isn't that popular.

The story in place involves a Maguffin, a piece of hieroglyphic text that all sorts of different parties seem to want.  Peck, an Oxford Professor, is brought in by the bad guys to interpret the glyphs, while asked by a middle eastern Prime Minister to spy on their operations.  What ensues is a lot of tedious chases and confused identities, druggings and strong-armings.  When comparing against NXNW, it's the lack of movement, the lack of diverse scenery that grinds the film down.  Intriguing stories can most certainly be made just running around London, but great Espionage tales take you to different locations, if not jumping around the globe than at least to exciting landmarks.  There's none of that here.

Peck is a fine actor, but he's not dashing nor outright charming.  Where Cary Grant's quipping comes off at playful, sometimes defensive, Peck's come off as edgy and sarcastic.  The romance with Loren just never plays, even through to the happy ending.  After so many multiple twists and turns in her backstory it's somewhat unbelievable that Peck would stay with her (and vice versa).

Arabesque is a sporadically enjoyable movie, probably moreso if you haven't seen NXNE in a good long while, but it's marred by the insensitivities of its time and a plot that doesn't quite know how to move itself forward without taking it straight to the end.


I learned of The Ipcress File around 2008 by way of song (this one by G L I D E) and became somewhat obsessed with finding the Harry Palmer series of films.  Though the breakthrough role for Michael Caine, the series, based of the Len Deighton books, never had much of a following in North America, Palmer was most certainly never mentioned in the same breath as James Bond, John Steed, Number 6, or Napoleon Solo.  Though often a lack of awareness can be an indictment of quality, in this case it's more to do with the sometimes less than stellar distribution and promotion of British productions overseas.  These films have never been widely available on DVD in North America outside of region-free imports, thus I've acquired DVD copies of each years ago, but in region 2... and I've yet to watch them (not because I don't have a region-free player, but I just haven't gotten around to it.  It's like the important part was having them, not so much watching them).

Thanks to my DVR, Turner Classic Movies and their "spy night" a while back, I managed to finally watch it (and the above two films I reviewed).  Let's just say it was worth the wait.  The film, with years of anticipation (if no real expectations) behind it delivered.  In the realm of British spies, it's more Sandbaggers or Tinker, Tailor... than Bond.  There's a lot of talk of bureaucracy, forms to be filled out, reports to be made... it's legwork and paperwork and not a lot of action or glory.  The basic plot finds Harry Palmer being transferred to a new team, where they're investigating the disappearance of a highly regarded scientists (it's the latest in a rash of what they call "the brain drain" in which Britain's top minds seem to be retiring, dying, missing or defecting).  Palmer finds the culprit -- not Russian or any other known threat, but a third party -- rather straight off.  Over some tense, yet still casual meetings, they eventually wind up simply paying for his return.  I take utter utter delight in the almost tediousness of these processes.  The intensity is high, and yet the threat level winds up being pretty low.  Unlike Bond who is a man of spirited action, recklessly thrusting himself into laughably extreme danger, Palmers conflicts are mundane...until they're not.

This is not so pure of espionage that The Ipcress File doesn't allow for some slighly larger than life elements.  The final act finds Palmer at the mercy of the villain of the piece, undergoing extreme torture and reprogramming treatments.  It's the highlight piece of the film, trippy visuals and noises that wear on the audience to a degree that they must ultimately have some affect on our hero, right?

Caine is superb, with the liveliest eyes and wryest sense of humor.  He cuts a dashing figure without being too good looking, too well tailored.  It's all confidence that makes him so attractive.  He's good at his job, he's good with women, and he's good in the kitchen (I wonder if this was the first major film where a male character's defining quirk is a refined palette and enjoying cooking).  Within minutes of meeting Palmer, he's tossed out more than a few dry lines that had me cracking up, which informs his character perfectly.  His commanding officer reads from his dossier, "Insubordinate. Insolent. A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies," to which Palmer replies, "That's a fair assessment...sir".  Palmer's so quick witted that even his humorless superiors can't help but match wit along with him.

I love this film's look.  Mid-60's London, whether actual on-the-street or glorious retro Pinewood Studios it's all so wonderfully alive yet murky, noisy yet vital.  There's an graininess to the film, like it was roughed up with sandpaper, that makes the blacks more cloudy, but also dulling all the other colours as well.  Director Furey (hahaha) makes it a visually compelling movie through his astounding POV shots and unusual focus points.  He's often not centering the camera on a specific character or action, but sometimes just off to the side or below, cutting someone off screen, or only seeing their feet while they talk.  There's a walk-and-talk on the street with Palmer's two superiors, and he keeps cutting between a wide shot, and their feet with swinging umbrellas.  The common language, when you cut to shots of things inactive in the scene, it's because they're important details for the story, but for Furey it's like these are worth noting but aren't in any way relevant to the larger picture.  It's fascinating.  One can't also forget to mention that John Barry contributes the amazing score, one which manages to equal, perhaps even surpass his Bond work of the era.

I'll need to dive into the sequels, Funeral in Berilin and Billion Dollar Brain.  They sound somewhat exotic, but I'll be happy if Palmer 's once more mired in extensive tedium until things suddenly get out of control.


The posters for Spy, internationally
are just tragic. McCarthy is airbrushed
to the point of being unrecognizable in
many cases.  Fakey ads are another
reason why the film didn't appeal to
me in its original release

There were a healthy dose of superspy movies on the big screen in 2015.  You've got Spectre, Mission Impossible 5, Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Kingsmen, among the biggest films of the year.  But I was surprised to hear from a few trusted sources who said that Spy was perhaps the best of them.  I like Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy just fine but nothing about the trailer for Spy set it up as actually being good.  It looked like a bunch of pratfalls and "it's funny 'cause she's fat" moments.

I should know better than to trust trailers.

Spy is legit.  It's not Austin Powers, or Spy Hard or any other parody-style film that seeks to lampoon the genre.  There is an honest superspy espionage story at play that introduces Melissa McCarthy as an unlikely but still incredibly competent action star.   And, of course, it's funny as hell.

McCarthy opens the film as the supporting player to Jude Law's super-spy.  She's in his ear, watching his back from satellites in the sky.  She's stuck behind a desk in an office with rodent control problems.  But when Law runs into a situation and ignores her warnings, he's killed by their target, a spoiled heiress who's the only person who knows the location of a portable nuclear bomb (played with superb bitchiness by Rose Byrne).  She knows all of the agency's best agents by name, so sending one of them would be a futile effort.  McCarthy, with a solid track record both from her training days and ten years as field support, is give an observe and report only task.

Normally in a comedy, it's a bungling idiot in over their head who manages to somehow bungle their way through and not only make it out okay, but a hero, in spite of themself.  That's not the case here.  Though McCarthly sometimes gets in her own way, she's an adept fighter, a capable improviser and a more than savvy negotiator.  It doesn't help that it's another super-spy (played both in and against type by Jason Statham), gone rogue, is getting in her way, telling her she's out of her depth (though it's repeatedly McCarthy bailing him out.

The film finds opportunity to be funny without undercutting the lead character or actor.  It's definitely a point of the film that she's against type.  She can't pull off the same sexy femme fatale as a statuesque Bond girl, but she's not the arm candy, she's the brains and the muscle.  This film let's her be that, and makes you as the audience want her to be that.  It's great.  The humour comes out of character and situation, not cheap shots.  The verbal sparring between McCarthy and Byrne, or McCarthy and Statham (or, in her finest comedic moments, taking Bryne's security detail down a peg ("You want me to have Cagney and fucking Lacey explain it to you? Cagney's coming down your fucking throat. Lacey, she's gonna come up your ass. I'm gonna meet them in the fucking middle and play your heart like a *fucking* accordion. I'm gonna pump that shit until it pops, you Swedish bitch!")

Spy is exciting, globetrotting, identity swapping, action-espionage-comedy that delivers on all fronts, and is entertaining as all hell.  The cast is uniformly great (great supporting bits from Peter Serafinowicz, Bobby Cannavale, Miranda Hart, and Allison Janney too) The weakest aspect is specifically the opening and closing credit songs, which don't quite live up to the Bond-like highs or even Weird Al's epic Spy Hard theme (but the opener here is still better than "Writing On The Wall" from Spectre, ugh).  The closing credits though provide brief text and photographic glimpses into McCarthy's subsequent missions, creating an end credits sequence worth staying for.  Hopefully a sequel is forthcoming and can be as uncompromising.

A surprise, for sure, but a damn pleasant one.  Bring on Ghostbusters.  Like Spy, the trailer wasn't spectacular, but Feig and McCarthy in an action comedy.  Sold.


You know what, I know that Machete Kills isn't exactly a spy movie, but it kind of is at the same time.  I mean, it's as much a spy movie as Moonraker, since it stole its basic plot from it.  Machete has to infiltrate places and kill people, and even though he's not an official spy, that's total spy material.  He gets to sex up some ladies and shoot people and drive crazy vehicles, and have epic fights.  That's all super spy stuff too.  Fuck it, it is a spy movie, except there's no actual spying.  It's all full frontal assault, and there's no way Danny Trejo is going undercover.  Except, oh right, he totally does at that formal dinner thing.  Boom! Spy work!

Let's just get this straight though, the Machete movies are terrible.  They're outright bad movies.  But they're also meant to be outright bad movies.  They're supposed to be corny and cheesy and racist and sexist and vulgar and exploitative and violent to comedic extremes.  It's basically Austin Powers but not as sharply comedic.  Its laughs come from that "I can't believe what they just did" gut reaction to absurdity, whether it's someone's head exploding or Sofia Vergara firing off her "double D" boob guns or just the all around cheesy cgi effects that are intentionally unrefined.  It's a smorgasbord of whackadoo ideas all put to use, nothings to much and let's not waste a single one.

It's dumb brainrot fun though.  It's over two hours long (and even then it's totally setting up a sequel...the film opens and closes with the trailer for Machete Kills Again...In Space), and it feels it.  Something like this shouldn't really cross the 90 minute mark, and yet it's evident Rodriguez doesn't care.  He just keeps propelling the film forward with goofy cameos (Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walton Goggins, amongst many others).  Mel Gibson seems to be the perfect fit for a spectacle like this, especially as the lunatic bad guy who wants to blow up the Earth so that he can live in peace in space.

There's really no point in going into too much detail about this film.  There's so much ridiculousness that it's incredibly hard to single out what's good, what's bad, what I liked and what I didn't.  It's relentless in its absurdity, and it doesn't care.  It's like Axe Cop (the comic-turned-cartoon written by an 8-year-old and illustrated by his 30-year-old brother) put to feature-plus length.  It's just a fountain of unfiltered ideas.  If I were to rate this, it would fair poorly, and yet, I might wind up watching it again some day where something so utterly bizarre is the order of the day.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

2016, d. Zack Snyder

[It gets totally spoilery below, fair warning]

Let's get my conclusion out of the way, BvS:DoJ is not a bad experience, but it is a bad movie.

Just like it's title, the film is ungainly, trying to be two major stories at once, that being the titular heroic conflict and the other being the (titular) setup for the Justice League movie to come.  While the film as is does present both, it doesn't serve either particularly very well.

If the various rumours over the past two and half years of this film's production are any indication, the "Dawn of Justice" half of the film's title was a later addition to the script at hand.  Even without those rumours it's fairly evident that the Justice League set-up is just crammed in, with lengthy dream sequences and metahuman discovery asides that are far too long to be teases.  They're meant to have meaning, but until the JL movie hits, they have zero context and they stop the story at hand cold.  As a big time DC nerd, I can extrapolate meaning from these sequences.  As a savvy filmgoer, I can also see the hand of Warner Brothers executives, worried about being so far behind Marvel, thrusting their franchise-building desires into play. 

There's already a lot at play in this film.  Lois Lane is investigating a massacre pinned on Superman.  There's a senate hearing to investigate the impact of Superman and what to do about him.  Batman is investigating how to stop Superman.  Lex Luthor is investigating how to stop Superman.  Clark Kent is investigating the Batman.  Bruce Wayne is investigating Lex Luthor.  Lex Luthor is investigating all the Kryptonian tech and biology left over from Man of Steel.  Diana Prince is investigating Lex Luthor.  Bruce Wayne is investigating Diana....  There's a lot of circling here, and in the end it actually does all connect, but unfortunately the film is so garbled by its multiple raison d'etres that it's up to the audience to figure out exactly how all the pieces fit together.  There's no clear throughline that makes any of it feel meaningful. 

Part of the problem is the film seems to have sacrificed its characters and their motivations for spectacle and set-up.  In theory you can interpret why people are doing what they do, but you never actually get a sense of that on the screen.  Why is Batman branding criminals?  Why does he hate Superman so much?  Why is Superman so detached and sullen?  Why is motivating Lex at any point in this film?  There are dozens more questions about why anyone is acting the way they are and why they are doing what they do.  A little more time with the characters would most certainly provide answers, as would a little understanding from the writers and director of who these characters are.

Going back to Man of Steel it's evident that director Zack Snyder doesn't fundamentally understand who Superman is and what makes him a hero.  Snyder focuses on the godlike aspect of the character, the burden of his abilities, but makes no time for the man, and that continues here.  Clark Kent isn't brooding, not in the same way Bruce Wayne is, but he's sullen.  He rarely smiles, and he doesn't ever seem kind, or good.  He seems troubled, put upon, reluctant.  Definitely not heroic.  The imagery Snyder puts on him is of being above it all, of power-tripping, even of arrogance.  It's been said in multiple reviews that it's apparent Snyder hates Superman (at least how he's been portrayed for the past 75 years) and I'm inclined to agree.  There's digs at the character, at being a relic of the past, of being a boy scout, and it's clear that Snyder is trying to forge some new vision for Superman, but he really doesn't know what it is.  So, in the end, he just killed him off, because he didn't really ever know what to do with him. (Yeah, I know, big spoiler).  The typical superhero movie theme is "what does it mean to be a hero", but here it's more "Can man be god? Can god be man?", but even still it never follows through on that theme, instead focusing on "can man destroy god?"

If the rumours are true, and it seems fairly certain they are, the studio asked that this film, intended to be a proper sequel to Man of Steel, put more focus on Batman.  Batman's been a huge, multi-billion dollar success at the cinema for Warner Brothers, so there's a certain financial logic, but as a lover of characters, story and film, the sacrifices in Clark/Lois/Superman's story to regurgitate more of the same Batman is just a damn shame (the film opens with yet another retelling of the death of Bruce's parents, interspliced with yet another retelling of Bruce's discover of the bat cave... it's a very well done bit of intersplicing but it's nothing most filmgoers - particularly the 13+ audience for this film - haven't seen many times before).

Acting both as sequel and prequel doesn't allow BvS:DoJ its own real identity.  It's stuck in between, as everyone is still reeling from the destruction rained down upon Metropolis in the first film...and I mean everyone, the 9-11 imagery is hard to ignore...but it is rather spectacularly revisited from Bruce's ground-level POV.  I often said about Man of Steel that the only way it can make up for its major failing (being Superman's careless fighting leading to the destruction of Metropolis) is if the sequel deals with its fallout.  It does, but it doesn't feel like Superman has learned anything or grown as a character as a result.  It feels more like he's saying "deal with it",  rather than "I'm sorry. I'm racked with guilt and feel devastated by the loss. I will do better next time"

As noted before, Warner Brothers is desperately trying to play catch up with Marvel, throwing out a full universe of characters before they even measure the response to it.  They're lowering their head and charging forward full speed.  But they've missed the fundamental element of what people are responding to in Marvel films.  Beyond generally great storytelling and excellent production values, they're fun to watch.  You want to go back and watch them over and over, as their own films and as part of a larger whole.  There's little joy in BvS:DoJ, and just like Man of Steel I did not feel any desire to revisit it after it concluded.  The rewatchability factor of Snyder's entries is very, very low.  At times this film felt like it was a slough to get through.  Things were moving forward, but in no manner that could be described as fun... confusing and bewildering, sure, but not fun.

Once I heard that critical reception was despairingly low, I started reading them.  Normally I would avoid reviews for a big tentpole picture like this, as I want to discover things for myself, but I wanted to be well armed before I went in (there was actually a moment where I thought about not even going, but I thought if I'm going to have an opinion about it I should probably actually see it).  Almost everything the critics have been saying is true.  I find it hard to argue with most of the examination of how bad this film is.  Yet, audience reception has been almost the opposite, and if there are apologists or genuine fans of this film, I can see their side too.  The raw materials of a good story and film are there, but they're not assembled very well.  Snyder makes things look good, but in the studio demands for more Batman, less Superman, and a Justice League setup, the editing is dire, and the fundamentals of good storytelling have gone missing.  The excising of character and story is evident, and rather than compare BvS:DoJ to any particular Marvel film, it feels more in line with a Marvel's Netflix series.  This could have been a six hour mini-series, rather than one film.  It's densely packed with enough story and character to support it.  The promised extended cut blu-ray can only serve to make it a better told story (if not exactly a better film).

Of the main complaints from critics, the one that didn't ring true for me was the final battle.  While the creation of Doomsday has no logic with what's presented on screen, the actual battle with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (with some military intervention) was about the only time I experienced anything close to joy in this movie.  On the one side is an unstoppable beast, it can't be killed, for every killing blow only makes it stronger, more dangerous... and on the other is three of the most iconic superheroes of all time, never having appeared on the big screen together before.  The fight is epic and it plays out largely as it should.  Superman taking the lead, with Wonder Woman tactically taking on the creature while its distracted and Batman trying to figure out how to participate when the gods are fighting.  I'll go so far as to say, visually, it's the best superhero end battle yet. 

I even enjoyed the Batman versus Superman tussle, which went down exactly like it would in the comic book.  Batman only needs to survive long enough to employ his tactics. It's true, it's not even the major bout that the title implies (but I take the "Batman versus Superman" of the title to also mean the cagey cat and mousing Bruce and Clark do throughout the film), but it's very well done up to the resolution which is "clever" in the most eye-rolling way.  Between the Batman v Superman and the Trinity v Doomsday, Batman takes on two dozen mercenaries in a three story warehouse and it is, again, spectacular (what the closing fight of Daredevil season 2 should have been).  Snyder nails the dust-ups if nothing else.

What disappoints me most about this film isn't the lack of clarity, the mishandled stortelling, the lack of character motivation, or the bungled themes, but rather just how dark the film is.  And I'm not just speaking visually.  I accept Snyder's style, though I don't agree with it, but tonally the film is just so dark.  It's not just lack of joy, but a bleak, weariness that feels more burden than delight.  The score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is so heavy, and at times Snyder goes into full-on horror mode.  The gunplay is pretty extreme (I can't even count how many people were shot in the head) and there's comments on child molesters and massacres.  This is not a film for young audiences (that the upcoming extended blu-ray is R-rated is not surprising given what we see here), which is a damn shame.  A Batman/Superman movies should be a major draw for kids, should be a tentpole for selling action figures and costumes, not something traumatic and horrifying.  As good as the Nolan Batman films were, they weren't kid-friendly either, and I think the younger audience deserves a big, bright superhero spectacle with the DC characters, just like Marvel's Avengers.  It's shameful.

I went in expecting the worst, and it's not the worst.  It's not great either, but at least I didn't come out vehemently hating it like Man of Steel.  In fact, it's kind of the inverse.  The further I got from Man of Steel the more angry I got at it, whereas with BvS:DoJ my feelings seem to be getting a bit kinder with passing time, even if I'm never going to be fully on board.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I Saw This!!: A few words on works of television

More like "I Sat on This!!"  I started writing this in December of 2015 and plum forgot that I hadn't finished it.


The Jinx (6 episodes) - HBO
Silicon Valley (season 1) - HBO
Wayward Pines (5 episodes) - Fox
Transparent (season 1) - Amazon/Shomi
Fresh Off The Boat (season 1) - ABC/Shomi
7 Days in Hell (special) - HBO
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (7 episodes) - BBC
The Wrong Mans (season 1) - BBC/Shomi
Fargo (Season 2)

If I don't write many movie reviews anymore, it's because I'm not watching that many movies.  I'm too busy watching TV.  While TV has always been loveable, a perfectly adequate and enjoyable way to pass time, it rarely had the stigma of fine art and impeccable storytelling, not like film.  Because of the nature and demands of American television networks in the past, shows used to have to skew as broadly as possible such as not to upset anyone, and to have a generic enough premise with generic enough characters so as to sustain 5 to 10 seasons worth of storytelling.

Of course, with the influx of specialty channels, pay cable, streaming services, and more the demand and desire for original programming is at an all-time peak, and TV show creators (and the people that fund them) want nothing more than to stand out from the crowd.  How best to do that?  Be worth watching, tell an engaging, uniform story, with great characters and in a visual style that is cinema-quality.  Special effects can't measure up to a 200 million dollar blockbuster, that's for sure, but they can do enough to get the point across (and tell the viewer that the focus is more character than spectacle).

Television is so good today, and so plentifully good that it's legitimately frustrating.  Programming one's evening to optimize viewing time is almost a regular affair, and it's hard enough to just keep up with the shows that are currently running, never mind going back and watching ones that have ended or, Cthulhu forbid, watching a beloved show again.

Here I present some thoughts on a bunch of notable new-ish television I've been watching.


We've been watching Game of Thrones through whatever means necessary in prior years (but always backing up our viewing with a purchase of the Blu-Ray set upon release), but this year we went legit, subscribing to HBO for its 10-week cycle.  This gave us access to a wealth of HBO-On-Demand programming which finally let me check out a number of shows people had been talking about but I otherwise would not have seen.

The Jinx naturally made a huge splash early this year with the surprise (and spoiler-filled) news of Robert Durst's arrest.  This six-part documentary examines Durst's life, his criminal history (both official and alleged), and the various crimes he's seemingly gotten away with, including the murders of his wife, his best friend, and a neighbour.  This is all framed with the usual talking heads-style commentary from people related to the story, but made fascinating even further by an in-depth, on-camera interview with a fully cooperative (if not really truthful) Robert Durst.

As far as examinations into true crime go, this is easily a high watermark.  Director Andrew Jarecki, who made another benchmark true crime documentary with Capturing the Friedmans, legitimately tries to maintain objectivity in the face of overwhelming (if largely circumstantial) evidence that points to Dursts involvement in his wife's disappearance and his best friend's murder.  Meanwhile he has to answer for the murder and dismemberment to which he fully admitted to doing but was acquitted of any wrongdoing.  Durst is a fascinating figure.  Even with a record of cold blooded, calculated murder, he still is completely unassuming on camera.  Not charming in the least, but genuinely intriguing.  He speaks in a curious croak with beady, darting eyes that project a constructed frailty, he plays the genial patsy but is a legit criminal mastermind.  Amateur psychologists will have a field day watching this.

The show ends with a stick of verbal dynamite, and the story behind it is as fascinating as what happens itself.  Even if you know what it is, it's still a massive "Holy shit!" moment that will have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief... and if you don't know how it ends, spare yourself the curiosity until you actually watch the show.  It's insane.  If I had to quibble, Jarecki and company do mess with the timeline of events late in the show (as reported on the internet) for storytelling purposes, which is an unfortunate side effect of being "entertainment programming" rather than straight up journalism.  It's not terribly crucial but understanding there's any deceit in the storytelling leads one to question much else of what we've seen.


Another HBO show comedy fans won't shut up about, Silicon Valley is the latest show from King of the Hill/Beavis & Butthead/Office Space creator Mike Judge.  I was expecting a transcendent comedy experience and instead found another outstanding, thoughtful, insightful, and rewarding Judge creation that was less about manufacturing laughs than about telling a meaningful character story that happens to be humorous as well.

The show zeroes in on Thomas Middleditch, an unassuming, awkward programmer working and living in the same house with a small group of other programmers (Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr) and their benefactor (TJ Miller), creating intellectual property which hopefully will break big.  Middleditch stumbles upon a compression algorithm that winds up in a bidding war between Hooli, a Google analog, and an Elon Musk-style genius/venture capitalist.  Turning up a 10 million dollar offer, he takes the small development handout and the majority percentage ownership and he and his small team get to work on building a company out of a suburban home.  Much of the show focuses on how uncomfortable and ill-suited Middleditch's character is with leading the charge for what could be a massively successful and revolutionary product.  Not helping is the additional pressure of Hooli's attempts to go to market first and reverse engineer his code, or equally Miller's loudmouth pothead character who should at this point be a silent 10% investor and is instead anything but.

 The show has a strong cast of characters and performers which allows it to take comedic diversions without distracting from the more naturalistic elements of the show. It dwells heavily in the world of tech culture and the socially awkward personalities that dominate it, doing so in a manner that doesn't feel exploitative, but equally doesn't accept it as (it seems to be of the opinion people can change).


Oh Wayward Pines.  You tried so hard.  Too hard.  You wanted to be what you couldn't, because we already have Twin Peaks.  Based on a series of novels (which own up to their Lynch-ian influence), Wayward Pines was shepherded into existence for the summer TV schedule (home to many a middling genre programming) by M. Night Shyamalan, whose predilection for story twists has audiences anticipating and mocking him, sometimes simultaneously.  Pines is filled with twists, each episode doling out one, two or sometimes much more of them, but rarely doing so with any real craft or effectiveness.  The plot has Matt Dillon's FBI agent on the search for two other agents who have disappeared.  He gets Doc Hollywooded into Wayward Pines where he finds one of them long dead, and the other many years older and quite settled into the sleepy environment that's oxymoronically draconian and utopic.  Public executions take place in the streets for disobeying the town's rules (which feel about as simplistic as those accompanying a Mogwi in Gremlins) and everything appears to be on camera or audio recorded.

It's all so sinister, so anyone who seems happy with the status quo seems in on it, and if they're not then it's all the more creepy.  The show aims for a Lost-like formula whereby it introduces new mysteries each time they expose one, only Lost had the benefit of engaging and mysterious characters as well as an engaging and mysterious setting and overall narrative.  Pines just has the town, and its mysterious quite quickly become maddeningly ridiculous (or perhaps even guiltily enjoyable).  It all culminates in the fifth episode whereby Hope Davis teaches the students of the local Academy all about the town's history while Matt Dillon silently scales the city's wall, discovering for himself its awful secret.  As clunky as the first four episodes were, the fifth is a masterpiece of exposition, one that somehow makes an undeniably ridiculous scenario seem totally logical.  I was beyond impressed.  And yet, I stopped watching with that episode.  I had no burning desire to continue the series and I still feel completely uninvested in it or its events.  I don't think a bad story really, but the show certainly wasn't executed well overall.


We started watching Transparent shortly after we finished watching Sense8, coincidentally more than by design.  Though there's little similarity between the shows, I mention it because, as per its title, it too features a lead trans character as well as bisexual and gay characters in its main cast.

Jeffrey Tambor is the trans parent of the title who, in their advancing retirement years, finally decides to embrace who they feel most comfortable being, becoming Maura and moving into a trans-friendly community as part of the transition.  The show doesn't just follow Maura's transition, but her whole family, who as the children of a neurotic mother and distant, psychology professor father, are all a bit askew in the world.  Eldest daughter Sarah rekindles a romance with her college lover, terminating two marriages in the process, while youngest daughter Ali still struggles with adulthood and responsibility well into her thirties.  Middle child Josh suffers form anger and trust issues, having had an unstable romantic relationship with his childhood babysitter for years, and (not coincidentally) using his position as a music promoter to curry the favor of young female musicians.

The show can be wickedly funny and squeamishly uncomfortable in equal measure.  The Pfefferman clan hits just that precise level of self-involved assholishness that it makes them uneasy to watch or even care for.  If it weren't for Maura's sympathetic journey, it would be intolerable, but Maura's transition is dealt with in such a positive and favourable light that it gives a bright center for these dark spirals of characters to orbit around.

The best handled aspects of the show are the flashbacks, which largely show Mort as he tries to come to terms with who he is 15 to 20 years in the past.  For a lot of his journey, he's accompanied by Bradley Whitford who portrays a transvestite, and they retreat away to hotels on weekends to dress up.  This culminates in a brilliant full-flashback episode where the two go to a camp for transvestites and Maura encounters the prejudice they have towards transexuals there.

Most episodes have particular moments that stick in your brain, either by subject matter or by visual craft.  Perhaps the best episode deals with Ali's relationship with Dale, a transsexual she met through her father's sessions, which seems to be portrayed as something a little unhealthy as she's denigrated and the submissive, only to be revealed to Ali's own surprise as something far more awkward and confused.  This spin on fantasy versus reality doesn't actually have any logic in how its presented, but it allows for so much pondering on themes of identity, desire, and fantasy as well as delving into Ali's psyche in an indirect fashion.

It's a brilliant and challenging show.  I never look forward to watching it, but once I start, I binge on two or three episodes before I have to stop.  I feel overwhelmed, and yet I also feel rewarded.

(Supplementary Note: Even though Season 2 has completed and we have access to it, I'm finding it hard to bring myself to watch it. )


Family comedies haven't really been my thing since the late 1980s, and yet here I am regularly watching Fresh Off The Boat.  Based (loosely, and somewhat contentiously) off Eddie Huang's memoir, the series first season finds young Eddie moving to Miami with his family as his father starts a new restaurant.  Early on the series dealt with some of the more difficult elements of the transition, mainly being Chinese in a predominantly white city, as well as the hardships of establishing a new business, always with little peculiar touches that differentiated itself from other shows, but establishing itself on the same playing field as Malcolm In The Middle and Everybody Hates Chris before it.  As the show got deeper into its half-season order, it started to eschew the moments of drama and the darker elements of their life to focus more on the absurdist comedy (where things like the "success perm" and Jessica's gaydar blindness seed themselves as running gags).  Like The Wonder Years or Everybody Hates Chris, the adult Eddie acted as narrator, and as such the show largely revolved around him.  Eddie identifying with 90's hip-hop, having a crush on his older neighbor, and feuding with kids at school were key parts of his story entering the 7th grade at a new school.  His younger brothers Emory and Evan seemed to have an easier time adjusting, the former a schoolyard Lothario, the latter an extremely bright student and social butterfly among the adult neighbors.  Where Eddie is a disappointment to the standards of a Chinese child, having little interest in educational pursuits and defying his parents regularly, Emory and Evan both are dutiful children who enjoy their disciplinary tiger-mom.

The real Huang became publicly disgruntled with the show's direction, which put him at odds with the producers and network as the show became the first successful Asian American-led network sitcom.   Just as the writer decided to distance himself from the show, so too did the program decide to distance itself from Huang's source material, for season 2 it dropped its narration and expanded the focus on all of the family members for its full-season order.  It's first season was solid, but this second season has been far more entertaining, fleshing out both its major and minor characters in more interesting (and often sillier) ways.  It playfully toys with both Chinese and Chinese-American culture, fielding an even mix of the real and surreal, showing elements of American culture that the Huangs (as individuals and as a family) have glommed onto, and also highlighting some other aspects of Americana that still elude them.

The show uses its 90's setting to great effect, putting a spotlight on some of the cultural touchstones from the time, whether it be Shaquille O'Neil's ill-fated Shaq-Fu video game or a Janet Jackson concert, there's equal time for reverence, nostalgia, and mockery.

Where the show triumphs is in its dense supporting cast, including the team at Louis' Cattleman's Ranch restaurant, Jessica's family from D.C., or Eddie's misfit group of friends at school.  But the main cast is resoundingly great.  Randall Park has deserved a spotlight show for years, and has finally found it.  Constance Wu makes Jessica one of the liveliest characters on television, while the trio of Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen as Eddie, Emory and Evan respectively are three immensely delightful young actors who manage to eschew precociousness or excessive cuteness that so many family comedies rely upon.  Especially in season 2, Emory and Evan are given room to grow as characters, rather than the more one-note jokes they were in the first season.  As a whole it's a genuine delight.


I'm not certain what spurred HBO on to make 7 Days In Hell. At 50-ish minutes, it's not a movie-length production, and it feels more like it would fit on ESPN despite it's satirical nature (I think ESPN should have more original scripted programming that's very sports-centric).  The special is a talking heads mocumentary ala Zelig or the Rutles about an epic 7-day match between the top tennis players of the early 2000's at Wimbledon.  The players are Aaron Williams, the adopted brother of Venus and Serena Williams, played by Andy Samberg (so immediately you see the humor in that family dynamic), and Charles Poole, a dimwitted prodigy played by Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington.  The special doesn't demand deep knowledge of Tennis, but does request some familiarity.  If you don't know the structure of the game, at least somewhat loosely, nor do you know the more famous commentators/ex-players like John McEnroe or Chris Evert it's going to lose you somewhat.

But the production is very entertaining, focusing on the manufactured rivalry between Williams (the bad boy superstar of the game) and Poole once idolized Williams, but is manipulated exceedingly by his mother (Mary Steenburgen) and manager (Fred Armisen).  There's a lot of sports and sports-biography stereotypes put through their paces, mostly hitting on the funny, but occasionally falling flat.  Top marks go to Michael Sheen as the aging, salacious British talk show host drooling over Poole through a chain of cigarettes and whiskey on air.  The tennis itself is a joke, both players rather than being so good having instead a crazy rash of illnesses, overdoses and other afflictions.  It all ends in a somewhat unsatisfying fashion, leaving no closure (as well as the absence of the two stars from the talking heads), and yet not really having anywhere else of go when it's all said and done.  It's a definite curiosity, the like you don't see too often, as it's not a film, nor a sketch.


Magic isn't really my thing, man.  I mean magic as a superpower, or as a trope of fantasy. It's so nebulous and unspecific such that it can pretty much do anything, the consummate Deus Ex Machina.  The  rules of magic, the limitations of it, how one can wield it better than another...these are all things that rarely have good definition in a story.  It's magic, so there's often no logic for it, nor is there a how or a why.  I guess I just don't get it most of the time.  But I got Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I got it almost immediately.  The magic wielded in this mini-series, based off the novel by Susanna Clarke, all comes from textbooks, and are limited mostly to the incantations inscribed.  Sure it ventures somewhat outside of that, but it's knowledge, it's studies, and understanding.  It's more like science in this series than magic, even though it does fantastical stuff.

Harry Potter spent a good seven novels (and eight films) building a world around magic and magic learning, and while I found that series to be generally palatable, it was still full of mystical mumbo jumbo and an overwhelming number of magic peoples that it still put me off a little.  Meanwhile Strange & Norrell takes place in the very specific era of the 19th Century Napoleonic Wars, an establishes a very tangible English society that the characters live in.  At this time, Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the main keeper of the mystic texts and the sole purveyor of magic.  It's otherwise a largely distant memory in the public consciousness.  Mr. Norrell offers up his services to English army to help protect and advance the homeland's interests, gaining some powerful political allies in the process.  When Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) comes along, a gifted amateur who seeks tutelage under the only magician in the land, Mr. Norrell is both excited and wary.  It's his pleasure to finally have an associate, but the fact that Strange seems so much more adept and agile at spell casting troubles him, and his ego.

Ultimately, Strange realizes he's surpassed his master, though he still reveres him and his intelligence, Norrell seethes with jealousy and envy, and seeks to spite his pupil and stunt his growth any way possible, yet every turn seems to only build his legend more.  Norrell seeks power, gains and abuses it, while Strange left somewhat untrained messes with forces he's not quite equipped to control or contain.  While the world wages war around them, they wage war with one another and it's fairly intense, as the audience can see it fall apart from the beginning but are also keenly aware there's little these two men can do to stop it.  It's a fantastic production, utterly engrossing, and both Strange and Norrell are such deep characters, where they could have been made so thin.  Marsan and Carvel are fantastic in the lead roles conveying all manner of subtlety, foregoing scene chewing or overt theatrics.  Like their magic, their performances are ones of nuance.


Another British import, but of a completely different sort, The Wrong Mans is a mistaken identity comedy that somehow manages to trump all mistaken identity comedies that came before it.  Over six episodes writers/stars James Corden and Mathew Baynton manage to exploit and exacerbate every trope of the subgenre while playing up most of the conventional action movie tropes at the same time.  The result winds up a genuinely compelling action-mystery that just so happens to be quite hilarious.  Rather remarkably on a modest budget the show manages to maintain the tension of an action vehicle without really containing that much action, but when it does it looks pretty good.  It constructs itself around a genuine mystery for the characters to solve.  Where most mistaken identity comedies have the audience in on the truth and watching the character bumble their way through it, this one unfolds in as engrossing a fashion as any of your binge-worthy peak-TV series.

What The Wrong Mans does both to differentiate itself and make it so entertaining is it keeps doubling down on the mistaken identity.  Each episode seems to thrust Baynton's hapless character into another alias or misunderstanding that pushes him deeper into the web of corruption and crime that the show takes place.  Baynton does hapless well, and seems out of his depth perpetually throughout, even at the successful resolution.  Cordon does a satisfying job filling the role of the desperate clinger-on, a very Nick Frost-type part at first but the show does an effective job at humanizing him and not just making him pathetic comic relief (or simply a situation exacerbater).

The show works both as a whole and as an episodic.  There are clearly defined breaks, but it all still seamlessly runs together like a 3 hour film.  This one came recommended and I wholeheartedly pay that recommendation forward.  There is a second, 4-episode season that I've still yet to get to, but I hear is quite complimentary and equally enjoyable.


Fargo Season 1 was an utter surprise, managing to capture a Coen Brothers-esque flavour without aping or parroting.  It was a show that forged its own path, with a debt owed to its source that it repayed tenfold.  In this golden age of television, Fargo managed to be one of the shiniest spots.  Given that it was a complete story told over ten episodes, one had to wonder where a second season would go, and whether it was even necessary.  One also had to wonder whether the Fargo crew shouldn't quit while they were ahead, seeing as what they got away with in season 1 was a minor miracle.

Once again, defying expectations, Fargo Season 2 came in and blew the excellent first season out of the water.  Like the source and Season 1, Season 2 is a crime story taking place in the Northern Mid-west States in 1979, the tale of two mob factions gone to war, the troubled husband and wife caught in the middle of it, and the police who are trying to understand what is happening and how to quash it.

Season 1 had a dynamite cast, and Season 2 kept up the caliber, with Patrick Wilson, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Bokeem Woodbine, Jeffrey Donovan, and more.  Every single player in the very deep cast is excellent, some new(ish) players doling out very take-notice performances.

Not just satisfied with simply telling an already engrossing story of these characters and their lives, creator/showrunner Noah Hawley also seeds through the show with a number of different themes as part of its backdrop, including Reagan's presidential run, feminism, and UFO sightings.  The density of Howley's storytelling, coupled with his astounding visual flourishes (frequent use of split screens and screen wipes, which were very much a staple of 1970's cinema) and a killer soundtrack (both the song selection and the score from Jeff Russo are dynamite) all contribute to one of the most immersive television experiences that demands revisiting.  With this second season the show crawls out of the shadow of the Coens, but once again begs the question "What's next?"  Again, I wonder if perhaps they shouldn't quite while they're ahead, but now I'm more curious than ever to see where (and when) they go and what they come up with.  Simply the best television has to offer.


And this is what I watched as of mid-late 2015.  I've been subsequently watching this stuff...