27 October 2012

Movies: God Bless America

God Bless America (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1912398/

Dark Comedy

Frank is a recent divorcee living next door to inconsiderate assholes. He calls his ex to coordinate a visit from his young daughter, but the daughter is a loud unappreciative disrespectful brat and refuses to visit.  Then Frank finds out he has an inoperable brain tumor that will soon kill him. While contemplating suicide he glimpses a reality TV show featuring a rich unappreciative disrespectful brat's 16th birthday party. Frank decides to put off suicide for a bit, steal his neighbor's car and drive to that girl's school where he shoots her dead. Roxy, one of the newly dead girl's classmates, takes a liking to Frank's "style" and begs to be Frank's accomplice on his newfound mission to rid society of its most repellant citizens.

Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Chances are knowing who he is depends on your age.

Stars Joel Murray as Frank. Even f you don't recognize the name you'd probably recognize the face. And yes he is Bill Murray's brother, but he's not that Brian Doyle Murray guy, he's a different brother. I don't recognize his sidekick Roxy, played by Tara Lynne Barr, because I've not watched any of her previous work. She does well and the two have a believable chemistry which really sells the film.

The film reminded me some of "Super" although its dialog was a bit preachier and wordier.  Plus Roxy in this film is quite a bit saner than Libby in "Super".  If you've had any exposure to reality TV shows over the past 10 years the thinly veiled analogs in the film are easily identified. This film's TV shows aren't likable and the people in them aren't likable, just like for reals.

The film is a simple comment on what seems to be the current dominant style of American television shows and their influence on pop culture and the general public, taken to a logically absurd extreme and wrapping up predictably. It is also entertaining enough if you enjoy bluntly obvious violent dark comedies.  I didn't mind watching it.

Not nearly as polished (nor as brilliant) as "Office Space" and "Idiocracy", but comfortably fits in the same general "commentary on society" genre.  If you haven't seen "Office Space" or "Idiocracy" I'd recommend seeing those more, but it wouldn't hurt to see all of these films.

26 October 2012

Movies: The Magic of Belle Isle

The Magic of Belle Isle (2012)  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1839654/

Drama (Feel-good family type)

Monte Wildhorn, once an author of western novels, spends the summer in Belle Isle, a lakeside summer vacation town. His books are out of print, he has almost no income, his nephew set him up with a deal to stay in a cabin rent-free in exchange for taking care of the owner's dog for the summer. Monte plans to sit in his wheelchair and drink the summer away. Next door lives a recent divorcee and her three daughters. After the middle daughter learns Monte is a writer she "hires" him to teach her how he writes stories, how imagination works.

Stars Morgan Freeman as Monte, Virginia Madsen as next-door-neighbor Charlotte. Appearances by Fred Willard, Kevin Pollak and Kenan Thompson, although their characters only show up briefly and just to move the story forward in places. Directed by Rob Reiner.
Basically I watched the film specifically because it is a Rob Reiner film and Morgan Freeman is in it.

It is a feel-good family friendly film and it benefits from Reiner's directorial sensibilities. Good enough story, although a story seen played out before where curmudgeonly guy's stone cold heart is melted by a curious youngster and her family. But Freeman delivers just as one would expect from Freeman - spot on and fit for the role. The brief appearances casting of Willard, Pollak and Thompson work well in the context of the story because by seeing those actors you know their characters about without the film spending much time fleshing them out. Madsen does believably well and the kids playing the daughters capably fill out the film and make it feel real and unforced. The cast chemistry is perfect for the story. Some times the dialog sounded a little off from how people actually talk, but I think it was an intentional affectation to sell that local small sleepy summer town "magic" feeling.

Watching the film takes no effort, has no surprises and leaves you feeling warm inside.

22 October 2012

Movies: The Immortals

The Immortals (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1253864/

Fantasy

Way back before mankind walked the Earth, Zeus and his followers fought then imprisoned the Titans below Mount Tartarus. King Hyperion hears tell that the Epirus Bow could free the Titans, so of course he decides to find it and release them because somehow he'll rule the Earth afterward.
Theseus is chosen by Zeus to fight King Hyperion to prevent him from unleashing the imprisoned Titans.

Directed by Tarsem Singh, who directed "The Cell" and "The Fall". Both are visually stunning films so I had high expectations going in to this film.
Stars names Mickey Rourke, Henry Cavill, Steven Dorff, Freida Pinto, John Hurt and some lesser-knowns. Still, with a cast like that, one also builds expectations.

The film was visually ... something. It looked somewhat like "300" meets the "Clash of the Titans" remake, except more artificial, oversaturated and underlit. Completely not what I was expecting from Singh.
And the story. Ugh. Again with the borrowing of names from Greek mythology and completely rewriting the stories into a mess that is vaguely, but not much if at all, related to the source material.

An uncompelling crap pile, especially considering the cast and director. 40 minutes in the wife quit the film, she couldn't watch any more. I understand why she did it, the story was underwhelming so far, the cuts from character to character, designed I'm sure to just introduce you to the players, was more confusing than informative.  I was disappointed for other reasons, partly for the reasons she quit watching, but also due to its stealing from mythology then ignoring the source material to the point the story was unrecognizable. I figure if a film is going to do that, at least make it entertaining. We stopped the movie there, I figured I'd pick it up later when she was busy doing other stuff.  After a couple days I really didn't feel like going back to finish the film. The time invested didn't seem to warrant continuing on.
So yeah, I never finished watching the film so this is a really terrible review. Who knows, maybe the film redeemed itself later on?

Movies: In Time

In Time (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1637688/

Dystopian Future Science Fiction (ish) Thriller

In this future "time is money" has become literal. That is, all people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 years and live for one more year after that. Sortof starting off with 365 days in the 'bank'. All commerce is conducted by trading portions of your remaining time, and labor is rewarded by adding to your time. If your personal clock hits zero, poof, you're dead. This world is also separated in to 'time zones,' except the zones are more like separating those with decades and hundreds of years from those with mere days on their clocks. Basically separating the 'time rich' from the 'time poor'.
Will Salas and his mother are living day-to-day, scraping together just enough time to pay their bills and have enough left over to make it through tomorrow to earn a bit more. Through a chance encounter Will saves a man named Henry from thugs that were going to steal his time. While hiding out from the thugs Henry bequeaths over a century of time to Will as he sleeps, then Henry goes off to die. The police think Will killed Henry for his time and start chasing him. And we're now in the thriller portion.

Okay - I said Science Fiction (ish), perhaps Fictional Science is more appropriate. Hardly any explanation is given to exactly how the biological clocks work or how the time can be added and removed, we just have to accept that it can. But that is really okay for this film, it is the largest demand for suspension of disbelief and easily done. The film really is a thriller and it is set in a dystopian future. The science-y bits just accept as part of the package. It's the MacGuffin that drives the plot, in the purest sense.

Stars Justin Timberlake as Will, Olivia Wilde as Will's mom, Cillian Murphy as the Time Cop chasing Will, Amanda Seyfried as a naive time-rich girl that gets caught up in Will's troubles. Johnny Galecki (Big Bang Theory) has a supporting role in the film as Will's friend.
I have to say I was impressed by Timberlake in the leading role. I had no idea he could actually pull  off a leading character role. Apparently I have seen him in other films, but it's been a long while since I've seen "Alpha Dog" thus I barely recall him being in it, and I can't recall at all what part he played in "Black Snake Moan". I suppose I should watch those films again. Not because I want to see Timberlake, but because I remember I liked both films and it's been long enough since I've seen them they might seem like new. An odd benefit to getting older I suppose. Mixed blessing?
Anyhoo, I didn't have high expectations for Timberlake in a leading role and he exceeded them. I guess I'm trying to say he did good.

It isn't a great film, it isn't terrible. It's okay and entertaining enough. No real surprises from the script. Some really nice locations were found for a few scenes. Mediocre expectations met with low disappointment.
So, yeah, if you like dystopian future films this one might work for you. I suppose there is sort of a "Logan's Run" tang to the story, though I suppose one might argue this is an alternative to the end-result of the "Logan's Run" world.  And OH MY GOSH there is a "Logan's Run" remake in the works with Ryan Gosling cast as Logan.

Movies: Safe

Safe (2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1656190/

Jason Statham Action Thriller

That's right. Jason Statham gets his own category of action thriller.

If you've seen any of "The Transporter" films, or most any other action film starring Jason Statham as the central character that has to get from point A to point B, kick ass along the way, and save someone else's life in the process, you've seen this film.

The safe in the title "Safe" refers to a young Chinese girl named Mei that is a photographic-memory-math-wiz employed (as in utilized, not hired) by the Triads to keep all their transactions in her head instead of on a computer. After Mei is given a coded message the Association of Corrupt N.Y. Cops and the Russian Mob are very interested in getting her to get said message from her brain.
So, of course, Jasan Statham puts his life as a cage fighter on hold to save Mei from all three bad organizations.

Seriously this could have been a Transporter sequel. All they'd have to do is change up a little bit of Statham's character's back-story. Sequel or not, it is way better than "Transporter 2", even though "Safe" and "Transporter 2" are basically Statham saving a young kid from bad guys.

What's left to review? Nothing, really. It's a stock Statham action thriller flick. You get what you anticipate. Easily a 7/10 on the Statham scale, using "In the Name of the King" as the baseline worst Statham flick.

14 October 2012

Movies: Melancholia

Melancholia (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1527186/

Science-fiction(ish) Drama

We first meet newly married and laughing Justine and Michael as their stretch limo tries to navigate a narrow twisty driveway to Justine's sister's house for the wedding reception. At the reception Justine tries to put on a happy face, especially for her sister Claire considering Claire and her husband paid for the wedding and reception. But try as she might, she just can't maintain the facade.
Meanwhile a newly discovered blue planet dubbed Melancholia is approaching Earth on a very close vector. But you won't really find out about that until halfway through the film.

The film basically contrasts Justine and Claire and how the approaching planet impacts those characters as individuals and their relationship.  So it is science-fictiony in that a planet is on a near-miss vector vs. the Earth, but it is more of a drama in that it explores the sister's relationship. I suppose the sister interaction is sortof metaphorical for the planetary one, or vice versa.

Stars Kirsten Dunst (Spiderman's Mary Jane, the cute little vampire Claudia in "Interview with the Vampire") as Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire. We're also treated to the presence of both Stellan Skarsgard (tons of stuff) and his son Alexander Skarsgard (Michael), who most folks will recognize as Eric Northman from HBO's "True Blood". Additional castmembers include John Hurt and Keifer Sutherland. Yes, this film is rather strong in the cast department and benefits greatly from their performances.

I remembered seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Antichrist".  Interestingly enough this film is directed by Lars von Trier, who also directed "Antichrist".  I noticed a lot of stylistic similarities between "Antichrist" and "Melancholia", especially the way dialog scenes are cut sometimes mid-sentence. The sets and visuals, as in "Antichrist", are quite stunning. Actually "Melancholia" is a bit more visually stunning at times, but that is more due to needs of the story.  Thankfully it is also a heck of a lot less visually disturbing than "Antichrist". As in opposite ends of the scale different.

By the film's end I came around to the realization that I enjoyed the film. But boy, that first hour of the film - yeesh.  Not 'yeesh' as in bad, but more 'yeesh' in the sense of slowly dragging along and not having anything to do with the approaching planet. Its existence is hinted at, at best.

The first part is titled "Justine" and we spend the first hour and ten minutes of the film watching Justine's wedding reception and transformation from happy bride to a gal spiraling into mental breakdown.  My wife got bored and quit watching the film because of that whole hour on the reception and nothing involving nor explicitly mentioning an approaching planet, just vague hints.
I think I could have got to the same level of understanding Justine's state-of-mind a lot quicker if that had been edited down to, say, fifteen to twenty minutes, or even skipped altogether. I'm not sure what von Trier was going for with that whole hour spent there, although I do have my suspicions that the viewer is supposed to hold the first part of the film next to the second part and draw analogies and stuff, but for me watching part one got tiring and old fast.  Also, in retrospect, perhaps the familial interplay and nuptial unraveling was all tied in with them knowing a planet is on the way.
Then again, he's making the bucks, I'm not, so what do I know?
I must point out that had this part of the film been cut down we would miss out on some very fine acting from strong actors, even if it is rough to make sense of it. Still, if a section of the film feels like it drags that much I tend to get annoyed.

Regardless, I was determined to finish the film, so I stuck it out. Glad I did.

The second part, titled "Claire", is the meatier part of the story. We see the end product of Justine's meltdown. We now know about and see Melancholia on its Earth-orbit crossing journey. We see the interplay between the sisters and how the planet's approach affects the balance of their relationship.
Aside from the opening sequence before the (seemingly odd and visually out-of-place) title card, the second part of the film has the more stunning visuals. Especially considering during the first part we're basically trapped in a wedding reception.  And for the record by "stunning visuals" I'm not making some leering stealth reference to Justine (Kirsten Dunst) laying naked on the creek bank bathed in the light of Melancholia.

Another thing that niggled at me was how different Justine's accent was from the rest of her family. Her mother, father and sister all had UK accents, whereas Justine had a definite American accent.
I also had trouble with the film's physics involving the approach of Melancholia: it's orbit, it's affects on the Earth, etc. I had a real rough time suspending disbelief where those details were concerned.

Nutshell review: Despite a tortuously long first half and facepalming physics the second half the end result payed off enough to make an enjoyable film. I suspect it is possible to watch only part two of the film if all you want to see is the science-fictiony bits and not feel as if you missed anything. It'll certainly feel like a shorter film. Then again by doing so you don't get the director's vision of the film.

Would I recommend it to others? Not so sure about that. I have no way of predicting someone else's tolerances or preferences, so any sort of recommendation would probably have to be made on an individual basis.  Probably best to not watch if you go stir-crazy watching films that don't have explosions, frenetic action, spaceships, guns, flashing lights, animated characters and whatnot.
I do think my wife would've liked the last hour of the film had she stuck around for it, however all attempts to talk her in to watching it have failed.

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I also have to take a moment to mention I was reminded in some ways of "Another Earth", mostly because that film also dealt with another planet suddenly showing up and approaching Earth and its effects on people and their relationships. Although "Another Earth" went in a wholly different direction story-wise, at least the other planet featured a bit more prominently throughout the film.  Of the two which did I like better? Can't really say, both have their strengths and weaknesses. Plus over nine months have elapsed between seeing "Another Earth" vs. "Melancholia", so my memories of "Another Earth" are somewhat dulled by time. 

11 October 2012

Movies: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1259521/

Five friends decide to spend a weekend at a remote cabin in the woods. They are, of course, the cliche five consisting of the jock, the jock's hot girlfriend, the hot boyfriendless friend, the intellectual brought along as a potential romantic interest, and the stoner fifth wheel. As they drive to the cabin they stop to get gas at the station manned by the cliche tobacco-chewing crazy-eyed redneck that warns them against going further, who they obviously ignore. At the cabin they discover it has a cellar, find an old diary and read aloud an incantation from it, which unleashes a zombie family upon them.
Yep, stereotypical horror film setup with stereotypical horror film beats.
Almost.
You also get snatches of scenes at some secret high-tech monitoring facility with tons of lab-coats running about, making plans, coordinating stuff and apparently watching the fated five.

Yes, "The Cabin in the Woods" might be like many a horror/slasher/thriller film you've seen in the past, but it also is not. It turns that genre of horror film on end and bequeaths upon the viewer an interesting grander story that encompasses and somewhat explains the purpose behind the existence all those past  .

Story penned by Joss Whedon (Avengers, Firefly, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and co-written and directed by Drew Goddard who has quite a wealth of experience as a writer/producer of many Buffy, Angel, Alias and Lost episodes. In a nutshell Goddard is a bastard love-child of both Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams.  So yes, we are treated to the sort of Whedon-esque dialog one would expect as well as the great story sensibilities one would expect from a Whedon/Abrams alumni. And for a directorial debut Goddard did smashingly, he obviously learned a lot working with both production masters.

Casting - spot on. Thor/Avengers fans will recognize Chris Hemsworth. Dollhouse fans will be pleased to see Fran Kranz. "Greys Anatomy" fans get some Jesse Williams. If you were a Power Rangers Jungle Fury fan there's a bit of Yellow Cheetah Ranger Anna Hutchinson.
Plus the ever-castable Richard Jenkins and some great bit parts for Whedon-verse alums Amy Acker and Tom Lenk. I didn't notice any glaring acting mistakes or casting weaknesses. Everyone did well.

For me as a Whedon/Abrams show watcher there was plenty of meta enjoyment. The grander story works quite well too.  It makes a great nod to the "teens in the woods" slasher format, adds its grander component, and makes many references to slasher/horror/thriller films from the past without making obvious parody-style fun of them.
And what's even better is the film doesn't even hide anything. They tell you exactly what is going on as the story unfolds, and if you still don't realize how what you've seen adds up, they spell it out for you without taking shortcuts or breaking the trust of the film viewer.

Smartly done film, quite entertaining and enjoyable, and easily recommended without snark.

08 October 2012

TV Series: Arrested Development

Arrested Development http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0367279/

Arrested Development was a Fox TV series from 2003-2006. Three short seasons, around 53 episodes in all. It won multiple Emmy awards during its short run. It is one of those shows that got great reviews by the critics, has a very devoted fanbase, but just couldn't get enough viewers for the television production machine to justify keeping it on the air. Lots of viewers = lots of advertising $$. Not enough viewers = cancellation.

Over the years I've watched as fans have continued to call for "Arrested Development"s return and asking for a movie. And rarely do I see any discussion about television comedy that doesn't pair the title "Arrested Development" with "best comedy on TV since Seinfeld". Now many folks might argue they didn't think Seinfeld was that great, but Seinfeld was innovative comedy TV regardless of their opinions. There's been many articles written analyzing and defining groundbreaking, trailblazing, genre-defining television shows and their arguments are sound.  "Arrested Development" is generally included in those discussions with laudatory language.

Me? I never did watch the show when it was on Fox. Honestly I don't recall hearing about it until after it was canceled, probably just me filtering out chatter. Well that and my attention was completely elsewhere due to my career at the time and such. After my schedule lightened up (I retired) I suddenly had a lot more time to waste on pointless endeavors like watching films and old television shows. Luckily for me the timing coupled with the ability to actually do that as granted by services and technologies like the internet, DVDs, TiVo and Netflix.

Plus I realized that some "Arrested Development" alumni went on to work "Community". "Community" is a show I discovered late into its second season and immediately sought out the first season to see what I missed. I figured as much as I grew to really like "Community", and considering it is in similar dire straights that "Arrested Development" encountered during its brief run, I thought I should give watching "Arrested Development" a chance sometime.

Recently I read news that Netflix backed the production of another season of "Arrested Development". Six years after the cancellation of that series it is being revived with the same cast and a lot of production crew returning. The next season is due out on Netflix in 2013.  This is unheard of in TV. Very occasionally a TV show might jump from one network to another. We've seen quite a few effective and not-so-effective show reboots over the years (especially recently). But something like this, where six years later the original cast and production is able to assemble and revive a series, that is very rare.

I thought with all these accolades for the show, all these things coming together for the show and a new season on the visible horizon plus its available for streaming on Netflix I should take some time and watch the show, see if any of the buzz is anywhere close to reality.

The show is about the Bluth family. The patriarch of the family, George Bluth, owns and runs a residential development company. He is arrested on multiple charges and sent to prison. His son Michael not only has to try to keep the company afloat but he takes it upon himself to keep the family together during these trying times. The series documents all these familial interactions and explores each member's faults, denials, manipulations, selfishness, serious dysfunction and occasional flashes of true humanity.
The series is very serialized, basically each new episode continues where the previous episode left off and follows storylines that either extend through the seasons, arc over a couple of episodes, or happen during the one episode but gets references and callbacks in later episodes. I can understand if someone tried to start watching the show mid-season they might feel a bit lost when those callbacks occur and find it a bit rougher to pick up on the lengthier story arcs.
It's shot almost in a documentary style, but just short of the cinema verite style seen in "The Office". "Community" is a bit closer to the "Arrested Development" storytelling style, although as serialized as "Community" happens to be it isn't quite as "from season one dependent". Conversely, just as with "Arrested Development," "Community" makes much more sense and its callbacks are much funnier if you have seen previous seasons.

It took me a couple of episodes to warm up to the show, but I liked it well enough to keep watching. I found, though, as the episodes progressed into the show's second and third seasons I would watch more episodes per sitting. Granted, each episode is only 20-some odd minutes in length, however I would find myself sitting for hours watching show after show. And it was over too soon.

So, in the end, I found that yes, all those accolades are well deserved. I can understand why the show is considered a groundbreaking show. I can understand the fan's hunger for more, and I can understand why the next season is highly anticipated. I can also see "Arrested Development's" influence on "Community".  And it's a shame that it is likely "Community" is facing its final season.