Friday, January 31, 2014
Very recently, I made a personal commitment to try to be a little less cynical in my approach to film criticism, and in light of that, I suppose I could face no better test than having my first subsequent review be for a movie like I, Frankenstein. In my vain attempt to try and think of something positive to say about it, the best thing I could come up with is that its title seems to be a cheeky challenge to all those geeks who insist that The Monster never be called Frankenstein, because that's the scientist's name and not his creation. For the record, unless you think Bride of Frankenstein is about the doctor's wife and not the zombie with the big hair, you'd have to agree with me that either name is acceptable, and I applaud the balls of this film for not even paying lip service to the silliness that has surrounded this cinematic mainstay for so many years. Beyond that, the positives get a bit thin.
I, Frankenstein is the story of Frankenstein, the monster created by the mad doctor of the same name, who after surviving the events of the original novel survives to the present day only to become the focal point of a secret war between supernatural creatures, naturally with the fate of the world at stake. You might think that when I refer to supernatural creatures, I must be talking about vampires or werewolves or some other classic monster closely associated with Frankenstein, but you'd be wrong. The creatures in question are actually gargoyles and demons respectively, or rather shape shifting soldiers tasked by unseen archangels to wage an endless war against shape shifting criminals who kinda look like the gargoyles too, just without wings, or really any discernible feature that might make them interesting.
The fact that Frankenstein is caught in the middle of these two armies is so random that I almost wonder if at some point this was a different story altogether. The fact that he's Frankenstein as opposed to any other famous or non-famous supernatural being isn't really all that important to the story save for one twist specific to his artificial nature, and its all so wedged together that I can easily see Frankenstein being a last minute replacement for some other character that didn't work as well or maybe wasn't deemed cool enough. The alternative explanation is that they wanted to do a Frankenstein version of Underworld, didn't want to reuse vampires or werewolves, and then googled Gothic and picked the first thing that came up as this Gothic literary figure's natural enemy. Or maybe they wanted to do the gargoyle vs. demon thing but needed more of a hook, so what the fuck, let's throw Frankenstein into that shit.
And let's face it, he's barely Frankenstein. Not since the CW's Beauty And The Beast has there been a hideous monster made a social pariah due to his deformity who was this implausibly handsome. When he takes his shirt off, which is a lot of the time by the way, he's basically just a guy with a few scars, like he'd maybe been in a bad fall or a car accident, just enough so that the thought of him making passionate love to his female love interest isn't an instantly disgusting scenario before you remember that it would still constitute necrophilia. Aaron Eckhart does his level best with some pretty shallow material, treating his heavy handed hero as an audition piece for a better written action leading man part in the future. Also, speaking of Underworld, Bill Nighy shows up as a capable bad guy, because apparently he will do anything. When he eventually wins an Oscar for one of his many great performances in movies that aren't this one, don't be surprised if he's unable to accept his award because he's off filming Jaws 5: The Re-Revenge.
Hey, remember how the make up effects in Buffy The Vampire Slayer the Series were kind of just okay for a mid-90's television budget? That is all the monster effects in this movie. Its not just that they don't look very good on a technical level, which they don't, but they aren't even designed with any degree of imagination or whimsy. They feel like rejected Stan Winston molds relegated to the background scenes of a Men In Black movie, none worse than Nighy's final monster form which I'm pretty sure is a re-dressed version of Ivan Ooze from Power Rangers: The Movie. The gargoyles are by contrast all CGI, and specifically, the CGI from an old Playstation One game they were able to re-purpose some twenty years later. I can't honestly say that a more varied or interesting job in this area akin to a Guillermo Del Toro movie would have made it all that much better, but it would have at least convinced me that the people making it were actually passionate about what they were doing.
That's the biggest problem with this movie. It's just on autopilot the entire time, front loading all of its pointless and needlessly convoluted exposition into the first ten minutes to make room for one equally pointless action sequence after another until it mercifully ends 90 minutes later. Even The Mortal Instruments, a similarly vacuous supernatural action movie at least tried (and failed) to establish characters and romantic intrigue. This movie doesn't try to be anything but fodder for a trailer with a lot of slow walking and Riddick-style faux badassery that is never earned or even shot all that convincingly. I lost count of how many conversations spelled out the narrative trope being used, as Frankenstein is told point blank what an outsider he is and that he needs to pick a side and regain his humanity in practically every other scene. This movie could have been the movie Van Helsing should have been, a much needed action-packed update to classic characters rife with blockbuster potential. I mean, its freaking Frankenstein for goodness sake! Even if you don't throw Dracula or the Mummy into the mix, that's still pretty hard to screw up this completely, but somehow they found a way.
All of this being said, it would be easy to tear apart any movie that wears its superficiality and stupidity so obviously on its sleeve, but there's also something just a bit refreshing in its honesty. I, Frankenstein is exactly what it says on the tin, and exactly as bad as you would think it would be, no more, no less. There's no way you could see the trailer for this movie or even the poster and not know exactly what you're in for, whether this is the kind of thing you like or not. I found it as unappealing as I was expecting, and the only other people in my theater, who clapped when it was over, apparently found what they were expecting as well, which just so happens to be the exact opposite expectation. Technically, I, Frankenstein doesn't disappoint, because it couldn't possibly no matter what you think it is or should be. Its like it pulls its big, fat, smelly I, Frankenstein schwanzstucker out, slaps it on the table and says "take it or leave it." I'd recommend leaving it, but then that's just me.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
Hey gang, check out the latest episode of my podcast, Stop Or My Mom Will Podcast. This week we talk about a conspiracy surrounding the sudden death of a young starlet to silence an inexplicably still living whistle blower, then delve into the dark and twisted world of Japanese cryptids (Hint: There will be eyes in places where eyes should never be).
Or Stream Below:
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Okay, so, I kinda broke a personal rule yesterday, and its got me thinking I might have to do it again. See, ever since I started this blog, I've made a deliberate effort to make it somewhat impersonal, while still trying to infuse it with my own energy and sense of humor. That sounds strange considering that this is a blog after all, a venue for personal expression, and doubly strange considering this blog hosts my THREE pod casts, a medium designed for self indulgence. While this website is always very reflective of me, I've tried to avoid turning it into anything resembling a daily diary, composed of content so esoteric that no one but me would ever care. When I post a movie review or pod about tv shows or conspiracy theories, the idea is that those conversations would be interesting independent of whether or not you gave a shit about who I am. The reason I bring all this up is because the subject of yesterday's post is still sort of stuck in my brain, and even though nobody probably cares, writing about it is the only way I know how to exorcise it.
The post in question was just a quick missive about an online videogame critic named Justin Carmical whose recent death affected me as a fan (a post I will now link back to HERE to complete the ouroborus chain of my own douchyness). Watching that video again made me sit down and really think about what it was that I liked so much about him and how he influenced my own writing. I mentioned how I appreciated his ability to be funny without being cynical, a quality I respect even as I can rarely replicate it myself, and the thing is, I think I feel worse about that deficit in me than I ever realized. It feels like a Catch-22, can you be passionate enough about something to even care to critique it publicly in any way more thoughtful or involved than a comment thread, while maintaining a degree of objectivity such that you can clearly see the good and the bad in all things? I'd like to think I can, but at my worst, I tend to take the easy route by simply denying that there's any good to be found in whatever it is I happen to be hating that day.
I've talked before on this blog about my distaste for the so-called riffability of bad movies, or the notion that a movie can be "So Bad It's Good," and I think my instinct to dismiss that framework comes from this weird dichotomy. While I can't help but be snarky whenever I'm talking about anything, when I think of outright mocking a movie for its badness, I can't help but be humbled by the fact that even the worst movie ever made is still better than any of my movies, because I've never made any. What's more, when the MST3K guys who started all this put their money where their mouths were and made a movie, we got Meet Dave. What claim do any of us have to say we're better than M. Night Shyamalan or Tommy Wiseau? To revel in the ironic enjoyment of a movie is to arrogantly declare that it is otherwise without merit. Its saying there is so little genuinely good about it that we must invent, or rather invest it with meaning that it could not possibly have on its own, and I respect the craft of film making too much to ever make that declaration, even about a movie I find unironically unwatchable.
But more importantly, where is the line between this humility and the eight paragraph diatribe I wrote last week about how irredeemable Ride Along was? Is all negative criticism created equal, and is it hypocritical to castigate one form and engage in any other? I like to think that I approach all films with if not the same standard, at least the same basic assumption that despite whatever preconceived notions I might have going in, any movie CAN be good. Though I find myself disliking a majority of movies in any given year, I only ever find myself angry at a select few. Its not just when a movie fails, but rather when it doesn't even try. Take Ride Along again as an example. The people behind that movie had so much money and time to make something good, and didn't even bother. Its not that they couldn't do it, they just had no interest. No matter the commercial incentives, art is art, and it is something precious and amazing that should never be taken for granted, and when I see that happen, and then see it rewarded, my anger blinds me to anything else. By contrast, most movies I see on "So Bad Its Good" lists seem like labors of love to me, even if they are misguided or poorly made.
I guess what I'm getting at is that I'm trying to figure out a way to be less angry without being less passionate, maintaining my degree of investment in the artistic merit of film without taking it so personally when one particular crew of filmmakers doesn't share my lofty priorities. I sometimes wonder if this is the distinction between a nerd and an enthusiast, that its not just about liking something or knowing a lot about it; its the emotional investment, the capacity to be insulted when something you love isn't done right or done so massively wrong as to indicate a lack of respect. I want to be the guy who can step back and realize that I'm just some schmo with a website, no better than anyone else, and still rail against those who would abuse the subject of my obsession. I want to be able to still love movies as much as I do without hating them as much as I do, but I can't get away from the fact that my hope for the next great surprising thing and my cynicism over the majority of crap I'll have to dig through to get to it are impossible to disconnect from each other.
But then I come back to Justin Carmical, a guy who managed to find success, at least creatively if not financially, as an earnest online reviewer. If you don't watch these kinds of videos regularly, you might not realize just what an oxymoron that is, but just check out www.thatguywiththeglasses.com, www.thespoonyexperiment.com, www.cinemassacre.com, or any one of the millions of youtube critics raised on that MST3K style dickishness to see how novel and refreshing he was. And what's more, in a more general sense, he actually did something. As I sit here and bemoan my lack of creative output while posting daily reflections on other people's work, he picked up a camera and made something, using reviews as a jumping off point for an original showcase of his talent. In short, he did what I've always said I want to do, or at least began the process, and I can't help but come to the conclusion that the only thing stopping me is my own fear, not to mention some very distracting bitching and moaning.
Now that I say it out loud, it sounds really ridiculously obvious, but I guess I'm just starting to realize that there is something inherently negative about criticism even with the best intentions. I don't just mean that the propensity to think critically creates a habit of negativity, that say, reviewing a lot of bad films somehow rots your brain. What I mean is, if you're a creative person, and you'd have to be in order to want to analyze the creative works of others, than critique in lieu of creation can disrupt the very creative energy that drives you in the first place. When I watch a bad movie, one of my first reactions is always something like "I could have written this better," and for some reason it never occurs to me to ask the obvious next question, which is "well, why didn't I?" Back in Ebert's day, film wasn't democratized technologically like it is now, so many a frustrated filmmaker had to settle for a life on the sidelines. But what's my excuse?
I'm not making any promises, because as I've already established I am at my core a spineless dilettante, but over the next year and beyond, I'm going to try and make a more concerted effort to actually, you know, make stuff, and not just comment on the stuff that other people much braver and more talented than I am have made. More than just a short film here or there or a screenplay I know will never get made, I'm going to try to think constructively and actually produce something original that I can be proud of. What form that will take is still up in the air, but the point is, if I don't do it, I think I might die. I don't mean to say that in any foreboding way, and I certainly would never go the way Justin did (not to judge him, I just don't have that depression in me), but the part of me that makes me distinctive and unusual, that part of me that needs to be more than a lump with a smart phone, won't survive long unless its fed. That may mean less than daily updates in the future, as if anyone but me cares about that, but hopefully it will also mean that I can sleep better at night.
There. That's it. Self indulgent personal diatribe over.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
I don't normally post stuff like this, but one of my favorite online personalities committed suicide last week, and while I don't have anything really profound to say about it, having not known him personally, I did want to share this. It's the official video tribute from www.ThatGuyWithTheGlass.com, the site where I and many of his fans first found him. If you never saw his stuff, he was one of a select few online commentators who managed to be funny without being cynical or up his own ass, which is rare and something I always appreciate. He was also one of a few people who inspired me to establish my own online presence, such as it is, so I feel I owe him at least a brief mention. Condolences to his friends, family, and fans. Peace.
In retrospect, it seems pretty strange to think that Peter Berg, the man who debuted as a writer/director with the unflinchingly nihilistic Very Bad Things, would now be known for his equally unflinching patriotism. After the surprisingly enjoyable slice of sci-fi jingoism that was 2012's Battleship, Berg proved capable of making even the dumbest concept visually exciting and ultimately entertaining, earning the dubious title of The Thinking Man's Michael Bay, and now with his latest film Lone Survivor, he's applied that same commitment to a story lacking the handicap of extreme stupidity. Lone Survivor is a hard hitting and no doubt deeply personal tribute to America's military, based on a harrowing true story that manages to be mostly engaging even despite the spoiler of its title. though only if you're ready for it.
Lone Survivor is one of those movies that I can appreciate objectively, even though it belongs to a genre to which I have almost no interest in whatsoever. I can see the appeal, and more importantly I can see that it does what it sets out to do very well, but unfortunately there's a limit to how deep I can go being so far removed from the kind of person who loves these kinds of movies. If you like movies that focus on this sort of brutally realistic modern warfare, this is technically proficient though mostly bare bones in its execution of what you like. It's like Saving Private Ryan without the Spielbergian schmaltz, Three Kings without the wry sense of humor, and Black Hawk Down without the main character being based on a pedophile, or some combination thereof. In short, its basically the movie Zero Dark Thirty should have been, which is to say the last act expanded into a whole movie so that the most interesting characters, the Seal Team, have time to actually matter beyond a plot device.
Said team were the one saving grace for me as a non-fan, established in the first act and thankfully allowed a bit of "only this witty in the movies" charm before the action heats up and they start getting picked off one by one. The tonal shift is a bit jarring, as hazing rituals and silly arguments about show horses as wedding presents give way to an unending barrage of unsentimental carnage, but its just enough to humanize these guys before things get grim and we're put in a position to care about whether they live or die. At about the 40 minute mark we're faced with an interesting moral dilemma that sets up the final two thirds of the movie and we get a sense of who these guys are under pressure, but after that, it basically descends into non-stop shooting and running, again well done from an action standpoint, but more than a little tiring after a while unless you're really committed, which I personally wasn't.
As always, being a movie based on a true story, and taken from the personal account of the man who lived it, its hard to analyze Lone Survivor with an eye towards traditional narrative structure. Certain parallels emerge, for example an act of mercy that at first seems like a tactical error, but then ultimately comes back around karmically, but since everything is painted with the same chaotic brush, its hard to differentiate between the true story unfiltered and those moments that needed to be massaged to make the story work as a movie. For what its worth, the film never slips into the sort of self-aggrandizing hagiography of Captain Phillips, instead opting to show why these people should be considered heroes rather than just telling us they are for two hours. It never asks you to see the world the way they do or value what they value, but it assumes that their nobility is self evident in their actions, never spoon feeding you its patriotic message no matter how obvious it is throughout.
Apparently, some of the true bits they left out for narrative convenience are even more powerful and grueling then what they left in. For instance, while Mark Wahlberg's character is walking despite a gruesome injury towards the end of the film, the real guy he's based on temporarily lost the use of his legs and had to crawl several miles to get out of harm's way, only able to hide from his would-be Taliban captors after being blown into a cave by a rocket propelled grenade. Not only should that scene have been in the movie, it should have been the entire trailer and the image on the poster! The list of inaccuracies and inconsistencies seems relatively small for your average "true story," indicating a greater than typical fealty to the source material and respect on Berg's part for the real life people whose lives and deaths make this story so compelling. Its a love letter with its heart in the right place that doesn't force its oorah! spirit down your throat, which is more than I was expecting, and as much as you can hope for with this many guns and explosions.
Monday, January 27, 2014
No Saturday Night Jive this week, cancelled on account of massive snowfall, but we did manage to record a new Dirty Sons Of Pitches this week, though regrettably largely without me. Check out Nate and Eric talking Documentaries and displaying their woeful ignorance of Star Trek actors, with a special cameo by your's truly towards the end via satellite. Also, the above picture is relevant. Trust me.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
The month of January is typically where bad films go to die, a dumping ground for lackluster excuses for entertainment not befitting the blockbuster expectations of spring and summer or the end of the year prestige of Oscar season. As with last year's Identity Thief, occasionally a movie will stand out commercially as the best of a lot of bad options, and this year, that dubious honor has apparently fallen upon the Kevin Hart/Ice Cube buddy cop movie Ride Along. With a 50 million dollar opening and a sequel already green lit, any amount of hope in the collective taste of American film goers would suggest that it has to be at least passable, right? Ugh.
Ride Along is the story of...oh who cares? You've probably seen the trailer, so you should have the jist of it, and if you haven't seen it, its the same buddy cop formula you've seen a million times. I'm sorry, but I just don't have the strength to invest my time and energy into this kind of movie anymore. I don't mean the buddy cop genre per se, so much as the obviously bad genre to which it was clear this movie belonged even before I sat down to watch it. Taste and opinion being subjective, if you like what you've seen of the film's two stars or their comic interplay in the advertising, you should easily find their trifling adventures to be amusing long enough to distract you from the lack of introspection that led you to find something so shallow and pandering so funny in the first place.
Okay, I'm sorry, I don't mean to be a curmudgeon, but when did we completely abandon all standards of comedy? This is going to get a bit personal and off topic, but over the past week or so I've been binge watching the last few years of the NBC sitcom Community, a brilliant series that has constantly been on the bubble as executives and mass audiences alike fail to understand the pearls in front of their stupid swine-like noses, and then I read this morning that this piece of shit made 50 million dollars in its opening weekend. At some point, we have to just admit that we don't deserve to have nice things, if our value system is so screwed up that this is the kind of writing that we reward.
I'd love to actually see the screenplay for this movie. Ride Along boasts four screenwriters, one of whom I know to be very funny as the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Jason Mansoukis of How Did This Get Made, but so much of this movie amounts to letting Kevin Hart riff nonsensically as Ice Cube tries to look cool enough to make us forget Are We There Yet was a thing. I have to imagine that nearly every scene in the script at some point just defaulted to "Kevin Hart dialogue to be improvised later." Really? You needed four writers for that? Apparently the original idea for the character would have made him a milquetoast white guy, which might have been more novel and had more potential for edgy racial humor, but then Eugene Levy's probably too old to believably play Ice Cube's brother in law.
Just an example of the thought process behind this movie: The set up has Ice Cube's impossibly tough movie cop saddled with Kevin Hart's loudmouthed security guard for a day of crime busting as a larger, more serious case looms in the background. At some point, after being forced to arrest a man slathered in honey among other silly escapades, Hart learns that the police code for all the calls they've been taking is meant for particularly annoying cases no one else wants, used to haze rookies. Insulted by Ice Cube's prank, Hart's character blunders into a real hostage situation, assuming it is fake, displaying a measure of bravery that he would not have otherwise. Do you see the flaw here? At no point were there any fake crimes, just less important ones, but for some reason he thinks its like a play they're all putting on for his benefit, and when the guns go off, he's surprised that they're real.
Why would he think they're not real? It makes no fucking sense, even in the context of a character being generally inexperienced and stupid. This movie doesn't even bother to think the basic elements through. The villain is the mysterious Omar, a criminal mastermind no one has ever seen, which would suggest that when he is revealed, that he would be someone that we've already seen, because that's the only reason to give this character this unseen attribute. They even hire Bruce McGill as the police chief, who was born to play secret bad guys in third act villain turns. But no, he's just revealed to be some guy, and not in a clever subversion of the expected twist, just an inability to follow through on an obvious set up. This movie almost feels like a parody of itself, like the kind of obviously bad movie you'd see people watching in a different movie altogether.
And its getting a sequel. Just let that knowledge settle in for a bit. Think of all the movies you've ever thought were criminally deprived of sequels either because they were made prior to the time where everything was a franchise, or because they didn't make enough money to justify one, and then imagine the continuing adventures of these two unfunny, uninteresting, undeserving schmucks. We won't have to wait long, because I can't imagine it takes very long to bang out a script where 90% of the dialogue is Kevin Hart caterwauling to himself, especially now that we've already developed the intricate world of boring cliches in which he operates. Happy January everybody. Enjoy your shitty movies that'll only get shittier as you settle for less and less every year. I hope you fucking choke on them.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
In the last few weeks of catching up with Oscar movie reviews and so on, I've been somewhat lax in my postings of one of the three flagship podcasts on this blog, so this week we get three episodes of Stop Or My Mom Will Podcast for the price of one!:
Download Episode Eleven, Part Two HERE
Download Episode Twelve HERE
Download Episode Thirteen HERE
Friday, January 24, 2014
In an American animation landscape dominated by CGI, DC's straight to DVD features of the past few years have been a welcome respite of traditionally animated fair that has often met or exceeded the standards of theatrical film. 2012's The Dark Knight Returns made it to my top five favorite movies of the entire year, and still represents both the best Batman film ever made and arguably the best comic book movie in general. Their last film The Flashpoint Paradox didn't quite measure up, but still served as a refreshingly dark elseworld's tale with plenty for both hardcore fans and newbies to love. Unfortunately, just as the Flashpoint comic book gave way to the lackluster New 52, apparently the film has lead to a similar upheaval in this anthology film series, and also just like the comics, they seem to have forgotten what was good about these stories in the first place.
For the uninitiated, the New 52 was a relatively recent re branding of the DC comics universe designed to attract new readers by completely(ish) overhauling several decades worth of canon and restarting the stories of all of their most famous characters. This has happened before, most notably in an event comic called The Crisis On Infinite Earths, and represents a stark contrast from Marvel comics, which has managed to preserve its convoluted continuity by creating alternative lines for this sort of thing. Flashpoint, a story in which the character Flash inadvertently creates a dark parallel timeline, is the last story of the old canon, and the first leading to the new one, and inspired the last DC animated movie before the newest one Justice League: War, which, evidently is the first of what I sincerely hope is not a trend of new movies set exclusively in this new canon. Its not actually as nerdy as it sounds and has more to do with business than narrative, but regardless, this is where we are.
Of course, you don't necessarily need to understand any of this to understand the story of Justice League: War if your only other knowledge base for these characters is the movies and/or the cartoons, and if you do have this background, how you react to the shift in the movie depends on how you reacted to the shift in the comics. Personally, I found it unnecessary and the results, outside of Batman which saw the least change, mostly disappointing. Many will only tell the difference in the costumes, if that, owing to DC's new rule banning short pants which makes Superman and Batman look like they're wearing long underwear instead of speedos. The other differences are a bit more subtle, personality tweaks and an amorphous history in which one can never tell what did and didn't still happen in the past for these characters, and taken together, they're only damning if you actually care about this sort of thing.
But god dammit I do, and because I have so much history with these characters and grew up reading their post-Crisis, pre-New 52 adventures, I can't help but find this new attempt to reboot them all the more insulting. Justice League: War is the story of the Justice League forming for the first time, apparently designed for people who like this stuff enough to seek out this movie, but not enough to watch the Justice League cartoon on Netflix streaming, even though both have many of the same creative people behind them. If you haven't seen the Justice League series, do yourself a favor and do so, because its one of the best animated shows of the last fifty years, and when you're finished, you'll know how completely useless this movie is. The best phrase I can think of to describe it is Unnecessarily Pointless, and I know that's a redundancy, but I think its the only way to hammer home the waste of time I just experienced.
It's not just that its been done before, or even that its been done before and better. The formation of the Justice League in the two hour pilot of their eponymous series is quintessential, executed about as well as is possible, and this "new and improved" version isn't even good enough to be considered passably extraneous. In its attempt to make the same minor tweaks as the New 52 series, adding Cyborg and Shazam and making Superman an immature dick, it makes the same mistakes, but in such a way that seems completely avoidable considering that there's no connection between these movies and no reason for them to establish any of them in the new continuity over the previous one, which is the only purpose this movie serves. If they wanted more visibility for their properties in the new line, why not focus on the ones with characters who haven't previously been regularly featured, like Justice League Dark, Frankenstein Agent Of S.H.A.D.E., or Red Hood And The Outlaws (okay, maybe not that one)?
Naturally, I'm being somewhat rhetorical, because I'm pretty sure I know the reason why, and that it has absolutely nothing to do with the comics, current or otherwise, or which ones may or may not be worthwhile sources for adaptation. Justice League: War is all about setting up Warner Bros. upcoming slate of movies, even though it will likely have been forgotten by the time we actually see any of them. Batman and Superman are in it together, and guess what they do after the announcement of a Batman VS Superman movie? And in line with his shift in personality in the comics, Superman is coincidentally much more like his recent film counterpart, introduced literally as a destructive force crashing haphazardly through buildings, and later killing a villain in cold blood (because that worked out so well in Man Of Steel). Green Lantern has that same douchey Hal Jordan/Kyle Rayner hybrid Ryan Reynolds bullshit attitude from his movie (cause we all loved that, right?), and I don't know what the hell is up with Wonder Woman, except that if this is any sort of preview for her character in the movies, god help us all.
I almost don't want to describe the plot, because outside of a few tweaks, its so rote and predictable that it would be a waste of review space. The villain is Darkseid, because it totally makes sense that the team's greatest and seemingly unstoppable foe would be defeated on the first go round. And SPOILERS: They do it by combining their powers like the fucking Power Rangers, with Superman's Eye Beams and Battarangs pushing him back into his boom tube, because fuck it. Contrast that of course with the way they did it in the last episode of the Justice League series, which echoed Grant Morrison's Rock Of Ages and contains easily the best Superman monologue ever in or out of the comics. Oh, and a romantic relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman is hinted at, just for all those people who know nothing about either of these characters and thus think this makes any fucking sense beyond both of them being really strong. Lois, naturally, is just seen in the background and has no lines and no connection to Superman at all, which I suppose is technically better than her figuring out his identity before he does, but still not what fans actually want!
I know, I shouldn't speak for everyone as if comic book fans are some monolithic group, but honestly I don't know who this version of this story would actually appeal to, unless all you really want is people you vaguely recognize punching things really hard, in which case there are plenty of other, better examples of what you're looking for already out there. Any individual episode of the Justice League series, even down to its worst one, and I mean the fucking Wonder Woman turns into a pig episode, is better than this movie. As much as I complained about Superman: Unbound for retelling a story much more efficiently told in the Superman Animated Series, at least that was a show not as readily available, and it was done in a visually interesting way. Justice League: War isn't even fun to watch, let alone sit through, and even if you like the New 52 over the old stuff for some ungodly reason, there's not enough of it here outside of the little aesthetic details to make this meaningful to you. There is literally no reason whatsoever to watch this movie. Not one.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
There is perhaps no better venue for the kind of over the top Acting! designed to bait awards than a story about family dysfunction. Playing on our own skewed relationships with our own families, these slice of life interludes are instantly relatable no matter how exaggerated and contrived they may be. August Osage County, based on a play by Tracy Letts, boasts a large and accomplished cast coming together in one room to see how much scenery can be chewed before the walls come down, all scrambling to out-act each other in time for Oscar season. The result is somewhat hit and miss, less profound than it wants to be, and sometimes wasteful of its few understated talents, but at the end of the day, its hard not to at least appreciate so many great performers given such free reign to do what they do best.
When the Weston family's enigmatic alcoholic patriarch mysteriously disappears, the family gets together to weather the crisis, only to find old wounds re-opened as they are reminded why they've tried so hard to avoid each other over the years. Chief among these is the walking wound of their pill popping, "truth" telling mother Violet, played with vicious exuberance by Meryl Streep in her most craven and forceful appeal for Academy gold in some time. Her steadfastly hammy performance sets the tone followed ably by the rest of the women in the family who, having all dealt with the consequences of having her in their lives in different ways each find their fragile status quo crumbling around them. Subtlety is not a virtue in the Weston house, and there's only so much one can take before even great actors wear out their welcome.
The first odd thing you might notice about the film is the dialogue, and specifically how alien it sounds in a movie that otherwise strives for such authenticity in its warts and all depiction of small town family life. The movie begins with a quote from T.S. Eliot as relayed by a circumspect poet wistfully commenting upon life as one might do in a suicide note or a last will and testament, but when we pan out to reveal who he's talking to, we find he's interviewing a live in nurse, his waxing philosophical coming across more like senility than profundity. For all its attempt to give these characters depth and the semblance of real life, rarely do they ever sound like real people, often having conversations that would work great in a play, but in a movie sound far too constructed and erudite. As Julia Roberts' character rides in with her family, she remarks about how the Plains are less a place and more a state of mind the way no one ever does, and so many moments in the movie feel equally divorced from reality.
Where the movie shines is in its unapologetically dark escalation of the Weston clan's long percolating tensions. There is no baseline of love and understanding to put all of the anger and resentment into a more palatable context, and no indication whatsoever that there is something intrinsic to the concept of family that connects these people beyond the coincidence of their shared genetics. These aren't spats that will eventually blow over when those involved realize what really matters and hug it out over a rebuilt dinner table, but rather full on blood feuds that are in many cases insurmountable. The narrative revolves around a series of interconnected relationships and conflicts therein that demand a complicated and decidedly messy outcome free of contrived resolutions, and for all its flim flam hokeyness, it doesn't pull any punches and ends on about as appropriately dour a note as it can.
I'm not sure whether the problem is too much structure or not enough, but August Osage County takes an unusual amount of dramatic potential from its cast and its setting and yet still just barely manages to come up just close to a good movie. I want to say somethings missing, but I can't imagine what that could possibly be considering they throw everything into the pot including incest and child molestation. Maybe the missing element was simply self control, specifically the guiding hand of a director capable of handling so many great performers and channeling their energy constructively rather than letting it explode so haphazardly over the whole movie. There's certainly a lot of power buzzing around these proceedings, but it never seems to have the focus to be fully taken advantage of. Its a movie ostensibly designed for actors where Benedict Cumberbach has the least screen time of almost any main character, which is as good a metaphor as anything for its penchant for missed opportunities. There's a lot to like about August Osage County, but its left up to you to collect it all and form it into something resembling an entertaining experience.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
For many in my close circle of film nerd friends, the little indie dramedy Short Term 12 was nothing short of a revelation, a hidden gem from 2013 that one by one seemed to claim their hearts and minds with something like cultish fervor. Hearing some of them talk about it, I half expected them to break into song about how heartwarming and perfectly crafted it was. Naturally, I had to see what all the fuss was about, if only to perform my expected duty of crapping over all of this goodwill. After watching it, I can say that the profound secrets of the universe revealed to my compatriots were sadly not imparted upon me, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good movie, even if its not quite the great movie its cracked up to be.
With so much of modern cinema dominated by high concepts and big budgets, every once in a while its necessary to decompress with something more small scale and true to life, and Short Term 12's tragicomic look at the day to day lives of twenty somethings working at a shelter for at-risk youths is a nice antidote for anyone fatigued by a year of superheroes and hollow spectacle. The characters all feel like real people and their lives are complicated without a hint of contrivance. Its the kind of movie that does everything it can to make you forget you're watching a movie and believe that you're right there with these kids, feeling their pain as they feel it, and for the most part it succeeds.
Short Term 12 can best be viewed as a much needed refined take on a subgenre of drama best described as the Inspirational Teacher movie. Think Stand And Deliver or Freedom Writers, where an older but in most cases still relatively young and vibrant adult gives a second and possibly last chance to a group of troubled kids no one else believes in or cares about. Just describing this kind of movie is painful considering how terrible they usually are, but that's the point. Short Term 12 is nominally that kind of story if you take out all the melodrama and artificial crap. In the universe of the film, life lessons aren't learned through speeches or pivotal moments that only happen in the movies, but rather by actually living and learning.
That being said, the movie does dance fairly close to After School Special territory a bit too often. The more realistic approach to these kid's lives is appreciated, but it would be more satisfying if their issues weren't so cliched and obvious. The problems of these problem kids run the gamut of what you'd expect, alienation, autism, sexual abuse, cutting, and so forth, and the demands of any narrative force pat resolutions that defy the otherwise organic feel of the story where the message seems to be that life goes on as it will whether we like it or not. For a group of social workers who seem consigned to their place as transitory agents with little influence over their charges, they sometimes seem a little too adept at changing lives for the better.
Overall, Short Term 12 is a sweet little movie that manages to be heartwarming without being cloying and tells a very simple straight forward story without a great deal of extraneous information or pointless pathos. It does what it does well and doesn't overstay its welcome, and while it may or may not touch something deep inside you as it has done for so many, its still an entertaining and worthwhile experience nonetheless. For anyone whose ever worked directly with children, it should be an especially rewarding venture as it captures the joys and pitfalls of impacting young lives and strives for as much honesty as possible in the process, but beyond that, it speaks to the human experience in a way that few films bother to even attempt. Not that I'm joining the cult or anything.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Growing up in the 90's, I was one of many kids in my generation who were fascinated by the fantastic world of the martial arts. Now, granted, we didn't actually watch any real kung fu movies, didn't know who, say, The Shaw Brothers or Sonny Chiba were, and probably couldn't pick out Bruce Lee in a line up if you paid us in skateboards and Go-gurt, but we had something better. We had the Power Rangers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Double Dragon brothers, those crazy 3 Ninja kids, not to be confused with those crazy Surf Ninja Kids, and of course, lest we ever forget, those kung fu kangaroos The Warriors of Virtue. Yeah, we had no taste, but we were stupid kids, what did we know? Now its been 20+ years since then, we've grown up, refined our cinematic palette, and moved on to bigger and better things. At least most of us did. One of us apparently grew up to make 47 Ronin. Good grief.
Okay, maybe I should give the producers of this movie the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they do have a solid appreciation for the classics of the genre they're working in, and they just happen to be really bad at translating that into an original work, but I suspect otherwise. The Man With The Iron Fists proved that even a misguided and inappropriate love of actual classic kung fu tropes can be cheesily awesome in a guilty pleasure sort of way. I suspect that what the people who made 47 Ronin love about martial arts cinema, or rather what they think of as martial arts cinema, is what you get after it has been bastardized over several years to appeal to a mainstream American audience. Its like the telephone game applied to movies; you start with something good, dumb it down for a different audience, then dumb it down again for children, then sit back a while until it becomes nostalgic as those children become adults, and then reboot it for those same adults.
47 Ronin is a movie out of time, and not just because it focuses on a bygone era of Feudal Japan, which of course it doesn't, because even though the legend of the 47 Ronin is at least reputed to be a true story, the witches, minotaurs, bird people, and dragons probably weren't involved. And leave it to Hollywood to take a story celebrated by Japanese people to this day, inject it with monsters and magic, and still have the most offensive thing about it be that a white guy has to save everyone in the end. To the film's credit, I think, at least the fact of Keanu Reaves whiteness is an important part of his character and isn't just ignored as it was in, say, Elysium. Then again, the fact that he's a "half breed" is still only a flimsy justification for having an American as the main character, and given that this apparently didn't help its box office much and might have hurt it overseas, ironically a more authentic approach might have served everyone better, the audience included.
There are a few saving graces, notably the acting of most of the Japanese cast, who commit to very two dimensional roles with enough passion and gravitas to almost make you forget that they're all walking cliches. Hiroyuki Sanada from last year's The Wolverine once again plays a good gruff traditionalist, this time in a heroic context, and Pacific Rim's Rinko Kikuchi's goofy eyed shapeshifter is fun, even though the movie suggests more for her character than it ultimately delivers. We also get a number of interesting set pieces that suggest a better movie could have been had, notably a mystical slave fight club that might have given the film a crazy Pirates of the Caribbean historical fantasy mash up feel if they'd stayed there more than five minutes. Most of the overt fantasy elements feel like this, wedged in haphazardly and treated almost as an afterthought when they could have been so much better if given time to breathe.
But then, I don't want to leave the impression that 47 Ronin is the kind of movie that but for a few tweaks could have been something great. There are deeper structural flaws with this movie that can't be avoided or ignored, most egregious being the complete silliness of its approach to a story still regarded with a great deal of reverence by so many people. One would think that if you're adapting a story like this, your target audience would be fans of the original tale, such that you would seek to do justice to the source material, and that enforced limitation of fealty would rein in the temptation towards cheesy excess. Unfortunately, 47 Ronin is paradoxically not made for people who actually care about the 47 Ronin or even know who they were or what they did, so nothing was stopping the producers of the movie from throwing in a bunch of nonsense and trying to cobble it all together into a mess of inauthentic and insultingly bland crap. It doesn't work as history, it doesn't work as high fantasy, and while its occasionally fun to look at, it simply doesn't work, period.
Monday, January 20, 2014
Another day, another podcast. This week on The Dirty Sons Of Pitches I struggle through my sicky Harvey Firestien voice as we talk Oscar Nominations, Razzie snubs, a host of mostly disappointing movies, Kool Aid Man Porn parodies, Polar Vortex pitches, and our most anticipated films of 2014! Enjoy folks!
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Sunday, January 19, 2014
Hey gang, check out the latest episode of my podcast Saturday Night Jive! This week we talk about the most recent episode featuring host and musical guest Drake, once again finding ourselves at odds with each other over the quality of the proceedings. We also talk up the debut of new cast member Shasheer Zamata, delve deeper into George's exploration of the much maligned twentieth season and possibly discover the worst sketch ever, highlight Bill Murray's surprise Reddit AMA, and replace Don Pardo even though he's not actually dead yet.
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Friday, January 17, 2014
The Coen Brothers have established arguably the best record of any filmmakers in their long and mostly sterling career, so reliable in their ability to produce not just good movies, but great movies seemingly every year without fail that their collective name attached to a project is practically a guarantee that it will end up on a best list for something at some point. There have been a few missteps, notably The Lady Killers and Intolerable Cruelty, but even they weren't necessarily terrible, just bad in relation to other Coen Brothers movies. This year's effort is perhaps their most esoteric yet, playing into one of the few stereotypes you can apply to their eclectic oeuvre, that they will inevitably find a subject you would never think you could care about, and then make you care about it. The lives of folk musicians in the 60's is a particularly tall hill to climb, and after watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I'm still not quite sure if I quite made it over the edge.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows the somewhat listless travails of the titular troubadour as he grapples with the recent suicide of his former partner and struggles to find his place in a world and a music scene that seems to be on the cusp of changing without him. If there can be said to be a standard Coen-esque protagonist, it would be the lovable loser, that guy you can't help but root for as the world around him conspires to stymie his efforts at every turn. Llewyn Davis is certainly a loser, but for once, he's not all that lovable, not due to any failure on the part of the film to make him so, but purely by design. A twist on the beleaguered nice guy that found its apotheosis in 2009's A Serious Man, Davis is the architect of his own problems, a shiftless misanthrope who goes through life taking advantage of everyone he knows without remorse and, perhaps to his slim credit, taking it relatively in stride when his own karma continuously sets him back.
It works up to a point, but only until you realize that very little is actually happening in his life to justify building a whole movie around him. He's engaging as a character and funny enough as he flails from one minor event to the next, but when the sum total of action occurring in the movie is a brief and mostly uneventful road trip bookended by the main character's depressed shuffling from one crash pad to the next, I can't help but question what it was all for. Well, actually its bookended by a performance at a club that ends with him getting punched in the face, which is cathartic after two hours of watching the guy dick around and glower, but not so much that it makes the effort worthwhile. It is by the grace of the Coen's writing and directing that such a plot less, directionless movie can still be as entertaining as it is, but while it suffices for one viewing, even their skill can't push this story up into the annuls of their past success, and I doubt it will be heralded as classic in the long run.
I may be over-analyzing it, in fact I almost certainly am, but I keep finding myself stuck on this weird theory that Inside Llewyn Davis might be some sort of intentional swipe at the Coen Brothers made by the Coen Brothers themselves. The Coens are two of those directors who despite their repeated claims of straightforwardness often find their work analyzed for its many hidden meanings and references, and Davis seems almost deceptive in its superficiality, as if it is meant to invite that sort of investment only to prove how meaningless it is on purpose. The title character's apparent depth is unraveled and revealed to be wanting by the end almost as an afterthought, and the whole movie is connected by the thread of a mysterious cat that clearly must hold some deeper meaning, until it doesn't. And then John Goodman shows up to crap over the movie the way only he can. It feels like an attempt to make and then make fun of the kind of Coen movie you might distill for the purpose of parody, made by the only people clever enough to do that, who just happen to be the Coens themselves.
But then, I'm probably wrong, as I typically am. In any case, my interpretation made the experience of watching Inside Llewyn Davis that much more bearable, and got me through some of the more grating moments. That's not to say it isn't entertaining independent of crazy re visioning, just that without some greater reason to anchor the film, you quickly realize that your watching a movie about folk music and the exceptionally boring people who know longer produce it, because nobody cares about folk music. Or maybe you do, in which case this provides a more than loving tribute to this thankfully maligned and almost extinct genre (Mumford And Sons notwithstanding) that you're sure to appreciate. I'm still on the fence, but its a fence built by two of the best directors working today, so either side is bound to be a bit enjoyable. For what its worth anyway.