Friday, April 29, 2011

FAST FIVE Full Speed Ahead?


- Ah, the great circle of life. A little movie called FAST & FURIOUS is made, and it's a surprise smash - so much so that its two stars price themselves out of the eventual sequels. And yet the sequels are made, even as careers ebb and flow ... and suddenly, here we are, ten years, four sequels later, and once again the gang is back together again. Vin Diesel is back. Paul Walker is back. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is here for the first time, though he's back doing action and playing the badass after being stuck in kiddie-comedy limbo for years. And now, suddenly, Fast & Furious, through sheer stubborn persistence, has become a certifiable *franchise*, complete with overly-confusing backstory, a huge cast of recurring characters, and a shift in focus from the first movie's underground drag-racing premise to a broader action movie feel, befitting a series that has now staked its claim as an early-summer tentpole blockbuster. Personally, I lost interest in the Fast films after the decently-entertaining but not-quite-awesome first movie. But okay, here we are - FIVE films in - I guess it's time to give this summer staple another chance. Afterall - this one's got Vin Diesel vs. The Rock. That, if anything, is an action movie fan's dream match-up - a slobberknocker of potentially epic proportions. And you know what? On a purely visceral level, Fast Five delivers the goods. It's got at least two fairly-insane car-chases, at least one edge-of-your-seat shoot-out, and one Icon vs. Icon smackdown that is worthy of the the names Diesel and The Rock. Those moments alone, are, probably, worth the price of admission - if you're an action movie junkie. It's too bad then that the movie is weighted down by all this other "stuff." A plot that barely holds together, characters that are mostly generic and/or blank slates, and all the other elements of this "franchise" that were never all that great to begin with. You wish that, somehow, they could have just strip-mined the movie of all remnants of previous "Fast" films and just created an epic mano e mano showdown film - The Fugitive with much bigger muscles. Instead, we have some cool action scenes and some great fights stuck in the trappings of Fast & Furious 5. Unfortunately, I think that may be the biggest single roadblock in the way of this one achieving action-movie greatness.

Fast Five reunites key players from all the previous movies to form this franchise's version of Ocean's 11. The plot makes little sense, except to say that the team of fast-driving, hard-living cons assembled by Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are out to steal the vast fortune of a drug kingpin based in Rio - "one last job" so that they can all retire from being so fast and furious all the time and sip umbrella-drinks on the beach. Okay, that part mostly makes sense - but where things get fuzzy is when The Rock enters the picture as a special forces dude who leads some sort of team of American badasses (except that he recruits a local policewoman from Rio to be his right-hand-woman). The Rock and his bullet-proof-vest-clad squad - looking like characters from Gears of War brought to life - think that Diesel's crew wasinvolved in the death of some DEA agents or something, and so they're out to bring Diesel, Walker, and co. to justice (how they have jurisdiction in Rio, I'm not sure).

As can be expected, The Rock and Vin are at odds, fight, and then eventually join forces (after an admittedly-awesome, Predator-esque hand-clasp!) to take out the drug kingpin. Again, no real reason for this except that they have the proverbial "similar dudes on oppossite sides of the law" thing goin' on. But the two do have a great chemistry, and there is definitely that awesome-factor in seeing them go at it. It's not quite at the levels of, say, seeing Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger might have been back in the day, but there is some action-movie magic at work when they come to blows and exchange manly put-downs.

However, I do think the movie gets pretty incoherant at times. There's one instance where The Rock's team has Diesel and Walker and co. completely surrounded and outgunned. It looks pretty bleak for the crew. But then, hundreds of random Brazilian heavies surround The Rock's guys and pull out guns. Diesel walks up to the Rock and says something like "you forgot, this ain't America anymore ... this is ... Brazeeel!" WTF! So Diesel is some sort of populist hero now who commands a whole army of heavily-armed Brazilian thugs? That to me was one of those moments that exemplified how inherently brain-dead and nonsensical this movie could be. It's not just a wink-at-the-audience sort of cheesiness ... it's a by-the-numbers approach to storytelling, except one that often doesn't really even follow much internal logic. I know some people will just say "you're overthinking it - just turn off your brain." To that I say - screw you. I don't need every movie to be Inception, but even in a shoot-em-up action movie, I demand characters whose motivations make sense and make me care about them, and a plot that drives the action and gives us reason to care. In Fast Five, I was entertained by some of the cool action ... but did I ever really care about any of these characters? Would I have even flinched had any of them died? The script tries to throw a couple of bones to get you invested - Paul Walker's girlfriend (Jordana Brewster) is now pregnant, for example - but who is his character, really, other than a blank-faced cop-turned-criminal? As for the side characters, I know that some are fan-favorites from previous films, but here I found most to be grating and/or just plain forgettable. Tyrese plays the stereotypical alpha male who tricks out his car and says stuff like "aww hells no!" Ludacris plays a mechanic type who also says stuff like "aww hells no!" Elsa Pataky plays a tough-but-hot former Mossad agent (apparently this is the new action-movie archtype staple - see also: Predators). Sung Kang has a lot of charisma as Tokyo-drifter Han, but isn't given too much to do except crush on the Mossad agent.

All that said, the characters are elevated thanks to the easy chemistry between the cast members. They all seem to be having a good time and enjoying driving fast and kicking ass, so it's easy to get caught up in the general enthusiasm and sense of fun. Walker is still somewhat of a black hole, but I've always been a big Vin Diesel fan - he is just such a unique guy, and is an easy action hero to root for even when his character here, Dom, is nothing too memorable. But let's be honest, "Dom" is basically an excuse to let Diesel be Diesel, in all his gravelly-voiced glory. And The Rock, man, I will say that, *finally* ... The Rock ... has come back ... to action movies. This is the kind of stuff that the man should have been doing all along - kicking ass, taking names, laying the smacketh down on candy asses. The Rock is super entertaining in this one - over the top, but in an awesome way. Much like his WWE persona, The Rock looks ready to whoop ass at any moment - twitching, sweating, chomping at the bit to stick his boot up someone's rectum. Suffice it to say: more badass action movies, please, Rocky.

Fast Five is also greatly served by, as alluded to earlier, the very capable action direction of Justin Lin. As you can probably tell from the trailers, there are some eye-popping, heart-racing action scenes in the film. The third-act car chase, in particular - a physics-defying set piece that involves an armada of vehicles, a giant bank vault, and guns blazing through Rio is truly something to behold.

There are definitely some cool elements to Fast Five - badass action and larger-than-life action heroes going at it. But beyond that, I just don't see anything all that special about this particular franchise. Don't particularly care about these characters, and nothing about the plot really compels me to watch their further adventures (even the cheesy, soap-opera-esque post-credits cliffhanger). In fact, as the franchise moves away from car-racing and towards more generic action, you have to wonder what the Fast movies actually do bring to the table. Fast Five sort of hints at the fact that, in the name of becoming more like other action movies, the producers decided to simply, well, borrow from other action movies, games, etc. A little Uncharted here, a little Point Break there, with a heavy dash of Ocean's 11 on the side. As is, the generic nature of the film sort of adds to the feeling that this, well ... this is simply a quick appetizer for the bigger, more ambitious, meatier summer blockbusters yet to come.

My Grade: B

Monday, April 25, 2011

"A garage band / from Seattle, Yeah It Sure Beats / Raising Cattle!" LIVE from SEATTLE!

- This post comes live, to you - my loyal readers - from SEATTLE, WA. Yes, due to some work-related business travel, I'm in Seattle - for the first time ever - for a very short visit. More on that in a moment ...

But first ... when I began writing this post, I was counting down to that glorious, post-Passover moment where I would once again be able to eat bread and bread-related food. As we all know, bread is amazing, and to go without it for eight days is tough for a heavy bread-eater like myself. I mean, Passover in general just seems like more and more of a sadistic holiday to me each year. There's just so little to eat. You can eat salad. You can eat meat. But what's a salad without a good crouton? What's meat without bread - as a side item or as a means of creating a sandwich? I mean let's face it, we eat the average grilled chicken sandwich less so for the chicken and more so for the sandwich part. It's the roll that makes it a comfort food, a solid lunch, a filling plate. To that end, what's mystified me about Passover in modern times is that Passover food culture revolves so much around desserts and other junk food. Go to your average grocery store, and the typically-meager Passover food section consists largely of chocolates, potato chips, and other crap. Last I checked, chocolate is not bread, and yet us Jews have decided to create a cottage industry around SPECIAL chocolate and SPECIAL potato chips that are, indeed, kosher for Passover. Because having special chocolate and special chips for Passover is more important than having BASIC FOOD BY WHICH TO SURVIVE. I know that we Jews will often adhere to a principle of "fence-building", in which the letter of a law is taken to such extremes that the spirit of the law is often lost. By which I mean, Passover is supposed to entail doing without leavened bread for eight days in remembrance of the Jews' flight from Egypt. And yet, modern day observant Jews are going out and buying special, Kosher for Passover tomato sauce. Tomato sauce! What does that have to do with bread? I'm sure there is some technical reason why your average marinara is considered unfit for Passover consumption, but really - is this something that we need to be worrying about? IN ANY CASE ... as much as I can be weary of the absurdities of Passover, I also do still feel fulfilled after going eight days without my primary form of nutrition, aka bread. And it makes that first bite of post-passover chametz that much sweeter. It's something I look forward to every year - a momentous event worthy of celebration at the likes of The Olive Garden or CPK (aka bread-central).

This year, I found myself celebrating in Seattle.

So yeah, back to Seattle. I'm here for a quick trip for work, but due to me arriving here a bit early, I had a couple of hours this afternoon to do a whirlwind tour of the city. Before I even got to Seattle though, I had a sort-of-cool thing happen on my plane ride from Burbank. The guy sitting behind me turned out to be former NFL Superbowl champion (on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, no less) Norm Evans. I knew this because sitting next to him was some young college football player, and the two of them got to talking, with Evans telling stories about his playing days and such, Pretty cool. When the flight landed, Evans even called up his old teammate Jim Reilly to bestow some additional words of wisdom on the college kid. I'm not a big enough NFL fan to fully appreciate all this, but still, pretty sweet!

Anyways, I got to Seattle and - with the skies oddly sunny and the weather pleasant - I set out to see the sights. I boarded a bus and somehow found my way to the Space Needle, which is actually located next to a pretty breathtaking park with one of the most impressive water fountains I've seen. The less breathtaking part of the area is Key Arena, which I believe is the former home of the Seattle SuperSonics. Walking by the arena, it sort of looked like a ghost town, which was a shame given that it's located in such a cool hub of parks and attractions. Actually, the whole area was oddly quiet and serene. Yes it was a Tuesday afternoon, but still. I guess not everywhere is like LA where things don't quiet down for a second. In any case, I went to the top of the Space Needle and saw some very impressive views of the city. After that, I hit up the nearby EMP Museum of Music, Science Fiction, and Pop Culture. Yep, it's completely random, but somehow it works. The museum's main attractions are its rotating exhibits, and right now they're featuring a well-publicized tribute to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. It was a great little exhibit, with all sorts of stuff including Kurt's drawings, letters, clothes, and instruments. A giant video wall displayed hi-rez photos of the band as their music blared. It was a bit surreal to see such recent (and still ongoing, in a sense) history displayed in this setting and with this level of reverence, but hey, where else is their a museum exhibit dedicated to Nirvana? It's crazy, too, because you walk through the nearby park area and as kids play and families stroll, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and other 90's grunge music is just blasting from the museum. It was during this odd confluence of events that I realized that, indeed - Seattle is pretty awesome. As far as the sci-fi part of the museum, the main exhibit at the moment is Battlestar Galactica-centric. I got a kick out of the props from the show, but if you are a diehard BSG fan you will probably be in seventh heaven. Interestingly, a huge area dedicated to James Cameron's AVATAR is currently under construction for a summer opening - that should be pretty interesting.

After the museum, I boarded Seattle's MONORAIL (another reason why Seattle is great - it has a monorail!) and after a quick ride was back towards the center of the city. I wandered around until I finally found the Pike Place Market area - a huge market on the water. There were many vendors selling fish, fruit, and all manner of other food, and behind them was an indoor area with all sorts of eclectic shops, including one of the cooler comic book stores I've ever been in, called Golden Age Collectibles (just looked at their website, and apparently it's America's oldest comic shop? if so ... very nice). After a bit of exploring, I met with my work colleagues and we grabbed dinner at a spot that caught my eye near the market - Pike Place Brewery. As soon as I saw that their menu featured a section listing the variations of their "famous pizza," I was sold. Because the sun was going down and it was time for some sweet, sweet, bread.

I like Seattle from what I've seen. You get that sort of intellectual / artistic vibe from the city that you see in places like Boston, although there is also the laid-back, carefree sort of feeling that is more of a West Coast thing.

But hey, I've got a long day ahead of me tomorrow, so that's all for now. From the land of grunge and Starbucks, I hereby say goodnight.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On GAME OF THRONES - Epic Fantasy, Gender Politics, and Geek Girls

GAME OF THRONES Pilot Thoughts:

- First of all -- how awesome is it that GAME OF THRONES is a TV show? Several years ago, fantasy TV was limited to syndicated fare like Hercules and Xena - fun shows, sure, but not high-quality, high-drama productions on this scope or scale. Now, the TV landscape has changed, and high-concept is all the rage. Vampires, zombies, superheroes, and sci-fi are where it's at and where the money is - so in a way, a huge, epic, TV fantasy series was the next logical leap. But to think that one of fantasy literature's most revered series is getting the prestige treatment on HBO ... it's still one of those geek pipe dreams that seems almost too good to be true.

Now, I grew up totally into fantasy fiction. As a kid I read all of the Narnia books, Prydain, The Dark Is Rising, Sword of Shannara, and of course Lord of the Rings. Eventually, I sort of fell out of that whole world, but I always loved the genre and loved stories that evoked that kind of sense of adventure and world-building. I've never read George RR Martin's books on which the new show is based, but nonetheless, I was primed and ready to see some epic fantasy on TV (er, HBO).

And my thoughts on GAME OF THRONES are this: clearly, this one has the potential to be one hell of a badass series. All of the ingredients are there - huge production value (this is, already, simply one of the best-looking TV shows ever), a well-chosen and supremely talented cast, and a sprawling story of mystery and intrigue that promises to deliver action, adventure, romance, and surprises (well, at least for those of us who haven't read the books).

What was interesting about the pilot though is the fact that there was a very minimal amount of hand-holding. We were quite simply thrust right into the middle of this fantasy world, quickly introduced to a huge cast of dozens of key characters spread out across multiple vast kingdoms. As my brother and I watched the show, we repeatedly had to pause just to get our bearings, to try to figure out who was related to who, etc. After I was done viewing the episode, I quickly scoured the internets for more information. I didn't want to spoil anything, but I also wanted to get the lay of the land and make sure I had all the characters straight. I'll admit, I felt disoriented a lot while watching the pilot episode. But as time has passed, I have a greater appreciation for how much the pilot immersed us in this world. Now that I'm a bit more caught up on some of the nuances and details, I can't wait to dive back in. I remarked to some friends that Game of Thrones is going to take a few episodes to really fire on all cylinders from a narrative perspective. There is just SO MUCH setup here - so many characters, so much mythology and backstory - that it's going to take a long time to sort of shoehorn all of the essential background info into those first few episodes. Eventually, we'll get to the point where plot twists and revelations can be delivered in a more natural way. I look at Season 1 of the similarly sprawling BOARDWALK EMPIRE as an example. That show started out as being so dense that it was hard to follow. But eventually, the focus shifted squarely to the characters, and it became much more enjoyable in its latter half. With THRONES, I do worry though that we don't have that one central throughline character. In the pilot, we latch on to Sean Been simply because he's a recognizable actor, but we didn't necessarily get the sense that this would be HIS story, per se. It will definitely be interesting to see to what extent Game of Thrones narrows its bench, so to speak. Will each episode glide back and forth between a huge cast, or will the show begin to increasingly focus on a select few key players? It's hard to get too into the specifics of the episode, because this show is clearly going to be so serialized and sprawling that it's really going to take some time before individual plotlines and characters can be commented on with much in the way of in-depth analysis.

In any case, the pilot worked so well if only because this was something completely new and different. High fantasy on TV with plenty of sex and violence to go around. When have we seen something like this before? Basically, never. From the cold open on - as soon as we saw some poor saps get gruesomely beheaded by zombie-like beasts - we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore. From then on, the slick opening credits sequence promised us a story - an on-screen world - as rich and as vast as anything we've seen since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. And that same feeling of grim grandeur was evoked as we met Sean Been's Eddard Stark and his semi-dysfunctional family. Soon afterwards, however, the show introduced us to the sultry Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, and it was again clear that we were in HBO-land, where clearly, there would be no skimping on the sex and nudity. Did any of that detract from the story? Well, there was a lot of it - almost to the point of excess. But for now, it helped establish the show as being a far cry from the chaste fairytale worlds of Tolkien. This was grim n' gritty fantasy - a veritable Frank Frazetta painting brought to life.

On that note, however, I think it's interesting to look at the controversy that's erupted over some of the criticisms of GAME OF THRONES. Most notably, NY Times reviewer Ginia Bellafonte found herself overwhelmed with fan response when she dismissed the show as being male fantasy for boys, with no appeal to anyone beyond the core of basement-dwelling, Dungeons & Dragons-playing fanboys. Bellafonte's review, ironically, was published mere days after MSNBC / The Today Show ran a piece examining the large female fanbase that was in large part responsible for all the early buzz around the Game of Thrones TV show. Bellafonte claimed she knew of no women who read this sort of fantasy fiction, and that she couldn't imagine that any self-respecting woman would enjoy this TV show. And yet ... the response to her seemingly lazy and overly-generalized critique was huge, with all sorts of geek-girl bloggers and journalists writing impassioned rebuttals, expressing their love of sci-fi and fantasy and of the writing of George Martin. Rarely has the culture gap between chic-geeks and out-of-touch, stuffy, cultural elitists been more pronounced or more out-in-the-open.

I love it. Because look, everyone knows that a lot of these fantasy and sci-fi concepts originated as male-driven escapism. But that's changed, in large part to passionate and open-minded women readers and viewers who love works that challenge their imagination and make them think - works that don't fall into the typical female-targeted genres. Women have latched onto the strong female characters in sci-fi and fantasy works and have in turn created their own new stories and characters. There are prominent female genre-TV writers like Jane Espensen, prominent female comic book writers like Gail Simone, and a whole legion of fangirls who are just as vocal and passionate about things like Dr. Who and Star Wars and Mass Effect as their male counterparts. You see it everywhere - so for Ginia Bellafonte to come out and write, seemingly in a vacuum, that Game of Thrones is just for men (and dismiss it mostly for that reason), comes off as more than a little ridiculous.

And it's too bad that Bellafonte failed to acknowledge the growing influence of geek-girls. Because as a guy, I am man enough to admit that WOMEN have made geeky stuff BETTER. Look, sometimes as a guy I want to watch a total guy movie - with a kickass hero, well, kicking ass and being the alpha male. Sometimes I want to play a videogame that's just me playing a one-man wrecking-crew sort of character (think Kratos from God of War) and just causing wanton destruction. Those sorts of movies and games appeal to the id in my male brain. But let's face it, genre stuff can be better - deeper, smarter, meatier - when it's got strong female characters, three-dimensional female characters, heart, soul, romance, emotion. In games, we've gone from the stock storyline of "save the princess" to a world where many games feature kickass female characters that empower women as well as men. On shows like Buffy, Veronica Mars, Battlestar, and Lost, we saw female characters who were as badass as their male counterparts. And that made for better stories. I'm not saying that every genre story needs to center around a feisty femme fatale or be all about "girl-power." But why can't Bellafonte understand: when you've got something like Game of Thrones, which features a sprawling ensemble, filled with intriguing male AND female characters -- why *wouldn't* that appeal to guys and girls alike? If Bellafonte is saying that only men can appreciate stories set in fantasy worlds or with high concepts, then to me, that is just plain insulting to women. And the fact is, in the last several years I've encountered more and more women who are very open about their status as bonafide "geek girls" - who positively love genre fiction across multiple mediums (comics and games often included). And as many have attested, I have to say that the vast majority of people who've recommended George Martin's books to me have *been* women.

To finish my point though, I think there's a place for stories that aim squarely at us guy's most guy-centric sensibilities, and room for stories that do the same for women. But let's face it, that is often the easy / lazy way to tell a story, and doing so can lead to fun movies or TV shows (TNT built a whole brand of "movies for guys who like movies", afterall - and hey, I LOVED most of the movies they used to show as part of that block). But ... this way of thinking can also very easily lead to crap. On one end of the spectrum you have lame stuff that's supposed to appeal to guys (the majority of Spike TV programming), and lame stuff that's meant to appeal to girls (groan ... Twilight). But when content - specifically genre content - has a little something for everyone - often that's a potent mix that can lead to great storytelling and memorable characters. GAME OF THRONES seems to have that mix of elements, that strong ensemble of characters that will grow and evolve - with no real weak links among them. To me, this is great - bring it on, says I.

So combustible gender politics aside ... I am very intrigued by Game of Thrones. All the potential is there for this to be an epic series the likes of which we haven't yet seen on television. I am concerned about the sheer amount of info that is going to end up being packed into each episode, but I am very curious to see if the show will find its rhythm in the next couple of weeks. The pilot offered a tantalizing if somewhat confusing first glimpse into this crazy world. Now the show needs to smooth out the rough edges a bit and just tell an awesome story. For now, I will definitely be watching.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Getting Melodramatic With MILDRED PIERCE

TV Miniseries Review: MILDRED PIERCE

- Why did I watch MILDRED PIERCE? When I first heard about the prestige HBO miniseries, I didn't have much interest. It seemed like one of those stuffy PBS things that wins a bunch of Emmys but is inevitably boring as all hell. But as I read more about Mildred, I realized that this wasn't your average historical melodrama. Somehow, it had eluded me until now that Mildred Pierce was a book written by the great James M. Cain - the pulp fiction icon who wrote, among other things, "The Postman Always Rings Twice." My interest was now piqued. Later, I read an extended review written by Stephen King, in which the famed master of horror raved about the series, and compared it favorably to the original movie adaptation from way back when. Now, it was clear that Mildred was something worth checking out.

And now that I've seen all five chapters and six hours of Mildred Pierce, I can say that I'm glad I went along for the ride. This was an exquisitely-made, high-class piece of television - but it was also far from a stuffy period piece. Sure, the series begins as a character study steeped in period detail - the story of an independent woman struggling to make something of herself in 1930's Los Angeles. But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly melodramatic, unhinged, and twisted. Its tragic twists of fate, morally dubious characters, and circular plotting give Mildred Pierce - when all is said and done - the undeniable tinge of film noir. This is no fluffy costume drama - there's some serious darkness at the heart of this story.

Mildred Pierce's title character (played with amazing range by Kate Winslet) is a woman of grit and determination and ambition, at a time when most women in America lived a domesticated and socially-inhibited lifestyle. When we first meet Mildred, she is a housewife - playing second fiddle to her distant husband, increasingly frustrated with a life that's seen her forsake personal goals for the sake of tending to her family, including her two young daughters. However, Mildred suddenly finds herself forced to fend for herself when her husband leaves her for another woman. Forced to figure out a means of supporting her and her daughters, Mildred has to put aside her status as an upper class woman and humbly find any work that she can get - especially difficult in the midst of the Great Depression. Eventually, Mildred stumbles upon her Big Idea - to start up a restaurant that builds off of her success as an amateur piemaker and cook. As MILDRED PIERCE progresses, Mildred experiences greater and greater success, but continually makes moral and personal mistakes that make you wonder when the other shoe will drop. Mildred's determination and strength of will help her to overcome a lot of things and to become a true entrepaneur at a time when not many women were able to do so. You've got to root for her - the woman's got spunk. And yet, she also has poor judgement - she doesn't properly parent her bratty children, she takes up with Monty Beragon - a pompous leech of a guy who mooches off her money, and uses a fair number of people as stepping stones to achieve her own success. As time goes on, a lot of these mistakes come back to bite her. In particular, Mildred's older daughter Veda becomes her mother's biggest source of drama and antagonism. From the start, Veda is bratty and obnoxious and has a sense of entitlement that's creepy given her youth. But as time goes on, Veda becomes manipulative, deceitful, and just plain evil. And man, do things ever get dark and disturbing in terms of the love-hate mother/daughter relationship that develops.

Mildred Pierce features some very elegant and cinematic direction from Todd Haynes. At times he simply basks in the period detail of 1930's LA. Other times he creates a foreboding atmosphere of tension and dread. But throughout, he keeps the pacing methodical, slowly building and building until, in those last couple of hours, things just blow up and everything goes nuts. Yes, there were times when the miniseries got a bit slow ... but what kept me invested was the incredibly strong performances. Kate Winslet is fantastic as Mildred, and no doubt she will rack up many an award for her multifaceted portrayal of such a complex, hard-to-pin-down woman. What's interesting is how 2011 Mildred feels - and yet it's interesting to think of her having these modern sorts of attitudes - about ambition, status, sex, gender etc. - during a much more repressed and rigid time. Guy Pierce is also superb as Monty - he just comes off as such a prick, it's easy to hate him - but the fact that Mildred falls for him, despite the character's douchiness, helps us to realize just how misguided she can be. Plus, there is definitely some pretty crazy chemistry between Winslet and Pierce. Monty and Mildred have a pretty messed-up relationship, but you can see that Mildred has a side of her that thrives off of the sheer physcial attraction that Monty feels for her. Also, in the final two chapters, Evan Rachel Wood comes in and steals the show. As the 20-year-old version of Veda, Wood takes the character's earlier incarnation as a bratty kid and cranks the dial to eleven - she's gone from bratty to flat-out psycho-bitch. Wood plays things over-the-top and melodramatic, but it fits with the series' escalating sense of tragedy and desperation in its closing couple of hours. The cast is rounded out by a number of excellent supporting players - from Melissa Leo as Mildred's close friend to Hope Davis as a snooty aristocrat.

As a guy who wouldn't normally count something like this as must-see TV, I have to say that I got sucked into Mildred Pierce because it did have that element of darkness and the turning of the screw that I love in pulp fiction and film noir. I like that what starts out as a straightforward-seeming story about an enterprising, ahead-of-her-time woman morphs into this crazy-ass tragedy that goes to dark and disturbing places. Film noir often deals with the theme of the best-laid plans going to hell in a handbasket, thanks to various cruel twists of fate. Mildred Pierce is no different. When the miniseries ends, and Mildred has come full circle - three steps forward, two steps back - well, it's a pretty haunting story when all is said and done.

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why YOUR HIGHNESS is Truly Epic Comedy


- In comedy, greatness is highly subjective. One man's masterpiece is another man's trash. What is hilarious to some may fall completely flat to others. What some dismiss as dumb may be, to others - to a certain audience that "gets it" - be praised as flat-out genius. And you know what, to me, there is a certain undeniable genius to YOUR HIGHNESS. I take issue with those who simply write it off, because I don't think they've really thought much about what Your Highness is, what it's trying to achieve, or how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do. The fact is, comedy is indeed subjective, but we all have our own comedy absolutes. Certain people, to me, are just plain funny. Tracy Morgan reciting Tracy Jordan lines on 30 Rock. Norm McDonald telling an aimless anecdote in perfect deadpan. Conan O'Brien acting like a self-depricating nerd. These are absolute truths of my personal comedy world, these are things that plain and simply float my boat. One recent addition to my personal pantheon: Danny McBride acting like a pompous jackass. I can't get enough of it. Whether it's in The Foot Fist Way, on the brilliantly hilarious HBO series Eastbound & Down, or here in Your Highness. This isn't to say that Danny McBride is always and absolutely funny. When he's miscast, or given crappy dialogue, or not utilized properly, then that's one thing. But if a movie comes along that lets Danny McBride do what he does best, then I am 100% in. I crack up at his line delivery. I get a kick out of his schtick - false bravado and pumped-up self-esteem thinly masking his inner insecurities. I get that at some point, McBride's riffs on the Kenny Powers persona might get old. But they haven't yet. And man, take Danny McBride, and pair him with frequent collaborators like writer Ben Best and director David Gordon Green, and you've got comedic lightning in a bottle. These guys get it. They are funny. I don't know quite how to explain it, and I know that not everyone gets it. But look, they had me at "Danny McBride and James Franco in a vulgar parody of 80's fantasy flicks." That to me is inherently hilarious. It just is. It's not at all "stupid." Vulgarity can be brilliant. And it's the little things that make it so. The wordplay, the timing, the exact formula of absurdity and self-awareness. The level of commitment from the actors. It's an alchemy that you have to get just right in order for hilarity to ensue. And that's why - critics be damned -if you're of a certain sensibility, if you love Danny McBride's brand of humor, and have an affinity for cheesy fantasy flicks (basically if you're a male born between 1970 and 1990), then you will probably love YOUR HIGHNESS.

Personally, I don't get what's not to like about the charming, funny, and gleefully filthy your Highness. I see it as a raunchy satire in the old Mel Brooks or Zucker Bros. tradition - absurd, silly, and self-referential. To that end, what made movies like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men In Tights and The Naked Gun work so well is that Brooks and the Zuckers clearly had a love and appreciation for the material they were satirizing. With YOUR HIGHNESS, there's a similar affection that's evident in every scene. The movie gamely riffs on all the beloved and not-so-beloved fantasy films from the genre's heyday in the 80's - movies like Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Krull, Legend, Beastmaster, The Princess Bride, and many more. You get everything from specific shots, to lines of dialogue, to character archtypes that will be instantly recognizable to genre fans. And the movie looks legitimately good too. There are big action set pieces, huge, crazy monsters (though some are a bit more ... anatomically correct than what we're used to in fantasy films), and sprawling, detailed sets. If you took away all the jokes, Your Highness could be a legit fantasy film, and that is pretty cool. In Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green framed the stoner comedy with some big action scenes and over-the-top violence, and he does the same here - meaning that even aside from the comedy, the movie finds multiple ways to entertain.

Meanwhile, the cast does a great job of playing it straight when called upon, of walking that fine line between taking everything completely seriously and winking at the audience that they're in on the joke. The biggest winker, so to speak, is clearly McBride, who is the total fish out of water. As Thadeous, the younger, fatter, and lazier of the King of Morn's two sons, McBride sort of transplants the Kenny Powers persona to a fantasy world - a place that is like some 13 year old boy's notebook doodle come to life. But, I think a big part of the joke here is that McBride only half-heartedly tries to hide his Kenny Powers mannerisms beneath a barely-there British accent and fluffier-than-usual mullet cut. Again, THIS IS PART OF THE JOKE. To the haters, I ask you - did you want McBride doing a full British accent and acting nothing like his usual persona? Would that have been funnier for this particular movie? No, says I. That's the joke, and it's a pretty hilarious one. It means that McBride gets to utter an unending supply of hilariously filthy lines in his goofy quasi-British accent. It means that we get to have fun watching a modern sort of dude who wants to get laid and get high inserted into the typically serious trappings of high fantasy.

As mentioned though, McBride gets to wink the most at the audience, even as the rest of the cast does a great job of completely committing to their characters. That's what's great about Your Highness - McBride "knows" he's in a goofy comedy. Most of the other characters think they're in a drama, to various degrees. I mean, James Franco, as Thadeous' dashingly heroic brother Fabious, says his lines with such mock-serious sincerity that you keep waiting for him to burst out laughing. And that is part of the fun. On the other end of the spectrum, Natalie Portman is the total straight-woman as Isabel, a bow-wielding warrior who joins up with the brothers on their quest. Somewhere in the middle is the scene-stealing Justin Theroux as Leezar, the evil wizard who kidnaps Fabious' bride-to-be so he can use her to fulfill a dark prophecy. Theroux relishes playing the over-the-top villain, to the point where his truly evil, menacing lines are delivered with the same sinister inflection as his absurdly hilarious ones. Rasmus Hardiker is also great as Thadeous' subserviant page-boy Courtney - and he is basically the king of goofy reaction shots throughout the movie. Meanwhile, Damian Lewis also gets maximum laughs by playing everything completely straight. The fact that he plays a legitimately badass knight makes some of the crazy dialogue he utters that much funnier. Finally, Zooey Deschanel is very game as Fabious' virginal love Belladonna. She even sings a bit in a great duet scene with Franco.

Does every joke in Your Highness hit its target? No, of course not. But the movie is so filled with laugh-out-loud moments, memorable gags, and inspired dialogue (that will surely be quoted by comedy geeks for many moons), that it's hard to criticize too much of what doesn't work. I do think the movie gets a little jumpy at times, and you can tell that there was a lot of trimming and editing applied to this cut of the film in the interest of keeping the running time down. I can't wait to see a longer, director's cut, which would hopefully include some added screen time for certain characters and a bit more fleshing-out of a couple of key subplots.

Who knows, maybe YOUR HIGHNESS only truly appeals to a certain segment of comedy fan. But I also think there's a tendency lately from critics to shoot down modern comedies simply because they don't come from the Apatow school of quasi-realistic, dialogue-driven character studies. There is of course a place for those sorts of movies, but at the same time, the comedy I grew up with was stuff like Spaceballs and Hot Shots and The Naked Gun and Robin Hood: Men In Tights. I love the big, broad, unabashedly silly school of comedy, and we don't get a lot of those types of films these days. But for whatever reason, critics now bash the genre wholesale (witness the undeserved bashing that the very-funny MacGruber got last year), with only a few sacred cows (ie the early films of Mel Brooks and the Zuckers) getting any real love in the comedy cannon. I'm not saying that Your Highness is, right now, a classic on par with Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. But what I am saying is that it's a mostly pitch-perfect comedy that, in my mind, was absolutely hilarious from start to finish. And really, what more do you want from a movie like this? I say go see this one right now - support guys like David Gordon Green who are putting their talent into original, bold comedy. We've got plenty of by-the-book big screen comedies about guys with relationship issues or whatever. Now we've got a crazy-ass, big-budget, R-Rated comedy epic where Danny McBride and James Franco and Natalie Portman fight dragons and minotaurs and exchange some of the most hilariously perverse dialogue to hit theaters in ages. Now that, *that* is a movie that I as a comedy fan can get behind.

My Grade: A-

Monday, April 11, 2011

HANNA: Teen Angst Turns Deadly

- Hanna has a lot going for it, and in many ways it's a real breath of fresh air at the movies. Over the last several years, we've seen an ever-widening gap between the huge mega-blockbusters that the big studios put out and the small, ultra-low-budget indie flicks that clutter the arthouse cinemas. It's the rare movie these days that combines the thrills and high-concept action of the average blockbuster with the experimentation, pacing, and stylization of the indies. But here is Hanna - a balls-out, breakneck action movie that also has a unique, quasi-artsy, Euro flair. Hanna doesn't 100% succeed at everything it tries, but give it credit - it tries. From the first, stunningly-shot moments of this movie, you know you're in for something a little different, a little more cerebral, a little more experimental than the usual high-gloss Hollywood action flick.

Hanna is a tale of innocence lost, with a pace, theme, sensibility, and visual style that reminded me a lot of Luc Besson movie's like La Femme Nikita and Leon The Professional. When we first meet Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) , she is living in the middle of nowhere with her ex-CIA father, Erik (Eric Bana). In the snow-covered wilderness, Erik has kept the now-teenaged Hanna isolated from society for her entire life. He alone has taught her and trained her how to survive. He's taught her to read and write and speak several languages - but also how to fight, how to hunt, how to kill. Erik is training his daughter for the inevitable day when the government comes after her (for reasons that remain a mystery for the early part of the film). He has, it appears, trained Hanna to be a nearly superhuman warrior.

Hanna grabs you right from the get-go, and the movie is particularly hypnotic in those early scenes, where you're not quite sure what the hell is going on. We are captivated by Ronan and Bana - who are these people? How long have they lived alone like this? To what end is Bana training this slight girl to be a trained fighter and killer?

The movie only gains more steam when the day finally comes where Hanna turns on a tracking signal that alerts the government to she and her father's location. At this point, we still don't really know their plan, or why the government is after them. All we can do as an audience is sit back and marvel at the stunningly shot action and chase scenes from director Joe Wright. As heavily-armed black-ops units descend on Erik and Hanna's remote hut, we get our first full taste of Hanna's Batman-like ability to kick ass. Soon afterwards, as a captured Hanna is carted off to a highly-guarded and secret government facility, the movie takes on a sleek, semi-trippy-60's spy-movie vibe. A dash of Nikita, a bit of The Prisoner thrown in for good measure. It is here that we meet Marissa (Cate Blanchett), the icy agent who's made finding Hanna and Erik her personal mission (for reasons yet to be revealed). There is a sequence where Hanna attempts to escape the facility that is pure action-movie bliss - warped camera angles, nonstop action, pulsating music from The Chemical Brothers, and a driving intensity that made me sit up in my chair. Wow, now *this* was something new - something positively badass.

Unfortunately, HANNA never again reaches the heights of those early sequences. As the movie goes on, it seems to lose a fair amount of momentum. Hanna stows away with an amusingly liberal British family and befriends their bratty-but-well-meaning teenage daughter. She dodges an effeminate German hitman and his goons - hired by Marissa to find and capture this clearly special girl. And, as the movie sprints towards its endgame, we get several exposition-heavy scenes that lay out Hanna's all-too-familiar origins - giving her a semi-intriguing backstory that nonetheless will have a been-there, done-that feel for those of us who've seen our share of action movies. The fact is, HANNA works best when its weird, trippy, and mysterious. Once it becomes more of a coming-of-age story in its second act, and a standard-issue action movie in its third act, it remains entertaining, but loses that aura of "whoa-what-the-hell-is-going-on" intrigue that gives it such a strong and memorable opening.

But man, what a lead performance from the aptly-named Ronan. Despite her small frame and cherubic features, you absolutely believe that she could be a cold-hearted super-assassin. This is certainly a landmark, breakthrough performance for her as an actress - she is totally captivating during every moment she's on-screen. Similarly, Eric Bana is just plain badass in this one - perhaps his best role since Munich. He doesn't get as much screentime in the second half of the film, but when he is front and center, he brings a driven, Christian Bale-like intensity to his scenes. He also gets in one particularly awesome subway-set action scene that is shot with kinetic flair by Wright. Blanchett is basically always great, but in this one I will say I found her character a little too much of a blank slate. She never really 100% worked as a villain - and her strange-sounding Southern accent didn't really do much for me either. Much better were the love-to-hate-'em German baddies who Blanchett sends after Hanna. Like a more serious version of the Nihilists from The Big Lebowski, these guys were scene-stealers through and through.

I guess my other main issue with HANNA is simply that it seems to be trying a little too hard to be artsy at times, to the point of being a bit of a distraction towards the end of the film. It's funny, I mentioned how the opening act of the movie has this great, weird, trippy vibe. Well, it's almost like Joe Wright makes this last-ditch effort to recapture that towards the movie's end, but stumbles trying to do so. A whacked-out couple of sequences set in an old, abandoned, fairy-tale-themed amusement park just feel like too much - too self-conciously trippy, a bit heavy on the symbolism of Hanna-as-fairy-tale-character-gone-wrong. I think some of the movie's main shortcomings probably lie in the script, which doesn't quite seem to know what to do with its plotline or characters. When HANNA's script serves as a loose spine for Joe Wright to dazzle us with his visuals - that's when it really pops. But the movie's big reveals and twists are ultimately pretty ho-hum, and you wonder if the movie might have benefitted from keeping things a bit closer to the vest.

Overall though, HANNA is a pretty badass little action movie that has a very unique style and sensibility. The movie is visually amazing - it looked spectacular on the big screen at the Arclight theater in Hollywood. And those visuals - when they're at their most mesmerizing and disorienting, and combined with that great Chemical Brothers soundtrack - really do grab you and suck you in to this strange world of teen-girl super-soldiers - of intrigue and cover-ups and mystery. Personally, whatever criticisms I have of HANNA, I'm excited to see a little movie like this make such a splash at the box office. This is the kind of movie that is the perfect alt-action-flick - an example of how to make a badass action-thriller without being cookie-cutter and generic.

My Grade: B+

Lights Out for LIGHTS OUT - FX's Knockout Drama Goes Down Fighting!

- Last week turned out to be a busy one, but one thing I wanted to make time to write about was last week's season/series finale of LIGHTS OUT. Because man, to me, it was one hell of a finale. To me, the show went out with a bang.

LIGHTS OUT was a show that was always going to be sort of a tough sell. Boxing is now so well-established in the movies that most people know what a "boxing movie" is. They know Rocky, they know Raging Bull, now they know The Fighter. But what ... is a boxing TV show? It was uncharted territory. Would the show spend so much time on boxing as to turn off the non-boxing fan? Would the show spend so much time on character drama so as to leave the boxing fan disinterested? Personally, I have minimal to no interest in actual boxing. But I love boxing as a storytelling device. It's the primal story of survival of the fittest. It sets up all kinds of questions about our society, about the Modern Man vs. the Primitive Man, about defining what it is to be a man in the modern era. Is boxing a worthy means of putting food on the table and providing for your family? Is it noble to fight even if you know that doing so could cause you irreversible mental and physical damage? And what about the high-stakes, high-profit-margin world of pro-boxing - with all of its seedy promoters, criminal connections, gambling, corruption, etc.? Can one maintain integrity while directly feeding into that world? Can a guy like Patrick "Lights" Leary still be a hero and a role model - can he still be a good person? - after all the moral compromises he's had to make to get back on top of the boxing world?

What I loved about Lights Out is that because the drama was able to play out over a full season of television, a lot of the questions and issues that a movie like Rocky glazes over were explored here in much more depth. Lights Out looked at the racial issues inherent in boxing. Lights was promoted as a great white hope, while his opponent and rival, "Death Row" Reynolds, was cast as the villain. But was Reynolds really a villain? Was Lights really a hero? To what extent did Lights' race color the way he was promoted and perceived? The race issue was just one area of the boxing world that Lights Out was able to examine. The show also looked at the ongoing health issues that boxers face, and showed many different sides of the coin. As the show went on, we got a look at Lights' pugilistic dementia - a worsening condition that would put him in serious jeopardy should he step back into the ring as planned. Lights' father, meanwhile, seemed to be doing okay for an old-timer, but we also saw how his life in the ring created a fractured family. Then there was Ed Romeo - a trainer who was so intense that boxing matches to him were truly life-and-death events. Later in the season, we were introduced to an aged ex-fighter who barely knew what day of the week it was, after suffering far too many blows to the head. He was a potential glimpse - a scary premonition - of what Lights himself could become. Finally, I loved that Lights Out would step back and look at the very nature of a guy like Lights. Here is someone who's persona is that of a good man, a hero, a people's champion. But at the same time, it is in his nature - the thing that he most enjoys doing is essentially beating the crap out of people. Are all boxers sadists? Does that make them immoral? Does it make them mentally unstable? Or is that just a part of human nature that boxers are in touch with, but that most of us are forced to repress? It's funny, because a movie like Rocky (well, particularly the more cartoonish sequels) gives its hero a larger cause to fight for - his country, his honor, his friends and family. But what about a guy like Lights - he is partially fighting to win back lost honor and dignity (his retirement fight with Death Row ended in a controversial loss five years' prior), but most of all, he is doing it for the money. He needs the money to support his family, sure, but again, I like that Lights Out isn't about a guy fighting to avenge his friend or to represent his country or whatever. It's about one man and his very personal, not-always-clear-cut choices. In that way, the show would at times remind me of BREAKING BAD. Both shows are about men who make very difficult, very morally questionable choices when their hand is forced by some unfortunate twists of fate. The protagonists of both series are motivated by pride, but also by a belief that they are ultimately doing what is right and what is best for themselves and their families. In Lights Out, Lights knew that to get a rematch with Reynolds, he'd have to do favors for shady promoters. He'd have to get in bed with criminals and schemers. He'd have to put his own health at risk. He'd have to lie to his family about some of his activities, and about his health issues. And that was where we were in the season finale - Lights on the verge of his big comeback fight, his rematch with Death Row. He was a man on the verge of in-ring redemption, but also a man on the verge of moral, physical, and spiritual collapse.

I thought that the finale of LIGHTS OUT was, in this way, a pretty brilliant exclamation point for the season and the series. The in-ring action was intense and brutal. Okay, maybe boxing purists will criticize the fight choreography, but to me as a non-boxing fan, it made sense from a storytelling perspective. Lights starts off the fight sluggish and rusty, and gets clobbered by Reynolds. But once the blood starts flowing, Lights gets loose and focused. And then, when the crooked ref threatens to end the fight due to a cut over Lights' eye - when his Pop tells him to finish off Reynolds and to finish him off now - well, that inner animal in Lights is unleashed. Again, maybe not realistic from a real-life boxing standpoint, but to me, Lights' berzerker rage getting unleashed was in keeping with the themes of the show. And it was, I think, a brilliant twist. Up until now, Lights was mostly cast as the heavy underdog. Any chance he had at winning would surely come via a Rocky-like comeback and show of sheer will. But then the show reminded us: Lights had that inner sadist, that inner monster. Even though he had been cast as the hero, he was a brute. And so suddenly, Lights was the scary one - brutally beating on Reynolds until he achieved a sudden, merciless K-O.

Again, maybe not the most realistic turn of events, but man was I on the edge of my seat during the duration of this ultra-intense, climactic showdown. This was gripping TV. And then came the aftermath. Because as happy as I was for Lights, you had to know that the other shoe would drop. You had to know that this wasn't over ... yet. And that final sequence, with a dazed Lights alone in the locker room, trying to gather himself, but staring glassy-eyed into a janitor's closet trying to get his bearings - the air completely left the room. He walks out, he sees his wife, Theresa, who tells him that everyone's been waiting for him - it's time for his post-match press conference. "Just tell me one thing," says Lights. "Did we win the fight?" And on that haunting note, Lights Out came to a close. Joy and victory marred by shocking yet seemingly inevitable tragedy. Lights knew that he wasn't supposed to take blows to the head. He knew the price. We as an audience knew this was coming. But we were so caught up in the fight, rooting for Lights to win, to have his big comeback, that we all but forgot about everything else. We were like the audience watching the fight on TV in the universe of the show - caught up in the narrative that had been presented to us, (momentarily) ignorant of the larger storyline at play.

I like that the show ended with a degree of ambiguity. We don't know how severe Lights' problems are. Maybe it was just a quick mental lapse. Maybe this is just the beginning of lifelong dementia and severe brain damage. Maybe Lights re-retires, collects his paycheck, takes care of himself and lives his life in relative peace and quiet. But maybe this is the beginning of the end - a classic comeback story turned tragic.

What a performance from Holt McCallany as Lights. Judging by the previous track record of stars of great-but-failed series at the Emmys, Holt will end up getting overlooked come TV awards season. But man, this was one of the best and most memorable leading-man performances on TV in a long while. In the current TV landscape, this was up there with Olyphant on Justified, Buscemi on Boardwalk Empire (I'll leave Bryan Cranston in his own category of greatness for Breaking Bad). But Holt made Lights both heroic and tragic - easy to root for but also a guy you occasionally want to scream at for being an idiot (like when he goes along with one of his screw-up brother's sure-to-backfire plans for the upteenth time). I also loved Stacy Keach in his role as Pops, Lights' tough-as-nails dad. This is the kind of role tailor-made for Keach, and he of course knocked it out of the park - one more great role in a great career of playing badasses. Reg E. Cathey was over-the-top and sinister as the Don King-like promoter Barry Word - a great turn from him, and a role that produced all sorts of memorable lines (in the finale, loved his plea to Lights and Death Row at their pre-match press conference - "save the rage for the stage, the mojo for the dojo!"). Bill Irwin was another vaguely sinister and highly manipulative presence as Hall Brennan, a rival promoter to Barry. And hey, I've got to give one more shout-out to Eamon Walker for his unbelievably awesome guest stint as Ed Romeo - the ultra-intense zen-master of boxing. The Romeo character lit a fire in Lights Out. After a few stagnant episodes, the Romeo arc brought the show roaring back to life, giving it extra momentum to propel it towards the finale.

LIGHTS OUT was a great boxing series, a great character-driven serialized drama, and something new and different on TV. A great cast, some great plotting ... I even loved the evocative, retro ra-ra theme-song that would, without fail, get me pumped up for each new episode. Sure, the show stumbled and stagnated at times, but when all was said and done, its 13 episodes told a pretty awesome, pretty epic story. I know that FX has had a couple of back-to-back ratings bombs in this and prior to that with the late, great Terriers. But I sincerely hope that these types of shows - smart, character-driven, unpredictable serial dramas - will continue to flourish.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Hacking Into the SOURCE CODE

- I can see how some people might have gotten the wrong impression about SOURCE CODE. The title is a little bland-feeling, the marketing campaign didn't quite make a huge impression, and in some ways, the movie looked, at first glance, like it might be a generic sort of sci-fi-tinged thriller. But film fans knew that Source Code had the potential to be something special. They knew that this was director Duncan Jones' followup film to MOON, and they knew that Moon is one of the best pure sci-fi movies to come out in recent years. That movie was innovative and surprising and was made on a shoestring budget - and it instantly made Jones (who also happens to be the son of the legendary David Bowie) into a name to watch. Well, Source Code marks Jones' sophomore effort, and it also marks his return to some of the same themes that colored his last movie. Like Moon, Source Code is intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi - but it also has a human center, mixing in humor, romance, and action with a killer premise that will have you buzzing as the credits roll. Source Code doesn't feel quite as fresh or ambitious as Moon, but it is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come along in a while. It's a movie that could have indeed been generic and unremarkable in the wrong hands - but luckily for us, Jones takes the basic premise and helps make it into something special.

Part of what makes Source Code work so well is its unique structure. The movie throws us right into the middle of the action - meaning that we start off just as disoriented and confused as our protagonist, Colter Stevens (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Colter finds himself on a train, sitting across from a woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who seems to know him. Somehow, Colter's conciousness is in another man's body. As Colter tries to make sense of this odd set of circumstances, his strange situation comes to a screeching halt when, eight minutes later, the train erupts in a fiery explosion. A bomb has gone off, destroying the train and killing most of its passengers. And it is at this moment that Colter "wakes up." Suddenly, he is in his own body, in a dark chamber, strapped to some sort of device. A video screen affixed to the wall flashes on, and a stoic military official, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) speaks to Colter. She gives him a series of trigger questions to help with his sense of disorientation. And, she instructs him that he is taking part in an experimental anti-terrorist procedure. The train bombing he had just experienced had actually happened earlier in the day. But thanks to utilization of "source code" - the residual memories that remain in the brain after death, memories of a person's last eight minutes of life, Colter's mind was able to relive one of the bombing victims' final eight minutes. And he would have to experience these same eight minutes over and over - as many times as needed until he can figure out who bombed the train and what their planned next target would be.

And therein lies the unique, puzzle-like nature of Source Code. In each eight-minute mindtrip, Colter has limited time to solve the mystery of the bombing. His one advantage is that each time he starts over again, he's armed wit hthe accumulated knowledge from his previous journeys. It's like playing a videogame level over and over until you've learned all of its ins and outs, all of its secrets - until you can ultimately defeat it. Now, this may sound like a recipe for a boring movie, but Duncan Jones and co. go to great lengths to make each eight-minute journey exciting. There is that real thrill of an ingeniusly clever puzzle slowly unravelling, of a mystery that's just within reach of being solved. Playing along with Colter as he gets closer and closer to figuring out what happened is, actually, a great deal of fun.

It also helps that Source Code has A LOT going on in addition to its central mystery. In fact, much like Moon, this movie delivers a couple of key twists as it goes that turn the entire premise on its head and make you reevaluate the entire film. And these twists are not really gimmicky - just very clever, and definitely game-changing. As we learn more about Colter and the truth behind his mission, the movie takes on a new sense of urgency, poignancy, and sci-fi craziness. But what I really respect about Source Code is that even as it ups the ante and delivers some killer twists, it maintains a sense of credibility and logic. I recently complained, for example, that The Adjustment Bureau went from sci-fi brain teaser to mystical fantasy all too quickly, and eventually gave up on all pretense of adhering to more grounded sci-fi logic. But Source Code is much more clever, even as it deals with similar themes of fate and identity and cosmic forks in the road.

I've seen Jake Gyllenhaal in some real crapfests lately (Prince of Persia, anyone?), but his role in Source Code is a return to the kinds of roles that first put him on the map. In fact, his wide-eyed sense of confusion and desperation - the fact that his character is confronted with huge ideas that are biger than he can fully comprehend ... it all reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko. To me, Gyllenhaal has always excelled at playing slightly unhinged characters who find themselves in weird circumstances, and this is therefore a perfect role for him. He does a great job in the film. The other standout for me was Vera Farmiga, who manages to do a lot with a somewhat limited role, as the officer forced to guide Colter through this risky and mysterious mission. Farmiga, who often appears only as a talking head, does a great job of conveying emotion and expressiveness with just the slightest grin or nod or bat of the eye. Essentially, she plays a character whose job forces her to be stoic - but thanks to Farmiga, we can tell that there is a lot going on beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Michelle Monaghan's main job is to establish an easygoing chemistry with Gyllenhaal, and at that she succeeds. The movie's climax would not work at all if we weren't invested in her character, and luckily, Monaghan makes the most of what she has to work with in the script. Jeffrey Wright is also in the mix as Farmiga's slightly sinister-seeming boss. I liked him, but thought he was perhaps a bit too over the top at times given the overall tone of the movie.

So what keeps Source Code from being great? It's tough, because I liked so much of the film, and was really impressed with everything from the slick, mood-setting direction to the excellent acting from the leads. I guess the movie loses points only because it seems like a couple of key aspects of the plot were a bit glossed-over in the interest of time and/or keeping things moving along at the standard Hollywood action-blockbuster pace. For one thing, the science of Source Code feels a little wonky at times. For a movie that's relatively rooted in reality, I would have appreciated a little more explanation of how all of this source code stuff actually works. I actually think a little more exposition about the movie's science would have given its ending revelations a bit more oomph. I guess watching a show like Fringe every week, and seeing the great John Noble routinely make crazy-ass sci-fi ideas sound plausible has spoiled me a bit. Would have liked to have seen Jeffrey Wright channel a little more Walter Bishop to help put over the underlying concepts of the film's premise. I mean, I actually do find some of the science-y concepts the movie deals with pretty fascinating, so I wish they could have gone into a little more depth in terms of exploring them. Secondly, some of the character stuff just feels a little rushed. Understandably, the film is trying to build a mystery, and so it can't reveal too much about its characters early on. But that means that Colter ends up as a bit too much of a blank slate. Even a couple of key extra details - why Coulter was best-suited for this mission, for example - might have gone a long way to give us some valuable insight into his character.

Overall though, Source Code is a movie that I think will surprise a lot of people with just how smart, intense, and thought-provoking it really is. So many big Hollywood thrillers feel dumbed-down - it's awesome to see a movie like this that has a cool, original idea at its core that actually makes you think. I was also impressed that Source Code managed to (without spoiling anything), have a nice sort of life-affirming message without getting overly cheesy or schmaltzy - certainly a difficult thing to pull off, but something that can be done when you stick to tight storytelling and solid characters. What's more, Source Code cements Duncan Jones as one of the most interesting up-and-coming directors around. He gives the movie a sense of intensity and forward-momentum that is really admirable, and yet still manages to have those moments of foreboding atmosphere and sci-fi wonder that made Moon so memorable. Source Code is a really cool sci-fi / action / mystery flick - one that I think deserves widespread support and acclaim.

My Grade: B+

Saturday, April 02, 2011

SUPER: Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page Wage War on Crime!

SUPER Review:

- It's always nice to see a movie with its own, unique point of view - it's own original sensibility. And while the average-schlub-as-superhero storyline has been done a lot recently (most notably in the KICK-ASS comic book and movie), it's never been done quite like it is here in Super. Sick, twisted, and just plain wrong, Super is at times hilarious and at times outright disturbing. This is a movie that lives in the same left-of-center subgenre of black comedy as movies like Observe & Report. Like that movie, Super tells the tale of a man who sees himself as a hero, but increasingly reveals himself to be mentally unbalanced and delusional, if not downright psychotic. Sure, Super is a darkly comic deconstruction of superheroes - the Eastbound & Down version of Watchmen. But it's also a strange, off-kilter exploitation/revenge flick - with the low-budget, anything goes sensibilities of an old-school Troma movie. And Troma, of course, is where Super's director James Gunn got his start. Is Super a great film? At the end of the day, I think the movie is a little too all-over-the-place to get to that most upper tier of awesome. But like I said - when a movie is this unique and this risky, you have to respect it. If nothing else, Super is a movie that a.) deserves your attention, and b.) you won't soon forget.

In SUPER, Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a sad-sack sort of guy who has a lot of Dwight Schrute's moral conviction, but little of his self-assurance. In his opening monologue, Frank details the two greatest moments in his life to date, and this basically tells you what you need to know about him. The first great moment was the day he married his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler). Frank is aware that he's batted way out of his league with Sarah, but what he doesn't quite get is just how fragile their marriage really is. While Frank is hopelessly devoted to his wife, Sarah seems to have married Frank as part of some sort of 12-step recovery program, deeming him to be a decent alternative to the seedy guys she usually goes for. But soon enough - and at the point where the movie kicks off - Sarah has fallen back into drugs and taken up with a shady drug-dealer named Jock (Kevin Bacon). When Jock coerces Sarah to leave Frank and join up with him and his criminal pals, it sends the mild-mannered Frank on a quest of unholy vengeance and righteous fury. And that, that brings us to the second greatest moment of Frank's life prior to this point ... the day that he managed (mostly through blind luck) to help a local cop nab an on-the-run criminal. Frank loved nothing more than seeing justice served, and so it stands to reason that his Randian sense of morality would drive him to far-out extremes once his quest for justice becomes personal. In a strange perversion of Batman's origin, Frank sees a sign that propels him forward on his mission. Because where Bruce Wayne saw a Bat - and was inspired to become a Batman and strike terror into the hearts of the cowardly and superstitious lot of criminals, Frank sees a cheesy late-night superhero serial, about a Jesus-powered costumed crusader called The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). It is here where the extreme, fundamentalist nature of Frank's quest comes into play. Frank doesn't set out to fight crime because of sheer strength of will. No, he truly feels as though it is God's will for him to don a pair of red tights and mask and call himself The Crimson Bolt. And this is where SUPER becomes a deconstruction not just of superheroes, but of all people who do insane things in the name of religion or God's will.

And so, like a geekier and more pathetic (but similarly brutal) version of Rorshach, Frank goes out patrolling so as to dish out his unique brand of vigilante justice (he wields a pipe-wrench and uses the catch-phrase "Shut Up, Crime!"). As he peruses comic books to find more inspiration for how to become a better hero, he befriends a seemingly perky and friendly comic shop clerk named Libby. Played by Ellen Page, it's soon clear that there's a lot more to Libby than originally meets the eye. Like Frank, there seems to be some serious, serious issues below her amiable exterior, and those issues bubble up to the surface once Libby convinces Frank to let her become his "kid sidekick," Bolty. Without spoiling anything, I will just say that Ellen Page deserves huge kudos for transforming Libby from bubbly geek-girl to the psycho-sadist-nympho that Bolty ultimately becomes. Suffice it to say, I will never look at Ms. Page quite the same again. For those who don't think she can play anything except for the sweet, smart, quirky girl ... well, prepare to be shocked.

Ellen Page is awesome in this one, but I also have to give it up to Rainn Wilson for turning in a seriously awesome performance as Frank. His mix of outrageous comedy with a seriously dark core reminded me a lot of Seth Rogen in OBSERVE & REPORT, Patton Oswalt in BIG FAN, and Danny McBride in EASTBOUND & DOWN. It's that same type of performance - comedy and self-delusional insanity and dark, dark, dark tragedy all wrapped into one. Writer/director James Gunn also packs his film with all sorts of recognizable and welcome faces in the supporting cast. Kevin Bacon is a standout as the sleazy drug kingpin Jock. Michael Rooker is badass as always as one of Jock's thugs. Andre Royo from The Wire and Fringe has a nice turn as Frank's friend / coworker. Linda Cardilleni of Freaks & Geeks fame has a fun cameo as a pet-shop owner. And of course, Nathan Fillion is funny and well-cast as Jesus-freak superhero The Holy Avenger. And hey, looking at IMDB, I see that Rob Zombie did the voice of God. Hmm ...

At its best, SUPER has an awesomely subversive sense of humor and an anything-goes, B-movie vibe with some nice social satire and superhero deconstruction thrown in for good measure. Fanboys and fangirls will get an extra kick out of some of the references - overt and implied - in the film. And there is definitely a more introspective look at the whole superhero thing than in, say, Kick-Ass. Whereas that movie was less about satire and more about just packing in as many "kewl" moments and characters as possible, Super definitely has a lot more direct riffs on a lot of the usual comic book conventions and tropes. Whether its the absurdity of kid-sidekicks, the weird sexual dynamics of superhero relationships, or the warped sense of right-and-wrong inherent in the vigilante biz (taken to an extreme here when a guy gets clobbered in the cranium with a wrench for cutting in line at the movies) ... SUPER very cleverly mocks and celebrates all of the weirdness of superhero lore. It also has some interesting commentary on religion and fundamentalism, and the fact that Frank bases his decisions on perceived messages from God adds an extra layer of subtext to the film.

But Super is also a very messy movie, sometimes wildly uneven. The moments of comedic brilliance are intermixed with B-movie ultra-violence and also laugh-free, dramatic scenes. It's hard to know quite what to take away from all this. The violence in the movie is at once glorified and played up for maximum cool-factor, and yet it is also presented as shockingly realistic - the product of a guy who's clearly lost his marbles. Sometimes, Super plays like a warped love story about a guy who's so intent on winning back the girl he loves that he completely misses the fact that she never actually loved him. This would be fine, except sometimes Super plays this part of the movie too straight. When the movie goes for an oddly serious and ernest ending, for example, it just feels jarring and out of place. It's a tricky balance. Some of the movies I mentioned above, like Big Fan and Observe & Report, expertly ride that line between comedy and tragedy and somehow make it all fit together and flow well. Super can feel like a mash-up of about five different movies, with tone swinging wildly from scene to scene. It means the movie is never boring, and it helps give it that certain sort of patchwork, indie charm ... but it also means that it never quite comes together as well as it should.

But SUPER is, regardless, an awesomely good time. It gives you a couple of interesting ideas to chew on, and it features several insane, "holy $#%&!" moments that you'll be talking about for a long time post-viewing. So yeah, go see it, if you're at all a person who loves movies that dare to get crazy, be insane, and try something different. And, oh yeah ... "Shut up, Crime!"

My Grade: B+

Friday, April 01, 2011

JUSTIFIED: The Last Great Drama Standing

- In my last post, I talked about the rather unstable state of TV drama. On one hand, there are some amazing shows out there. On the other hand, some of the best are either soon-to-be-cancelled (Lights Out), or else perpetually on the brink (Fringe). Sure, AMC has had some amazing success with its trinity of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead - but even they have struggled to find that fourth big show (we'll see how The Killing does this weekend) to add to their lineup.

However, to me, the real rock of TV drama over the last several weeks has been JUSTIFIED. With critical acclaim and network-pleasing ratings (it's already been renewed for a Season 3 by FX), and a growing amount of buzz, Justified is just ultra-dependable week in and week out. To me, it sort of fills the void left in the absence of 24. Not to say that the shows are particularly similar, but like 24, Justified is just plain badass. And like 24, where a huge part of the show's appeal was its larger-than-life hero Jack Bauer, Justified has its own increasingly-iconic protagonist - Raylan Givens. As played by the great Timothy Olyphant, Raylan is a more nuanced character than Jack - he's laid back on the outside, though he's got plenty of bottled-up rage on the inside (his ex-wife Winona called him "the angriest man she'd ever met"). He's cool, confident, and a designated ladykiller - but he's also got family issues and is a definite trouble magnet. Olyphant seems to have gone under the radar of Emmy voters, but if he isn't nominated for Lead Actor at this year's show, there's something seriously wrong. In only a season and a half of Justified, he's turned Raylan Givens into TV's best and baddest hero.

But what's been a constant pleasure with Justified is how the show so seamlessly weaves together one-off crime stories with its overarching serialized storylines. Even Fringe tends to struggle with the balance of introducing compelling one-shot plotlines and characters while still advancing its mythology, but Fringe makes it look effortless. Season 1 saw Raylan faced with the growing crime empire of the wild Crowder clan. Raylan squared off with his old friend / nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins - just awesome - and should be a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination), and eventually found himself in an all-out war with Bo Crowder, the family patriarch. Now, in Season 2, Bo's been taken out of the game, though Boyd is still running around - supposedly reformed but definitely a loose cannon. Raylan has to keep an eye on him, but he's got bigger problems - namely, the fact that another clan of country criminals - the Bennetts - are making a power grab and seem intent on taking down anyone who stands in their way. Already, the Bennetts are a fascinating group of villains. Actress Margo Martindale is putting in absolutely phenomenal work as Mags Bennett, the matriarch and brains behind the operation. Mags is so compelling because she's sweet and motherly one minute, but absolutely ruthless and terrifying the next minute. Her matronly side is visible when she's around Loretta, a teenage orphan who Mags has taken in (unbeknownst to Loretta, Mags is the one who killed her dad). But Mags' ruthless, evil side is often evident when she interacts with her two hillbilly sons - one of who, Dickie (Lost's Jeremy Davies, great as always) has a checkered history with Raylan. In disciplining her two grown but simple-minded boys, Mags has already redefined the meaning of "tough love."

Meanwhile, Season 1 of Justified set up a pretty intriguing love triangle for Raylan. On one hand, Raylan has a complicated, on-again, off-again relationship with his smart-yet-slightly-icy ex-wife Winona. On the other hand, he's also had a pretty steamy relationship with Ava Crowder, a childhood friend who married into the nefarious Crowder family, and who, in Season 2, has formed a strange alliance of sorts with her late husband's brother, Boyd. Also, in recent weeks we've been introduced to Carol (Rebecca Creskoff), the no-nonsense, fiery-redhead woman in-charge of a mining company that's looking to set up shop in Raylan's turf, Harlan County. This puts Carol directly at odds with the Bennetts. Luckily, she's enlisted Boyd Crowder to serve as her personal bodyguard. At the same time, Raylan's been ordered by the court to help protect Carol from various threats made against her, meaning that Raylan and Boyd are, awkwardly, on the same team - at least for now.

All of this setup led to this week's brilliant episode of JUSTIFIED, "The Spoil," which saw all of these mounting tensions reach a climactic point, as Carol calls a local meeting to try to convince the residents of Harlan County that her mining company will be a good thing for the people of Harlan. The ensuing defense of Carol from her new pseudo-lackey, Boyd, was vintage Walton Goggins in full-on street-preacher mode. And the rebuttal, from Mags Bennett, was just awesome - intense as hell, Margo Martindale at the height of her powers (not to belabor a point - but geez, give her an Emmy!). Again, it was that mix of matronly sweetness (she invited the whole town to her house for a "whoop-de-doo" as a show of unity) with seething rage. Yikes -- this is a woman who you don't want to mess with.

And this latest drama with the Bennetts and the mining company is just one more layer added to a show overflowing with great characters and many slowly simmering subplots. There's Raylan's ongoing relationship with Winona - currently thrown into turmoil by her ill-advised crime that Raylan now has to cover up. There's Raylan's surrogate father, Art, his boss at the Marshall's office, and his actual father, Arlo - a crazed career criminal who's even more of a trouble magnet than his son. The show has really created this whole universe from which to draw inspiration from.

After several episodes, Season 2 of Justified has, I think, began to fire on all cylinders. There's a healthy mix of intrigue, romance, wit, humor, and good ol' fashioned southern-fried badassery. Some amazing, award-worthy performances. JUSTIFIED is, right now, TV's must-see drama.