Friday, May 22, 2015

Birdman Review - What the F--- Was That?!

I never have or ever would take LSD or mushrooms. Despite my lack of experience, I have to think that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the narrative equivalent of dropping acid or eating a ‘shroom, then finding that everything has gone all hazy and impossible and senseless. I can’t say for certain that it deserved the Best Picture Oscar (I have yet to see Two Days, One Night), but I simultaneously think that (a) it is incredibly good and that (b) I can understand why so many people disliked what they saw. There was no way to make a movie that does what this one does without splitting audiences. Division and dissent was inevitable - even the poster was beautifully crazy.

Birdman centers on an intense 2-3 day period in the weird life of Riggan Thompson. From the get-go, this movie operates on a level that’s so “meta” that it’s potentially distracting or pretentious: Riggan is currently a wreck because he’s a neurotic thespian writing, directing, producing, and starring in his potential comeback – a Broadway play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Riggan is a long-absent actor whose career is overwhelmed by the highly-successful superhero franchise he starred in decades ago... And Riggan is portrayed by Michael Keaton, the same guy who played the lead in Tim Burton’s late 80’s/early 90’s Batman films. The picture’s barely begun and yet you wonder if the writer/director is making fun of the viewer.

I could take ages unpacking this movie. It has a subtitle, but unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, this one is parenthetical. It centers on a Raymond Carver short story, and uses part of a poem of his for its opening text. I have no problem doing the research necessary to look into and piece these elements together – in fact, I take pleasure from it – but I don’t know how helpful any of it would be. We’re talking about a picture wherein the things that just happen are not constrained by a consistent internal logic. Hell, the opening scene has Thompson flying and using telekinesis – while having a debate with an internal voice that’s supposed to be Riggan’s old Birdman role, a voice that’s as “gritty” and “rough” as the growl Christian Bale used in Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

So what can I tell someone who hasn’t seen this movie yet? For starters, it’s a visual masterwork. The CGI is smooth and looks beautiful, used to create various different effects during the picture’s running time. Each location feels real (I’ve been to most of them repeatedly), with set dressing that’s distractingly natural. Many (or most) shots are noticeably beautiful, and it kind of looks as if every single trick – odd angles, forced perspective, use of dark spaces to hide edits – is employed here.

But it’s the design to the cinematography that probably steals the show - Birdman is filmed so that the camera floats from one scene to another, throughout and over the theater Riggan has rented, as well as the Midtown Manhattan streets surrounding it. Through editing, it appears as if we’re watching one long camera take in and around its setting, and the shots are just f--king gorgeous. As a professional photographer, I can say it: the execution of the camera movement and creating effective transitions from one scene to the next is about as fine a bit of work as I’ve ever seen.

It's also a wildly funny film. Very few actual jokes are made by the players, but you can tell that writer-director Iñárritu has a strong and sharp comic mind. He uses situational humor as nicely as he does comedic lines, employs absurdism and satire, and the nature of the jokes range from gentle to urbane to kind of vicious. Like Gone Girl, Birdman is a very, very modern film, especially in the dialogue. I'm... really struggling not to spoil any of the lines here, so just know that I'm a comedian and I say it's dead-funny.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Recommended: The Flash TV Series

CW Network’s The Flash begins with the most important day of Barry Allen's life: one night, when Barry was a child, his home was filled by a yellow and red tornado. His parents rush their kid out of the room, screaming for Barry to run... And the upshot is that his mom dies, and his dad is wrongly imprisoned for her murder.

In one of the most unlikely conflicts of interest in fiction history, the arresting officer – Det. Joe West - adopts the kid whose dad he sent to prison (awkward!). 15 years later, Allen is a scientist working crime scene investigations alongside his adoptive father. Barry is a bit tortured by his family history - he's convinced his real dad is innocent, which Detective West can't even begin to believe - but he's generally an upbeat, right-minded, good-looking nerd... Until the next major evening in his life, when everything gets simultaneously far better and far worse.

As it so happens, Central City's biggest purveyor of technology - S.T.A.R. Labs – has built their equivalent of CERN's Large Hadron Collider. On the night that Barry is working in his CSI office, S.T.A.R.'s device goes online, disastrously. A blast of energy envelops the city, Barry is left in a coma after being struck by lightning, and the world will never be the same.

What changed? For starters, Dr. Harrison Wells (Thomas Cavanaugh), the director of S.T.A.R. Labs (and Barry's sort-of idol), is left crippled. Bound to a wheelchair and blamed for nearly destroying the city, Dr. Wells' thriving business has been abandoned by all but two of its junior scientists. For another thing, Barry’s coma lasts for months, his vital signs confuse the local doctors, and time starts moving slowly once he wakes up. Also, Central City is now teeming with a new species of criminal – “metahumans” who control the weather, teleport, shoot electricity from their hands, or induce rage in anyone they lock eyes with.

The Flash is kind of a miracle. Much like the first season of its big sister, The Arrow, this CW series tries to bring comic book characters and stories to the small screen, and succeeds greatly. Super-speed is a pretty odd gimmick for a television series – it will require lots of expensive CGI work, as few modern day producers/editors/directors will risk using old techniques that may look dated today. Moreover, it’s also not easy to create tons of tension or intrigue when your protagonist has an ability that should resolve most problems – possessing, in essence, more time than everyone else. Heroes, for example, had a guy who could travel through space and time... and that show handled his mega-super-power with plots wherein he lost his powers or kept him as far away from the action as possible.

Ugh, but enough Heroes flashbacks, we’re here to talk about a show that had a fine first season, as well as a chance at offering up a decent second (or third, or fourth) effort.

Not my work. All credit goes to Dylan Todd's recaps.

It’s quite an accomplishment, then, to see that the FX work is quite good – you don’t see those “oh, it’s got a TV budget” seams at all. Barry’s powers don’t betray him just so the series can stretch things out (oh, god, Heroes flashbacks again – no, must fight it, let’s not do this)... And the program manages to bring its weird world to life – a vivid, vibrant life – with the same kind of confident ease that Arrow showed in its initial run. Above all, I like that Flash maintains an appropriately-distinct tone from its predecessor.

I’ve been working on this writeup, on and off, for a month now. The extra time made me certain that this series is easier to discuss than its sister show – which is a real blessing for me, because I only have limited time, and I still need to review four more films for my 2014 roundup. But I’m not saying that The Flash deserves less attention than Arrow got (which included a Double Dip about why I dropped it)- it's just that it's a much simpler show, in concept and execution, and its pleasures are easier to describe.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Foxcatcher Review - A Different Shade of the 80s

Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher got a critical response that clashed with its box office reception. Made for $24M, the movie featured Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carell in the fictionalized adaptation of an incredible true-life story – how two brothers, both gold-medal Olympic wrestlers, were affected by wealthy heir John du Pont’s love of their sport. Released at the very end of 2014, it only earned $15M in theaters.

Yet the buzz from my friends was persistent and positive. That and all the awards attention were what motivated me to make time for it. Miller took the best director award at Cannes in May of that year, it received three major Golden Globe nods, and its Oscar nominations included Best Director, Best Actor (Carell), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay (E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman). Odds are better than not that it doesn't stink, y'know?

As its narrative unspooled before me, I felt a great sense of admiration. Every element I would use as a cinematic benchmark was more than satisfied. By roughly the middle-end of the film, sequences can feel a bit too much like vignettes, but the performances and cinematography were stellar. I had expected Foxcatcher to be good, but I hadn’t expected that its strengths could render its flaws nearly invisible.

I already wrote my most efficient plot summary ever above, but let me expound a little. Mark Schultz is an Olympic wrestler with a simple, humble life. His apartment and car are as spare as can be. When not scrounging up whatever cash he can, or eating by himself in sh---y little rooms, Mark trains at the gym run by his older brother, David.

Dave is smaller than his sibling, yet he’s the stronger man, the one people are more interested in, and he’s the one with a business, a wife, and kids. Mark’s opportunity to step out of his brother’s shadow stems from John du Pont wanting to sponsor the next American Olympic wrestling team, but no one can predict how this unexpected patronage will impact the Schultz boys.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Recommended: Video Game High School

Variety is as necessary in entertainment as it is in diet and exercise. I'm pretty sure that a bunch of the worst jerks I've ever met watched lots of reality TV and based their behaviors on the failure-masterpieces they saw therein; similarly, watching only crime procedurals and shows about murderers (e.g., Fargo, Hannibal) probably colors one's thinking after a while. The chance to watch something silly and light-hearted was why I jumped onboard the Video Game High School train - and those qualities are why I'm recommending it to you now.

Brian D (Josh Blaylock) is a teen who lives on very strange alternate Earth. The nameless American city he's from possesses technology 10-15 years ahead of what we have in the real world. Even more strangely, video games are massively popular there - important news is interrupted when a well-known player has a big scoring spree. This is the wonderful cold open of season 3, episode 1, and it epitomizes the creators' humor - please don't watch beyond the first two minutes:

Somehow, I respect Tony and Joel even more now.

As much as this sounds like a teenage boy's wonderland, it's not a perfect place. Brian D has no father, and his mom is completely obsessed with her TV. Bullies regularly steal Brian's gamer points and items. And not only is Brian late to his multiplayer deathmatch team, he's asked to do chores as soon as he signs in. Yet, in the first episode, it's this same mundane routine that affords Brian a priceless possibility - one through which he can achieve his greatest dreams, or fail spectacularly in public.

After beating one of the best gamers alive, Brian receives an offer straight out of Willy Wonka - a scholarship to Video Game High School, the elite institution where players go to become professional superstars. It's the opportunity of a lifetime, competing against the best of the best in a focused environment with access to great gear. This is like Harry Potter, but with imaginary guns and capture-the-flag scores...
Brian: Low profile, that's my game.
Calhoun: Really?? *Calhoun opens a window shade to reveal dozens of BrianD posters*
Calhoun: Does that game incude a mini-game about being full of crap?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Post #888: Great Moments In... Horrible, Horrible Lines

And the award goes to Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance, as performed by Ryan O'Neal. Although I've never been much of a fan, I can't blame Ryan here at all. I've heard Mailer is supposed to be an amazing writer, yet this writing is just... pure crap:

I'm sorry that I showed that to you. I suppose that was unfair of me. But, hey, let's salvage the moment by seeing if Mailer himself can talk his way out of that writerly s--tstorm:

Nope. Everybody loses.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Whiplash Review: Love (of music) Is a Battlefield

A lot of art comes from a place of troubled, or outright wounded, emotions. Sometimes, strong feelings are the motivation for artistic expression, while at other times, an artist will develop emotions connected to the idea, image or sound that's stuck in their head. Some artists do work differently, it’s true, but passion is intimately tied to art, and Whiplash shows - regardless of the wonderful results - just how un-beautiful those emotions can be, and how ugly the people who make art can behave.

That Whiplash makes this aspect so prominent is one of the most admirable things about it. None of the musicians here are giving folks who try to improve the lives around them while pursuing their own personal goals. Neither the distant lead, Andrew (Miles Teller), nor his gruff co-star, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), are warm and kind people; one is just an incalculably worse person. All these roles love music as closely as other people love their families.

What keeps these individuals from being more lovable? Well, all of the artists here are in competition – 19 year-old Andrew is in his first year at Manhattan’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory; Fletcher is a long-standing teacher there, and his jazz bands always win competitions. At the very start of the movie, Fletcher walks into Andrew’s practice and curtly orders him to play. From that moment on, Andrew operates under extreme stakes – Terrence Fletcher’s reputation for producing successful musicians is matched only by his rep as a hard-ass.

The (unstated) real problem here is that all of the emotions that can push people toward art - joy, loneliness, isolation, grief, pride, rage, a need for validation – are especially volatile when mixed with a competitive environment. As Andrew tries to capitalize on the opportunity to join Fletcher’s band, he finds himself on the sort of emotional rollercoaster that can become harmful quickly. Just the effort to meet a particular pace leaves the kid’s hands bloody; and all he does is wrap them up and dip them into ice water.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Helen Mirren vs Old Chauvanism

I hate sexists. It's like every other form of bigotry, but somehow even dumber because it applies to roughly half the global population no matter what side you're against, as well as applying to one's own relatives. I also really have a problem with people who abuse, mistreat, or disrespect women. Anyone like me will find the following display of its close cousin, chauvinism, moderately offensive.

These days, plenty of people know Helen Mirren as the badass old broad from movies like Red (which sounds like it's the least offensive of Mark Millar adaptations) - she's 69 now, so I understand that a lot of the work that made her famous was a while ago.

Guys closer to my age, however, know her as an exceptional actress and a quite beautiful woman. We do this because we remember her rich performance in The Long Good Friday, or how she kicked ass without resorting to machine guns in amazing movies like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Recommended: Grimm

NBC's Grimm is the most unlikely successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and that’s partly because the shows have a different tone, and partly because the former seldom reaches the thrilling heights of the latter. Grimm also has a lead who's suddenly “chosen” to receive powers that will help (and force) them to fight supernatural forces. But this series carries the unfamiliar vibe of Portland, Oregon not southern California, and it replaces a developing teen with a cop who is so stable that he can seem a bit too stoic.

In the pilot, we’re introduced to Detective Nicholas Burkhardt. He’s a homicide cop who lives with his longtime veterinarian girlfriend, Juliette. Nick gets a visit from Marie, the aunt who raised him following his parents’ early death. While comforting Marie through the last stages of terminal illness, the Burkhardts are attacked by someone who shapeshifts into some weird animal-human hybrid. They only survive because Marie shows incredible strength and reflexes for a middle-aged woman, much less a person at death's door.

When Marie learns that Nick saw it change, too, she reveals his family’s secret history: the Brothers Grimm wrote accounts of their battles against real-life monsters, not allegorical tales about obeying societal rules. Nicholas is in a long line of people who randomly develop exceptional physical strength, as well as the ability to see these creatures. And now that he has the “gift” (“curse?”), Officer Burkhardt is responsible for killing “the bad ones” before they harm regular folks. Basically, Nick is having a s---ty day.

As he tries to adjust, Nick hides his visions from his partner, Hank, as well as his boss, Captain Sean Renard. But soon he stumbles upon Monroe, a solitary watch-repairer – who looks like the monster that got Red Riding Hood. Burkhardt is surprised to learn that not only is Monroe non-hostile, but creatures like him fear Grimms. Nick is their bogeyman the same way that The Big Bad Wolf is ours.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Net-flixation's Sixth Anniversary!

Happy anniversary, everyone! Although this is a fine day, I can not and will not celebrate it the way I have in the past. So, if you were expecting me to go on about my pride, hard work, and gratitude - all of which still hold true - just click the Holiday tag on the far right side of the screen (or below this post), and you can read my prior anniversary entries.

I mean really, why sweat it? Even this week couldn't go perfectly, as I only realized on Tuesday that 5 important paragraphs weren't included in my Recommendation of Justified. All I could do was re-insert them and leave a note saying where the new text was placed.

Instead, I figured I would do something different this year. And it all starts with an apology. See, for a long time now, I feel like I've been misleading everyone here. The most damaging lies are often the ones we tell ourselves, but being untruthful can also harm others.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Extra Thoughts on It Follows, Most Violent, Arrow, and Nimoy

I haven't written a post like this before, but I realized that there were a few extra points that I wanted to make about the following entries that I posted recently. I'll be brief:

I really didn't spend enough time discussing the score for It Follows. I didn't even realize this until I watched Red Letter Media's review for It Follows (they also covered Furious 7). The RLM review included several clips from the movie - and I noticed that I was suddenly looking around corners as well as into dark rooms hesitantly, as if I were actually nervous and I was doing this in my own home.

Honestly, I am very aware of when a soundtrack/score doesn't quite work, or tells you what to feel too often, or becomes intrusive, It was a major mark of quality to have the IF score impact me so strongly. I was aware of its power at the time, but I don't think I expressed that appropriately in my review, so I wanted to point it out now: the music is not just a callback to 80's horror, it's insanely creepy and pulse-driving. Cheers to the filmmakers!

Meanwhile, I realize that I was being a bit harsh on Arrow. The problem is that, while it does have all of the strengths that I pointed out, the flaws are so intense and consistent now that I feel like the show is actively discouraging me from watching it. And I can't imagine why they'd start to run their show in that fashion; it makes no damn sense - just like all of their scenes involving the law...

Friday, April 17, 2015

WTH, Amazon Marketing?!

I see this in my inbox this morning. The funny thing is that I love Orphan Black, and have idly thought of how to recommend the series without spoiling the hell out of it in the process.

But there's so much that's wrong here, and it's not the first time I've taken issue with Amazon's marketing. For one thing, today marks the premiere of Orphan Black's third season. The ordinal number in the last sentence is pretty important, because watching the entire first season won't get anyone prepared for - or interested in watching - the events in season 3.

It also represents a further failure in marketing because, as I noted in yesterday's Justified post, I already have Amazon Prime and so can watch seasons 1 and 2 of Orphan Black whenever the hell I want. In fact, I still haven't seen the second batch yet, and have just been waiting for a week when I have the time and desire to check it out. Amazon should be able to tell that I am a Prime member and send me something an email that's tailored to people who signed up for that service...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Recommended: Justified

[4/21/15 Update: added 5 paragraphs after the last video, didn't notice the missing text (which was important to me) for 5 days. Damn.]

Justified is one of the best gifts that TV has ever given me. It’s a crime drama centered on Raylan Givens, a U.S. Deputy Marshal who is more a teen’s impression of what he thinks a law-keeper should be than he is a modern-day law enforcement official. It’s immediately evident in the costuming, with Raylan always wearing a white cowboy hat – right there, you can see that Givens wants to be Wyatt Earp, not a “mere” professional in the criminal justice system. Raylan often forgoes backup, bends the rules severely while adhering to their principles, and – in the opening scenes of the first episode – gives a criminal 24 hours to leave town or else... possibly as an excuse to agitate the other man enough to make him draw his gun.

If you watched Burn Notice, try not to say "Hi, my name is Michael Westin" when the clip starts.

It’s one thing to say claim killed someone in order to save a life; it’s quite another thing to admit that you gunned someone down, yet that - as our lead says when asked about the fatality - "it was justified." Not “inevitable” or “necessary,” but “not unacceptable.” Deputy Marshal Givens constantly rides that line, to the viewer's joy and the extreme displeasure of crooks and fellow Marshals alike. His appeal is easy to understand; s--t, it’s why guys from my generation wanted to be Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker - and why women of the Star Wars generation had crushes on Harrison Ford, not Mark Hamill.

FX’s Justified is based on a book series by Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of modern crime fiction. In this cable TV show, a rambunctious lawman is transferred from his job in Miami to the next Marshal’s office with a vacancy. Unfortunately for Raylan, that office is in Lexington, Kentucky – spitting distance from his hometown of Harlan, KY. Givens spent his whole life trying to get away from the coal mines he toiled in, the good ol’ boys who annoyed him with their lousy behavior, and his worthless, petty crook father. Now, he’s right back where he started.

Even worse, his magnificent ex-wife, Winona, has moved back to the area and is remarried and, oh, she also works as a stenographer in the same court building that houses his new office. F--K

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Reviewing with Others, Pt. 78: Candlestick

I was going to post a Recommendation for FX's show, Justified, but I won't be able to put up my thoughts on the day that its sixth and final season comes to a close. Why? Because today is the only day I can post my review for an independent drama/suspense film, Candlestick.

If you're of a mind to watch a modern-day callback to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, you should check this picture out. Christopher Presswell's second feature film is a pretty strong, if flawed, effort. You can read my thoughts about it here, at Man, I Love Films. My thoughts on Graham Yost's adaptation of Elmore Leonard will have to wait a day or so, and I think I'll continue to alternate between movies and TV entries leading up to this site's 6th anniversary in 9 days. Whiplash, Ex Machina, Selma, Birdman, and more are coming up...