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 strength and reflexes that are incredible 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 claim you 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 today, when its sixth and final season comes to a close. Why? Because this day 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 movie and TV entries leading up to this site's 6th anniversary in 9 days. Whiplash, Ex Machina, Selma, Birdman, and more are coming up...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Recommended: Sleepy Hollow, Season 1

Watching the first season of Sleepy Hollow is a magical experience: at one time, it’s so bat-sh-t insane that you can’t imagine how you’d do anything other than laugh derisively at whatever the showrunners put on-screen. At the same time, though, the interaction between the leads and the series’ audacity all manage to work so bloody well that you can’t sneer at or dismiss the result - nor can you peel your eyes away from it. What looked like a “so bad it’s gonna be good” hour became “so insane and appealing that I love it” viewing.

It's 2013 and - just outside the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York - Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is resurrected from a two-plus century slumber. This British man died fighting on the colonial side of the American Revolution, in a duel against a fierce masked warrior.

Now, he’s teamed with an African-American cop named Abigail Mills (Nicole Beharie), a hard-boiled do-gooder who’s in turmoil because the Headless Horseman (that same warrior) has just come back to life and killed her mentor/partner, Sheriff Corbin (Clancy Brown). Despite Ichabod’s future-shock and Abbie’s disbelief, these two learn that they are both tied to each other as well as to Corbin’s secret occult group that is dedicated to fighting the forces of evil that are now amassing... in Upstate New York (dun dun dun).

If all of that sounds likely to make for bad TV, or seems completely nonsensical, let me just tell you - yes, I also thought that at first. But George Washington’s bible plays an important role. Crane didn’t have a good relationship with Jefferson! And, hey, this is a series that not only presents a Golem invented by one of America’s Founding Fathers, but early in season 2 Abbie gets to incredulously refer to it as “Franklin-stein’s Monster.” F--K YES, we need more fun TV like this.

The tone (and purported aim) of the program is high quality horror-based crime procedural, one with a strong sense of humor as well as high stakes. Whether it’s being intentionally-campy or dead-serious, SH follows in the lofty footsteps of both Fringe and The X-Files in bringing a sense of dread and gruesomeness to primetime network viewing. And, like both of those prior Fox shows, its true centerpiece is the amazing chemistry between its two leads.

This series creates a pairing that easily belongs in the same discussion as Scully and Mulder, or Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham – yet in an even crazier context. Mison’s Crane is a scholar, a principled man who fought for the Colonies when his wife made him see the justness of their cause. His charm, manners and good fashion sense make him one of the most pleasant and engaging fictional characters I’ve ever seen... And what could be stifling and irritating old-timey behavior is handled perfectly – Abbie proactively gives him a hard time about the disparities and social attitudes that helped make women powerless in the 18th Century. Not only does this unlikely pair develop a wonderful rapport, but it’s not long before Crane’s educated wit learns to embrace snark – and it’s an additional joy to watch him become outraged at modern aspects, like paying for bottled water.

Damn, maybe I love SH because I was a history geek ages ago, and Ichabod has such firm and fierce convictions on civic matters.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Most Violent Year Review – It’s the most violent time of-

2014’s A Most Violent Year is a study in contrasts. For one thing, many aspects of the execution are perfect, while the parts that fail manage to fail a bit hard. For another, it’s a movie that feels old (it recalls The French Connection) and new (ethnic diversity, Chastain’s strong role) at the same time. The part of my brain that just coldly reviews movies is somewhat dissatisfied, whereas the New Yorker in me is thrilled to see my hometown's extinct aspects on display in 2015.

The first thing I should note is that the cast is excellent: Oscar Isaac is a new actor to me, and I think he’s great. He does a lot of subtle work with a role that is intentionally under-written. Jessica Chastain has a strong supporting part, which she plays with a perfect steeliness and fire. David Oyelowo is fine in the limited role of the Brooklyn DA. And Albert Brooks proves to be a great minor player in a film that would seem much poorer in the absence of his wry, assured presence.

The story: In 1981, Abel Morales owns a company that sells heating oil to New York City houses. This scrappy rags-to-riches immigrant just bought a palatial home, and is about to buy a fuel plant that'll ensure the growth of his business. Yet Abel’s life is turned completely upside-down as he tackles two problems simultaneously: the Brooklyn DA investigates the home oil industry, focusing on Morales, whose company is targeted for violent attacks and truck hijackings that cost him stability as well as tens of thousands of dollars (1981 $, mind you).

Will Abel renounce his good-hearted ways as his misfortunes worsen and the tide gets high, or will he stick to his guns? Can hard work and noble intentions win out in an utterly corrupt world?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Double Dip: Arrow

[Update: My 2nd-to-last draft posted at 7:58AM by accident. You're seeing the final draft as of 12:01PM]

Well, I'm in the awkward position of, um, revising my prior recommendation of Arrow. Much as I felt for Burn Notice before it, the show's general charms are still there, but the later seasons are not able to follow through on the promise evident in its early days.

So when did things go awry? What made me lose my love for the Greg Berlanti/Marc Guggenheim TV project, abandoning it as I have done with other series before? Sadly, what initially seemed a mere sophomore slump turned into ongoing trends that I don't think the show will ever reject.

Even in the program's first outing, the writers displayed a shaky grasp of how the world works. While Arrow gained points early on by forcing its lead to get declared legally alive, many scenes were devoted to a cop and a lawyer (Det. Quentin Lance, and his daughter, Laurel). In the scenes centered on these two, you really got a sense that Arrow's staff knew little about the operation of... cities or the legal system.

Even at the start, Quentin's authority and position fluctuate wildly, and Laurel wears $6000 suits while working for a Legal Aid group. The second season takes it from "a bit silly" to "did the writers go to school" or even "have the writers lived in a city" territory. Public officials do things clearly beyond their powers, executives at a billion-dollar corporation answer public phonelines (?), amid civil and criminal justice systems seemingly calibrated to increase angst and uncertainty.

Hell, season 2 manages to start with Moira Queen on trial for her part in a man-made earthquake that killed hundreds of people; after her (spoiler alert) acquittal, Moira is then approached to run for Mayor. It's not even Moira's idea! Businessmen suggest mayoral candidacy to a wealthy accomplice to a mass murder (via duress) in the poor part of town. This arc is not conveyed in an ironic or campy way, and Mrs. Queen actually does pretty well in public opinion polls... despite Starling City, y'know, nearly putting her to death a month earlier.

There's also one element that's just a consistent weakness in CW shows: the network really plays to teen audiences, yet loves to fill their shows with adult material. Who wants a show with teens doing teen s--t, right? The CW truly is a ground zero for "teenagers" who drink and screw often, without worrying about getting caught, pregnancy, STDs, cops. So CW roles get to emote and even actualize their teenage-sized emotions, but also do adult-sized stuff - and that combination, after a while, just becomes comical. At least, it does to anyone with a mature or experienced viewepoint.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

So Kevin Smith is Making Mallrats 2

Two weeks ago, when a coworker told me that Kevin Smith would be making Mallrats 2, there was only one way in which I could reply:

Keep in mind, I actually enjoyed Mallrats - to summarize my review, it was a lot of fun, even though it wasn't an especially good film. I just don't think that this is in any way necessary, and I can't imagine what more there is to say about the situations and characters depicted in the original film.

Oh, sorry, for those of you who haven't seen Clerks - you should feel bad for missing out. The whole scene is basically a Great Moments In... Venting About Work: