Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Tromeo & Juliet Review: The Height of Demented Fun

Well, if I had known that I would review two BBC series and two Shakespearean adaptations over four days, I wouldn’t have been talking about enjoying my Monocle Time during Saturday’s review of Edge of Darkness – I would’ve declared this Monocle Week and turned it into a whole big thing...

I’ve looked forward to reviewing Tromeo and Juliet since I began this site in 2009. My mission statement from the get-go was to cover unknown gems that you would be unlikely to seek out unless someone suggested them to you. TaJ fits that definition quite easily, and I've been recommending it to friends for ages, which makes this post long overdue.

Tromeo and Juliet is a creation of Troma Entertainment, a studio that specializes in low budget horror works that have splatter gore, nudity, wit; their productions always stand out for being so... unconventional. And this adaptation of Shakespeare’s most well-known story is certainly unconventional. I mean, how do you inject tension and excitement into a story whose major plot points all of us know? How do you get the audience to get behind these kids and worry whether they’ll get together?

You change the names of the characters. You change… the ending so it involves Juliet violently murdering someone. You include scenes at a tattoo/piercing parlor, where one of the players suffers a gruesome head injury. You make Count Paris into the billionaire London Arbuckle, whose business is in the meat-packing district, to the chagrin of his vegetarian fiancĂ©.

And you make Juliet a die-hard lesbian who, within two minutes of her introduction, gets jilled off by the family nurse. Juliet’s never even thought about a man that way, so how can Romeo win her love?! That, my friends, is how you create tension.

Recommended: Utopia (UK('s Best) Drama)

Ominious. Gripping. Scary. Thrilling. Funny. Hypnotic. These are all adjectives that apply to Channel 4's recently-departed drama, Utopia.

The biggest struggle here is not to spoil the teensiest bit of this glorious dramatic series, and yet give you enough reasons to try to see it. I had to go out of my way to watch it in the US, its limited availability making it a little more difficult to experience, too. So how can I entice you? Let’s start with the simple phrase, “Where is Jessica Hyde?” I heard that question dozens of times over the course of Utopia's 12 episodes. Those words never grew old - even when I knew the answer – often portending great uncertainty and danger.

Yet that’s sort of skipping right past the premise: A bunch of geeks meet in a London pub. These people all spend time on a web forum where they talk about The Utopia Experiments, a cult comic book independently published in the UK. Ian, as the newest member, is shocked to learn from Wilson and Becky that this colorful and creative work is rumored to spell out the details of a real-life conspiracy. But how can anyone predict the socio-political secrets lurking inside a graphic novel that predicts global doom? Who could imagine what kind of trouble one can get into just by following a web forum? Why is a fourth forum user absent from the gathering? And do any of these web surfers know that a handful of people died in a London comic shop that same day?...

From there, we watch as the forum members – Ian, Becky, Wilson, and Grant – find the world around them becoming stranger and more dangerous with each passing hour. They don’t know who’s chasing after them or what those people want, following the slimmest of threads to unravel the threat that might kill them at any moment. All they do know is that their hunters are so resourceful as to make the stakes extremely high.

There must be some cultural zeitgeist pushing creative people in this general direction. For one thing, Utopia has a bit in common with the CW‘s Cult, wherein the events on a popular TV show were connected to a larger conspiracy of unknown purpose and power. More aptly, however, Utopia’s cast resembles that of BBC’s Survivors – a disparate team that comes together to form a de facto family, one that struggles to keep on living and to understand what’s happening around them. Unlike Survivors, we’re not thrust into a post-apocalyptic catastrophe, but perils grounded in real world situations. And, ultimately, Utopia’s sheer quality far outstrips that of Cult, and its storyline is much smarter, more driving and more engaging than the Survivors' story was.

The central mystery is compelling and handled magnificently by the writing staff. The individual plots that you follow from week to week can start to take on the urgency of a countdown. In addition to laughing, feeling outraged, or the semi-constant state of awe I experienced, Utopia actually managed to give me an adrenaline spike on occasion.

It’s incredibly rare for a series to have such a powerful, palpable physical effect on me. Alongside successfully promoting social change or making a viewer think about serious issues, can a TV series aspire to more than that? Can you shoot higher than to hold your audience, completely?

Avengers 2 Review - You Can't Go Avenge Again

As some of you may recall, I wrote a terribly positive review for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers three years ago, but I must inform you that I’m not so enthusiastic for this year’s follow-up, The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is a good action film – yet it’s hard not to feel that the sequel is inferior to its predecessor. tA:AoU just seems to have slightly less snappy dialogue, slightly less tight plotting, and action scenes that are slightly less impressive than what came before it.

As Avengers 2 begins, Earth’s mightiest heroes are a united force, one dealing with the aftermath of the events of the first picture. Specifically, the scepter that Loki used against the team is missing - so Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) track down the group that stole it: Hydra, the evil nemesis of SHIELD. The attack succeeds, but Hydra used the scepter to give powers to two twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who proceed to sow dissension in the team! And then Tony Stark uses the scepter to create Ultron, an AI robot that chooses to destroy humanity instead of serving as a global protector. Oops!

I’m in the mood to cut right to it, so I will: Avengers 2 is full of nice elements that don’t always mesh together so well, producing a sum that is less than its constituent parts. To some extent, this is because this movie has so many more moving parts, creating more opportunities for it to fall a little flat. The more fundamental flaw here, I think, is that the characters and story are filled with too many unknowns.

That last point is kind of a big deal. Audiences understand what a punch does, what nukes are, and that a bullet to the head usually means death. In Age of Ultron, however, we never understand the capabilities or nature of the main antagonist, Wanda has MacGuffin powers and a mid-story turn that isn't quite built up properly, the action sequences don’t hit so hard because we don't know what anyone's abilities or limitations are, and there's a diminished sense that our heroes can really get (physically) hurt.

Many viewers had problems with the moment in The Avengers when Captain America gets shot. It's a good idea and a great fight sequence - but Steve Rogers is shot by an alien weapon, and there's no blood. He's just knocked down and a bit winded. However, Cap is exactly as durable to, say, gunfire as Hawkeye and Black Widow. If the bad guys can't really hurt him, that deflates the stakes of a scene, and thus (possibly) the tension of the whole film. Ultimately, Avengers 1 is so entertaining that you just go with it... Yet that sort of "do these guys even get hurt" flaw appears far more often in A2 - and it stands out more.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Question (+ Review) for the Week of Jun 28-Jul 5: Film Promo Both Bad and Good

What piece of film promotion did you find equally bad and good?
This entry, which will also double as a review, takes me way back to 1996. At the time, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were my favorite film couple, something they had earned with their work in Dead Again, as well as their cinematic adaptations of Shakespearean works. And it's really the last part that cemented their place with me.

I had been reading Shakespeare a lot at the time, and Branagh's movies were all excellent productions. My love of Much Ado About Nothing is already well-documented, and I can only state again that it's one of my favorite films ever. And Mr. B also directed an exceptional version of Henry V. Even aside from the romance between Kenneth and Emma, that picture made me want to rush out and see everything that Branagh had ever been involved in.

Then the news came that KB would be helming a new version of Hamlet. Although I won't give Shakespeare's most famous tragedy the same treatment I gave to Romeo and Juliet, I also can't tell you how eagerly I anticipated this latest iteration. Unlike Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation, this one would cast British folks who had been in the Royal Shakespeare Company and it would feature the complete text.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Edge of Darkness (BBC Drama)

You can take the boy out of the hood, but you can't take the desire to escape the hood that was in the boy in the first place. That's why I decided to get my Monocle-Time by watching a revered BBC drama/sci-fi/political thriller, Edge of Darkness.

I discovered this movie because I was doing research on Jurassic Park, specifically Bob "Clever Girl" Peck, who played the hunter/gamekeeper. Peck died far too young, in 1999 of cancer (f--k you again, cancer). As I went through Wikipedia entries, I caught notice of Edge of Darkness, a BBC 2 miniseries with a stupendous amount of acclaim. Since the program was so lauded, and listed as a great influence on all the shows that came after it, I felt that I had to give it a spin.

I could not have made a smarter choice.

Edge of Darkness begins with DCI Ronald Craven questioning a man. Craven is looking into voter fraud for a mining union in Yorkshire, not far from London; it's a relatively trivial matter, and the subject, James Godbolt, asks Ronald to do him a favor and proceed slowly, gently. From that meeting, Ronnie goes to meet his daughter, Emma (Joanne Whalley), a physicist at a local university. She participates in a group, GAIA, one dedicated to environmental causes. You can tell that he doesn't share her views, and yet enjoys seeing his child be so active and vital.

So you can imagine that he doesn't take it well when they get home, a man comes out of the shadows cursing Ronnie's name, and Emma steps in front of a double-barreled shotgun blast for her pop. Cradled by her father, Emma mutters a few words before she breathes her last. And this is how BBC 2 kicked off six hours of one of the most acclaimed political thrillers ever made.

EoD was billed by Wikipedia as a drama/political thriller/sci-fi effort. While it may not belong in that last category, it's the epitome of the former two genres. Peck's unofficial investigation of the murder takes him to London, where he's soon contacted by city cops, in addition to a bevvy of unexpected figures who have some information relating to, or stakes in, his work. The more that Ronnie tugs at the threads that will help him find the killer, the more he becomes entangled in politics, big business, and matters of the highest national security. And it's all because of what DCI Craven finds in his daughter's bedside dresser.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road: It Made My Pants Pee THEIR Pants

I was extremely skeptical when I heard about Mad Max: Fury Road. For one thing, the last installment in the series was Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome, and even if I had thought that MMBT was good (I didn’t), I still would’ve seen this as yet another pathetic attempt to make money off of an extinct franchise. It didn’t take more than 30 minutes to show that my assumptions were completely incorrect – and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being wrong this much in my whole life.

This trailer is so damn good. I even love the "bwaaamp"-like horn blares.

Since we’re at the point where movies are being rebooted constantly (will the real Spider-man please stand up?) and studios seem desperate for any familiar name that will guarantee a certain number of tickets sold, I can’t blame myself for my response. My expectations rose a little when I heard that Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron would be the leads, but actors are no guarantee of a film’s ultimate quality, and those two names alone couldn’t totally mollify my skepticism. I do know, however, that I should’ve paid attention and noticed that it was being made by George Miller – the writer-director of all the prior Mad Max films.

Miller’s presence on the project was a virtual guarantee that this wasn’t just a cheap cash-grab, both because he’s so intimately familiar with the series, and because the man does good work. Not perfect work – but very distinct, very consistent in tone, and of very good overall quality even if the subject matter isn't appealing. The first film was a depressing “every man’s worst nightmare” experience – the worst-case scenario in which your best friends (the only lawkeepers in the area) are picked off one by one, and then your wife and infant are killed. The second film saw Max losing everything that he had left, and then wandering off to be by himself - which pissed me off, because he could have stuck with those people he rescued at least long enough to get e.g., a new car and a new dog.

So Thunderdome didn’t work for me because it was excessive in all the worst ways of 1980’s excess, and I didn’t like the subplot with the children. When that film ended with Max completely losing what little he had, totally screwed and wandering off into the desert once again, I just decided that I had had enough. None of that meant, however, that Miller didn’t have a dedication to telling a story well, and filling it with good characterization. Some of my opinions boiled down to some stylistic choices, and how old I was when I watched these pictures.

Mad Max: Fury Road, however, is nothing less than a stellar achievement, one all the more laudable for feeling of a piece with a series that began in 1979 and last appeared in 1985. Numerous elements call back to prior entries - the intimations of Max's murdered family hearken back to the first movie, towns dedicated to creating one precious resource was the crux of Beyond Thunderdome, while the second and the third appear in the form of the cold open (The Road Warrior especially), as well as the truck vs. convoy battles, which now dominate the endings of all three sequels. And the title character remains the same: damaged, self-concerned and yet incapable of truly abandoning people in need, always pushing forward to survive...

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ex Machina - Spoilers start at paragraph 8

In Ex Machina, corporate programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has won a contest held within his company, Blue Book – the internet’s biggest search engine. The prize is a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive genius who owns the business. After a long helicopter ride and a solo trek through the forests around the boss’ palatial home, Caleb is greeted warmly by the pumped-up, hungover man behind it all – and with an incredibly detailed and invasive non-disclosure agreement. When Caleb balks at the demand for secrecy, his superior has the perfect response: if you sign this form, you get to test out Ava (Alicia Vikander), the artificial intelligence that I just created. The choice is a no-brainer.

Ex Machina has so many things in its favor that it's almost a bit unfair. The cast is great in their individual roles (much praise goes to Sonoya Mizuno as Nathan's silent servant, Kyoko), displaying fine chemistry in their various scenes together. The fx are super-fine, backed by some admirable camera work and shot composition – especially on a modest budget of $15M (which is really modest, given CGI costs). And the overall story is fun and smart and immensely applicable to the concerns of this modern age.

And, while I wanted to love EM and give it a glowing review, I just can't do that. For one thing, the screening that I attended placed me next to two drunken idiots who, by the halfway mark, were making loud jokes every 5 seconds. For another, the movie actually fails its sci-fi premise in a way that made it impossible for me to take this film at face value. Until I get to watch it again, I'll never know whether my experience was ruined, my standards are too high, or that no one else noticed the flaws that were so obvious to me.

So my review has to be taken with a grain of salt. I would’ve paid money to see this, given the trailer and the critical buzz, but I got passes to a free screening in one of NYC’s best theaters – and I couldn’t have predicted what would go wrong (haha, scifi irony). As such – sweet f--k, my dedication to fairness is so strong that I am compelled to state things that may undermine me – you should keep in mind that it was nearly-impossible to be pulled into, roughly, 40-60% of the story.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

And then my father died

Well, the other shoe finally dropped - my father has passed away, well before his time. Over the past year, my family has dealt with one of the worst possible vicissitudes of life... a brain cancer diagnosis for a loved one. He was just shy of 80, survived by several siblings, his longtime spouse, and his children.

For those of you who relate better to films and tv than real-life emotions, (a) seek help soon, and (b) this is how terrified you feel when your relative has cancer.

Pop, the man in question, served in an army for Trujillo (basically, Stalin of the Caribbean), who tried to have my father killed for speaking out of turn, forcing my dad into exile (and my father outlived that dictator by 44 years, so hahaha fuck you very much, Trujillo). This same man was later dragooned by another army in the 50's. As a soldier, he saw Hiroshima survivors a decade after the bombing (his descriptions of which were horrifying). He was also a doctor who became both a successful businessman and an active community leader.

Last Spring/Summer offered ample time for fears, regrets, and introspection - even time to freak the hell out about the times I raced to the emergency room on my own behalf (as many hospital trips as in my whole life combined before 2014). But Autumn '14 was full of overnight stays in hospital rooms after working 40-60 hours, because we wouldn't let my dad sleep alone. And the past Winter was supposed to be an oasis - getting our loved one out of noisy hospitals, and continuing his rehab in a beautiful new apartment. Given the circumstances, we hoped to get him in the best possible shape for the remainder of our time together - yet, after some weeks, it didn't really work out that way. My father's condition simply deteriorated... until, finally, a good man was extinguished.

Monday, June 22, 2015

MRQ XVII: Great Directors Edition

Well, by now, you should k kw what an MRQ is - and my struggles to keep these entries pretty concise. This time out, if I go on too long, just know that I think I chose the right films to go on about. And all of these, save Aronofsky's Black Swan are available to stream, so you can watch them as soon as you please.

This time out, we're taking a quick stroll through: Black Swan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grifters, The Verdict, The French Connection, The Brothers Grimm, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Enjoy, if you please...

Black Swan

It's... somewhat impossible for me to review this movie properly, because I'm not really sure how to approach it in the first place. Since I'm unable to assess the story (e.g., how much of this is hallucination? Does that even matter?), I have to confine myself to its content.

Black Swan was filmed as effectively as anything before it. Seldom have I seen a camera move in a way that really reflects what it's like when you're dancing or running. Everything looks beautiful - the tracking shots in the old-style NYC apartment, the ballet scenes... And the sheer extent of the careful editing, much less the way it's utilized, sets Aronofsky on a special pedestal; I have to think other editors felt like they'd never see such fine work ever again.

The performances are all excellent, from Hershey's work, which is like a toned-down version of Piper Laurie's part in Carrie, to Cassell, who hits the perfect balance of privilege, faux sophistication, and salaciousness. Kunis is so good that I almost wonder if the script does all the heavy lifting. I doubted Portman repeatedly because she resorted to her "small voice" so often, but she really does establish her part, and the unraveling that occurs to her. God, is it even an unraveling, or is it more like a collision between herself and the oppositional elements in her subconscious?

Black Swan was incredible. It did a hell of a lot, not the least of which was crafting a thriller/body horror film out of a ballet story. I also joked to my friend that maybe this movie should've been called Birdman - and it may have actually been an apt comment, as those two pictures have a lot in common. Bonus points go to the director for using the Black Swan for a laugh right near the climax, when a fine bit of humor would have a great impact.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tomas "Let the Right One In" Alfredson may not qualify as a great director, given the others on this list. Yet I have to think this movie is a sign that he might get there, some day soon. TTSS is an incredibly slow, long drama that gets you engaged with the story at the same time that it undermines the importance of the events therein.

Carrie - You Can't Top or Recreate This One

There’s a lot to say about Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, Carrie. As I discovered while researching the movie, it came out only two years after Stephen King’s novel – which was the book that turned King from an unknown writer to one of the most successful (and adapted) novelists in American history. There’s a lot to say, but I wanted to write a more stripped-down review for this well-known movie, and so I will try to be brief.

Carrie is a surprisingly-delicate tale – surprising in that it’s directed by a man, and based on a man’s book, and yet handles its primary subject with a delicate sensibility. It’s also delicate in that it tackles a sensitive time: when a girl becomes a woman. In a moment of daring perv, the movie opens with a long shot of a high school locker room. The camera pans across young women as they remove or don their clothes... And then it settles on the shower, and Carrie White (Sissy Spacek at 26, but seemingly much younger).

Carrie soaps herself up, her head twists to let the water spray along her form... And then she notices the blood that’s seeping straight down her legs. Apparently, Carrie has had no manner of sex ed, as she completely freaks out. Ms. White runs from one girl to another in a panic, screaming for help. But she’s already unpopular, all the other ladies can’t believe that she’s this ignorant, and Carrie makes the mistake of getting her blood on the white sweater of Sue Snell (Amy Irving), which is received quite poorly by Sue's alpha-female friend, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Recommended: Nikita (2010 CW Series)

If you're surprised that I'm recommending this series, then know that I join your emotion; I intended to make TV recommendations for a variety of genres, but this didn't have to be my action entry. To be honest, this post nearly went up four years ago, and was to be titled "Stripper shoes = go away now." Just look at that DVD cover on the right. Maggie Q is a lovely woman and a good actress, but the sight of her in those clothes and those lousy shoes is contrary to (a) my dislike of objectifying or mistreating women and (b) the fact that those are probably the least practical things that a secret agent could ever don. Even if I were still a horny teen, it would be senseless and excessive.

And, as a fan of Alias before it, I would've expected CW's version to have more hyper-tragic origins, more ridiculous stakes, and even more stupid fetish costumes for the lead to wear. And I would've been almost completely wrong.

So imagine my wonderment when I watched the show in order to trash it, only to realize that it's a minor treasure trove of solid performances, great plotting, good characters, and excellently-executed action sequences. Nikita surpasses the trappings of its genre - and that damn DVD box cover - to stand as a strongly-written action series and (gasp) one of the best ever examples of a female fighter on film or TV. I know that last part is a big statement, but I am confident in being able to back it up...

First, a little background. Back in 1990, Luc Besson released his fourth feature film, Nikita (also called La Femme Nikita, like Leon was The Professional in the US). The movie didn't receive unanimous critical praise, but it was a box office hit in France, and grew very popular Stateside - probably once Siskel and Ebert gave it a positive review. I remember enjoying the hell out of it, myself.

Please ignore the 80's-porn-esque music.

La Femme Nikita stood out for a lot of reasons. It had a fresh, interesting story: a French secret agency takes young violent convicts, fakes their deaths, and then trains them to work off their societal debt as highly-skilled assassins. It had some amazing action sequences, as well as some intense violence - like when "Victor the cleaner" takes Nikita's victim and uses chemicals to dissolve the body in a bathtub. And it gave a great arc to its strong female lead, a wild person who is molded into carrying herself with grace and style. Nikita's many flaws made her both more credible and more likable to audiences, which was already a lock because she's almost getting the Clockwork Orange treatment.

Three years later, the movie received an English-language remaking starring Bridget Fonda in the lead role. And then four years after that, Besson's pic was turned into a Canadian TV series called La Femme Nikita, which starred Peta Wilson and ran for five seasons. I recall watching Point of No Return and liking the original better, but I was never tempted to tune into the television show. So now it's been reworked on a level similar to what DJ described in his Hannibal post.

In fact, those two English-language efforts were part of why I rolled my eyes fairly hard when CW's Nikita was announced 9 years later. At that point, it seemed like a black hole of remake-itis, and I didn't know any of the cast, and CW Networks' offerings seemed pretty inferior back then. But, oh, how the times have changed - the Maggie Q program is practically an object lesson in not prejudging things...

Bill Murray Caricatureness

This final installment of Bill Murray came to my attention some time ago, in a post written by Katie Rife (who was herself working off a National Post article). The contents were most welcome news: someone took the time to make a caricature-style drawing of every role Mr. Murray has portrayed on film.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Inherent Vice, Wolfcop Extra Thoughts

Just two brief notes on my recent posts:

I suppose I left this out of my Inherent Vice review, but the principal sex scene is one of the worst I have ever seen. Now, I'm sure it's intentional on PTA's part, but it's hard to over-sell how bad it is. I wish I could find a clip of the moment, but in its absence, let me just describe: