Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Update 9

A couple William Wyler classics and a couple by favorite directors.


This was pretty damn good for what is essentially Bible fan fiction, and I liked it more than I expected. Ben-Hur is pretty much the definition of an epic, lasting well over three hours even without its extended overture and intermission, and telling the story of a man whose life has parallels to and intersects with that of Jesus. He butts heads with Rome, he spends years rowing on a galley, and he becomes a successful chariot racer. I'm not sure how I felt about the religious stuff, but it's generally secondary to the film itself, which moves along well despite the length and has a few really good scenes. The chariot race in particular is outstanding. There are obvious moments where the motion is sped up, but it's still a thrilling sequence over fifty years later.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Another Best Picture winner directed by William Wyler. The Best Years of Our Lives is sort of the quintessential inspirational movie. It was made very shortly after World War II, and shows the return of three soldiers to a town in central America; one missing his hands and worried how his family and high school sweetheart will take his new hook prostheses, one concerned that he won't be able to support his wife with no job to come back to, and one older with two kids who has concerns about his bank is treating GIs. They all go through some foibles before it all works out in the end. The important part is the journey, and there are a lot of good scenes in there, with everything from humor to betrayal and budding romance. It seems pretty honest for the time period, and it's a well-acted film in general.

Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese's first collaboration with Robert De Niro was originally conceived as a sequel to Who's That Knocking at My Door? and there are definite similarities. Harvey Keitel plays a similarly self-conscious street tough who balances hanging out with his criminal friends with a troubled romantic relationship, and there's a familiar sort of aimlessness to it. The film is as much about the experience of being in Little Italy as it is about the simple, flimsy plot, and while that may have worked for some, I found it a bit dull a lot of the time. Scorsese just wasn't quite the virtuoso he'd go on to be yet. Still, there's good bits here and there, particularly De Niro's unhinged performance which helped make his career and the ending, which is trademark Scorsese violence in full effect.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights

You know a director has lost his touch when one of his parodies makes Spaceballs look inspired. I don't want to be too harsh on Men in Tights, but the fact is it's not particularly funny, and on top of that it's fairly unoriginal. Pretty much every joke is either something being referenced that didn't actually exist in the film's time period, or just kind of silly. The musical numbers seem awkwardly stitched in, and the entire romantic subplot is basically exactly the same as the one in Spaceballs. The cast is solid, and about the only thing that keeps the movie decently enjoyable instead of completely boring. Cary Elwes basically plays Westley again as Robin Hood, Dave Chappelle is one of his wacky sidekicks, Richard Lewis plays the mildly villainous Prince John, and Patrick Stewart has a solid cameo. Dom Deluise also does a pretty good Brando in The Godfather impression for no real reason. I don't know, I chucked a fair number of times, but I still recognized the movie has highly lacking compared to most of Brooks' earlier work. I wish he had made more movies back when he still had ideas.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bioshock 2

The most interesting thing to me about Irrational Games taking the Bioshock name and sticking it on a game that takes place in a city in the sky is what it means for this game. When Bioshock 2 was announced (or really just when someone at 2K said there would be sequels), a lot of people complained that the game didn't need it, that its concepts had been explored and its story resolved. I didn't dislike the concept of another game, because I loved the original and thought that more could be done with the setting. But when they started showing off Columbia last year, the complaints started to make sense - if you can continue the franchise with the same core concepts without returning to the same location, then why did this game need to exist? It just makes things confusing. If Bioshock doesn't mean Rapture, then why does this game get the "2", instead of the one that really pushes things forward? Bioshock 2 isn't a bad game, but subsequent announcements have made it feel less like a full sequel, and I thought it focused on the wrong part of the original to expand upon.

The game takes place almost a decade after the first, with the original protagonist long gone, putting you in control of one of the first truly successful Big Daddy experiments, a man who found the city on his own and was then bonded to Eleanor, a Little Sister who happens to be the daughter of Sofia Lamb, a woman with opposite ideals to Andrew Ryan who took over the city after his death. Playing as a Big Daddy doesn't fundamentally alter the gameplay experience, as you still acquire Plasmids and weapons and use them in conjunction to fend off Splicers, gain control of Little Sisters, and make your way towards the finish line. I do like that the weapons are different, with at least a graphical facelift on some of the similar ones and some new features, and the brief underwater segments are a nice break from regular play. The Plasmids are pretty much all the same though, and while dual wielding makes things a bit smoother, it's pretty much the same game. The new areas seem to fit in with the setting that previously established and the new characters are just as out of their minds as the old ones, though they all still look like the same kinds of places and the series' brand of insanity in its characters is pretty familiar by now.

While its at its core a very similar experience, on area they seemed to really ramp things up is combat, which was honestly no one's favorite part of the first game. There's just more of it you have to do, assuming you go after the Little Sisters in order to buy the power-ups you'll need to get by later on. In the first game you had to kill a Big Daddy in order to rescue or harvest the girl he's protecting, but now to max out the Adam that pays for your upgrades, you have to kill a Big Daddy to grab her in the first place, protect her from waves of enemies as she draws Adam out of two separate corpses, and fight one Big Sister on every level, which is basically a faster and more dangerous Big Daddy. I just got fatigued at a certain point fighting the same kinds of enemies over and over again. Setting up traps and mixing and matching Plasmids and weapons is fun to be sure, but after a while you get bored with experimenting and just want to get to the end. I actually wonder now how hard it would be to play through the game skipping most of the Little Sisters,which would reduce your abilities but also reduce the time you spend fighting everyone. The game practically overwhelms you with supplies you can find in every nook and cranny, and even if enemies kill you you just respawn at the nearest Vita-Chamber anyway.

What really impressed me and most others about the first game was the atmosphere of the unique setting and the story. The problem with Bioshock 2 is that the setting is no longer unique, and the atmosphere is less effective when you've already played a full game using it. They're just out of tricks at this point. The first game wasn't really scary, but there was something fascinating about exploring a city intended to be an underwater utopia that went completely to hell very recently. All Bioshock 2 can do is more of that, and after at least 25 hours total spent in the city, I'm kind of over it. By the last couple levels I was just tired of picking up giant tape recorders and listening to one more sad story about how things went wrong. The plot of Bioshock 2 does a nice job of building off the first and arguably has a much better conclusion, but it also doesn't have a single moment as singularly memorable and powerful as the one from the first game that everyone remembers. There are certain parts of the last couple areas that are as inspired as anything the series has done, but by that point I just wanted to be done with it. I'm not really sure what it is, because usually I'm fine with sequels, and I played the first game way back when it came out so I should have been fully ready for another by now. I guess there's just a certain feel to the experience that made me only really need to go through it once. Or maybe the combat in the first game was easy enough that I could overlook the fact that it wasn't what interested me about the experience, while this time it was a struggle to enjoy the other parts of the game because of the constant fighting. In any case, it is a fun, well made game, but not the great one its predecessor was. In any case, I'll still check out the add-on that everyone raves about.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Movie Update 8

I watched half of these in a single day when they were about to expire from Netflix streaming. That was pretty wacky.


Although I didn't particularly enjoy watching it, this was a pretty interesting film. The focus on the actual composition of the images a lot of the time seems unusual for the period, and the way the plot changes away from what you'd expect it to do over time does as well. A woman goes missing during a get together, and her fiancee and friend grow close as they look for her. Monica Vitti is certainly a beautiful woman, and she manages to keep the movie from getting boring mostly by herself. Apparently Italy can do low-key stuff after all.

Cleo from 5 to 7

It starts out pretty great with an overhead color shot of a tarot reading, but I thought the rest of it didn't quite live up to that inventive beginning. Still, a pretty good movie despite the lack of real action. Cleo is a singer who is afraid that upcoming test results will show she has cancer, and the film follows about an hour and a half of her life in real time as she meets with a few people and deals with the possibilities of the future. Very simple, but mostly watchable nonetheless.

Jules and Jim

A French film about a friendship between a man from France and one from Germany, which is disrupted and poisoned over many years by a woman who enters their lives and turns out to be a pretty significant nutcase. It's amazing how generally enjoyable the movie is to watch despite the amazing amount of dysfunction that's put on screen. It's almost hard to believe that the book it's based on was at least somewhat autobiographical. But still, a well acted, interesting film. Francois Truffaut plays around with a lot of different techniques, and his use of things like freeze framing is pretty innovative. The kind of movie that makes you glad foreign cinema exists, because I have trouble imagining it getting made here.

The Kid

The first full length film directed by Charlie Chaplin is a pretty enjoyable one, though I don't think it had the skill of some of his later work, and there just aren't a ton of comedic set pieces of much note. The tramp finds an abandoned baby in an alley, and instead of doing the proper thing, he ends up trying to raise it himself. Years later he uses the kid as an accomplice to commit crimes for petty cash, and forces him to fight another child. Later when the proper authorities try to return the child to its mother, he kidnaps him and tries to keep him from his biological family. I know it's a comedy and there's a very sweet, loving relationship between the tramp and the kid, but hey, that's what happens in the movie.

King Kong

The original film, which it turns out Peter Jackson was quite faithful to. After seeing that this seems like kind of a student project summarizing a bigger story, but it is pretty noteworthy for the effects, which must have been pretty impressive in 1933, because I haven't seen much from a long period after that that looks significantly better. The combination of stop motion and compositing has a lot of obvious flaws today, but still manages to sell the dangerous adventure everyone goes on pretty well. There are some aspects of the movie that it could do without, like casual sexism and racism, but it's pretty darn watchable for when it was made. And the ending really is pretty affecting, even if Jack Black managed to deliver the final line better than the first guy.

Love in the Afternoon

The first film from Billy Wilder I didn't truly like. I mean, it's not bad at all, and it's remarkably successful for what it is. The problem is that it's a romantic comedy that's not very funny or romantic. When it goes for laughs it usually works, but the film is mostly preoccupied with the central relationship between Audrey Hepburn (who I can confirm is gorgeous but probably as responsible as anyone for the trend towards ultra-skinny women) and Gary Cooper. The problem is I don't know why I should be rooting for them. Cooper seems like a fine actor, but he's too old here for me to understand why she's attracted to him, and his personality doesn't help at all, with him being an aloof womanizer for the vast majority of the picture. Just kind of a weird movie.


Not quite as good as A Man Escaped, but Robert Bresson shows a lot of the same skill at creating a ton of tension and excitement out of very quiet protagonists performing perilous yet otherwise simple tasks. Several of these movies were kind of existential, and this definitely fits that. There's a certain dryness to the movie, but it lends it an air of realism that works well with the simple plot. A very well put together film, with a few lasting images throughout.


This is pretty easily the earliest Alfred Hitchcock movie I've seen, and for some reason my expectations weren't that high. In some ways, it's very much a product of its time. But I ended up loving it about as much as my other favorite Hitchcock films. The story takes a while but eventually goes to some pretty unexpected and shocking places, Judith Anderson is totally creepy, and George Sanders is as always amazingly slimy. Really good stuff.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

High and Low

For all of his movies about heroic samurai doing great things, my new favorite film by Akira Kurosawa begins with a scene where four business men discuss the future of women's shoes at their company. Obviously it goes a lot of different place from there, but I just thought that was a humorous image. High and Low is about a kidnapping, the ransom of the child, and the subsequent police pursuit of the perpetrator. It is also simply one of the best crime movies I've ever seen, and easily the best example I've yet seen of something resembling film noir that isn't American.

Toshiro Mifune plays a manager at the shoe company who has been attempting to obtain enough stock to take control before his rivals do, borrowing against everything he has to pay for it. His plans go awry though when he gets a call that his son has been kidnapped. In truth it was actually the son of his driver, but the kidnapper doesn't care, and he has a choice. Either he can pay the ransom and lose everything he invested, or refuse and run the risk that the kid gets killed. A huge portion of the movie takes place just in his living room, as he weighs his options, struggles with the decision, and talks with the police. The leader of the investigation is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, and while neither actor is quite at their most intense in their roles, it's still fun to see them together on screen. The movie eventually changes locations when the exchange is supposed to take place, and from there the story shifts gears away from the internal struggle of before and into a full-scale manhunt by the police force, galvanized by the public support for Mifune after his sacrifice.

It's not exactly a particularly original investigation, though it's hard to say how innovative some of the steps they took would have been when it came out fifty years ago. It's just an exceptionally well handled plot, which effectively uses a lot of the style that Kurosawa was known for the draw you in better than that stuff typically does for me. Some scenes are very long and really get into the fine detail of the investigating and tracking down of leads that goes on, which engrossed me in the manhunt and made every step towards finding the kidnapper feel like a victory. The kidnapper himself is show repeatedly to the audience, and I think they could have used this time a bit more to develop him into a person, but as it stands he's still a suitable villain, and the final scene of the movie that he's in is an amazing one. It's hard to point to one thing in High and Low and say that it's why it worked. Really, it's just a film that is executed proficiently and skillfully on every level.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Killing - Season 1

This will have spoilers, because I'm not sure I can express my thoughts while dancing around them the whole time.

I'm not really sure where to start with The Killing. It sort of took the opposite trajectory to last year's Rubicon. That show was fairly dull at first, and lost a lot of attention before it eventually actually became a pretty high quality program. Unfortunately the ratings didn't recover and it was canceled. The Killing on the other hand started off great, hooking an audience that then watched it slowly slide into mediocrity with bad writing and a number of stumbles, before a pretty awful final few minutes that left a lot of people angry. It managed to hold its audience though, so it gets a second season to try to bounce back.

There's a lot about the show that I still think is quite good. It has a strong hook in the beginning, pulling you into the mystery of who killed Rosie Larsen. The production quality is good, starting with the great opening sequence and carrying into the way the city of Seattle is shot. The music can be overbearing but generally works, and the gloomy atmosphere of the show pushes the main story along effectively. The acting is also good. The main character Sarah Linden is a bit dull, but she has interesting chemistry with her new partner Holder, who is a pretty fascinating oddball. The man who plays Rosie's father Stan is great as well, and the show's portrayal of grief is mostly intriguing. So the show has a strong base in the way it's presented and the mood it has. The problem is that the plot is a fucking mess.

In the 37 or so hours since the finale first aired, plenty of people have posted screeds about where the show went wrong and how much of a mistake it was the end the season without resolving its central mystery. They have already gone over the logical leaps and holes in the plot more carefully than I could. All that really matters is that it definitely seemed like they intended to tell us who the killer was by the end of the season, and they didn't. The other cliffhanger regarding whether Belko shoots Richmond doesn't bother me, because most endings like that don't bother me anymore. The other thing though both felt like a betrayal and didn't make any sense. Despite Richmond still being hung up on his dead wife and sleeping with numerous similar-looking prostitutes and creepily talking to one about drowning, he didn't kill Rosie. Or maybe he did, but the suggestion seems to be he didn't.

That's fine, because he didn't really have a motive. Sleeping with women who resemble a wife you can't go makes sense, but killing one seems like kind of a leap. The problem is that they throw this wrinkle in at the last second, when the common understanding was that they'd solve the murder in this episode and the writers did nothing to stop people from thinking that. The Danish show this was based on resolved the murder in its first season, after all. It also just doesn't make sense for the characters - both Gwen and Holder are apparently framing him for some reason, and there's no clear reason for either to do so. Holder didn't go about it particularly well either - ignoring the fact that his doctored picture wouldn't have held up in court, he couldn't have thought he'd get away with it when he used Linden's badge number to get the request in. I'm sort of just wandering into plot-hole-dissection territory here, but it's hard to avoid - it's one of those twists that seems like a shocker on the surface but doesn't make any kind of sense with what came before.

It's telling that making Richmond the killer would have been a better ending than what we got, because that was already a terrible resolution. All season long, the show has mostly been about four things: the murder investigation, Holder's personal life, the effect of Rosie's death on her family, and the fallout it has for Richmond's mayoral campaign. This whole time we've been wondering why Richmond's campaign has gotten so much attention, and it certainly wasn't because they thought it was a great storyline. It's an absolutely lifeless political story, almost never actually touching issues, and somehow making the whole thing hinge upon projects and circumstances tangential to actual debate. Apparently a dead girl in your campaign car is worse than a secret affair, but not worse than your building project interfering with a Native American burial site. So the only reason for this whole thing was apparently to position Richmond as the killer, and in the end he is... or he isn't... but either way it's a whole lot of wasted time.

This show drew a lot of unfortunate comparisons to Twin Peaks, which had plenty of problems of its own, but was still an entirely original and influential work which still has tons of cult appeal today. Both feature the murders of high school girls with seedy secret lives, but while Twin Peaks immediately made it clear that the show was about more than finding a killer, The Killing didn't. Pretty much every character on the show is either a suspect or close to one, which makes the series less of a mystery and more of a waiting game until the cops stumble on the one who actually happens to be guilty. Or not. Whole chunks of the season were wasted on red herrings and false leads, and meanwhile the investigators are waiting until the end of the season to check simple things like the gas left in the car and Rosie's Internet history. It's not a show about a realistic investigation and the grief an untimely death causes, which it wanted to portray itself as. It's a show about a string of unlikely actions and coincidences leading a couple of bad cops by the nose to a stupid plot twist, with a mother character who goes from sympathetic and tragic to completely unlikeable in a snap.

There are so many bits of this show that worked great, it makes it really unfortunate that the actual story turned out worse than the average episode of a standard cop procedural. I'm being harsh because the show should have been a lot better than it ended up being, and I'm going to watch the second season, not because I want to know what really happened, but because I'm giving them a shot to capitalize on all the potential the series still has. This was a seriously flawed season of television, and maybe I'm only not giving up because I'm delusional about what the show was supposed to be in the first place. But this is AMC, and I can't imagine they can get all the feedback from the show so far and not figure out a way to fix most of the kinks next year. Not that an abomination of a resolution is just a "kink", but if they could find a way to gracefully tie this up and start fresh on a new dead body, it could win back a lot of good will, at least from me.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Game of Thrones - Season 1

Despite still being in progress, A Song of Ice and Fire is probably my favorite fantasy story, so I had a lot of expectations going into the television adaptation. And thankfully, they were mostly met. The show is far from without its flaws, but I was mostly impressed by how well and how faithfully they executed on the depiction of the world George R. R. Martin created and the events that take place in it. It starts with the casting and production, which are both excellent for TV. Almost everyone seemed well suited for their roles, and though not everyone lined up exactly with how I pictured them or how they were described in the book, they all seemed close enough to the essence of their personality, and on top of that the acting itself was generally great. A few of the younger actors seemed a bit unsure at times, (not including the girl who plays Arya, who pretty much nails it) but it was made up for by the multitudes of great character actors who play the grizzled veterans who represent the old days, when war was simple and there were no monsters coming to get everyone. The look of the series is fantastic, with a solid visual style and great locations, sets, and costumes for everyone. There are a few signs that it's not filmed on a blockbuster budget, especially the lack of any battles larger than minor scuffles, but they dance around that well.

All of that would be for nothing if the writers messed things up, but luckily they really didn't. Every episode except for two (one of which was written by Martin himself) was written by the creators of the show, and they definitely seem to get the series as well as anyone could hope. There are a few concessions that have to be made - I was iffy on the first episode because it seemed a bit obvious about introducing all the characters and their relationships, and once in a while there would be an expository scene that just felt clunky or unnecessary. The fact that they often tried to hide these flaws with gratuitous nudity (between this, True Blood, and Boardwalk Empire, HBO is THE go-to channel for superfluous tits) was a bit disappointing as well - the books have always been frank about sexuality, but it was kept to situations where it was warranted. But I was still mostly impressed by the writing, which retained the core essence of all the characters and plot points while dealing with the fact that they can't just throw all of the narration and internal thoughts of the various viewpoint characters from the book onto the screen. They also generally made good use of the ability to show events that the viewpoints from the book never saw - I liked seeing so many great moments get recreated on film, but some of the best scenes in the series were invented to show new things. They developed Tywin more and shows some of the relationship between Littlefinger and Varys, just a couple of the new elements I liked a lot. I wouldn't say Game of Thrones is totally great the same way the books are, but they're a more than serviceable adaptation, and I can't wait to see the next book get the same treatment in 2012.

Also, here are my recaps for all the episodes of the season:
Winter Is Coming
The Kingsroad
Lord Snow
Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things
The Wolf and the Lion
A Golden Crown
You Win or You Die
The Pointy End
Fire and Blood

Sunday, June 19, 2011


This is only the second film by Paul Thomas Anderson that I've seen, but he's more than convinced me at this point that he's one of the most talented directors working today, and moreover one that will do nothing to compromise his vision in order to appeal to a wider audience. This is a movie I can easily see a lot of people hating, either because it's too long and boring or because it's pretentious or because there are some pretty eccentric scenes and performances or because the ending is one of the most out-of-left-field things I've ever seen. Only the first one really bothered me at all, not that it was boring, but that three hours is a lot for a movie about the strange connections between regular people, and they probably didn't need all that time. But the most part I loved the movie, enjoying the twists and turns of its coincidence-driven plot, laughing at the funny parts, and being impressed by the power of the dramatic parts.

The crazy part about the movie being three hours is that it's not even the whole story - there's a subplot with a body found in apartment that is touched on again but not resolved. It's tangential to the real movie though, which is about a group of characters played by an all-star cast of actors as they experience one of the most eventful and unusual days to go by in their city. A lot of the characters are larger than life, especially the ones played by Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore, who are both affected by the looming death of a bed-ridden old man.The main thing that ties everything together is a long-running game show that pits regular adults against smart children, a show that everyone seems to be watching as the current group of kids approaches the record for longest run on the show, and one that William H. Macy's character was on as a kid before he grew up to become William H. Macy. My favorite character was probably John C. Reilly's, a bumbling cop with a good heart and a particular distaste for foul language. If you're going to watch Magnolia it should be with the knowledge that it's a strange movie, but if you have the same taste for unique experiments and genuinely shocking and entertaining moments as me, you'll probably like it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Whitest Kids U' Know - Season 5

The Whitest Kids will go on as a comedy troupe, but this was the final regular season of their TV show. For some reason the show actually being over is making me a little sadder than I thought it would; I guess it's just something about how these just seem like five normal guys who stumbled into an opportunity to put their wacky ideas in front of a national audience and did a lot with it. Not every sketch works, sometimes the humor is a bit juvenile, once in a while it seems like they aren't going far enough with the breadth of their concepts. They even reused a couple sketches this season, which is really hard to forgive for something that's only ten twenty-ish minute episodes. But I'll still miss their jokes about anything and willingness to do anything next year.

What was pretty interesting this time was their dedication to a single idea over the course of the entire season - a movie-length sketch called The Civil War on Drugs that played out in chunks every single week and told the story about a couple idiots in the south who mistakenly believe the recent rebellion is about marijuana and get themselves caught up in history, meeting everyone from General Lee to President Lincoln in the process. Some of the gags are pretty easy, but their dedication to the whole thing is impressive, and it's easily the most complex thing they ever did. I had an idea about how they could have easily tied the whole thing back to a sketch from the first season that's still my favorite thing they ever did, but the missed opportunity didn't bother me that much. Now that the show's over, I guess I'll probably be checking out some other sketch comedy groups that have made it on TV over time. And maybe I'll see Miss March, but I'm not sure about that one.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Superjail! - Season 2

I'm not quite sure about this season of Superjail. They clearly made strides to make it a much more accessible show, with fewer sequences of pure violent carnage, more recognizable characters with defined personalities and roles, and stories that actually went somewhere rather than weakly justify minutes of animated mayhem. The animation is a bit different too, with more of a focus on cartoony gestures than rapid-fire, bloody gags. If someone didn't like the first season, I think they might be inclined to like this one more.

But as someone who enjoyed the absurd fever dream insanity of the first season, I felt like that quality was missing a bit here. I don't need a reason to watch 11 minutes of over-the-top violence, and the increased focus on regular humor doesn't quite cover for the reduced bloodshed because the show just isn't as funny as others that go for the same thing. It's still probably easily the most violent thing on Adult Swim's lineup, a network that is no stranger to that sort of thing, but it also lacks the kind of strong comedic personalities and sharp writing that most of the other series has, and when it leans on that side, it comes up short. Jackson Publick from The Venture Bros. does a lot of voice work this season, but he doesn't exactly have an inherently humorous voice or Dana Snyder's ability to make any statement funny, and neither do the other actors on the show. There were some episodes I liked, and all of them probably had at least one scene worth watching. But the betwixt and between nature of the series' direction this time around kept me from really liking it a whole lot. If the show returns, I hope there's a bit more of the free-form brutality of the first season than there was here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

I've had mixed feelings about the Harry Potter franchise for a long time, especially the films, and this one was no different. I do think it's David Yates' best work yet for the series, and the best movie since the third. And even cutting as much as possible, getting everything important from the book into a single movie without seriously compromising the story (The third movie is the only other one that really works on its own partly because they hacked off enough that it feels like a story rather than a visual CliffsNotes) might have ended up taking well over three hours, and I can see why creatively they wouldn't want to do that, even before considering that splitting it into two means double the ticket, merchandise, and home video sales. But making the seventh book into the seventh and eighth movies does damage each of them a little bit, just because on its own this one felt incomplete. Put together the two halves might actually make the best work yet for WB in this series, but as it is it's just the first half of an ending.

Deathly Hallows Part 1 immediately feels very different from the rest of the series, as it's clear from the beginning that bad stuff is going down, and we see nothing resembling the fairytale the first couple movies portrayed. Starting with the third movie (there it is again) the series changed a bit, showing more maturity as its central actors got better at their jobs and the story got darker. It's completely different here though; we don't see the school at all and get basically a single glimpse of any students besides the main three and their relatives. The entire acting population of Great Britain all come back to their roles here, though mostly only get a scene or two to remind us they exist before the movie pushes forward again. After an exciting if slightly silly action sequence establishes how high the stakes are by killing off a couple minor characters, Part 1 basically turns into a road movie with heist elements, as Harry, Hermione, and Ron search for the doodads that will let them stop the bad guy, brood out in the wilderness, and eventually have some catharsis in their various relationships before the climax, which does its job but just feels minor compared to the ends of previous movies.

The film is very well shot, with a dark and somber look that matches the dreary mood of what the world has turned into. There's still moments of comedy generally revolving around the fact that people casting spells all the time can be kind of silly, but for the most part there's a lot of doom and gloom. One of my favorite bits was a small action scene where the gang gets attacked in a coffee shop; the simple brutality of the damage done and the whole tone of the scene made it feel like a shootout from a mob movie, and I thought it got across the intended feeling of the film as well as anything. The section of the story where the kids are all camping out away from society trying to figure out their next move is already pretty infamous from the book, and it sticks out even more here when it dominates the second half of the whole thing. No single scene sticks out as terrible, but in general these parts feel repetitive and just sort of drag the momentum they'd built to a halt. The characters do learn important things here, but it just seems like they could have handled it a bit more gracefully and quickly. They probably could have found twenty minutes here and chopped them off the make the whole thing a flat two hours. Despite this problem, I do think it's one of the best movies in the series, and while it's the first one I didn't see in the theater, I'm glad I didn't see it until now, because it will be fresh in my mind when the final chapter comes out next month.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Trailer Park Boys

Trailer Park Boys the show is more or less what the movie suggested - a series about a trio of career criminals who live in a trailer park and try to pull off schemes to get rich (or rich for a trailer park resident, anyway) while constantly getting drunk, stoned, and in trouble with Mr. Lahey, the park's supervisor. Each season has a pretty recognizable formula - a few people (usually Ricky and Julian) get out of jail, get acquainted with the current situation in the park, and proceed to turn that on its head with their plans and petty crimes. The three main characters are a great little group. Julian is the leader who never seems to live up to his own potential, maybe because he basically lives his whole life with a mixed drink in his hand; Ricky is the one at the center of most conflicts, with a peculiar take on the English language and a short temper; Bubbles is weird looking and loves cats, and often has to be protected by his friends, but also has a sinister streak at times.

The show's not just them though -  over the course of the series you meet a ton of the park's residents, including the previously mentioned Lahey and his assistant Randy, who never puts a shirt over his huge gut; Corey and Trevor, who adore the main characters and act like pets around them, and a whole bunch of others. There's no one really recognizable in the show, besides a young Ellen Page as Lahey's daughter in the second season, but the casting benefits the series, as everyone fits their part perfectly and will do anything, no matter how unglamorous, to further the story or just get a laugh. The plots the boys cook up rarely get terribly complicated, but there's an intricacy and excitement to the chaos that always follows that keeps it from getting stale, and the show is just a fun mix of humor and an oddly entertaining bumbling crime drama. The mockumentary angle doesn't make a ton of sense, since I can't imagine anyone, even if they're as dumb as these guys, letting a crew film things like their massive marijuana operation or a supermarket heist, but like most shows with this issue, it doesn't really make it less fun to watch, and provides a few entertaining opportunities. The show ran for seven years last decade, and while it's not my favorite comedy of the period, it was certainly a good time for its entire run.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8

 I am not the biggest fan of Steven Spielberg's early science fiction movies, but I connected with Super 8 more than I expected. It takes place in 1979, but despite that offers a very universal story about the difficulties of being a young teenager that collides with a mysterious and exciting sci-fi/horror plot. It's not perfect, but it's one of my favorite movies of its type in a long time.

Although it's kind of hard to define what that type is - it's not really a family movie, and it's not really all action either. It blends both elements really well, giving both plenty of time without shortchanging the other. It's not exactly a unique formula, it just seems like modern movies don't try to do it, or just don't do it well. A big key to the film's success is the actors they found to play all the kids. It wouldn't have worked at all if they were typical child actors, but the casting people did a great job of finding kids who fit their characters, and pull off their specific personalities believably. J.J. Abrams' script does a lot of good work too. I would imagine he has a much better memory of what his adolescence was than most writers in Hollywood. The younger Fanning sister is the only one that I've heard of before, and though I haven't seen Dakota act in a while, I'd say Elle is definitely a better actor than she was at the same age. There aren't a lot of significant adult characters, but the ones that are there fit their roles in the story well. As any good Spielberg-esque genre movie with kids, daddy issues are a significant obstacle, and while some of that could have been handled more subtly, it never stopped the movie dead.

The other side of the movie was great, too. Very loud, very well paced, very fun to watch. Much like Cloverfield, the movie Abrams produced a few years ago, there's a lot of time spent wondering just what the hell is actually going on in the story. It's not really about what specific thing is wreaking havoc on this small town though, it's about why it's doing what it's doing. The hints and teases come early and frequently, and the kids worrying about both what is causing damage and why the military wants to cover it up make for an engrossing plot. The visual effects are not overwhelming but they're very effective at enhancing the action without masking the story. Besides the somewhat obvious family stuff, another thing that bothered me a bit about the writing was some of the over-the-top ways the setting was established - I thought the movie did a good job of creating a sense of place without obvious references to songs and technology from the period. But overall the setting worked really well, and I loved the way the plot unfolded and set up some really exciting scenes. Abrams is basically the king of genre entertainment right now, and he really seems to be growing as a filmmaker. I'm definitely looking forward to the next Star Trek, and whatever he does after that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Movie Update 7

Do I really have nothing significant to get off my chest about any of these movies, or am I just getting lazy? You decide.

À Nos Amours

Amours is another film in the Incredibly Painful to Watch Family Drama style, this time coming from France. It's about a girl who doesn't know what she wants out of life, and has a difficult relationship with her parents and brother, and the only way she knows how to cope with both is to spend time with a variety of men. She's not sure she's capable of loving anyone, while at the same time she gets guys to fall for her. It's not very pleasant to watch, but that's why it's a success. It's a very real seeming movie, and the reality it presents isn't pretty. The dad is the most interesting character, I wish he had more scenes.

The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club is sort of like a Boardwalk Empire movie with a lot of singing and dancing and not much else. Richard Gere stars as a New York musician who gets involved with gangsters, falls in love with one of their girlfriends, and then uh... the plot kind of trails off. There's also a plot about a pair of tap dancing brothers. The movie is more about the famous club itself than a real story, and I felt this hurt it quite a bit. It's not bad, there's just not much of an arc there. Things happen for a while and then they stop. A very young Diane Lane looks nice, Nick Cage gives a wacky early performance, and James Remar is pretty awful as the big bad gangster. Bob Hoskins is better as one of his business partners. Apparently Gere played his own trumpet for this movie, which is kinda cool. Bottom line, when your director made The Godfather, you kind of expect more from the other organized crime movies he makes than this.

Duck Soup

I've seen bits of Marx Brothers movies before, but this is the first time I watched one all the way through. It's pretty short, and packed to the brim with hysterical scenes. It's sort of the perfect blend of silent movie slapstick with modern witty dialogue. Groucho is appointed the leader of a country called Freedonia, and spends more time coming on to women and screwing around than directing policy. Chico and Harpo are spies for a conniving foreign ambassador, and also screw around a lot more than they do their jobs. Zeppo is the one who never developed a funny personality of his own, and he's basically just there, in his last film with his brothers. There's a lot of great lines and funny set-ups, though to be honest the hardest I laughed the whole time was at a couple scenes where Harpo was just being a douchebag to a street vendor. The fact that he never really got his comeuppance somehow makes the whole thing better. The mirror scene is a classic, too. I definitely want to see more of their movies together.

The Graduate

The first two films Mike Nichols ever directed were Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and this, which is pretty damn impressive. It features the great Dustin Hoffman's first big role as a college graduate who doesn't know what he want out of his life when he is seduced by the wife of his dad's business partner. From there, things get more complicated. The style of the film is really great, with every shot seeming to be carefully chosen, and I liked the unusual nature of the main performances. The integration of Simon and Garfunkel tunes into the film works well, too. It's too funny to be a drama and not really that terribly funny for a comedy, but it straddles the line well, and it's just a unique, memorably movie. Not much about it I didn't like.

Gran Torino

I think this is a movie that would have benefited if Clint Eastwood wasn't the only person from it you've heard of. Not that a movie needs stars to be good, or that there isn't a reason he went with an unknown cast. It's just the acting in general is pretty bad besides Eastwood itself, and when you're dealing with the delicate race issues the story addresses, bad actors sort of exacerbates the issue. Some scenes become downright laughable when they should be dramatic and tense. Eastwood's direction is good enough, and the story interesting enough, that the film is mostly able to overcome a lot of these flaws, I still found it to be more of a pretty interesting experiment than a truly good movie, though. I kind of liked that his character really is just a total racist who ends up mixed up in something where he can do some good, rather than it being something hokey like a misguided old man who eventually sees the error of his ways. A very simple movie that I think could have been better.

La Jetée

This is a short film composed entirely of still images. It was an inspiration for the film 12 Monkeys. If you know about 12 Monkeys, you can guess that this short film is about time travel, and you'd be right. The story is pretty intriguing if light on actual detail, and has a pretty haunting ending. Very cool experiment more than a real movie.

The Spirit of the Beehive

A Spanish film that is probably some sort of metaphor or allegory based on how it went. Shortly after their civil war, a child watches Frankenstein and becomes enchanted with the idea of spirits. It's a slow paced movie without a ton of dialogue or plot, but it does some interesting things with the classic tale and has a mood that enhances it greatly beyond the simple workings of the story. The direction, lighting, editing, and performances all combine to create a very chilling, dreamy atmosphere. It's the kind of movie that I recognize as good, but make me glad I decided to stop writing a full review for everything I see. I just don't have many words for it.

This Is Spinal Tap

The quintessential mockumentary. I was a bit surprised by the general flow of the movie, which didn't have as many wacky laugh-out-loud moments as I expected, and actually made sure to tell a real story about friendship and growing old with its silly fake hair metal band. The film follows around Spinal Tap when their star has faded, and they find themselves playing smaller venues than they're used to and struggling to put out a new album with their artistic vision intact. It's a funny movie, but it's also a very poignant one. And while the jokes aren't constant, they're still generally really good ones, especially whenever Christopher Guest is on the screen. Obviously "but this goes to 11" is the classic, but I also really loved him showing Rob Reiner the piano piece he'd been working on and especially his reaction to the album cover that was chosen for them. I should get around to checking out some of the movies he directed himself.

Werckmeister Harmonies

A film by Béla Tarr, the master of the long take. Harmonies is probably most famous for lasting over two hours yet being composed of only 39 individual shots, though the camera moves so much within a scene that if you saw several still images from one take you'd assume they were all different shots. Not that you don't feel the effect of the unique filming style, lots of time is spent showing characters perform mundane tasks for minutes on end, which helps create a mood that is unique to his work. The movie works because it has a haunting story and features a number of extremely striking images throughout, images which have their power enhanced by the way they're lingered on. Besides the style though, the rest of the movie didn't grab me that much. I just can't get interested in the stories themselves, despite the way Tarr presents them. I'd recommend it to someone before Satantango if they were interested in checking out his work, if only because it isn't seven hours long.