14 June 2011

Camera Obscura

There are enough articles out there lamenting the return of summer as it pertains to the television watching experience. It should be noted that the rise in reality TV during a time when people should be outdoors doing exactly what they are watching is ironic, but not really problematic. Reality TV is all around us, 365 days a year. Personally, it is during the summer that I find some of the most interesting shows that would normally not get a spot in the line up are shown. Here is what I am currently obsessing over on TV this summer:

"Oddities"- I didn't even know there was a Science Channel, but a friend of mine turned me on to it and was shocked when he discovered I had never heard of this show before. Even more strange, I have been familiar with the cast and concept for some time. "Oddities" focuses on Obscura Antiques & Oddities in Manhattan's East Village. Specializing in the strange and unusual, Lydia Deets would certainly be a regular there, they have exactly what you're looking for. That is, if what floats your boat is anything from a human skull, to turn of the century medical equipment, to a taxidermied two-headed calf. Yep, it's that kind of place. I heard about it a couple years ago when actress Chloe Sevigny made a video tour/introduction to the neighborhood for Bust magazine. It's pretty cool and worth checking out. New episodes air Saturday and there is a mini-marathon on the 18th. Check local listings.

"Auction Hunters"- I got sucked into this show a few months ago at a friends house. Seriously, I have the best friends. How do they know about these things?! The show follows the Laurel and Hardy of storage auctions, Allen Haff and Ton Jones as they scouer California, and sometimes the whole country, in search of forgotten treasure. I love the enthusiasm both have for what they do, as well as the value of many of the items they find. There has been some chatter on the web that the whole show is fake and both Haff and Jones are actors. Personally, I wouldn't call a few appearances as Thug #1 or Bouncer or Detective #2 an acting career. Heaven forbid they try to supplement their income with extra and day player work. Isn't that what southern California is all about? Both say that about 80% of their purchased units are "busts", so doesn't it make sense to have some easy work on the side? Regardless, the show is pretty entertaining and airs on Spike TV throughout the week.

"My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding"- This one my sister turned me on to. If you've never seen it, it's worth checking out one episode just to squelch your curiosity. I don't recommend watching too many in too short a space, as they narrator repeats herself a lot as if the premise is impossible to comprehend or our brains may have leaked out our ears since last week and we forgot all about what we were watching. Seriously TLC, it's not rocket science. What it is, is a big hot mess. The show focuses on Gypsy's and Irish Travellers in England as they embark on their big day. Oddly, the most shocking thing isn't that most of the brides are 18 or under, it's the outrageous wedding dresses they were. Many are so heavy and cumbersome that they cut into the girls and permanently scare them. It's a fascinating look at a usually camera shy culture.

"The Killing"- If you missed out on this series, it's a bit late to jump in now. The season finale is this Sunday but it has been picked up for a second season (yea!!) and I'm sure AMC will re-run the whole thing after the season ends. Set your DVRs now! Based on a popular Danish TV series, the story follows the disappearance of a young woman in Seattle and the possible connections she may have to the changing political climate there. Detective Sarah Linden thinks it's her last day on the job when the body turns up and she's forced to stay on and partner up with her replacement, former NARC detective Steven Holder who may have a past of his own. The show is moody and dark and calmly paced. Each episode offers a clue into the disappearance and murder of Rosie Larsen or into the surviving characters. The pace can seem languid at times, but it all works to build suspense week to week. Those viewers who think "Mad Men" is like watching paint dry should probably avoid this series as well. Of course, you should probably avoid life all around. Just kidding. Kinda. Some of my best friends can't get into either show. Check listings for repeat showings.

NBC Thursdays- During the fall, there is so much competition for space on the schedule that often, shows I like get pushed aside. Case in point- NBC. I love "Community" and "30 Rock", but I know they will re-run in the summer so I set them aside while I watch other crap. This is the best thing about summer! Network TV is in re-runs and now you can catch up. My favourite new show of the mid season was "Happy Endings" on ABC. I totally forgot when it was premiering so I missed the first few, but you can watch them on Hulu or on abc.com. This is the new "Friends" for the 20-30 something set. The episode on hipsters and zombies alone is enough to get you obsessed with this show!

"SYTYCD" - My all time favourite reality show. Say what you will about some of the judges (poor Mary Murphy), but this is a show were the contestants have to have actual talent. Talent and drive they have perfected since they were very young. It showcases all forms of dance from the street performer to the classically trained ballerina, though the contemporary dancers do seem heavily favoured. It's not their fault really, just the name of the game. You need to be amazing at your style of dance as well as be able to learn choreography and a basic understanding of other styles. Cat Deely is the most enigmatic host on TV and it is an outrage that she has not been nominated for an Emmy.

Cable Rocks- Covert Affairs, White Collar, The Closer, The Glades, Eureka, In Plain Sight, and True Blood (#waitingsucks) all return this summer. I just got into "White Collar" and already am hooked on the story lines. The best part is, with the exception of "True Blood", you can jump right into any of these shows. Okay, okay; you can jump into "True Blood" as well, although by now you would be well advised to watch the Season 3 recap (playing constantly) or just set  your DVR for 7 PM Central time when the Season 3 finale followed by a series refresher airs before the new episode.

Two words: The Inbetweeners. The boys are back for the third and final season. If you're not watching, you're an idiot. Or, you don't have cable.

Of course, there are several new shows still upcoming that have my attention peaked:

Falling Skies on TNT- Can Steven Spielberg lead us wrong? If this show were on network television, I would be more worried the answer might be yes. Instead, basic cable outlets like TNT seem to stand behind their projects a lot more than network. Fingers crossed, this show following the aftermath of an alien invasion 6 months later has the chops. Noah Wylie in the lead role certainly helps.

Suits on USA- This show could really fall on it's face. The premise alone makes me cringe, but the charismatic Gabriel Macht will pull me in every time. Here, he plays a lawyer tasked with hiring the firms latest rookie pawn. Instead, he's charmed by a con man (sort of?) who knows everything there is to know about the law, just without the degree. I'm predicting I'm over this show in three weeks.

Wilfred on FX- Possibly the weirdest show coming to a TV near you. Ryan, suicidally down on his luck, begins to see his attractive neighbors dog in a new light. Specifically, as a man in a dog costume. Elijah Wood, as the lead, should bring the right mix of angst and humour. My understanding is this show is best watched after many cocktails or other enjoyments.

Alphas on Syfy- Kind of like "X-Men" if the mutants were getting pay check and health benefits. The always amazing David Strathairn could be the new Professor X. Well, not really. How could he be replaced? Still, my little geek heart is all over this one.

Whisker Wars on IFC- Was there any doubt the founder of Moustache Tuesday would not watch this show? this semi-mini-series follows Team USA as they travel the country competing in beard competitions in preparation for the world event. I love to see the winners every year and wonder, "What the hell do you do for a living?"

The Hour on BBC America- No info as of yet on the site, but Variety ran a nice article. The 6-part mini-series follows the adolescents of broadcast journalism during the Cold War. May sound boring, but there's a great cast and an espionage story line that should make it must watch TV.

What are you excited about watching this summer?

12 June 2011

Backyard Movie Making: Super 8

**** (4.5 stars)

Sometimes I think it would be nice to relive old memories. The ones from childhood you often think about in times when being an adult is rough. There's my first birthday party to see "The Land Before Time", or the homemade Twister game at my Kindergarten Halloween party. The year I was Catwoman for Halloween, or when a deer walked within three feet of me at my Grandmother's house. It seems obvious that is exactly what writer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg were doing when they conceived of "Super 8".

Set in 1979-1980, a group of boys entertain themselves in small town Ohio by making 8mm movies about zombies. What none of them expect is that the fantasy world they've created will suddenly show up on their door step. After witnessing a horrific train crash, their sleepy town of Lillian undergoes several strange events from lost phone lines, to missing car engines, to missing people. The U.S. Air Force shows up to take control of the wreckage as well as the town. The fate of the people lie in the youthful audacity and curiosity that only children have. What they find is at times funny, moving, scary, and cheesy.

It would be unfair to say too much about this movie. The trailers, some of the best in recent years, have done a good job of building suspense and excitement for the film without giving anything away. The audience I was with jumped three times, but laughed along with the jokes twice as often. And, that's the thing. This isn't really a sci-fi film, it's a coming of age movie that everyone regardless of how they grew up can relate. In the band of geeks, there's the chubby one, the dictator, the quiet one, the crazy one, the passive one, and the hot one. These actors, many of whom have few to zero credits to their names, capture what it was like to be adolescent. The dialog rings true because they were free to ad lib where need be. Another testament to Abrams power as a director. I would love to see him dial it back a bit and make a really personal (even more so) film. Something that reminds us this is the guy who created "Felicity". It's time for his "first feature" and not another blockbuster. Of course, with the estimated earnings of this movie, that dream will probably never come to pass.

It's easy to make comparisons to Speilberg's early work, especially "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", but that really diminishes the film that is Abrams creation. Certainly he was influenced by these films, but what filmmaker working in this genre isn't? There was a lovely quote by Spielberg in this weeks "Entertainment Weekly" that talked about how all films influence us and it's impossible to make a movie that doesn't draw on those influences, whether it be a complete rip off, homage, or tone. [side note: I wish I had the article with me, it was really good, but I'm writing this away from the house so I suggest you just go out and get you a copy!] Someone should wake up M. Night Shamylan and tell him this is how you make a movie.

I'm not sure this is the summer movie to trump all summer movies, but it is enjoyable on many levels that other blockbusters are not. A perfect double feature: "X-Men: First Class" and "Super 8". We could subtitle it: "A lesson in what the summer could be".

07 June 2011

The Power of X

It should be noted that I am a geek. One of the highlights of my year so far was attending the Dallas ComicCon and missing Leonard Nimoy in the hall by just seconds. Geek.

I love comic books; the art, the characters (both fantastical and realistic), the stories. Whether it be a far away galaxy or right here on earth, the future or in the present or the past; I am constantly impressed by what the writers and artists are able to accomplish. Comic books, and their grown counter part the graphic novel, represent the perfect blend of my twin passions- movies and books. Seemingly simple writing is reinforced by the art work, both working diligently to move the story forward and build characters frame by frame.

It seems shocking that it would take so long for Hollywood to jump on the geek bandwagon, until you remember comics are for kids. Or, at least that was the popular thought when the greatest characters were created in the 50s. Who would have thought a dime store comic book would later sell for millions?

Regardless of how long it took to get there, Hollywood eventually did come calling and have been turning out both good (1st Superman, Batman, Blade, Iron Man, Ghost World) and bad (Daredevil, the Hulk, Barb Wire, Tank Girl (though I LOVE that movie), Ghost Rider) ever since. The list could go on. It amazes me how anyone could fuck up a comic book movie. It's all right there! The set design, art direction, costumes, physical characteristics, etc. Each character has a long and layered back story. There are established hero's and villains, not to mention plots galore. Seriously, some one must be taking the piss to turn out as much garbage as they do.

It was with great excitement that I went to see "X-Men: First Class". I love the X-Men. Of all the big "brands", the mutant warriors of good and evil are by far my favourite. I love how each character is so different from the next, but there are subtle overlaps in powers. The line between good and evil is also blurred as each villain and obstacle are attacked by opposing sides- the "good" X-Men and the "bad" Magneto and his army. [side note: Does anyone else think it's kind of lame that Magneto didn't get a cool moniker for his brood?].

My favourite character is Jean Grey, almost exclusively because she becomes the Dark Phoenix whom I adore. It is much for this reason I loved "X-3", and seem to be the only person who did! I urge you to go back and watch it again. Sure, Brett Ratner isn't known for the subtlety that proved Bryan Singer the right man for the job. (Remember when everyone hated that he was directing? Fools!). The story was good but perhaps they tried to do too much in too little time (much like this newest film). **SPOILER ALERT IF YOU NEVER SAW "X-3: THE LAST STAND"** Still, who could forget when Mystique is cured of her mutant-ness and Magneto leaves her behind? I think the line is something like, "You were beautiful, now look at you." To a nude Rebecca Romijn!! Or, the struggle Rogue goes through when faced with the possibility of a cure. Should she? Shouldn't she? I hated the choice she ended up making, though now, years wiser, I understand it.

How did Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) meet and then how did they come to be foes? (I won't use the term enemy, as I've always felt they still have a great deal of love and respect for one another). When did they become Professor X and Magneto, respectively? When was the school for gifted youngsters established? Why is Charles in a wheel chair? All and more will be answered!

The film starts with our hero's in the 40s- Erik in a Nazi prison camp and Charles in a mansion in upstate New York. It then moves pretty quickly to the 60s and the dawn of the Cuban missle crisis. Mutants are alone, unrecognized, and in hiding. Erik is hunting his old nemesis and war criminal Sebastian Shaw (a devilishly cool Kevin Bacon) and Charles is getting is doctorate in Oxford. Soon, he is enlisted to help CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), and believer in the extraordinary, as she hunts for Shaw. Shaw has taken what he learned as the chief medical experiment guy in concentration camps and turned himself into a superhero with the ability to absorb energy. He looks smashing! Joining him on his quest for world domination is Emma Frost (January Jones), Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), and Azazel (an unrecognizable Jason Flemyng). On the side of good, Charles and Erik use a prehistoric version of Cerebro to locate other mutants who may be able to help in their task. Finally, more than half way through the movie, we meet the first class: Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel, not to be confused with the male Angel from "X-3" (Zoe Kravitz), Havok (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). It's nice to see some new faces in the already established movie-verse of X-Men.

Matthew Vaughn has transitioned well from the indie darling "Layer Cake" to more commercial fare like "Kick-Ass" and this film. His attention to character is precisely what this film needed. There is a lot of history (both real and from the comics) to cover, and not getting lost or dragged down and away from the plot could be tricky in less capable hands. I think there were just too many cooks in the kitchen, with four credited screenwriters, not to mention two story by credits. Clearly, someone had a lot of fun writing it but the film would have been better if it didn't try to introduce too much of the school. It should have been called "X-Men: Origins" and saved the "First Class" moniker for a second film when we could really explore the establishment of the school.

There are great performances through out, most notably Fassbender. It's great to see Magneto with a bit more humanity, before it is killed and he begins trying to lead the mutant uprising. Lawrence proves she can handle a blockbuster (good thing what with "The Hunger Games" poised to become the new "Twilight") and Hoult shows just the right edge of nerd and carnivore. The biggest fault in casting is the other women. I'm not sure if Jones is just used to the "Mad Men" school of acting or if she just can't act, but she was never really present and seemed to phone it in. One would think the role of Ice Queen would be perfectly suited to her, but I guess that doesn't work in every dimension of the 60s. Thankfully, it does not distract from the overall film. Byrne is also under utilized, but I disagree with other reviewers that her character was so unbelievable. We must remember, most women at this time were homemakers or secretaries. It is not far fetched that she would be demeaned or objectified in the work place. Of course, the Moira MacTaggert of the comics is a lot more interesting (and not a CIA agent), but what can you do?

I want desperately for this film to do well (knock on wood). I want more sequels! There is so much story to be told, so many characters who still have not had their day, it would be a shame to stop here. Whether you're a card carrying geek like me or just someone looking to have fun at the movies (all without having to check your brain at the door), then this is the must see of the summer.

**** (4 stars)

01 June 2011

Anatomy of Torture

This was supposed to be a review of the movie "Borderland", one of the "After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For" in 2007. Unfortunately, after about twenty minutes into the movie I had to stop watching. I wanted to stab myself in the face with a spork, it was so bad. This rarely happens, but when it does it's such a bummer! I was sick for a week and the best thing about it was wading through the long list of movies saved to my DVR and finally working my way through them.

The "torture porn" genre, often credited to Eli Roth though films of this nature have been made for decades, is certainly getting played out. You can't have torture for the sake of torture. Like any movie, there must be a plot (even a basic one) and characters we care something for. Roth is certainly a master at creating these types of stories as well as knowing when to stop and move on. I'm looking at you "Saw" and "Final Destination" franchise! In Roth's films, the characters interact well with each other and often have back stories worth knowing. The violence and gore serve the plot rather than as the only thing holding the movie together.

I recently re-watched "Hostel", though I'm not sure how appropriate the term "re-watch" is. I've watched this movie twice before but never in its entirety. The first time I tried watching, it was really late at night, I may have been drinking, and I kept falling asleep. I woke to a young man getting his Achilles sliced and fell back asleep. I woke again later to some other torture scene and fell asleep again. The next day I figured any horror movie I fell asleep to must not be worth watching. Then I saw "Hostel II" and fell in love. If this were the sequel, with a great story line featuring both sides of the same coin, hunter and hunted, than the first film must be better than I gave it credit for.

Perhaps it's "Hostel"'s fault for my disgust at "Borderland" and it's blatant rip off approach to gore. In horror, bad writing is easily forgiven by story. Bad acting can be covered up with blood and guts. But a combination of both is just lazy. "Borderland" is about a trio of mid-twenty somethings on vacation in Mexico looking to do what all young males in Mexico in movies are- boobs, booze, and drugs. Once there, they uncover a human sacrifice cult who, I assume, end up torturing and killing them. I don't really know. They lost me when Rider Strong, aged 28 at the time, loses his virginity to un underage prostitute dressed like Sailor Moon whom his friend paid. Groan! Okay, so it may have points for being based on a true story. Okay, so maybe it got better. The problem is, this is the age of ADD/ADHD and I don't have the patience to wait for a movie to decide to start.

While Roth wisely chose not to make a third "Hostel", the geniuses at Twisted Pictures/Lionsgate just can't help themselves when it comes to sequels. 2004s unique and uniquely disturbing "Saw" was a break through in horror when it came out. Here was a movie no one knew much about, made for pennies, that scared the bejeezus out of everyone. Entering the arena of forever famous villains is Jigsaw. Is he the puppet? The puppeteer? What's the end game? Huge box office sent the producers into a diabetic coma and they've popped out a movie a year since it's release. "Saw II" introduced more players and expanded the universe slightly, making it a worthwhile sequel. They should have stopped at "III".

Newline saw it's cash cows crow when they released "Final Destination" in 2000. It wasn't a huge success in the theatres, but DVD sales were enough to produce sequels with ballooning budgets but similar returns. Not the best market strategy I'd say, but they've put out 5 of these pictures. How many more ways can Death come for these kids? Besides, when you make a movie called "The Final Destination", that should be it. Seriously.

There is room in the world of horror and popular cinema for films that push the boundaries of decency and taste. Whether it be serial killers, cannibals, sadists, or toys possessed by evil; all can thrive and be enjoyed. The problem is not in the content, it's in the delivery. The notion that there are no new stories only new ways of telling them is especially poignant. Roth changed the co-ed camping genre with "Cabin Fever", James Wan gave us the worst puzzle solvers of all time in "Saw", Greg McLean took the hitchhiker genre to the outback with "Wolf Creek", Rob Zombie paid perfect homage to 70s exploitation with "House of 1000 Corpses" and it's follow up "The Devils Rejects". But the media and audiences act as if this is new. It isn't. George A. Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and the incorrigible Roger Corman have been making "torture porn" for years. We just called it horror. The fact is, horror is at its best when it's character driven. And, we don't even need to know the characters. How many A-list celebs starred in any of the above films? None. All made millions. 

So, to the hordes of hungry film students out there dreaming of their own "Hostel", take a deep breath and ask yourself, "What would Eli Roth do?" If the answer sounds like any movie you've already seen, you didn't really ask him. Go back to the drawing board and work a bit longer. I promise, it will pay off in the end.