Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black, coupled with the tremendous House of Cards, gives Netflix now two masterpiece shows to stake its claim as a powerhouse studio in the making. I called House of Cards one of the best TV shows around a few months ago, and I may like Orange even better. It is, by my account, flawless. Sure, maybe I'd cut 15-20 seconds off of Regina Spektor's great opening theme song, but that's just because I wanna get to the show already! While a show set in a women's prison may lead some to expect certain things, this show blazes its own trail. One way it does that is by being one of the funniest shows on TV. At least once in every episode, something made me have a big belly laugh. Creator/executive producer Jenji Kohan (Weeds) also lets us into the hearts and minds of these women so that we get plenty of drama as well.

Each episode has flashbacks to help us fill in the stories of most of our main characters. This approach is pulled off perfectly by the series' directors (which include many TV veteran filmmakers as well as names like Andrew McCarthy, Allison Anders, and Jodie Foster) so that each episode is semi-dedicated to one character. Main heroine Piper (Taylor Schilling, who deserves any and every award she's given) is a focus of each episode, but her friends, enemies, and others also get their day in the sun, with sometimes funny, often heart breaking stories of how they ended up in Litchfield Minimum Security Prison. My favorites include Russian hardass Red (Kate Mulgrew), who doesn't soften so much as we begin to see where she came from and forgive her harder edges, same goes for Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). There's the transgender prison beautician Sophia (played by real life transgender actress Laverne Cox), peppy driver Morello (Australian Yael Stone, whose Boston/Jersey accent is simply a marvel), annoying Bible thumping former meth head Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning, grossed up with rotting teeth), Alex Vause (That 70's Show's Laura Prepon) who is the reason Piper is in prison to begin with, and many, many more characters astutely written and impeccably acted, making for a cast that can contend among the best acting TV has ever seen. Special mention must also go to Pablo Schreiber's performance as George "Pornstache" Mendez, one of the most gleefully hateable characters I can remember. Not because he's a cardboard cutout villain, but because of the humanity Schreiber injects into this asshole that is a type of guy we've all known in our lives and didn't like.

The 13 episodes of both seasons absolutely flew by, and I eagerly await S3. The word I keep coming back to when thinking about Orange is the New Black is flawless. Even when I try to look for cracks in the armor, all I can come up with is that if you're weirded out by girl-on-girl stuff you probably won't like the show. But they don't hide that. Before we're even 30 seconds into the first episode there's a glimpse of Piper and Alex making out in the shower. So they let you know up front. And even though it's a "prison show", it's not OZ, or even Shawshank Redemption when it comes to violence or getting a prison wife or anything like that. This is minimum security, generally non-violent offenders type of prison. So it's a whole different feel than any other prison thing we've seen before. And I'll say again, a flawless show that's among the best I've ever seen.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Sunshine

A movie like Danny Boyle's Sunshine is incredibly frustrating. Its premise is a great one: the sun is dying and a crew of astronauts and scientists are sent to detonate a bomb inside the sun, thereby reigniting it and saving humanity from a slow decent into fatal cold. The problem is that Boyle is a crap filmmaker, and continually undermines the possibilities that this movie had. The crew is aboard the Icarus II, their mission the absolute final chance for Earth, as the previously sent mission aboard Icarus I went missing before being able to detonate its bomb. So many philosophical themes could've been explored. So many tense situations could've been had after our heroes catch the distress beacon still going from Icarus I. What happened? Why? How? These questions are answered, but very unsatisfactorily, much like the rest of the movie.

The Icarus II is populated by a truly stellar cast, with Cillian Murphy's physicist Capa being the closest thing to a main character. Murphy is better in the role than the movie deserves, and the rest of the cast follows suit. Rose Byrne as the pilot Cassie is gorgeous and heartfelt and just a wonderful bit of work from the underappreciated actress. Chris "Captain America" Evans is straight forward and no nonsense. Biologist Michelle Yeoh is also gorgeous and does especially good work when seeing her oxygen producing garden going up in flames. And the rest of the group is equal to these stars, with the ever reliable Cliff Curtis being his usual brilliant self.

The problem ultimately becomes that Boyle has no interest in exploring the psychology of the pressure a group would be under if they were the last hopes for the human race. Although the issue is brought up, it's quickly sideswiped by Boyle's hackitude in letting the issues play out. He's gotta put us, ultimately, on an Alien like picking off of the crew for various stupid reasons, none of which work dramatically. And Boyle has some nice visuals, not even all of them are stolen from Soderbergh's Solaris remake, which makes it again disappointing for the viewing experience.

**SPOILERS**
If you are upset by spoilers, stop reading now

What happens is that they change course to try and pick up the bomb from the Icarus I, because two bombs are better than one, right? So they find and dock with the abandoned ship, with intentions to grab some of their oxygen as well. But Boyle turns things into a ridiculous slasher movie mentality by having the Icarus I captain Pinbacker (the typically genius Mark Strong) sabotage things and inflict chaos on the dwindling crew members. Why? Who the fuck knows, since Capa finally succeeds at detonation and saves the day. The stakes were high already, it's the saving of the human race. Why do the last 30 minutes of the movie become a horror flick? It doesn't work in the context of the movie, it doesn't work within the context of itself (Boyle can't even get it right regardless of how badly it fits with everything around it), and it not only doesn't add anything to the movie, it knocks it so far down that the movie can't get back up.

Boyle also makes the mistake of not resolving his stupid bullshit before he tries to go for some poetic visuals and moments with Capa. So we can't get lost in the moment because we expect Pinbacker to magically pop out at any moment (his ability to be certain places has proven he has magical powers in addition to his superhuman strength, not sure where that came from). This is such an awful miscalculation on the part of a filmmaker that it wrecks what he had left of a movie and it never recovers. From the previous Boyle's I'd seen (Trainspotting, The Beach, and Slumdog Millionaire) it was obvious that any success his movies had came from the acting and was in spite of Boyle. But not even Slumdog was so ruined by Boyle's true hack-dom as a filmmaker.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past is/was one of the great storylines in all of X-Men comics history. Considering how The Dark Phoenix Saga was absolutely butchered by the third entry in the X-Men movie series, I was more than a little worried about how this would turn out, even with the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair after the hack Brett Ratner ruined X-Men 3, and the well-meaning but boring and uninspired direction by Matthew Vaughn in X-Men: First Class. But Singer proves again that he’s the right filmmaker for this franchise. Even the returning First Class cast all do superior work as actors under Singer’s direction, and the epic time travelling tale of Days of Future Past is handled remarkably well, especially considering the sheer number of characters Singer must juggle.

Naturally, there are many changes that were made in the transition to the big screen. Most people probably want to see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine be the one to go back in time, though I would’ve loved if it was Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde who went back, as it is in the comics. She’s fantastic and infinitely watchable in her small role in these movies. But as Wolverine is sent back in time to the 1970’s to help stop the development of mutant killing machines known as Sentinels, it makes sense that his healing ability aids in the torturous journey back. Singer wisely shoots many things like the paranoid 70’s thrillers from Sydney Pollack or Alan J. Pakula, but he’s never indebted to them or too reverent as he was to the original Superman movie when he made Superman Returns back in ’06 (the reason he didn’t direct X-Men 3). Many of the actors get their room to shine, especially Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. But as a comics nerd growing up, it’s just awesome to see Bishop and Colossus and all my childhood favorites on screen, even if the only new characters to get any significant time are Peter Dinklage as Sentinel designer Bollivar Trask and a really fun few minutes with the lightning fast Quicksilver, who they even hint at is Magento’s illegitimate son (as he is in the comics).

But really I think the star of this movie is Bryan Singer. The way he juggles the future and past storylines, giving everyone at least a few moments to shine (although honestly, couldn’t every movie use more Ian McKellan, even movies he’s not in?) and unleashing some truly spectacular action sequences, the jail break and the raising of the stadium being the most impressive. But also the relentless attacks from the future Sentinels and letting us not be confused even though there are characters throwing around teleportation portals as both escapes and ingenious attack measures. Singer masterfully holds all the puppet strings in place and delivers what is, I think, without a doubt the best movie of the X-Men franchise.

The Amazing Spiderman 2

The Amazing Spiderman 2 continues on the previous entries habit of getting Spiderman absolutely right. Though grounded in reality, the world is a little over-the-top, the one liners are occasionally too much and make Peter Parker seem like an arrogant young kid (which he is), but the action is fantastic and the villains have a way of having some pathos that they don’t always do in other superhero universes. Emma Stone deserves special mention as making her Gwen Stacy the model on which all “girlfriend in a superhero movie” roles should be, as she’s smarter than Peter (Andrew Garfield, fantastic again) and bails him out at least as many times as he saves her. A damsel in distress she is not. Ultimately, The Amazing Spiderman 2 has too many villains, too many throwaway moments (or moments that should’ve been thrown away), and is a little too long. Still, it was a blast and worthy of standing alongside Spiderman 2, the only great entry in the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi movies.

With, by the end of the movie, having 3 villains, it becomes too much. But Paul Giamatti is hamming it up with a ridiculous Russian accent that made me smile in his 5 minutes or so of screen time as Rhino. Dane DeHaan does some nice work as Harry Osborn, spoiled little rich kid who finds out he’s dying from a genetic disease and has to go about finding out how to stop the disease. Eventually he becomes the Green Goblin, one of Spiderman’s most iconic foes. It’s too bad that he’s ridiculous to look at and listen to once the villainous transformation takes place, but he does get a game changer of a villainous deed that is handled as well as anything has any moment in any comic book movie yet. The main villain of the piece, the one I wish had had more screen time, is Jamie Foxx’s terrific obsessive fan turned dangerous enemy, Electro. I liked the consequences shown for when a villain is able to have the almost God-like ability to control electricity. Imagine New York City completely blacking out because of this uncontainable and uncontrollable lust for electricity that Electro has. This movie imagines those type of consequences.

Andrew Garfield, who I first noticed in his extraordinary work in Terry Gilliam’s extraordinary movie The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, is simply a perfect fit for this role. Even at 30, he still is passable as a high school senior and college freshman. He plays Peter wrestling the demons of what it means to be Spiderman and whether he’s actually ultimately doing good or bad for the city. He shows the physical toll being a superhero would take on your body and mind. But he also plays the humor and the light heartedness of Spiderman as well. And the chemistry that he and real life love Emma Stone have is what really carries the movie’s core along. I can’t wait to see where director Marc Webb goes with the series from here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Django Unchained


Quentin Tarantino has a thing for revenge. He's had it in his movies before (like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown), he's built entire movies around it (Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill vol 1 and 2) and he's now added another to his list in the western revenge saga Django Unchained. The story of a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) who's freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won his second Oscar for working with QT again after Basterds) and subsequently fights to get his wife (Kerry Washington) from the plantation owning Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Throw in Candie's hateable house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and a whole mess of violence and language and anachronistic music and you've got yourself a good old fashioned Tarantino flick. How you feel about Tarantino flicks in general will likely determine whether you like this movie or not.
While I've criticized QT in the past for being a filmmaker who can't get out of his own way, somehow it worked better for me here than it has recently. The overwritten dialog, unnecessary text overlays, cartoonish characters, and padded runtime. None of it bothered me this go round. I think a big reason for that is the actors we've got this time. Sam Jackson has proven himself before to be the one actor who truly makes QT's dialog sing like it should. But Waltz shows again (after being the brightest bright spot in Inglourious Basterds) that Tarantino has found himself another great singer. Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio acquit themselves very well, even if they don't quite take it up to the level Waltz and Jackson are operating on. Jackson, having by far the toughest role to play, somehow comes off as the least cartoonish of the bunch. His Stephen is hateful, insubordinate, whip smart, and has decided if he can't be anything more than a nigger to his white owner, he's gonna be the best nigger a white man could ever want. Looking out for that white man above anything or any other person, skin color be damned. Somehow Jackson makes Stephen proud, pathetic, dangerous, and occasionally hilarious. It may be the best work of this great actor's career.

So, I used "the N word" in that previous paragraph. Tarantino has been in hot water in the past for the use of the word in his movies (specifically in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) but got in a whole other firestorm of controversy for its use in Django. People didn't seem to care quite as much about whether black people were locked in a hot box in the Mississippi summer heat, or have their heads bashed in with a hammer for the gladiatorial entertainment of aristocratic white folks, or whipped within an inch of their life because they broke an egg, just for God's sake why's he gotta use "nigger" so much? I'll say this about the subject: it was appropriate for the time in which the movie is set, and I guarantee you can put on a Jay-Z or Tupac or damn near any other rapper's album and hear the word as many times as you do here, in half the time. Tarantino doesn't use it flippantly, he uses it provocatively so that we have to confront the hateful word and its use against our fellow human beings. Even in this exploitative genre film, QT doesn't make it all style and no substance. There's some exploration of real stuff here, just wrapped up in a crowd pleasing revenge flick is all.

So anyway, Django is Tarantino's best movie since Jackie Brown, and I hope he stays in top form with his next one.

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson's movies are so meticulously created, on a visual level, that sometimes live action actors feel almost out of place in his frame, to me. It's one of the reasons his The Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a good movie, because he didn't have actors bringing their warmth and humanity onto the screen with anything but their voices. Strangely, it is the warmth and humanity brought to this movie by the two young leads, at the time 13-year-old's Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, that make this movie so successful. That's not to say the all-star cast (Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman) don't also bring their A-game and add to the proceedings, but it's the kids who really make it work.

The story concerns Sam and Suzy, who run away together on a tiny island in New England somewhere in 1965. They've met over previous summers and now decide they can make it on their own as long as they have each other. Both are "problem children", he's an orphan, she's got anger issues, and are both outcasts who find solace in the other. It's an awkward and sweet and surprisingly frank look at just barely pubescent love. Anderson's stilted and peculiar dialog just seems right coming out of these kids mouths. The adults go looking for them and blah blah blah, it's a simple love story, told wonderfully. I love that Anderson continues to not make long movies, as seemingly everything coming from major filmmakers these days has a 2+ hour runtime, while Anderson keeps it here hovering around 90 minutes.

Like all of Anderson's movies, it's a visual marvel, no matter how unrealistic it is. Anderson doesn't care about realism in his world creation, so why should we? Just be happy he's given us these pretty pictures to look at, competent adult actors and wonderful child actors to add in the mix and off we go to happy land.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Heaven's Gate




Heaven's Gate is often referred to as the death of the 1960's and 70's Golden Age of American filmmaking. Its director, Michael Cimino, was coming off the back-to-back successes of 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and 1978's Oscar winner The Deer Hunter. Always known as a meticulous filmmaker who had no problems going over schedule and over budget, Cimino got even more carried away on Heaven's Gate, with shooting lasting around 6 months, and the budget nearly 4 times what it was supposed to be. Cimino continuously either missed editing deadlines or turned in cuts far off what the studio wanted (the first cut screened for executives was reportedly 5 1/2 hours long, two full hours longer than the very long cut we know best today), and the movie's production nightmare kept dragging on as the film and its maker got more and more infamous before anyone had publicly seen a frame. Similar production problems would later befall movies like Dances with Wolves, Waterworld, and Titanic. What differs Heaven's Gate from those pictures is that it was such a financial disaster that it nearly bankrupted United Artists (Waterworld eventually made back its money, and the other two had gigantic box office, and a bevy of Oscars to keep them warm at night). Critical opinion at the time was harsh and loud and plentiful. But over time the movie has gained admirers and through reevaluation is even thought of as a sort of misunderstood masterpiece by many. This was my first viewing...

The plot mostly concerns a love triangle between Jim (Kris Kristofferson), Ella (Isabelle Huppert), and Nate (Christopher Walken, coming off his Oscar win for The Deer Hunter), set against land squabbles, class warfare, and immigration difficulties leading to a "kill list" where 125 immigrants have bounties on their heads for any number of legal transgressions. The problem here is that it's an hour and a half before this love triangle ever starts developing, and the characters aren't sufficiently developed enough for us to care at the level we should at that point in the movie. And even with so many other great actors in the cast (Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, and even a tiny role for a VERY young Mickey Rourke), the movie doesn't have the novelic feel that it so easily could have with such a scope and runtime. I expected to really care about the characters, especially since Bridges and Kristofferson are two of the best actors in cinema history at giving us characters with a minimum of dialog or scripted character development. I feel they were hung out to dry by Cimino in this movie, from a storytelling point of view. I feel like I was hung out to dry by Cimino. The first time a scene came and went and I thought "damn, that was a great scene, it developed the story and told us something about these characters, etc." it was 45 minutes into the movie. That's just unacceptable storytelling if you ask me.

So, what kept me watching so long? It's pretty simple, really. This is the most beautiful movie ever made. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had just won an Oscar for his work on Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had already worked his sepia toned western genius on Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but this movie, this movie is his masterwork. I'm not kidding, it's the single most beautiful movie I've ever seen. That's why I kept watching for 45 minutes before I gave a shit about what was happening on screen. Normally, even with a beautiful movie, I would've turned it off long before that point, but not here. I really cannot express how masterful the partnership between Zsigmond and Cimino is on this movie. It's been said that Zsigmond went into a deep depression over the critical and commercial drubbing this movie took, because he was so proud of the work he'd done. This movie alone should get him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar or something while he's alive (still working at almost 84 years old). Sadly, the only competitive Oscar the movie was nominated for was for its production design. A deserved nomination, there was obviously no expense spared, and the movie is better off for it.

So this is among the hardest movies to rate that I've ever watched. As storytelling, it's an F. As visual filmmaking, it's a 10/10, but as a whole, I can't give it more than 2 stars.