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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Clearly, comic books really DO lower people's intelligence
Please bear in mind that the person writing this is a BIG fan of Joss Whedon's earlier work in TV and movies. It's the fact that I really AM such a fan that made going to see "Avengers: Age of Ultron" so upsetting.
I managed to sit through the whole film, but just barely. Instead of the "Wow! Look at that!" I was supposed to feel, all I felt was sadness that one of the best storytellers of our age had sunk so low. "Ultron" was 141 minutes of Biff! Zap! Pow! Boom! Zoom! CGI madness, punctuated with a few lines that clearly were intended to be funny but only could have been considered so by pimply-faced 14-year-olds whose standards for comic one-liners had been set by Beavis and Butthead.
In other words, I hated it. I wish Joss would wake up from his comic book-induced stupor and remember how to write characters and plots again. "Buffy" used to cost $1.1 million per episode. "Firefly" used to cost $2 million per episode. And they were great.
"Ultron" cost over $2 million PER MINUTE of running time, and it's crap.
There is a lesson here. When Joss is working with his own ideas, it doesn't take huge amounts of money to create wonderful entertainment. When he is working with other people's comic book ideas, it doesn't matter how much money the producers throw at it -- it's comic book-mentality crap.
Stop making crap, Joss. Tell the guys at Marvel to keep their money and keep their mediocre plots and characters. Come back to making entertainment based on your own ideas.
House of Cards (2013)
Season 3 is hideously disappointing
The show degenerated into a soap opera, and one with characters who are so consistently icky and so consistently...uh...consistent that I found myself not only uninterested in them, but unable to care what they were doing or what happened to them.
The whole thing just made me sad that in a few months I have to watch this whole scenario play itself out in real life, with characters just as icky. The American political scene is so corrupt and so beyond redemption that making a soap opera like this one out of it reveals only how boring it's all become.
Save your money and watch the original British series. The characters aren't any less icky, but ant least they're more interesting.
The underrated virtue
It is somehow appropriate that one of the best films I have seen since Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" is by his brother, John Michael McDonagh. John showed promise with his film "The Guard," but with this film he takes his place in the pantheon of immortal Irish black humorist-philosophers alongside his brother.
What if you were a Catholic priest, and one of your flock told you during confession that he was going to kill you in a week? Not because you were a bad priest, but because you were a good one. He means it, and you know he means it. He gives you the week to get your affairs in order.
And what if the priest were played by the same Irish national treasure who played the lead in both of the two other aforementioned films, Brendan Gleeson. What if his efforts were supported by the likes of Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh and a host of great Irish/English actors? And what if the results were really, really, really good, verging on magnificent? Then you'd have "Calvary."
In Media Res
Note that there are spoilers here, but you'll see all of them in the first ten minutes anyway, so caveat emptor.
We find ourselves in an upscale, beautifully-appointed kitchen, where an elegant dinner is being prepared by an impeccably-dressed host. We see the host's knife slicing the raw main dish, and then arranging it into a presentation that can legitimately be called art. He walks across the room and serves it to his guest, who is seated at the dining table, and they exchange words.
Host: This course is called ryukozuki -- seasonal sashimi, sea urchin, water clam, and squid. Guest: What a beautiful presentation, Doctor. Host: Kaiseki - a Japanese artform that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat. Guest: Well, I almost feel guilty about eating it. Host: I never feel guilty eating anything. Guest: Hmmmm...I can't quite place the fish...
This would have been a cool "season opener" in itself, and a very funny one, given that the host in this scene is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and you can't always tell what he'll be serving with the Chianti. :-)
But what makes this scene more powerful is that it wasn't the first scene. It was the second. The first was a type of flashforward known as In Media Res, a technique that dates at least back to Homer, and was discussed by Aristotle. In the real first scene, we're in the same kitchen, and a similarly elegant dinner is being prepared for the same guest by the same host. The host uses the same precision with his knife as he slices the main course, but doesn't get to the presentation stage because then his guest enters the room, they exchange glances, each of them seemingly realizing the same thing at the same time, and all hell breaks loose. (Details deleted) The screen goes black, and a title appears, saying "Twelve weeks earlier." Then we see the scene I describe above.
Very effective technique. It worked for Homer, in "The Iliad," it worked for "Breaking Bad," and it works for the season opener of "Hannibal." Something is going to happen during that twelve weeks (coincidentally enough the length of the season) that explains to us how the dinner scene we see second morphs into the one we saw first.
The third and forth scenes take an opposite -- or perhaps the same -- structure. In scene three we see Will Graham during on of his rare off-work moments. He's standing in a river in his waders, fly-fishing. He looks up, and on the bank of the river he sees a magnificent deer. We see the awe and reverence on his face as Will gazes at the deer. Cut to scene four, and the same face, staring at us from behind bars. Will is now in jail, charged with being the very serial killer he is chasing. So is scene three a flashback to the past, or a flashforward to the future? Guess we'll have to watch twelve weeks of television to find out. Since this was one of the best 40 minutes of television I've seen in a long time, I have no problem with that...
Lust for Love (2014)
A Whedonesque Romance
While we wait for Joss Whedon's own scifi/romance movie "In Your Eyes," those of us who have become enamored of the many talented actors he has worked with and whose careers he has cultivated over the years have something to watch. "Lust For Love" is a Kickstarter-funded, Web-based (so far) project that reunites several of the cast members of Whedon's short-lived but brilliant TV series "Dollhouse" -- Fran Kranz, Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj, Miracle Laurie, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Felicia Day. They obviously became close during their "Dollhouse" experience, and that closeness just as obviously carries over into this delightful rom-com.
I'll be honest and state that I'm probably too old to appreciate this movie. It seems aimed at an audience 20-somethings, and as such I would say that it succeeds admirably. Kranz is tremendous as the nebbishy Astor, hoping beyond hope to get back together with the narcissistic girl of his dreams Mila (played by non-Whedon-alum Beau Garrett). Towards this end he secures the services of Mila's ex-best friend Cali (played superbly by Dichen Lachman, who also co-produced this film). Much embarrassment and dating horror ensue, almost all of it portrayed with heart, and a fairly light heart at that. This is not one of those cynical movies about dating and romance.
It was great to see many of the "Dollhouse" actors together again, and those who loved them will probably be the first audience for this film. But I thought that the film (written and directed by first-timer Anton King) has merits of its own, and I hope it reaches a wider audience. I suspect that it could stand on its own among the classics of young-people romance films, up there with "Say Anything."
Sound of My Voice (2011)
"We started out wanting to make a documentary on cults. And now we're in one." There have been terrible films made about the cult experience, and there have been even more terrible films made about the cult experience. In my experience, both as a former cultist and as a religious sociology freak who is also a film freak, there has never been a film that landed outside those boundaries. Until now.
"Sound Of My Voice" is not easy, and it does not offer easy answers. Nor do cults, except in the moment. That may be what makes them alluring, the temptation to live completely in the moment, and never think about what "living" has become.
Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij (and who also produced and wrote an interesting previous and thought-provoking film called "Another Earth"), stars as Maggie. Maggie's not from here. Or rather, not not from now. She's from the future. Or that's what she says, anyway. And when you listen to the sound of her voice, you kinda want to believe it.
You want to believe it even if you're a husband and wife who have infiltrated her ultra-secretive cult to make a documentary about it.
I really can't say anything more about this fascinating film without spoiling it. I think it managed what no other film about the cult phenomenon -- or even the spiritual phenomenon -- has accomplished as well before: walking that razor's edge between what simply cannot be and what might actually be.
I think the open-minded will enjoy it.
The Newsroom: The Greater Fool (2012)
"The Newsroom" comes full circle
Aaron Sorkin's new show started by being attacked mercilessly before it even aired. I took a stand when it finally *was* aired, and I got to see the first episode. I've just watched the tenth, and final, episode of the year. I stand by my original stand.
It's good writing, it's good entertainment, it's good acting and direction, and it's got a pair of balls the size of Mars.
And I'm still betting on it sweeping the Emmy awards, and sending an enormous F**K YOU to all of the people who ranked on it because...well...because they have balls the size of peas, and brains to match.
It's difficult to make entertainment while conveying a useful and needed message. It's even more difficult when the very people who should be cheering that message on are so petty and green with envy that they play shoot the messenger, too.
This was the rap rattled off by Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy during the wrap-up of his last news broadcast of the season, over a bottom-of-the-screen banner that said Republican In Name Only:
* Ideological purity * Compromise as weakness * A fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism * Denying science * Unmoved by facts * Undeterred by new information * A hostile fear of progress * A demonization of education * A need to control women's bodies * Severe xenophobia * Tribal mentality * Intolerance of dissent * Pathological hatred of the US government
"They can call themselves the Tea Party, they can call themselves conservatives, and they can even call themselves Republicans, though Republicans probably shouldn't. But we should call them what they are, the American Taliban."
This is the message that real news stations in America should have been airing as real news last night as the Republican Convention opened. Instead, it had to be aired on HBO, on a show that even Democrats and liberals tried to kill. This is one of those days that forces me to think about America and remember the lines to a great Bob Dylan song:
"And you ask why I don't live there Honey, how come you even have to ask me that?"
Coppola has lost not only his touch, but his marbles
This film is an embarrassment for all concerned. If the rumors are correct, and Coppola's inspiration for the screenplay was a night spent indulging in alcohol-fueled dreams, might I suggest that this turned out a great deal worse for him than it did for Val Kilmer's character in the film. Have you ever had a dream that seemed vivid and fraught with "meaning" and symbolic "importance" to you, and then tried to describe that dream to others? Remember how their eyes glazed over after a few moments, and they stopped paying attention to you? Well, that's what is going to happen to you if you see this film.
Shockingly, Val Kilmer is the best part of the film. Fans who have watched *his* career circle the drain, consider that statement. He has at least a couple of great scenes. The first shows him, as a failed writer struggling with writer's block, trying to come up with the first lines of his new novel. The result is hilarious. The second is him sitting down over a bottle of Irish whiskey in the dream plane with Edgar Allen Poe and getting a lesson in writing technique from the master. If Coppola had such a dream-lesson himself, he should have listened more carefully.
Plus, Coppola uses a bunch of visual techniques that make him look like a first-year film student, not the director of the first two "Godfather" movies. He pretty much flushes his career down the toilet with this film, and I'm inclined to give the handle a second push to make sure there are no "floaters" left around. I suspect that the only person who will like this film is David Lynch, because finally there is a film that is less coherent than one of his. :-)
Fringe: Letters of Transit (2012)
When your series is in trouble, steal from another series
So what do you do when you are J.J. Abrams and the network your current show is on starts using the "C" word? No, not "cancer," the even worse "C" word, "cancellation." Simple. Shamelessly steal a page from Joss Whedon's playbook.
Back towards the end of the first season of "Dollhouse," when FOX was throwing around the "C" word, Joss hit one over the fences with an episode called "Epitaph." Without either warning or explanation, that episode leapt out of the normal storyline and timeline of the series several years into the future, giving viewers a glimpse of where "Dollhouse" *wanted to go*, if only the network dweebs would allow it to by extending the series. And the amazing thing is that it WORKED. Joss got a second season of "Dollhouse," just enough to finish it up well, and to not leave things hanging. It was the stuff of TV history, and saved "Dollhouse" from the cut-off-in-mid-sentence fate of "Firefly." Now even-heavier-hitter J.J. Abrams, faced with hard times and low ratings, is fighting for a fifth season of "Fringe." So what does he do? He rips off Joss' idea and creates an out-of-the-blue glimpse of the Fringe Division's future. Without either warning or explanation, the episode opens not in 2012 but in 2036, with the descendents of the original Fringe Division living in a dystopia, still fighting the Bad Guys. It's *not* that it wasn't an interesting episode, but the word "r-r-r-r-ripoff" kept echoing through my head the whole time I was watching it.
It really *wasn't* bad, and in fact was better than most episodes. Whether this "Hail Joss" play will work is another question, but I kinda praise Mr. Abrams for not being afraid to steal from his betters. This ploy may become a staple of the industry in the future -- if they start talking about cancelling your show, give them a glimpse of the show's future, to hopefully demonstrate to them that you haven't jumped the shark and that you still *can* come up with new ideas.
Even if you have to steal those ideas from another series. :-)
The Grey (2011)
The Grey Menace
I was drawn to this movie by Liam Neeson, who is often a commanding presence in movies. And, as survival/adventure tales go, it's pretty standard. An ordinary guy, whose Day Job it is to shoot dragons to keep them from wreaking havoc among the tasty human workers in Alaska's oil fields, is depressed to the point of suicide. But something intervenes in his suicide attempt, and he gets on a plane with a bunch of other guys the next day as planned.
Unfortunately, the plane crashes, leaving only seven of the guys still alive. For now. Trouble is, they are surrounded by a herd of big grey dragons, who start picking the guys off one by one as they wander away from the plane to take a pee. So Liam Neeson -- obviously leader material because he gets top billing in the movie -- convinces them to head for the woods, where the dragons might be less able to get at them. Adventure ensues, with our hero now fighting for his life the day after wanting to end it.
What's that you say? Dragons? OK, "The Grey" isn't really about dragons. Insert "wolves" above wherever I mentioned dragons.
The thing is, it just as well *could* have been dragons. There have been almost as many documented attacks of humans by dragons in North America as there have been attacks of humans by wolves. You can count the number of documented wolf attacks on a couple of fingers. Maybe one or two less for dragon attacks.
Although "The Grey" is a passable fictional adventure story, I'm kinda offended because it's *total* fiction. In Asia, there are cases of wolves attacking humans. In North America, one or two at the most. It just doesn't happen.
But the filmmakers decided that the public *believes* it happens (after all, if Sarah Palin shoots wolves from a helicopter, they've *got* to be dangerous, right?), so they thought, "Let's make a movie about guys fighting for their lives against a pack of hungry wolves." They should've chosen dragons. It would have been more realistic, and it might have been a better movie.