Sunday, April 28, 2013

2013 Summer Movie Preview

"Iron Man 3"

Similar to last year's The Avengers, Marvel Studios looks to kick the summer off with another bang. Early reviews have Tony Stark's third solo adventure pegged as one of Marvel's best, and with the international box office numbers already coming in, I think it's safe to say the studio has another hit on their hands. Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow reprise their roles, along with a host of new, exciting characters. In theaters May 3rd.

“The Great Gatsby”
Baz Luhrmann’s update of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book looks flashy and stylized, yet loyal to the author’s original vision. A strong cast featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan should certainly propel Gatsby to critical and box office success. In theaters May 10th.

“Star Trek Into Darkness”
I’m excited to see what J.J. Abrams has in store for Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew next. Into Darkness looks darker and more action-packed than its 2009 predecessor, and Benedict Cumberbatch looks like a welcome addition to the franchise. In theaters May 17th.

“The Hangover part III”
For those put off by the first sequel in 2011, I understand why you may be hesitant about a third rodeo with the “Wolfpack”. But the initial previews look hilarious, and there’s a promise of no wedding and no bachelor party, so Part III won’t necessarily be a carbon copy of the original formula. In theaters May 24th.

“Now You See Me”
This is one of the smaller films to get a wide release this summer. It’s about a team of magicians who pull off bank robberies during their performances with FBI agents tracking their every move. It looks like a contemporary cross between Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can and Nolan’s The Prestige. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, and Isla Fisher star. In theaters May 31st.

“This Is the End”
In This Is the End, the stars essentially play themselves, which is a concept that immediately sparked my attention. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, and a bevy of other big names throw a party at James Franco’s house only to get caught in the middle of an Apocalypse. Previews have been hysterical so far. In theaters June 12th.

“Man of Steel”
Following the success of The Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan signed on to produce the next big-screen saga in the DC comics universe with Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) directing. It looks like the filmmakers are trying to humanize Superman in a way similar to that of Nolan’s Batman, and if the trailers are any indication, I think they’re on the right track. In theaters June 14th.

“Monsters University”
This highly-anticipated “prequel” to Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. sends Mike & Sully back to their college days; a time when they weren’t always the best of friends. MU’s bright, vibrant campus seems like a fitting place for all of Mike & Sully’s colorful friends, and I can’t wait to see how Pixar fares here. Original voice talent will be returning. In theaters June 21st.

“World War Z”
Based on the bestselling book, World War Z stars Brad Pitt in what appears to be the next medium to bring riveting drama to zombie horror, a la The Walking Dead.  In theaters June 21st.

"Pacific Rim"
A summer blockbuster featuring giant robots and larger-than-life monsters sounds all too familiar. When word first went out about Pacific Rim a year or so ago, I wasn't entirely sold on the concept of robots fighting off monsters on urban battlegrounds. It just sounded like another lame excuse to show off the latest special effects technology. And maybe it is. But with Guillermo Del Toro on board as director and co-writer, the results sound much more promising. In theaters July 12th. 

“Only God Forgives”
Ryan Gosling’s next movie looks like a spiritual sequel to Drive, a spectacular noir that also featured Gosling in the lead role. In Only God Forgives, he plays a man thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld whose life gets even more complicated when his mother tasks him with finding and killing the man responsible for his brother’s recent death. Find the trailer on YouTube. In theaters July 19th.

From District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, Elysium chronicles one man's struggle to bring equality between the citizens left behind on a decimated Earth and the super-rich who reside on an off-planet colony. Much like District 9, this looks like another gritty, wildly original sci-fi epic that could make some noise this awards season. In theaters August 9th.

"Pain & Gain" Review

The American dream.

People spend their whole lives chasing it.

But what exactly IS the "American dream"? It's tough to put a finger, or in the case of Miami bodybuilder Paul Doyle, a toe on it, but one thing is certain. When it comes to the "American dream", not everyone envisions the same thing.

Witness the case of gym rats Daniel Lugo, Adrian Doorbal, and Paul Doyle in Pain & Gain, a true-life caper of three Miami bodybuilders working together to violently extort a multimillionaire in order to live lives of luxury. That posh lifestyle is what Lugo, Doorbal, and Doyle consider to be their "American dream".

As it turns out, Michael Bay (Transformers) is the perfect director for a movie as wildly chaotic as Pain & Gain. Miami is the perfect setting for the story, as the backdrop is appropriately flashy, sexy, and dark enough to keep the appalling true events believable. Scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely also make this true story consistently engrossing by exposing the scathing, dark humor that lies within the events. Bay earns stellar performances from his entire cast, and proves that he can actually handle a real story rife with human drama.

As for the cast, let's face it. No movie about dimwit, bodybuilding criminals is complete without Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. For a former pro wrestler, Johnson's come a long way in his acting career; though I don't recall ever seeing him in anything and saying "Oh, The Rock was absolutely terrible!" Now granted, maybe The Scorpion King and Race to Witch Mountain weren't exactly Citizen Kane, but Johnson has been choosing his roles more wisely as of late. From what I've heard, February's Snitch featured his most sincere and thought-provoking performance to date. As the God-fearing drug addict Paul Doyle in Pain & Gain, Johnson maintains another sensitive, thought-provoking turn that's probably my favorite from him so far. It may still be a light at the end of a long tunnel, but if he keeps choosing complex roles that prove he can do more than beat people to a pulp, I think the Academy may come knocking on Johnson's door sooner rather than later.

Mark Wahlberg again shows that he can make the most out of any material he's given. As the bodybuilder and bumbling criminal mastermind Danny Lugo, "Marky Mark" is gleefully excessive, even if his character's increasingly poor decisions effectively put the "pain" in Pain & Gain.

As for Sun Gym newbie Adrian Doorbal, Anthony Mackie gets to flex more than his biceps. Turns out, the dramatic Hurt Locker star has some hysterical comedic muscle that's most effectively seen when dealing with the emasculating side effects of steroid use. Mackie also shines in his scenes with the incomparable Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) as his "freaky" muse.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, and Rob Corddry. Shalhoub plays Victor Kershaw, the smarmy deli sandwich and drug kingpin who lives that "American dream" that Lugo and the guys are after. Ed Harris makes a strong turn as Ed DuBois, the retired private investigator who Kershaw hires after the police fail to pursue his case against Lugo. Rob Corddry also stars as John Mese, the manager of the "supergym" that Lugo and Doorbal work at. All three are perfectly cast, and never feel squandered. Kudos to Bay for allowing the plethora of talent at his disposal ample time to shine.

At first viewing, I didn't really notice anything inherently wrong with Pain & Gain. If there's anything truly negative to say, it'd be that it gets a little painful to watch the protagonists essentially dig their own graves for two hours. After about 60-90 minutes and a seemingly equal amount of boneheaded decisions, you can't help but think to yourself, "How stupid can these guys honestly be?"

Let it also be known that Bay's trademark misogyny is still at work, as Bar Paly only really comes off as eye candy in her role as the stripper Sorina Luminita. She was an integral part of the operation in real life, but she feels slightly exploited in the Hollywood version. That's just Michael Bay though, so if you didn't like the Transformers movies for how he showcased Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, you probably won't be a convert of his after seeing Pain & Gain.

There are also some issues with product placement that come off as inconsistent for the mid-90s setting. For example, I'm pretty sure that there were no purple, 12-taco party boxes from Taco Bell or Xbox 360 controllers laying around back in 1995. However, these are minor, blink-and-you'll-miss-em errors that don't detract from the overall impact of the film.

Even though the actions of the main characters prove to be more of a "pain" in the end, there's far more to be "gained" in what I would call director Michael Bay's finest film yet. With a strong cast, engrossing story, dark sense of humor, and stylish setting, Pain & Gain affirms Bay's career and shows that he doesn't need talking robots or decimated cityscapes to make an entertaining movie. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen to get the full effect of the larger-than-life personalities involved.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Office - "Paper Airplane" (Apr. 25, 2013)

Hold on, folks! We're not out of the woods yet.

Apparently, there was a new episode of The Office tonight. There's no question that season 9's scheduling has been about as inconsistent as its humor, but these final few weeks have got me totally mixed up. IMDb says there are only 3 episodes left this season (including tonight's), and that this "Paper Airplane" episode has an air date of May 2nd. But Rainn Wilson (a.k.a. Dwight Schrute) tweeted today, saying that there are 4 episodes left and that the last three would be at least an hour long. I guess it's best to heed the word of a cast member when it comes to a series' ending like this.

Anyways, the major plot points tonight featured the entire office in a tournament to see who could throw their paper airplanes the farthest. Andy takes his first acting gig as a scientist, and Jim & Pam continue to work through the exercises they've picked up from marriage counselling.

I rather enjoyed tonight's episode, early though it may or may not be, by my previous calculations. It was still only 30 minutes, so we haven't yet ventured into the 1 hour+ territory that Wilson has hinted at. But the paper airplane tournament provided plenty of laughs, as did Andy's scenes as a scientist, and I liked being reminded that Erin is capable of just about anything. You just never know what she's going to do or say next, and I love that.
My favorite part of tonight's episode, though, has gotta be the very end with Jim and Pam in the parking lot. They've been on the rocks all season, and now it looks like their fate has just about been sealed. I'll try not to spoil anything too much. Just, if you consider yourself a longtime fan of The Office, like I do, you will be pleased.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Oblivion" Review

You remember back in the day when action movies used to end with the apocalypse being heroically averted at the last second?

Nowadays, the end of the world has increasingly become the place to start for Hollywood sci-fi action adventures. Oblivion, the latest from director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) is no exception in this respect.

Based on a yet-to-be-published graphic novella of Kosinski's creation, Oblivion tells the story of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a technician assigned to repair drones on an abandoned Earth. When Jack begins to recall precious memories that he was told were wiped away, he works to uncover the truth of his new world at all costs.
And his new world looks gorgeous. Shot by Academy-award-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi), the environment of Oblivion is wondrous to behold. From a decimated stadium that played host to the last ever Super Bowl to an Empire State Building with a spire now at ground level, everything looks real. And even the stuff that doesn't, like the drones or Jack's dragonfly-looking "bubbleship", isn't cartoony. Miranda's work and that of the visual effects artists lend a magnificent sweep and scope to Kosinski's vision that should be aesthetically pleasing to any viewer. Oblivion is the first movie of 2013 to make a strong bid for the next visual effects Oscar.

The same praise can't quite be given to the plot, however. If you took an ingredient from every sci-fi film of the last 50 years (everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien to Avatar and Prometheus, plus a surprisingly sizable dose of Wall-E), Oblivion would be what comes out of the melting pot.
The hero, Jack, is a technician that fixes drones on an abandoned planet. He also has a small plant that he takes care of. Sounds a heck of a lot like Wall-E, doesn't it? Jack even has two women in his life, either of which could easily be his EVE; a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and Jack's work companion Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). Jack and Victoria are, at one point, promised a new life in outer space where the rest of the humans have allegedly started to colonize. So in summary, Jack the drone-repair technician and the woman he lives with are promised a new life on a space station where other humans are supposedly living. Thank goodness Kosinski added some violence; otherwise Pixar might be after him for copyright infringement.
The action isn't anything to "E.T., phone home" about either. The gunplay and spaceship chases are fun while they last, but they're few and far between. So if you're expecting a non-stop barrage of intense sci-fi action, Oblivion is not your movie. That isn't to say it's a total snoozefest. In fact, Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances in years and effectively keeps the character drama engrossing. Andrea Riseborough adequately shoulders some of the weight too, and together I think she and Cruise prove to be "an effective team".

What really threw me for a loop was just about everything that happens after Jack meets with the rogue group of survivors led by Beech (Morgan Freeman). After Beech tasks Jack with fixing a captured drone so that he can send a bomb to the "Tet" (the ship where humans waiting to go to the outer space colony are allegedly living), Beech and his group essentially disappear. They aren't seen again until almost the end of the movie when Jack finally returns to help them with their task. Jack doesn't seem to mention them to anyone else, and his initial meeting with them seems to have less of an effect on his character than one would think. Additionally, Kosinski tries to take things to a preachy, philosophical level in the third act, which ends up undermining whatever riveting backstory and character drama he established in the previous hour and a half. Oblivion ends up trying to dig too deep for its own good. The ending is still reasonably satisfying, and I won't spoil anything, but the twists left me with a headache that I didn't expect.

In the end, Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion still looks great thanks to Kosinski's far-reaching vision and Claudio Miranda's Oscar-winning visual skills and gets an additional boost from solid acting performances and perfectly serviceable set pieces, but the overly philosophical third act muddies the plot in an unnecessary fashion, keeping Oblivion from fully reaching its lofty potential. It's serviceable, albeit unoriginal, sci-fi that should really be seen on the big screen to get the full effect of the environment Kosinski has envisioned, but it won't be the end of the world if you miss this one.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Bernie" Review


I went over to Netflix on Sunday night looking for a study break. I scoured the instant queue packed with movies I'm waaaaaayyy behind on, and I found one called Bernie, a dark comedy starring Jack Black that tells the true story of a beloved small-town mortician who befriends a widow, and after he kills her, tries to create the illusion that she's still alive.
I remember seeing Bernie make its rounds in the awards circuit last season, garnering nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice for Jack Black's titular performance. I was interested in looking into the movie, but never quite interested enough to put it at the top of my must-watch list. After overlooking it on a few rainy days, I decided to give Bernie a chance.
Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) brings to life a captivating true-life crime story that never loses its sense of humanity, even in the funniest scenes. It's also bolstered by a strong cast, including what is possibly Jack Black's finest character performance ever.

You don't see a whole lot of Hollywood glitz in Bernie, which helps maintain that sense of humanity. The film is presented "mockumentary" style, similar to the format used in shows like The Office and Parks & Recreation. Interviews with the townspeople are presented intermittently to move the events of Bernie's narrative along. Aside from the presence of Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine, and Jack Black, anyone else in the film could be your next-door neighbor. It's that warm, hometown appeal that makes Bernie such an easy film to get into.
Once it welcomes you with open arms, the movie essentially asks you to stay for supper thanks to its tremendous acting performances. Matthew McConaughey does his best to tone down (and to some extent, make a caricature of) his Mick Haller character from The Lincoln Lawyer. Again harnessing some of the natural down-home charm he brings to every role, McConaughey makes the part his own and comes off perfect as prosecuting attorney Danny Buck in Bernie. Shirley MacClaine isn't given much to say as the steely Marjorie Nugent, but her demeanor is consistent for the character, and when she does speak, it's usually pretty harsh. MacClaine is so convincing that by the time Bernie pulls the trigger, you might empathize with him.

Speaking of Bernie, Jack Black turns in his finest performance since School of Rock, if not of his entire career. Through his actions, reactions, and through the stories told by the townspeople, I felt like I really got to know Bernie and exactly the kind of person he was. He had me hooked from the opening scene where he does a demonstration for some college kids on how to prepare a body for a funeral. Black's trademark enthusiasm feels right at home with this character, but he's also able to flex his dramatic muscles and maintains a nice sense of humanity, even in the wake of his shocking crime. Black is never cheesy in a way that feels out of place with the character.

In the end, Bernie is really as much of a character study as it is a true-crime tale. With grounded performances from the entire cast and a captivating story bolstered by mockumentary-style presentation, the only crime I deem Bernie guilty of is providing fresh, funny entertainment that's worth your attention. Look for it on Netflix.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

"42" Review

As the great #42 himself once said, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

Any self-respecting baseball fan knows that the life of Jackie Robinson is one with tremendous impact; perhaps the most of any American athlete in history. The guy didn't just live up to his own words. He practically dwarfed them, and unless you consider yourself a fan of the game, you may not be entirely familiar with Jackie's story.

Warner Brothers is now offering audiences the chance to learn all about Robinson's rise to prominence as the first African American player in, what was then, all-white Major League Baseball. After seeing 42, I can confidently say, whether you consider yourself a fan of the game or not, everyone needs to see this movie. The story of #42 is an inspiring one that still resonates 70 years after the fact, even if the film itself suffers from a few sports drama clichés.
Director Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale) manages to put a nice focus on the production design, which makes the audience feel like they've stepped out of a time capsule. Baseball fans salivating for a chance to see what it was like to witness a game in classic ballparks like Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, the Polo Grounds, and Forbes Field won't be disappointed.

In fact, 42 resonated deeply with me in this way. As a lifelong fan of the Cincinnati Reds and a native of the area, I've learned a thing or two about the team's history. I've learned that we were the first ever professional baseball organization, we owe our 1919 World Series win to a group of guys in Chicago infamously known as the "Black Sox", and that anyone with 4,256 career hits deserves a spot in Cooperstown. I also know about Crosley Field, our old stadium at the intersection of Findlay Street and Western Avenue. In the past, I've wondered what it would be like to take in a game there, and 42 finally granted my wish. I mean, they've got the Hudepohl Beer and Young & Bertke signs. The details are unprecedented, and I'm thrilled that so much care went into faithfully recreating the classic settings, down to every last banner advertisement.

Aside from stellar production value, 42 also boasts strong acting performances. Harrison Ford gives the first great supporting performance of the year as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, perfectly evoking the gruff, cigar-chewing spirit of a character who seemed to wake up one morning and decide to change baseball forever. What's more is newcomer Chadwick Boseman's portrayal of Jackie Robinson. Boseman's performance succeeds not just because he's essentially Robinson's doppelganger, but because his anonymity eliminates any predisposed, star-powered expectations about Robinson's portrayal. If Jamie Foxx had played Robinson, audiences would've just said, "Oh, God, why?" and likely not given the film a chance. 42 is clearly Boseman's movie as he comes out of nowhere to hold his own against the heavyweight chops of Harrison Ford. Like Robinson himself, Boseman is up for the challenge and exceeds expectations. He's deeply affecting and easy to root for. The chemistry between Boseman and Nicole Beharie who plays Robinson's wife, Rachel, is also impeccable, making the scenes involving Jackie's life off the field that much more entertaining.

What I didn't care much for was a failure to show Robinson's true come-up. I guess 42 is more about his relationship with Rickey and his rise with the Dodgers, but I would've liked to have seen a young Jackie Robinson showing his potential as a child playing stickball in the streets before seeing him thrown into the fold with fully developed skills, attracting the attention of big league ball clubs.
There is also a bizarre scene where Jackie stops at a gas station with his Negro league Kansas City Monarchs that's juxtaposed with a scene in which Branch Rickey tells one of his scouts to go find Robinson. The very next scene shows Jackie exiting the gas station to see a man from the Dodgers asking his teammates where he is. I guess the space-time continuum had a glitch because that guy apparently got from New York to Louisiana in the time it took Jackie to take a piss.

But continuity issues and missing backstories aside, 42 soars out of the park thanks to impeccable production design and acting performances that deserve to be remembered this Oscar season. It's an important story about an important man that will leave you moved. The audience clapped and cheered on the way out of the theater; appropriate behavior for both a baseball game and a sports film of this caliber. Hey, the food prices are essentially the same anyway!


Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Office - "Stairmageddon" (Apr. 11, 2013)

With only a few episodes left, it's time for the end-of-series storylines to start wrapping up on The Office. Tonight, the elevator in the building goes out, forcing the heavier-set workers to get a bit of exercise. Dwight and Clark drug Stanley to get him to come on a sales call. The Senator comes out with Angela by his side, Andy tries his luck with a talent agency, and Jim and Pam prepare for couples counseling.

Really wasn't a fan of tonight's episode. The only funny scenes were with Dwight and Stanley, but even those felt kind of contrived, stooping to the level of having to literally shoot tranquilizer darts into co-workers in the break room for laughs. It's sad to see Pam and Jim's marriage on the rocks too. The one outlet on this show that has always seemed to bring audiences a little humanity amidst all the office's chaotic goings-on is now 100% in jeopardy. I'm interested to see how their counseling turns out in the coming weeks. And, heck, I mean, Roseanne Barr even makes an appearance as the talent agent that Andy goes to see in town. Too bad she isn't funny and fails to inject her smarmy (*ahem*) trademark charm into a series that could really use a true pick-me-up in the tail end of its final season.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"Evil Dead" (2013) Review

"Alright you primitive screwheads, listen up!"

In 1993, Army of Darkness effectively ended the canon of The Evil Dead, a trilogy of horror-farce films from the minds of Spider-Man director Sam Raimi and B-movie legend Bruce Campbell. For over 30 years, the original Evil Dead film has been a cult classic for its campy, black humor and over-the-top approach to cabin-in-the-woods horror clichés. In 2013, Raimi and Campbell have decided to personally turn the classic franchise over to younger hands in order to update it for the YouTube generation.

Now known succinctly as Evil Dead (without the "The"), this remake tells the story of five twenty-something friends who head to a remote cabin to help one of their group recover from a drug addiction. When they stumble upon a "Book of the Dead" stashed in the basement, the friends unwittingly summon demonic forces that take possession of each of them until only one is left to fight for survival.

Sounds familiar, right?

It's essentially the same set-up as the 1981 classic, except here the story seems like its fleshed out a little bit better than it was 30 years ago. The characters actually have a substantial reason for choosing their setting, and this makes for, what seems like, stronger relationships between them. David (Shiloh Fernandez) is there for his sister, Mia (Jane Levy), along with their other friends (Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore, Lou Taylor Pucci) to support Mia during her cold-turkey rehabilitation. Tensions arise between David and Mia when they first reconnect, stemming from David's neglect of his family in the wake of their mother's death. This guilt weighs on David, and it adds a nice dimension of internal conflict to his character that really comes out later in the film when he's taunted by the demon. The other characters aren't quite as richly developed because, as the audience knows, their only purpose for being there, aside from helping out a friend, is to be picked off by the demonic presence living in the woods.

And speaking of demons in the woods, it just wouldn't be Evil Dead without fast tracking shots, possessed tree vines, girls locked in the cellar, and over-the-top gore. There's plenty of that to go around, but this remake lacks the subversive sense of humor that the original used in its approach to the violence. Aside from one or two moments of gratuity that had me chuckling, there isn't much to laugh at here. This 2013 Evil Dead feels much more like the "torture porn" found in movies like Saw and less like a true Evil Dead film. I still found the characters to be better developed here than in the original, but none of the actors give performances worthy of holding a candle to Bruce Campbell's Ash. His slapstick overacting made the original Evil Dead films gleefully, albeit darkly, funny. His presence (or, if there is one, that of any capable successor) is sorely missed.

Another thing that made the originals fun was that the demons all seemed to have distinct personalities. When Cheryl and Linda were possessed in the original, there was a difference between Cheryl's grotesque, angry "deadite" heckling Ash from the cellar and Linda's giggly, doll-faced "deadite" taunting Ash with the creepy tune "We're gonna get you, not another peep, time to go to sleep!" "Abomination Mia" is really the only vibrant demonic personality that reacts with the other characters similar to the way Cheryl reacted with everyone in the original movie. There aren't any campy approaches taken with the demons or the violence in this remake. Where the original Evil Dead was backhandedly silly, this new one is genuinely unsettling. For a regular horror movie, it works rather well, but Evil Dead has never been a regular horror movie now, has it?

Overall, Alvarez's update of Evil Dead lacks the campy sense of humor that made the original films cult classics, and for that reason, I don't think this remake will ever achieve that status. But as a horror film, it boasts a stronger story, plot twists, deeper characters, and more genuine, pulse-pounding terror than its predecessors. "Groovy" indeed, but maybe not for all the reasons you've come to expect.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Office - "Promos" (Apr. 4, 2013)


Finally, a new episode of The Office! I'm not sure what exactly has been going on lately, but the second half of this final season has been extremely sporadic. A few new episodes here, then a 2-3 week break there, then one new episode, then another 2 week hiatus. Time to get it together, NBC!

Tonight is the first new episode since March 14th's mediocre "The Farm". This week is called "Promos", and it details the crew's reaction to the release of the online documentary about their lives. We're made to believe that the doc is like a "greatest hits" collection of footage from everyone in the office; like highlights of everything we, as an audience, have been watching for the last 9 years. Andy gets caught up with some internet trolls, Pam visits Brian to find out exactly how much of the footage the production crew captured was taken without their knowledge, Dwight gets mixed up in a business scheme with the father of "the woman he plans to inseminate" (his words, not mine), and Jim & Darryl meet with Philadelphia Phillies star Ryan Howard to discuss his investment in their company.

Overall I enjoyed most of the episode. I thought the humor was much more effective than in "The Farm" episode. The cold opening was hilarious with Phyllis listening to her "Fifty Shades of Grey" audiobooks, and I enjoyed Andy's over-the-top reactions to what people were saying online about the documentary. I thought for a second he might be on his way back to anger management..
With all that good, Ryan Howard's cameo serves as the bad. While it's cool to see him as a celebrity guest star, his performance gets a little annoying here. The "Eat Fresh" gag feels cheap and instantly becomes stale, and the pitch he gives to Jim and Darryl for a screenplay he's written is painfully awkward.

It looks like there's about 5 episodes left, so I'm rooting for a major turnaround in the next few weeks. Tonight seemed like a step in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go before giving this show the sendoff it deserves.

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

Very sad to hear the news about Roger Ebert's passing today. He's been an inspiration to everyone in the motion picture industry, and will certainly continue to be a shining example for young critics like myself to aspire towards. Best wishes to his family and colleagues at the Chicago Sun-Times and around the country.

Read Ebert's final post on his blog here:

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bates Motel - "What's Wrong With Norman" (Apr. 1, 2013)

Don't read if you want to avoid SPOILERS! 

This week on A&E's Bates Motel...

Norman's concern with the mysterious book of sketches he found on Keith Summers boils over and sends him to the hospital. Dylan takes a job protecting the town's marijuana field. Norma continues her relationship with Deputy Shelby in an effort to keep the rest of the town's police force, specifically Sheriff Romero, off her back.

Bates Motel keeps surprising me in that, so far, it seems to get better each week. I really like seeing the relationship between Dylan and Norman start to improve. They don't quite seem to be at each other's throats anymore, and I hope things continue to get better between them. Norman could use a "big brother" figure.
Bradley also returns to Norman's life like nothing between them has changed. I see a possible love triangle brewing between Norman, Bradley, and Emma, Norman's ever-curious classmate. It'll be interesting to see how the relationships between these three carry on, and specifically, how Norman's obligations affect those relationships.
I also caught a twist towards the end of the episode that serves as one of the sharpest allusions to our previous knowledge of Norman's psyche from Psycho. But I'm still not sure if the whole show is now blown wide open or what. Either way, it should make the rest of the season exciting trying to distinguish between what's real and what may not be.

"Holy Motors" Review

"And now for something completely different..."

When I saw the first trailer for French director Leos Carax's Holy Motors last year, I was impressed with how strange and strikingly original it looked. I never got a chance to see it in theaters because it wasn't really playing anywhere. This is the type of art-house film you'd expect to see at one of those old-school "picturehouses" in the hipster part of town, but I don't know of any that screened Holy Motors. Naturally I was excited to see it streaming on Netflix because I finally had the chance to see the full story behind that hectic trailer.

After finally watching it, I've concluded that Holy Motors is indeed odd, perplexing, beautiful, and original; perhaps even more so than I expected. Most of the time, the narrative feels too convoluted for its own good, and it's easy to lose your way, but like a fine piece of abstract art, it doesn't all need to add up in order to be captivating.
Holy Motors is a French foreign language film that follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who, from dawn to dusk, travels around Paris, moving from one "appointment" to the next. Each "appointment" is like a different life. In one day, Oscar is a captain of industry, a father, monster, musician, assassin, and beggar. He comes off as an actor giving his all to each performance, but there are no cameras. And you never know exactly why he's doing what he's doing or how he came into his strange profession.

Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar convincingly. He's brilliant as his main character, but equally impressive as the various characters he plays throughout the day. In fact, Lavant is so solid, you never know exactly which life is his true one. You don't really know when or if the charade is ever over, and when it appears to be over, the only "home" he seems to return to is his rolling makeup studio in the back of a limousine. Additional props go to the supporting actors who interact with each of Oscar's individual characters. Each person acts as if they've known Oscar's characters for years, feeding off his presence and making it even harder for the audience to distinguish between what's real and what isn't.
Edith Scob is also strong as Oscar's escort Celine. The entire time, she looks like she knows something and wants to tell us, but never does. Her charm and concern add another level of mystique to the film. Also, if you decide to watch Holy Motors, look out for Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue in performances quite unlike anything you've seen from either of them.

With such solid acting and a visual style that appears grounded, yet vividly original, it's easy to give credit where it's due in Holy Motors. Even though it may be difficult to see past the daunting mental workout, there's no denying Holy Motors is a perplexing masterwork of the perversely imaginative, no matter how confused you may be at the end. More films should bring this level of creativity to the table.


Monday, April 1, 2013

The Walking Dead - "Welcome to the Tombs" (Mar. 31, 2013)

In the highly-anticipated season 3 finale of AMC's The Walking Dead...

The Governor launches a full offensive on the prison, Andrea's fate is finally decided, Rick confronts Carl regarding a questionable decision Carl makes, and the people of Woodbury face changing circumstances as a result of The Governor's rampage.

For the most part, this was a solid episode, and in many ways turned out to be a fitting end to this thrilling season. However, this finale also had loads of miscues that I felt could've been changed or eliminated to truly make this a Walking Dead night to remember. It could've been absolutely great, but as it stands, it's just "good".
I loved the prologue with The Governor, Andrea, and Milton. Probably the most thrilling six minutes in recent memory of this show. I also enjoyed the fake-out Rick and the group pull on The Governor at the prison. It's a cool scene especially because you don't know what's going to happen next. Later, Carl makes a poor judgement call regarding a captured member of The Governor's ranks. This scene sets the stage for what I think will be an awesome storyline in Season 4 regarding Carl's changing mental state.

I was disappointed, though, first and foremost, in the fact that Andrew Lincoln's assertion that 27 characters would die in this episode seemed to fall roughly 10 short of the mark. Additionally, we don't see The Governor for much of the episode. He runs off with Martinez and one other guy about halfway through, and then we don't see him again. No idea where he is or where he's going. Again, another storyline for Season 4.
I also didn't really care for the ending. It was interesting to see Rick and company take in Woodbury's citizens, and I think that will be another cool aspect of Season 4, especially when The Governor finds out that everyone who was once on his side is now with Rick. But what bothered me most was Andrea. Like WTF happened there? She's in a room with Michonne, a zombie bite, and a gun. It's clear that, if nothing else, Andrea is bound to turn into a walker. But the scene cuts away from Michonne leaning in to put her head next to Andrea's to an exterior shot where all you hear is a gun blast. We don't know exactly who shot who. Did Andrea shoot herself? Did Michonne shoot Andrea? Did they shoot off into space to make the people listening from the outside think Andrea was dead? Come to think of it, I don't recall seeing Michonne again after this scene. Did Andrea shoot her? Or perhaps did they put their heads together and, quite literally, kill two birds with one stone? I'm not sure we'll know for certain until Season 4 premieres this October. The entire dramatic tone of the finale's ending hinged on Andrea's fate which, at least to me, doesn't quite end up being set in stone. This killed a bit of the emotional impact that the episode should've had. Overall it just felt like a weak springboard to leap from into next season.

Still a solid finale that poses numerous storylines to speculate about as we anticipate Season 4, but this episode lacks the emotional impact that it should've had as a climax to this high-tension season.