Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Idiot Boxing: Party Down, the complete series (2009-2010)

A hilarious, R-rated sitcom that aired on the Starz network and about which I knew nothing until my wife's hairdresser recommended it to her. Great call, Molly.

The premise is simple: follow a Los Angeles-based catering company - the titular Party Down company - as they provide food and beverage service to the wide variety of oddball individuals and groups in and around the L.A. area. The catering crew is made up of an aspiring but dim actor, an aspiring but aloof sci-fi writer, a long-since washed-up actor, a recently washed-up actor, and an aspiring comedian. They're headed up by a semi-pathetic crew leader whose big dream is to manage his own all-you-can-eat soup and salad franchise restaurant.

This was a great little sit-com that had all the right ingredients. Hilarious writing and comic actors all around, and a conceit that allowed every episode to feature different situations and characters. One episode, the crew is serving at a community theater, and the next they're at an ill-conceived orgy. Or they're catering a sweet sixteen on a yacht for the daughter of a big movie producer, then the next episode sees them in a bar with Russian gangsters. The set up provided such a great variety of setting for comedy, and the writers took full advantage.

The know-it-all, aspiring sci-fi writer Roman (left) tries to
help a host get his orgy off the ground. Of course, Roman's
knowledge of sex and orgies is laughably limited, but it
doesn't stop him from dishing out advice.
Just as strong as the writing, though, is the comedic acting. There are all sorts of familiar faces playing the main parts. Adam Scott plays the most prominent role as Henry Pollard, an actor trying to rebound from irrelevance after a brief moment of fame stemming from a beer commercial. But Scott is only one of several comic actors who would later become far better known, with Jane Lynch and Martin Starr being the most obvious. But there were more than a few established comic actors, too, several of whom viewers may remember from the comedy troupe The State, who were on MTV for a few years in the early and mid-1990s. The primary one is Ken Marino, who's great as Ron Donald, the trying-to-make-it-work team leader, but several other members of The State show up in individual episodes, and each and every one of them nails their roles, whether it's as an aspiring orgy leader, a delusional community actor, or a high school buddy who's never matured beyond his senior year.

This show was consistently funny enough that I had to check and see why it didn't go beyond its two ten-episode seasons. Turns out that, being on Starz, it just didn't have a ton of exposure. It had also already lost Jane Lynch to the far bigger smash hit TV sit-com Glee after her first season on Party Down, which was a blow to the cast (the hilarious Megan Mullaly was brought in, but her character was a bit too straight-laced to fully allow Mullaly to flex her comic muscles). And apparently, the show was about to lose Adam Scott to soon-to-be new hit show Parks and Rec. So they pulled the plug, which I get.

Still, I recommend this one to anyone who likes some solid, R-rated humor and silliness. This is definitely a hidden gem that I was really glad to discover. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Before I Die #641: Vampyr (1932)

This was the 641st film I've seen out of the 1,222 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

A bizarre, fever-dream-like vampire flick with some impressive cinematic artistry for its day.

Inspired by the mid-19th century collection of horror short stories "In a Glass Darkly" by Fanu, Dreyer decided to loosely adapt some of the elements of the tale. It follows Allan Gray, a drifter who follows stories about the occult wherever they lead him. He goes to a small town, where he is immediately drawn into the strange goings-on surrounding Leone, a young girl who has mysteriously grown ill. Gray is initially alerted by what seems to be a dream, and he follows its directions into a nearby barn, where he sees shadows acting independently of their corporeal bodies, and other inexplicable and eerie interactions. Gray eventually falls victim to a vampire, and he is very nearly buried semi-alive, but a servant learns of what is happening, kills the vampire responsible, and frees Gray and Leone of their curse.

No synopsis or summary can come close to conveying what it's like to watch this movie. Frankly, I found it difficult to follow, narratively. I'm not sure how much of this was due to the fact that some of the original footage is still missing from the film, and how it was by design. Either way, the result was a tale that does not follow a typical structure in which the connections between the action is one scene and the next are clear. My hunch is that it was not meant to be so challenging, but it did create an almost dream-like air about the movie.

Even more than the creepy mood evoked by the story itself, though, was how striking the cinematic elements were, in terms of visuals. The framing and sets really stood out, compared to other films that I've seen around that era. Only the German impressionist films and a few others seemed to have had such a sharp eye for framing and the use of light and shadow so effectively.

I plan to watch a few of the supplemental materials available with this movie (a benefit of having the Criterion Channel), which I'm hoping will shed some light on the more puzzling elements of this film. Despite some befuddling aspects, I enjoyed it and recommend it for those who enjoy films from the era. The director, Dreyer, would soon go onto make many noted films with overtly religious themes, and Vampyr was a curious way to really get himself on the map before those later works. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Director: Wes Anderson

The wife and I have found ourselves unintentionally revisiting Wes Anderson's film catalog. It started with watching The Darjeeling Limited a couple weeks back, then continued with Rushmore last week. Having enjoyed those two, we kept it up with his follow-up to that latter film, and enjoyed it plenty.

The Royal Tenenbaums uses an impressive ensemble cast to follow the Tenenbaum family, a New York City-based clan which includes Royal, the self-involved, insensitive father; Etheline, a loving mother, and three budding genius children: Chas, Margot, and Richie. While the Tenenbaum kids all seem to be headed for greatness in their respective fields of interest - finance, playwrighting, and tennis - the dysfunction within the family (mostly due to their father) eventually derails nearly everyone's chance at great success. We mostly follow the children a little over two decades after they were all between roughly eight and eleven years old and still showed limitless promise. At this point, Royal, now completely broke and desperate but no better a human being, concocts a scheme to work his way back into his wife and children's lives.

This is the Wes Anderson movie I know best, having watched it every few years since it came out, and I still think it's pretty great.

The Royal Tenenbaums was the first film of Wes Anderson's to expand to the large-group ensemble approach. After his smaller-scale (and smaller-budgeted) films Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, we now got a story that juggles no less than a half-dozen major characters and their bizarre and dysfunctional relationships with each other. If there is any primary character, it is the titular Royal, played hilariously by Gene Hackman. His gruff, unforgiving turn as the thoughtless, selfish, destructive patriarch of the Tenenbaum family sets and keeps much of the rest of the story in motion. It's not always easy - not even in comedy - to create a character who's mostly despicable, but whom you ultimately empathize with. At least a little bit, anyway.

But the movie is more than just Hackman as the unfit, previously-absentee father. The all-star cast all live up the reputations that had either previously created and/or have since maintained. Anjelica Huston is as good as she's ever been, which is saying something. No surprise there. But the younger players - Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke and Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, and others - are inhabit their quirky and damaged characters splendidly.

In an attempt to bond, Royal brings his newly-acquainted
grandsons to a dog-fighting circle. Perfect example his
insanely misguided (but hilarious) attempts to reconnect with
a family whom he himself drove off with this type of thing.
This movie was also the one which I consider the first of what the movie-going world would come to know as "the Wes Anderson movie." While we saw it almost fully formed in Rushmore, it is with The Royal Tenenbaums that we get the hyper-detailed, meticulously-crafted, super vibrant visuals and ultra-sharp cinematography in each and every shot and movement. It's not to everyone's taste, as it shatters any illusion that you're watching reality, and it can have a cartoonish feel to it. But for those who appreciate an eye for visual details, it's hard not to be impressed. The impeccable quality has been a part of every single film - both live action and animated - that he's done since, and this was really the one which set his own bar.

All technical merits aside, the movie is still just plain funny. Hackman delivers Royal's brutally insensitive lines and needling to perfection. The Wilson brothers bring their penchant for playing zoned out, sensitive types fully into Eli Nash and Richie Tenenbaum. The rest of the cast is just as good, and they're all given plenty of hilariously odd situations that actually don't seem too far off the detached, near-aristocratic pursuits of New York elite types. As with nearly every Anderson movie, it does take a brief, dark turn that's difficult to anticipate, but the proceedings never get overly bleak. There is heart and dysfunction aplenty, but this is, overall, a comedy.

I still rank this one among my favorite Wes Anderson films. I've generally liked them all to varying degrees, but The Royal Tenenbaums is in my top two or three. Along with Rushmore, it's the Anderson movie I would recommend to someone who hasn't seen any of his. From either one of those, you'll know if he's to your liking. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Idiot Boxing: Brockmire, season 4 (2020)

Jim dotes on Beth - the daughter he didn't know he had until
she showed up on his doorstep when she was eight years old.
There is a certain sweetness to their relationship, but it is
often lost amidst a season that was overly busy.
This show really swung for the fences with this final season, and ended up hitting a sacrifice, dribbling fielder's choice. It's a "productive" play that gets the run home, but it wasn't as strong as the first three seasons.

At the end of season 3, Brockmire had embraced sobriety and begun calling his first Major League Baseball games in over a decade, along with his new announcing partner Gabby. The future seemed fairly bright, even if Jim's relationship with Jules had all but fallen completely apart.

Season 4 does not go where you think it might. Instead of picking up with Jim (Hank Azaria) and Gabby calling Oakland Athletics games for the next season, we start with Jim being surprised by an 8-year-old daughter, Beth, showing up on his doorstep - a daughter he never knew he'd had by a romantic partner in the Phillipines, but who had died tragically in a massive hurricane. We then jump a full decade into the future, where the U.S. has become a near-dystopian land rife with no end of social ills. Major League Baseball still exists, but it is barely hanging onto to its small and ever-dwindling audience. Jim still broadcasts games, but his life is far more dedicated to Beth (Reina Hardesty), who is about to head off to college. In a desperation move, MLB elects Jim as baseball commissioner, hoping that his flare for the spectacular can somehow save the game from death. The succeeding seven episodes span the roughly four years between 2030 and 2034, as Jim deals with Beth going through college, the return of Jules (Amanda Peete) and Charles into his life, and his attempts to save the game he still loves.

This was such an odd turn for this show to take, and it mostly didn't work out very well. I fully respect the writers going way out on a limb to try and do something different and unexpected, but this just felt like an idea that should have been scrapped during the brainstorming session for this season. It wasn't terrible, and it had its share of laughs, but it was by far the weakest of the four seasons, which isn't how any show wants to go out.

Jules, Jim, and Charles at the corporate office of Limon. This
was a plot element that had several really good laughs, but
the theme gobbled up an amount of time that one would
expect more from a science-fiction show, not a comedy with
sports as its backdrop.
Setting aside the fact that the show completely jettisoned the story set up at the end of season 3 - Jim working with Gabby - I think the main problem is that the season never really seemed to know exactly what to do with itself. Making Jim and instant dad had potential, but that story often got washed out among the others: Jim's rekindled relationship with Jules. The return of his sex-addicted ex-wife back into his life. His trying to save all of MLB. And overarching all of this was a sometimes-funny but often just weirdly scary science-fiction/social satire which involved references to failed states. As if all that weren't more than enough for a season of eight 25-minute episodes, there's a story about a nearly-omnipotent computer gadget, the Limon, which plays a rather large role by season's end. All of a sudden, a show which always focused on two or three characters and one or two straightforward story elements gets strangely overstuffed in its swan song season. You just never knew what was coming; and while this can sometimes enhance a story, it only muddied the waters here.

This isn't to say that the show wasn't funny. It was. My wife and I had more than a few good laughs along the way, especially with many of the jokes surrounding the Limon tool. But the gags just weren't as numerous or consistently funny as past seasons, and the ever-shifting tone just made the lack of solid gags stand out all the more.

The finale of this series wasn't so bad that I would dissuade someone from watching it, or being a reason to never start watching the show in the first place. It's not a Game of Thrones scenario, in that respect. I would still recommend this show to people with dark senses of humor, as I feel that the first three seasons are well worth the time. I would just warn people to temper their expectations heading into this fourth and final season. To be ready for a weird, wild ride that may not always be as much fun as the first three seasons. 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Idiot Boxing: Westworld, season 3 (2020)

I'm still enjoying this series, even if this third season became far more like other sci-fi films and TV shows than its more unique first two seasons. It's also grown emotionally colder as it has progressed.

At the end of season 2, the Westworld theme park was completely finished, with nearly all of the remaining hosts' "consciousness" having escaped into a virtual reality after being guided by Maeve. Meanwhile, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) had escaped the park, bringing with her a handful of other influential hosts' memory orbs. This third season picks up from there, with Dolores beginning her assault on the entire state of human society. She uses her abilities to infiltrate some of the wealthiest, most powerful computer programming companies, in order to gain access to the immense control they have over people's lives. Before long, she is in the crosshairs of Engerraud Serac (Vincent Cassel), a shadowy man who seems to wield nearly unlimited knowledge and financial power, and who has resurrected Maeve to use in his fight against Dolores. All the while, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and a few other faces familiar from the first two seasons try to reach Dolores to either help or stop her.

This season was another solid one, but I wasn't as engrossed as with the first two seasons.

The themes are meaty ones, which are relevant and worth pondering. The primary one is how big data could potentially be used to build predictive programs that completely dominate human life. And not in the slightly-concerning "they know what I'm buying at the grocery store" kind of way. No, we're talking more like a Gattaca-style "We're going to lay your entire life out for you based on our algorithms" kind of way. This, as you can imagine, has some pretty dark impacts on people's lives, but people aren't even aware of them. It's not a massive leap for us viewers to see out digital society headed on a path not unlike what we see depicted in this season.

As with any and every Nolan brother production, the story is multi-layered and complex, sometimes to a fault. It's certainly not a casual watch, as it requires close attention to keep up with the ever-shifting characters, identities, their relationships to one another, and the plots against each other. This can be enjoyable, but the entertainment value sometimes takes a hit, buckling under the weight of attempted sophistication and profundity. More than this, though, is that we are once again mostly dealing with non-human characters fighting more for intellectual, philosophical ideas. There are some touches of true, human feeling - mostly in the form of the character Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul) - but they usually take a back seat to the grander themes and overall scope of the story.

Caleb relaxes at his construction job with a robot assistant.
Caleb, played well by the reliable Aaron Paul, is really the
one and only strong human connection that we viewers
get in this season.
This season does still feature a few really solid action sequences, and the look and feel are as slick as anything we've seen in the show thus far. I must say, though, that this season - the first one that takes place almost completely outside of the Westworld-type theme parks - doesn't feel as distinct as the first two. Rather, it has the same mostly high-polish aesthetic which we've seen in so many other sci-fi shows and films, most notable the Blade Runner movies, Minority Report, and several others. This, combined with having themes shared in other shows released around the same time, like FX's recent Devs and others, make Westworld feel less novel.

I had originally thought that this was meant to be the final season. I have since learned that there is at least one more season planned. I'll watch it, though I won't be heading into it with the same enthusiasm as I was season two or three. It's feeling like a show that needs to reach its conclusion soon, or risk feeling like it's floundering for a way to wrap itself up. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Rushmore (1998)

Director: Wes Anderson

After re-watching and enjoying The Darjeeling Limited, the wife and I decided to go back to an earlier Anderson movie which neither of us had seen in quite some time: Rushmore, Anderson's second full-length feature and his first with a significant budget.

This one holds up really well, and my wife and I actually picked up on things which we didn't remember catching on previous viewings (which were probably close to a decade ago).

The story follows Max Fisher, a 15-year old student at the Rushmore Academy, an elite prep school where Max excels in creating, running, and joining countless extracurricular clubs while failing miserably at anything academic. He falls in love with Ms. Cross, an attractive, young new teacher at Rushmore, but he hits a serious wall when confronted with the realities of their age differences and with a "rivalry" for her affections in the form of Herman Bloom (Bill Murray). Bloom is a self-made man who is miserable with his family life, but finds some rejuvenation with Ms. Cross. A jilted Max begins a series of retaliations against Bloom that soon spiral out of control, resulting in some rather serious consequences.

By now, just about anyone interested in films knows Wes Anderson's entire style. It is a very meticulously-crafted and curated visual style, coupled with a very dry, quirky sensibility in terms of character and dialogue. Stories often center on one or more people, young and old, who are in privileged economic positions but who deal with severe family dysfunction. Rushmore features some of those elements, though in a relatively grounded story. Max Fisher certainly fits the archetypal, precocious young person who is in plenty of Anderson's movies. In certain ways, he's way ahead of his peers, even if he's woefully immature in other ways. As usual with young people in Anderson's movies, a lot of the humor comes from just how dead seriously the young people take themselves.

This touches on one thing that both my wife and I realized upon this recent viewing: that for the first two acts of this movie, Max Fisher is an absolute monster. On earlier viewings, for whatever reason, I found him more charming and misunderstood, even as he was actively and aggressively seeking to destroy other people's lives. This time, though, I felt that I was truly seeing the emergence of a psychopath. Fortunately, the movie really is about Max eventually understanding the damage that he's done, atoning, and starting to move beyond the wildly egocentric stage of his life.

Along with 1994's Ed Wood, this was one of Murray's earliest
forays into quirky, very well-drafted "independent" type
comedies. The man was all but made for these roles.
The humor holds up really well, and is quite timeless. Anderson has never been one to rely on pop culture references, and it takes some fairly sharp writing to get dry humor to hit as well as he always has. That said, his is a particular brand of humor which isn't necessarily for everyone. I remember when I first saw Rushmore over two decades ago that I didn't completely "get it," though I found it amusing. Only after a few more viewings over the succeeding years did I start to really appreciate the more understated gags and the style, to go along with the broader humor.

Rushmore really is a great starting place for someone who's never seen a Wes Anderson movie but is curious. It's probably his most grounded, accessible work, aside from his first film Bottle Rocket, but the overall production value is far higher in this sophomore effort. Anderson's later movies are mostly bigger, zanier, and more cartoonish in ways, which may or may not be to some people's liking. Start here, then check out The Royal Tannenbaums. That should be a good gauge for whether you're a "Wes Anderson" person or not. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Director: Wes Anderson

An enjoyable movie that fits right into the same quirky niche that Wes Anderson has carved out for himself in the world of cinema.

The Darjeeling Limited follows three American brothers - Francis, Peter, and Jack - as they reunite and attempt to bond in India, one year after their father's death. The trip is the brainchild of the eldest brother, Francis (Owen Wilson), whose domineering "big brother" nature is clearly resented by Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). Each of the three carries around his own dysfunction, making for rather chaotic proceedings any time the three of them are together. This is especially trying since Francis's plan is that they spend plenty of time on the title vehicle, a somewhat cramped train that crosses the Indian countryside while Francis hopes to put the three of them back in contact with their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston).

If you're familiar with Wes Anderson's films, then this one would come as no real surprise to you. It bears nearly every hallmark of his live-action films (his animated ones, too, in some respects). Members of a privileged, dysfunctional family try to work out issues that have plagued them for their entire lives. They struggle. Something rather dark and violent happens. They work through things and find an imperfect but more tranquil place for themselves in each others' lives. And it's all presented in a meticulously-crafted and framed, dazzlingly colorful fashion. If you've seen one Wes Anderson movie, you'll recognize the style immediately. You'll probably also know whether you like it or not. The Darjeeling Limited isn't going to change your mind about that.

All that said, I've always liked Anderson' movies, to one degree or another. I remember watching Rushmore a couple of years after it came out, and while I can't say I fully appreciated it, I dug the quirky humor. The Royal Tannenbaums really got me, though, as I thought it was great. Since then, I've been sure to check out everything Anderson does, with slightly mixed results. The Darjeeling Limited is a solid offering from him, but not one I consider among his very best. If there's one thing that does set it slightly apart from his others, it's that he abandons his typically larger cast and focuses on the three main characters for nearly the entire film. Yes, there are secondary characters, sometimes played by famous actors, but it's mostly the three brothers and their fumbling awkwardness. It gives the movie, which is a tidy 91 minutes, an even more streamlined feel than some of this other movies.

Peter, as he inexplicably decides to buy a highly venemous
cobra. This is just one example of how good decision-making
is not the forte of any of the three brothers.
The performances are strong, with Owen Wilson playing the instinctively but unintentionally dominating eldest brother, and Brody and Schwarzman dryly seething at getting trapped within their own three-way sibling dynamics. We also get several faces familiar to Anderson's movies - brief appearances by Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, and a few others, all of whom execute their roles well.

There is still the element common to all of Anderson's earlier films - that the characters are all wealthy, self-absorbed, damaged white folks. And there is even a slightly cringe-worthy "what we learned from the brown natives" vibe in the resolution in the third act. But it isn't wildly overdone, so it hardly spoils anything.

The Darjeeling Limited tends not to be mentioned as among Anderson's best-known or strongest efforts, but it's not because it's a bad movie by any means. Rather, I think it's simply because it's more limited in scope and doesn't have quite as tidy a resolution as some of his other movies. It's still highly enjoyable, though, and one that fans of his better-known movies should try out, if they haven't already.