Saturday, September 23, 2017

Before I Die #613*: A Storm over Asia (1928)

*It's that time again. The fine people at the "1,001...Before You Die" headquarters have issued a new edition of their list, including 12 new movies from the last year or so. I'd already seen five of them, but this all requires an adjustment to my overall numbers. Hence the jump from film #607 to #613. With that out of the way...

This is the 613th movie that I've now seen out of the 1,199 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Original Russian Title: Potomok Chingis-Khana

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Bair, the Mongol fur trader, offers his wares for sale. The
insulting price given sets into motion an ever-expanding chain
of events that lead to an massive outright revolt.
A curious old silent movie that, while overly long by today's standards, offered some social and political commentary that was novel for its day.

The movie mostly follows Bair, a Mongol fur trader who runs afoul of a chiseling, white supremacist English trader. After a scuffle during which an Englishman is killed, Bair goes on the run and joins a group of Russian partisans for a time, as they fight against English forces in the region. He is eventually captured and sentenced to death by the British; however, it is discovered that he is likely the only living descendant of Genghis Khan, the powerful ruler from centuries past whose legend still has a firm grip on the Mongolian people. Knowing this, the British enact plan to raise Bair to the status of ruler of the Mongols, hoping to use him as a puppet ruler through whom they can control the Mongolian people. Unfortunately for the scheming British, Bair ultimately erupts into fury at his and his people's being used and manipulated, and he rallies his fellow Mongols to war against the British.

The version I watched of this is apparently the "full" two-hour-and-change version, as opposed to the 74-minute version that is referred to on several database websites. Well, I could really feel those extra 45 minutes at times. The movie features more than a few slow-moving segments during which I presume the audience was meant to simply take in the scenery, as opposed to seeing the plot move along. This is especially true during the first half hour or so, when little happens beyond Bair bringing a rare, high-quality fur into town for sale. Things do get more engaging once he goes on the run from the infuriated British, but often the pace slows while scenes linger on repetitive sequences or mundane activities such as men smiling at each other. It also doesn't help that there are absolutely no well-rounded or fully explored characters in the picture. This is not completely uncommon for stories which tackle large socio-political and military themes, but it can be rather dull when all but one character acts in completely predictable ways.

There is one fascinating (if overly long) sequence where we
get some documentary-style footage of authentic Buddhist
ceremonies being performed. The precision and pageantry
of these ceremonies is curiously juxtaposed with English
military leaders donning their garb. Such commentary was
relatively sophisticated, based on other silent films I've seen.
All that said, A Storm over Asia does stand out from most other silent films that I've seen, including its contemporaries. It's the earliest film I've seen that offers a fairly straightforward tale of social manipulation, whereby one group - the British in this case - seeks to use religious belief and historical capital to create a shadow regime over a region. This shows a deeper and darker vision of international politics than what one would see in the films of D.W. Griffiths or a movies like Battleship Potemkin and October, two Russian revolution films which had a very obvious bias. This movie does the same, but expands its scope to outside of Russia's borders.

The end of the tale is quite unusual as well. Whereas many directors would have built an entire third (and even perhaps a second) act around a Mongol horde erupting with fury against their oppressors, it is this outburst of anger that serves as a foreboding exclamation point at the end of A Storm over Asia. It certainly has a very particular effect of leaving one with a sense that one overly arrogant group has just grabbed the tiger by the tail, and we viewers are left with the image of the snarling tiger just turning around and starting to take its first vicious swipe at its aggressor. I can appreciate how the story is much more about the causes behind a revolution rather than the actual fighting which eventually break out.

Overall and interesting film for its day, and one that does show why it is still considered important, nearly a century after its release.

That's 613 films down. Only 586 to go before I can die. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

New Release! Logan Lucky (2017)

Some vague spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

The Logan siblings - they comprise half of the sextet that
attempts a heist of rather massive proportions.
Director: Steven Soderbergh

A fun heist movie, with a unique flavor and an attempt at something just a tad more complex than Soderbergh's "Ocean's" films, even if it doesn't quite succeed at everything it attempts.

The tale is mostly that of Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a proud West Virginian who gets laid off from his construction job on account of his having a chronic knee problem. Jimmy needs money to help support his daughter, so he convinces his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), sister Mellie (Riley Keough) and a few others of dubious character to pull off a robbery at the nearby NASCAR racetrack during a competition.

As a heist movie, Logan Lucky hits the necessary marks. The setup is nothing new, and it doesn't hold up terribly well under scrutiny, but it serves well enough as an excuse to see if a band of  misfits can actually pull off a challenging robbery. More important is that the movie, much like the "Ocean's" movies, offers clever and entertaining forms of problem solving. There's a cunning jailbreak (both out and back in), stealth, disguises, and meticulous planning all along the way. This is what any good movie of this type needs, and Logan Lucky delivers.

Much like Soderberg's "Ocean's" series, this one also has a very breezy, fun tone. This is especially evident with the characters. While there is a cursory human interest story at work between Jimmy and his cute little daughter, the proceedings never come close to getting grim or overly intense. Jimmy, his siblings, and their partners are all comic characters of one degree or another, with the most purely humorous being the demolitions expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his uber redneck brothers. I must admit that, were I from West Virginia or the deep south, I might take exception to how people from those regions are depicted, seeing as how nearly every main character seems to be intellectually challenged in one way or another. As it was, though, there are plenty of good laughs to be had.

On the topic of mental capabilities, however, is one bone I have to pick with the movie. At nearly every step of the picture, we are shown how everyone involved in the heist, from the two goofy, younger Bang brothers up to the "mastermind" Jimmy Logan, seems to be rather slow or inept in certain ways. And yet, the entire crew does actually manage to plan and execute a rather sophisticated robbery to near-perfection. This would have been easier to accept had we been given some slight suggestion as to Jimmy's mental acuity, but this never really happens. I very much appreciate seeing a heist movie that uses a different character type, setting everything in the South, but I still need to believe that the characters actually have the skills required.

And the Bang family makes up the other half. While Daniel
Craig's West Virginian drawl slips every so often, he makes up
for it with a fun turn as the quirky demolitionist, Joe Bang.
Another odd little blemish came from an extremely unexpected source - Oscar winner Hilary Swank. Swank plays F.B.I. Agent Sarah Grayson, who shows up in the last parts of the movie to try and piece together the facts of the robbery. For some strange reason, Swank's performance stood out as completely unnatural and overdone, coming off as a poor imitation of Sandra Bullock's comedically stern Agent Ashburn in The Heat. This stands out all the more when everyone else in the picture, very much including pretty boy Channing Tatum, does an excellent job. Swank is a great actress, but for whatever reason, she missed the mark on this one. It happens to the best of them, I suppose.

So this was an entertaining flick, being exactly what I had expected. It's not going to change the genre or anything quite so historic, but it is a well-made, entertaining tale that can offer some truly PG-13 fun for a couple of hours. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Before I Die #607: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

This is the 607th movie I've seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.

Directors: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton

A solid Keaton flick, with some of his more memorable set piece stunts, though it doesn't top my two other favorite Keaton movies.

The setup and story are not wildly innovative for silent era comedies: the only son of a crusty old steamboat captain, William Canfield, Jr. (Keaton) returns home from college to see his father for the first time in many, many years. Much to his burly, working-class father's chagrin, Junior is a diminutive dandy, looking wildly different from his old man in both his tiny frame and his foppish style. Senior attempts to teach junior his trade, with little success. This creates bigger problems since their family business - their steamboat - is about to be put out of business by a brand new, larger, and more luxurious steam liner that has just moved into their river town. The rivalry with this other company is put on hold, though, when a massive storm blows through the town, endangering everyone in it. Junior, despite his many goofs up to this point, manages to save his father and several other prominent people in the town.

"Old Stoneface" Keaton's remarkable skills as a
physical comedian are on display throughout the
film, but perhaps never moreso than as he
fumbles his way around the steamships.
As with any Keaton flick, the story is hardly what matters here. It's all about the visual stunts and gags, and this film has plenty of them. The most notable is the grande finale windstorm, when entire buildings are literally crumbling around Keaton's character, as he dodges the debris coming at him from all directions. Although there were some impressive stunts in this very long sequence, I was actually more amused by a few of the simpler physical gags. What's always impressed me about Keaton were his uncanny agility and grace, and the massive eyes on his hilariously deadpan face. In this movie, there is more than one moment where he'll take a spill that could seriously cripple him, somehow catch himself, and never once change his facial expression. It dawned on me that he truly is the original Jackie Chan, in terms of putting his safety at risk for the sake of a movie. Only I find his impassive non-reactions far funnier than Chan's highly expressive face.

I've now seen about a half dozen of Keaton's movies, and my two favorites are still Our Hospitality and The General. Steamboat Bill, Jr. may have the more memorable final act in the eyes of historians, and it may have inspired the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, but it wasn't quite as entertaining as those earlier movies of his.

That's 607 movies down. Only 580 to go before I can die. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Retro Duo: Drive (2011); The Heat (2013)

Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

One of my favorite movies from the last decade. I just watched it for the fourth or fifth time, and I still marvel at it.

The basic story elements are straight out of the mythical Western movies of Sergio Leone: a quiet man with no name and a particular skill set is not bothered by committing acts outside of the law. However, he does have a certain code of honor to which he holds himself. When he sees the forces of darkness closing in, he decides to use his skills to fight back. In the case of director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, instead of a gunfighter, we have "Driver" (Ryan Gosling), who is a movie stunt driver moonlighting as a getaway "wheel man" for robbers. When Driver (his real name is never given) falls in love with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), he starts to show a tenderness unseen to us before. This nearly all vanishes, however, when Irene's husband is first paroled out of prison but then forced into committing a robbery that goes horribly wrong. Driver then finds himself in a race to track down the gangsters responsible, while keeping Irene and her little boy safe.

While Drive is not telling a story that is particularly fresh, it updates the "quiet, lone hero" tale wonderfully and tells it with such cinematic excellence that it shames other movies that have tried the same thing since Leone first mastered it in the mid-1960s. Admittedly, it helps if one has a certain affinity for this type of protagonist. I've long been a fan of Leone and Clint Eastwood's (we can technically throw Charles Bronson in there, too) Man With No Name character. I'm far from the only boy in the history of humanity who's been fascinated by the fantasy of the ever-cool and unflappable hero who is so skilled that he can take down any adversary, often without breaking much of a sweat. Ryan Gosling's Driver is cut from that same cloth, though he's traded in Eastwood's dusty serape for a slick, silver driving jacket with a badass scorpion on the back.

I know, I know. If you haven't seen the movie, you're thinking, "Come on. A silent, badass loner wearing a scorpion jacket? This is a joke, right?" No. It's not. By a lesser filmmaker, it would be laughable, to be sure. But this screenplay and direction are so tight that it's brilliant. The narrative is a case-study in cinematic efficiency, with nary a wasted scene or throwaway line to be found in the entire film. And while there is certainly plenty of intense action and violence in the latter parts of the movie, much of the earlier segments feature delicate and subtle visual cues to tell the story. These subtleties are what make the action sequences in the third act of the movie so much more impactful.

I've spoken to a few friends who have watched the movie and simply found it too slow, quiet, and brooding for their liking. I understand this. If one prefers their action to be highly kinetic and offer strings of one-liners to bridge the action scenes, a la the Fast and the Furious franchise, then Drive is not the movie for you. In place of those styles of storytelling, Drive offers stunningly framed and lit scenes, expert editing, a meditative tone, and pitch-perfect acting (the supporting cast is amazing) to tell a story that is both classic and unique. There aren't many non-popcorn movies that I watch every year or two, but this quickly became one of them. After this most recent viewing, this is not at all likely to change.

This great throwback poster gives some
idea of the tone of the movie. Think of
it as a more comedic, profane version of
Lethal Weapon.
The Heat (2013)

Director: Paul Feig

A bit of a forerunner for the even-better, modern comedy classic Spy, The Heat is a hilarious early team-up of comedy director Paul Feig and brilliant comedienne Melissa McCarthy.

The movie pairs stuffy, arrogant F.B.I. Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) with local hardass Boston police officer Mullins (McCarthy) as they try to track down a high-volume drug dealer responsible for several grizzly deaths in recent months. Ashburn is a well-educated and capable but highly abrasive, career-driven woman who has alienated virtually every coworker in the Bureau. Mullins, on quite the other hand, is Ashburn's polar opposite in nearly every way. While she is equally effective at tracking and capturing criminals, her approach is far less surgical and much more that of a wrecking ball, speaking to her background as the eldest sister in her Irish, working class family. Mullins is supremely crass and on a hair trigger at all times. She and Ashburn eventually bridge the tremendous gap between their styles of law enforcement and work together to solve the case.

Anyone who has seen and enjoyed either Bridesmaids or Spy would do well to check out The Heat. Director Paul Feig has found his modern comedy movie niche with the formula evidenced in these movies (though Spy was impressively less formulaic than the other two): use a known story blueprint, hire several supremely hilarious actors, and let them run with their lines and characters. That is truly where the strength of these movies lie. When you give someone like McCarthy a few decent lines or a dynamic character to work with, along with R-rated freedom, she'll either deliver the written line with perfect timing and tone, or she'll punch it up into something even better. And not to slight Sandra Bullock here, who does a great job as the straight woman, but it's McCarthy's attitude and comic chops that set the tone here. It also helps to have some other veteran comic actors like Bill Burr and Michael Rappaport as supporting characters, just so no single voice or pair of voices dominate for too long.

Like nearly every Paul Feig movie I've seen, The Heat is probably about 10 to 15 minutes too long, due to overly generous editing. It's fairly clear that much of Feig's approach is to grant his actors a ton of freedom to ad-lib as much as they desire. This is as it should be, as it clearly leads to plenty of hilarious moments of spontaneous dialogue and reactions. However, every film of his contains at least a few scenes that feel a tad too long or simply superfluous, bogging down the narrative pace just a bit. Fortunately, they've never been a complete drag on his movies, and The Heat is the same.

I was glad to learn that shortly after I watched this movie, a sequel was announced. The trio of Feig, McCarthy, and Bullock was obviously a strong one, and there are plenty more tales of Ashburn and Mullins that would be fun to tell. I'll look forward to it. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Before I Die #606: An Andalusian Dog (1928)

This is the 606th movie I've watched from the "Before You Die" list which I'm working my way through.

Probably the most (in)famous scene from the film. Yes, that
is a straight razor in his hand, and yes, he's about to do what
you are afraid he's going to do with it.
Director: Luis Bunuel

If you know a little something about painting and/or film history, then the names "Salvador Dali" and "Luis Bunuel" ought to evoke notions of oddity, irreverance and surreality. And once you know that, you get some idea of what you're in for with An Andalusian Dog, a 20-minute short film conceived and written by Dali and Bunuel, and directed by the latter.

How does one describe the story, such as it is? Frankly, it's virtually impossible. I could give a detailed synopsis of what happens, but it would probably take no fewer than 5,000 words and far too much of your time. In very broad strokes, this 20-minute film short connects seemingly incongruous images, such as a woman having her eye cut open with a razor blade, (perhaps?) the same woman assisting a man semi-dressed as a clown who has had a bicycle accident outside of her apartment, a man with ants literally crawling out of his palm, and plenty of other strange and unsettling visuals. While it takes great imagination to even attempt to piece any of this together into any cohesive narrative, the one connecting factor may be that nearly all of the images are likely to unsettle a viewer in one way or another.

Need a mental workout? Just watch some images like a couple
of dead mules on tops of pianos and try to make heads or
tails of them. That's what this film has to offer.
My viewing experience was such that I was only glad that the film wasn't longer than 20 minutes. I simply don't know if my brain could have handled it. I don't mind strange and bizarre. I've watched, found merit in, and even enjoyed films by directors such as David Lynch and Lars Von Trier, two filmmakers unafraid to challenge audiences for a full 90 to 120 minutes. But An Andalusian Dog? It truly is the stuff of the human unconscious. It is no secret that Salvador Dali drew much inspiration for his surrealist painting and sculptures from his own dreams and hallucinations. This film is the movie picture version of just such visions. The movie has that typically dream-like quality where the connection between one moment, scene or sequence to the next is nearly impossible to predict. It might be a visual similarity, a random thought or impulse, or a loose word association. One could probably watch the movie a thousand times and come up with completely different interpretations every time, given the elemental nature of many of the images. However one does it, it is likely to tax your mind as it works to find some sort of meaning in it all. For such a strange work, more than 20 minutes would likely have been asking too much of most viewers, including myself.

I understand that this was probably one of the first well-respected surrealist films, and one that inspired many later filmmakers to break certain rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling. That stated, I can hardly say that I "enjoyed" this little film. I can appreciate its artistry and just how wildly imaginative it is, but I can't see myself going back to it unless it comes with a manual.

So that's now 606 movies down. Only 582 to go before I can die. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Before I Die #605: The Docks of New York (1928)

This is the 605th movie I've seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.

Director: Josef von Sternberg

A tidy little tale that illustrates several evolutions in film storytelling just at the dawn of the sound age in cinema.

The movie tracks the brisk meeting and bonding between Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) and Mae (Betty Compson). Roberts is a cynical, steely-eyed, hard-as-nails stoker, one who shovels coal into a ship's furnaces for fuel. While he and his fellow stokers are on dry land for an evening of R and R, he comes across a young woman, Mae, who tries to commit suicide by throwing herself into the river. Roberts saves her and soon falls in love, even marrying her in a hasty ceremony that very night, right at the bar where he had just earlier been getting drunk and brawling with other revelers. While initially getting married as a sort of lark and planning to hop a new ship the next morning, Roberts soon realizes that he loves the morose Mae more than he realizes. He jumps off of his new ship just as it is leaving port and rushes to find Mae at the local courthouse, where she is being charged for shoplifting. Roberts takes the rap for her, though, allowing himself to be sentenced to 60 days in prison. For him and Mae, though, this is a sort of blessing, as he will at least be on dry land and closer to her, rather than out at sea.

When compared to the other "great" movies that I've now seen from this era, The Docks of New York stands out in a few ways. Firstly is that it is a drama focusing on a segment of society very rarely featured in such films. Nearly the entire tale takes place in a beaten down dock area of New York City, a depressed section of the city where blue-collar workers struggled mightily to survive. The movie depicts the epitome of the "work hard, play hard" approach to life, where nights brought excessive drinking, fighting, and sex to anyone looking for them. This is a far cry from the loftier or more epic tales told in most other films of the day. There is a highly seedy element to the proceedings, but the movie isn't judging them. Rather, it uses Bill and Mae to evoke a certain amount of sympathy for such people. This is especially true for Mae, who has obviously been used and abused far too much in her young life. At this point in film history, not many quality films had offered such portrayals of the "lower class," with The Last Laugh and The Crowd being two of the few notable exceptions.

Something else I noticed in this movie is how we continued to see ever more subtlety in the star actors' techniques. Lead man Bancroft and lady Compson have clearly learned that they needn't mug or posture for a camera that can offer us telling close-ups of their faces and capture all of their smallest movements. And there is a notable ease with which Bancroft struts around the wild saloon where he and his fellow salt-of-the-earth types get into various scuffles. Such actors always unintentionally make their second-rate supporting cast look a little worse, though it can be a bit tougher to spot before the true boom of sound and dialogue. All the same, the leading actors do nice work evoking some feeling for their characters.

Bill and Mae, just outside of Bill's rundown room. This film
showed early mastery of dark and light that later movies
would turn into virtually an entire genre.
Perhaps even more than the characters, story, or actors, the visuals are quite impressive. Using methods that foreshadowed what we would see in the great noir films of the forthcoming decades, this movie used lighting and shadows to amazing effect. This creates a sense of lingering doom over certain scenes, especially those just outside of the bar and shanty apartments, where one can assume that nothing good is happening in the many nooks, crannies, and corners shrouded in darkness. This all sets a rather unique setting and tone for the movie, making it even more imperative that Bill and Mae find some sort of solace with each other.

Being a silent film, The Docks of New York is still trapped in several of that era's popular movie conventions, including silly slapstick gags here and there, and an oversimplified plot. Still, it is a decent movie for its time, and I was engaged for its very modest running time of 76 minutes. Those who enjoy silent era films would likely appreciate more than a few things about this one, even if it isn't the silent film likely to win over viewers not terribly interested in pre-sound pictures. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Breaking Bad full rewatch (2008-2013)

I was relatively late to the Breaking Bad phenomenon. Of course I had heard about it's popularity and critical accolades during its initial rise to prominence back around 2010. But it wasn't until the series was nearly wrapped up in 2013 that I started playing catch up by working through the entire series. As most people, I found it thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and highly original. I enjoyed it enough to know that, at some point in the future, I would likely rewatch the entire series again.

Well, after three excellent seasons of the spinoff prequel Better Call Saul and recently channel surfing my way into one of the more memorable scenes from Breaking Bad earlier this year, the time came. Thanks to the marvel of modern streaming, the entire five-season, 62-episode series is sitting right there in Netflix just begging to be binged. So binge I did, not being completely sure of just how much I would enjoy the entire (roughly 46-and-a-half hour) ride on a second time.

In short, the show was even better the second time.

It speaks highly of a story, whether in literature or other media, when it is still compelling after you know the key plot points and the ultimate outcomes for the characters. Breaking Bad is a prime example of this. The first time I watched the series, it took about two seasons before I realized that Walter White was not some sort of sympathetic anti-hero who would eventually see the light. Rather, he was a warped, angry, vicious monster buried deep within the exterior of an impotent suburban schlub. Over the course of the series, he makes one decision after another which peels back another layer of the sad sack exterior to reveal a person dying to be "the man," but almost never wanting to admit his selfish urges to others or even himself. Though White commits some rather heinous acts in the first season, one could somewhat justify them as acting out of desperation. However, as the story progresses and White thrusts himself deeper into the world of mass production and distribution of the lethally addictive drug crystal meth, it becomes clearer that it is all just the means through which he hopes to upstage everyone whom he feels has slighted or underestimated him over the course of his adult life. These gradual revelations are compelling to watch, even as unsavory as they are.

One consistently compelling aspect of the show was its constant focus on problem solving - a theme as old as human storytelling itself. And Breaking Bad was masterful at it. Still, this was only window dressing compared to the deeper narrative at work. The tale of Walter White himself can be seen as rollicking, eerily dark and violent American tragedy. In classic Greek tragedy fashion, White is a man possessed of true genius-level talent - in science and chemistry, to be precise. It is quite clear that he could have been, and in fact at one time nearly was, a force for exceptional good in the world. And yet, for reasons we can infer related to White's own pride, he turned his back on a chance to have a career filled with tremendous rewards, both intellectual and financial. When the show essentially picks up nearly two decades later, we eventually gets hints and clues as to how much of Walter's humanity still exists, in contrast with the bitter, vengeful, selfish, and extremely dangerous creature we see revealed. While there are plenty of moments during the course of the show when it is easy to see Walter as a thoroughly corrupted force of pure evil, there are also just enough moments when the little that is left of his compassion show through. These moments keep Walter from ever becoming a one-dimensional villain, and the story is that much stronger for it.

Jesse and Hank, two of the best-formed and best-acted
characters you're likely to find in any TV show. Actors Aaron
Paul and Dean Norris brought every bit of intensity, tragedy,
and comedy to life through these dynamic forces in the show.
While the focus on the protagonist carries much of the show's powerful story, any successful 60-plus episode drama needs compelling secondary and tertiary characters, and Breaking Bad has them in spades. On this second viewing of the series, I had a much greater appreciation for Jesse Pinkman's story arc, along with Aaron Paul's ability to bring it to life. While Pinkman is, along with virtually every other character, a damaged person, he is arguably the most well-rounded and sympathetic of a varyingly bad lot. His journey from being a burned-out, slacker druggy into and through the world of deadly-serious, top-level illegal drug manufacturing is as carefully told as Walter White's. It is eminently fascinating to see Jesse try to navigate just who he is, who he wants to be, and how he deals with some of the despicable acts he performs at the behest of the vastly more capable and domineering figures around him. In an odd way, he emerges as the closest thing to a real soul that the series has, and it is through Jesse that disturbed protagonist Walter White's story meets its complex and poetic conclusion. Almost on par with Jesse is Walter's brother-in-law Hank, whose character and story arc I appreciated even more this time through the series. Beyond Pinkman and Hank, the show boasts a treasure trove of other brilliant, if terrifying and warped, characters. Whether it was ice-cold drug kingpin Gustavo Fring, dead-eyed security expert Mike Ehrmentrout, sleazebag lawyer Saul Goodman, or any of the many other colorful players, by its third season the show is teeming with people whom you are dying to see again.

As if a great narrative and characters aren't enough to make for a great show, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan clearly put a premium on using the medium of film to great visual effect. As we've also seen with this show's prequel series Better Call Saul, every episode features at least one segment of purely visual storytelling. These are often done with some of the most consistently excellent opening scenes in TV show history, with nearly every one coming at you from a different visual and narrative angle and asking you to figure out just what the initially bizarre or cryptic images are telling you about the greater story. It is easy to find shows that overuse dialogue and exposition to tell their stories these days, but it is far more difficult to find shows that have the patience and respect for their viewers to use the moving picture to engage the audience in the ways that Breaking Bad did from the very start, with a tidy-whitey-clad Walter White barreling along a deserted desert road in a shoddy RV, wearing a gas mask. That's the kind of imagery that begs one to keep watching to see just what the hell is happening, and the show maintained that approach to storytelling for its entire run. Nearly every episode starts with a trippy, puzzling sequence of imagery, sans dialogue, that begs you to sort it out and pulls you into that chapter like any great opening line of a well-written story.

Just one of the many vibrant and initially enigmatic images
seen in an episode's opening sequence. Such intros became
a hallmark of the show, and acted almost as primers to get
us viewers' brains warmed up.
These days, if you ask people who watch TV what the best shows of the 21st century are, chances are that Breaking Bad will be, along with The Sopranos and The Wire, among their top five. After working my way through the entire series again, I can certainly see why. While someone could nitpick here and there, the show was the work of meticulous story craft and visual tale-telling. Although it is a serious commitment to watch nearly 50 hours of an entire series, I won't be surprised if, some years down the line, I fire it all up again for a third go-round. I simply cannot come up with higher praise than that.

On a more general side note, I'm thrilled to be in a time when certain networks in the U.S., most notably HBO, AMC, and FX, have finally figured out that the greatest shows do not need to run in indefinite perpetuity, until the profits start to sag. When one looks at what most people consider the very best TV shows of this "Golden Age of Television," one notices how they had a relatively short lifespan: roughly fifty to sixty episodes. That's all. And now we're even seeing shows like Fargo, which is constructed into mostly stand-alone seasons comprised of a tight, expertly crafted ten episodes. We TV viewers are in a great spot if more networks continue to follow the example set out by shows like Breaking Bad and its brethren. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Retro Duo, Classic Anime Edition: The Ghost in the Shell (1995); The Castle in the Sky (1986)

For whatever reason, I found myself watching several old anime classic films in the last few weeks. Like many, I went through an anime phase in my younger days, but I haven't watched much of it in the last fifteen or so years. But forces converged recently, leading me to watch a few of the titans of the genre from two to three decades ago:

The Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Director: Mamoru Oshii

A brilliant anime classic that not only still holds up, but can now be seen as amazingly prescient with its science-fiction elements.

I only saw this movie once, over two decades ago when it was still quite new. However, I was in a rather altered mental state at the time (use your imagination); this led me to be blown away at the movie while simultaneously rendering me incapable of remembering a single thing about it beyond a few indelible visuals. With the critically panned live-action movie's release a few months ago, my desire to finally rewatch the original was stoked. It was worth it.

The movie focuses on Major Motoko Kasunago, who is a mostly cybernetic organism that works for the government as a living weapon imbued with technologically enhanced strength, speed, and abilities to communicate through Internet channels. Suddenly, a rather strange case opens up - a hacker known only as "the Puppet Master" emerges and shows the ability to hack into and take over not only electronic systems but also certain other cybernetically-enhanced humans. After shaking down a few leads, the Major and her partners Batou and Togusa are sent to where their department heads have tracked down the Puppet Master, which they have discovered is actually an Artificial Intelligence program, known as Project 2501. This rogue A.I. has escaped from a security company and is now requesting asylum as a sentient, living being. The Major and 2501 eventually come together, after an intense shootout, and 2501 convinces the Major to bond with him so that they can become greater than the sum of their parts and free themselves from being "non-entities," in the eyes of those who created them.

As that summary indicates, there's more going on in this movie than just a cool sci-fi shoot-'em-up. This movie still actually holds up quite well as a work of speculative fiction, even these 22 years after its release as a film. Artificial intelligence has only become a more relevant topic, and this movie melds some of the futurist concepts of genre titans William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, along with more recent themes seen in HBO's brilliant Westworld and others of its ilk. Sure, Ghost in the Shell has some pretty awesome visuals and action sequences (it is anime, after all), but there is much more going on than the rousing visual dynamics. It honestly requires close attention if one wants to get as much as possible out of it, but the effort is worth it. It also doesn't hurt that the music score contains a haunting blend of electronics and traditional Japanese sounds.

I didn't bother with the recent live-action remake of the movie, based on trailers that didn't attract me and the lackluster reviews, and I probably won't ever bother. Not when the original still has plenty of the juice that made it an instant classic back in '95. Highly recommended for anyone who has enjoyed more sophisticated anime or science-fiction.

Flying cities. Massive sky craft. Cunning air pirates.
Giant, eco-friendly robots. This one has plenty of elements
to satisfy one's appetite for the fantastic.
The Castle in the Sky (1986)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

One of legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki's (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) earlier feature films, this one bears all of his hallmarks, which are mostly good.

The movie tells the tale of Sheeta, a young girl in possession of a small crystal coveted by a band of pirates and a mysterious group of government agents. Sheeta escapes the agents and is rescued by a village where she is discovered by Pazu, a young boy skilled in mechanics. The two flee Pazu's village and go in search of a legendary city in the sky, which has some connection to Sheeta's crystal.

The movie's strengths lie in its most fantastic elements - the dazzling, proto-steam-punk world, the various flying machines, and the cliff-hanger pursuits and escapes. Taking in the details to Pazu's home town, with its criss-crossing railroad tracks and houses built up in tiers along the sides of mountains is just as stunning as some of the beautifully crafted, large-scale scenes from the Lord of the Rings films or similarly grand movies. And the titular castle in the sky, the flying city of Laputa, is equally wondrous. Such simply invite one to wish that they could live in those places, if even for a short while.

The story also includes elements familiar to one who has seen several Miyazaki movies: wonder, thrills, and a solid dash of sadness. The story of Sheeta and Laputa is mysterious and compelling enough, and when she, Pazu, and her pursuers all arrive, it is a sight to behold. However, it is one where tragedy has unfolded, leaving it eerily quiet. I can appreciate how Miyazaki's films often take this route, as it separates it from the overly saccharine fare that one typically finds in animated family films.

I will say that the movie felt overly long. Clocking in at over two hours, there are several passages that seemed to drag, and they sometimes were made to feel longer by the silly gags and jokes that are meant more for children under the age of 12. Honestly, though, I expect that children will still appreciate this epic story, though they would likely be around age 10; I can't imagine a 6- or seven-year-old sitting through this entire movie, and the only viewers over the age of 12 who would stick with it would be those who simply enjoy animation or animein particular. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Castlevania, season 1 (2017); Game of Thrones, season 7 (2017)

Classic series protagonist, Trevor Belmont. We initially meet
Trevor while he's drunk in a bar, getting into a scuffle with
local morons over his family's misunderstood history as
Castlevania, season 1 (2017)

So this was the Netflix equivalent of an impulse buy of a package of Reese's Peanut Butter cups while waiting in line at the drugstore. I'm not a massive devotee of either anime or the Castlevania video game series, but both offered me more than a little entertainment in my younger days. So when I saw that Netflix had a tidy little four-episode series, I decided to give it a shot. To my surprise, it was good.

I wouldn't have been so surprised had I realized that the show was written by Warren Ellis, the wonderfully creative author of varieties of mature comic books since the early 1990s. In Castlevania, he imbues his dark wit into the deep mythology of the video game series to give us an incredibly violent and often pretty funny story pitting the forces of good against those of the arch-nemesis of the entire series, Vlad Tepec "The Impaler," also known as Dracula. The tale kicks off in a different fashion, as a young aspiring scholar approaches Dracula's castle seeking scientific knowledge that will allow her to become a healer to her village. Not only does the Count agree, being impressed by this woman's courage, but he eventually marries her and lives with her in as human a way as possible. A few years later, however, while Vlad is away on a journey, his wife is labeled a witch by the local clergy and burned at the stake. When Vlad finds out, he is none too pleased and promises to unleash his hordes of dark creatures upon the land. When this inevitably happens, the drunken former vampire-hunter Trevor Belmont is forced to shake himself out of an inebriated haze and get to work rediscovering his purpose as one of humankind's last defenses against the forces of evil.

One of the attacking demons confronts The Bishop - a zealot
whose black-and-white approach to good and evil makes
things worse. These initial episodes are a bit heavy on the
religious commentary, but I didn't mind it much at all.
This short little series serves mostly as an introduction to what promises to be a longer series of tales. In that sense, the resolution can be somewhat unsatisfying, as it merely sets up the larger confrontations promised in these initial episodes. There is also an odd arrhythmia to the pacing, which will shift from some rousing fight scenes to some overly long and wordy exchanges or even extended action sequences that are animated well but add little to the story. This latter aspect is rather strange for a season that has only four twenty-five minute episodes to it.

Still, the good outweighs the bad. The story, characters, and dialogue are quite strong. Ellis clearly wrote this for mature viewers, as he treats the Catholic church as an anti-science, anti-progressive force, and has certain characters allude to the deeper war of philosophies surrounding good and evil. The show is also quite literally violent as hell. There is more than a little imagery that is quite graphic, making this a show that I do not recommend letting your 10-year old nephew or niece watch - I don't care how much they like playing the video games. Fortunately, there is also some legitimately funny humor, thanks in no small part to a lack of language restriction. Ellis doesn't go crazy with blue language, but he uses it effectively when it punctuates a funny line here and there.

It's nice to come across a fun little show like this, which offers some fantasy/horror fun while not insulting an older viewers' intelligence. It created a the feeling like I was watching a savvy, respectful update of the classic 1985 anime Vampire Hunter D. I'm on board for upcoming seasons, especially if Ellis is penning them.

One of these "Stark" kids ain't a Stark - just one of several
long-running questions that is finally answered during this
Game of Thrones, season 7 (2017) [Spoiler-Free]

These show runners are quite simply not messing around. With this abbreviated, penultimate season of one of the most popular shows in recent TV history, we get plenty of the fireworks that have been teased and implied for the last several seasons.

The previous season ended with more than a few literal and figurative bangs. Jon is in the north, forming and leading alliances to help fend off the encroaching, undead White Walkers. Cersei has blown up all rivals in King's Landing and is ready to go on a revenge tour to end all revenge tours. Daenerys is finally on her way across the Narrow Sea with her army of Dothraki horsemen, Unsullied, and her three fully-grown dragons. It looked like we were finally heading towards the convergence of all of the most powerful figures who have emerged victorious through all of the bloody battles and secretive back-stabbings. And converge, things have.

This season had already been announced as the penultimate season of this insanely popular series. And it is abundantly clear that the show runners are steering all of the show's many moving parts towards the inevitable final clashes and ultimate conclusion in its final season. No longer are we seeing long, slow journeys across the plains of Westeros or Essos. And seemingly long gone are the more relaxed heart-to-heart conversations between various characters, both great and small. No, with this season, it is very much about trimming away any fat and getting to the business of putting Daenerys's army and dragons in position to square off against the Night King and his massive force of White Walkers. Many long-awaited reunions take place; many long-standing grudges are settled with extreme prejudice; and more than a few tertiary and secondary players in "The Game" are taken off the board, permanently.

One could raise the complaint that the storytelling rhythm picks up to an overly brisk pace, but I was never much bothered by the pace, per se. Yes, the questions about "fast travel" are legitimate, with characters appearing in far-off locales in the blink of a quick cut, but this was hardly any kind of deal-breaker for me. The only thing that irked me is that several potentially intriguing characters and plotlines have been completely jettisoned (usually in the form of a good slaying) in the name of streamlining the greater tale. Honestly, though, a show that had teased audiences for six seasons about the great showdowns needed to finally get to it. Fans of television shows have seen far too many great premises devolve into unfocused, bloated messes with too many characters, too many dangling plotlines, and a frustrating lack of focus on a primary story. Game of Thrones seems to trying to avoid all of that and get back to the relative simplicity of the very first season - Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, and those zombies north of The Wall. At the end of this seventh season, all lesser characters and concerns have fallen in line with one of those four primary players, or they've been put six feet under ground.

Lena Headey wears the proverbial black hat of a villain as
well as any actor ever has. In this season, she starts picking
many of the bones that have accumulated around her.
I suppose it is worthwhile to address the celebrity cameos that so many people have griped about. I have to say that, on principal, I don't like the idea of using non-actor celebrities on shows, especially escapist fantasies like Game of Thrones. There's just too great a chance of it breaking the spell of suspending disbelief when I see a famous person whom I know and start thinking, "Oh hey! That's so-and-so!" The show did actually have quite a number of them this season, but I must say that most of them were extremely stealthy. The most controversial was only so because it was also the most in-your-face - the instantly-infamous Ed Sheeran appearance. Honestly, I didn't know what the singer/songwriter looked like, so it didn't bother me one whit when I watched the episode. Once I heard about it, though, I was bothered by how obvious it was. That aside, one would be hard-pressed to locate and identify the several other celebs who appear for a few brief moments here and there during the season. Hopefully the show runners learned a bit of a lesson here, and season eight doesn't give us LeBron James throwing a boulder down through a hoop and onto an enemy's head.

It now appears that we fans have quite a wait on our hands, with early reports suggesting that the eighth and final season may not appear until early 2019. For some, this may seem like an eternity. For those of us who have been longtime fans of the source novels, though, waiting a little under two years is child's play. We waited from 2001 to 2005 for the fourth book to be published, and and then until 2011 for the fifth book. It's now been over six years and still no solid word on when the next installment might arrive. Waiting is, for us, a part of the long-term "GoT" experience. But from the way that the seventh season of the show went, the relatively short two-year wait will have a solid payoff.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Idiot Boxing: The Defenders (2017); Ballers, season 2 (2016)

The Defenders (2017)

One of Netflix's better offerings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), even if it misses the mark in a few areas.

In the first Avengers-style team up of the Netflix Marvel characters, The Defenders brings together the four grittier heroes introduced on the streaming service - Matt Murdock (a.k.a. Daredevil), Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand (a.k.a. the Iron Fist). Each one is a hero is his or her own way, but they all have demons lurking in their closets. All four are residents of New York City, where the nefarious and shadowy organization The Hand has been secretly exerting control for centuries. The four of them, each in their own ways, comes across The Hand's plot to essentially level New York in order to obtain a mysterious, magical substance from beneath the city's surface. Reluctantly, the quartet band together to stop The Hand, including their deadliest weapon - the assassin Black Sky, who happens to be Murdock's former lover, Elektra Natchios.

I found that The Defenders got many of the necessary elements right. The story finally fills in several details about The Hand and their dark plots which had been teased in the Daredevil and Iron Fist series. We finally learn more about the vicious and diminutive Madame Gao, the presumed dead Bakuto, and the other three "Fingers," who together with Gao and Bakuto make up The Hand's leadership. The show also brings to a conclusion story lines which were left dangling at the end of Daredevil's second season and Iron Fist's first. In fact, The Defenders can very much be considered Daredevil season 2.5. Unfortunately, the show also further highlights some major shortcomings in the first season of Iron Fist, making that entire season feel more like a lame, overly long prequel that one could dub The Defenders season 0.5. All the same, the eight episodes of The Defenders move things along at a good pace, bringing in each of the New York heroes in his or her turn and joining them together quite organically. Once this fully happens, in episode 3, the story clicks along at a satisfying pace that has sometimes been lacking in the other 13-episode, single-hero shows.

Another Netflix Marvel show, another hallway full of hench-
men get beat to hell. This was one of several strong action
sequences in the show - something sorely lacking in its
virtual prequel,
Iron Fist.
In addition to the general story and pacing being solid, I found that the characters were handled fairly well. I felt that Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones were written particularly well, feeling very much like the engaging characters who they've been in their solo shows. Oddly, Luke Cage wasn't quite as consistent as I had hoped. He's generally struck me as the deep and silent type, based on the first season of his show earlier this year. While he is often just that in The Defenders, there are moments when he seems a bit more rattled or even unreasonable than he should be. At this point in the MCU, where aliens have attacked several times and other world-threatening forces have arisen and been defeated by god-like superheroes, nobody should be surprised when they are told that organizations like The Hand exist and are trying to exert control over entire megacities. And yet, the writers decided to try and make Luke Cage the skeptic of the group, although he has been shown to be an exceptionally aware and intelligent man in his previous shows. And then there's Danny Rand, the "Immortal" Iron Fist. While he is handled better in The Defenders, he is still by far the least interesting or fleshed out of the quartet. The writers still don't seem to know exactly how to handle him: is he a ferociously angry young man out solely for vengeance? Is he an easy-going, cohesive force who casually throws back Chinese food while the forces of evil gather outside of their hideout? Is he a naive but wise Zen master? They haven't figured this out, though there are some intriguing options for what to do with his character.

The action was some of the best we've seen in the Netflix MCU shows. I can't say it was ever quite on par with some of the best sequences from Daredevil or even a few from Luke Cage, but there are some really fun segments that show off the different abilities and styles of the four heroes. They even worked in a few entertaining "cross-ability" maneuvers, such as Jessica Jones throwing a thug towards Cage, to have him clothesline the poor bastard two feet into the ground.. It was also fun to see Luke Cage simply "tank" hails of oncoming gunfire, while Murdock or Rand literally use his massive frame for shelter before emerging to unleash some vicious martial artistry. Coming on the heels of the woefully tepid fight scenes of Iron Fist, seeing The Defenders get mostly back on track was a relief. I do wish that some of the sequences were better lit and made less use of hyper-quick editing cuts, to let us enjoy the action a bit more, but I found it more than passable.

The Defenders was a success, in my eyes. It juggled several distinct elements and fused them in ways that didn't feel overly forced, and it put together an entertaining tale that was well-suited for an 8-episode series. While it is certainly not terribly accessible to those who haven't seen most or all of the other previous Netflix MCU shows, it should satisfy nearly all fans who have seen and enjoyed them.

Ballers, season 2 (2016)

I had gotten halfway through this season when I grew frustrated and stopped watching for a few months. Fortunately, after I had gone back to it, I found that the show righted the ship fairly well and turned in an enjoyable second season that fans itching for a mature sports show can appreciate.

At the end of the first season, former NFL player-turned-aspiring financial advisor to pro athletes Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and his partner Joe had managed to save a few key clients from slipping away, all while they were seriously considering the risky proposition of setting out to start their own company. Though Spencer's business dealings mostly fall back into line, his health issues continue to be problematic - he dodged one bullet by having a CT scan on his brain turn up negative, but his hip is causing him greater and greater discomfort, leading to higher and more furtive use of prescription painkillers.

These victories and demons follow Spencer into season two, which jumps forward a little less than a year after the first season. Spencer's roster of athletes is still relatively small, including dynamic and quixotic characters like Ricky Jerret and Vernon Littlefield. Spencer and Joe also roll the dice on a very talented but massively abrasive NFL prospect, Travis Mack. All the while, several nasty skeletons from Spencer's playing days' closet are laid bare when he tries to take down a powerful rival in the pro athlete financial advising business. By the end of the season, Spencer is broken down in several ways, clinging to a few shreds of hope that he can have some sort of post-playing days career.

As stated above, I had actually been worried about this show after the first few episodes, as it seemed like it was turning into little more than a showcase for lifestyles of the fictional rich and famous, and celebrity athlete cameos. However, once I went back to it, I was glad to see that the season's arc went back to the drama surrounding Spencer's pride, his injuries, and his desperate attempts to keep several massive egos in check, including his own. The final episode features a straightforward speech given by a tattered, bedraggled Spencer, which actually has some power to it.

A beaten-down Joe and Spencer take stock after dropping
several of the balls they'd been juggling, then going on a
bender. The show's at its best when these guys fail and end
up showing some vulnerability.
I have enjoyed how this show truly has stuck to the off-the-field aspects of professional sports, rather than going the typical route of building each season around a corresponding sports season. That latter approach always leans heavily on the ready-made drama of a player or team's attempts to succeed at their chosen sport. Ballers, in contrast, looks almost exclusively at how such athletes may succeed or fail in any and every other aspect of their lives, be it personal or financial. No, it doesn't do it with the gravity of a well-made documentary, but it's still a unique blend of fun and drama that scratches the itch of anyone who is into sports and the industries built around them.

I can't say that Ballers is an earth-shattering, must-see show for anyone. It is, however, a fun little foray into a vibrant world, with as charismatic and capable a ring-leader as one could imagine in Dwayne Johnson. It's a great lead-in to the upcoming football season, to be sure. I've already dived right into the current season, the show's third. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

New-ish Releases: The Accountant (2016); John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

The Accountant (2016)

Director: Gavin O'Connor

Sometimes, despite your best instincts, you give a movie a shot. In this case, this roll of the dice was inspired by this article, which I came across a week or so ago, in which the writer explains in fairly humorous ways how he is unable to stop watching this movie. So I gave it a shot. While it's not bad, it's hardly one that I see myself ever going back to, and I can see why many critics and viewers had problems with it.

Describing the plot in any real detail would be an exercise in hilarity and exhaustion, so I'll simplify: Ben Affleck plays an accountant, Christan Wolff, with high-functioning autism, which allows him to do numerical computations at phenomenal speeds, despite his lack of communication or general social skills. Ostensibly, he uses his preternatural skills as a run-of-the-mill accountant in a strip mall. Secretly, however, he does accounting for some of the most powerful, wealthy, and dangerous people on earth. He is also a highly trained martial artist, marksman, and all-around lethal weapon. On one particular accounting job for a large company, he uncovers a highly suspicious discrepancy. This turns out to be the proverbial thread which, once pulled, begins to unravel a massive conspiracy that leads to Wolff being hunted (see what they did there?) by a gang of highly trained mercenaries.

I'm no doctor, but it actually made more than a little sense to
me that a certain type of autism might actually manifest as
world-class sniping ability. But maybe that's just wishful
thinking on my part.
I can best describe this movie only as "watchable." My expectations were fairly low going in, hoping that it might be a "so silly it's great" kind of ride. A lot of it is silly, but not silly enough to warrant any sort of real devotion. There are plenty of plot twists and turns, but most of them can be seen coming from a mile away, and they aren't revealed or presented in any particularly creative ways. The notion of an autistic action hero was somewhat compelling for about half of the movie, but the writers fumbled what could have been far more plausible character development. What they ended up with was sloppy at best and insulting at worst. It didn't help that the script for Wolff and Ben Affleck's performance were uneven. Since it's heartless to even suggest that they make a comedy out of a very real affliction like autism, one can only feel that the creators' best move was to go more dramatic and realistic with the condition. They didn't get this right enough, with the Wolff character too often showing obvious signs of empathy and abilities to interact. This is in stark contrast to the nearly crippling condition which is depicted during the flashback sequences of the film showing Wolff as a child. I'm no doctor, but I'm reasonably certain that severe autism cannot be reduced by such a dramatic amount as the film would have you believe, especially not under the harsh conditions of Wolff's childhood.

But the movie, at least, didn't pretend to be a genuine study of autism. It's an action/suspense movie, and I did actually find many of the action scenes fairly engaging. When Wolff is confronted by a thug armed with an automatic weapon and whips him in the face with his belt, I was on board. The action scenes take several pages out of recent movies like John Wick (see my thoughts on the sequel in the review below), eschewing slow motion, embracing fast-paced, brutal fight scenes, and more than a few face shots. Don't get me wrong, The Accountant is not nearly as well-executed or as relentless as John Wick, but it does emulate that modern classic in the right ways here and there, making for a few fun action sequences.

Although I found it a modestly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, I'm not completely sure what the creators of this movie were going for. If they were trying to set up a franchise, I think they'll be bitterly disappointed. If they wanted to create a memorable one-shot, self-contained movie, it still falls a little short.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Director: Chad Stahelski

I actually saw this upon its initial release, but only just realized that I hadn't done a review of it. At any rate, it was a really strong follow-up to the immensely satisfying first chapter, even if it was a bit longer than I felt necessary.

Picking up very, very soon after the events of the first movie, we get Wick doing a bit of mop-up work against a few lingering Russian mafia clowns. At this point, just when Wick is ready to once again bury his profession and reputation as the most dangerous hitman alive, an old debt is called in by young organized crime prince Santino D'Antonio. As much as Wick wants to refuse, the debt is one that can only be repaid with his service or his life, forcing the reluctant assassin to comply. The job is no small feat, being to kill Santino's sister, Gianna, who is the newly anointed leader of their immensely powerful crime syndicate. In addition to accomplishing this arduous task, Wick eventually has to avoid countless other assassins who literally come gunning for him when a massive bounty is placed on his head.

The story is certainly not the stuff of high literature or cinema. But boy, is it fun for anyone itching for a slick, wild shoot-'em-up. The first movie was a surprisingly entertaining introduction into a visually stunning world where organized crime and assassinations are the rule of the day. Chapter 2 builds on this world by following Wick even deeper into the workings of the elaborate system of connections and protocols for the murderers and thieves who work and play in the dark corners of a place that can be deceptively similar to our real world. Really, though, I love how Stahelski and the writers make no bones about offering us what is clearly a dark fantasy world where swords are replaced by high-tech guns and magic is replaced by lethal reputation.

Just one of the many stylish and memorable set pieces in
the movie. Director Chad Stahelski shows off his great eye
for setting and choreography again and again.
A major strength of the first film was the intensity and even artistry with which the action scenes were executed. Chapter 2 does not slack on this in any way. While I do feel that some of the sequenves go on longer than necessary, in general there are enough changes in environment and choreography to keep things engaging for most of the movie's two-hour running time. I am not a person who enjoys most purely action movies (e.g. Fast and the Furious franchise and its ilk), but I've found myself hypnotized by the relentless intensity and kinetic strength of these first two films.

The plot? Don't expect too much, as with the first film. All you really need to know is laid out my my summary above, as it's just an excuse to watch John Wick do what he does best. The story keeps it all rather simple, which is exactly what it should do for this kind of movie.

So I still very much dig what Stahelski and Reeves have going here. I've read that the plan is to do one more film and create a rounded-out trilogy. This feels right, and I now have confidence that they can do it effectively. I wondered just how a sequel to the original would come off, and it really didn't disappoint, despite a few overstuffed elements. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Before I Die #604: The Kid Brother (1927)

This is the 604th movie that I've now watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Harold Lloyd

Mildly amusing slapstick farce from the tail-end of the silent film era. I didn't find it nearly as entertaining as most of the Buster Keaton silent comedies I've seen, though.

Typical of silent film-era comedies, the plot is hardly worth considering, even if a tad more complex that its peers: in the small town of Hickoryville in the western U.S., a traveling medicine show rolls into town. However, the town's most prominent family, the Hickories, are composed of a patriarchal sheriff and his eldest two deputy sons who despise such shows. When the youngest and by far most bungling Hickory boy, Harold (Harold Lloyd), accidentally grants the medicine show permission to perform in the town, two of the show's dastardly members take to conning and robbing the town of its funds to build a new, much-needed dam. Though quirky and diminutive Harold is not the physically-powerful type that his father and brothers are, he uses his craftiness and cunning to track down, outsmart, and eventually capture the pair of thieves in their hideout in an abandoned, sunken ship.

Similar to the films of Chaplin and Keaton, The Kid Brother is heavy on using its mostly deadpan star pulling off a variety of physical gags, often using the environment around him to deceive his various enemies. There are a decent number of amusing visual jokes, though they are geared more around the character Harold's knack for mechanical ingenuity rather than his own physical prowess. This is mostly why I found that I preferred Keaton's films - not only was the great "Stone Face" a much deader deadpan, but the diminutive gymnast's physical strength, agility, and timing have always set him far apart in my eyes. Lloyd's approach was different and respectable, but it simply didn't grab me the way Keaton always has.

I will say that I enjoyed how the story shifted to a rather fantastic setting for its final sequences. The set piece of the tilted, semi-sunken ship made for a great location for the showdown between Harold and the two villainous thieves. Though the pursuit and cat-and-mouse game felt a bit drawn out by its end, it was still one of the most unique segments I've seen in silent era comedies.

I'm glad that I finally saw a film by Lloyd, and I can see why he has often been mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and Keaton. I must say, though, that while I will continue to take in Keaton's movies and enjoy them, I don't really feel the desire to seek out any more of Lloyd.

That's 604 movies down; only 583 to go before I can die.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Documentary Fest! Lo and Behold (2016); I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Lo and Behold (2016)

Director: Werner Herzog

A fascinating look at the many aspects and implications of the Internet, though not quite as focused as some of its legendary director's other films and many documentaries.

As he's done with many of his documentaries, Herzog found his muse in his own insatiable curiosity. Wanting to get a better feel for the Internet and its many impacts in today's world, he sought out people involved in its creation and uses, both beneficial and damaging. These include some of the men on the original design team who created the very first servers and connections between California and New Jersey, people whose lives have been crippled by the ubiquity of electronics, people who lay out various doomsday scenarios made possible by our modern world's connectivity, and plenty of other interested parties.

While the width of the net that Herzog casts does manage to catch many people and subjects of interest, it also results in a general lack of any single, driving force or question. One can infer several larger, compelling implications from many of the segments, though there are several that seem more like tangential curiosities. For example, the film will have a section on how a single cyber attack or severe malfunction could essentially wipe out a power grid in much or all of entire countries. Then you will get a segment interviewing a single, addled old programmer rambling on about some wild conspiracy theories that seem to have little bearing on the larger picture. Nearly all of the sections of the documentary are of interest, but to such wildly varying degrees and quality that I felt myself wishing for a bit more cohesion from time to time. It does help that Herzog's unique brand of dry, quirky, dark, and sometimes unintentional humor can lighten the mood from time to time and put his novel stamp on this film as with nearly every other documentary I've seen of his.

Given that the Internet is arguably the single most powerful tool created by humans and that it is not going anywhere in our lifetimes, this is certainly a documentary worth checking out. It doesn't have the focus or power of some Herzog docs like Grizzly Man or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but it does allow us to follow the man's ever-inquisitive and refreshingly unflinching trains of thought.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Director: Raoul Peck

Captivating look at genius American author James Baldwin and his views on race relations and what it means to be black in the U.S.

The documentary is focused on Baldwin, a gay African-American man who was one of the more influential authors and civil rights critics for most of his life, primarily between the 1950s and 1970s. While Baldwin achieved high praise for his stories and novels at a relatively young age, he was just as talented and passionate a lecturer and debater - skills which he put to work by befriending and helping such civil rights leaders as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X., Martin Luther King, and others.

I Am Not Your Negro traces all of these major elements of Baldwin's life solely through the man's own writings. Instead of commentary from associates, professors, or the filmmaker himself, the documentary lets its subject speak for himself. This was a wise decision for director Raoul Peck, given just how brilliant, articulate, thoughtful, and poetic James Baldwin was. There is a richness to the man's thoughts and words that demands close attention and multiple exposures. There really was nobody else who could have explained his experience as a black man in this country better than Baldwin himself. Enhancing the narrative are the many photos and video clips of Baldwin on late night talk shows, in college lecture halls, or in public debates over the question of race, racial inequality, and the ugly history of African-American abuse in this country. It's one thing to hear the man's moving and impassioned words read to you by a subdued and solemn Samuel L. Jackson (who did a phenomenal job here), but seeing Baldwin's facial expression and physical postures and movements adds a strength to the man that can be missing from mere text or sound bites.

Further elevating this documentary above many of its ilk is how director Raoul Peck regularly intersperses video from modern times to reflect the ways that many of the social ills which Baldwin witnessed are still present in this country today. A segment focusing on Baldwin's writings on the horrors born of racism has equal modern impact when heard over video clips of African-Americans being beaten or killed in the 21st century, making it all the more clear that we are far from beyond such disturbing problems.

Had it not been for the amazing documentary O.J.: Made in America being released last year, I feel that I Am Not Your Negro would have won the Academy Award for best documentary. It is of the highest caliber, and it is one that everyone should watch at least once. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Retro Duo: Boy (2011); Enemy (2013)

Boy (2011)
The titular Boy, with his flighty but artistic brother Rocky
tagging along. Boy's T-shirt puts on display his love of pop
culture of the 1980s, when the story takes place.

Director: Taika Waititi

A brilliant early feature film from New Zealand native son, Taika Waititi.

I picked this one up on the recommendation of a Kiwi friend of mine, after I had told him just how much my wife and I had enjoyed Waititi's recent film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This friend actually stated that he enjoyed Boy even more, and I can now see why. The movie tells the story of the titular Boy, an 11-year old native Maori growing up in rural New Zealand in 1984. Like most of his family, friends, and those around him, Boy is obsessed with American pop culture, especially Michael Jackson. Such pastimes help him get through a rather tough life taking care of his several siblings, as his mother has long since passed away and his father has been in prison for several years. Boy's life takes a wild change when his father Alamein (Taika Waititi) is released from prison and turns up to resume his role as Boy's father. The problem is that Alamein is essentially a 30-year old adolescent even more obsessed with 1980s pop aesthetic and machismo than the local pre-teens.

Not unlike Waititi's later Wilderpeople, Boy does an excellent job of blending the quirky humor endemic to the region with some truly heartfelt examination of relationships between people. Yes, the surface makes many of the characters seem almost cartoonishly goofy at times, but the motivations and impulses behind their buffoonery have a genuine feel. Boy's adulation of his criminally immature father makes all the sense in the world for a motherless kid who is desperate for a father figure. And both his and his father's actions are, while laughably silly at times, do reflect relationship dynamics that feel authentic. In certain ways, there is a similarity to the movies of Wes Anderson, whose meticulous aesthetic and peculiar humor are just window dressing on what are usually touching relationship troubles between family members. Waititi achieves much the same effect, including some of the same humorous tone as Anderson but utilizing a look much more his own and that of his native New Zealand.

This is an easy movie to recommend. Only those with a low tolerance for quirky films would have any great problems with this one. It's a brilliant blend of humor, heart, and region that was a pleasure to watch.

Adam and Anthony's meetings are far from the joyful
"separated at birth" kinds of reunions that one might hope for.
Rather, their dual existences suggests far grander and darker
things about the world around them and their perceptions.
Enemy (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Intense. Menacing. Puzzling. Bizarre in a way that would probably make David Lynch proud. Enemy was not exactly what I expected from the talented director of Sicario and Arrival. But it is quite good.

The movie follows Adam, a college professor who seems to be going through the motions of his life with limited engagement or passion. This includes his job and his sexual relationship with what seems to be a relatively casual girlfriend. One day, Adam is watching a movie and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. Overcome by curiosity, Adam tracks down the actor, Anthony, and tries to make contact with him. Once the two come into contact, things become stranger and stranger for the both of them, and the very question of their being separate people starts coming into question. Sprinkled through the movie in a handful of different scenes are strange sequences involving spiders, sex, or a combination of both. At the story's end, only one of the two "twins" is left alive, although his identity is still in question, as is his perception of the reality around him.

I'm still trying to figure this film out, several weeks after I watched it. The fact that I am still immensely impressed by it and may watch it again, despite its disturbing tale and imagery, speaks to me of a richness that is all too rare in movies. The tale of Adam and Anthony can probably be interpreted in countless ways (and I've already looked up a few very solid, highly fascinating theories), and they are all intellectually stimulating. Some touch on themes of masculinity, while others on the notion of being an unwitting puppet under a totalitarian system. And there are certainly plenty of others. As tricky as it can be to arrive at a clear, definite explanation for the surreal elements of the story, it is quite clear that the writers and director Denis Villeneuve were expressing a fantastic and disturbing vision. It is not unlike certain films of the aforementioned David Lynch, perhaps most notably Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, wherein questions of identity and connection can abound but the sense of a cohesive artistic work still runs through the work.

Now that I've seen several of Villeneuve's movies, I'm all in with him. Like one of my other favorite modern directors, Darren Aronofsky, he tackles movies on vastly different but challenging themes and tones, and he does it with an amazing knack for visual and narrative artistry. I'm immensely excited about his upcoming Bladerunner: 2047, and whatever else he decides to helm after that. As for Enemy, it won't be to everyone's tastes, to be sure, given the dark mood and rather disturbing suggestions about relationships, identity, and society. But for those willing to delve into such places, this is a warped trip worth taking.