Monday, February 28, 2011

Man on Film: Black Swan

This was easily the most damning portrayal of Overbearing Little League Parent Syndrome ever. Natalie Portman's mother has her face pulled back so hard that she takes this and her own failed career as a ballet dancer out on her daughter, forcing her into a life of punishment to her body, submitting to her director, and delusively fantasizing about lesbianic trysts with the chick from That '70s Show while indulging in illegal narcotics.

If ever there were a movie that all horribly over-involved/-bearing/-zealous parents of child performers, it is this. Look shitty parents: your kid is going to screw a French dude, lose their grip on reality, and--well, what I was going to say here would be giving away the ending for those who haven't seen it.

I would generally post the trailer here, but let's be honest: The trailer kind of sucks. It doesn't make you want to see this movie, and I'm sure this review doesn't either.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Queue Continuum: Seasons One and Two of Parks and Recreation

Perhaps the initial lukewarm reviews scared me off, but for whatever reason I did not watch Parks and Recreation until a couple weeks ago.

It took me about four days to catch up.

Now, everything I heard about Parks & Rec led me to believe that--much like its counterpart The Office--the first season sat somewhere in between godawful and not very good. Since I've still not seen any episodes of The [American] Office from its first season other than the abysmal pilot yet found a way to be invested, I took the same approach to Parks & Rec. Starting with the first episode of the second season, I chugged along, holing up in my intermittently heated apartment during the recent snap that Texans call winter and burning through all 24 episodes in no time. By the time the fourth episode rolled around ("Practice Date"), I found myself starting to give a damn. When "Ron and Tammy" was finished, I was hooked.

Within a few days, I had not only finished the second season, but I had gone back and watched season one in spite of my leeriness, and had caught up on what I had missed of this current third season.

I feel confident saying Parks and Recreation is better right now than The [American] Office has ever been.

I think the show's real strength--and what sets it apart from its sister show--is that no one is unfathomably inept. The Office's true shortcoming has always been Michael Scott. Not only is he irritating, but he is such a bumbling idiot 95% of the time that suspending the level of disbelief necessary to buy him as anyone's boss at least in any long-term scenario is so taxing that it actually makes me tired. While I like Steve Carell, Michael Scott's exit can only be good for the show at this stage.

In the first season, Leslie Knope was essentially the female version of Michael Scott. In addition to being socially retarded (and I actually mean this in the sense that her social development was retarded, you whiny, PC douches), she was barely competent. Luckily, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur (presumably) identified that this dynamic was not working, and there was a paradigm shift insofar as way in which the character of Leslie Knope was portrayed. As the second season began to take shape, her awkwardness was still present, but she was no longer bordering on being incompetent. This adjustment drastically alters the show for the better. With Leslie becoming relatable, there is a transformation from mediocrity to sublimity.

The true key to its success, though, is that the characters are great. Parks and Recreation is a character-driven show, but unlike The Office all of its characters seem real*. Each character, no matter how small actually brings a lot to the show. I could wax ecstatic about everybody on the show, but I've got a better idea.

*If it is hard to believe that Michael Scott could possibly have risen to where he is, then it is even harder to believe that Dwight Schrute could exist at all.

Watch for yourself.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Queue Continuum: Moon

If the thing I am watching has Matt Berry in it, I will watch it. Sure, he is barely in Moon, but really, who gives a shit? He is Matt Fucking Berry.

Yeah, that Sam Rockwell guy is in it, and that's all fine and dandy, but MATT BERRY!

Anyway, David Bowie's kid directed this. It looked pretty good. Rockwell is actually pretty great, all kidding aside. It's a little slow, and I was watching it while our heat was out and the rolling blackouts were about to roll through. If you want to talk in code, it's deliberate, not slow. Its pacing works in its favor, and without getting too much into a plot that can easily be spoiled, it poses some interesting ethics of science questions.

Watch it. You might like it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reading Rainbow: Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

The fourth in the Kenzie/Gennaro series, this is obviously the most famous of the now six books in the series. There is one obvious reason for this: Ben Affleck chose to adapt it for his 2007 directorial debut. As you can imagine, I have seen the film adaptation, which makes this read a weird one, as I do not tend to read a book if I have seen the movie. Hell, up until the past few years, it was rare for me to have read anything that had been adapted into a film even after the fact--then I took a shit on my high-brow reading tendencies...


I had always intended to just skip this. Then Moonlight Mile came out. Since it is basically a follow-up to the case in Gone, Baby, Gone, I no longer felt like I could skip it while still reading the signed copy of his newest novel that I picked up.

Just about everyone who comes here regularly has probably seen the film adaptation. I will not say that the film is better. It isn't necessarily worse either. The more interesting aspects of the comparison between the two really lied in the choices that Ben Affleck had to make to trim a 400-page (in the pocket paperback copy I have) novel into a two-hour movie. Some characters were absorbed into others. The scene at the house when they finally find Amanda McCready is actually better with the onus for the decision lying totally on Patrick Kenzie's shoulders. There are smaller sections of the book that are basically rolled into others. All of the choices make sense insofar as being able to tell a cohesive story in a shorter time-frame.

Now that isn't to say that you need not read the book. If you haven't seen the movie, the book is definitely the way to go. Lehane's prose is rock-solid as always. He has the neo-noir genre down pat and owns every word. Really, you shouldn't need an excuse to read Dennis Lehane.

Despite the fact that both Bubba Rogowski and Patrick would disapprove: here you go:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Man on Film: The Fighter

Do not take the fact that it has taken me over a month to write this as an indicator of how I felt about this film. In short, I loved The Fighter. Call me a sucker for sports movies if you would like to--the label may be apt--but David O. Russell's newest teaming with Mark Wahlberg, just leaves me excited for their fourth team-up, an adaptation of the video game Uncharted: Drake's Fortune*. 

*While the game is pretty awesome, I for one am a bit leery about a video game adaptation. According to the article above Wahlberg states
The idea that [Russell] has is just insane. So hopefully we’ll be making that movie this summer.
I know Max Payne (and well, just about every other video game movie, for that matter) sucked, but this is David O. Russell we're talking about here. 

In The Fighter, Wahlberg stars as the mismanaged boxer, Micky Ward, whose career has been undermined by his brother and mother. He has been exploited by a family that has been leeching off of him for years. His brother, Dicky Eklund, is played by Christian Bale, who has rightfully been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the upcoming Oscars. Dicky is a crackhead who has slipped into the gutter. Once, he had a shot at the belt against Sugar Ray Leonard, but he has ceded control of his life to addiction.

Melissa Leo (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Treme) plays his mother/manager, Alice Ward, who treats Micky as her meal ticket as much as her son and has a blind spot for her fuck-up of a son, Dicky. Both she and Amy Adams have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for their turns. Adams plays Micky's sassy bartender girlfriend Charlene Fleming, who pushes him to look out for himself rather than continuing to put his dysfunctional and selfish family before his own needs.

As with really any David O. Russell film, The Fighter is primarily character-driven. This is clearly Russell's bread-and-butter. Yes, the stories are ineresting for the most part, but his films' success owe largely to their performances. This is no exception. The characters are vivid and flawed. Across the board, David O. Russell manages to get full realization of these characters from his actors, especially from Bale and Leo, both of whom disappear into their characters.

Speaking in purely narrative terms, this film bears a strong resemblance to Rocky. This is not a bad thing. It doesn't feel derivative. They are different films. Where Rocky Balboa is on his own in Rocky, Micky Ward is hindered by his family. There is also the mob element that is not present in The Fighter. Ultimately, though it is about an extreme underdog who had been down on their luck, who gets a shot at the belt and shows well.

On an emotional level, it seems impossible to me that you would not be drawn in. It is hard not to root for Micky. Coming out of the movie, both Mark and I were pumped up beyond belief. Even with some asshole lady behind me (I actually had to raise a card at the Alamo for the first time ever--and this was after telling her to "shut the fuck up" twice), I was thoroughly engrossed and invested in Micky's success/failure.

Again, maybe I'm a whore for sports movies, but The Fighter was great, easily one of my five favorite movies from this Oscar year.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Man on Film: The Mechanic

I cannot say that I go to remakes often, especially when they are as faithful to the original source material as I was expecting the remake of the Charles Bronson star-vehicle The Mechanic to be. Sure, I saw The A-Team and The Karate Kid (and Season of the Witch) last year, but usually it has a wrinkle added or is really an re-imagining of an earlier work--often a television series--for the screen. While the Michael Winner directed original may not have the wide viewership of the myriad other films that get remade every year, I love the original.

As a lover of The Mechanic in its first incarnation, I can say that I liked the remake for the most part. I don't necessarily believe that Michael Winner is an untouchable director. The first three Death Wish movies are very, very good, but his resume is otherwise rather thin on quality. The original is especially bold in that there is no dialogue for the first 16 minutes of the film, as Bronson's Arthur Bishop prepares for and carries out a hit. Simon West certainly pays homage to this intro sans dialogue, but it's the 21st Century. People are neither as intelligent nor as patient as they were in 1972. The thought is there, nonetheless.

I think most of the people who frequent this blog would share my feelings regarding both Bronson and Jason Statham. They are both uniquely awesome, and they each have a je ne sais quoi that sets them apart from their action star contemporaries. While each one is very different from one another, there is an intrinsic likability to each actor that makes the casting of the lead a push.

Where the remake has a leg up on the original is in the casting of the protege. In the original, we are stuck watching Jan-Michael Vincent do his best approximation of what he thinks acting might be. If you remember Airwolf at all, you should know what I'm talking about. The remake throws one of the best unsung character actors out there into the role of Steve McKenna in the form of Ben Foster. Just as he has everywhere from Freaks and Geeks to 3:10 to Yuma, Foster owns his role. It really is getting to the point that I'll watch almost any new movie with Ben Foster in it. That is a whole helluva lot more than you could ever have said about Mr. Vincent.

Now the main difference between the remake and the original is style. Simon West's update is a product of its time. The action sequences are a bit grander. The fight choreography a lot more visceral. It is what you want from a Jason Statham star-vehicle. Granted, he isn't as much a smart-ass, but I think it is easy to generally pretty damned easy root for him. Despite his British-ness, he exudes a working class aura that enables even the most ethnocentric Americans to get behind him. These are all things that The Mechanic has going for it.

And then there are the deaths. One of my favorite things about action movies is the ingenuity the film's crew takes in offing the bad guys. One of my favorite deaths ever was when an out-of-bullets Martin Blank offs his rival, Grocer, with a TV set in Grosse Pointe Blank. It's hilarious, and there is the added touch of his dead legs twitching from the left over electrical current* in the TV. The Mechanic has one in particular where I very audibly guffawed and couldn't stop laughing at its audacity. No, it isn't Rambo, but it delivers enough that you can't help but smiling coming out of the film... at least if you are as demented as I am.

*Or at least that's what my scientifically challenged mind rationalized the twitching to have resulted from.

The imperative question here (and really with any film) is did it succeed at accomplishing what it set out to do? While staying faithful to the source material, Simon West's vision of The Mechanic managed to entertain while rectifying the largest shortcoming of the original by trading out the dull Jan-Michael Vincent for the electric Ben Foster--and there was nudity. Is it high art? Of course not. If you go to movies as much as I do, this is fun if not entirely memorable action fare. I like Jason Statham, and if you buy into him, you're more than likely going to like it, too.

The only thing that could have been done different would have been--as Chad posited when we walked out of the movie--if Steve McKenna had lulled his first target into a false sense of security by going all the way with him first and then taking care of business. That would have been a weird-ass turn, and I'd have been all for it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tube Steak: Conan on Cage

Just for those who are concerned, I do have a bunch of entries in the works right now. I've fallen a bit behind, as tends to happen this time of year, as I invariably spend my writing time on pre-season fantasy baseball content for Sports Grumblings. I assure you entries are on the way. Specifically, a post on The Mechanic that is partially completed, along with some Reading Rainbow entries and a few more Man on Films. But on to the show...

I'd like to thank blog regular, Big Hatt (the writer over at The Stoney Film Critic), for bringing this to my attention:

I've spent a lot of time writing about Nicolas Cage here. It is well-established how I feel about the man. Check the Nicolas Cage tag if you need to.

That being said, it feels like the Nic Cage Threat Level that Conan did was a little off the mark.

For the lowest level of threat, I'm all right with Con Air. Many people have asserted that it is the best film of the 1990s. While there are certainly other Cage vehicles to turn to, I can abide by Con Air for the purposes of the sketch.

If only the first one was just about Johnny Blaze...
When they move to the second level is where they lose me. Honeymoon in Vegas? Really? Something is slightly amiss, and they elect to go for this. It's not particularly memorable. Really, its placement here just isn't that funny.

The biggest misstep though is the third level: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. For starters, this was probably the best movie to come out that year. It may be the best Nic Cage movie ever, and that is saying something.

Step Four is Face/Off. I guess. I'm not going to take the time to argue this one.

The final step, predictably, is the Neil LaBute directed Wicker Man remake that is sitting on my Blu-ray shelf right next to The Thin Red Line: The Criterion Collection. The bees scene is great, to be sure. You know what's crazier, though, when he's running around in the bear suit attacking all those women.

Now there are all kinds of ways this could be improved. You could reverse the scale so all is well for Wicker Man and then insinuate that Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation is the bad threat level. Also, no love for The Vampire's Kiss? His freakouts in that absolutely make this clip:

There is just so much here that at the very least makes for a funnier sketch.

Let me make it clear, though. I do not advocate making fun of Nicolas Cage at all. My fandom is in earnest.

Drive Angry is coming soon (trailer embedded again for your viewing pleasure)...
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