May 31, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson, 2013
The second film in the Hobbit trilogy catches up to Bilbo Baggins and his Dwarven companions as they inch closer to Erebor which has been guarded by the legendary dragon Smaug for some time.

The second installment in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy bears quite a bit of resemblance to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and there is nothing wrong with that. Jackson has a great track record of providing great style with great story, albeit it mostly CGI'd. The alternate universe depicted in Desolation is a much less forgiving one than the first in the series. Enlarged insects. The dwarves find themselves running into old enemies. The orcs build strength. There is an ominous build-up of dark energy. Bilbo is finding himself falling victim to his new-found ring's powers. Even the landscape itself is a much more bleak one. Absent of the vibrant colors shown in the first film, this one is decorated with cobwebs and gray tones. Unlike the first film, there isn't a lot of time for all-night feasts in pubs. The clock is ticking. While Smaug has a more mythical presence in the first film, he is certainly a physical presence in this one. The enormous digitized beast does not disappoint.

Now with fifteen hours of film created, is there anything more thoroughly entrancing than Jackson's wide-screen depiction Middle Earth? Of course people could say Star Wars, or Star Trek, maybe the Harry Potter films or any other franchise with hours and hours of material. But they just don't feel as detailed. While some of the other franchises may have a more complex story-line, an argument can be made that they fall short visually. Jackson has put the Tolkien-created world on film in a way that when you sit down and start watching, depending on your viewing environment (and you aren't watching it on your iPhone with no headphones), you are IN his world. Those three hours fly by. You don't want it to be over. They are always a feast for the eyes. Candy for the cortex. Merrymaking for the mind. You can't blame the guy for building himself his own Hobbit house in New Zealand. He did that, right?

May 27, 2014

Enlightened (Season 2)

Mike White & Laura Dern, 2013
Season two of Enlightened marks the continuation of Amy's personal saga but also the inevitable end of the great but doomed series. Perhaps it's just too out there for the masses. Perhaps it's too personal. Perhaps it's too identifiable. There must be something to the identifiable thought, because we all know someone who is somewhat like Amy. That pseudo-hippie, enviro-preachy wacko. We recognized those features in the first season.

Season two is Amy's chance to seek vengeance. Payback. Sticking it to the man. The series itself is largely a character study on Amy. When looking for an arch for her character you realize how nuanced Amy really is. She's still licking her wounds. She has been able to move on to a certain extent from some of the more toxic elements of her past. But there is certainly still a ticking time bomb notion. Her daily life at Abaddonn is truly moment to moment. It's a miracle that she was even hired back again to begin with. She can't just disappear into depths of the fluorescent sub-levels of the commercial high rise. She can't be a complacent employee. And she also cant do it alone. When things finally do get to a boiling point toward the end of the season, Amy finally looks in herself. Probably more than she ever has. Realizes that maybe she finally had taken it too far, or maybe she should let things play out before she acts on impulses. While the camera focused on some of the peripheral forces in Amy's life last season, it continues to do so. Series creator Mike White's Tyler character is able to come out of the dark a bit more, even finding some much-due romance in his personal life. Farewell, Enlightened. It can join the likes of Deadwood and Carnivale of HBO series that were prematurely ended. That being said, it will be interesting to see what the creative, thoughtful Mike White has for us next. 

May 26, 2014

Grand Piano

Eugenio Mira, 2013
After five years passed since a horrible bout of stage fright, concert pianist Tom Selznick returns for a come-back performance in Chicago. But when he begins playing, he notices a threatening note on his sheet-music warning him that if he makes one mistake he will be killed.

Mira employs the nervous craft of Elijah Wood (and an obvious body double or um, hand double) that we have all become familiar with seeing him with his Frodo Baggins character in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise. That same energy works very well here. Young man with a sort of deer-in-headlights look, with a precise goal to be achieved but faced with adversity. Wood isn't necessarily an actor with a lot of range, but one who can deliver when cast properly (unlike one of the other actors in the film to be mentioned soon). His Tom character shows an immediate sense of inner torment. Trying to overcome his past disaster, he struggles to maintain composure before he even arrives at the concert hall. White-knuckling the plane ride, not because of the fear of flying but the fear of landing in the city where he must perform in six hours. When he does arrive at the hall, his reception is lukewarm at best. The dapper crowd may have come with open-minds, but the stage-hands still have a bad taste in their mouth. Even the local radio station has low expectations. All methods in which you are shown how much of a calamitous embarrassment that last performance was five years before. There is a lot riding on this performance. Besides the obvious chip on the shoulder, he probably also feels obligated to prove his value to wife Emma (Kerry Bishe). With all of the effort involved in actually GETTING to the piano, you would almost think that his work is halfway done. That is, until you realize how complex and demanding the body of work is that he must gruel through.

The camera jumps around from close ups of the cold sweat dripping from Tom's forehead, to the fingers rapidly jumping around the piano keys, to wide shots of the stage from the crowd's perspective (and at times of course, the villain). Besides the obvious black and whites of the piano keys, you see a lot of red in the film, much of which is cleverly used from the curtain fabric. When exploring a massive Concert Hall like the one shown, the curtain itself at times has a disconcerting feel to it. Almost like there can be haunting elements hiding in the folds. Cue the low octaves his finger hits, and then when you realize how sophisticated the work is that Tom is playing you really feel the almost inevitable doom if Tom happens to misstep (again). 

While Wood is a good fit for the Tom Selznick character, the same can't be said about John Cusack with villain Clem. Cusack, who hasn't really had a remarkable performance since 2000's High Fidelity, continues to disappoint on screen. Perhaps because he is typically misused these days? Clem's character could have and should have been more menacing, more threatening, more imposing. But Cusack just doesn't have that in his repertoire. He could provide a much better service to film (not this one) if he continues to play the hopeless romantic sappy guy. Can't fault him for trying to branch out, but he's had many chances to prove himself in the darker roles (Identity, 1408, The Raven) and they continue to be disappointing. There are many actors who could have done a much better job here. It would have been nice to see a Christoph Waltz, Tom Hardy, or a Javier Bardem as Clem. With Cusack, you never really get a sense that he will REALLY pull the trigger. Despite Cusack's deficiencies with the villain character, Grand Piano still largely works due to Mira's handling of it. The mounting tension, engaging story, clean cinematography is enough to keep you interested. Satisfying and clever ending that follows up on an tease from earlier. You'll probably be sitting through the end credits hoping to get some follow-up footage, but you won't get it (sorry). 

May 25, 2014

Silicon Valley (Season 1)

Mike Judge, 2014
The pairing of HBO and the mind of Mike Judge kind of feels long overdue. One of greatest comedy writers of this generation, Judge is one who finds the funny in our modern human masses. In Office Space he explored the soul-drenching robotic routine of the corporate Cubicle universe. In Idiocracy he brilliantly laid out America's doomed future. Silicon Valley is semi-autobiographical, from Judge's own days of working in Santa Clara at startup video card company Parallax graphics. His short time there obviously equipped him with some lasting impressions, results that would come out twenty-seven years later in the form of a brilliant comedy. Silicon Valley feels like an Office Space meets The Social Network satirical piece. With clear nods to the Steve Jobs Apple-cult/culture and the bitter battles between the hungry tech giants, the series blends witty writing with a compelling David vs. Goliath story-line. It possesses all of the proper Palo Alto vernacular, all-while living out the Raman noodle to Liquid Shrimp geek dream. One morning you can be looking at empty Red Bull cans sitting in front of you in your tiny apartment. But you can quickly cash in on a sudden fluky but profitable concept and be sitting in an over-sized mansion the next with Kid Rock providing background sound for your beer-pong games.

The writing is so sharp, but the series also deserves praise for it's fitting casting decisions. Thomas Middleditch brings the right amount of awkward twitchiness to his Richard character. The reluctant leader of startup Pied Piper, he excels in programming but falls very short in the social skills. Richard is someone who could have easily been buried in the I.T. department of the aforementioned Judge classic Office Space. His compression algorithm app is also developed by ball-busting buddies Gilfoyle and Dinesh, once again making great casting decisions by having Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani playing the respective roles. The series also employs the comedic abilities of T.J. Miller, who plays a sort of creepy older brother to the group. Not really equipped with the same coding abilities but much better in social settings, he has more of a hanger-on role with Pied Piper but never falls short of being hilarious... strange beard and all. Fortunately it didn't take long for HBO to renew Silicon Valley to renew the series for another season. Every week it leaves you wanting more. In a way it feels surreal that we are already lampooning our own high-tech world. But there is no better person to do it than Mike Judge.

May 19, 2014

Cheap Thrills

E.L. Katz, 2014
Craig (Pat Healy) is drowning his financial sorrows at a Los Angeles dive bar when he runs into old high school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) who he hasn't seen in five years. The two of them meet Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) who are celebrating Violet's birthday. Craig and Vince end up performing various antics for the couple for quick cash in an effort to get out of their desperate financial state.

Back in my bar-hopping days, my friends and I would play a hypothetical game with each other. It was never an official game that would be scheduled for any reason, nor did we ever really give it an official name. It was very loosely called the whats your price game. Someone in the group would provide a shocking activity, something like losing a limb or losing an eye and the conversation would circulate between the group to see what everyone's price was to perform said action. It would generate some short-term provocative discussion, but would never result in anything physically. Years later comes along this film Cheap Thrills, which is probably the closest thing to the whats your price game in film form.

Two surprising elements in this film from the get-go are the casting decisions. You see Ethan Embry in the credits, yet it probably takes you a few minutes to actually realize WHO he is in the film. He's no longer the baby-faced twenty-something from Empire Records. He really looks like he's put some years on that face. He's now the middle-aged slob with the cheap beanie and two-week beard. Then you have David Koechner, who would traditionally be cast in an Adam McKay-led comedy. He has dipped his toes in similarly less-comedic waters (Final Destination 5, Piranha), but this is certainly a different flavor. There's comedy present, but oh boy it's dark. His Colin character is by no means a strictly serious personality, and Koechner's typical persona certainly comes through and really works here. The Colin character is a rich sadist throwing dollar bills at each deplorable stunt. The smug, made-up Violet sits by his side immobile like a mannequin. The deplorable acts get progressively worse as the stakes are raised. Nobody is watching the clock more than Craig, who has a worried wife at home with his baby. Craig figures that the next action will be his last, and then he can finally leave the madhouse that he has been spending the last few hours in, this madhouse that at times reminds you of the firecracker-popping crack-den in Boogie Nights. All that's missing is the Rick Springfield anthem playing in the background, instead here it's some biting Dubstep. And you only spent about twenty minutes in Rahad's den in Boogie Nights. Here, you are not going anywhere that quickly. You probably want to, but there's that next stunt. That next payout. For Craig, that next payout will help him and his family get out of the rut. He will no longer be an embarrassment. For Vince, it's a new beginning. A chance to start over. Who knows, maybe get on the right path so that he can have a wife and kid too. Each passing moment brings along another morally-compromising idea coupled with more diminishing intoxication. The two men may have been old friends but their loyalty is tested, then tested again, and again.

It's a disturbing, drug-induced game show. Almost like the suspenseful offspring of an Irreversible and Compliance (which also featured Pat Healy). A showcase of clouded judgement. Blind faith in absolute strangers. Diametric character unraveling. A downward spiral. Stretched limits. Two different life paths colliding, coming together for one night where the two forces are after the same thing. Brutal. Barbarous. As things continue to go deeper, you sit there wondering how it will end. How CAN it end? You should be compensated for getting through the film not because it's poorly made (it's not) but because it's challenges you in a way most films don't, or can't. At least not within the rating confines of the MPAA. Perhaps it's why Cheap Thrills unrated. Maybe it's better that way. A watered down version of this picture would have fallen into a different category, probably artless gore-porn. Cheap Thrills also deserves credit for it's clever tagline: "What doesn't kill you makes you richer".

May 12, 2014

Muscle Shoals

Greg "Freddy" Camalier, 2013
Nestled just south of the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama lies the small city of Muscle Shoals. Population 12,000, it's a working class town decorated with green hills and sunflower fields. But there's something magical that exists there. Something inexplicable. The unassuming Muscle Shoals has been the recording home of some of the most influential music ever put on tape. Rolling Stones' Wild Horses. The Staple Singers I'll Take You There. Wilson Pickett's incredible rendition of Hey Jude (encouraged by Duane Allman). Tell Mama by Etta James. When a Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge. At first glance, Muscle Shoals surely wouldn't reveal itself to be such a recording mecca. But there is an ethereal quality to the area. Some would say it's an energy, a certain essence that remains from the days that the area was inhabited by Native Americans. Descendants of the original settlers say they still hear voices singing above the surface of the water.

Camalier's comprehensive doc does a great job of showing all of the various facets of the musical culture that was present in Muscle Shoals. People started hearing some of the music coming out of the area, and there was a certain buzz that was created where musicians from all over wanted to record with the soulful black studio musicians who were considered to the pioneers of the Muscle Shoal Sound. Much to everyone's surprise they turned out to be white men. This element certainly brought up the racial issues surrounding the area at that particular point in American history. The film is enlightening in pointing out the importance of music at that point in time, due to the fact that the artists pressed on the wax were without color. It appealed to everyone. It transcended the racial bigotry.

The doc is filled with interviews with the very people who experienced it all. But it also is filled with some amazing stock footage and photography. The first hand accounts from Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of their experiences are enticing enough, but then to go on to be treated with old footage of the late Ronnie Van Zandt singing Free Bird in the early days is just the cherry on top. There's a certain nostalgia in their eyes. When Richards admits to always wondering what their non-Shoals songs would have sounded like had they been recorded there reinforces the impact of the Alabama studio.

Muscle Shoals is like David Grohl's 2013 documentary Sound City but more meaningful, more sentimental. It's a piece containing stories of regret, longing, reflection, and importance. Maybe none of us were there to experience any of it directly, but at some point a piece of it has been in all of our ears. 

May 11, 2014

After the Dark

John Huddles, 2014
A philosophy professor challenges his students on their last day of class in Jakarta to a social experiment. If faced with the apocalypse, how would they narrow down their group of 21 students to 10 to successfully survive in a fallout shelter for a year?

Huddles delivers an fascinating picture that examines a very interesting philosophical concept. You have a group of people. Each individual person possesses a unique skill-set. One is an organic farmer. One is a structural engineer. One is a psychologist. But then you drop to a "lower" tier of specialties. Gelato server. Poet. Trades that are noble on their own but may not necessarily be in high demand when the world comes to an end. You also have to consider the future sexual needs that will exist as well. These students will need to reproduce. So ensuring a complimentary dynamic between the group is also a must. The future of the human race is at hand. That very study comes into play, and the final result is both thorough and at times unforgiving.

In a sense it's a limited storytelling piece, similar in ways to Richard Schenkman's 2007 picture The Man from Earth. The students never actually leave the classroom. But when you're treated to the visual representation of the story, the film really is a feast for the eyes. Although the Indonesian classroom setting is nothing you want to look away from, you find yourself eager to get back to the imaginary world. The survivors are not confined to a concrete shelter below a run-down post office. The bunker is a modern sanctuary. The mahogany gates are open wide basically giving you a warm welcome to the futuristic quarters that is filled with sleek nooks and chrome crannies with all of the amenities and comforts they would need for a year. The story entertainingly plays out in multiple scenarios, each time putting the students in front of some marvelous natural backdrop that is inevitably about to be destroyed by an atomic blast.

We are living in an interesting time when it comes to film-making. Capable filmmakers are no longer handicapped by enormous budgets. If you have a appealing script and a good editing/video design team, you can still create a quality picture with impressive digital effects like those seen here. On paper it's easy to sell you on this story. Instead of becoming over-indulgent on the visual elements or excessive with the gory parts, it doesn't. It just relies on humanistic creed to sort out the problems at hand. Just like the students are taking the lesson seriously, the actors are really taking their performances seriously. In this sense the film plays out much more like Lord of the Flies and much less like a Final Destination film with it's abrupt demise of any individual person. There are moral breakdowns going on. There are ramifications to each and every decision, and once the decision is made there is no turning back. You're left to live out a year of life, possibly being the only people left alive on earth hoping that you have surrounded yourself with the right people.

May 4, 2014

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013
Young zombie "R" (Nicholas Hoult), who retains a sense of consciousness after turning undead, finds himself changing yet again after coming into contact with  living human Julie (Teresa Palmer).

Jonathan Levine's heavily-CGI'd Zom-Rom-Com takes the threadbare zombie genre and ultimately delivers a refreshing twist. In a plot that could be pitched as My Boyfriend's Back meets BBC's In the Flesh mini-series, Levine provides an engaging story that is delivered using a simple three-act structure where zombie gets girl, zombie loses girl, zombie gets girl back. Through elaborate digitally-constructed set-design, Warm Bodies reveals a dystopian graffiti-glazed landscape where humans are really faced with two opposing forces: quick-moving zombies and even-quicker zombie sub-class Boney's (who greatly resemble the creatures in I Am Legend). The streets, largely unforgiving, are closed off by a fortified wall protecting the remaining surviving humans from the hungry brain-eaters in the remnants of the old city. Levine creates zombies that hunt in packs and have routines. When they capture a meal they feast on the brain. This gives them the ability to absorb their memories, all of which is displayed through snappy editing in which you yourself feast on the eye candy of warmly-lit sentimental moments from the unfortunate victim's past.

It's not only what Levine does with the story that makes it work, it's also what he doesn't do. He doesn't dumb the film down by spending time explaining things to the newcomer. He effectively lays out the back-story by using R's narrative. He also doesn't make things unnecessarily complex either by making the often-used social statements or satirical notes like so many other zombie films. Instead, he introduces you to R, who can barely mumble a word in the first few minutes. It's a slow build. At first you're stuck in the confines of an airport fuselage listening to old Dylan LP's with him. But as R's heart begins to beat again, and the color slowly returns to his face, the story comes to life. By the climax, you're on board and wish you could be there with a baseball bat in your hands fighting alongside everyone. 

The Heat

Paul Feig, 2013
FBI Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) gets relocated to Boston where she is unintentionally paired with tough native street-cop Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). Using Ashburn's book-smarts and Mullins' street-smarts, they hope to work together to take down a local drug-dealer.

The Heat delivers the typical buddy cop comedy channeled through two opposite women, one a goody two-shoes overachiever and one a brash and butch Boston native. Making the decision to pair up America's sweetheart with the brash McCarthy certainly makes sense. Bullock has made a career of blending in light-hearted films with more drama-oriented ones. Some are good, most are not. But she has shown, at least in a couple of her most recent films Gravity and The Blind Side that she evolving to some extent as an actress. So when she got a call for The Heat she probably just figured it would be fun to step back again and work in the comedy world with McCarthy, who is probably the funniest female actress working at the moment. During the film, you certainly get a clear sense that they are having fun working together. So why doesn't it work here? Because even though you employ two veteran comedic actresses, you still need good writing. That's just not present here. In fact, the laughs are swinging a solid .285 batting average. The Boston stereotypes, as shown with Mullins' family, are hackneyed and tired at this point. Yes, some people from the City of Boston talk funny. Yes, some of them are rough around the edges. We get it. And by Mullins' 20th fuck, even the vulgarity grows a bit wearing. The Heat does provide a few intermittent chuckles here and there, but it's starving for some punch-up.