Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Louie, Season 4 (2014)

Louie C.K.'s aptly titled television show Louie has been been critically acclaimed since its first season in 2010. It's primarily classified as a comedy, but there's always been a bit more to it, and this fact has never been more clear after the long-awaited release of the show's fourth season.

Of its 14 episodes, only three are traditional individual shorts. The remaining season is comprised of a 6 part episode about a Hungarian woman who gets trapped in an elevator and her non-English speaking niece, a 3 part episode on Pamela coming back to New York and being romantically interested in Louie, and "In The Woods" which is essentially a 66 minute coming of age film based on teen marijuana use. I was initially disappointed when I realized the old lady in the elevator portion of the plot was resolved in the first of six episodes. I thought if anyone could make 132 minutes of hilarious material out of such a simple premise it would be Louie C.K., but instead more character-driven, revelatory relationships are explored such as patient/doctor and ex-husband/ex-wife as Louie attempts a relationship with a woman who does not speak his language in the other five episodes of the story arc. There's a level of surreality hinted in these episodes as Jane (about age 8) is able to greet this girl in Hungarian and play impromptu violin duets with her. I interpreted it as some visual metaphor for the innate empathy or oneness among the female kind, but moments like this have popped up before within Louie and they've become more interesting to me each time. The news breaks in these episodes are equally surreal and provide some of the best laughs of the season. The Pamela episodes deal with the concept of emotional intimacy, particularly when physical attraction is less than ideal or on unequal terms. "In the Woods" is framed well within the rest of the series as Louie's junior high flashback is replayed in the present day life of Louie as he catches one of his daughters smoking pot. The 1970s school setting is established incredibly well, particularly with the fun but zany science teacher, what a great character. Jeremy Renner has a good small role as Louie's drug dealer. Once again, the child actors found for this show are very well cast.

Continuing to go beyond the genre of short comedy, Louie season 4 continues to showcase Louie C.K.'s skill in both writing and directing, serving not only entertainment but also bountiful food for thought for people of all ages. Despite the fact that the laughs may be fewer and farther between in the fourth season, it's still a funny show to be sure. Right now, Louie C.K. is in a good spot to continue writing and producing with this series and has gained the trust of network host FX as evidenced by his ability to push back the scheduled release of season 4 and negotiate a relatively low number of episodes for season 5 (a whopping seven). With creative control and time in his hands, Louie C.K. is a visionary at his prime.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

West Side Story (1961)

It may not be appropriate to compare West Side Story (1957 broadway success and 1961 film) with A Cinderella Story (2004), but by interpreting an old story through a contemporary lens ultimately both projects did the exact same thing. The former just happened to do it 50 years earlier which provided for a setting that makes it feel classic today.  I don't know as much Shakespeare as I should, but I like Romeo and Juliet a fair amount and that's probably why I think the focus and the tragedy of the story is somewhat lost in West Side Story. The exposition is great with the urban setting, and I love the first 20 minutes of the film version with the fun snapping scene at the basketball court and the early Sharks/Jets confrontation.  It's easy to see with its cinematography why the 1961 film is ranked by AFI where it's been hovering around the top 50.  Everything tonally in this opening sequence is communicated without words which is an impressive accomplishment.  Similar to The Outsiders (1983), however, it's a slow downhill from the start as the strongest visuals fade away and the plot's ultimate payoff is disappointingly underwhelming.

I can't speak for any of the original or professional productions of the show as I've only seen school productions, but musically everything in the film adaptation seems to be quite well done, particularly in terms of choreography as some numbers are actual dances while others are fight scenes among the rival gangs. This mix is interesting and preserves the elements of art which could have been replaced with poorly-executed action considering the time period of the movie.  I acknowledge the songs and dance numbers as spectacular, but that opinion is more appreciation than reverence because personally I don't enjoy all of them. Some of the Puerto Rican women stuff is too much for me to take like when I have to leave the room for a minute or two during a Disney movie if I find one of the songs too annoying.

West Side Story is good, but when it comes down to it I'd rather watch a version of Romeo and Juliet (any version, I'm not picky here) for the full scale of the romance and tragedy or Grease (1978) for the teenage antics and more entertaining and lively musical aspect.  At least for me, West Side Story manages to fall short in each regard by trying to achieve both the fun and the drama.  I think the 1961 film is an iconic and clearly definitive version of the production, much like the 1965 adaptation of The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews, but for me it's still a bit overrated.  I acknowledge and recognize West Side Story as one of the prolific contemporary musicals, but it's just not one of my favorites.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Oculus (2013)

It's luck of the draw whenever you rent a horror movie knowing only the title and box cover art, but as fortune would have it I happened to enjoy this one.  It crosses paths with psychological thriller in terms of genre, and this combination is pulled off well.

It's about a brother and sister who revisit a haunting mirror from their childhood which might be the domain of an unspeakable demon or evil force. An empirical study sets the well-educated sister and recently emancipated brother on a collision course with the paranormal and their own pasts which fatefully turned the course of life for their once cookie-cutter family. James Lafferty has a minor role which I think will always strike me as out of place to see the actor who played Tree Hill jock/prep Nathan Scott in a horror movie or cast as a mass-shooter (like in S. Darko, 2009).

The characters must revisit their past to control their future, and a carefully controlled study is set to yield conclusive, indisputable evidence that the mirror holds an evil or at least out of this world power.  The simultaneously experienced brother/sister flashbacks/replayed memory loops/altered reality moments play out expertly.  They're not a shitty revelation of the original haunting like in most scary movies but truly an augmented reality manifesting itself in the minds of our dauntless protagonists in real time.  Masterfully, I might add.  The less you know ahead of time the better, but this one is worth checking out.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Body Snatchers (1993)

Along with The Thing From Another WorldThe Blob, and The FlyInvasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those 1950s sci-fi/horror movies that has had its share of cinematic reinterpretations over the decades.  And for good reason.  The chilling tale of the pod people, the semi-parasitic race that replicate human hosts by sucking the life out of them, disposing the leftover skin-sack carcasses, and impersonating their victims as emotionless dopplegangers, is as haunting each time its retold.

This version from 1993 is good.  It doesn't come near the 1978 remake (not only one of the greatest remakes ever made but also one of the best science fiction films in general), but this version offers some new elements and effects, however, which make it relevant and worth seeing if still the inferior movie.  The major elements which keep this one fresh are its setting of an isolated military outpost, more direct verbal confrontations with the invaders, and a lot more scenes featuring prime body-snatching action.

The practical effects in the 1978 film are stunning, and they're really great here as well.  We get even more visuals of the embryonic pod replications as they begin copying and rapidly growing clones of their ensnared, sleeping victims.  From the vines that wrap around bodies finding their way into open mouths and nostrils to the grotesquely human-like pod fetuses, everything is very organic looking which I especially admire now that so many newer movies simply opt for CG.  The practical effects are particularly well-demonstrated in a couple instances where the replication process is stopped mid-cycle by awakened victims, leaving horrid, gasping abominations of living matter not quite at a point where the things can survive independent of their pods.  Another great moment, the bathtub scene is eerie and effective; it's easy to see where Slither (2007) might have taken inspiration.

In a sense, none of the body snatchers movies are remakes but simply separate accounts of the same global event from different isolated locations.  Excusing some of the overlapping character names between the 1956 and 1978 films, we see three separate locations of the invasion: San Francisco, the fictional California small town of Santa Mira, and an undisclosed military base on the outskirts of any major metropolitan areas.  Is the invasion restricted to California, the United States, the entire planet?  It remains to be seen.  As long as I'm alive and breathing there's hope for refuge, resistance, and ultimately retribution against the body snatchers.  Whether they're malevolent or amoral guardians, they must be stopped for humanity's sake!

Working across multiple films would be awesome.  Horror movies are infamous for poor writing and numerous sequels, but with proper focus and strong screenplays the body snatchers movies could achieve what World War Z (2013) should have been: a fictional historical narrative of a world scale phenomenon.  The potential for telling a story of greater magnitude of this nature requires installments with different characters and perspectives which is why I was surprised they went big screen with World War Z, especially when The Walking Dead has been so popular and successful since it premiered in 2010.  Despite the eventual plight of our protagonists in each of the instances of the invasion of the body snatchers, the audience has yet to see how widespread the phenomenon truly is. Would a new body snatchers adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig use any of this potential or reveal new information about our invaders?  The Invasion (2007), coming to a Blogger near you!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

I'm a Planet of the Apes fan (movies, novel, TV series, everything), so I have some experience and opinion here, and this new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the greatest since the 1968 film with Charlton Heston and in some ways even better than it.

The sci-fi element is not as dominant, but what remains is social drama and post-modern warfare. These themes are aided by surprisingly strong ape characters with personalities, motives, and individually-crafted body structures and facial features that look great. Andy Serkis reprises his role as Ceasar, and his standard high level of detail and dedication to a non-human character (Gollum, King Kong, etc.) is consistent across the entire ape cast. The story is divine, reminiscent of something Shakespearean, with the balance of power and sophistication of the ape communal system and impending period of conflict with the humans.

It's real beautiful and what Thor (2011) could have been if it cut out more of the Earth assimilation story and dropped the Two Broke Girls variety hour and incorporated more of the struggle for the throne story. But with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it's like watching Hamlet or Richard III; it's a tragedy. You know peace can't work out between the humans and the apes but you want to see it work but then you also want to see them fight, and this film balances and rewards these two desires, the simultaneous yearning for peace and for humans versus monkeys action, incredibly well.

All the supporting elements add value in their own way, and the musical score and visuals of the San Franciscan ruins are supreme. Despite starring the wonderful Gary Oldman, what's great about this new Planet of the Apes film is that it's not plagued by singular stardom in being the Mark Wahlberg one or the James Franco one; it's just a really fucking great movie.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I, Frankenstein (2014)

While it took a huge beating in terms of reviews and ratings, I, Frankenstein is in actuality a completely watchable and passable movie.  The film takes the classic monster created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein and puts him in modern day in the middle of a feudal battle between demons from hell and gargoyles who are actually protectors from heaven, both clans disguising themselves as humans as they contest for dominion or sanctuary of the human race.  What I really like is that this adaptation takes the approach of having Frankenstein's monster actually speak fluently and have a philosophical and spiritual component to his character.  I'm not saying this movie matches the intellectual and amoral social conflict of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), but it's more interesting than grunts and growls (as great as Boris Karloff was in Universal's Frankenstein films from the 1930s) and allows lead cast Aaron Eckhart to act well as an absurd yet iconic character, and his acting goes a long way to keep the movie afloat amongst a group of relatively flat characters.

The story is that Victor Frankenstein's creation kills his wife Elizabeth and outlives Victor himself.  The monster survives for hundreds of years but is tracked by demons who want to possess his soulless body so they can fill it with their own legion of spirits.  That's the one good plot device that allows for what is essentially Frankenstein meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a dose of Constantine for good measure.   Yvonne Strahovski (the hot Australian from 24: Live Another Day) discovers Dr. Frankenstein's journal and how to create life after the secret was lost since his death.  Demons want the power.  Gargoyles don't want them to have it.  They fight.  The action consists of Buffy-like weapon/hand-to-hand fights on the ground and CGI aerial fights in the sky.  Nothing that special, but it's entertaining.

A great thing about the movie is that it's a modest 92 minutes long.  None of this 165 minute Michael Bay Transformers crap.  I, Frankenstein might be shitty, but it's no bullshit, and that's something worth saying and, amidst a nearly empty Redbox kiosk, something worth watching.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Factotum (2005)

Although he's a poet first and foremost, the novels of Charles Bukowski are a treat.  I've read four of his six books and had the opportunity to indulge and vicariously experience the life of this legendary author through the exploits of autobiographical character Henry Chinaski. There's Ham on Rye (1982), the stark tale of loser-kid turned loser-adolescent, Women (1978), the crudest and sultriest all-out fuckfest, and my personal favorite Post Office (1971), the epic recounting of that age-old American profession on which many rely yet few understand. And then there's Factotum (1975), the one where Hank works all the low-life jobs, never staying anywhere for long at all.

Factotum was a good choice to adapt to film because it's got a bit of everything: alcohol and typewriters, bar scenes, funny work situations in abundance, floozy girls, devilish luck at the horse races.  It's not as excessive as Women which would need to be pornographic to encapsulate the book (the nudity here is minor, not that I'm complaining).  A factotum is an employee who does all kinds of work.  As Henry Chinaski, Matt Dillon goes from dead-end job to dead-end job, never lasting more than a few paychecks for reasons of varying cause.  Dillon has that "without ambition" air about him that makes each untimely termination or alcoholic binge both believable and somehow inspiring.  He's not concerned with making good impressions, or keeping them, and when it's payday he's spending that damn money quick.  Lili Taylor plays Jan which surprised me at first to see her in the role since I always imagined a more attractive woman.  I think her character altogether brings the most realism to the movie version of Factotum and deflates some of its more mystic qualities.  There's no more magic to Jan; what you see is what you get.  She's neither Audrey Hepburn nor Olivia Wilde; she's a middle-aged woman of passable looks, decent body, and she likes wine and likes to fuck.  How does Chinaski do it at the race tracks?  We'll never know, but here his relationship with Jan is...understandable.

As far as capturing the spirit of the novel, Factotum does a pretty good job for the most part.  Although I was constantly amused, I think inevitably a bit of the outlandish, funny tone is lost by seeing things through video rather than hearing the story through Bukowski's writing.  There's something about the way the old man himself tells a story that's just superior to the directing of some middle-aged Norwegian.  Maybe the formula can be pulled off better; afterall, this is only the first Bukowski adaptation I've seen.  Buy hey, I liked it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Spider-Man Unlimited (1999-2001)

Astronaut John Jameson (son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson) takes off on a space shuttle bound for a dimensional portal/plot device just outside Earth's orbit while Venom and Carnage secretly sneak aboard and Spider-Man, unable to to thwart the parasitic fiends, steals a second space shuttle to follow the trio and rectify his heroic name in the public image and aid the space cowboy.  The dimensional portal leads to a Blade Runner-esque third planet replica referred to as "Counter-Earth" where an animal-hybrid race known as the beastials have become the ruling class of NYC, humans are relegated to the slums and kidnapped for genetic experiments, and a symbiotic race of little yellow fury critters await revival and infestation of the surface at the hands of their newfound henchmen.  This is the premise to Spider-Man Unlimited, the short-lived follow-up to the definitive and eponymously-named 1994 Spider-Man animated series.

The animation feels largely lifted from the 1994 series but boasts bolder colors and much more detailed facial designs on the human characters.  It looks more like a comic book than any other Spider-Man series I've seen, but this could also be due to the fact that the setting and characters are so bizarre.  Spider-Man sports a new look with the web-cape and overshadowed suit with no web stitching as well as an array of suit upgrades like the sonic ray emitter, stealth mode, and more.  It looks pretty cool, provides some new abilities for the action sequences, and is powered by nanotechnology which was apparently taken from Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic).  The main villains are the High Evolutionary beastial leaders such as Lord Tyger, Sir Ram, and Lady Vermin which I don't feel like getting into.  Spider-Man ends up fighting them and teaming up with the human resistance led by John Jameson.  For what it's worth, a lot of the weird and lame characters come somewhere from the nebulous Marvel canon.

Thankfully, there are several more traditionally Spider-Man-affiliated characters in the show including the Green Goblin, Vulture, and Kraven the Hunter, the first two of which have more ambiguous, vigilante roles in lieu of their standard villain archetype.  The Green Goblin is interesting here because it's hinted that he is an alternate identity other than Osborn, and he appears to be Mexican based on his accent and vocabulary.  Of course Venom, Carnage, and John Jameson are from the original Earth and therefore the same as their original characters, along with Peter.  By the third episode I started calling John Jameson John Connor because he's the buff leader of the revolution, toting big guns, wifebeaters, and 5 o'clock shadows.  He's right from the Terminator.  Eventually, Jameson's lycanthropic alterego Man-Wolf is revealed which is another little canon obscura with which I wasn't previously familiar.  Eddie Brock and Kletus Casady get a little bit of character development in their human form when they're temporarily separated from their symbiotes.  It's a shame there isn't more of them because the interaction between the symbiotes is a great plot point.  Is the symbiote species on Counter-Earth indigenous?  It's never revealed, but they finally stage an uprising at the hands of Venom and Carnage.

This cliff-hanger at the end of the thirteenth and final episode leaves our heroes at the height of their peril, and another episode or second season was never produced.  While it pales in comparison to the 1994 animated series, I still prefer Spider-Man Unlimited over the 2003 and 2012 or even the 1981 series because it retains a classic comic book art style and strong narrative in each of its episodes with less distraction from comic relief villains and surpluses of Marvel crossovers serving nothing but filler.  It's the same reason I prefer just about every other Batman cartoon series over Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011).

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Tigger Movie (2000)

When compared to all the other animated Disney classics, what's unique about Winnie-the-Pooh is that its appeal lies solely in its characters. With this franchise there was never an overarching story featuring any kind of moral or princess or triumph of virtue over wickedness.  It was just an odd assortment of animals living in community, a variety of personalities with everyday social friction.  The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (1977) is not truly a feature film but rather a collection of three shorts produced in the preceding decade: Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day, and Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too.  Pulled from the literary genius of A.A. Milne's works of the 1920s, these characters based on author's son Christopher Robin Milne's stuffed animals made the transition to cartoon and became truly alive.  Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella, Alice in WonderlandThe Jungle Book... these Disney tales are all lifted from classic literature and feature great characters too, but it's only through the central plot that their traits show through.  They don't play off each other but only off their current situation and conflict; there's no story to tell when society no longer has a need for Robin Hood to steal from the rich and give to the poor.  Winnie-the-Pooh takes a different approach to entertainment and has continued to deliver high caliber, fresh episodes in each decade since the series' Disney incarnation in the 1960s.

While everything successful about Winnie-the-Pooh can be attributed to its memorable characters and their appearances in approximately 100 featurettes/episodes when counting the '80s/'90s television series, it was probably no surprise that Disney would eventually make a proper full-length movie.  Cue The Tigger Movie in 2000, the first of what would be several theatrically released full-length Winnie-the-Pooh feature films.  Ditching all personified insects and Gopher, the movie keeps only those characters written by A.A. Milne and even minimizes Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore considerably, but hey, this is The Tigger Movie for a reason.  If you like Tigger, Roo, and Kanga you'll see quite a lot of them, and there are some great Rabbit foil moments as well.  The premise is that Tigger is in search of his family: the other Tiggers he believes exist despite his time-old claim that he's "the only one".  It's beautifully simple and well-played over the course of its 78 minute run-time with little distraction.  What I really love about The Tigger Movie is that it stretches the boundaries and surreality of the 100 Acre Woods in a thought-provoking way as Tigger carries out his quest to find his relatives.  It's predictable in an appropriate way and hits all the emotions in key moments of the journey (excitement, disappointment, anger, sadness, fear, love).  Once again all the voice actors are uncanny in their likeness to the originals which is another subtle ingredient to the success of the Winnie-the-Pooh franchise.  The animation is incredibly detailed, with sharp character models and tastefully subdued color pallets.  There's actually a sense of focus in the often blurry outdoor background, making for great visuals enhanced by blowing leaves and other extraneous objects in motion.  There are some new songs which the characters sing but nothing too unbearable for adults to sit through.

Disney sequels have a reputation of falling short, but unlike the others Winnie-the-Pooh is free from the common pitfalls.  While its characters certainly excel when explored in plots under the short-story format, the opportunity for a traditional full-length animated film will always exist if there's a strong enough idea that's built around the characters and not the other way around.  In this sense The Tigger Movie does a great job and sets the standard high for any movies that would follow.  The message about family is cliche, but the fact that there's a deeper meaning and purpose of the film is why they made it.  That and to milk debatably their best franchise for some more money.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974)

In the wake of the network cancellation of Gene Roddenberry's live-action space drama/adventure Star Trek which ran from 1966 through 1969, fan hype and demand for more of this new and innovative universe was answered in the early 1970s in the form of a Saturday morning cartoon series produced by Filmation. Highly overlooked and widely forgotten nowadays, Star Trek: The Animated Series is a half-hour animated continuation of the original series which marked the second and thereby christening installment of the Star Trek franchise.

Continuation is no understatement; the cartoon picks up right where the live-action series left off.  Rejoin the crew of the starship Enterprise on their five-year mission for 22 additional adventures which uphold the sense of exploration and present interesting and thought-provoking plots.  Everything from the starting sequence, title cards, theme music, and general design of ships, uniforms, etc. is lifted from the original series, and Nimoy, Shatner, Kelley, Nichols, Takei, and Doohan all reprise the voice roles for their respective characters.  The run-ins span the typical Klingon, Romulan, Tribble dilemmas as well as several new alien lifeforms, celestial entities, and earthly deities of myth and legend.  What's really neat about the series is that the cartoon format allows for more freedom in the design and sequences featuring aliens, planets, and other FX scenes that just wouldn't have worked in a live-action TV show at the time.  It's all done surprisingly well for a cartoon from the '70s and is by far the best thing I've seen from the Filmation studio.  Most episodes are good, and a few are actually better than many of the live-action episodes; "Yesteryear" is one that immediately comes to mind, and the series finale "The Counter-clock Incident" is a blast.

All these elements of the show are so good that it begs for just a little sharper animation so that the characters mouths and facial expressions would move closer in sync with the words and emotions conveyed within the story.  Oftentimes the feeling of the characters is just not adequately captured.  This complaint is really only noticeable, however, because the commitment from the writers and actors to deliver a high caliber show is so strong.  It's still quite well done when measured against its contemporaries and is a very watchable show forty years later.  At a mere 22 episodes that are only about 22 to 23 minutes each, there's no reason for any Star Trek fan not to watch this show.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Red Shoe Diaries (1992)

After the tragic suicide of his fiancee, a young man uncovers the diary of his would-be spouse and learns to his devastation of a sexual affair which had slowly divided the heart of his lover and led her to take her own life.  His fiancee's suicide embarks this man on a journey for understanding that will in no short time be completed.  The drama in daytime soap operas cannot compare to the degree of lust, eroticism, and unhindered human impulse captured in director Zalman King's Red Shoe Diaries, the 1992 Showtime film which started the similarly-titled television series.

David Duchovny delivers a mesmerizing performance as architect and perfect-husband-material Jake Winters.  For fans of The X-Files with a wide palette for TV and movie genres, the satisfaction gained from viewing FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder uncover the romantic conspiracy and the love triangle that threw his life into disarray is more than I can explain.  Duchovny once again takes the role of tortured soul and expresses his agony more articulately than any actor I've seen.

The memory of his fiancee Alex plays hypnotically throughout the film, a beautiful woman spinning in the light, a pirouette repeated.  The emotionally distraught Alex is played by Brigitte Bako.  For a mental picture, imagine Jennifer Connelly meets Estella Warren.  Between the scenes of Jake's memories of Alex are the secrets revealed from her diary.  Jake is safe and comforting, the man she'd marry and does truly love, but on a busy Los Angeles street she falls into the strong arms of an alluring construction worker/part-time shoe salesman (played by Billy Wirth), and the affair begins.

"There's no rationalization for the attraction between two people; it just kinda happens, like accidents...magic, alchemy, chemistry, electro-magnetic-vibratory-trans-forces...the stuff that moved the pyramids. Right now I could balance a block in front of my pants."

"Perfect boy, perfect ploy, perfect contender in a battle that's already been won...someone so different from Jake there's no contest, no conflict, no competition, no confusion...perfect secret."

"I told you I could move stone blocks with my cock. You were curious, and here you are. Why don't you take off your clothes?"

"He made love like he worked on the street: tender as a jackhammer."

"I'm like one of those dogs you see at the park, they'll have to turn a fire hose on me to get me off you."

These lines probably seem laughable, but in the context of the film they're delivered with such conviction and intensity that in the midst of nudity (bare breast, nipples, flanks, silhouetted vaginal outlines) and the effects of sexual affair within what was a monogamous relationship, it's all quite serious for not only the characters but also the viewer.

The topical artistic elements of Red Shoe Diaries add to its atmosphere without detracting from the universal identity of the archetypal relationship roles which the film portrays.  That early '90s style with the baggiest of dress slacks, slow-motion emphasis for effect of dropped groceries and fruit rolling down the stairs or the reverberating glass of a thrown object breaking on impact, those bluesy electric guitar and saxophone solos ("You Never Really Know" by Bon Jovi lead guitarist Richie Sambora could rival any backing guitar or sax from the Lethal Weapon movies for effect).  These added touches all play.

Red Shoe Diaries speaks to those viewers with passionate hearts and is an undeniable example of soap opera drama executed to the highest caliber.  That young David Duchovny, pining for what was, for what can never be again, not to blame for what happened yet unable to comprehend, it's mesmerizing.  Red Shoe Diaries competently demonstrates what makes a person call in from a payphone a request for such a classified ad:

Women, do you keep a diary? Have you been betrayed? Have you betrayed another? Man, 35, wounded and alone, recovering from the loss of once-in-a-lifetime love. Looking for reasons why. Willing to pay top dollar for your experiences. Please send diary to Red Shoes....All submissions are strictly confidential.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

It's been said that when Steven Spielberg made Jaws in 1975 he made it too good.  Think about it: this movie is centered on the presence of a killer shark and manages to hover around the top 50 movies of all time according to the American Film Institute (AFI).  It's undeniable.  That score by John Williams, strong characters played by a great cast (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, Robert Shaw), there's definite substance here.  It's not only about the maw of a great white shark but also the jaws of life.  This movie is without question the greatest shark movie that will ever be made.  How could you add to a film of such caliber?  You can't, but when there's an audience Hollywood will always try.  In the twelve years that followed this genre-breaking blockbuster, three sequels were made: Jaws 2 in 1978, Jaws 3D in 1984, and Jaws: The Revenge in 1987.  The general consensus from critics and fans alike is that each successive Jaws movie is worse than the last and that the fourth and final entry is one of the worst films ever made.  While Jaws 2 is both forced and forgettable and Jaws 3D is underwhelming with its dreadful 3-D effects and lack of both action and meaningful story, I can agree with the masses here.  The last sequel, however, I'd like to stand up and defend.  Not only is Jaws: The Revenge not the worst movie ever made, it's easily the best of the three Jaws sequels and a decent movie in general.  This movie is not nearly as terrible as it's made out to be.

For those unfamiliar, the biggest laughing point of Jaws: The Revenge is the plot.  Essentially, the same shark that was killed in the previous films is hunting down members of the Brody family, tracking the poor bastards through a psychological connection and following them to the warm-watered Bahamas, a location which great white sharks don't naturally inhabit.  I understand that some people will be unable to take the movie seriously with a story to this degree of absurdity, but it's actually what makes the movie work.  With the other Jaws sequels, another incident with the shark (or this family of sharks) just seems like too much of a coincidence or too far-fetched, but Jaws: The Revenge gives it that supernatural edge.  Of course it's stupid, but this fully disclosed plot device transforms the tone of the film and allows for everything else to make sense.  Jaws: The Revenge is a slasher movie, and the shark is the serial killer, inexplicably back again from the dead, just like Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers.

I'll admit that the special effects and animatronics are pretty bad in this movie, but the other sequels failed in this department as well.  The original Jaws manages to look good to this day because Spielberg showed as little of the shark as needed to get the desired effect for the scene.  You see the fin in the water or its mouth chewing on the boat or swallowing people, that's it.  Often you don't even see anything; you just hear that John Williams score, and the hairs on the back of your neck begin to raise.  Needing to make up for what it lacked in plot development and suspense, Jaws 2 upped the action and showed more of the shark, which is strikingly and unnaturally boxy, and they do some dumb stunts like setting the shark on fire.  In Jaws 3D, the CGI shots of the shark don't even show movement of the tail or fins; the still images just slowly get closer and closer to the screen which may have been cool in theaters with 3D glasses in 1984 but now just look like shit.  Jaws: The Revenge hearkens back to the effects of Jaws 2 with that terribly block-shaped body of the shark that somehow fails to capture the full size of what a great white shark would actually look like.  In fact, the underwater shots of the shark make it look like a big grey chode.  Some of these scenes still manage to develop suspense, however, as the scuba-diving protagonist frantically seeks cover in a sunken boat, movements quickened with fear yet slowed by the water and constricting scuba gear.

Moments of Jaws: The Revenge like this one are effective despite laughable effects because the characters are likable.  Widow Ellen Brody (wife of Roy Scheider's character from the first two films) can feel the presence of the shark and wants to keep her family away from the ocean after losing yet another loved one to the monster early in the movie.  Her son Michael Brody, however, is a marine biologist, lives his life in the water, and believes he can continue to do his job in a perfectly safe manner.  There's good mother-son drama here, and the extended family of Michael's wife and daughter add to the conflict.  The side characters aren't disposable shark food either.  Michael Caine, one of the most likable actors I can think of, plays a late-life love interest for Ellen and at one point jumps out of a helicopter into open water with the shark nearby!  Even the Jamaican guy with dreads, as cliche as his character is, is funny and with the scenes of him and his family you don't want to see him, or anyone else for that matter, die.  The amiability of the characters invested me in the outcome of the ridiculous story.

With two unnecessary sequels and the '80s gimmick of 3D visual effects, the Jaws franchise was already swimming in the waters of the slasher genre, and Jaws: The Revenge cut the bullshit and wrote a script to fully embrace that and throw in a generic horror subtitle for good measure.  And for what it is, Jaws: The Revenge isn't bad at all.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Jurassic World, first Universal announcement: 2013 (release date set for 2015)

After over a decade of searching the internet for any and all rumors and leaks I could find regarding the future of the Jurassic Park franchise, my wish has come true. Twelve years have passed since Jurassic Park 3 and this day, a greater time lapse than the fateful third cinematic installment and Michael Crichton's original novel. The author of this far-fetched yet thrilling dinosaur epic died in November of 2008, leaving behind a legacy, much like the creatures he inspired a new generation of kids and adults of all ages to get excited about. Even with very credible news in the past couple years regarding a fourth film, I still never thought I would see a new Jurassic Park movie in my lifetime. Part of me still can't believe Universal is finally admitting it's coming: Jurassic World, June 12th, 2015.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

If you're like me, you were underwhelmed and disappointed by Paranormal Activity 4 (2012).  It failed not only to meaningfully add to the ongoing plot of the series but also to deliver on its many opportunities for suspense and scares.  While Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) shed more light on the nature of the haunting and found new and creative ways to implement the found-footage format, 4 fell short across the board.  Thankfully Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones picks up the series in a big way.  Note that this is not Paranormal Activity 5 (which is slated for October 2014) but a spin-off entry in the series.  The connection to previous entries, however, is very strong.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones follows a new set of characters and explores the fate of the "marked" first sons (those dedicated to demon[s]) when they reach the age of 18.  A combination of the new characters, plot revelations, and connections with the previous films make this entry fresh and enjoyable.  The acting is pretty good, especially as far as this series is concerned.  A couple new camera-related and other ideas help sustain the delivery of the found-footage format, if only just barely.  What I really liked is that The Marked Ones takes more chances in what it reveals in the unfolding plot line, which at this point in the series is a very good thing.  I felt like it could have taken better advantage of the suspense it built at times, but it still had its scares and creepy moments.  As per usual, the ending is abrupt, but the inherent promise of future explanation is at an all time high.

It's unclear how long the Paranormal Activity series will continue or if there is a master plan connecting everything we've seen thus far in a satisfying, conclusive way, but for now it seems that these movies are just good enough to keep seeing.  Once again with the big screen, loud sound, and dark environment, these movies excel in theaters, naturally, where the money is made.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Saturday morning TV show of Generation Y.  Being born in 1991, it was a little bit before my time, but I knew and liked the franchise nonetheless.  I owned some of the action figures and a board game, would rent a couple of the live action movies, and for a short time even wore a hand-me-down jean jacket with patches of the four turtles on the back and sleeves.  When I was a little older I got more into some of the TMNT videogames and would catch some of the episodes of the 2003 TV series.  Despite all that though, I couldn't say that I remember a single episode of the original 1987 series that brought the comic book characters into the mainstream, but now I can.  That's right; over the past six months I watched all 193 episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Between seasons 1 through 3 you get the TMNT experience.  See this incarnation's origin story of the turtles and the history between Splinter and Shredder, witness the mutation of Bebop and Rocksteady, get weirded out by Krang and the Neutrinos from Dimension X, tremble at the mighty power of the Technodrone, and meet recurring antagonists Baxter Stockman, the Rat King, Leatherhead, and Metalhead as well as allies Casey Jones, Lotus, Zach, the Punk Frogs, and Channel Six News team April O'Neill, Irma, Burne, and Vernon.  A desire to learn about these characters was what sparked my interest in watching the show, and they definitely kept me engaged throughout its entirety.  The personalities of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael really begin to develop over time, and I was always excited when an episode contained one of the secondary villains like Baxter Stockman or the Rat King.

Season 1 contains just five episodes but establishes all the main characters and their backgrounds.  These five episodes have the feel of an extended pilot with slightly choppy animations at times, minor quirks like turtle mix-ups in the voice-acting lines, and much more violent and graphic fighting sequences.  From season 2 onward, the show was cleaned up dramatically to fine-tune and polish the character models and tone down the violence, most likely due to censorship.  Too rarely post-season-1 do we see the turtles use their ninja weapons in a traditional fighting manner, robotic foot soldiers get cut to pieces, or pedestrians and villains wielding realistic rifles or pistols (everything was replaced with futuristic ray guns), leaving much to be desired in the action department, but the later 2003 and 2012 TV series would eventually both make up for this shortcoming of the original series.  While the action takes a disappointing turn with the onset of season 2, many other aspects of the show refine their form.  The expression of wit and humor in the writing is probably my favorite characteristic of the series.  Primarily the turtles but also other characters commonly shout out puns, one-liners, and fourth-wall breaking comments.  Most episodes end with some kind of funny moment to downplay the feats of the turtles in that particular episode in a humorous way.  They're often bad jokes, but I've always been one to appreciate the wit required for even a bad pun. Speaking of bad puns, many episode titles are ripoffs of popular horror and sci-fi movies; take for example "It Came from Beneath the Sewers", "The Maltese Hamster", "20,000 Leaks Under the City", and "Invasion of the Turtle Snatchers".  I think "Son of Return of the Fly II" takes the cake; imagine a young viewer thinking he missed an episode in the Baxter Stockman chronology due to this absurd title, what a joke.  The voice-acting is very good for the most part and contributes largely to the personality of the characters, although some of the voice actors changed over the seasons.  I think Shredder had at least 4 different voices, but the original voice work done by James Avery, aka Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was the greatest.  All in all, it's apparent that although they were writing to entertain kids, the writers of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were also entertaining themselves in the process.

Seasons 4 through 7 continue the formula and maintain what made the earlier seasons great.  At this point you've pretty much seen it all.  I've said it before, and I mean it in the best way possible, but the show is just good enough to keep watching.  That's saying a lot though if I can stick out a 193 episode cartoon series from the late '80s and early '90s because it's truly enjoyable to watch.  Nothing really changes during this middle period of the series, but there're a few new character appearances including Slash, Bugman, Mondo Gecko, and Tokka and Rahzar (as seen in the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, 1991).  The recurring plots with two of my favorite side characters Baxter Stockman and Lotus are among the best.  While some episodes certainly feel repetitive and lackluster, most are at least status quo, and a lot stand out as memorable moments of the show's long run.  Along with the episodes involving the aforementioned new characters, "Krangenstein Lives", "Snakes Alive!", "The Star-Child", and "Invasion of the Krangazoids" are several that immediately come to mind.  Season 7 is probably the most fresh, with a high percentage of pretty good episodes including the seven that take place in famous European travel destinations.

Seasons 8 through 10 of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are where things get shaken up.  Right away you know things are off when they begin with a new starting sequence which contains half cartoon clips and half footage from the live action movie from 1990, all to the sound of a reworked theme song which is slowed down to about a quarter speed and sung by a different singer with about half the lines removed and a couple changed.  It's weird at first and far from classic like the original, but after a few episodes it kind of grew on me.  As episode 8-1 begins, a change in some of the character animations is immediately apparent.  The turtles have noticeably defined muscles and more serious facial expressions with slightly tethered bandanas.  To match this new look, the action sequences are a bit more technical again like in season 1 and less slapstick (which is welcome because they're supposed to be ninjas).  April got a big makeover with stunning teal eyes, orangeish hair (still short), a softer, more unique facial structure, and no longer wearing the old yellow jumpsuit.  Some fans probably hate this new look, but personally I like April a lot better this way.  Before, her facial features were so stock she looked exactly like any generic female character from G.I. Joe with the addition of a yellow suit and breast implants.

The animation changes and starting sequence are not the major changes in the last three seasons though; what really changes is the serious tone of the show with less humor, an emphasis on recurring story arcs with the turtles becoming hated by New York and media, a mutant rights group, new alien villain Lord Dregg, human-mutant Carter, humans from the future, a should-have-been-scrapped-storyboard-idea where the turtles develop super mutations that periodically transform them into illogically and inconsistently mechanical and ugly oversized monsters, the growing irrelevance of Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo's personalities and ninja skills/use of ninja weapons as well as the slow disappearance of main characters Splinter, Shredder, and Krang, and you can forget about almost every other side character I've mentioned previously.  Do the changes bode well for the show?  Not really; they're interesting at first but get old fast.  Season 9 was the worst by far with Lord Dregg, Carter, and the turtles' unstable super mutations.  During the middle of it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was no longer good enough to keep watching; I just watched because I only had around twelve episodes in the entire series left.  However, after 169 episodes spanning seven seasons, I understand that it was time to try something different with the show.  Thankfully season 10 quickly made a turnaround by its third episode, and the series closed on a fairly good note with a couple strong multi-part episodes which included a good plot to ditch the super mutations and Carter, bring Shredder and Krang back into the mix, reemphasize the importance of Splinter, and end with a greater degree of finality then we would have had should the writers and studio called it quits after season 7.  Overall, seasons 8 through 10 are worth watching the same way Beast Machines and The New Batman Adventures are worth seeing at least once; they clearly don't live up to their predecessors but often contain interesting plots and provide a fresh take on their respective series.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an incredible television program and one that still holds up fairly well today.  It's one of those rare shows that really displays the masterful art of cartoon writing.  To think that for ten years there was a team of people who came up with progressively more absurd storyboards with alien invaders, wrote jokes and dialogue for adolescent humanoid turtles, and then voice-acted all of that in some recording studio is mind-blowing.  I can't say that I have a dream job, but that sounds pretty fucking awesome to me.  Damn, what am I doing with my life?  Getting paid to be a CPA and watching at least one episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles every day.  Turtles for life!