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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Summer Superhero Kickoff: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2



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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

It took me forever to get around to watching The Amazing Spider-Man. Something about it just left me apathetic. Maybe it was my love for the Raimi flicks, and my resistance to the idea that a reboot was necessary so soon after the end of that series of movies. Maybe I was just super-heroed out. Maybe the preview just didn't grab me. I can’t say. I just couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for it.

When I finally watched it, there were things I liked about it (Emma Stone, Denis Leary, the web-swinging sequences, the return to the mechanical web-shooters and Peter Parker’s origins as a science nerd), but the things I didn’t like (the ugly ass Koopa-lookin’ Lizard, Andrew Garfield’s snotty Spidey) were more distracting. This was not my Spider-Man, and while I liked parts of it, I really didn’t care for the movie over all.

So, I was surprised to find that The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is taking a critical beating, was a much more enjoyable experience for me. Spidey seemed like less of a dick and was actually funny; there was more delving into Peter’s science acumen; Electro, Green Goblin and Rhino were much more interesting than The Ugly Ass Lizard; the fights were more exciting, the web-swinging was cooler, the relationship between Peter and Gwen more fleshed out. I dunno, I know a lot of people are hating this flick, but I actually liked it.

Now, it’s not perfect.  Before he turns into his superpowered Electro form, Jamie Foxx’s nebbish Max Dillon is played at a Schumacherian level of camp. I also never really understood the disease that is turning Norman and Harry Osborn green.  And I would have liked a lot more Paul Giamatti.

But that being said, I laughed a lot more at this movie than the first one, I “woo!”’d a lot more at this movie than the first one, and I was apparently emotionally invested enough in this flick that when the story reached its climax (a conclusion that is no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the history of Spider-Man comics) it actually affected me emotionally. It took the wind out of my sails. I was sad.

And that’s something, right?

So, with the caveat that I didn’t like the first one very much, and no one else seems to like this one, I can say that I liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  So there.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This movie is a month old by now, so no one cares what I have to say, but let the record reflect that as both a popcorn movie fan and a Captain America nerd, I was delighted by this movie. Delighted. It was delightful.
Marvel continues to make interesting choices with their director hires, and the Russo Bros (who bring their experience directing the endearingly meticulous TV show Community to bear in the form of tons of throwaway gags/references and amusing character interplay) knocked this one out of the park on their first swing.

Using the now classic Ed Brubaker run on the Captain America comics as a springboard, The Winter Soldier mixes espionage flicks and 1970’s style political thrillers into their superhero stew to make a very satisfying, well made action film.  You don’t just bring Robert Redford on board for any ol’ shit show. This movie earns the nod of approval that his presence suggests.

In his third outing in the Steve Rogers character, Chris Evans has finally made the role his own, and everyone else brings their A game as well.  This is the smartest and most entertaining movie Marvel has made since the first Iron Man. I was satisfied, and I am rarely satisfied.  I couldn’t have been much happier with it.
 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Brent does 7 quick genre flick reviews for no discernible reason: Europa Report, VHS 2, Bad Milo, Solomon Kane, MORE!



I’ve complained at length about the explosion of the “found footage” horror genre, and I find that my cries go unheard, because not only does it continue to propagate itself, but it is also creating genres within genres. So now we have outer space found footage movies as a genre. It’s a thing.

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Europa Report – 

At first I thought “Oh wow, this is going to be terrible”. But guess what? It really wasn’t. A team of highly qualified outer space scientist types head off to Jupiter’s moon Europa to study the ice and potential for life.  You may be surprised to find out that they encounter complications along the way. The “found footage” in this case comes from the various camera feeds from their orbiter, being shot back to earth.  What could have been cheaply made space monster schlock, turned out to be cleverly made (if still cheap looking) outer space mystery, and a message that is strongly, proudly, “Yay science!” It was refreshing to be surprised. It’s not, like, great or anything, but it was much better than expected. So that’s something, because I usually don’t expect much.


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Apollo 18 – 

On the other hand, with Apollo 18, at first I thought, “Oh wow, this is going to be terrible”. And it was. Moon rocks are actually alive, and bloodthirsty, and they look like giant spiders. There, I saved you 87 minutes. I'm the King of Hollywood!


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Solomon Kane – 

Kane is probably Robert E. Howard’s most popular character that isn’t named “Conan” or “Kull”. That may be damning him with faint praise, but the character has been popular enough to carve out a path through pulp paperbacks and comics for 80 some odd years.  That’s gotta be worth something.

Solomon Kane is a brooding puritan evil-smasher, a sour-faced dude done up in black with a slouch hat and two guns. He’s like a pilgrim that kicks ass instead of eating turkey.  So it stands to reason that eventually we’d get a movie out of the guy.

Solomon Kane is admirable more for what it wants to be than for what it actually is. It wants to be a classic 1980’s limb-hacker, ala Solomon's more popular cousin Conan the Barbarian. And sure, there are plenty of cleaved limbs and spurting blood, but not enough to be really exciting. I’m not saying that violence has to be gratuitous, but if you’re going for it, GO FOR IT.

Instead, Kane is kinda slow and dull and has some digital gore and, eh, meh.  This movie may scratch your genre itch on a late Friday night, but I doubt anyone really LOVES this movie. I would have liked to LOVE this movie. As it is, it is no better or worse than, say, your typical Beastmaster sequel. Now you know what you're in for.


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Dale and Tucker Vs. Evil

So this actually turned out to be funnier than it had any right to be. Alan Tudyk (best known from the much beloved by everyone who isn’t me Firefly) is a talented comedic character actor, and he and co-star Tyler Labine are surprisingly layered in this goofy splatstick flick. While slathering on the gooey corpses, the movie attempts to make a commentary on judging a book by its cover. Not sure if the subtext is necessary, but it’s nice to see them trying. Not a great film by any means, but the titular starts are fun to watch, and the movie is over all much more well made and funnier than I expected. You could do worse with you Netfllix on a Friday night.


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Bug

This is the movie that kicked off the late-career renaissance of William Friedkin,  (best known as the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection). Like his next film, Killer Joe, Bug was written by Tracy Letts, and definitely retains the stagey vibe of its origins as a play. These are ACTOR-Y movies, with ACTORS ACTING.

But don’t let that deter you. Bug is a horror film, sure, but it's not about killer bugs, really, but instead is primarily an intense study of two characters with crumbling minds. Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd are terrifically paranoid, growing exponentially frantic and terrifying as the film unwinds.  Plus you get to see Ashley’s Judds. I liked it. Pretty good stuff.


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V/H/S 2

I’ve written about my affection for anthology horror films at length, and have expressed my admiration for the somewhat amateurish yet ambitious V/H/S. However, there is very little of that first flick’s charm on display here.  This one didn’t make much of an impression on me, I’m sorry to say.



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Bad Milo

Bad Milo is a horror comedy starring Ken Marino and Gillian “Gilly” Jacobs, about a guy who finds out that his stomach issues aren’t caused by stress so much as they are caused by a demon monster living in his butt.
The idea of Bad Milo is funnier than the actual movie. I’m a big fan of pretty much everyone involved here, but  there’s only so much I can take of Marino having to fake painful shits before I get bored. The monster itself is pretty cute, and I dig that they're going for a 1980's Ghoulies meets Mac and Me type vibe. But the movie itself sadly exists in a sad middle ground where it’s not good enough to be good, but not bad enough to be entertaining. Still, I'm a fan of most of the folks involved here, and if the worst thing I can say about a butt-demon movie is that it's just not quite funny enough, I guess that's a victory in and of itself. Much love to Marino and Jacobs, and hopefully they get more shots at leading parts in features.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A late review of Shane Curruth's Primer and Upstream Color




I actually watched these movies several months ago, and started writing, but never got around to finishing it. BUT THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW WHAT I THINK, so here it is, at last.



 



Upstream Color fully delivers on the promise that director/writer/star/everything guy Shane Curruth showed with his debut film Primer.

Primer is a brain-twisting hard sci-fi time travel movie shot on a budget of a few thousand bucks, created with friends and shot in garages and storage facilities. It’s the story of two science start up guys who accidentally discover time travel while trying to create a device that can decrease an object’s mass (I think?). However, unlike every other time travel film before it, Primer isn’t a wild adventure featuring lavish special effects. Primer is about the realism of how such a thing would/could work, and the moral quandaries afforded by such possibilities.

The script is laden with impenetrable technobabble, the performances perfunctory and low-key, the time travel device itself just a series of cardboard boxes and wires. I’ve watched Primer three times. I’ve studied flow charts. I still really don’t understand what happens, but that’s ok, because I don’t think I’m really supposed to. The science of time travel would not be glamorous or exciting; it would be inscrutable, layered in concepts that we laypersons would never understand, developed by guys who look and talk like these guys. This is what it would look like, and the way things fall apart is likely how they would go in real life as well, because people are still people, even if they do create something miraculous.

However, as admirable as Primer was, it still suffered from some of the pitfalls of a first time filmmaker making a film with practically no money. It is cheaply made (though Carruth absolutely uses the zero budget to his advantage, painting a no-frills world) and the actors are not professionals. There are bits that seem a bit amateurish, and yet the whole thing is so mesmerizing, like a magic trick, it’s still a pretty great movie. I may watch it again. I still don’t expect I’ll know what the hell is going on.

With his follow up feature, Upstream Color, Carruth has now firmly established his modus operandi: he likes to drop the viewer directly into a story with no handholding, letting them flounder until they pick up what is going on. He’s a smart guy, and he’s not going to wait for you to catch up. I find that admirable, and I like to be challenged. Your mileage may vary.

But with Upstream Color, Carruth now has the money and fully developed skillset to create stunning visuals to accompany his out-there ideas. The opening sequence is a film unto itself, an unsettling depiction of mind control.
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What follows from that point is a potent mixture, on one hand a disturbing portrait of two people who find each other as their minds are completely eroding, locked into a cycle of paranoia and insanity. On the other hand, it’s a piece of Cronenbergian body horror, involving parasites, pigs, and orchids.

What happens isn’t as important as the way it happens. The film is visually beautiful, Carruth’s eye now fully developed, the filmmaker equipped with the tools he needs to paint this picture. There are images as disturbing as they are lovely. The performances are suitably manic and magnetic. It’s a strong piece of work from everyone involved.

Like the film I reviewed yesterday, Under the Skin, I can definitely say that Upstream Color and Primer aren’t for everyone, but if you’re the kind of movie lover that enjoys a challenge, you should definitely check both films out.  Having long ago left theaters, both films are currently available on Netflix streaming as of the time of this writing. I very eagerly anticipate whatever Carruth brings us next.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

I...still...function...UNDER THE SKIN REVIEWED!

So, I disappeared again. I wasn't sure that I'd ever come back here. But here I am. Why? To talk to you about movies, I suppose. I haven't talked about movies in a while, and I might have a few things to say, so why not let you read it?

As for where I've been, a great deal of my time has been taken up by sleeping and eating and not writing. I have also been working with Andy on my upcoming solo album, which I know you all eagerly await. I have also been working on a weekly fake sports talk puppet show in my basement, which is actually not nearly as creepy as it sounds. Well, maybe it is. It may even be creepier. But not for any of the reasons you might suspect.

New episodes go up every Thursday, please check out our channel here:

One on One With Glen and Brent's YouTube Channel!

Did I mention that I died? Oh yeah, I died. Here is Glen mourning me:

Glen Mourns Brent

And why not check out our Twitter feed? Follow us and we'll follow back, honest to God!

Glen and Brent's Twitter Account

Ok, now that the self promotion is over, we now begin with the first of a series of reviews of several completely random movies that I've ingested in the several months since we last spoke. There is no overarching theme or any clever way to tie them together, and their content and quality is rather disparate as well. This one gets a little more love than the others, because it's the best movie I've seen in a while. But there is a lot more on the way, you have my word!




Under the Skin

I am writing to you today primarily because I want to talk about this movie. I have been encouraging friends that I think might enjoy it to go see it, but the truth is I don't know a lot of people who I think would enjoy it. It is a singular creation, and while I loved it, I could see it being very polarizing. When I went to the matinee showing, there was one other person in the theater. This is the kind of movie that speaks to a very certain kind of cinema lover, and it speaks loudly. Everyone else probably just hears noise.

The story, which you are more or less left to piece together on your own, involves a person, played by my secret celebrity wife Scarlett Johansson, who appears to be a beautiful woman with a British accent riding around Scotland in a moving van, picking up random guys for sinister purposes. These men are then brought back to her lair, where they are, we are left to assume, killed, for what purpose we are not sure.

Is she an alien? Is she a vampire? Is any of this happening at all? In a film rife with symbolism, the most potent visuals are saved for these killing scenes, each of which unfolds in a similar fashion. The beautiful temptress leads the men into a secluded house, and hypnotizes them as she undresses. As she walks further away, her prey strip themselves out of their clothing, and walk toward her, silent, fully erect, unable to reach her, slowly submerged in a black goo which completely absorbs them, as though they were walking into an ocean of tar. It's akin to a sexy spider leading flies into a web. Is what we are seeing what is actually happening, or is it symbolic of some other process? Why is she harvesting these men, their skins trapped below the surface of this viscuous body of fluid which she herself can walk across effortlessly without falling? What's going on here, exactly?

The answers aren't really that important. The story does have a bit of plot, as there is a male counterpart to this creature who at first seems to be working with her, but as she begins to change (Growing more human? Developing empathy?) she finds herself working at cross purposes, and goes on the run.

But this movie isn't really ABOUT an alien creature that kills men and is then herself hunted by one of her kind. Perhaps on paper it would read that way. But that would be unfairly reductive and miss the point entirely. What this film is ABOUT is the atmosphere and tension created by the dissonant score; it's about the gorgeous cinematography and editing, Kubrickian in its sterile, glacial pacing; it's about the performances, without question Johansson's best to date, subtle and magnetic.

The movie is unsettling, and gorgeous. I have read some people trying to layer interpretations on the plot, such as how the film is about the reversal of gender power stereotypes, an indictment of rape culture, as unwitting men find themselves stalked by a beautiful woman. However, I'm sure some would possibly view it in a misogynistic light, as Johansson is a beautiful killing machine, stripping for the camera on several occasions.

(However, nothing about the nudity in the film feels exploitative. It's worth noting that her beauty here feels natural. She is shown in her (admittedly glorious) nude form many times in the film, but she is not idealized. Her body seems real, her dimensions and her face containing a natural, unvarnished, imperfect aspect. She doesn't look like the photoshopped and oversexualized cover of a fashion magazine.)

I'm not sure that any of these interpretations are valid, or even necessary. What stuck with me were the images, and the performances. I could see people hating this moving, maybe howling in laughter. But it stuck with me, which doesn't happen much anymore. So in conclusion, I'll say this: if you THINK this sort of thing might be your bag, you will probably dig it. Give it a shot if you get a chance. We don't see a lot of these kinds of movies anymore, especially starring hugely popular Hollywood actresses. It's a daring, provocative, and lovely movie to look at. I really enjoyed it.