Monthly Archive for July, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows (7/31/15) Amazon Streaming (2014 ***1/4) Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, starring Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer. A documentary crew is given the special privilege of spending time with four British housemates who just happen to sustain their immortality by drinking human blood. I watched this film at a pajama party hosted by a friend. He’d seen the film months ago and raved about it. I certainly enjoyed it, but was probably too tired to watch it properly; it had been a long day and I was still struggling with jet lag from spending a month in Europe. And if I’m being completely honest, I’ve grown so accustomed to being able to watch movies at home with closed captioning enabled and I missed that. Still, it was a bloody (sorry) good sendup of vampires in general and the Twilight frachise in particular, with werewolves getting some screen time as well as their blood-sucking supernatural brethren. One thing I particularly appreciated about the “mockumentary” was the integration of certain visual effects like flying and transformations to and from bat form into the cinema verite-style footage.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (7/31/15) Netflix (2015 ***1/2) Created by Michael Showalter and David Wain, starring Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd and many others. 8 episodes, released en masse on 7/31/15. This “Day 1” prequel reveals the madcap antics of those Camp Firewood kids and counselors from Wet Hot American Summer (2001). In the annals of crazy and audacious projects, this Netflix series has to rank pretty freakin’ high up. The idea of having actors, all of whom were in their late thirties at least, playing the same teenage characters they played fifteen years previously? Absolutely freakin’ nuts! But somehow they pulled it off, recapturing the same comedic tone as before. Considering the star power that some of these players (notably Bradley Cooper) had gone onto in the intervening years, it’s an absolute miracle they were able to get everyone back. I imagine there was a lot of creative scheduling to make that magic happen. As for the project itself, the “safe” thing would have been to do a prequel as a 90-minute feature, but I’m very glad they opted for the roughly four-hour version. There were plenty of fun and games as they provided the back-story for characters and elements from the original film. And yes, you will learn the story behind the talking can of vegetables! Also, by presenting it in all in episodic form, it allowed for something structurally I’ve never seen before: Each of the last three or four episodes offered its own dramatic climax, based on something that had been established previously.

Whiplash

Whiplash (7/30/15) Starz (2014 ****) Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons and Melissa Benoist. An insecure young man attempts to become a great jazz drummer under the tutelage of an abusive teacher guilty of caring just a little too much. This film was nominated for Best Picture of 2014 and deservedly so. Quite frankly it is the best film I’ve seen in a long time. I was engrossed from beginning to end and can attest to J.K. Simmons being very deserving of his award for Best Supporting Actor. The conflict between the two main characters was palpable, and each were richly drawn. The story would have suffered considerably had Simmons’ Fletcher character been a pure sadist teacher with a drill sergeant mentality and no motivations or redeeming qualities. Likewise, Miles Teller’s Andrew was a driven but flawed protagonist, one who made decisions I didn’t always agree with, yet I still continued to root for him in spite of myself. Highly recommended.

Penny Dreadful, Season 2

Penny Dreadful, Season 2 (7/30/15) SHO (2015 ***) Created by John Logan, starring Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Harry Treadaway and Helen McCrory as Madame Kali. A devil-worshiping woman with a collection of really creepy ventriloquist dummies attempts to lure Vanessa Ives to become Satan’s bride. I’m sad to report that I didn’t enjoy the second season of this show nearly as much as I did the first. This was due to several factors: (1) The novelty of the show simply wore off; (2) The main story’s antagonist (Kali) wasn’t sufficiently interesting; (3) The ongoing subplots — with the exception of that of Lily, Dr. Frankenstein’s latest creation — each proceeded at a sluggish pace. Will I continue to watch the show next season? Possibly, depending on my wife’s level of interest.

Ant-Man

Ant-Man (7/30/15) Glendale Pacific 18 (2015 ***1/4) Directed by Peyton Reed, starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll and Evangeline Lilly. An ex-convict with a talent for breaking and entering is recruited by a scientist with a talent for miniaturization… and talking to ants. As Marvel Universe movies go, it was a given that Ant-Man was going to be relatively lightweight fare, no pun intended. I understood that, and was prepared to accept it for what it was, and not reject it for what it wasn’t. I was also well aware of the film’s production difficulties, with Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright’s departure as director. In the leading role, Paul Rudd was likable as ever, and he was well cast. I kept thinking of how he will “fit in” with the other Avengers down the line, and something tells me he’ll do just fine, providing ample doses of comic relief. As superheroes go, miniaturization is a pretty bizarre power. Not much was really made of that fact in the film, which was probably for the best.

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows (7/29/15) Norwegian Airlines: OSL -> LAX (2012 ***) Directed by Tim Burton, based on the characters created by Dan Curtis, screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Bella Heathcote and Helena Bonham Carter. A construction crew releases 18th Century vampire Barnabas Collins into the futuristic modern world of… 1972? For reasons I won’t go into, I saw this film previously on 5/13/12 in the company of the loudest group of Hawaiian residents you’d ever hope to meet. This time around I saw it on a plane’s in-seat entertainment system. Neither were ideal ways to watch a movie, but there you are. Oh, Tim Burton, you have disappointed me once again. I remember how much I looked forward to this film adaptation of one of my childhood treasures. And yet you failed in the same way you did with Planet of the Apes (2001), in the same way you always do. You are simply not a good storyteller, Mr. Burton. And it’s such a shame. You had a lot of great material to work with, and I did love the guts it took to set the film in the early 1970s. But no. Such sadness I feel.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl (7/29/15) Norwegian Airlines: OSL -> LAX (2014 ***) Directed by David Fincher, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry. When a woman disappears under suspicious circumstances, all clues point toward her husband being an unsympathetic killer. I’d been aware of this film since before its release, and deliberately tried to steer clear of plot spoilers, though it was impossible not to know that it included at least one twist, and possibly more than one. I won’t give anything away, though. Yes, the film has twists, turns and reversals of fortune, but it’s not just a who-done-it. Gone Girl is also a critique of our contemporary society in which “Nancy Grace-style “conviction in the media” has become the norm. While that held my interest to a point, the film has a running time of 149 minutes, which may have been perfectly suited for my transatlantic flight, but also felt long. Finally, as much as I “loves me some NPH,” I have to question David Fincher’s wisdom of casting Neil Patrick Harris in this film. While I’m sure there are those who would disagree, his presence added a tonal note that was just wrong for the story.

Interstellar

Interstellar (7/29/15) Norwegian Airlines: OSL -> LAX (2014 ***1/4) Directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Matt Damon and Michael Caine. On a planet seemingly set on the hostile rejection of its human inhabitants, mankind’s only hope may exist on the other side of a conveniently-placed wormhole. While I avoided spoilers, I had heard mixed things about this movie. In particular I’d heard things like “I liked the first half.” or “I enjoyed it up to a certain point…” This film is what would be considered for the silver screen as hard-core science fiction. One of the fundamental things it asks of its audience is an understanding of relativistic physics and what that means in terms of time passage at different frames of reference. Put simply, you must accept the ramifications of spending too much time around black holes. While I refrain from being specific enough to give anything away, I will say the film contains a sequence that — while I understood what was happening — was just abstract enough that it nearly lost me as an audience member. However, I will ultimately judge Interstellar by how it affected me emotionally, and I did find it to be emotionally satisfying overall.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? (7/25/15) Netflix (2015 ***1/2) Directed by Liz Garbus, featuring interviews with and/or film footage of Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, Dick Gregory, Andrew Stroud and others. A little black girl named Eunice Kathleen Waymon with dreams of becoming a classical pianist undergoes a transformation to become jazz singing legend and political activist Nina Simone. I knew very little about Nina Simone, and in fact was not really aware of her for most of my life until listening to some of her music in my wife’s CD collection. Her story is a fascinating one, one that was formed absolutely by the color of her skin and the times in which she lived. The documentary shows her as a woman suffering from bipolar disorder who was swept up three times: By a charismatic but abusive husband, by sudden fame, and by the radical wing of the civil rights movement. Given her oppressed childhood, I can’t (especially as a middle-aged white man) fault her for becoming radicalized. Unfortunately, her song “Mississippi Goddam” and public performances in which she asked her predominantly black audiences if they were prepared to take white lives in the name of equality came at a great cost to her career. After a time, thanks to the help of some friends and the proper medication, she was able to recover to a degree, before her death in 2003 at the age of 70.