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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Simply Donate: The Art of Elysium


To keep the love rolling as we approach the end of February, we want to prove that we aren't always jerks and help give something back.  The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children is looking for donations.  What's the best nation in the world?  Normally I'd say in out pockets, but for sake of argument.....DONATION!!

Considering we constantly talk about media, actors, and other types in the business, this is a great chance to help raise money for this great charity.

Click the link below to donate, or even if you don't donate, spread the word by sending the link to your friends, families, lovers, talking robots, talking snakes, talking teddy bears, hell, even if they don't talk but have access to a high-speed Internet connection you can let them in on this.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE.  The last day to donate, however, is February 26th 2014, so get those wallets out.  Just think of us as Jerry Lewis with a little bit of Sarah McLachlan, only sexier.

For more information about The Art of Elysium, check out their Facebook page HERE
The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children. - See more at: http://www.crowdrise.com/annakendrick/fundraiser/matthewstewart#sthash.8EyKIweg.dpuf
The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children. - See more at: http://www.crowdrise.com/annakendrick/fundraiser/matthewstewart#sthash.8EyKIweg.dpuf
The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children. - See more at: http://www.crowdrise.com/annakendrick/fundraiser/matthewstewart#sthash.8EyKIweg.dpuf
The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children. - See more at: http://www.crowdrise.com/annakendrick/fundraiser/matthewstewart#sthash.8EyKIweg.dpuf
The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children. - See more at: http://www.crowdrise.com/annakendrick/fundraiser/matthewstewart#sthash.8EyKIweg.dpuf
The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children. - See more at: http://www.crowdrise.com/annakendrick/fundraiser/matthewstewart#sthash.8EyKIweg.dpuf

Monday, February 17, 2014

Simply Indie: Wild Girl Waltz

SIMPLER
Wild Girl Waltz - Simpler

There is an alarming trend in films recently; the lack of comedies with characters hanging out and getting into trouble.  From "Smokey and the Bandit" to "Road Trip" the concept of driving around and getting into mischief has been an American film motif for decades and has always been one of my favorite comedy sub-genres.  The great thing about "road comedies" is that it also offers a young director or writer the chance to showcase interesting characters and integrate witty dialogue into a film that can be filmed on a modest budget.  I mean, most of our best ideas and conversations happen in a car as well.  With "Wild Girl Waltz" a full length indie film from writer-director Mark Lewis, Lewis is able to emulate a beloved genre with funny and thoughtful performances that anyone can relate to.

"Waltz" is a simple tale about friends and drugs.  When Angie and Tara take some "goofy pills" to escape for the day, it's up to Brian, Tara's boyfriend, to babysit the two while they both come off of their high.  Along the way Angie, Brian, and Tara find a turtle, roll down some hills, remember the good old days, and genuinely enjoy each others company.  It's a simple story that we can all relate at one time of another during our youth.

A few things stood out to me in "Waltz."  The character of Angie played by Christina Shipp, is a highlight of the film.  She has great screen presence, nails all of her dialogue, and has great comedic timing.  Her chemistry with Tara, played by Samantha Steinmetz, is also a lot of fun.  You genuinely feel like they have known each other for years, and they play off of each other well.  Brian, played by Jared Stern, is forced to played the straight man most of the film, but he's still able to come up with a few comic gems.

While "Waltz" is played mainly for laughs, there are still undercurrents of drama here and there, mainly with the part of Brian.  During the course of the film we discover that Brian can be a bit of a pushover, with both his friends and his girlfriend Tara.  While he tries to play the tough guy a few times, he ends up backing down.  During the course of the day we see layers of Brian unravel as he goes from bitter to accepting, to loving come the end of the film.  If Angie is the heart, Brian is the soul of "Waltz."

The one gripe I might have with "Waltz" are the long montage shots of Angie, Brian, and Tara.  I know it fits well within the film, but they slow down the pace where you want more dialogue or hijinks from the girls.  I wanted to see what they were going to do next and not have to sit through a scene with music playing and the characters walking through a forest.  For me it added nothing to the film but extra minutes to the run time, which still clocks in at a tidy 85 minutes.

Overall, "Wild Girl Waltz" is a lot of fun, with spirited performances from the three leads who all have their moments to shine during the film.  It's a simple idea that you can take for what it is, a fun road film, or you can look at it from a deeper perspective that deals with relationships, growing up, or dealing a mundane existence in a small town.

If you want more information on "Wild Girl Waltz," check out their site HERE.  I'd like to thank Mark Lewis for reaching out to Simplistic Reviews and giving us a chance to review his film as well.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Simplistic Reviews Podcast: February 2014 Edition


In a desperate attempt to gain some respectability, The Simplistic Reviews Podcast has on special guest from Insession Film, JD Duran.  But in only twenty minutes, the boys corrupt this once reputable man to the point where he is setting fire to the Academy Awards, partially stalking Jennifer Lawrence, and verbally berating Will Smith.  All in a days work for Matt, Justin, and DJ.  Enjoy this corrupting episode of The Simplistic Reviews Podcast....oh...and the boys conjure the ghosts of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock...yeah...that happened.

 Show Notes:
Unicron
Winter's Tale
Mission Impossible III
Almost Famous
True Detective Tracking Shot
Key & Peele Liam Neeson Commercial

Music Notes:
Birds & Brass By Sort Of Soul
The Great Escape Theme By Elmer Bernstein
Lawyers, Guns, And Money By Warren Zevon
The Best By Tina Turner


FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY.

Click HERE to listen to podcast

Check us out on FacebookTwitterYouTubeLetterboxd, and Pinterest

DJ Simply Loves Robert Downey Jr.: Sherlock Holmes


PULSE
After Robert Downey Jr. put comic book films back on the map with Iron Man, I was thoroughly on the RDJ train.  Then I heard what his next big film role was going to be.  Another super genius with substance abuse issues.  A character who might arguably be one of the first ever superheroes.  The immortal Sherlock Holmes.  Despite everything Downey Jr. had accomplished with Tony Stark, I was still nervous about him tackling the world's greatest detective.  Hell, how many American actors can you count that pull off a convincing British accent?  And Downey Jr. would be under the direction of Guy Ritchie.  Another man looking for a career rebirth after hitting a rough patch.  Then I saw the trailer for the film.  Holy crap!  That was all I could say.  It was everything I imagined in my head a Sherlock Holmes movie would be like, but with something extra.  An energy.  An excitement.  A PULSE.  A PULSE that Ritchie, in his early directing days, always delivered.  A PULSE in which Robert Downey Jr. thrives in.  Sherlock Holmes was the Sherlock for me.

As I've said in my review for the BBC show Sherlock, 2009's Sherlock Holmes was a film that I could appreciate separately and equally with the other incarnations that followed.  As time has passed the difference between BBC Sherlock and RDJ Sherlock have grown.  RDJ Sherlock shares more similarities with the vastly underrated (Even by me) CBS show Elementary than it does with its British equivalent.  That is mainly due to characterizations and relationships.  Where Cumberbatch exudes stoic intensity, both Robert Downey Jr. and Jonny Lee Miller are playful to the point of annoyance and crazed to the point of concern.  Their brilliance seems more like the lasting side effects of some illegally imbibed elixir.  And that is what I like about them, Robert Downey Jr. more so.  Predictably, Downey Jr. brought to the forefront more of Sherlock's drug issues.  His darker stuff.  And he brought back his physicality.  Physicality most people were unaware of at the time.  Some of the so-called Sherlock Holmes purists saw the trailer and quickly said it was a dumbing down and shoehorning of action into a Sherlock Holmes film.  Unbeknownst to them, Downey Jr. did his homework.  Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in several stories that Holmes had some fighting skill.  It is turned up in this film, however, it comes from a place of fact.  It more or less showed that Downey Jr. wasn't sleepwalking through an action role.  He was totally making it his own. 

I put a picture of another actor at the top with Robert Downey Jr. because of his importance to Downey Jr.'s performance.  Jude Law's portrayal of Dr. John Watson is one my favorites in any incarnation.  Downey Jr.'s humor is undeniable, but it works more so because of how Law plays off of him and sets him up.  On the BBC show and the CBS show, we are introduced to Watson and Holmes as they are introduced to each other.  In Sherlock Holmes, however, we meet Watson and Holmes in the middle of their relationship.  So, Law and Downey Jr.'s chemistry not only has to work but feel like its been working for a while.  A task Law and Downey Jr. completely did for me.

This film was also the first time I really began to recognize the awesomeness that is Mark Strong.  He kind of fell into the background of the large ensemble cast of the first film I saw him in, RocknRolla.   Strong here gets to play a villain that felt like a true threat to Holmes.  Lord Blackwood is equal parts creepy and entertaining.  It would have been easy to fire off the infamous Moriarty in the first film, which they do hint to.  However, I think it was more important to establish Holmes and Watson, while still giving them an enemy that is still a great foil.  Strong helps accomplish that.  The one place I think cast chemistry fails is between Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler.  I'm not a McAdams hater, and I don't think McAdams is horrible in this.  I just felt that McAdams' energy did not and probably could not equal Downey Jr.'s.  It is more a criticism of casting than anything.  Adler is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes' kryptonite.  McAdams just didn't have enough charm or charisma to make me buy their relationship being an actual problem for Holmes.

I was so happy for Guy Ritchie after this film came out.  You have to understand, Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are two of my favorite films.  Watching him make the film Swept Away with his ex-wife Madonna was like seeing a close friend of yours date that girl you know is gonna f%$k his life up.  Revolver has a small cult following, but is an overly convoluted mess.  RocknRolla gave me hope that the Ritchie I loved was still in there somewhere.  Sherlock Holmes really got him to flex his cinematic muscles again.  The set pieces, the style, the humor, and the action scenes are terrific.  The criticism for their being so much action is akin to the criticism JJ Abrams received for his Star Trek films.  To me the action does not take away from the mystery Holmes is trying to solve at all.  Every action sequence is always in service to the story.  And the bit that Ritchie uses to show Holmes working out his movements before actually doing them was a clever touch that I had never seen before. 

Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes, for some odd reason, gets a cynical bum rap that I wholeheartedly don't understand.  Not only is his version of Holmes one of the most accurate to the books, the film is fun, entertaining, PULSE pounding, and underratedly smart.  There isn't any time to waste then...widen your gaze...watch it...if you dismissed it...watch it again...then tell me I'm wrong.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The LEGO Movie

INSPIRED
The LEGO Movie - Inspired

The magic of movies, at least for me, is where a film can take me back to a time in my life where I was happiest and made me feel joy.  It's important that a filmmaker(s) be able to connect with an audience at not only an intellectual level, but also a human level.  Going to the movies is as much an experience as it can be a sanctuary for young and old.  Usually, as we get old, we get more cynical and jaded and there are times that are few and far between where we can remember what it's like to be a kid and simply have fun.  That's how I felt with "The LEGO Movie" an extremely inspired film-going experience that had me laughing, smiling, and nearly crying when it was all said and done.

"LEGO" from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the guys that brought us the hilarious "21 Jump Street" in 2011, channel their inner child and have created a "kids" film that will keep the little ones entertained throughout with explosions, but are still able to create an intelligent film that will have LEGO collectors, or even casual builders, in stitches throughout it's entirety.  The film follows Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, as a stock LEGO-man piece; he loves to follow rules, watch "Where Are My Pants?" (which needs to be a real show by the way) and builds things like couch bunk beds.  Emmet's world is thrown out of whack when he discovers that he's a part of a prophecy to save the world from the evil Lord Business, voiced by Will Ferrell.  To say the least, hijinks ensue, and things blow up a lot.

What really makes "LEGO" special is the attention to detail.  You can tell that Lord and Miller really went out of their way to make the ultimate meta LEGO film.  From the obscure LEGO figurines, to the way things explode into fiery LEGO pieces, and especially how things are built.  We can all remember how awesome it was the first time we built our first spaceship, or even that weird creation that was the cross between a taxi cab, and a bathtub, its all in "LEGO."

Aside from the incredible attention to detail, the voice cast is incredibly impressive.  You can tell that Lord and Miller have an great Roll-O-Dex of people they can contact.  From Nick Offerman to Allison Brie, with a few surprise voices thrown in for good measure, the cast simply seems.....again......inspired.

As I mentioned before, what really gets you as a LEGO fan, or just a fan of storytelling, albeit the overall plot is rather cliche, which I'm sure was the point to begin with, is how the third act of the film is something you really don't see coming.  Again....inspired wouldn't even do it justice.  Just when you think you are simply dealing with a film that just stars yellow building blocks, you'll get the feeling you might have gotten in "Toy Story 3."  Something deep down inside you will tell you "hey, it's okay.....let it out."  I'm not saying that I did, cry that is, but the message is beautiful, and it would be a real shame to ruin it in this review.  It's an unexpected scene that really makes "LEGO" such a great film for not only kids, but the kid inside each and every one of us.

Yes, I'll be one of the first people to say that I scoffed at the notion of a LEGO movie.  Personally, between video games, theme parks, and the actual toys, I was reaching a LEGO saturation point.  Boy was I wrong.  Not only is "LEGO" one of the more thoughtful kids films to come out in a while, but it's also a film that gives you a little hope.  Some hope that people still care about making quality films and still have some original ideas left out there.  Of course this is ironic that both Lord and Miller also helmed "Jump Street," which I also had reservations about before it came out, but it's the way that they paid homage to the original, while still creating a funny and "original" concept.  They do the same for "LEGO" which is by far my most enjoyable film-going experience since "Pacific Rim" in 2013.  Well done guys, and keep UniKitty happy.....you wouldn't want to see her when she's angry.

Fun Fact:  LEGO began manufacturing interlocking bricks in 1949 in Denmark.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Simply Anime: Kill la Kill

SHARP


Once again Simply Anime is BACK with another healthy does of animated goodness. Your featured show this time is Kill la Kill. This has been a show that I've been meaning to watch for a while but procrastinated on starting because, I can be a slacker from time to time. I'd first heard about Kill la Kill in class last semester. I was doing a group project with some really cool people and a couple of them were into anime. During our time together we'd attempt to have spoiler free conversations about Naruto Shippuden (mainly because we were all at different places in the show), anime we were currently watching, or ones that were about to start. During a conversation my friend Rod introduced me to Kill la Kill. He told me that it was directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi and written by Kazuki Nakashima. They are the team behind the fan favorite mecha anime Gurren Lagann, so I was instantly intrigued. He quoted lines from the show during conversation and they were pretty damn fresh. So when the semester ended I “vowed” to start Kill la Kill over winter break.


“Humans are just pigs adorned in clothing.” - Satsuki Kiryuin
However, I didn't start the show straight away (remember slacker tendencies). While I wasn't watching, I'd hear yet another overwhelming endorsement for the show. This time it would happen while hanging out at, A Comic Shop (the best comic shop in Orlando hands down, in my opinion). As my buddy Oral and I were going on about animes, other people causally joined in our discussion. As fate would have it, Kill la Kill was brought up and with rave reviews. Now let me say for the record, in addition to occasional fits of procrastination I have also been known to possess contrarian tendencies from time to time. So, if something is overly hyped, my tastes may not align with popular opinion. That being said, the level of excitement about this anime was not a turn off. So when I got home, I watched the two previews that were available on Crunchyroll. They were two high octane trailers that piqued my interest and were chalked full of good music. So based off the strength of the creative team and the previews, I began Kill la Kill.


What I've enjoyed so much about Kill la Kill so far is that it takes some familiar concepts, at least from a comic book perspective, and presents them in a way that I think will be fresh to Western fans. In addition to it's unique story, much in the way that Gurenn Lagann was very different from other mechas because of the way in the robots were designed, and Kill la Kill is also equally unconventional in character design and animation style. The team's previous work did not showcase conventional designs, (well, as conventional as a giant robot can be) but in spite of that, it never hurt the intended tone and was complementary to the story being told. Thus it superseded any personal issues someone might have with robot design or animation. The same can be said of Kill la Kill, which again uses a non-traditional style to tell it's story. Fair warning though, it can occasionally be a little high on fan service. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's what you need to know.
Hey Ryuko, what's in the box?

In this story's universe clothing is the key to ultimate power. It can grant the user enough power to defeat all their enemies and also the power to rule the world. The key to creating these powerful articles of clothing are "life threads". They can imbue the wearer with extraordinary powers. Because clothing made with life threads can grant the user supreme power, who makes the clothing is a matter of life or death. Such is the case for Ryuko Matoi. We follow her on a quest for answers about her estranged father's murder. A journey that brings her to Honnouji Academy, a high school set in the middle of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The school's leader is the cold and ruthless Satsuki Kiryuin. Her word is law and it is enforced by her generals, the Elite Four. The school as well as the city have been divided into a cast system in which a student's membership and position in it's clubs determines not only their place within the halls of Honnouji, but also their family's position in life. Club members are issued "Goku uniforms", life thread enhanced uniforms that gives the user superhuman abilities. Each uniform has a star ranking, from 1 to 3 (which also signifies the number of life threads woven into the uniform). Therefore, the more stars on your uniform the more powerful you, and also the better off you live. So being a student that is not involved in clubs will mean that you are a “no star” student and relegated to living in the slums. When Ryuko arrives at the academy, she demands answers and it not afraid to shed blood to get them. Armed with one half of the scissor blade she found impaled inside of her father, Matoi takes on the school boxing club leader of the adorned in a two star uniform. The fight does not go well and she is forced to retreat to her destroyed family home. It is there that her fate changes. Dropped into a pit, she is seemingly attack by a symbiot made completely of life threads. (To put it in terms that may be a bit more familiar, a symbiot is just like the living costume Spider-Man got from space). The results of union between Ryuko and Senketsu (the symbiot whose name means "Fresh Blood"), is a journey of self discovery, and ultra fun action sequences. Together they battle their way through Honnouji Academy's litany of clubs, the Elilte Four, and Kiryuin herself.


What I like most about this show so far has been that, each character's motivations are revealed, so for instance you get to see why there is such fierce loyalty to Kiryuin from her generals. You will have to get used to the fact that every episode uses the back drop of clothing and tailoring methods as a plot device. It doesn't hurt the story in any way but it is revisited often throughout the series. One of my favorite episodes so far is episode 7 "A Loser I Can't Hate". This episode in particular was one of my favorites because it is about the cast system that I spoke about earlier, and how becoming a part of the system comes at a cost. After a while, you may notice that the fights can be formulaic, but to me in television everything has a formula and if you pay close enough attention you'll notice it. Now as I prefaced earlier this show can also be a little heavy handed on the fan service.
Don't let the scantly clad females in sailor suits completely turn off though. These are strong female leads, and the story is compelling enough to keep you hanging on. Besides; costumes, do not a story make. BUT, if they are that much of a distraction, or perhaps its a bit too much for you to handle, I could always introduce you to something less racy like Kipper the dog. For those willing to give it a go, you'll get swords, symbiotic sailor suits, a secret faction of rebels called NudistBeach and a dystopian world who's fate appears to be in the hands of a teenaged girl. Kill la Kill is fun series, and with only 15 episodes (so far) you can start now and enjoy the ride, but you don'thave to take my word for it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Matt Simply Loves Anna Kendrick: Rapture-Palooza

EXERCISE
Rapture-Palooza -Exercise

They say in love that you have to love someone completely.  It's one of those rules that greeting card companies made up so many years ago.  Despite my surly demeanor most of the time, I sincerely subscribe to this notion.  I believe that you need to know a person inside and out to really love them.  However, it's sad when that person you feel so much affection for stars in films that just seem below them and you can tell they are sleeping-walking throughout.  Anna, darling, why "Rapture-Palooza?"  It's truly an exercise in "meh-filmmaking."  It's like when you see someone like Morgan Freeman in "Edison Force" or Tommy Lee Jones in "Man of the House."  You shake your head, not because you're upset, but because you're disappointed.  My dear Anna, my Academy Award nominated Anna, 2013 should have been a great year for you, but instead we get "Rapture-Palooza."

I know I sound disappointed, but I'm trying to hold it together.  "Rapture" is the story of Lindsey (Kendrick) and her boyfriend Ben (John Francis Daley) who are living in post-Rapture Seattle with a dream of running a successful sandwich cart.  After their cart is demolished by giant Apocalypse meteorites the couple have no choice but to put their plans on hold and try and work for The Beast/Anti-Christ (Craig Robinson).  After seeing Lindsey, The Beast decides that she will be the one to bear his next child.  With time running out, and their families lives on the line, Ben and Lindsey have to come up with a plan to stop The Beast.

The unfortunate part about "Rapture" is that it was overshadowed by another End of the World comedy in 2013, "This is the End," also starring Craig Robinson.  However, the bigger problem with "Rapture" is the dragging nature of the film.  Daley doesn't come off as someone who can carry a comedy, and is much better suited in ensembles like "...Waiting" and "Freaks and Geeks."  Kendrick, while charming, is merely a vessel for the film to have some sort of fan appeal, and she doesn't really have much to do in the film besides react to Robinson's outrageous version of the Anti-Christ.

The star of "Rapture," however, is Robinson.  Whenever he opens his mouth it's pure solid gold, if said gold was covered in sex and cum-drenched jokes.  What makes his performance work is a combination of two things.  One, since Robinson is so likeable he can get away with saying some of the most offensive things you can say to a young, virginal, girl and you don't feel bad laughing.  Two, Kendrick's reactionary performance gives Robinson room to take his dialogue to the lowest of lows, and its hilarious throughout.

Outside of Kendrick and Robinson, the rest of cast is rather dull.  Rob Corddry plays a typical Rob Corddry character; he's rude, vulgar, and at some point will yell something crazy about drugs.  Ana Gasteyer doesn't bring much to the proceedings either.  The one surprise is Thomas Lennon as the undead neighbor of Lindsey who is obsessed with mowing his lawn.  It reminds me of one of Lennon's many characters from his days as a member of "The State."

At the end of the day, or world for that matter, "Rapture" is an exercise in love and patience, for me at least.  The film is rather ordinary and suffers from long droughts of exposition and not very thoughtful or funny dialogue. Only clocking in at 85 minutes, the film isn't that long, but seems better  suited as a short film you might find at a student-run film festival. Without the performances of Kendrick and Robinson, "Rapture" would have been entirely forgettable.

Fun Fact:  The term "rapture" is never mentioned in the New Testament, but rather the term "caught up" in 1st Thessalonians 4:17.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Matt Simply Loves Anna Kendrick: Pitch Perfect

GUILTY
Pitch Perfect - Guilty

I'm really going to put myself out there with who I love this month. I could be cliche and pick an actor the likes of Mike Ruffalo (who I still might) or perhaps even Joaquin Phoenix, but I'm singing the praises, fittingly enough, of one special lady who by all accounts would be Jennifer Lawrence if Jennifer Lawrence wasn't Jennifer Lawrence, if that makes sense.

I'm sucker for short girls with attitudes, and its the reason why I married one.  I guess I like a challenge and someone who can keep up with my smartassness.  That's why I love Anna Kendrick.  She's the perfect combination of spunky, deadpan, and cute.  She's a proven indie darling and has the chops to hang with some of the biggest actors in Hollywood.

One thing I do find surprising about Kendrick, and I've mentioned this before in my "50/50" review, are all the negative comments she gets from critics, mainly over the things that she says.  Yes, she has a little bit of a potty mouth, but that's what makes her even more charming and real.  So many young actresses want to act prim and proper and act like they need to impress everyone in order to get jobs and gain fans.  My belief is that being yourself is the only way to endear yourself to a much larger audience.  Just take a look at her Newcastle ad, it's pure Anna, and it perfectly sums her up.

For the most part, you won't find me watching many films that have a lot of musical numbers, or feature music as a main plot point.  What you might find me watching, however, are films that are either directed by Christopher Guest, which is ironic because I love "This is Spinal Tap" and "A Mighty Wind.  Again, ironic, but there are exceptions to rules all the time, and 2013 found me watching "Pitch Perfect" starring the wonderful Anna Kendrick, over and over again.  Yes, it's my biggest guilty pleasure of this past year.

"Perfect" is in fact pretty perfect, if you're looking for unexpectedly funny performances, catchy-as-f*ck songs, and of course, Anna Kendrick.  Now, there are some cliches of course.  Anna plays the typical outsider role, full of angst and a tongue as sharp as her wit.  You have the Type-A leader, played by Anna Camp, who is also extremely extremely charming, and of course the fat girl comic relief, played by Rebel Wilson.  Yes, you've seen glimpses of this film if you've ever seen a "Bring It On" or "Step Up" film, but what sets "Perfect" apart is it's dry wit and it's actors who you might not think can bring the funny, and pleasantly surprise you.

As previously mention, "Perfect" follows Beca (Kendrick) a college freshmen who is more interested in moving to L.A. and paying her dues than her Intro to Philosophy class.  After an ultimatum by her father to move her out to California if she joins an extra-curricular activity, Beca decides that "organized nerd singing" is the way to go, as she joins the Barden Bellas, an all-female A Capella group.  Of course hijinks ensue, tension is created, and finally we have redemption come the very end where the Bellas win.  It's typical of the "go to college and have an adventure" genre, but there is enough humor and heart to set it apart from the rest of a tired genre.

While "Up In the Air" garnered her her most critical acclaim, and "Twilight" gave her her largest film roll out, "Perfect" is Kendrick's star-making performance.  It allows her to act, bring the comedy, and of course, sing.  Now again, I'm not the biggest fan of singing and musical, but for some reason, I find myself singing just about every time I watch this film.

Despite the fact that Kendrick is playing another teen cliche, as I mentioned earlier, she is still able to create a character that feels new and interesting.  The "mysterious alternative girl who secretly loves things" has been done since "The Breakfast Club" but Kendrick brings her wit, and spunky personality to the role that's the harbinger for the entire film.  She's the heart, soul, and engine that guides the story.  Beca is that girl you saw in school that you always wanted to say something to, but you noticed the giant "F*ck Off" on her forehead.  "Perfect" shows you one thing;  girls have a soft spot for 1980s films, and if you have an even half-way decent singing voice and red hair, you got a shot at that girl.

All in all, "Pitch Perfect" is one of those films that you might feel guilty for liking, until you see how many people actually love it.  So much so, "Pitch Perfect 2" is being fast-tracked, with the ever amazing Elizabeth Banks behind the camera, and Kendrick likely returning in the starring role once again.  So you'll have to aca-scuse me, I have some singing to do.

Fun Fact:  Sorry Kristen Stewart fans, but Kendrick is the only actor from the "Twilight" series that has been nominated for an Academy Award in 2010's, "Up In the Air." 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

DJ Simply Loves Robert Downey Jr.: Iron Man

REBIRTH
This is it.  This is the movie.  This is the actor.  This is the moment.  Before the recent meteoric rise of Matthew McConaughey and before comic book movies became the most unstoppable form of genre films in Hollywood, there was Robert Downey Jr. and Marvel's Iron Man.  It is ground zero for Marvel's entire cinematic universe and also the vehicle that gave one of Hollywood's most talented, charismatic, entertaining actors a much needed career REBIRTH.

It's hard to imagine now, but Iron Man was a completely fringe comic book character six years ago.  And that was with comic book fans.  Sure, the character has been around since the 60s.  Sure, he had some famous and groundbreaking storylines.  But I'm not going out on a limb by saying that no one gave a good goddamn about Iron Man in 2008.  And now I almost feel silly explaining to you the plot of his first film.  (A playboy industrialist who is mortally wounded and abducted by terrorist builds a suit of armor to save/liberate himself, then keeps building more advanced armors until he becomes a bonafide superhero.) The fledgling Marvel Studios was taking a risk pushing out a summer blockbuster about Howard Hughes in a robot suit.  However, with most of their surefire properties like Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four belonging to other studios, Marvel was kind of without options.  So, who would they get to helm this tricky endeavor?  Nick Cassavetes.  Yeah, you read me right.  The director of The Notebook was set to direct a summer action blockbuster comic book film.  Before him was Joss Whedon at New Line. (Whoops!)  Before him was Quentin Tarantino. (Interesting.)  Before all of them was Stuart "Re-Animator" Gordon. (Wuh?)  Finally, Marvel settled on hiring an up and coming actor turned director to right the ship.  A guy named Jon Favreau.

Jon Favreau, and all of the other people considered to direct Iron Man, gave me my first clue of how Marvel Studios were going to run things from now on.  Where everyone's mind at the time would go to hiring a traditional action director like a McTiernan or a Cameron or a Bay, Marvel was picking guys who ultimately understood characters.  Guys who would bring something tangible and real to these characters in the capes and suits of armor.  (Take a gander at the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy to see my point.)  Favreau was lucky because he had a pretty clean slate when it came to the character of Tony Stark.  Other than the basic information that I brought up before, the character could have portrayed in any way.  That is why casting him was going to make or break the film and the studio's future.  Cast an actor who can create something original, entertaining, believable, and iconic, you cement him into the lexicon of film characters forever and truly put your studio on the map.  Cast an actor who is unable to grab the public and give them something they hadn't seen before, your film becomes a marginally successful yet forgotten outing along the lines of a Daredevil and Ghost Rider.  Marvel sought out everyone from Tom Cruise, to Clive Owen, to Justin Timberlake for Tony Stark.  To Favreau's credit, credit I personally think he does not get enough of by the way, he knew the actor who could reinvent this character.  An actor who was in need of a reinvention himself.

Robert Downey Jr. is part of a long list of immensely talented actors who became detoured in their personal and professional lives by substance abuse.  Heath Ledger and the recent tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman shows us the commonality of Hollywood's best and brightest skirting the edge of self-induced oblivion.  I chose Robert Downey Jr. as the actor I simply love the most because, like Ledger and Hoffman, Downey Jr. has always captivated me while equally entertaining the hell out of me despite his personal weaknesses.  He has gone through the rabbit hole of self destruction and used his experiences to not only make himself a better actor, but a better person as well.  Thankfully, Jon Favreau saw some of the same things in Downey Jr..  But how the hell do you pitch a felonious, drug abusing, career burnout as the title character in Marvel's first big cinematic shot?  You explain that Robert Downey Jr. eerily IS Tony Stark.  And that is exactly what Favreau did.  Stark is a genius at his craft, a celebrity by his birthright, and substance abuser by his own hand who suffers a horrific experience which motivates him to change his life.  Though, breaking in and passing out in a stranger's bedroom isn't exactly synonymous with taking a chest full of shrapnel, you can still appreciate the similarities.  Favreau put his foot down for Robert Downey Jr., Marvel reluctantly agreed, and Tony Stark became a household name.

Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Tony Stark is completely magnetic.  I had an experience with an audience during the scene below that I hadn't felt in some time.  Watching Downey Jr. humorously ramble and strut in the Afghan desert was like watching Indiana Jones trying to switch a bag of sand with a golden idol, or Detective John McClane cracking wise on a walkie talkie in Nakatomi Tower.  Tony Stark was introducing himself to the cinematic world, and we could not get enough of it.  We still can't.  Spider-Man uses humor as a guise for his darker nature.  However, Peter Parker can only get so dark.   That is because Peter Parker is a genuinely good person.  Tony Stark does the same thing.  But his darker nature can really be dark.  I mean really dark.  Watch the scene where Tony starts angrily blasting up his lab after watching the news and tell me you can't see the blackier parts of his conflicted soul bleeding through.  Downey Jr. brought that with him.  That isn't on the page.  Mainly because there weren't a lot of pages actually finished on this script when the film was being shot.  The way you hide that problem is by making sure your characters are strong and by making sure the actors playing them are equally so.

That is another forgotten thing about the first Iron Man.  The casting, from top to bottom, is practically perfect.  Want proof?  Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson made his first appearance as a throwaway character here.  And now he is practically the MCU's mascot.  Favreau cast actors who knew how to hold their own with Robert Downey Jr.'s constantly adapting approach to the material.  The best example of that casting was with Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony's Assistant/Counselor/Love Interest Pepper Potts.  I always hear how Marvel films don't have strong female characters.  Short of Natalie Portman's Jane Foster in Thor, I think Marvel has some of the most underratedly badass, strong willed, well rounded female characters in this genre.  From Peggy Carter, to Black Widow, to even Maria Hill.  Paltrow's Pepper Potts is easily the best one of them all.  Every 95 mile per hour argument or flirtation Paltrow and Downey Jr. have is an automatic injection of life into a scene.  It is the truest illustration of onscreen chemistry I can think of.  One cannot exist without the other, which is why Downey Jr. persuaded Joss Whedon to put Paltrow in Avengers.  There is only one "feel good" couple for me when it comes to comic book films, and maybe films in general.  It's not Bruce and Selina, or Clark and Lois, or Peter and MJ.  It's Tony and Pepper.

The casting of Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane was also a stroke of genius.  Putting an actor up against Robert Downey Jr. who is just as fearless and creative and charming as him really makes for some great moments.  Watching these two practically create a scene out of thin air is a sight to behold.  So, behold it!   Tony Stark's biggest flaw as a hero has always been his lacking list of enemies.  However, even I have to admit that the actors who have been cast as his adversaries are always top notch.  Bridges, to date, has been the best of them.

Embarrassing confession, but the first Iron Man also has the best depiction of Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes for me.  Now, I love Don Cheadle.  I like his version of Rhodey a lot.  However, I am a bit skeptical of his depiction because I'm so used to how playfully charming Cheadle is as an actor.  Rhodey is the other half of Tony Stark's grounding force in his life.  But where Pepper is the spirited verbal sparrer of Tony, Rhodey is typically the more stern and stubborn big brother figure.  I believe Terrence Howard nailed that tone of the character more in Iron Man.  Whatever fallout he and Downey Jr. and Marvel had has always been a tough set of circumstances for me to take.  

If the 900 pound gorilla that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe was an actual living thing, Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. would be its heart.  With Downey Jr.'s days playing the genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist numbered, let's hope Marvel Studios can find a suitable transplant before he's gone for good.  Suit up...Watch it...then tell me I'm wrong.  Why?  Because that's how Dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.  To Peace.


Simplistic TV: Looking

DIFFERENT
Looking - Different

HBO has a long history of inclusion with the gay community.  From shows like "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood," to taking on the AIDS crisis with films like "And the Band Played On," and "Angels in America."  Home Box Office has always been one of those networks with their fingers on the pulse of what was happening in the world, not to mention being incredibly tolerant.

With that being said, it's no surprise, and probably long overdue, that they have decided to create a show like "Looking."  Since the fall of DOMA, and more states becoming more accepting of those in the LGBT community, it made sense to create a show like "Looking," which deals with gay issues in a mature way.  It's different but at the same time it's reminiscent of shows like "Girls" and "Sex in the City."  Think of it as "Sex in the City Goes Fabulous."

"Looking" follows three gay 30-somethings in San Francisco post-DOMA.  All three friends are your typical characters; Patrick is looking for love after being dumped, Dom is a bear on the prowl after his breakup, and Agustin is trying to finally get serious with his partner.  It's a lot of the same, but like I said, it's different.  Much like films like "Cruising" and "Interior: Leather Bar," HBO is taking a much more mature approach when it comes to the gay community.

What sets "Looking" apart is the way it depicts gay men in this day and age.  Sorry to say it, especially for you Bible-thumpers out there, but they are a lot like us.  The have jobs, engage in meaningless talk, deal with real issues, and last but not least, they aren't caricatures that we always like to depict in the media.

Back in the early 1990s we had Rickie Vasquez on "My So Called Life" as the poster boy for the gay community, but gay pride and gay rights have come a long way since 1994.  "Looking" depicts a look into the lives of people who, unfortunately, disgust so many.  True, "Looking" will not be for everyone, but it's a show that is necessary for this day and age.  Gay Rights is the new Civil Rights Movement, and seeing people in a normal light is necessary to increase awareness and inclusion.

Overall, "Looking" has potential to be a watershed moment for TV, and with the backing of HBO it should succeed in an environment that is becoming younger and far more tolerant.  The timing could not have been better.

Fun Fact:  DOMA, aka, The Defense of Marriage Act, was written into law in 1996, but Section Three of the law was deemed unconstitutional in 2013 with the case, The United States vs. Windsor.

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