2013

December 12, 2014

Under the Skin

Under the Skin – Alien
Sometimes I simply find it difficult to preface a film. So without further ado I’ll jump right into it. “Under the Skin” is one of those films that defies preconceptions and to be honest with you, just might be one of those films that will surprise many, if said many are willing to give it a chance and really try to understand an alien concept; a woman who is willing to sleep with a man from Scotland…..(I kid, I kid).
“Skin” is the story of a mysterious woman, played seductively and as sultry as ever by Scarlett Johansson. She drives a van, lures men into said van, and leads them to their doom. She is followed by a duo of mysterious motorcyclists who seem to clean up whatever mess she leaves behind. Things start to spin a little out of control after one of her encounters has her letting loose one of her quarries and going on the run. This is where they say, “the plot thickens.”
To go any further would be to do a disservice to the rest of the film, and going cold into “Skin” is one of the best things that you could do for this film. Director Jonathan Glazer, best known for “Sexy Beast” combines the best of art house cinema with trippy effects to create an engrossing, thinking-persons, science fiction weird-fest. What also stands out is the excellent score by Mica Levy, which plays like combination of Radiohead, Aphex Twin, and Wendy Carlos.

What I think has been missing from sci-fi flicks for a while is the notion that a setting needs to actually be alien, or cosmic, in order to make it a real sci-fi film. What I think is the most underrated aspect of “Skin” is the fact that the film takes place in Scotland. Let’s be honest, how much do we all really know about that land of Scotland outside of “Highlander” and Sean Connery. The landscapes and dialect almost become a character in and of itself and add a wrinkle to the story you wouldn’t expect.

Now the elephant in the room; the performance of Johansson, and I’m not just talking about her acting ability. One of the things that got a lot of attention leading up to the release of this film was the fact that Johannson shed all of her clothes for the role. While it’s nothing new for well-known actresses to ditch the clothes and show the goods, it’s a tad more newsworthy considering we are talking about an actress known for playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, her disrobing shouldn’t take away from her simple, yet effective performance. Most of her acting isn’t done through dialogue, but rather her movements and body language, and I might go as far as saying this is her best performance to date.

Another misconception is that “Skin” is simply a “Species” rip-off with stronger feminist undertones. Yes, on paper the fact that you have a mysterious women seeking men out and later dispatching them is pretty “Species”-like, but the comparisons can stop there. “Skin” features a very strong female character whose intentions aren’t truly discovered until close to the start of the third act, and even at that point we see that character’s intentions shift after a chance encounter with a specific character she picks up and is ready to dispatch. However, while I do enjoy the power that Johansson wields over her quarry, the third act flips the script and changes who may or may not be in control. I know some of this sounds cryptic, and that is the point. My intention is to entice you to watch a film that is certainly worthy of your attention and is an interesting take on male/female relations and interactions.

So, with that being said; should you see “Under the Skin?” See above please, of course you should. It’s one of the most original sci-fi films in quite a while, with a daring performance by Scarlett Johansson and some of the most “alien” cinematography of 2014. Sure we’ve gone to the far-reaches of the Marvel Universe, Earth under the rule of talking Apes, and even traveled back into Biblical-times on an ark, but the way Glazer created a practically alien world out of something that exists on Earth hasn’t been done since Peter Jackson created Middle-Earth with the help of New Zealand.

Fun Fact: In 1979, Robert Taylor claimed to have been nearly abducted by aliens in Dechmont Law in Livington, West Lothian, Scotland in what has been called the Dechmont Law Encounter.

December 8, 2014

Enemy

SURREAL

Enemy – Surreal

Gearing up for the end of the year, it’s interesting to watch so many films in a short period of time. While 2013, was a bit of a stinker for film, it seems that there has been a minor Renaissance in the indie film genre where big actors, which isn’t a huge surprise, are taking more risk on small films. Of course it’s hyperbole for me to think that big actors never take chances on small film, but with the “big name actor” being replaced with more “well-known” and “character actors” it’s great that the embrace of indie film is alive and well, especially out of the A24 Films. This has been somewhat of a banner year for A24. Following great reception for films like “The Spectacular Now” and “Spring Breakers” in 2013, 2014 has featured a wider assortment of film including “Enemy;” a surreal ride into, well, I’m still not really sure, but it’s a ride that should be worth your time if your a fan of whatever “Enemy” actually is.

Adam, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a history teacher in Toronto, Ontario, Canada who lives a rather mundane wife, outside of his late night sex romps with his girlfriend Mary. Upon the suggestion of one of his colleagues, Adam watches the film “When there is a will, there is a way.” While watching, Adam notices one of the actors looks like him, Upon further review, Adam discovers the actor looks exactly like him and his obsession begins. This is where I’ll leave the synopsis, because half of what makes “Enemy” intriguing is the lengths that Adam goes to find his doppelganger, and figure out what is and isn’t real.

The one word that you will hear a lot of people blurt out when it comes to “Enemy” will be “mindfu*k.” Yes, “Enemy” is a bit of a mindfu*k especially when it comes to two scenes specifically with spiders involved. That is where the film takes that surreal turn that will either engross you further into the film, or will completely disconnect you. However, upon further inspection of the film, the use of arachnid imagery, and/or spiders and webs, is a major theme throughout.

Gyllenhaal’s performance, as usual, is both creepy and wonderful. He has the “boy next door/psycho next door” act down and plays it up as both Adam, the milquetoast history teacher, and Anthony, the third-rate actor, very well. While not as great and effective as his turn as Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler” Gyllenhaal’s performance will still go down as the best performance this year by an actor playing multiple roles in the same film, sorry Jesse Eisenberg.

All in all, “Enemy” is an interesting take on duality, and the id, ego, and superego. The performance of Gyllenhaal sells the film, and the use of the city, it’s landscapes and “web-like” infrastructce gives the film an added layer.

Fun Fact: “Enemy” is based on the 2002 novel “The Double” by Jose Saramago.

July 15, 2014

Boarding the Hype Train: Snowpiercer

POLARIZING
Snowpiercer – Polarizing

I’m really not one to buy into hype. I know what I like and while I do seek out films that peak my interest, I seldom bow down to conformity and buy into things that people universally say is good. Namely, I don’t like “South Park”, I believe that Seth MacFarlane is overrated, the same goes for Zack Snyder, and when people beat on things that are universally “hated” I usually bring up a counterpoint to either pose a challenge that will force the attacker to turn defensive and either call me a dick, or simply slink away and talk sh*t behind my back, which I’m fine with. But as a reviewer, and a contributor to this site, I have to buy into hype sometimes in order to bring an audience to the site. It’s all about the views. This brings me to “Snowpiercer” one of the most-hyped films of 2013 that still hasn’t been widely distributed. It’s a polarizing film, no pun intended, that is full of allegories, pseudo-science, and reminds me of nearly every sci-fi/action film I’ve seen the past 20 years.

“Snowpiercer” takes place 18 years after the Earth has been frozen over due to a failed experiment that was supposed to solve the Global Warming crisis. The survivors of the world-wide freeze have all been placed on a high-speed train created by the Wilford Corporation that travels around the world on an endless loop. A social system has been put in place where the tail end of the train includes the poorest of the poor, including Captain America himself, Chris Evan, who plays Curtis, a man who has seen it all and is looking to start a revolution with the help of Tin-Tin (Jamie Bell), Kane from “Alien” (John Hurt) and a few other stars that will leave you wondering, “They’re in this movie?”

Of course I’m being snarky about this film, because at times it takes itself a little to seriously. And that isn’t a bad thing. “Snowpiercer” is supposed to be a social commentary about the folly of science and the way humans interact with each other in the time of crisis. It might even be fair to say that this might be one of the most important sci-fi films since “Children of Men.” The downside of “Snowpiercer” is that the commentary is extremely heavy-handed, and at the same time, almost an afterthought in some scenes. It’s almost like it’s trying to find a balance between the two, but can’t decide what kind of movie that it wants to be, and that is where it gets a little muddled.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t good, there is actually a lot of good in “Snowpiercer.” If you took a Terry Gilliam film, took elements of “Cube,” “Children of Men,” “City of Lost Children,” “The Hunger Games,” “Bioshock,” “300,” and put it on a moving train, ta-da; “Snowpiercer.” The acting is top notch for an sci-fi/actioneer, including a performance by Tilda Swinton that SHOULD go down as one of the best of the year. The train itself is also a wonder to behold. You don’t often see multiple sets created for a film. It’s either done via green screen or practically in a pre-exsisting environment. There is craftsmanship in “Snowpiercer” and that is most appreciated where nothing is built by hand anymore, just computers. The set designer(s) should be highly commended for their work in this film.

However, with all that I like about “Snowpiercer” there are still problems with predictability, unfinished plot elements, and an ending that is simply “meh.” It’s a film with a lot of big ideas about the folly of science, how man interacts with each other, social hierarchy, and looking for hope in hopelessness, but it kind of boils itself down into an action film on a train that also reminds me of “The Raid.”

How will “Snowpiercer” be remembered by the masses? From what I’ve seen so far, it’s quite……polarizing. People seem to love it for it’s style, use of allegory, and production value. Other people hate it for it’s overuse of allegory and to be honest with you, simply because the film is being talked about by so many people. Sure, it’s a cynical perspective, but we live in cynical times where people are going to poke holes in anything that other people might enjoy. “Snowpiercer” isn’t perfect, and maybe about 20 minutes too long, but if you look past the idea that the film might be trying to say too much, it’s an enjoyable and all together original take on the post-apocalyptic film genre.

Fun Fact: “Snowpiercer” is based on the 1982 French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige.”

July 2, 2014

Simply Indie: Pizza Shop: The Movie

HOMAGE
 Pizza Shop: The Movie – Homage

Unlike most films, I’ve always believed that comedy is the hardest genre to make work for an audience. Comedy is extremely subjective and what one person might find funny another person will not find funny at all, kind of how I feel about “Workaholics,” I love it but my wife will merely tolerate it. That’s why I commend anyone who, first if all, creates something, and I’ll give them double commendation when they create a comedy. “Pizza Shop: The Movie” is a nice homage to comedy of the 80s and even some more modern comedy with it’s tongue planted firmly in its cheek.

“Pizza,” directed by George O’Barts, is centered around a pizza shop and it’s colorful staff. Told through what seems to be a series of montages including training the shop’s new delivery boy, going the extra mile for that tip, creating new and exciting tomato sauce recipes, and pulling off the perfect prank on a co-worker. The main story revolves around Pete, the shop’s pride and joy, and his co-worker Jason, who wants to see nothing more than Pete fall from grace. As things heat up and Pete is finally sent over the edge, a battle of wills between Pete and Jason threaten to tear Pizza Shop apart and could land them all behind bars.
I’ll put this out there right away, if you’re easily offended or gross-out comedy really isn’t your slice of pizza, you might be a little shocked. O’Barts pushes the limits in some scenes and it’s fun to see someone taking a risk in their comedy. “Pizza” reminds me a lot of “….Waiting,” a touch of “Poultygiest” with it’s wacky cast of characters and even a little bit of “Clerks.” I love all three of those films and to see some influences from those films makes me appreciate “Pizza” even more.
You can see the comparison to “Clerks” in the way that film cuts from scene to scene, jumping from story to story. While there is a complete narrative, O’Bart is still able to break the film up into different sections that each tell a different story about an individual character, or group of characters.
All in all, “Pizza” is indeed the raunchy off-color comedy it claims to be, and it does it quite well. The production design is strong, the camera work is actually quite good for a small budget indie, and the story is fun and reminiscent of gross-out comedies of the past. They say “imitation is he best form of flattery” and “Pizza” is able to pull enough from the past while still being it’s own film.
You can find more information about “Pizza Shop: The Movie” right HERE. I’d like to thank George O’Bart with furnishing me with a copy of his film to review.
June 27, 2014

Escape From Tomorrow

LYNCHIAN

Escape From Tomorrow – Lynchian

I’m not like most of my friends; I like to work for my movies. To me, I’m happy to take on a film and see if I can find something different from what other people might catch. I get that a lot when I watch anything by David Lynch, Terrence Malick, or Alejandro Jodorowsky; I do it both for the challenge and my overall enjoyment of film. However, there are times when I take something on and I’m kind of left with a feeling of bewilderment that I’m bewildered that I have….follow? Well don’t worry, because I’m having a hard time myself after still trying to digest “Escape From Tomorrow,” an extremely Lynchian take on the hidden horrors of The Happiest Place on Earth; Walt Disney World.

“Escape” is the tale of a family trip to Disney that takes a strange turn when Jim, the patriarch of the family, finds out that he has just lost his job on the last day of the trip. Things are harmless enough to start the day, but Jim begins to slowly lose his grip on reality as the day wears on. Between a pair of potentially underage French girls, secret Disney scientists, and Japanese businessmen that pay top dollar for Disney Princesses, this isn’t your typical day at Disney.

I’ll start with the merits of “Escape.” For one, it takes balls to pretty much lampoon and make a dark film about Disney World. The “guerrilla-style” film-making approach also hits home for me because I can remember all the time I went to Disney World and my dad would film the entire trip, even when rides specifically told people not to film while on the rides. The black-and-white technique also adds an eeriness to the proceedings and reminds me a lot of what Lynch did with “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man.”

Overall, the performances are decent enough. Jim, played by Roy Abramsohn, leads the way, and the performances by his two children, Sara and Elliot, played by Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton, respectively, are also very strong. However, “Escape” isn’t so much about the performances, but what is going on around the actors. Repeated viewings, if you can handle more than one viewing, would be suggested in order to understand the narrative and how many different things are happening in the background; just like any other film that prides itself on being thought of as Lynchian.

What I also enjoyed is the the use of imagination as a main theme. When you’re young, you go to Disney and think all of the characters are real and your young mind runs away with you. Now imagine what an adult might think about when they are walking through Disney, and think even more what an adult might think or see after they’ve lost their job, and think even more when that adult is drunk. A lot of interesting things could be happening. Too many times in films, the focus is always on the imagination of a child, and it’s an interesting decision to delve into the mind of an adult who is having a very bad day in a place where everything should be Disney Princesses and over-priced food.

While being Lynchian might be one of it’s greatest attractions, it’s also the biggest weakness for “Escape.” It’s truly a hard film to get your head around. Instead of being a film, “Escape” is also a series of vignette’s that happen to be taking place around Disney World, so there is a lot of disjointed narrative and you can easily be lost if you’re not paying attention. “Escape” definitely isn’t for the passive film fan. I’d like to bring up more about the plot and where the film goes, but as I said before, if I like to work for my films, why would I expect anything less from others.

All in all, “Escape” is a journey that might not be for everyone, but it is an interesting film from both a film-making perspective and the fact that the film is pretty much doing what a lot of people get thrown into Disney Jail for; making a mockery out of “god” who is Walt Disney and his apostle, Mickey Mouse.

Fun Fact: In 2009, a 60-year-old man named John Moyer was convicted of misdemeanor battery for groping Brittney McGoldrick, who was wearing a Minnie Mouse costume at Disney World. See more creepy stuff here

April 16, 2014

Dom Hemingway

Dom Hemingway – Customary

It occurs to me that if you want to be taken super serious as a British actor there are two things that you can do; 1) Play Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes, or 2) Play some sort of British gangster with psychopathic tendencies who likes to drink, do blow, and say “cunt” a lot.  Don’t be offended by the c-word, it was used strictly for scientific purposes. This brings me to “Dom Hemingway” a film that seems rather customary for British crime cinema, for better and worse.

“Hemingway” stars Jude Law as the titular character who is fresh out of prison after 12 years for keeping the secret of a Russian gangster named Mr. Fontaine. After his release, he reunites with his associate Dickie and the two meet Fontaine at his house in the country to celebrate and for Dom to be rewarded.  Things don’t go as planned for Dom and by the end of the film he not only finds redemption, but a new lease on life, sort of.

As I mentioned before his is Law’s “British Crime Film” following in the steps of actors such as Ben Kingsley, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, and to a lesser degree, Daniel Craig. What sets Law’s performance apart,m however, is the way that he’s able to balance complete insanity with some genuinely tender moments throughout the film. Audiences might forget that Dom has not only lost 12 years of his life in prison, but also a wife to cancer and he missed his daughter growing up into the Mother of Dragons…..oops….sorry, I get my media mixed up sometimes.

This brings me to Emilia Clarke, who plays Dom’s wayward daughter Evelyn. One, it’s weird to not see her with long silver hair and speaking Dothraki, and two, maybe I’m just not a huge fan of her’s.  Yes, I said it! I do not like the Khaleesi! Do I think she can act? Maybe in the right role.  I think her take on Daenerys Targaryen is fine, despite the fact I don’t like the character, but in “Hemingway” I don’t think she brings much to the table. This could be due to the fact that “Hemingway” is truly a showcase for Jude Law through and through, but even in her limited screen time I feel like she is shoehorned into the film to give Dom added conflicts in his life.

This is where I have a problem with the film. From an acting standpoint, Law is fantastic and makes the film watchable, but the plot-holes and what seems like a film simply filled with vignettes masquerading like a lesser-Wes Anderson film, falls short. Maybe I expected too much from “Hemingway” but without much of a story to work with, and a certain lack of closure come the end of the film, the only thing I could take away is Law’s performance.

Directed by Richard Shepard, who was behind the vastly underrated “The Matador” you see a lot of similarities between the two films.  Mainly the way Shepard was able to take two likable guys, Pierce Brosnan in “Matador” and Law in “Hemingway” and turn them into scumbags with a lot of emotional baggage.  Shepard has the eye for the camera, but it’s, like I said, the narrative that fails the film in the end.

Despite its shortcomings, “Hemingway” is still entirely watchable if you can look beyond some of the issues it has.  Personally, I’d love to see Law in these roles more often.  We’ve become accustomed to him as either Dr. Watson in the “Sherlock Holmes” films, or as a whiny nerd in films like “Closer” but roles like Dom Hemingway are surprisingly in his wheelhouse.

Fun Fact: Jude Law gained 30 pounds for his role in “Dom Hemingway.”

March 13, 2014

Grand Piano

IMITATE
Grand Piano – Imitate
I often imagine myself in pitch meetings for films. A bunch of guys, or gals, who think they are the smartest person in the room that has the next best ideas. These are the same meetings where we got bat nipples, thinking Superman can lift an entire Kryptonite island, and a fifth Paranormal Activity would be a great idea. With “Grand Piano”, I’m sure the idea was, “hey, let’s make a version of Phone Booth without the booth and put it in a music hall where the kid from North plays the piano.” As sarcastic as I might sound, I would have said “…..tell me more.” Unfortunately, despite the Hitchcock and Argento influence, “Piano” is much happier trying to imitate their style as opposed to creating a truly suspenseful experience.  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough suspense to keep you interested.

“Piano” is the tale of Tom Selznick, played by Elijah Wood, a stage fright piano virtuoso still trying to live down one of his greatest failures.  With the help and encouragement of his movie star wife Emma, played by Kerry Bishé, Tom is ready to redeem himself in front of a packed house while playing the iconic piano of his mentor, Patrick Godureaux.  Little does Tom know that he is a pawn in a much bigger game and one wrong note could cost him his life.  I love to get a little melodramatic sometimes.

Overall, the premise of “Piano” is actually quite interesting.  It takes the best parts of films like “Opera,” “Speed,” and “Nick of Time” and gives it the sense of dread that you would feel in, as I mentioned before, an Argento or Hitchcock film.  There are several long shots throughout the film that add to the tension and add scope to the size of the performance that Tom is about to put on; and this brings me to the piano playing scenes, which are excellent.  Apparently Wood has a piano playing background, but I would assume that combining that with his acting ability, and perhaps a little CG and camera trickery made him look like the piano prodigy that he is in the film.

Outside of the look and feel of “Piano” that is where the film takes a bit of a nosedive.  Once the film gets underway there is a certain lack of suspense, and while I really do enjoy the performance of Wood, I never really felt that his life was at risk, and the film turns into a formulaic slasher film once a few people end up getting killed.

My other issue was “the voice.”  For sake of spoilers I won’t disseminate who’s behind “the voice” but for one it’s not Keifer Sutherland (by God I wish it was Jack Bauer on the other line) but the pay-off, again, is lackluster and doesn’t have the same “oomph” as the reveal might have had in the early 90s.

What has surprised me lately are the roles that Wood is continuing to take; he’s become less and less Hollywood and more and more of an Indie Horror Hero.  Since his turn as Kevin in “Sin City” (and that little cameo in “The Hobbit”) Wood has elected to stay away from the harsh light of Hollywood and star in quirkier fare, including the starring role in the underrated remake of “Maniac.”  While I don’t really buy Wood as a piano genius, his performance is still relatively strong and he is starting to remind me more and more of a modern day Peter Lorre.

While “Grand Piano” isn’t perfect, it does create enough tension throughout to hold one’s attention, but at the end of the day, it does a better job imitating then setting itself apart from those that wish to be Hitchcock, and the man who WAS Hitchcock.  Nonetheless, still worth a watch if you’re a fan of the technical merits of filmmaking.  Also, as an aside, kudos to Magnet Releasing for continuing to release interesting thiller/horror/bizarro films that take chances.

Fun Fact: A “custom” Bösendorfer is the piano used in the film, an Austrian manufacturer founded in 1828.

March 5, 2014

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station – Crushing

CRUSHING

Adapting a news story into a film is always a tricky proposition.  For the most part, there isn’t much suspense since the end game for people involved in said story is known.  However, when you’re able to create suspense and make an audience forget about the ending and concentrate on what is happening in front of them, that’s the definition of film-making.  “Fruitvale Station” is a crushing cinematic experience that explores race relations, social media, and laws that discriminate against young minorities, even in a state as progressive as California.

“Fruitvale” is based on the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART officers on New Years Day 2009 in Oakland, California.  The film begins with cellphone video footage of the arrest and shooting of Grant by the officers.  After the first harrowing few minutes the film turns to the last 24 hours in Oscar’s life, a 22-year old drug dealer trying to walk the line to provide for his girlfriend and 4-year old daughter.

Ryan Coogler, who directed “Fruitvale”, has created an experience where you forget about the inevitable ending for Oscar and concentrate on his life, which makes the ending all the more crushing.  Michael B. Jordan, who portrays Grant, shows how far he’s come from playing Wallace on “The Wire.”  Jordan gives a performance that was certainly overlooked for some major awards in 2013.  While most people will not know the nuances of Grant outside of his friends and family, Jordan’s performance is likeable and heartbreaking and you feel the pain of Grant’s mother, played excellently by Octavia Spencer, when her son is ripped away from her come the end of “Fruitvale.”

This might be oft-topic, but ironically enough, Jordan has also been named as the next Johnny Storm in the upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot at Fox.  As many may know, typically in comic lore, Storm, aka, The Human Torch, is a white character.  With that news, you would have thought that an entire fan-base had been shot in the back.  Sure, this comparison might be a bit tacky, but it goes to show the division that we still have as a society.  If as many people got upset about the slaying of Grant in Oakland as people did at the fact that a black actor was set the play a traditionally white comic book character we might be on the right track as a people.  My two-cents of course would be this; why not make both Johnny and Sue Storm, aka, The Invisible Girl, both black as opposed to explaining away the fact that one of them had to be adopted or something else to that extent.  Just had to put that out there.

It’s unfortunate that films like “Fruitvale” have to be made.  As a society we continue to see tragedies like Grant’s death and more recently the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012.  As long as humans continue to exists there will be shootings and crimes against people that are based on profiling and prejudices.  The triumph, if you will, of “Fruitvale” is the hopeful aspect that maybe white people don’t need to be scare of black people.  The portrayal of Grant isn’t glamorous and overblown, it’s a portrayal of someone trying to get their act together while also trying to rise above stereotypes.  One of the most powerful scenes in the film is Oscar meeting a young white woman (Ahna O’Reilly) in a grocery store.  At first you see hesitation on her part, a typical “white” response, when Oscar asks her what she’s looking for.  After a moment however, and Oscar picking up on her hesitation, there is a very human moment between the two.  The time is over to be scared of young black men white people!

Overall, “Fruitvale” showcases not only a rising star in Jordan, but also is a touchstone for race in cinema.  If “12 Years A Slave” is the best film of 2013, than “Fruitvale” is its more accessible and relatable younger sibling.

“Fun” Fact:  BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit and has been in operation since 1972.

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.
January 28, 2014

Simply Anime: Cartoon Network PRIME TIME

CONSISTENT

For my second offering of Simply Anime, I wanted to tackle a different brand of animation.  American cartoons, and in particular Cartoon Network’s prime time line up of animated shows. I can already hear the groans and complaints about how this particular review is supposed to be dedicated to anime and not cartoons, or some rubbish like that. Well folks, these reviews are about animation, so be prepared to sample my insight into a wide variety of shows that the medium offers. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a little history or my crib notes version of how we got to where we are in regard to Cartoon Network’s current prime time lineup. It all started in 1993 with Donovan Cook’s 2 Stupid Dogs. This show would signify the rebirth of Hanna-Barbera.  An animation studio of using homegrown creators who produced original animated shorts the likes of which hadn’t been seen since 1984’s the Snorks. Then, two years later in 1995, the first ever “What a Cartoon” debuted on television and changed the game. The brainchild of Fred Seibert, this revolutionary show and format gave birth to and was the launching pad for not only shows that many of us grew up watching, but for their creators as well. Such shows included The Powerpuff Girls (Craig McCracken), Dexter’s Laboratory(Genndy Tartakovsky), Johnny Bravo (Van Partible), Codename: KidsNext Door (Tom “Mr.” Warburton), Cow and Chicken (David Feiss), Courage the Cowardly Dog (John R. Dilworth), Whatever Happened to Robot Jones (Greg Miller), the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy(Maxwell Atoms), and a show called Larry and Steve (Seth MacFarlane) which would ironically become the format for a little show called Family Guy.

Even if the names of those creators are lost on you, their shows most certainly are not. The Looney Tunes style presentation (minutes-wise) would become the hallmark of nearly every animated show that would be aired on Cartoon Network. In addition, What a Cartoon, (which would become its own show), would birth clones of its own on rival network Nickelodeon and produce even more shows. All of this would lead to a long string of shows that some see as the “Golden Age” of Cartoon Network. This age would not only boast many of the aforementioned shows as stand alone half hour programs, but also bring about shows like Ed, Edd, n Eddy (Danny Antonucci), Time Squad (Dave Wasson), Sheep in the Big City (Mo Willems), Samurai Jack (again Genndy Tartakovsky), Megas XLR (Jody Schaeffer and George Kristic), Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends(again Craig McCracken), Camp Lazlo (Joe Murray), My Gym Partner’s A Monkey (Julie McNally-Cahill and Timothy Cahill), Class of 3000(Andre Benjamin and Thomas W. Lynch), Chowder (C.H. Greenblat), TheMarvelous Misadventures of Flapjack (Thurop Van Orman), and the juggernaut known as Ben 10 (Man of Action). There are many more wonderful shows that were a part of the the “Golden Age” and if you are interested knowing just what they are, you can see them in all listed here.

In 2009, Cartoon Network began to make changes in format and pushed toward live-action programming.  That push fell flat. (Certainly did with me at least. Though, I was not their target audience.) A year earlier, they would acquire the rights to Johnny Test.  A show many viewed as a much worse version of Dexter’s Laboratory. Although there are many similarities between Test and Dexter, they just weren’t the same. Cartoon Network would also make a move at this time that hurt me deeply. Always lauded for its balance of comedy and action cartoons, they would inexplicably change format again.  This time moving from an action oriented evening lineup to a more comedy-centric approach that remains to this day. Gone were shows like Generator Rex, The Secret Saturdays, and Teen Titans. In its place, more Johnny Test. It wasn’t just that action cartoons were gone or were only on sporadically. It was the type of cartoons they were replaced with. Finally, a bright light was cast back on the action cartoon wasteland when CN announced the DC Nation block. It would host DC original shorts as well as shows like Green Lantern the Animated Series and Young Justice. With a super strong lead in show like Ben 10, it seemed like a slam dunk. Alas, it was not to be. Green Lantern the animated series was canceled after only one excellent season (Shout outs to Giancarlo Volpe) and Young Justice would also suffer the same fate after only two seasons. Their replacements would be Beware the Batman (now on indefinite hiatus) and Teen Titans Go! (a chibi version of the original Teen Titans show that features the same voice cast).

So now that you know the history, whether you wanted to or not, let’s get to the reason why you’re here. Cartoon Network’s current prime time lineup. Let me start by saying that I was not entirely fond of many of the shows at first.  And as a recent Game of Thrones quiz has shown me, I can have some Ned Stark like qualities when it comes to change. That being said, once I’ve given something a shot objectively, I can say that it is either enjoyable or not. Many of the shows that CN is currently boasting in the prime time slots I can say I highly enjoy and recommend.  Especially if you’re looking for something a bit different, or just looking to continue riding the high from Sunday night after watching the Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy and American Dad. To start off, let’s begin with Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time.

Adventure Time follows the life and times of Finn the last human boy on the planet, his magical dog and brother Jake through their adventures in the Land of Ooo. The show is laced with continuity that won’t alienate new viewers (which is something that nearly all the shows do quite well also) along with comedy for both adults and children alike. Of all the shows currently airing, I would say that Adventure Time was the one that took the second longest to grow on me. Once I really gave it a shot, however, I came to really enjoy the show. Now let me say that all these shows are aired in the same Looney Tunes style format of 7 minute or so shorts.  So character development is going to be a bit tough. Motivations are either revealed quickly over the course of many episodes, or in the case of the Ice King, in special episodes like “Simon and Marcy”. Adventure Time also pushed the envelope when it was implied that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the vampire may have been involved in a relationship in the past. To my knowledge, the topic of homosexuality had never been covered on a show geared toward kids before. For the record I applaud the writing staff and all involved with the show if that was the case. If only because it is something that is very real in our society.  Parents SHOULD be watching television with their children and be there to explain things in a prosocial manner. My mother certainly did. (And off my soapbox) Occasionally dark, but always fun, Adventure Time is excellent show.

A personal favorite for me, my friends and anyone born in the 80’s is J.G. Quintel’s modern masterpiece Regular Show. In it, you follow the dynamic slacker duo of Mordecai the blue jay and Rigby the squirrel as they live out there strangely entertaining lives. Mordecai and Rigby have terrific comedic chemistry together, but the unsung strength of the show is its amazing cast of supporting characters. From the ironically bad bodied Muscle Man, to Skips the yeti, to the large headed, yet sweetly insane Pops, to High Five Ghost (The name says it all) to their uptight gumball machine boss Benson. This show fires on all cylinders. There are doses of dark humor, death (You don’t come back unless magic is involved), friendship, adult humor slid in, and 80’s music every now and then. This show gets it right more often than not.

The Amazing World of Gumball, created by Ben Bocquelet, was a show that I had a hard time getting into. I wasn’t happy that Chowder (Which I was slow to get into) and Flapjack had come to an end, so I was very resistant to Gumball without ever seeing a full episode. I initially was not a fan of the animation style and judged it only on that. I. Was. So. Wrong! This show continues in the rich history of silly, madcap comedy. Gumball Watterson, the titular character, is a 12 year old, unapologetic, d-bag cat that finds himself constantly in trouble. He is joined by his adopted brother Darwin Watterson.  Darwin is a goldfish that is often innocent and often times follows Gumball to their comedic ruin. Anais Watterson, is their 4 year old genius sister that is a rabbit that goes to the same middle school as Gumball and Darwin. Their parents are Nicole Watterson, a parentally responsible cat and Richard Watterson, the laziest rabbit in town. This show is clever in its delivery and a pleasure to watch.

Then there is The Annoying Orange created by Dane Boedigheimer.  I simply can not get past the opening credits. It’s just, no. Simply no. I can’t do it. Maybe you can, but even I have limits. And this is one.

Peter Browngardt’s Uncle Grandpa is a show that I mentioned in my first podcast and I panned it. I had only seen a a few episodes and I honestly was barely paying any attention to it. The promos for the show where a special brand of annoying and I quickly lumped it into the same category of disdain that I hold for the previously mentioned Annoying Orange. Uncle Grandpa is everyone’s Uncle and Grandpa, and puts children in unnecessary adventures or hijinks. I’m not overly crazy about him, but I do enjoy his sidekicks Pizza Steve and Mr. Gus. Pizza Steve is a self absorbed living slice of pizza who is the life of the party. (Because why else wouldn’t pizza be the life of the party) Mr. Gus is a dinosaur (although he reminds me of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) that plays straight-man to all the calamity going on. There are other colorful characters in addition to the kids and adults that also fill out the show. Uncle Grandpa may not be for everyone but the characters play well off each other and I am giving it more of a chance then I originally did.

Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe is my absolute favorite show in the prime time lineup. This was the other show that I mentioned in my first podcast and I errantly did not give Sugar her credit for the show as much as I lauded it. Rebecca, you have made an excellent show and I look forward to Monday nights to watch it. Your protagonist is Steven Universe (Yes that’s his name), a young boy that has inherited his mother’s quartz gem and is learning how to control his powers. His teachers are Garnet (Voiced by British signer Estelle) who is the unofficial leader of the Crystal Gems (The group of which Steven is apart of) who seldom speaks but is the powerhouse of the group, Amethyst, the roguish member of the group that has a “devil may care” attitude and also moonlights as an underground wrestler, and Pearl, the member that is all policy and procedure. She wants Steven to succeed but is very concerned about his safety, almost to a smothering degree. Steven Universe is reminiscent of the Powerpuff Girls in its delivery, yet fresh in how it drops nuggets of the past events, in addition to dealing with emotions that characters are experiencing. It makes them so much more endearing. I gush about this show.

Lastly, a special that aired last week Monday night called The PowerpuffGirls: Dance Pantsed. Personally I felt like CN dropped the ball on this special because they had an opportunity to air this on the 15thanniversary of the PPGs. (I mean, this show was announced in January of 2013) Also this was the first episode of the Powerpuff Girls that was made without any input from show creator Craig McCracken. It seems wrong that he wasn’t a part of this show. That being said, it did feel like an episode of the PPGs thanks in part to long time Powerpuff director Dave Smith. The story was fun and it was a nice throwback to days gone bye.

All in all, as time goes on, all things grow old and eventually must change. For good or for bad, Cartoon Network has changed and continues to do so. Although it currently is not focused on action cartoons, we at least have Toonami back (thanks Williams Street and Adult Swim). The current crop of shows, that are still Cartoon Cartoons as far as I’m concerned, continues to revolutionize American animation and produce new creators and no matter what, that is a good thing; but you don’t have to take my word for it.

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